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Where has civic virtue and public spirit gone?

By Dr Catherine Conlon - 12th May 2024

public spirit

The new Taoiseach’s early agenda should focus on shifting social values

The first 100 days in charge is a time to lay down a marker within an organisation for who you are. The new Taoiseach has an opportunity to lead and the country awaits in a mixture of expectation and apprehension. How will he meet the overwhelming challenges that he faces – in health, housing, cost-of-living, climate, migration, and crime. Can he bring increasingly polarised communities together?

Everything hangs on what Simon Harris does next.

The idea that the first 100 days of a leader’s tenure are crucial took root almost 100 years ago with the inauguration of Franklin D Roosevelt as US President in March 1933 when the country was in the grip of the Great Depression.

In his first 100 days, President Roosevelt and the US Congress responded by bringing relief to businesses, farms, and the unemployed. His rapid and resolute crisis response, augmented by a series of radio ‘fireside chats’, ensured a collective understanding and involvement in the path towards economic recovery. 

Early reports stated that the new Taoiseach was planning to abandon a controversial proposal for changes to social welfare provision for people with a disability and will place a proposed referendum on a Unified Patent Court on the back burner. Instead, attention will be given to issues such as new childcare creche supports, including a model of childcare for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and initiatives for the farming and business sectors. The suggestion is that he hopes to focus on a limited number of areas where objectives can be achieved before the next election.

Cultural problem

But Simon Harris’s problem is not so much an economic crisis as a cultural one. In an era where health and wellness has become a modern fixation, collective health is deteriorating. How is it that in a modern world, at a time of astounding medical ingenuity and sophistication, we are seeing rising levels of physical disease and previously incomprehensible levels of mental illness and addiction?

Gabor Maté in his new book The Myth of Normal – Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture suggests that chronic illness is to a large extent a function or feature of the way things are and not a glitch. Maté writes the problem is a consequence of how we live, not a mysterious aberration.

He expands by saying that ‘toxic culture’ refers not just to environmental pollutants or the spread of negativity, distrust, and polarisation, but is something deeper rooted and comes from “the entire context of social structures, belief systems, assumptions, and values that surround us and necessarily pervade every aspect of our lives”.

An Taoiseach Simon Harris

Maté suggests that as society has become wealthier, the culture has become increasingly toxic. Amid spectacular economic, technological, and medical resources, large tranches of the population continue to  increasingly suffer illness born of stress, ignorance, inequality, a degraded environment, climate change, poverty, and isolation. Hundreds of thousands of people in communities across the country die needlessly and prematurely from diseases we now know how to prevent or deprivations we have more than enough resources to eliminate.


In Ireland, the discourse on health is dominated by intervention strategies in high-risk individuals. The rhetoric on prevention inevitably falls short in terms of national policy priorities and resource allocation.

There are five core risk factors that individually and collectively underpin both physical and mental illness. These include smoking, physical inactivity, poor diet, obesity, and excessive alcohol consumption. The diseases they impact on include the main causes of illness and death in Irish society including heart disease and stroke, diabetes, cancer, cognitive decline, and dementia.

Yet we continually ignore or brush aside the overwhelming physical, social, and economic burden that results from not interfering with a market economy that views impacts on societal health, equity, and sustainability as ‘externalities’.

How to be moral

UK philosopher, theologian, and rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who died in 2020, questioned how, in an era where religion and its espoused values has plummeted, we learn to be moral again.

“Economics need ethics. Markets do not survive on market forces alone. They depend on respect for the people affected by our decisions. Lose that and we lose not just money and jobs, but something more significant still: Freedom, trust, and decency, the things that have a value, not a price.”

The former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, in Value(s): Building a Better World for All (2021), suggests that the tacit social contract has been loosened in a hyper capitalist globalised world because individuals are unmoored from their social settings.

“Our actions are no longer monitored by the people amongst whom we live,” he writes.

Carney cites the example of tech companies that spout the mantra of “paying all taxes that are due” while inventing sham companies to abrogate their fiscal responsibilities in the countries where they are most active and make their greatest profit.

“Financial settlements spread amorality, as wrongful behaviour is given a price,” and “fines become viewed as fees”.

The answer, according to Carney, is a society that invests in civic virtue and public spirit – values that “atrophy with disuse and grow like muscles with regular exercise”.

Aristotle defined virtue as something we cultivate with practice.

“We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”

Even John F Kennedy understood this when he said: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

We saw civic virtue in action during the Covid-19 pandemic. Volunteers looking after neighbours, calling to the window, doing the grocery shop, dealing with the needs of the homeless, the scared, and the vulnerable. We saw healthcare workers travelling home to Ireland to share the overwhelming burden in hospitals, carers risking their lives to look after their patients, and low-paid workers stacking shelves, cleaning streets, and running shelters.

Carney states that one of the most important determinants of happiness is community – something we seem to have forgotten in our busy, consumer-driven worlds. 

If Simon Harris wants to make his mark in his first 100 days, he can take steps to rebalance the dynamism of capitalism with broader social goals – a market economy that is underpinned by the values of healthcare, equity, fairness, and sustainability. This is not an abstract or naive aspiration. Examples include ensuring that the Sale of Alcohol Bill or proposals to legalise cannabis are underpinned by a health impact assessment. Or that citizens have a constitutional right to housing. Or that children and young adults are protected from the mental health impacts of being constantly online. Or that low-income communities can retrofit their homes.

As important is the imperative to promote social capital within communities, which means generosity, equity, solidarity, and civic duty. The first step is to challenge Irish citizens individually and collectively to remember the critical importance of civic action and public service – values that have been obliterated by a laser focus on the profit-driven goals of a global market economy.

Along with solid policy change the Taoiseach could utilise his ‘TikTok skills’, to bring the country along with him in the pursuit of a shift in values.

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The Medical Independent 14th May 2024

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