There’s nothing either good or bad but…

ethicsConsider this. Having grown a moustache for Movember (which I haven’t, but this is all hypothetical), I trim it into a typical walrus shape, buy a striped Breton jersey, put on a black beret, get some strings of onions from the cheapest supermarket, sling them round my shoulder, get out my bike, sling more strings of onions over the handlebars, and spend an afternoon cycling round a housing estate speaking in an outrageously camp French accent and trying to sell the onions at a huge profit. Whether or not I’m successful, if I’ve brought a bit of nostalgia and fun into an otherwise unremarkable day, injected some (albeit false and outmoded) exoticism into a drab Scottish Tuesday, is that an unethical way to spend an afternoon?

Or how about scenario number two? I keep the Breton jersey, lose the beret, bike and onions, put on a black eye-mask, stencil SWAG on a sack, sling it over my shoulder, carry it into the local nick and say to the duty sergeant ‘You’ve got me bang to rights, guv. It’s a fair cop’. Would he a) arrest me? b) tell me to stop wasting police time? or c) say ‘bugger off’. And, as a supplementary question, how about if the bag actually contained items I’d borrowed but not returned?

Third and final conundrum: I scribble out a quick novel. It’s riddled with mistakes and either highly entertaining in its own right or so bad that it’s funny. I put it on Amazon, write several 5 star reviews of it under various names which convince some people to buy it. They, in turn, write 1 star reviews pointing out its flaws and identifying me as an illiterate charlatan, whereupon I slag them off in tweets and Facebook comments and threaten them with various forms of retribution. What crime(s), if any, am I committing?

The questions posed, of course, are all about ‘ethical’ issues. Ethics are fundamental to a culture and yet attitudes to them are sometimes surprisingly flexible. They’re about how we behave, whether our actions are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, which in turn depends upon why we’re performing them. Several years ago there was a joke going round based precisely on an interpretation of the notion of ethics. Briefly, it posed a dilemma for a photographer who came across George W Bush clinging to a branch over a raging torrent and beginning to lose his grip. The photographer could save Bush or get a picture which would make him a fortune when it was syndicated world-wide. The agonising choice for him was whether to use colour or black and white.

Defining what ethics are is more difficult than it seems on the surface. At its most basic, behaving ethically means not doing things which may hurt other people. So is the winner of a race behaving unethically towards the other competitors? And what about if the ‘hurt’ is designed to prevent a greater ‘hurt’, as when an injection is given to forestall some debilitating disease? Are ethics negotiable or scalable? All very good debating points and open to interesting intellectual games.

Fortunately, most of us agree most of the time on the general perception of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ practices, and all of this blog is simply to call attention to a campaign being run by the Alliance of Independent Authors. Since the market place has been so easy to penetrate, many offences to good taste and literary and linguistic standards have been perpetrated and some unscrupulous people have exploited the system to the hilt. No doubt this campaign itself will be exploited in similar ways as some ‘writers’ pin the campaign’s badges to their sites and works to give themselves an air of respectability. The hope, though, is that by identifying themselves in such a way, they may invite scrutiny and, as a consequence, have to conform or be found wanting. In the end, in most spheres, unethical behaviour leads to corrosion and collapse, but it does lots of harm before it reaches the point of implosion. There are enough threats to the industry already without writers and readers adding to them.

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