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Kirby is right: ethics is universal, not provincial

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Tuesday, 27 February 2007


A person who dies of starvation is no less dead than one who is killed by a bullet and there is no moral or logical basis for rating Western lives more importantly than those of Africans. That’s why Justice Kirby is correct to note that America is “obsessed” with September 11, pointing out that more people die each day from AIDS than were killed in the New York terrorist attack.

Justice Kirby’s comments were made in the context of an appeal against the control order slapped on “Jihad” Jack Thomas. Yet despite the misconceived criticisms that Kirby has been subjected to for his comments, they will hopefully provide a catalyst for a re-jigging of some of the moral priorities in contemporary Australian society.

The provincial and nationalist nature of ethical discourse in Australia is highlighted by the fact that the number one social justice issue over the past few months is the detention of David Hicks. In reality, his ongoing detention should barely register as a micro-dot on our moral radar. His suffering is piffle compared to the pitiable lives endured by hundreds of millions of people around the world, 30,000 of whom die daily from hunger and other preventable causes.

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There are lots of ethical theories doing the rounds of philosophy departments. Some ethicists prefer theories based on abstract notions such as rights, others, like myself, are only concerned about maximising good consequences - even if it means trumping the occasional right. Irrespective of which theory one endorses, there is one incontestable ethical truth: the interests of each person count equally. This is so whether they get the short straw and happen to be born in Africa or live in opulent Australia.

There is no logical or normative basis for ranking the interests of one person higher than another. An argument along the lines that “I am more important than you” is inherently discriminatory and morally vacuous.

Most readers will find the logical upshot of this principle jarring. It means that as a community we need to increase the level of concern that we show for the lives of distant destitute strangers. Tangibly, this would require Australia to massively increase its aid to the developing world - currently we fall woefully short of the international benchmark of contributing 0.7 per cent of gross national income to the impoverished nations.

Basic elements of the human condition might appear to militate against expanding our sphere of moral concern. But I am not so pessimistic. Over the past 100 years there have been considerable advances in the levels of flourishing enjoyed by women, minority groups, and in some nations, animals.

Future moral progress requires us to ditch several fundamental failings that are imbedded in the moral thinking. The first is the “doorstep phenomenon”, which recognises that proximate suffering matters more to us than anonymous, distant suffering.

The occasional fleeting glimpse of starving children on the evening news typically evokes some sense of sympathy or guilt. Unfortunately we are too good at escaping these feelings - however, we need to be conditioned to hold onto them. The extent of another’s suffering is not measured by our capacity to directly sense it, neither is the scope of our moral duties.

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The generosity displayed by Australians following the South Asia tsunami two years ago was a striking and welcome departure from our normal level of disinterest towards desperate foreigners. This, however, only serves to highlight the reality of the door-step principle. Our wallets were forced open by the media bombardment of the tsunami that pushed the tragedy into our living rooms.

The second basis upon which we deflect responsibility for preventable suffering is the “acts and omissions” doctrine. This is the principle that we are only liable for the consequences we cause, rather than the tragedies we fail to prevent. This doctrine is flawed.

Morality, defined exhaustively as a set of negative prohibitions, fails to explain why it would be morally repugnant to decline to save a child drowning in a puddle in order to avoid wetting our shoes.

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A shorter version was first published in Crikey! on February 22, 2007.



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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is the author of 20 books and over 100 refereed scholarly articles. He is not connected with any political party or other interest group. He is the author of Australian Human Rights Law (forthcoming). Mirko is the author of Being Happy and Dealing with Moral Dilemmas.

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