Friday, 14 February 2014

Synthetic outrage

The Telegraph's article the other day was very critical of certain pro-life counsellors for lying to the women they were counselling about the possible sequelae of abortions.

Leaving aside, for now, the debate about whether they lied (or were misinformed, misrepresented and all other possibilities) I want to focus on something else.

The brouhaha which the Telegraph created was founded, I can only assume, on the presumption that lying is a bad thing to do.

Yet, the information on which the article was based was obtained by lying: and not only by lying, but also by clandestinely filming people without their knowledge or consent.  And remember how upset the press were when it was alleged a pro-lifer was filming people without their knowledge or consent.

Another puzzling aspect of this is that some pro life people, in their (understandable) desire to distance themselves from the counsellors who were the targets of this sting, were quick to say the journalists had done nothing wrong.

Which leads to various questions:

If it is all right for journalists to lie, why is it wrong for counsellors to do so?

Is some of the subsequent outrage, particularly in the press, in fact somewhat synthetic?

Of course, there are various possible answers to the first of these questions (though only one credible one to the second, in my view).

It could be argued that journalists' freedom to pursue the truth is so important to a civilised society, that on occasion their use of lies in their investigations is morally permissible. But then, surely, a pro life counsellor could reasonably argue that the goal of saving a child's life is so important…

Or it could be (and indeed has been) argued that it is the political harm done to the pro life cause, that is the reason that this is so bad.  That is as maybe, but I think the ethical issue is much more foundational (and, to be honest, if we are going to talk of the political savvy of the pro life movement in general, I fear there is little positive to say).

However, I do think that the pro-life movement should hold itself to higher ethical standards than journalists; and that includes not only the counselling of women, but also the way in which the disagreements, inevitable within so large and diverse a movement, are debated.

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