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Burnside Challenges Abbott’s Claim Of Moral Courage

This is the text of a letter to The Australian by Melbourne barrister Julian Burnside.

Burnside was responding to a recent speech by Tony Abbott in which he presented a moral case for the Howard government.

Letter to The Australian by Julian Burnside.

Tony Abbott has contributed a skilful piece of reasoning to rehabilitate the moral virtues of his Government (Opinion, 23/1).

He drew a comparison between the dilemma faced by Russell Crowe in Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World and the moral dilemmas faced by governments. In the film, Crowe cuts away a fallen mast on which a crew-member struggles, thus condemning the man to die: but this saves the ship and all on board. One drowns to save the many. Packaged that way, a moral argument can be mounted to support what otherwise looks like heartless cruelty or criminality.

Utilitarianism, pioneered by Jeremy Bentham, propounds a test for the morality of conduct: what will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Utilitarianism appeals because it avoids the awkwardness of moral absolutes. The Crowe example is a good one: utilitarianism justifies killing an innocent human being. And faced with the stark contest between one death and many, it is easy to see the force of a utilitarian solution.

But there are difficulties with Abbott’s argument as it develops. First, utilitarianism is not such an effective guide when the choices are less stark. When the consequences of competing courses of action are less easy to predict, the result of utilitarian thinking depends uncomfortably on the disposition of the person doing the arithmetic.

Abbott’s argument shifts from Russell Crowe to war in Iraq and our treatment of asylum-seekers, as if each of these problems yielded to a utilitarian solution with equal ease. But let us test that. It’s easy to accept the argument that the death of a few thousand Iraqis in war was a fair price to pay to avoid the deaths of hundreds of thousands at Saddam’s hands. The equation might need to take account of other aspects of war in Iraq: the loss of Iraq’s sovereignty; the effect of a precedent which sees the world’s only superpower invade another country on a false or debatable pretext (weapons of mass destruction) and so on. These are hard to quantify, so a utilitarian solution is much less reliable, and much more subjective, than the Crowe example. Abbott justifies mandatory detention of asylum-seekers by the same argument. He overlooks the irony that his Government locks up Iraqis seeking to escape death at Saddam’s hands.

He says that this is necessary in order to put people smugglers out of business. This use of utilitarian thinking means that we bomb Iraqis to save them, but imprison them if they save themselves. Punishing the victim is an uncomfortable idea.

As Abbott says, a moral argument can be made to justify these things, but it looks less compelling when stripped of the comforting certainties of a film script.

The second difficulty with Abbott’s argument is this: if the Government has a good moral argument for the mandatory detention of asylum-seekers, why does it lie to us about the issue? The most probable explanation for a lie is that the truth will not achieve your purpose. Let us look at two lies. One: Asylum-seekers are illegal. Asylum-seekers do not break any law by arriving without papers and seeking protection. Calling them illegals is simply a dishonest way of justifying the fact that we put them in prisons and leave them there indefinitely. Many people believe, wrongly, that mandatory detention is punishment for a crime. It is not: it is punishment of innocent people.

Utilitarianism might be able to justify imprisoning the innocent, since it can justify killing the innocent. But if it can, why lie about asylum-seekers so as to suggest that they are not innocent?

Lie Number Two: Mandatory detention is a matter of border protection. Protection implies a threat. It is ridiculous to suggest that we are threatened by a handful of women and children fleeing the Taliban or Saddam Hussein. Our capacity for compassion might be challenged, as our response to Tampa showed; but our borders were not threatened. Each year there are about 3 million visitors to Australia. Each year about 110,000 people migrate here permanently. At any one time, there are about 60,000 who have overstayed their visa and stay here in breach of the law. By contrast, over the past 20 years, the number of asylum-seekers arriving averaged about 1000 per year. The biggest number in one year was just over 4000 and that was at a time when mandatory detention had operated for nearly a decade (so much for its deterrent value).

When a small number of terrified people seek our help, we are told it is a threat to our borders; when 60,000 backpackers from Europe stay on for years, there is no mention of border protection. Australia’s human rights record has been damaged by our treatment of refugees. It will not be repaired by the cinematic simplicities of Russell Crowe.

Utilitarianism was used in the 18th century to justify slavery, in the 19th century to justify child labour and in the 20th century to justify the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews. Abbott shows that it can be used in the 21st century to justify the Howard Government’s record.

Julian Burnside
Melbourne, Victoria

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