Opinion: A no-deal Brexit is fundamentally morally wrong since it cannot be justified to everyone on grounds that no one could reasonably reject

A no-deal Brexit will have immense political and economic consequences for the UK, Ireland and the EU. The only problem is that no one really knows what these will be. The old adage "we should never make predictions – especially about the future" would appear to be perfect for the times we live in. Speculations abound where there is uncertainty, and presently speculations are the bread-and-butter of politicians and political commentators on both sides of the Brexit divide.

Depending on who one chooses to read or listen to, it is estimated that either thousands of jobs will be lost by a no-deal Brexit or, alternatively, thousands of new jobs will be created after a relatively short transition period. While some predict a constitutional crisis should a no-deal Brexit be enforced, others argue that nothing could be more indispensable to restore UK’s democracy to full health than to make no-deal a reality.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Economics Correspondent Robert Shortt on the Central Bank's Quarterly Bulletin which warns about 110,000 fewer jobs after a no-deal Brexit

Writing a speculative piece on what will happen after Brexit is both fun and relatively safe, since one can say just about anything and not be held accountable for a misreading of the tea leaves. But at this stage, frolicking with conjectures and suppositions is also becoming increasingly pointless. On the other hand, writing a non-speculative piece on a no-deal Brexit is verging on the impossible, a task almost as challenging as writing a novel without using the alphabet’s most commonly used vowel ‘e’. But since the latter feat was achieved by the French writer Georges Perec in his 1969 novel A Void, so try one must, even if failure appears to be inevitable.

There is a lot more to Brexit than its politics and economics. Unfortunately, much of it has been suffocated by a collective obsession with predicting future political and economic outcomes, even though this is an activity that political scientists and economists are known to be particularly bad at. For example, very little has been written on the ethics of a no-deal Brexit. Ethics is about determining which acts or rules are right and wrong. Philosophising about what is right is a highly contentious activity, so it’s recommended to start at the opposite end of the spectrum, and try to make sense of what we perceive to be wrong. In other words, we should make wrongness the primary moral predicate, and define right simply as "not wrong".

From RTÉ Prime Time, The Brexit Process Explained by Conor Wilson and Mary Regan

There is a moral case to be made against a no-deal Brexit, by showing how a no-deal is potentially morally wrong. In the field of moral philosophy, one of the most influential theories today is contractualism, which as the name suggests invites us to theorise moral issues from the perspective of a hypothetical social contract. The sort of contract that contractualist moral philosophers have in mind has nothing to do with the legal contracts we are familiar with in our everyday life, or even international political agreements.

Ethical reasoning requires that we operate at a level of abstraction from everyday reality, hence the contract at the heart of moral contractualism is strictly a hypothetical construct. Yet thinking in terms of a hypothetical contract is crucial, and relevant, precisely because operating at this level of abstraction helps us to see more clearly the logic of our moral reasoning.

The main point of reference for the theory of moral contractualism is the Harvard philosopher T.M.Scanlon, an American with Irish roots, who defines ethical reasoning in terms of identifying principles that cannot be reasonably rejected by others. As Scanlon explains in his book What We Owe to Each Other (1998), an act is wrong when it cannot be justified to others.

A lecture by Professor Thomas Scanlon on morality and contractualism

This is perhaps the key to contractualism as an ethical theory: the motivation to justify my actions and beliefs to everyone else. For a contractualist, what is behind this motivation is the recognition of the equal moral status of everyone in the moral domain. With the help of the moral theory of contractualism, it is possible to argue that a no-deal Brexit is fundamentally morally wrong, since it cannot be justified to everyone on grounds that no one could reasonably reject.

The moral case against a no-deal Brexit is threefold. First, there is the ethics of uncertainty. Perhaps the only certainty about Brexit is that there is a great deal of uncertainty about the outcome of a no-deal Brexit. Taking this uncertainty seriously demands that we consider all possible outcomes, both negative and positive, and of these possible outcomes we ought to prioritize potential negative consequences. As the moral maxim primum non nocere reminds us, above all our moral duty is to do no harm.

A no-deal Brexit is at best a huge gamble. Given the uncertainty surrounding a no-deal Brexit we must allow for the possibility that some people will be harmed more than others, and if things turn out differently than Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage envisage, it will be the most vulnerable people in society that will suffer the most.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Minister for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform Pascal Donohoe on how the growing prospect of a no-deal Brexit

This is morally problematic. A no-deal Brexit is a risk, but not a risk that is evenly distributed across society. If things turn out bad, it will be the working classes rather than the elites that will bear the brunt of a downturn. A no-deal will not harm any family who can afford to educate their offspring at Eton and Oxford, but it will be devastating for the unemployed in post-industrial towns in the north of England

It may be even more so for the people of Northern Ireland, who will see the slow but gradual progress towards stability and peace made possible by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 wiped out overnight. A no-deal Brexit is a high-risk strategy, and the present government of the UK needs to be reminded that it is unethical to gamble when what is at stake is other people’s well-being and livelihood.

Secondly, there is the question of moral motivation. Contractualism says that we should be motivated by a desire to justify ourselves to others, which is precisely the opposite of what is motivating the new British prime minister. In his intransigent, cavalier pursuit of a no-deal, Johnson is primarily motivated by his own narcissistic desire for power, success, and historical legacy, at whatever cost to anyone else. He is far from being motivated by a desire to justify himself to everyone who will be affected by a no-deal. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, could Boris Johnson's hard-line approach to Brexit threaten the Good Friday Agreement?

The only reason for demanding that the EU scraps the Irish backstop from the withdrawal agreement is that Johnson wants the talks with the EU to fail, so he can blame the EU for the inevitable no-deal, and win the next general election by taking votes away from the Brexit Party. This was never about Brexit, it was always about Johnson. Scottish philosopher David Hume famously argued that it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. Johnson would agree. Hume’s point was to suggest that reason’s only purpose is to help us to satisfy our desires. Johnson thinks that the only reason for a no-deal is to satisfy his personal desire to win the next general election, so that he can stay in power, and complete his ostentatious self-aggrandisement project.

Thirdly, there is the ethics of respect and recognition. Contractualism seeks to derive the content of morality from the notion of an agreement between all those in the moral domain, on the assumption that everyone is granted equal moral status. The often toxic, racist, xenophobic, offensive language and attitude characteristic of many supporters of a no-deal Brexit at the expense of foreigners, immigrants, and refugees living in the UK today, not to mention Remainers with any party affiliation, suggests that they fail the moral test of showing respect and recognition for the equal moral status of everyone.

We need to talk about Brexit, but not just the economics or politics of it, also its ethics

In Ireland, we know this for a fact. The prospect of a no-deal has reinvigorated the most unpleasant political rhetoric in the UK against Ireland, a throwback to a colonial history of domination and arrogance that is not only no longer politically unacceptable but also anachronistic, and slightly pathetic. Brexit has exposed the shocking level of ignorance of many people in the UK regarding Irish history, including the recent history of Northern Ireland. Prominent British politicians are sadly not an exception to this, with their condescending, bullying attitude towards the Irish government.

READ: Here's the moral case for a second Brexit referendum

READ: Here's the case against a second Brexit referendum

We need to talk about Brexit, but not just the economics or politics of it, also its ethics. Contractualism is only one moral theory, and many other moral arguments can be made against (or possibly for) a no-deal Brexit. This piece is written in the hope that the discussion on Brexit will switch to a moral level, by stimulating other commentators to invoke other moral theories and principles, and kick off a full debate on all ethical aspects of Brexit - and of a no-deal Brexit in particular.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ