Thomas Sutcliffe: Are we being moral, or just squeamish?

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The Independent Online

The other day the BBC website invited its readers to comment on whether they would watch video footage of Steve Irwin being killed by a stingray, after a Sydney Morning Herald poll revealed that 40 per cent of its respondents believed the film should be broadcast. To prime the pump, the BBC had invited two medical ethicists to offer views for and against, resulting in what seemed to me slightly lacklustre arguments. The best the pro-screening expert could come up with was the slightly tenuous argument that viewers would be educated about how dangerous it was to poke venomous animals, while the contra argument boiled down to simple assertion: "It may harm the viewer, whose humanity and moral sensibility will suffer."

This latter statement certainly goes with the grain of received opinion - that to take an interest in the spectacle of death is ghoulish and morally corrupt - but I can't see why it should go without question. Is it just looking that's the problem, or is it equally reprehensible to want to read about such things? And should we regard someone completely indifferent to such stories as necessarily morally superior to those in whom they arouse considerable fascination? It surely depends on what you think and feel as you watch, rather than the play of light over your retina.

By chance, the BBC posed their moral crux just as the 9/11 anniversary meant that we were, once again, able to watch the instant that hundreds of people died - as planes full of passengers sliced into offices full of workers. There is an obvious distinction here, of course. We would be able to see a known individual in the Irwin footage, whereas we can't in all the 9/11 footage that is actually deemed viewable.

But I doubt it feels much like that to anyone who lost a relative or a loved one in those initial strikes. We can view them as a spectacular collision of inanimate objects; they will be horribly aware that living beings are inside those blossoms of flame and debris. And since consideration for the next of kin plays a large part in arguments against turning individual extinction into a public spectacle, those incessantly replayed (and inexhaustibly fascinating) shots are logically just as reprehensible as imagery as Irwin's final moments would be. If we high-mindedly turn away from one, we should turn away from the other - and yet I doubt many would.

I wonder too whether the contemporary distaste for the spectacle of death has less to do with moral anxiety and more to do with simple fear. Is it really a mark of the increased sensitivity of our society - or of its increased detachment from death? William Boyd's new novel Restless quotes for its epigraph a passage from Proust which bears directly on the state of denial in which most of us live: "We may, indeed, say that the hour of death is uncertain, but when we say this we think of that hour as situated in a vague and remote expanse of time; it does not occur to us that it can have any connection with the day that has already dawned and can mean that death may occur this very afternoon."

One reason for the fascination exerted by footage such as that showing Irwin's death is that it pierces through such deceptions. And the queasy churn of curiosity and distaste we feel may not reflect a moral uncertainty about what we're doing but a deep psychological ambiguity about what we're looking at. Whoever's death it is, we're staring at our own too - and it's hardly surprising that it should feel unsettling.

The cost of altruistic capitalism

Altruistic capitalism has a new hero in Stephon Marbury, a Knicks basketball player who has just launched a low-cost range of sneakers and sports gear called Starbury to liberate parents and children from the pressure to acquire celebrity-endorsed products they can't afford. Starbury goods are the same quality as bigger brands but a fraction of the cost. "Being cool isn't about a price tag," he says in the pitch for his $15 (£8) sneakers. "Cool is about being a responsible person, taking care of your family." Ironically the US launch has been so phenomenally successful that items are already trading on eBay (marked "Hot, Hot, Hot") at two and three times the store price. Hot or cool, it seems you can't sidestep the law of supply and demand.

* Interesting to learn that Tom Watson's visit to the Browns involved nothing more incriminating than a brief conversation between their respective spouses about early learning policy and a communal watching of a Postman Pat video. What a happy picture this presents - two men rising above the compulsive scab-picking of politics for the wholesome pleasures of family life. I would like to have heard the small talk, even so.

"I sometimes feel Postman Pat's overdue for retirement," Gordon might have muttered.

"You know Gordon, that's true," Watson would reply. "Perhaps it's time for him to receive a letter for once, eh, rather than always delivering them?"

Pat's replacement, of course, would be obvious - a long-serving and long-suffering element of Greendale's postal dream-ticket. The Postman Pat site's profile says of Jess: "Frustration - Chasing mice, has never managed to catch one".

But I bet he's itching to get his paws on the wheel of that van too.