Moral Maze

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Combative, provocative and engaging live debate examining the moral issues behind one of the week's news stories. #moralmaze
Updated: 27 min 44 sec ago

Moral Purity

March 28, 2019 - 12:05
The Sackler Trust has suspended new charitable donations in the UK, following claims that the Sackler family billions are linked to the opioid crisis in the US. The family denies the allegations, but both the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate group have refused its money. Whether that money is tainted or not (the question is hotly disputed) the controversy raises important questions about the ethics of funding for the arts, sport and philanthropic charities. Purists believe that good causes should always refuse money from bad sources, no matter how much potential benefit that money could bring. More grateful recipients hold their begging bowl with one hand and their nose with the other, insisting that there is no such thing as dirty money because a coin is morally neutral; whatever real, perceived or alleged crimes may have been committed to earn it should not rest on the conscience of the recipient. How should we view this quest for moral purity? It does appear that society is becoming increasingly intolerant of moral grey areas. It’s a short step from turning down dodgy donors to ‘no platforming’ those with unfashionable opinions. Perhaps that’s a good thing, an inspiring translation of principles into action predicated on equality and justice for all. Or perhaps such thinking is a new form of secular puritanism which is intolerant and dangerous. When does the enforcement of moral principles make us better? When does the attempt to resist moral pollution become its own form of rules-based bigotry? Producer: Dan Tierney

The Morality of Leadership

March 21, 2019 - 12:19
Brexit is only days away and we still don’t have a plan. This is enraging for many, perplexing for most, and amusing for those who like their humour black. As one current slogan observes, “even Baldrick had a plan”. Some argue we are locked in a crisis of leadership. The major parties are fragmenting, collective cabinet responsibility has been trashed and the political atmosphere in parts of Britain is toxic. Have the two main party leaders ever been as weak? Many voters can’t understand how Parliament has so dismally failed to follow a simple instruction, and why the political class has flunked collective moral leadership. Kinder observers point out that the task facing MPs was anything but simple, and explain that while politics is working exactly as it should, the chaos in Parliament reflects an electorate with a split personality. So, with all this in mind, what sort of commanders-in-chief do we need now, in politics and beyond? Visionaries? Listeners? Pragmatists? Power-watchers have reported a sea change in recent years: many leaders now spend more time trying to please their rank and file, they say, and less time actually leading. There was a time when leaders were prepared to defy their supporters for “the greater good of all”. That sounds persuasive unless you think it was the top-down, managerial style of leadership that contributed to people’s sense of political alienation in the first place. Do leaders like Churchill, Thatcher, Blair and May define their eras or do the events of different eras determine the leaders? Do we always get the leaders we deserve? Producer: Dan Tierney

Moral Panics

March 14, 2019 - 11:00
The rise in the number of fatal stabbings in recent months has generated big headlines and heated political debate. Teenage knife crime is high on the national agenda. There is broad agreement that something has to change but not as much agreement about what that is. Should there be more police officers on the streets? more surrender bins? more use of stop and search? more weapons sweeps? tougher sentences? Do we need a knife crime ‘tsar’ to co-ordinate it all? What about the role of schools and youth clubs? But before we start writing policy prescriptions, let’s ask a more basic question: are we seeing a long-overdue response to a desperate and tragic situation, or a nation in the grip of full-blown moral panic? The phrase ‘moral panic’ - which was popularised by sociologist Stanley Cohen in his 1972 book about mods and rockers - is nearly always used pejoratively to denote an over-the-top expression of public anxiety about the lowering of moral standards. Yet it could be argued that a moral panic is like a whistling kettle - it’s a warning that things have come to the boil. Perhaps we shouldn’t speak of moral panics but of moral calls to action – opportunities to get money spent and policies reformed on important issues that are usually below the national radar. Or perhaps such societal soul-searchings are just spasms of empathy, emotional outbursts that take no account of long-term trends, get in the way of clear-eyed policy-making and divert resources from duller but worthier causes. Are moral panics good for society? Producer: Dan Tierney

The Morality of the Artist and the Art

March 7, 2019 - 12:37
“Leaving Neverland”, a two-part TV documentary broadcast this week, details child sex abuse claims against Michael Jackson. The renewed allegations have prompted a debate about whether we should stop listening to his music. Some believe a boycott takes an important moral stand against the late singer’s alleged crimes. To pay any such artist the compliment of our appreciation, they say, is to undermine the victims. Others think the moral character of the artist has no bearing on the worth of the art. In his essay ‘The Death of the Author’, the French literary critic Roland Barthes argues that a book and its creator are entirely unrelated. Is he right? Does a work of art have intrinsic moral value? Or should we reappraise certain works in light of the questionable behaviour and beliefs of the cultural figures that created them? Charles Dickens, who has a worldwide reputation as a compassionate moralist, was also (according to recently-unearthed letters) a ruthless husband who tried to have his wife locked up in a lunatic asylum because "she had outgrown his liking.” Should we judge any public figures (now or in the past) by their private lives and prejudices, or should we rate them instead on their competence and achievements? Producer: Dan Tierney

The Morality of Disobedience

February 28, 2019 - 11:54
At the end of a landmark Vatican summit on paedophilia in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis had strong words for guilty clergy, describing them as "tools of Satan." Campaigners, though, are looking for the devil in the detail of the Pope’s proposals. Some of them are saying that the Church has now simply lost its claim to moral authority. Has it? Or, in our understandable revulsion to this scandal, do we risk overlooking what institutional religion might still have to offer? The loss of trust in institutions is also part of a wider cultural story that’s been playing out in the West for nearly a century, and that’s the story of the decline of obedience. For many, this is something to be celebrated, a recognition of the dignity of the individual, the primacy of personal sovereignty. For others, it has created a moral relativism that is making people more self-absorbed and selfish, and that will tear society apart. Cardinal John Henry Newman (who is about to be canonised) once said: "I shall drink … to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards." Should we have a duty to anything other than our own conscience? If so, what else should demand a claim on our obedience? Many who applaud the civil disobedience of school pupils leaving lessons to join climate protests are appalled by the rise of recreational drug-taking, yet both are acts of rebellion. Individual disobedience can be harmful to ourselves and others, but mass disobedience can change the world. Does our culture value obedience too highly, or not highly enough? Producer: Dan Tierney

The Collapse of the Caliphate

February 21, 2019 - 11:31
“The Caliphate is ready to fall”, tweeted President Trump. The so-called Islamic State’s territory is all but recaptured. If only that were the end of the matter. We can take away their land, but not their warped and dangerous ideas. And there’s the small matter of what to do with the 800 European-born ISIS fighters who have been captured in Syria. The US president has threated to release them if Britain and other European countries don’t take them back. If the British jihadis are traitors to their country, as many see them, have they forfeited their right to citizenship? Or by following due process would we as a country make an important point about the superiority of our values compared to ISIS? What about our moral duty towards those who went to Syria but didn’t even fight? What about our duty to their innocent children? For some, Shamima Begum, schoolgirl runaway and now mother, is a victim of extremist brainwashing. For others she was knowingly complicit in irredeemably evil acts of violence. Punishments aside, where does an individual’s moral agency come into this debate? It could be argued that the whole of Western society must take some of the blame for the demons that have been unleashed by what many believe are mistaken foreign policy interventions and the marginalisation of minorities. Or do we need to stop viewing serious organised criminals as the vulnerable victims of indoctrination and start being much more ruthless with those who reject our hard-won British values? Producer: Dan Tierney

‘Decolonising’ the Curriculum

February 14, 2019 - 11:03
A report, commissioned by the Office for Students, has recommended that universities should “decolonise” the curriculum to end the dominance of western values and beliefs, which “position anything non-European and not white as inferior.” While the regulator hasn’t formally adopted the report as policy, campaigners have long argued that the perpetuation of what they see as a colonial legacy in education is immoral. They argue that a ‘white’ curriculum marginalizes BAME writers and alienates minority students, contributing to their low representation and attainment in higher education. While individual departments at some universities have been reassessing their reading lists, critics warn that it promotes tokenism and presents the works of black or female thinkers as being of equal worth merely by virtue of their colour or gender. Moreover, they argue, in an attempt to tackle racial bias in English literature, history and philosophy, it further entrenches racial thinking. What should we be teaching students in schools and universities? Are there too many dead white men on the curriculum, and if so, is it time to redress the power imbalance? How are we to narrow the education gap for minority students and broaden people’s understanding of those from diverse backgrounds unless we offer an education that engages with their perspectives? Or, in trying to be fair, do we run the risk of belittling important literary and historical figures and binding the curriculum in chains of political correctness? Producer: Dan Tierney

The mental health of young people

February 7, 2019 - 11:03
By many measures the UK is better than it was in the 1950s, but is it a better place in which to be young? Teenagers are more likely to be depressed today than they were during the Great Depression. Self-harm and suicide are on the rise. What’s going on? Surely, it can’t just be the internet, whether we welcome it for giving young people freedom they never had before, or demonise social media for confronting young people, hour by hour, with evidence of their own inadequacy. Research suggests that children and teenagers are spending less time face-to-face with their friends. Parents used to send their kids out to play in the park; now that’s exposing them to ‘stranger danger’. Young people can go off the rails because of family breakdown, and parents can struggle to cope if there is a lack support from the extended family or the wider community. We remember that older generations have always been quicker to condemn young people than to praise them. How far should we feel collectively responsible for the mental health of young people? Is it time to intervene through government regulation and education policy to protect teenagers? If the politicians, teachers and doctors take increasing responsibility, do they risk undermining parents as authority figures? We worry about teenagers’ self-esteem, but are we in danger of wrapping them in cotton wool, and reducing their resilience? Are we over-medicalising the issue, diagnosing serious mental health problems where once we saw only the stresses and uncertainties of adolescence? In this ‘Children’s Mental Health Week’, how should we do the right thing by our children? Producer: Dan Tierney

The Moral Duty of MPs

January 31, 2019 - 10:52
Another week, another page of script written in the screenplay for ‘Brexit: The Movie’. The plot and cast-list are beginning to look more complicated and extensive than those of the fantasy series ‘Game of Thrones’. MPs on all sides are voting on amendments (and amendments to amendments) to the Prime Minister’s deal. Within this muddle lies a fundamental question: what is the moral duty of a Member of Parliament? When they are deciding how to vote, should they be guided by their personal red lines, or the way their constituents voted in the referendum? What about the manifesto on which they were elected? Isn’t the main thing a pragmatic consideration of the national interest? These unprecedented times also raise a significant question about whether ultimate power should be held by government, Parliament or the people. It’s argued that the government has to be in control, or the country will lack the leadership to deal with the crisis and risks descending into self-indulgent chaos. For others, the very nature of the crisis demands that Parliament must have the opportunity to say no to ‘no-deal’ or push back on the backstop. Add to that the shouts in favour of taking the crisis back to the people, although no future referendum can guarantee a clear-cut result to get us out of the mess. With all that in mind, is it time to rewrite the constitutional rule-book? And who has the moral authority to do it? Producer: Dan Tierney.