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The Ethics of Academic Practice: Grasping What Ethics Is

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The last sixty years have seen some significant shifts in the relation between state, society and the professions. In the aftermath of World War II, the various versions of the welfare state that developed across Europe and elsewhere – referred to in different national regions as “the social state,” “the providing state,” and “the social well-being state” – were closely linked to notions of “the good society” or “the just society.” In such a society, professionals – and public sector professionals in particular – played a key role as civic leaders. With the wholesale retreat from the welfare state through increased privatisation and reduced tax thresholds, a new class of private sector professionals emerged in the late 1970s. Associated primarily with business and management, this new professional class became the standard bearers of “the hollowed-out state” a central tenet of which was that society must provide for itself. What emerged during this era was “a consumer society” built as we now know on unsustainable debt and masking huge and increasing inequalities – a society in which any notion of “the common good” was unthinkable (see Nixon, 2011c).

When the bubble inevitably burst – as it did in 2008 – politicians of all persuasions realised that we would need to rediscover “society” in order to fill the vacuum left by “the hollowed-out state.” There could, however, be no return to “the providing state,” given the legacy of near bankruptcy left by the exponents of privatisation and deregulation. The UK Conservativeled coalition government that was formed in 2010 – with a cabinet whose 29 ministers included 23 millionaires – responded to the situation they had inherited by declaring Britain “a broken society” and exhorting the nation to rally round something it called “the big society”: a society that provides for itself through voluntary activity and that accepts with good humour swingeing cuts to what little remains of “the providing society.” Public sector professionals are expected to contribute to “the big society” by accepting a reduction in their overall workforce, an indefinite pay freeze, and a raft of measures aimed at increased efficiency. “Our Conservative-Liberal Democratic Government,” we are told, “has come together with a driving ambition: to put more power and opportunity into people's hands” (Cabinet Office, 2010).

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2012

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