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Some thoughts for the new management

By Margaret Somerville - posted Monday, 18 November 2013

The phrase "Under New Management" brings to mind signs bearing this message placed in shop windows or an advertisement promoting a restaurant. Depending on whether one admired or detested the "old management", it is a sad or hopeful message, respectively. It also brings to mind the implied message captured in the old adage "a new broom sweeps clean". It's interesting to think of the recently elected coalition government in Australia, both collectively and its individual members, especially the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, as "new brooms".

Brooms are mundane, ordinary, efficient, and useful – they do the job they were designed to do, but nothing more, yet not having one when needed, or having the wrong one for the task at hand, can make for a very difficult situation. Brooms are not controversial, unless being ridden by a witch. As far as I know, Harry Potter aside, wizards don't ride brooms, so Prime Minister Abbott will be able to save taxpayers money on "brooms for riding", as all but one of his ministers are wizards, not witches. The dearth of women appointed to Cabinet appears to have been a focus of harsh criticism by many Australians, especially women.

The genesis of these musings is a request from Graham Young, the editor-in-chief of On Line Opinion, who asked me to consider what advice I would give to Australian politicians, as a new government takes the reins. A myriad of thoughts came to mind, many of them linked with my professional work as an ethicist.


Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, it's very difficult to "do ethics". Ethical conflict occurs when we disagree about what ethics requires; ethical distress is when we know that unethical conduct is taking place, but it seems an overwhelming task to prevent it, including because doing so faces us with harms or risks to ourselves. But politicians faced with unethical situations shouldn't give up in despair – good guys do win out, even if only in the long run. A paper I heard at a conference on the history and philosophy of science illustrates such an outcome. The message of this paper for politicians is that they could think of themselves when making decisions as choosing, according to what they decide, whether to be a lemming or a rat.

Rats and lemmings…

Philosophers are using computers to create sequential, computer-generated, decision-making sets. They generate, for instance, five thousand consecutive decisions or ten thousand consecutive decisions.

In one of these experiments, the philosophers started with two equal-sized groups of decision makers: one they called rats, the other lemmings. The rats (the bad guys) were represented by tiny red squares. They always decided just in their own self-interest and without regard to the welfare of others. The lemmings (the good guys) were yellow squares. They did the opposite; they tried to protect others, their relationships and the community, as well as themselves. At first, the rats won hands down. Initially, the yellow squares disappeared very quickly; the lemmings were losing badly. But eventually, the lemmings started to come back; yellow squares began to appear among the red ones.

What was most interesting and the most important message from this study was that as long as a small cohesive cluster of lemmings remained, they were not lost forever; they came back - eventually ethics was spreading again throughout the society. But if that small group was lost, if their number fell below a small critical mass, the whole graph turned red and could not be reversed. So, one ethical person plus a few ethical friends who all support each other really matters ethically.

It's a message that's both hopeful and fearful. A few ethical voices crying in the wilderness do matter and can make a major difference. But loss of those voices causes a complete loss of ethics. Politicians must make sure that doesn't happen, because sacrificing ethics to win political victories would, indeed, make them hollow ones.

Loss of faith and trust…

Politics is a two-way street of relationships between politicians and the public, and changes on both sides must be taken into account.


The public has lost faith in authority figures, in particular, politicians and the political process, in all secular, post-modern, Western democracies. This is manifested in countries such as Canada, which do not have compulsory voting, in very low - and increasingly decreasing - voter turnout. When non-voters are asked the reason for their lack of participation, they respond along the lines, "Why bother to take the trouble to vote, it makes no difference anyway", often adding that "You can't trust any politicians, they're all the same, primarily out to benefit themselves and their friends". With its compulsory voting, this indicium is not available in Australia, but, I believe, one could safely assume there is similar disillusionment with politicians and politics, and cynicism with regard to them. Opinion polls in Australia show that the levels of trust in politicians and political representatives are at an all-time low. In short, trust is a major issue. So what can and should politicians do to rectify this situation?

The basis on which societal-level trust is established has shifted in post-modern Western societies from the paternalistic blind trust – "trust me to make all the decisions, because I have knowledge, power and status that you don't have, and I know what is best for you and will act in your best interests" – to the egalitarian earned trust – "trust me because I will show that you can trust me and thereby earn your trust". Earned trust is hard to gain and easy to lose, especially in our era of instant communication through social media. Earning trust requires authenticity, openness, honesty and integrity. It is a continuing process, not an event and, in particular, requires the sharing of information with those who give their trust and their informed consent to the decisions taken.

All of which means, first, that the public has a critical role in decisions about the ethics and values that should govern our societies and, second, that politicians must put in place structures to ensure those ethics and values are consistently applied by themselves in practice, and that the public can see this is the case. Dialogue and ethics talk with constituencies within and beyond the political arena are critical to achieving that goal.

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About the Author

Margaret Somerville, an Australian, is founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law in Montreal, Canada.

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