This year, the world has been changing beyond all recognition, not only due to the pandemic but with the UK leaving the European Union at the end of the year and the dramatic US election in November. Therefore, it is more important than ever for students to be given the opportunity to discuss and debate the issues around us.
Each year the PPE faculty recruits representatives from all the different subjects, along with a chairperson, for the PPE Society. These students will then help put on a range of events, including the annual PPE Dinner and regular PPE Debates, along with clubs, societies and competitions for the lower years.
Despite the challenges the coronavirus outbreak has brought for BMS as a school, it is pleasing that the popular PPE debates are still a mainstay on the school calendar. They are slightly different: masks are worn, only one year group can attend and the Howard Hall was needed to ensure appropriate social distancing. However, the passion of the debaters and the involvement of the audience are as strong as ever.
The debates have ranged from whether LGBT relationships should be taught in primary schools to whether it is more immoral for a government to enforce a vaccine than those who refuse to take it. I have no doubt that 2021 will provide a plethora of topical issues that we are not even aware of yet and the PPE Society is standing by help students debate and make sense of this changing world we all live in.
Mr P Davis
Head of PPE
Who deserves the vaccine first… someone with years left to live or someone on their deathbed?
COVID-19 has been taking lives for over a year, but thankfully we now have a vaccine to fight against the virus. When it comes to giving the public the vaccine there has been many ethical issues raised: who should get the vaccine first; should the rich be able to pay to get the vaccine and jump the queue; and should the vaccine be compulsory? The three normative ethical theories would approach these questions from different angles, raising different ethical issues.
The first approach is utilitarianism. Utilitarian’s aim to produce the most happens from an action, even if it does involve pain for the minority. According to utilitarianism, happiness is the only good and we should try to maximise this happiness, as it is the right thing to do. So, if we take the question: ‘Should the rich be able to pay to get the vaccine?’, a utilitarian will say yes. If more people are able to get the vaccine by the rich paying for it, then it would maximise the amount of people receiving the vaccine and therefore maximise happiness as less people will get the virus. When it comes down to who should get the vaccine first, a utilitarian would say those who have the longest left to live. As it is all about producing the most happiness, it also involves the amount of time this happiness will last; they want this happiness to last for the longest amount of time. So, giving the vaccine to someone who is 80 and only has a decade or two left to live, would not produce as much good as giving the vaccine to a 40-year-old who has the rest of their life ahead of them. Even if the vaccine was given to the 80-year-old, they are still more likely to get ill and die of something else than a 40-year-old. Also, within society the 40-year-old would have more impact: they are likely to be working, have children and paying more tax. All of these produce more happiness and benefit the many than if the 80-year-old was to get the vaccine. With regards to making the vaccine compulsory, a utilitarian would say it should be. Vaccinating everyone maximises happiness. The vaccine will help to stop the spread of the virus, reducing deaths and leading to no more lockdowns. This would produce the most pleasure for the most amount of people.
An alternative approach to the question would be to consider Kantian deontology. Kant says that when we perform a particular moral action, we must be able to consistently assert that everyone should act in that way too. So, unlike utilitarianism, consequences are not taken into consideration. He argued for something called the Categorical Imperative, which means that we should only follow laws which can be made universal. So, when it comes down to the vaccine, the first thing a Kantian deontologist would say is that the rich shouldn’t be able to get the vaccine before the poor. If we were to say that you could pay to get the vaccine first, this law would not be able to be made universal and therefore, would not follow the categorical imperative. Next to answer the question: ‘Who should get the vaccine first?’, Kant would argue if the rule can be applied to everyone, it does not matter who goes first. As long as it brings good will and can be made universal, then the law is morally permissible. In a world which follows Kantian deontology, the vaccine would either be made compulsory or not happen at all. If making the vaccine universal law, it would be your moral duty. Getting that vaccine would bring the most amount of good will to the greatest amount of people, which is what Kant wants. Although, if you do look deeper into Kantian Deontology, we must act out of duty, not accordance for duty. So, we shouldn’t get the vaccine because it is the right thing to do, we should get the vaccine because we want to stop the spread of the coronavirus and save as many possible lives. By acting according to duty, the reasons behind your action have no moral worth.
Finally, the last normative approach is virtue ethics. To do the morally right thing, you must choose the action which a virtuous person would do. In virtue ethics, they approach morality by judging the person (agent) who committed the act, rather than the action itself. They consider not just the present action but the past and future actions of the agent. With the vaccine, if you paid to get it before other people, it is not what a virtuous individual would do. Therefore, if we applied virtue ethics then the right course of action is to wait for when it is your time to get the vaccine. The question is not who should get the vaccine first, but who is the most morally suitably to make those choices on behalf of the rest of us? This approach is one that would be almost impossible to figure out for many reasons. One being the time and energy it would take to figure out whose more virtuous; another being there is no true definition of what a virtuous person is. A virtuous person would get the vaccine as it would help to save lives and protect the people. So, by making the vaccine compulsory, the people getting it are being virtuous.
The vaccine poses many different ethical issues that can be tackled by these three normative approaches. Each have their positive and negatives and aim to benefit the world in the best way. If the ethical issues could be overcome by combining each of the normative approaches, it could end the argument. One could take a utilitarian view on the rich being able to pay to get the vaccine; this would maximise the amount of people who receive the vaccine in the quickest time. As for who should get the vaccine first, the virtue ethical standpoint on the vaccine would create the most virtue in the world. And finally, by making the vaccine compulsory and following the Kantian deontological approach, the world can be a better place as less lives will be lost, and people will finally be able to be free to live their lives not stuck in a lockdown.
Another Pickle for ACOBA
ACOBA is the government body in control of the post governmental careers of civil servants and politicians, a job that it has for years, failed to do.
David Cameron has recently come under scrutiny for his role as a lobbyist with Greensill Capital. This position has allowed him to use his government contacts to attempt to secure Greensill involvement in lucrative government-backed financial support schemes during the coronavirus pandemic, with text messages to Rishi Sunak and private drinks with Matt Hancock. It has also been recently revealed that senior civil servant Bill Crothers was working at Greensill while still employed as Government’s Chief Commercial Officer, a position which gave him responsibility over the allocation of many billions of pounds worth of government contracts. These are just the latest examples of senior government officials exploiting the ‘Revolving Door’, transferring from public to private sector.
Migration of people from the senior ranks of the civil service and the Houses of Parliament to appointments in lobbying positions and high value corporations is not in itself an issue; ex-politicians are far less likely to fill our Twitter feeds with self-pitying ‘heart to heart’ threads or attempts to flog a few of their sickening words on ‘Cameo’ (see the recent side hustle of Nigel Farage), if they are kept busy and their pockets are kept well-lined. Rather, the problems can be found in the nature of these appointments.
This is a contentious subject of which the government is well aware. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) was established in 1975 to deal with such matters. This body (currently chaired by Lord Eric Pickles) was formed in order to provide advice to senior civil servants and in 1995 ministers, who wished to take up outside appointments after leaving Crown service. In theory, the intention was to ensure that those who did decide to take up private sector work were not welcomed into positions they had earned by granting favourable deals to a firm during their tenure. ACOBA achieves this through an advisory committee of 9 members, which scrutinises public officials’ requests for private sector careers.
ACOBA is however, a flawed organisation. Ministers who have passed through its machine often end up in jobs that represent a clear conflict of interest with their previous governmental position. A prime example of this is Dave Hartnett, former permanent secretary for tax at HMRC. As secretary for tax, Hartnett was tasked with agreeing high profile tax deals and reclaiming unpaid tax from large firms. After leaving office in 2013, Hartnett quickly secured a job with Deloitte, a tax firm previously employed by Vodafone. Coincidentally, Hartnett had just agreed a tax break for Vodafone which would eventually lose the treasury around £6 billion. Hartnett also met with David Cruikshank, the chairman of Deloitte, 48 times during his five-year tenure, and whilst there has been no confirmation, justifiable suspicion exists that there was some expectation of a job upon Hartnett’s retirement, provided favourable deals could be struck with the clients of Deloitte. Further still, Hartnett negotiated a tax deal guaranteeing virtual legal immunity to HSBC bankers for any crimes relating to tax fraud they may have committed in Switzerland, a decision that must have proved most convenient when he went on to accept a job in HSBC in 2013.
Whilst Dave Hartnett’s case is perhaps amongst the most egregious, it is by no means an isolated incident. This blurring of the line between public and private sectors first entered the public consciousness in the early days of privatisation in the 1980s, principally with the Secretary of State for Energy, Peter Walker, who under Thatcher, oversaw the privatisation of the gas network before leaving to work for British Gas. More recently, Labour was forced to suspend three former ministers Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon, after they were covertly filmed by journalists offering a range of services, such as: being paid £3,000 a day to place a client on a key government advisory board (Hewitt); telling an undercover journalist that they wanted to use their skills and connections in something that “frankly makes money” (Hoon); and offering to lobby their government contacts in exchange for £3,000-£5,000 and describing himself as a “cab for hire” (Byers).
Whilst most (except Dave Hartnett) received punishments for their actions (in the form of bans from Parliament and suspension from the Parliamentary Labour Party), these were paltry, and not administered by ACOBA, instead by the Standards and Privileges Committee. Even should ACOBA have wanted to issue sanctions, they would have been powerless to do so, and remain powerless to this day. It is by its very definition, an advisory committee, meaning that its recommendations need be paid no heed by those they concern. A consultation with ACOBA is also only recommended, Bill Crothers (former chief commercial officer) not having sought one, and whose sole consequence so far has been a letter sent by Lord Pickles to his former department.
Even evidence brought to committee hearings is not public knowledge, ACOBA’s reasoning being that if information was shared, people wouldn’t cooperate with the process. ACOBA is a body where decisions are made based on insufficient evidence, and the results of decisions made are rarely followed, and un-policeable if they aren’t. Due to these deficiencies, not a single one of the roughly 700 applications made in the past 10 years has been advised against by the committee, and despite the multitude of inquiries into their practices (including a number by the highly critical Public administration and constitutional affairs committee) very little has changed, the committee remaining advisory instead of statutory and wholly ineffective even by its own admission (their own secretariat stating in 2018 that it was “effectively toothless”).
The real scandal with ACOBA, and the revolving door it facilitates, is that there is no scandal. It has taken the involvement of a former prime minister to draw the attention of the media to what is in effect, crony capitalism. A world in which ACOBA exists is in all probability, a more damaging one to the country than one where it doesn’t, as it stops a proper policing body being established. Despite the number of failed inquiries into ACOBA’s practices, there is still hope of systemic reform, the Greensill lobbying debacle perhaps decisively bringing the issue into the public mind.
Economics Society Debate: The five-year government term is not long enough
Proposing – Alfred and Pierre
Opposing – Louis and Ollie
The debate started off with Alfred and Pierre proposing that the five-year government term is not long enough, Alfred argued that the current system doesn’t prove a political incentive to implement long-term supply-side policies such as education and healthcare. For example, during austerity where significant cuts were made to the NHS and the current government are still facing the implications, however those who put such measures in place are no longer responsible.
He went on to argue that with a longer term it is harder for governments to avoid long term issues such as climate change if they are forced to face longer term consequences of their actions. This is shown in Trump abolishing pandemic protection before COVID-19 as he assumed it wouldn’t have an impact on him and his administration as well as Teresa May promising carbon neutrality by 2050 even though she cannot fulfil this promise, thus being a substitute for real action.
Pierre then brought forward how longer government terms provide stability and a focus for future policies, speaking about how inefficient the current term is as those in power tend to spend the first year altering existing policies as opposed to implementing actual change.
In addition to this if a terrible leader is elected there can be a vote of no confidence – it is not the be all and end all they can be got rid of. Furthering Alfred points Pierre emphasised how PMs are likely to implement short term policies in order to get re-elected which is often detrimental to long-term policy.
They concluded with how longer terms would make elections more significant, spurring the public to spend more time selecting the right person to vote for as opposed to listening to surface level propaganda. Finishing on how expensive elections are to run and how especially in these times we don’t need any more costs to the budget deficit.
The chair then moved the debate to the opposing side, starting with Louis rebutting the expense point – pointing out that in the grand scheme of things elections are quite cheap and some MPs and lords aren’t actually paid throughout, also arguing you shouldn’t put a price on true democracy. He then brought up how new issues that weren’t necessarily relevant when the government was elected could not be addressed, for example the BLM movement last summer and how if a government was in for a very long term they may not address events like this.
Louis went on to put forward that it does not matter how long the term is but the makeup of the parliament in how quickly you can pass things such as laws. Concluding that you cannot put a price on democracy and that with a longer term we cannot ensure that current global issues will be dealt with by the government.
Ollie then stated how if a Prime Minister is worthy, they will be re-elected anyway, thus lengthening their term beyond 5 years and that having someone irresponsible in power for more than 5 years can cause detrimental effects on the country and economy. Arguing that if people don’t vote rationally in the first instance the country will be stuck in a bad position for longer than necessary.
In their final statements the proposing side asked why 5 years is so democratic and 8 isn’t, if we were to vote on things every day our system would be hugely inefficient. As well as reinstating how the perception of long-term policies is that nothing is being done and how this negatively impacts the future of the country and economy.
The opposing side finished with that term length doesn’t matter as in our political climate governments collapse after a certain amount of time anyway.