Observing the Oberver's 'Ethical' Awards

Every year, the Guardian’s sister Sunday, the Observer, holds an ‘ethical awards‘ ceremony.

It is quite a sight. Awards ceremonies are, as a rule, full of the pathologically smug anyway. An ‘ethical’ awards ceremony sets the smug-o-meter past any conceivable limit. Seriously… an ‘ethical awards’? Is there anything more self-regarding than handing out gongs to people you believe to be ‘ethical’? Isn’t it just a little bit, well, painfully shameless?

The Observer seems to imagine itself in a position to judge what is ‘ethical’ or not, without regard for what ‘ethics’ actually are. The Taliban have ‘ethics’. Nazis had ‘ethics’. ‘Ethics’, throughout history, have been held close to the chests of bigots, zealots, murderers and downright psychopaths. ‘Ethics’ has come to mean ‘good’, where really they are in fact a branch of moral philosophy. And within moral philosophy, there are debates: contested ideas about where morality emerges from. For instance, two of the biggest debates are whether or not there can be a mind-independent notion of moral good, and whether actions should be judged by their consequences, or by the principle which guided them. Yet the Observer seems to have cast all this to one side, closed the debate about ‘ethics’, and decided that it knows what is ‘ethical’ and what isn’t. And, surprise, surprise, the ‘ethical awards’ go to the individuals, organisations and companies that best reflect the prejudices of the Guardian and Observer.

Why don’t think they just call it the People-Who-Think-Like-Us Awards? That is, after all, all that it means to say something is ‘ethical’ in this cack-handed way. The implication is that nobody else has any moral conscience.

This years ethical ‘Observer Lifetime Achievement Award Winner’ is…

James Lovelock

World-renowned scientist, James Lovelock, has won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 Observer Ethical Awards, in association with Ecover. Lovelock the originator of the Gaia hypothesis was recognised for pioneering a model that now forms the basis of climate science.

James Lovelock began his career at the Medical Research Council but has variously worked for NASA, Harvard, with Lord Rothschild (the former boss of Shell) and for MI5. It was while working at NASA on the programme to establish whether there was life on Mars that Lovelock developed the Gaia Hypothesis, which postulates that the biosphere is a self-regulating entity with the capacity to keep healthy by controlling the chemical and physical environment. Many consider this his most important work that underpins today’s view of climate science. Lovelock was also one of the first people to discover a link between CFCs and the depletion in the ozone layer through the invention of the electron capture detector, a device that detects atoms and molecules in gas. By his own admission, Lovelock has spent most of his career outside of the scientific establishment. He is both an inspiration to and detractor of the ‘green movement’ not least because of his support of nuclear energy. At 92 he continues to work every day and is writing his next book.

Lovelock may or may not be a brilliant scientist. But what is his contribution to ‘ethics’? Even if it turns out that the Gaia hypothesis turns out someday to be true, what does it say about ethics?

Even if we imagine the world to be some kind of self-regulating system, it makes no difference to right and wrong. We could still decide that it is right to interfere with its processes in our own interests. And we could do so in good conscience, having explored the ‘ethics’ of our decision. Moreover, one could hold with the Gaia hypothesis and decide that mass-murder and rape are virtuous, being completely in accordance with the continuity of self-regulating ecosystems.

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