Tag Archives: Ethical dilemma

The Eden Project: grabbing you by the mind

Have you ever been to the Eden project in south Cornwall?

What impressed me the most on our recent visit was the way that they present both sides of the ethical dilemmas we face, for example:

How can it be ethical to fly cut flowers a third of the way around the world? But how can it not be ethical to buy flowers that help lift third world farmers out of poverty?  (I paraphrase).

The signs and information boards, none of which I thought to photograph, are full of these dilemmas, so a trip around the bubbles in the clay-pit is thought-provoking rather than a harangue.

I also  very much like the way they support and promote art, and one of the two things I did think to photograph was a sculpture made out of the typical electrical waste each of us generates in a lifetime:

WEEE sculpture, Eden Project

WEEE sculpture, Eden Project

The other is a play area where you were given a bucket of water, jugs, pumps and guttering, and let loose trying to build an irrigation system:

Summer Splash at the Eden Project

Summer Splash at the Eden Project

But I came away thinking how refreshing it is to find a campaigning organisation which tries to engage your mind with complexity and dilemmas, instead of trying to prove their point with over-simplified lectures and “logic”. Oh, and a handbag, I came away with one of these:

Bottletop Bellani Bag

Bottletop Bellani Bag - click to see in Eden Project Shop

I may like the challenge of an ethical dilemma, but not much beats a good handbag.

The problem of good men, doing nothing

To understand how to deal with the Roman Catholic Church’s silence about paedophilia and other forms of abuse we need to look at experiments performed by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s. Milgram’s famous experiments were designed to understand how normal people could perpetrate abnormal acts such as those comitted in Nazi Germany.

The most relevant experiment was summed up by Raj Persaud in a review of Milgram’s biography in the BMJ:

Milgram found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects [who thought he was testing the link between punishment and learning], ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks—up to 450 volts—to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific, lab coated authority commanded them to, and despite the fact that the victim did nothing to deserve such punishment. The victim was, in reality, a good actor who did not actually receive shocks, a fact that was revealed to the subjects at the end of the experiment. (My emphasis).

Many of Milgram’s experiments have been repeated. One interesting re-working of the experiment re-cast it as a Reality TV show and was reported by the BBC:

A disturbing French TV documentary has tried to demonstrate how well-meaning people can be manipulated into becoming torturers or even executioners.

The hugely controversial Game of Death … showed 80 people taking part in what they thought was a game show pilot. Before the show, they signed contracts agreeing to inflict electric shocks on other contestants. They were … asked to zap a man they believed was another contestant whenever he failed to answer a question correctly – with increasingly powerful shocks of up to 460 volts. …

Egged on by a glamorous presenter, cries of “punishment” from a studio audience and dramatic music, the overwhelming majority of the participants obeyed orders to continue delivering the shocks – despite the man’s screams of agony and pleas for them to stop…

Only 16 of the 80 participants stopped before the ultimate, potentially lethal shock.

In this case the experimenters had stripped out the back-story about the attempt to understand the mechanics of learning so the participants did not think they were acting for any kind of greater good.  This was social pressure pure and complex.

These findings are central to understanding the scandal welling up from within the Roman Catholic Church.

There are two separate outrages here.  Firstly there are the acts of abuse themselves, and we should remember we are not just talking about paedophilia, but also the bullying and abuse of children ‘cared for’ in by nuns in Church-run orphanages. And secondly there is the  systemic cover-up of these acts to protect the perpetrators.

The whole thing has been one giant Milgram experiment lasting centuries, and viewed in this light, we have to concede that although the cover-ups were evil, they were not necessarily the acts of evil men.  As Edmund Burke said:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

These experiments tell us not to be surprised that few in the church stood up and said “Enough’s enough; I am not willing to collude in this any longer”.   In fact it would have been surprising if anyone had: these are not college students or game-show contestants with little loyalty to those telling them to conform. These are people who have given their free will over to those they think of as their seniors and betters, whose world-view and entire careers are based on creating a reality out of  the notions of spiritual authority and clerical obedience.

The question, of course, is how to break the Church’s authority on this issue? How do we make it clear that there is no ethical dilemma, no weighing up of “the career of a good priest and a good man” against justice for the abused and broken victims? That paedophilia and covering up paedophilia are not merely sins to absolved under the seal of the confessional, they are also crimes to be tried and punished in the secular world.

Oddly, I think the red-tops have a place here. Screaming headlines about “Paedo-Priests” serve to crack open the tight grip the Church has assumed over defining what is “right” and “wrong”, and it is crucial that we break that sense of god-given authority within the church. The bishops thought they were better judges than the secular authorities of what was right and wrong. As a result church members  kept silent who looked to the bishops for leadership kept silent, like Milgram’s experimental subjects, because the bishops were indeed providing leadership. Once that grip is released and it is clear that society expects the Church to hand over its paedophiles for punishment, then the institutionalised dilemma of whether to protect the priest or the child goes away.

Besides which, those sort of headlines polarise the debate, and this is one of the few debates which requires less nuance and a lot more polarity.

Useful links:

BBC article about the French “Game Show” documentary (quoted above)

The Situationist – a good Social Sciences and Psychology Blog

Book:  “The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram” at Amazon

Raj Persaud’s review of the above in the BMJ (restricted access) (quoted above)

Wikipedia’s entry on Stanley Milgram

Murphy’s Law and the NHS Spine

I am very conflicted about the NHS spine.  This is (will be) the computer system whereby all patient records are stored in a single system and available to any appropriate NHS worker in the UK.

As a cynical IT professional, I laugh in the face of quotes like this:

The NHS Care Records Service uses the strongest national and international security measures available for storing and handling your information.

Ha ha!  I chortle. Tee hee.

I am sure they do use the strongest etc, etc.  But let’s face it, it’s going to leak like a sieve. Health service staff are not particularly IT savvy. There’s professionalism and an awareness of patient confidentiality on the one hand, and there’s keeping your notes on a USB stick and having your handbag nicked on the other.  There’s IT policy mentioned in your induction day, and there’s using someone else’s log on because yours isn’t yet activated and the patient’s going to die (or the Daily Mail will dance with glee) if you make the wrong decision in the next 3 minutes.

One Nation under CCTV - Banksy, photograph by unusualimage

One Nation under CCTV – Banksy, photograph by unusualimage

But a far greater worry is the scope creep that surrounds any government technology. Of course they shouldn’t use our medical records to vet public sector job applications.  Of course they shouldn’t create an MRB check like a CRB check to ensure that people with – I dunno – chronic mental illness don’t get jobs as clowns (all that working with children and animals…)  Of course they shouldn’t let the anti-terrorist bunch trawl through to find whatever it is they look for these days.  Of course they shouldn’t. And of course they will.

So Ha ha! I say again.


A lack of joined-up medical record-keeping kills.  I don’t have the stats, I don’t even know what audited stats exist, but hospital medics of my acquaintance assure me that a lack of vital and timely medical histories is a killer. And you only have to talk to anyone with a chronic condition to glimpse the exhausting grimness of having to explain their history to whoever it is they’ve landed in front of this time.

So… do I allow this privileged position to ease me out of the data danger zone? I am relatively healthy and check No, No, No, No on life insurance forms. Not being on the database won’t kill me. If I turn up in A&E what they see is what they have to deal with because there’s nothing nasty in my medical history.  And I am very well aware of how hard security is to achieve (I’m an IT worker in the financial sector). And I am old enough and cynical enough to know that if great big databases are there, they will be used by self-serving governments. Do I opt out at no risk to myself because Big Data is Evil and Should Not Be Encouraged?

Or should I support the health service’s laudable attempt to save lives not to mention reducing wear and tear on the patients’ patience, even though that will only encourage Big Government?  It’s a nice gesture, and with my nice clean bill of health when the CID looking for a sex killer search through the database for local nutters prescribed nonutterherein there is minimal risk to precious me.

What would Pastor Neimueller do?

What would he wish he had done?

I find this a tough ethical call.