Monday, December 28, 2009

Something which has been knocking around my head for a few years now, but examined here in a none-to-clear way. And rather at length.

Earlier today, on my way to work (just a 20-minute walk, which must be unique for a commute in London), I was listening to Start The Week on Radio 4 (chaired by Andrew Marr, not my favourite person and who I once purposely annoyed at a Conservative Party conference. That tale is worth an entry in its own right, so I shall say nothing here, except that the encounter confirmed my previous suspicion that he is something of a self-regarding pillock and he’s a short-arse to boot.)

His programme is, however, always interesting, though you often feel you are eavesdropping on metropolitan bien-pensant at a North London dinner party as they trade good impressions of themselves. This morning’s edition was up-to-scratch, with contributions as usual from this and that expert in this and that area, and one contributor was a Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, Barbara Sahakian, who (this description is from the Radio 4 website) ‘believes it’s time for an open debate about the ethical issues surrounding the use of new types of drugs which could in the future be used to make us all clever, well-behaved and sociable’.

Among other things, she reported that ‘16 per cent’ of students at U.S. universities regularly use cognitive-enhancing drugs which can boost your intellectual performance as athletes often use drugs to improve their physical performance. And it’s not just students who resort to that kind of respectable drug-taking. She claimed that arriving at a conference, she was offered one such drug to help soothe her jet-lag and that further inquiries among her peers revealed that quite a few of them took these cognitive enhancers as a matter of course - in the words of one colleague - to ‘get a good day’s work in’.

The programme went on to discuss ‘neuro-ethics’ (as in just how ethical it might be to resort to such drugs when others could not do so because they couldn’t afford them and whether the advantage they gave you over those not taking them was unfair). Whether taking them will be deemed unethical or not, we were also told that in the future taking them will be a matter of course for many people. Prof Sahakian also said that at the moment these drugs to not seem addiction forming or to have any side-effects.

To all that my response was a polite and restrained horror. But - and here’s the rub - as I am now 60 (as close readers of this blog have no doubt gathered over these past weeks), my future participation in such a brave new world of cognitive-enhancing drugs will be somewhat limited. But what interests me is this: is my horror merely that of an older man whose spirit is increasingly too ossified to adapt to a new cultural development? Am I now too long in the tooth to adapt to such a development? Or is there more to it than that?

I might, of course, be expected to claim that there is far more to it, that despite my age, I am as opened-minded as I ever was, and that my horror at the thought that in 100 years time dropping a tab of some cognitive enhancer will be as usual as drinking a morning cup of tea is principled and rational. But, in fact, I shan’t claim there is more to it than that for the simple reason that I don’t think there is more to it. Things change and the young are far more adept at changing with it. We who will not see 59 again must reconcile ourselves to that.

The fact is that my two children, one now 13 and the other 10, will grow up with such innovations and take them in their stride, much as I grew up with, say, the ease with which I could buy and run a car, whereas for those of my father’s generation owning and running a car was not something they took for granted in their younger years. Or to give what might be a better example, my generation is accustomed to buying what it wants here and now, thanks to the acceptability and availability of credit in the Western world. My parents, however, were still of the kind, when they were younger, of actually saving up for things.

So when young Wesley and Elsie are in their middle-age, who’s to say that popping a pill of a certain kind before an important business meeting will not be accepted as a matter of course?
But that is not quite the point I wanted to make in this entry. The fact that my children will adapt far faster to innovations made when they are young (though undoubtedly they will also suffer the fate of being increasingly horrified and disconcerted by change as they get older) has an unavoidable implication which is of far more consequence.

That they will not regard as odd what I regard as odd rather queers the pitch for those who like to claim that standards are standards and must be observed. Furthermore - and this is, admittedly, something of a leap for which the reader will be wholly unprepared but which I do feel it is a valid leap - it rather queers the pitch for those who believe there is an immutable morality which governs all our lives. At the very least, the fact that something is ‘right’ and acceptable in 2009 which was not ‘right’ and acceptable in, say 1954 or 1808 makes arguing for the existence of such an immutable morality a damn sight more difficult.

If standards - that is what is acceptable - can and do change from generation to generation - and much changes quite drastically quite apart from standards - doesn’t that mean that at the end of the day our moral values have as much permanence - that is to say, have as little permanence - as this year’s winter fashion? And if our moral values are not as fixed as we would like them to be and can change and be adapted almost at will, in what does their imperative lie? What give those values their moral force?
At this point, those people who have a faith get a rather useful get-out-of-jail-free card on this score: they can claim that all morality derives ultimately from God (or Allah or Jehovah) and that this is what makes it immutable. They have a point, although, at the end of the day people who resort to such reasoning are doing nothing but shifting the essence of the argument. And invoking God in this manner does, as it happens, bring with it its own difficulties: one very pertinent example is what to do about homosexual clergy? It seems that God is not quite as clear on that matter as everyone would like God to be. But that aside - if that and other matters can be put aside - having God as your fixed point is very useful.

Those of us who don’t have a faith (or, in my case, have such an obscure and private faith which I would find it extremely difficult to outline to anyone and which doesn’t involve anyone ‘being divine’) are left with the problem: what is the fixed point at the centre of our ethical systems? Here it should be pointed out that we all have an ethical system, whether we think we do or not, rather as we all have health, irrespective of whether that health is good, bad or indifferent.

Our ethical system might be a shining example to us all or downright corrupt and tawdry, but we all, nevertheless, have such a system. Having said that, though, I am also obliged to point out that those characters whose ethical systems leave a great deal to be desired are the least likely to break their balls and anguish over exactly what gives ‘morality its imperative’. And although the point I make might superficially sound flippant, it does shine a certain necessary light on the matter.

Following on from that thought, it is also pertinent that at this point I can resort, quite legitimately and quite honestly, to being utterly and disconcertingly bathetic. For the fact is that what I have, in my own rather cackhanded fashion, indulged in and what men and women with far better brains than mine also indulge in is something of a luxury. Pondering on the nature of morality, ethics, good, bad, right and wrong is, when all is said and done, a pastime for the leisured classes.

Folk with more pressing needs, such as where to find food today, where to find help for my sick child, how to avoid those rebels who want to kill my and my kind, probably spend rather less time analysing the nature of morality and what gives ‘the right thing to do’ its moral force. They might, of course, do so, but, I should imagine, from position of bewildered despair.

This entry is all rather confused, and I’m not too sure I even know what it is about. But it is about something which has preoccupied me for some time, and I find that writing things down like this imposes a certain discipline which means I have to think it through more carefully. The unfortunate thing is that you have just been marched up to the top of the hill, then down again, but with very little to show for it.

Sorry about that. What needs to be introduced to make it all a little more comprehensible is the notion of relativity which has cursed these past 120 years. Cursed? Well, it was meant to make things easier, but actually makes them twice as complex. What can ‘good’ mean if it is ‘good’ for you but not ‘good’ for me? Some would say it means nothing. And that is less than helpful.

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