“Cow could you do this to me?”
September 2016: The Bank of England (BoE) released the new polymer five pound notes, which it claims are cleaner, more durable and more difficult to counterfeit than the previous paper notes.
November 2016: The BoE released a public statement confirming the presence of tallow, a substance derived from animal fat.
This has been greeted with outrage from vegans, vegetarians and members of several religious groups who are forced to use the banknotes that violate their core beliefs. Can we ethically justify using such materials in essential items like banknotes? Do we as engineers have a responsibility to ensure that the products we develop are ethically sound?
For the good of the herd
The new £5 polymer notes contain a number of benefits when compared to the old notes. They reduce the impact on the environment as well as the benefit of saving money. Furthermore, according to the inventor David Solomon, they are harder to forge, meaning that crime rates involving counterfeit notes will reduce. Despite the advantages, the recent revelation of the new notes containing tallow has angered multiple sections of society.
While some people are angry and upset, it can be argued from a utilitarian viewpoint that the use of tallow in the new fiver is justified. Switching to an animal friendly alternative would demand a huge change in production processes for the manufacturers. Consequently, changes incurring expensive costs could place a significant financial burden on the stakeholders – the Bank of England, taxpayers and the cash handling industry. Additionally, only a minority group (135,000) within the overall population have signed a petition to abort it, showing that most people are happy with the new note. The idea behind utilitarianism is that we should aim for the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. The new fiver is providing many benefits to the vast majority of the population. So just because some people are upset about it, does that mean we should cause a massive negative impact to stakeholders, and most importantly, you the taxpayer?
While some people are angry and upset, it can be argued from a utilitarian viewpoint that the use of tallow in the new fiver is justified.
A variant on the utilitarian viewpoint is the egoistic theory. The egoistic theory, as the name suggests, uses utilitarian logic in order to provide the greatest amount of good for oneself. The theory goes; by first attaining your own happiness will result in a positive knock-on effect to the rest of society. Looking at this issue through snobbish, top of the range, Louis Vuitton, egoistical glasses, one can say that the Bank of England and the manufacturers should look out for themselves first, and protect their reputations and financial interests by not changing the notes and persisting with the current beef flavoured ones.
The Bank of England has spent £46m on the new fivers. They say that reprinting the notes on a different, animal friendly material would incur the same costs again. Furthermore, the vegetarian alternatives are more expensive, and so this extra cost, along with the cost of removing the old notes, would greatly hinder the bank’s operations. As the bank is taxpayer funded, the cost would fall to you – essentially, by looking out for itself, the Bank of England is actually looking out for you too…
It’s Udderly Unacceptable
Tallow is used in the production of a wide variety of commonly used products, and while it is possible to manufacture tallow from plant based sources such as palm oil and coconut oil, it is commonly extracted from waste animal fat due to its low cost, ready availability and high concentration of Stearic Acid.
For most household products there are animal free alternatives available; this is simply not the case with the new £5 note. By incorporating animal fat into the new banknotes, the Bank of England and the manufacturing company Innovia Films have failed to acknowledge the wishes of a significant proportion of the population and forced them to use products that they find morally unacceptable.
Care ethics is a cute and fluffy ethical practice; it states that moral decisions can be made by ensuring that positive relationships between individuals are maintained. This is done by exerting due care for other’s wishes by observing a situation from their perspective. It is clear that this methodology has not been applied by the manufacturers in this situation, demonstrated rather crassly by comments made by Professor David Solomon stating that the concerns raised about the new notes were “absolutely stupid”.
“For most household products there are animal free alternatives available; this is simply not the case with the new £5 note”
Another aspect of care ethics places an emphasis on observing the relative vulnerabilities and dependencies of stakeholders with respect to one another, and making sure that dependent stakeholder’s are “cared for”. The general public’s dependency on cash and the absence of an alternative makes them vulnerable. This deposits a moral burden on the suppliers and manufacturers to ensure that the moral codes of all of the potential users of cash are adhered to.
“Integrity is one of the principles of public life, closely related to the principles of selflessness and objectivity. Our personal interests should never influence our decisions” – The Bank of England (Core Values)
Deontological (from deon, “obligation, duty”) ethics discusses what is ‘right’ beforehand regardless of the consequences; suggesting that the ‘right’ thing to do would be to follow your duty or moral obligation. In this case, the moral obligation of the BoE is to prevent their personal interests from influencing their decisions, and work towards the public good. Kant’s Duty ethics state that morally acceptable decisions are those which can be accepted as a general law. By using tallow in the notes, the freedom of choice of individuals is being taken away. Clearly if there was a universal law stating that it is acceptable to remove people’s right to choose, we would live in a morally corrupt society. BoE say that they “support diversity” as a part of what they do every day, so shouldn’t vegetarians also feel supported?
Group 51: Omar D’Agostino, Saba Nadeem, Rawaiz Sheikh, Benjamin Shaw