Column How can we know when we’re doing ‘the right thing’ in politics?

Ireland tried Catholic morality and it didn’t work – but we can’t leave morality behind entirely, writes Allyn Fives. So how can we move forward?

IS THERE A crisis in Irish public life, and is it a crisis of ethics?

This question refers to what is done in public life, by politicians and others, but also the ways in which we debate the ethical value of those actions. The evidence would suggest there is serious cause for concern – although not despair.

Some political issues are morally significant, as they raise questions about right and wrong, and good and bad. But there is little agreement about how to answer these questions – and in doing so resolve such issues – in a way that is morally acceptable. The most recent contentious debate was over whether to guarantee the rights of children in the constitution.

That the theme for the second year of Michael D Higgins’s presidency is ‘the crisis in ethics in public life’ reflects the same concern over how we are dealing with moral issues in politics.

We tend to adopt one of three different approaches when we tackle moral issues, but none of them seem to work. The first is to argue from the moral consensus of a community. What we as Irish citizens have often done in the past is to argue from the moral consensus of the Catholic community: something is morally right if and because it is in line with our shared moral beliefs as Catholics. This communitarian approach provides moral certainty for sure, but only for those who happen to belong to this community. The communitarian approach also can create deep disagreement with those who do not belong to the community, or are sincerely critical of its moral consensus.

Whatever we make it

If something like Catholic doctrine cannot by itself guide public debate in an increasingly pluralist society, then perhaps we should not look for general moral principles at all? Perhaps we must force ourselves to live without the false belief that moral principles can provide us with certainty and accept instead that morality is whatever we make it to be? This is the post-modern approach, and it is seductive, as it seems to guarantee authenticity: something is morally right because we have made the decision that it is right.

However, it too fails because it leads to relativism and immoralism: according to the post-modernist, something can be right or good for me here and now, but it need not be right and good for you; and just about anything can be morally right, just so long as we have decided that it is right. Morality becomes nothing more than a lifestyle choice, rather than something that can be a rigorous and demanding guide in making such choices.


If the communitarian approach leads to greater division and if post-modernism lead to relativism and immoralism, then perhaps this just shows that we should not let morality interfere with any important public decisions. According to a third approach, if we want rational and objective solutions to our political problems, they will based on facts – on the findings of scientists, on the decisions of trained professionals. But such an amoral approach is acceptable only if there is no such thing as morality, if morality has no claim on us. It is too early to give up on morality in public life.

Let me suggest an ethical way to approach political issues that shows how morality does have a claim over us in the public sphere. The crucial idea here is moral equality. What citizenship requires from us is to view others as our moral equals, and that is enough to get morality going in politics. What this means is that in politics we can adopt a moral point of view simply by asking ‘Would my ideas and my proposals be acceptable to others who are free and equal like me?’ It is this moral point of view that explains straight away why it is impermissible to do or propose certain things – those things that would never be acceptable to others: to enslave others, to exploit others, to deny others rights that all should enjoy.

Being reasonable

This is what is referred to as ‘reasonableness’, and the idea of being reasonable can be applied in particular to the debate on children’s rights. The great significance of the recent referendum was the way it challenged how children are viewed in public debate. It highlighted the significance of viewing others, adult and child alike, as moral equals. The implication is that in all decisions that affect them, children’s rights should be respected and their voices should be heard. What this means is that, although children remain subject to parental authority, the moral status of children has been raised. In making decisions that affect children, all are now asked to consider whether children, as our moral equals, could accept those decisions and to actually ask children themselves.

This is important for children, but it equally important for adults. For it highlights that all other public issues should be addressed in the same way. It is not enough to be insular and speak only in terms that one community finds meaningful. It is not enough to think morality is something we fashion and shape as our desires and whims dictate. And we cannot presume to leave morality to one side.

Rather, despite our different beliefs, our different interests and needs, when we debate public issues we should ask the following question: Could others accept what we are proposing? Could our fellow citizens accept this? Because the others we debate with are our moral equals, the onus is on us to explain ourselves to them with terms and ideas they should be able to accept.

It is only by adopting this stance, which is a genuinely moral point of view, that we can dispel the appearance of moral crisis in public life.

Dr Allyn Fives is a researcher in the Child and Family Research Centre, NUI Galway. His most recent book, Political Reason: Morality and the Public Sphere, is available from Palgrave.

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