Fatal flaws in our ethics

Nick Spencer on what the Presidents Club dinner fiasco tells us about human dignity.

The event was bad, the timing was worse. As one industry after another was being exposed for sexism, the #metoo campaign gathered momentum and the British celebrated the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote, the Presidents Club in London held a black tie charity dinner. For men only.

An undercover journalist snuck in as one of the many specially-hired young table “hosts” at the dinner in January, wearing near-identical skimpy black dresses. Through the night the hosts were repeatedly groped, propositioned and demeaned by rich, drunk men who were charity-bidding for, among other things, a night at a Soho strip club, and a course of plastic surgery (with the invitation to “Add spice to your wife”).

The Presidents Club dinner took place at The Dorchester Hotel in Mayfair, London.

The outrage was instant and the club closed down. But what elevates this grubby story from other similar grubby stories is the context. “This is a really important charity fundraising event,” said the agency involved in the event, “[raising] huge amounts of money for disadvantaged and underprivileged children’s charities.” However awkward the waitresses might have felt on the night, they were helping save children’s lives.

This is a textbook example of why utilitarianism – the idea that we should direct our ethics to ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number – doesn’t satisfy. Surely a bit of slap and tickle is a small price to pay for helping hundreds of children escape poverty and cancer?

The way people responded underlines how we feel it isn’t, even if we can’t always explain why. However good the cause, treating other people as objects rather than subjects cannot be justified. Drunk, rich men ogling, prodding, groping, humiliating women is not made right because they donate large sums of money to charity to do so. There is something deeper in human nature that demands respect.

Today, that “respect” is usually interpreted as personal agency. Respecting me means respecting my choice. “If you want to run an event where women are voluntarily walking in there in the knowledge that they will be groped, then fine, make that clear in the hiring process,” remarked the investigative journalist, adding “plenty of women genuinely enjoy it”.

Some things are not made OK just because people choose them.

This moves away from “greatest good” thinking and towards ethics as rationality-plus-autonomy. If an agent is rational (and you need good reason to believe otherwise) and if they freely choose what they do, the only reason for critiquing their ethical choice is the “harm principle”. If they are only affecting themselves, you cannot tell them they are wrong. Thus, the red line that these drunken men’s hands crossed was not the hemline but the line of choice. What was outraged was women’s will, not their bodies.

This sounds like a plausible option, not least when navigating complex, plural, liberal societies, and an attractive one, at least when you are thinking about yourself. But it begins to crumble when you think about people you really care about. Your daughter tells you she is taking the Presidents Club gig because she’s fine with drunk strangers putting their hands up her skirt. Your brother tells you that he’s decided to sell a kidney so he can enjoy the holiday of a lifetime. Your friend places an ad online saying they want to be killed and eaten (not, I promise you, a theoretical scenario). Who, in those circumstances, shrugs and says, “fair enough, your choice”?

Just as the greatest good calculations of utilitarianism can outrage our sense of human dignity – of people being an end and never a means – so the combination of rationality and autonomy can outrage our sense of objective morality. Some things are not made OK just because people choose them. There are some ways of treating human beings that are simply wrong.

Unfashionable as it is to say, this is a legacy of Christianity. The idea that all human beings had dignity or rights would have been incomprehensible to the ancient world. It was only the identification of God in human form – indeed, in criminalised, humiliated and broken human form – that elevated the human form, no matter what its circumstances, to a place of ineradicable dignity.

The church was slow on the uptake here, but then again, so are we all: a commitment to this kind of dignity costs and most of us don’t want to pay. Nevertheless, the seeds were sown, the idea of inalienable human dignity took root and was nurtured, as much, it should be recognised, by Enlightenment thinkers as by the Christians they often criticised.

The result is humanism, properly understood rather than in its very modern “anti-religious” incarnation. It’s a hopeful story and one in which we can justly take pride. But the events of recent years, and not simply those of the Presidents Club, remind us how very far we are from realising them fully.

This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Nick Spencer is the author of The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Shaped Our Values. He will deliver the Centre for Public Christianity’s Richard Johnson Lecture  at the Conservatorium of Music on March 14.