the Notions of Public Interest

This paper examines the meaning of modernity and the relations between the notions of public interest, ethics and law. By giving an example that raises this issue further, the realm of morality, professional ethics and law is discussed and whether their spheres of jurisdiction would overlap. It also explores the meanings and definitions of the key terms that are of most concern for this topic, and how they relate or differ from each other. A Singaporean example is also shown as evidence to support the discussion. Finally, a counter argument is provided with a reasonable response that follows with this argument.

While scholars and philosophers have defined modernity in different ways, the emergence of modernity is also a very important aspect of the term. Before modernity came into prominence, there were the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. “The essence of modernity can be seen in humanity’s freeing itself from the bonds of the Middle Ages in that it frees itself to itself” (Heidegger, Young, & Haynes, 2002). Modernity refers to human beings starting to rationalize and think for themselves, rather than the traditional way of living life by the rules and teachings of their religion.

In simpler terms, it is a shift from religious beliefs to scientific knowledge, as in man thinking by his own free will for himself. The stronghold of the Christian church decreased over the people and science began to be more accepted. The criticism of modernity is that it actually imprisons rather than liberates. Modernity gives rise to people’s opinion and free speech. Therefore, with free speech, restrictions are put into place to protect the freedom of the public.

The term modernization refers to the increasing use of science and new technologies, and the political, social and cultural changes that followed through from these developments of modernization (Mann, 2010). Hence modern society is considered modern because of rapid change which is the essence of modern society (Nester, 2010). Today’s society and way of thinking all flourished from modernity. The use of science and technology, the need to understand all things in life through scientific study and experimentation are all traits of what makes modern society ‘modern.

Therefore, it promotes a more rational, scientific worldview as religion, superstition and tradition lost their hold over everyday life. With modern thinking, public interest, ethics, law and so on, all of which were taking priority among people in their everyday life and also professionals so that everyone can live in harmony in a liberal democratic society. Public interest is what is justified toward the public which may be against some immediate individual person’s interest” (Downs, 1962). A general explanation for ethics would be that it is concerned with doing the right thing in a moral sense.

Fieser (2001) described ethics as systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong behaviour, while Spence (2005) said that it is a set of rules and virtues of character that guides interpersonal conduct (Breit, 2007). The Law is a set of rules for society, to protect people’s basic rights and freedoms and to treat them fairly (OrganizationOfAmericanStates, 2007). Certain situations that are of the public’s concern can also be an ethical and legal matter, such as illegal abortions.

Abortions are illegal in most countries and even so, some women still require it for the sake of their own well-being. Thus, doctors have to face their own code of ethics in dealing with these issues. This matter is also of public interest because this issue has been an ongoing debate and the public are always concerned about it. In the Singapore context, the case of the ex-MOE scholar, Jonathan Wong having sexual relations with a minor makes a good example that raises this topic. The scholar from the Ministry of Education was at first charged with possessing child pornography in Britain which lead to investigations.

The investigations then lead to reveal that he had sexual relations with an underage girl (Channel News Asia, 2012). Although the first charge in 2010 was not a public interest matter, the second charge this year provoked public interest. Aside from the illegality of the case, it sparked public interest due to him being a scholar with the public’s taxpayer money. The MOE’s code of ethics was considered for appointing this student for a scholar. So how do morality, professional ethics and law differ from each other? Morality is an individual’s own personal belief that differentiates right from wrong.

It is an individual’s own personal character. Professional ethics is a standard or code of behaviour expected by a group to which the individual belongs to. Morality is a personal trait while ethics is more concerned in the field of profession. Law, however, is another different matter from both morality and professional ethics. But in some cases, their fields of jurisdiction do overlap with one another. In the course reader, Breit (2007) pointed out the ethical dilemma of a journalist on whether to report a story which is in the public interest.

The ethical dilemma the journalist faced was due to the embargo of the news, whether to respect it or let the public know about the news immediately. There was also fear of getting sued for not respecting the embargo and for not fulfilling the duty as a journalist. These were the dilemmas that this journalist faced in which the different jurisdictions overlap with one another. Coming back to the example of the case of the ex-MOE scholar, it is illegal to have sex with a minor. This also led to public interest because he was a scholarship student of MOE by taxpayers’ money.

Ethical issues were raised on the MOE’s side of the case for choosing this kind of person as their scholar and this reflects badly for the ministry. As for the opposing argument, “What reasons might be given for thinking that the disclosure of a person’s sexual misconduct serves the public interest? (Archard, 1998)” From the liberalism side of the argument, it states that neither society, government nor anyone else has the rightful authority to tell people what they do in the privacy of their own homes. Each person has rightful authority over how they conduct their own lives in private.

Therefore the public does not need to know about all of the intimate details about the case. Although the counter argument is reasonable, the public should have the right to know about this issue because this person was accused for misusing the taxpayers’ money and dealt with actions of misconduct and broke the law in not one but two countries. The first charge was for possessing child pornography while he was studying in Britain and the second was for having sexual relations with a minor in Singapore. Modern thinking has lead to opinions on morality, ethics and law, as well as issues about public interest.

Open critical discussions and evaluation of issues that arise from such issues given above is a crucial part of a healthy democracy. In a way, the standards of public interest, ethics and law in each country determines the modernity of the society.