Friday, 29 October 2010


tigerish waters has posted on Choice?, a post which prompts the following thoughts.

1. When "no choice" really is a choice.

I had reason at a point during the last academic year to enquire of colleagues responsible for PSHE about the evidence that made it vital to teach Year 8 pupils (12-13 years) about "safe sex" in response to the rates of teenage pregnancies in our local authority area. (This claim was made in their e-mailed apology to colleagues about the appearance of condoms around the school, as they were being used in PSHE lessons, asking that we could return any that appeared in our lessons ... It sounds as if our Year 8 were taking the whole thing very seriously - not!). The reply I received was interesting. The staff in the school referred me to the relevant local authority advisory teacher, and to the "minimum expectations" promoted by the local authority for schools, which included this topic in their expectations for Year 8.

Were the PSHE staff really willing to take responsibility for what they taught in the school? Or where they just treating the situation as one of having no choice except that of following local authority curriculum guidance?

I think this is one of those all-too-common situations where people do really have a choice of how to act - but others behave as if they don't, and they therefore do not recognise that they have. It is a situation where a betrayal of the idea of conscience takes place without anyone noticing.

2. Choice or freedom?

tigerish waters gives an example of a friend of hers who made a choice for abortion, and the advice that she received from an enclosed nun to indicate that this was not a matter open to choice. Now, clearly, just as a matter of freedom, the friend was able to choose to undergo an abortion and she could have chosen not to do so. The law in the UK, and the willingness of medical practitioners to carry out the relevant procedures, makes that freedom one that can be readily exercised. The enclosed nun, in saying that this is not a matter for choice, is indicating that the choosing of an abortion is never going to be a morally just choice.

In both the case of abortion, and the case of the PSHE teachers mentioned above, perhaps the key question is one of the circumscribing of the freedom that should properly belong to the person involved. What in every day experience would be expressed as "having no choice" is actually a failure to recognise the freedom proper to the person (on the part of the person themselves) and an attempt, undertaken more or less consciously, to suppress that freedom on the part of others (the local authority in the case of  our PSHE teachers).

3. The first principle of natural law: that good should be done and evil avoided

tigerish waters suggests that an ethical methodology based on a concept of choices (or of "ethical dilemmas") is not a correct methodology. If we argue the case for the freedom of the person in the face of their deciding upon a course of action, then we are insisting that the person is able to choose how they act. But where the "ethical dilemmas" approach might suggest that one choice is as equally legitimate as another - that it is a matter of choice in the wrong sense of the word - insisting on the freedom of the person goes hand in hand with the idea that there is a morally just course of action that can be followed and that other courses of action are not morally just.

It can be expressed as the first principle of natural law, but it could also be argued as being part of the common heritage of the human race: in our chosen courses of action, what is good is what should be done and what is evil is what should be avoided. It is perhaps ironic that both those who in practice deny their own freedom - we have to follow "guidance" - and those who advocate an ethics of "choices" fail to live up to this first principle of natural law.

Is the whole question of "choices" therefore, at heart, a question of recognising the existence of good and evil, and of recognising the first principle of natural law though one might not frame it in such language? And does it not manifest too often in the ordinary lives of many individuals an indifference before good and evil? And, in a small number of cases, in a deliberate choice for evil?

4. An afterthought

Does our society not believe that it is good that should be done and evil avoided?

In the context of inter-religious dialogue, it is not unusual to identify the "golden rule" (treat your neighbour as you would want to be treated yourself) as representing a commonality across all religions. This commonality can also reach to those of no religious faith.

Perhaps we should recognise the first principle of natural law as representing a similar commonality across religions, seek to give this a prominence in inter-religious dialogue.

1 comment:

Robert said...

I think most today simply do not recognize good or evil except as it impacts themselves: do I want it or not, do I like it or not? Some of it is very self-centered. Some of it is a perversion of "judge not..." Some of it, too, is a perversion of the golden rule, ie. If I would like to enjoy non-marital sexual activity, who am I to keep someone else from enjoying same-sex activity? They don't know what natural law is. They think it is something they can find "in the wild" with the animals. They don't want to believe in a law-giver whether of a "natural" law or a positive law like the 10 commandments. Or if they believe in a law-giver, they don't want to impose this on someone else.

I think we are a very immature people today.