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Would abolishing 18c be moral?

By Peter Bowden - posted Tuesday, 16 August 2016


Senator Malcolm Roberts of the Pauline Hanson One Nation Party has joined other senators - Derryn Hinch of Derryn Hinch's Justice Party and David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party recently to push for the abolition of Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act. This section makes it unlawful to "insult" or "offend" others based on race. They are joining with the Family First party in this endeavour. Their argument is that Section 18 C inhibits free speech. Many people, mostly right wing, including Cory Bernardi, support abolition of 18c. The former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott also supported abolition.

A column in the Sydney Morning Herald said that abolition of Section 18c would give racial intolerance open slather . Right wing columnist Andrew Bolt was found guilty in 2011 of transgressing Section 18C. Bolt had accused 16 fairer-skinned Australians of spuriously self-identifying as Aborigines to access welfare benefits available only to the Aboriginal community.

The question is a moral issue. Are we doing the right thing to abolish section 18c? Unfortunately, we cannot appeal to the moral philosophers. Despite philosophy being the only degree that you can take at a university to learn about ethics and morality, they have not yet reached agreement on what is an immoral act. In fact, they have developed 15 or 20 arguments on what is immorality. If you are appointed ethics officer for your business, or if you are a lecturer in a faculty other than philosophy, and your Dean wants you to put on an ethics course in say engineering, or medicine, you will have to read what the moral philosophers have written about ethics. There you will find that moral philosophers who offer the courses or write the books on ethics vigorously defend their position of multiple arguments defining morality. An article in The Conversation asserts that moral education draws on the philosophical method, a method that is explained as "requiring understanding concepts and distinctions, knowing what makes arguments valid, and attending to counter-arguments". These are skills that "are vital in the age-old business of moral argument".

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That article continues to assert the value of argument in moral decisions: " But why is moral argument itself a good thing? Moral argument allows us to keep engaging with others even when we disagree about values. Values are not simply "given", but can turn out to be amenable to reasoned discussion".

Unfortunately these moral arguments conflict with one another. One version, put forward by the Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant, has categorised under the title of Deontology theories and duties which have existed for many centuries. Kant, the theory's celebrated proponent, formulated the most influential form of a secular deontological moral theory in 1788. One version describes itself as the 'Categorical Imperative.' This 'imperative' asserts that we can act only if we believe that our action could be universally adopted. Kant's wording is: 'Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law'. Unfortunately, both sides of the 18 c argument believe that their position should be the universal rule.

Each side also believes they are an ideal impartial observer, one of the other theories espoused by moral philosophers.

Yet another negative question on philosophy is their need to engage with the world. Another article in the Conversation raises this issue. Even our children, attending ethics classes at school, learn that they decide their moral values by argument. The classes are based on philosophical ethics and hence on argument. The best arguer at school, therefore, becomes the most moral person. The need for philosophers to engage more effectively, and more intelligently, with the world and its current moral issues is of paramount concern.

As a result of the conflict between moral rules, most of the ethical rules that we learn at university turns out to be useless. However, there is one rule that can possibly help us. In the multitude of messages of sympathy that were broadcast after the terrorist attack in Nice was a repeat of the pronouncement by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama:"Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you cannot help them, at least don't hurt them".

This injunction" not to harm others" is an ideal moral guideline. It has considerable support from Western philosophers. John Stuart Mill. over a hundred years before the Dalai Lama (1863), in presenting his theories on morality in his book, Utilitarianism, repeatedly condemns harming others: "The moral rules which forbid mankind to hurt one another… are more vital to human well-being than any maxims, however important".

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And again:

A person may possibly not need the benefits of others; but he always needs that they should not do him hurt.

Utility includes not solely the pursuit of happiness, but the prevention or mitigation of unhappiness

Mill also provides us with several guidelines on what comprises hurting one another. He gives in his 1859 publication On Liberty (which sets out his concepts of the limits of government): "The only purpose for which power can be exercised over a member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. "He offers the term "deprivation of pleasure" as description of harm, and also including "mental suffering" as one of the contributors to unhappiness. He also requires that we have consideration for minorities.

These guidelines tell us abolishing 18c is morally wrong. That conclusion is, of course, dependent on how deeply we regard the injunction not to harm others, along with the validity of the pronouncements of the Dalai Lama and John Stuart Mill. In that respect, it needs to be pointed out that Mill and his utilitarianism is the most highly regarded moral theory of the 20 or so that the philosophers have thrown at us. A second point to note is that the moral theory of not harming others is the underpinning for the major social developments of the human race over history – the ending of feudalism, the abolition of slavery, the rise of participative government, the International Bill of Rights, the introduction of unemployment, sickness, disability and old age benefits, the emancipation of women, and support for single mothers. 18c can readily be classified as one such development. It is morally wrong to abolish it.

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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