Thursday, 6 March 2014

Kerrygold Butter and the Human Capacity to Empathise

The US Secretary of State, John Kerry condemned the Ugandan government for passing legislation that allows prison sentences for homosexual behaviour. At the same time, an Arizona Governor was required to veto a bill that would allow businesses to discriminate against customers on religious reasons. Just how ready is the US to act as the global judge of human rights? In examining the behaviour of ourselves and others, there may not be clear answers as to what marks the true extent of our understanding of "the correct thing to do".

The United States of America takes centre stage in the discussion of rights and duties because of its strong economic, social and military power. Vulnerable countries often submit to the power of those who can bring foreign aid and direct investment, and it may be through this pressure that Uganda will change its law. Arizona's desire to discriminate against gay people wavered when companies like Apple and Intel started suggesting that they would review their business arrangements in the state should the bill be enacted into legislation. Money makes a difference in convincing people of your moral authority.

In this process of affecting change, the moral authority of Kerry and the US are cast into doubt. A domestic comparison of the recent Jailbreak competition provides equally challenging questions. While probably one of the most efficient methods of raising substantial funds for worthwhile charities in a novel way, the competition's individualist tone compromises its good intentions. It must be asked, what is the appropriate response to real and significant problems around the world? Are we left in a situation where the only acceptable objective of all charitable work be the reconstruction of a society where gross inequality of all types are impossible? In empathising with human suffering, there is a limit and capacity to feel for others. The human capacity to use reason provides the social crutch necessary to make the world better beyond those who we can feel for.

There are levels of moral authority and there is a spectrum of charitable work. Those in a position of authority, such as John Kerry, find themselves in peril of undermining their noble causes by lacking the will to challenge the status quo, either within their own establishments or by failing to recognise that values outside of their establishment differ greatly from their own. The Law Society of Ireland faces this challenge in their representations to the Oireachtas committee on tobacco advertising. The Law Society sought to highlight to the committee that an introduction of plain-packaging on tobacco products could "adversely impact on business and employment". In an interview on Newstalk, the Director General of the Law Society said "So if the beginning is with tobacco where would it end?...would Kerrygold Butter not [sic] longer be allowed to have a gold package, if it is seen as fattening?".

This facetious approach is difficult to understand, in light of the decades of research showing the link between tobacco products and premature death, and the absence of addiction problems related to butter. Choosing to engage in legal advocacy on tobacco packaging rather than on a more socially contentious point, the Law Society have damaged their standing in the eyes of the public. They seemed to have engaged in wilful denial that tobacco consumption could be massively harmful. (Much to the ire of colleagues who feel misrepresented.) Much like John Kerry, the Law Society have taken a position without considering the public perception of the position they've taken. The Jailbreak competition has been scrutinized for this same reason. Charity and well-intentioned intervention may not be enough to address the more serious, underlying systemic flaws that permeate society.

Establishing who has the moral authority to champion the rights of others is a difficult task. The human capacity for empathy is limited, and when that limit is reached the ability to reason provides a means for addressing problems. There is an infinite yardstick by which to calibrate what is meant by "the right thing to do". In addressing the problems that afflict society, there are no moral certainties; only reason, empathy and trust.

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