Sarah Banks revisits Politics Reclaimed, Ethics Reframed, Part 4

A few days after our Engaging Critically seminar on ‘Politics and Ethics’ Sarah Banks sent these further reflections on the debate.


In defence of ethics

We had a very interesting discussion at the In Defence of Youth Work event in Birmingham on 5th November 2013 on the theme of: Ethics in youth work: a retreat from politics?

There’s no doubt that there has been an ‘ethics boom’ in recent years – not just in youth work, but across the board. We can see this in the growing literature on professional ethics, the development of the teaching of ethics on university courses and the creation of ethical guidelines/codes by employing agencies, professional associations and regulatory bodies.

Has ethics replaced politics as a key concern in youth work? Has ethics driven out politics? Has ethics stepped into the space left by the retreat from politics? Is this a bad thing?

One of the arguments, eloquently expressed by Tony Taylor, is that the turn to ethics in youth work marks a turn towards the individual, to a focus on private troubles and a move away from public issues.

This is one way of looking at ethics. The concern is with the ‘private’ troubles of the individual youth worker who has to decide how to distribute limited resources of time and money; whether to report a young person to the police; how to be respectful to a young person whilst challenging a racist comment. But these aren’t really private troubles. They are issues arising in professional life, which is also a public life. No textbooks on ethics or ethical codes would ever describe these challenges as ‘private’ (akin to deciding where to go on the family holiday or whether to buy chicken for lunch).

The main critique of ethics (at least western versions of ethics) is that it starts with the individual and tends to focus on that individual as a free and responsible choice-maker. This places too much emphasis on freedom of choice (our choices are often constrained by factors outside our control – available resources, agency policies, global capitalism) whilst at the same time placing responsibility on the individual for their choices and the outcomes of these choices.

But is this what the whole topic of ethics is about, or is it just a particular (stereotyped) version of ethics? Isn’t this critique of ethics similar to making a critique of politics based on one particular political ideology?

Why has there been an ethics boom? Like most trends in society, there are many contradictory factors at work. One reason for a growing concern with ethics in society generally and in professions and occupations like youth work is as a reaction to the still-growing inequalities in wealth, health and power; global challenges like climate change that will have impacts on all corners of the globe and future generations; advancements in technology (e.g. genetics, communication) that raise profound issues about the nature of human beings and the kind of world we want to live in.

These are ethical issues about power, rights, responsibilities, harms, benefits and planetary flourishing. They are issues for which individuals, groups, communities and corporations, as well as governments, should take responsibility. A focus on ethics can be seen as a wake-up call – a raising of awareness and a call to action.

On the other hand, the proliferation of ethical codes, ethics committees, ethical audits can be regarded as part of the turn towards managerialism, surveillance, control, risk aversion. Employees are expected to follow procedures and rules, designed to minimize risk and ensure ‘ethical behaviour’. Individual choice is constrained and the responsibility is not to engage in ethical reflection or critical dialogue, but rather to follow the rules. But is this really about ethics?

Just as there are many political ideologies, so there are many ethical theories and approaches to ethics.

The challenge is not to divert attention from ethics to politics, but rather to promote a radical ethics that also acknowledges the connection with politics.

Similarly, demanding a ‘return to politics’ is not an end in itself – surely it is a radical politics driven by an ethical demand to tackle injustice and promote equality?

There is much more to be said on this topic and I would be interested to hear the views of people in the youth work field, and others.

Sarah Banks, Durham University, 7.11.13

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