89. Ralph, no.

value

Wanted: philosopher.

The highway code was not written by psychologists. So there is very little recognition of the role of the ‘automatic’ brain in terms of handling most driving duties. The code would have us believe that thinking comes before acting, but this is rarely the case day to day. Driving might start out as thoughtful when people first learn, but it soon becomes a habit.

By the time the driving test is over, the autopilot takes over for the next 70 years of carefree motoring. But all the time we see little bits of degeneration, such as cutting corners, running over kerbs when parking and dyslexic indicator work, on occasions where mental functioning goes a bit windows vista.

In general, once the code is learned the mantra goes like this: First, behave; second, think; third, feel. And this would be a good mantra for living your life, if only there was a code of behaviour that was properly itemised, bullet-pointed and illustrated.

But there is no such clear code, only things like custom and manners. Like letting the person with one item in the basket go on ahead in Lidl. But what about the person behind him, and the next person? What about the person with two items? Such dilemmas are meat and potatoes for the ethics panel.

Religious texts are not specific enough. Try searching ‘what car would Jesus drive?’ for instance. Though it has been argued that Jesus and the apostles were in one Accord, it’s not  wise to interpret scripture so literally.

Am I the only person to feel our Ethicists are letting us down?

Come on, Moral Maze, your show is so tired. It’s crying out for a road-show format. Let’s get the ethicists out on to the streets and help solve real life moral dilemmas. Help us deal with issues like parking meters and beggars.

In Dublin City Centre there are severe parking restrictions. It is necessary to pay by phone using either a text message, phone call or website. It turns out that all three options are impossible if you don’t have an Irish mobile phone number. Neither do the machines seem to  accept coins. Worse than this, there are clear signs of wheel clamping in progress. Like rows of clamped cars covered in moss.

Also in Dublin, there are quite a few beggars. Most adopt passive body language, sitting on the pavement, leaning against a wall, with a polystyrene cup held in both hands, tilted upwards. I didn’t see any money in any of the cups and people seemed to ignore the beggars like they do in every city. I have no idea how many beggars were ‘genuine’ as opposed to being run by gangs.

As I understand it, people are reluctant to give to beggars, not because the helping agencies have advised us not to, but rather because many of them are felt to be running a con. If it is a con though, why adopt a near-catatonic pose, rather than say, stand up, maintain eye contact, talk to people, all strategies that seem to increase donations?

In Dublin, it would be nice to give more money to the parking people and the beggars, but you can’t. Not without a lot more information.

Ethical experiments feed in the background information drip by drip, but on the streets no-one hands out a contextual vignette, not even a placard.

One approach that seems to work is to hand around notes containing a short account of why a donation is requested. Hand out notes politely round a bar or restaurant, giving people half a minute to digest the information, then quietly go round with a paper cup, getting out just before the staff throw you out. Something like: ‘my Volkswagen uses more fuel than I expected and I need an extra bit to pick my children up from the chemotherapy day unit. Just £1.09 will buy a litre of diesel. Please be generous and God bless’

I wondered if this type of beggar used to be teachers and still love to hand out and collect papers. Or possibly psychology students, trying to pay their exorbitant tuition fees.

But can you be sure they are not genuine? Are you really going to ask the names and addresses and ages of their children, where they go to school and why they’ve been left at the chemotherapy unit all day, as your Safeguarding Training says you should? Or will you just give them a few of your Rupees or Turkish coins you keep for such occasions?

On TV last week was a long piece suggesting that large numbers of students were selling sex to ‘sugar daddies’ to help them through college. For some reason this was blamed on the movie Frozen, on the basis that girls were trained to become princesses rather than agents of their own destiny.

http://news.sky.com/story/1576077/sugar-babies-students-selling-sex

Sugardaddy websites make statements like this one:

‘Wondered what the sugardaddy life is like?  Well, he won’t be ignoring you whilst watching the football for a start.  For a sugardaddy, he has made his investment and his focus will be on you.  So whilst the lads are down the pub, your older, richer man may take you to Cannes in his private jet for dinner or to a luxury spa for some couple treatments.  Either way, it is guaranteed your man will know how to take care of you and it will be better than ever before’

Anyway, I’m not sure whether the breakfast TV panel considered this issue carefully enough and I hope the Oxford Centre for Practical Ethics will give us a better opinion on whether it’s OK or not. At first glance, the carbon footprint looks excessive, having to eat in Cannes all the time.

Doctors are taught medical ethics according to four basic principles: doing good, not doing harm, personal autonomy and justice. The rule is: look at these four aspects and balance them up as you like, adding a twist of lemon, to justify exactly what you were going to do anyway.

Doctors have a tendency towards utilitarianism and have no trouble hypothetically shooting down a hijacked airliner that is about to crash into a football stadium (depending a little on which stadium, who is playing and the scoreline). But we struggle with dilemmas where the outcomes are uncertain.

Like this one for instance, I came across in Sheffield City Centre this week.

To set the scene, try arriving at 4.20 at one of the main car parks close to City Hall, and work out how much to pay and display. 50p gets you 30 minutes, but after 4.30 it’s only £2 to stay until 8am next day. I’ll give you a moment to think about that.

There seemed to be three options: hang around for ten minutes and pay £2; pay 50p and come back within half an hour and pay £2 more; or try paying £2.50 and seeing what happens. The machine does not give change. Over to you, panel.

Option 1 strikes me as lacklustre. It’s for people who think 10 minutes passes quickly, which means older citizens and people with distorted time perception due to cannabis use.

Option 2 is a little bit inconvenient , but could work, especially if you bought some fish from the shop nearby, the one where tangled lobsters cavort in the front window display. But do you really want to leave live seafood in your car, quite possibly roaming about and scuttling under the seats?

Option 3 on the other hand is a little bit bold, it’s one for the poker player. It’s quite possible that something happens at 4.30 that re-sets the whole system of time, so that the universe ceases to exist, or even worse, you could lose £2.

It takes me about three minutes to decide – ironically this delay in itself has tilted the balance in favour of Option 1, now only 7 minutes is at stake.

I go for option 3 on the basis that it is a scientific experiment and it will cost £2 to conduct or maybe less.  Options 1 and 2  are for potheads and anancasts and option 3 is for square jawed people with firm handshakes and a steady gaze. This is my contribution to the science budget for today.

I pay £2.50 and hit the green button. Let the chips fall where they may.

I look at the ticket and it says ‘Expires 1853’.

That’s a bad outcome. For that to work I’d have to come back before 1853 and pay another £2. That’s just not going to happen and I decide to take a risk, either that no-one is checking or if they do, I’ll write a crawling letter to the parking appeals department explaining the situation and begging for mercy.

I know what you’re thinking. If I believe this kind of problem is worth even considering for a minute in a world where terrible things are happening, like massacres and planes falling out of the sky, then surely I’m crying out for Ralph McTell to take me by the hand and lead me through the streets of London and show me something that will make me change my mind.

Just as I think that, I realise that a female person has approached from behind and is talking to me. And this is when I really needed Ralph McTell to put me right. Either that or The Handbook of Practical Ethics.

I turn to listen to the lady. I am not working, but the psychiatrist within me has the meter running. She is well spoken and nicely dressed, low to mid thirties in age. She does not seem affected by substances and her talk is normal in form and content. She tells me she feels terrible approaching strangers, but she has just been to the police station having lost both her handbag and mobile phone in a shop. The police, to her surprise, have been extremely unsympathetic and not offered any help. She tells me she is a Business Studies student at Hallam University. She goes on to say she needs to collect £26.40 that evening so she can buy a bus ticket home to Birmingham.

She seems plausible, but as she continues, a few things don’t seem to quite add up. She is carrying a notebook, which she shows me, but only one page has writing on it. She has written the bus times and price and a few other notes, very neatly, but in rather childish script. Handed out to her by her gang – boss handler, sitting in his gang – boss Mercedes just round the corner, a dark thought says.

I’m thinking:  it’s not the way people usually write notes, which is more of a doodle format. Plus, why would a business studies student be starting her studies in mid November. And why would you approach people in a car park, rather than say, the students’ union?

And I remember reading about studies featuring psychology students, posing as nicely spoken people who have lost their wallets, approaching strangers at London stations for help and usually met with very positive and generous reactions. I wondered if this person might be repeating this or a similar study and deeper down I wondered if I was being recorded or filmed. Subsequently I found that Youtube features lots of Rich Beggar social experiments, like the man with a new red Mercedes who solicits 50c for a parking meter.

But there was still a chance she could be genuine, and not a con artist, researcher, addict or beggar.  

I decided to give her a small amount of money, £5, based entirely illogically on the odds of her story being true, 20% give or take. Most people I’ve talked to think that was overgenerous. Wiser heads tell me this was an obvious scam.

Furthermore, ethical decisions can’t be made on the basis of percentages of likelihood. Paying £5 was generous if the lady was begging and ungenerous if she was for real. Generally we are advised not to give money to beggars and certainly not to give money to con-artists. There is an ethical basis to this in as far as giving money is not helpful, may do harm and is unjust.

I’m pretty sure I’ve failed the ethics module this time. ‘Didn’t think it through properly’ is scrawled all over the paper in the red biro of morality.

There is a code that says don’t give to beggars, but there is no code for dealing with unexpected events such as people in pub car parks offering to sell you fish or firewood. To protect against scams I suggest one simple principle. Only two groups of people bother – legitimately- to dress impeccably nowadays: car salesmen and funeral directors.

If you are approached by an unaccountably well dressed person and that person is neither of these, then walk away. McTell’s tyranny must end.

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