The death of the wisdom of our youth

When I was growing up there were two pieces of wisdom frequently imparted to me: “the ends don’t justify the means” and “think about how you would feel if that were done to you”. These two pieces of ethical guidance were designed to help me act with clarity and correctness in difficult situations.

The first piece of wisdom, that the ends don’t justify the means, was a rejection of consequentialist theories of ethics in favour of deontological ethics. Deontological ethics insist that things are right or wrong in and of themselves, and even if something that is wrong has a good outcome, it remains wrong. This was a good fit with the evangelical upbringing I received, in which God was thought to define what was right and wrong and it was our duty to obey, even when that might come at some cost as it did to Christ. It was also the mode of thinking that gave us the great human rights instruments, those declarations of inalienable rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and the like. It was a mode of thinking that saw an end to feudalism, that demanded that the nobility and royalty be subjected to the same rule of law as the rest of us. It was the mode of thinking that birthed liberal democracy, that most precious of all forms of political organisation that insists on the protection of the rights of individuals and rejects both the tyranny of dictators and the tyranny of the majority. It has served us well this notion that the ends don’t justify the means.

The second piece of wisdom has its roots in the so-called golden rule of Jesus, that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. Where the first principle calls for grounded, rigorous thinking, this second calls for feeling, for empathy. To truly act well towards one another we need to the able place ourselves into their shoes and act  only in ways that we would be willing to have done to us were we in the same situation. This mode of ethical reasoning has also served us very well. It puts heart into ethical decision-making, it binds us together, allows us to celebrate our common humanity rather then our difference. It lies at the heart of the Australian concept of “a fair go”, that everybody deserves a chance no matter what shade their skin colour, what language they speak, or what socio-economic background they come from.

It seems however that in one fell swoop we’ve taken these two invaluable pieces of ethical wisdom and pissed them up against the wall. That one fell swoop is our treatment of asylum seekers arriving to Australia by boat. No one doubts that incarcerating people on Manus Island and Nauru, in conditions that are incredibly harsh, and without any indication as to when this situation might change, is inhumane. In the lead up to the last federal election, coalition frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull described his party’s policies as “harsh” and “cruel”. In the last few months the former chief justice of the Family Court of Australia has offered the opinion that were parents in Australia to treat their children the way we treat children in detention they would be prosecuted to the fullest extent by the authorities. The former Australian of the year for his work with mentally troubled teenagers, Patrick McGorry, has described detention centres as “factories for mental illness”. The doctor who was until recently the head of International Health and Medical Services, the organisation appointed by the government to provide health care in detention facilities, described the practice on Manus and Nauru as “torture”, the deliberate infliction of suffering in order to force people to make a choice to go back to where they came from.

All this is justified on the basis that the ends do justify the means. We have capitulated to consequentialism, which is why talk of the innocence of asylum seekers or the need to protect their human rights falls on deaf ears. Cheap consequentialism allows you to take people who have committed no crime, lock them up in deplorable conditions, and treat them with cruelty if you can justified on the basis of some greater good.  And of course this demands a complete repudiation of the golden rule. No Australian would tolerate being treated the way we treat refugees arriving by boat, which demands that we demonise them, convince ourselves that they are not really like us and therefore undeserving of our empathy.

Let us be clear what we have done. We have abandoned the two foundational values most of us learned as kids. We have let go of simple principles that we once saw as a sure and certain guide to good living in a difficult world. And in doing so we have not let go of some hokey antiquated wisdom but the very principles that formed the ethical foundation stone of our societies.

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