Tag Archives: ethics

Put all of us first: Agency


As with Voice – where people speak best for themselves, if we have ears to listen – so too with Agency. Agency is about respecting people’s ability to decide for themselves what is best for their own lives.

In labour theory, a famous study [link] demonstrated that factory line workers were both happier and more productive when control of the speed of the assembly line was handed directly to them. (Though if memory serves correctly, there was no comparative study to assess whether paying better wages would have had the same effect!)

In counselling or therapy it can happen that a therapist can see an issue or problem, or solution, very quickly – perhaps even in the first session. However, pointing it out straight away might be very inappropriate, cruel or even harmful if the patient/client is not ready or able to deal with that information at that time. They have to wait and gently point them in new directions until they eventually figure it out for themselves.

People with abusive domestic partners often take multiple attempts at leaving before they finally make a clean break. Support services, however painful it may be to watch, need patience and perseverance to be on standby to provide assistance and help when the person finally makes a move for change. They know from experience, you cannot push people before they are ready.

In international development, theorists like Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen have argued the need to recognise people’s right to achieve ‘what they decide to achieve.’ And others he argues, including aid donors and development agencies, should see them not only as people “whose well-being demands concern, but also as people whose responsible agency must be recognised.”

Or again: “nothing about us, without us.

And if none of those examples connect, dear readers, consider the council worker in the Deacon Blue song “Dignity” who works quietly for over 20 years while saving up to buy a dinghy to sail round the west coast in his old age. His right to dignity includes his right to agency: to achieve what he decides to achieve. In this case, buying a boat.

Agency is sometimes called ‘self determination’ at a personal level – but can also be exercised in groups or even as nations. “The people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to decide how Scotland should be governed”, might ring a bell, for example. Central to ideas of inclusion, whether of citizens, an electorate, a target audience, a market segment, a key affected population, or whatever, is acknowledging and respecting that people are best placed to decide for themselves what is best for them.

Irrespective of gender identity, age*, level of education, or ability, the idea of Agency recognises that people have a right to take decisions about their own lives. This principle still holds true even, or perhaps especially, when people are faced with very limited options, or where someone in a relationship of power over a person disapproves of some or all of their available options.

Agency can also involve resisting others attempts to control our lives as much as it involves making active positive choices. The last resort of protest by political prisoners, for example, is to refuse food.

* Even within the child rights frameworks, where children often do not have legal agency until they reach the age of 16 or 18, children are recognised as being the experts on their own lives and their  thoughts and feelings are (or at least should be) taken into account in determining what is in their best interests.

Put all of us first: Voice


Participation is all well and good, but assuming we’ve been able to begin a conversation with the appropriate people in the room: who is doing the talking?

Before, during and after discussions, we always need to ask: Who is talking? Who is listening? Is anyone talking over anyone else? With whose voice am I speaking? Am I claiming to speak on behalf of everyone? Do we speak on behalf of a certain group of other people? Do we have their permission? Do they even agree with us? How do we know? And surely nobody these days is still asking “do they take sugar“? (Surely?)

We all know that sometimes special efforts are needed in order to be inclusive. Dividing into groups by gender identity for discussion is a common practice at workshops or trainings; other times by age, or language group, or whatever is relevant to the the current subject. This can be essential to creating a safe space for people to speak and be heard and valued and appreciated.

But what about those who are not even in the room? Those who didn’t know about the meeting, the forum, the participatory-consultation-action-thing or whatever? Either because they are too busy getting on with their lives (or just surviving) to be paying attention to survey requests and meeting invitations; or because those attempts at reaching out simply missed their targets; or because no matter how genuine the offer or invitation some people don’t feel important enough, or welcome enough, to set foot across the threshold?

Working with marginalised groups takes effort and time. But by failing to create safe spaces in which people can speak and be listened to respectfully, we can inadvertently silence voices who have a need and a right to be heard.

First, do no harm: put all of us first

Does a policy or proposal or piece of legislation put All of Us First?

The Commonweal‘s slogan is catchy, simple and profound. It captures in a nutshell so much about what is wrong with our current systems of politics.

  • It covers economics: when wealth flows up rather than trickling down, the people at the Top are without a doubt First.
  • It covers gender inequality: just look at a packed house in Westminster and try to convince yourself Men do not still come First in the UK (then look at the statistics).
  • It covers race/ethnicity/colour: see previous point (and these stats) and make that ‘Privileged White Men’ coming First.
  • It covers inclusion and discrimination: whether based on ability, class, sexuality or anything else.

All Of Us First means ALL OF US!

A first step in doing no harm then, is recognising who WE are. Who is All Of Us? If we cannot see this clearly, if there are people and groups we are simply unaware of then how can we assess if a policy is doing, or will do, no harm? It could be causing people we cannot see yet great distress, but working just great within our own field of vision.

The treatment of minorities is often considered the measure of a modern democratic state. It is easy to elect a majority party, but it is much harder to govern in the interests of everyone. Inclusion is not a trendy word to stamp on a party manifesto, it is a nitty gritty tedious and at times frustrating process (on both sides) of making sure there is adequate participation and representation in the policy development process.

Inclusion in the process is a step in the right direction, but we also need to ask ‘how’ are we/they included? Do we/they speak for our/themselves? Or do we/they still ask: “do they take sugar?” Is consultation tokenistic or meaningful? And who represents a minority group? People from minority groups are not clones of each other, there is diversity, and dispute, and discrimination, within minority and marginalised groups too.

In thinking some more about inclusion and the relationship between people and policy makers, and whether we ourselves are putting All Of Us First, it can be helpful to consider the themes of Participation, Voice and Agency.

Could we be Hermless?

One of the many pro-independence events that failed to make news headlines and dominate mainstream media coverage during the weeks leading up to Scotland’s historic vote on 18 September, was a small show at the Edinburgh Festival called “All Back to Bowie’s.” Inspired by the famous singer’s invocation to the Scots to “stay with us” the rascals over at National Collective took him literally and conceived a show set in said gentleman’s living room: said, allegedly, to resemble a yurt.

Throughout the festival these lunchtime slots were filled with songs, poetry and reflections on the referendum debate mostly, though not exclusively, from the Yes voting perspective. The whole series are still downloadable as podcasts and well worth a listen if you missed them at the time. (Warning: might bring back happy memories of hope for the future – #the45_nostalgic_already)

In a fit of, perhaps retrospectively excessive, optimism the final show in the series took a light-hearted look at which Scottish songs would potentially befit a new nation-state as a national anthem – if we chose to vote that way.

Several usual suspects featured prominently: Flower of Scotland, Loch Lomond, A Man’s A Man, and The Freedom Come All Ye. The latter being the audience favourite, even when sung to the tune of an old reggae instrumental by Augustus Pablo. Even the outsider “Suffering from Scottishness” managed to raise a good number of laughs before being rejected on the basis that any song containing the line “So I lamped him, with my [pint] glass” was never going to work while our nation’s best athletes stood on a podium, eyes raised skyward with a tear in their eye and a gold medal round their neck.

Missing from this secretly selected list of songs, however, (and we never did get the chance to ask why, such was the total absence of transparency in this oh so serious and formal event) was “Hermless” by the late and very great Michael Marra, who wrote it, apparently, because all the other ideas were too military for his liking.

It’s refrain contains the immortal lines:

“Hermless, hermless,
There’s never nae bother frae me,
Ah go tae the library an’ tak out a book,
Then a go hame for ma tea.”

When first reading these words (and full lyrics) and listening to the song, the suggestion it may serve as a national anthem seems somewhat ludicrous.  “… the insects are safe, they’ll never get stood on by me” aspires to a respect for living creatures higher even higher than the Dalai Lama.  And “Naebody’d notice that I wasnae there, If I didnae come hame for ma tea” – just sounds a bit sad and lonely doesn’t it?

Not to mention the fact that the Scots down through the ages have been outgoing, extrovert-thinking types, exchanging ideas, talking about their work and traveling the world. Indeed, to study any of the contemporary historical accounts of ‘Scottish’-ness in the Empire, some of the consequences of which are still visible today, it is clear beyond doubt a number of our ancestors committed a great deal of harm. With modern hindsight it’s tempting to wish a few more had stayed at hame and ate their tea. Or even their cereal.

Of course, things that irritate, grate, annoy or make one say ‘whit?’ are often points of tension that can lead to a new understanding if we can let them. So too with Hermless. It sticks in the back of the mind awhile, not least because it’s a catchy wee tune.

But what is it on about? And why would anyone seriously suggest it for a national anthem?

It could relate to the ancient principle of “do no harm.” Or as still used by Wiccan types today “An it harm none, do as you will.” Or even the Augustine reinvention for Christians, more mischievously quoted by former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway, “Love God, and do you what you will.”

The phrase “First, do no harm” is widely thought to be part of the Hippocratic Oath once sworn by medical professionals on graduation. It does not occur in that text but “to help, or at least do no harm” appears in the Epidemics, books attributable to Hippocrates and his crowd, even if it not originating with him personally. At least, so says wikipedia. ( Now …  “Hippo and the Epidemics” … good name for a band anyone? Claiming it now, taken, don’t even think about it. Musicians called Hippo, please get in touch.)

The concept even got a brief airing in Scotland earlier in 2014 when Humza Yousaf MSP outlined ideas of how different aspects of Scottish foreign policy might work ‘coherently’ to do no harm, as opposed to the UK policy where arms exports have traditionally taken priority over any number of serious human rights concerns.

Whatever the origin of the phrase, all over the world in the fields of health care, anthropology, psychology, social research, development work, humanitarian aid and disaster relief, the principle of “do no harm” is drummed into students and practitioners alike – even if it is not always effectively put into practice.

Of course, there is a problem here, in that it is impossible to ever do no harm no matter how good one’s intentions. “Ma feet might be big but the insects are safe, They’ll never get stood on by me” – yet who, really, watches so carefully where they put their feet they never stand on an ant or a mite? Or can resist the instinctive swat of midges or mosquitoes? To even try do so would render most of us bordering on an obsessive disorder.

That Hermless was written as a tongue in cheek take on life is key to maintaining some sanity and understanding the song. Indeed, that a national anthem could be a song that does not take itself too seriously would be suitably poetic for all the inter-nationalists, non-nationalists, post-nationalists, and even anti-nationalists who all still felt that a Yes vote was the best way to proceed together.

Imagine the sports commentators trying to explain “takin’ out a book”, and “goin’ hame for ma tea” as those flags rise over the medal winners? We’d all be trying not to laugh: which is about the best thing we can do with the old school, Orwellian-era ‘Nationalism’ that some people seem to have thought was on the ballot paper (and may yet come to realise is more prevalent in Westminster under a different name). The xenophobic has no place in the modern world, including an independent Scotland. Ridiculing it into history seems as good a strategy as any, as national boundaries decrease in significance, as we increasingly mingle, migrate and marry, and equally learn the many ways of the unnumbered peoples.

The statement “First, Do No Harm” then, is one of intent. An ideal, a goal, an objective. A standard to aim for, while knowing that as fallible humans we will sometimes fail, and hope we can repair the damage and seek forgiveness.

It is not, however, an open-ended excuse to “do something” when faced with a bad situation, no matter how bad, and especially amid cries that “something must be done”.

In any situation we can act to help; we can act (or not act) in a way that neither helps nor hinders; and we can act in a way that causes harm and makes a situation worse. There is no excuse for not thinking all options through, including possible unintended consequences, and doing our best to understand complexity.

It is to knowingly act (or adopt legislation, or implement policy) in such a way that is known will cause harm that is the anti-thesis of this central idea; a misuse or abuse of power. But of course, nobody ever acts this way intentionally.

Of all the expressions in the world that express the opposite of this core value, “collateral damage” must be one the most pernicious and disturbing. The pseudo-military ideas that innocent lives are dispensable in the name of a greater good and that the end justifies the means, are without moral, philosophical or legal basis no matter what choice of ‘proportional’ language the psy-ops and spin doctors wrap around it.

In political terms too, we already see too much collateral damage. The poorest in society paying for the reckless and criminal actions of the richest. The continuing inequalities of gender, colour and ability. The unimportant, the non-voting, the structurally unemployed, the politically irrelevant left on the margins to cope however they can.

Clearly, more than ever we need an All Of Us First kind of politics and economics both at home and abroad. Inclusive policies (not soft power) that take everyone into account and make everyone relevant, including the most marginalised; that seek to help, or at least do no harm.

Whatever the outcome of the Smith commission, it is clear the parliament and people of Scotland will increasingly engage with new areas of policy and legislation. New found confidence, and perhaps some new found freedoms, will bring with them new responsibilities. While we all hope there is much we can do to help, we must at least begin by doing no harm.

So here is a blog in honour of that principle. With the existing powers our parliament already has, with whatever new powers the unelected Lord Smith deems appropriate for us to gain, and with the full powers someday, perhaps, of a nation-state, this is a call to communities, activists, public officials, government, legislators, law enforcement and judiciary, to First Do No Harm, Scotland.