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Principles, perceptions and power

By Bill Calcutt - posted Monday, 3 October 2016

This article explores the ethical foundations of contemporary society and the impacts of unprecedented disruptive forces on the balance of power between the citizen and the state.

Both science and philosophy acknowledge the central role of human perception and reasoning in interpreting, understanding and sharing "reality". A positivist ontology views reality as objective, external, independent, predictable and knowable, while constructivist ontology views reality as subjective, internal, experienced, dynamic and perceived.

Innate power is the individual's inherent capacity for unilateral action, including resort to force (originally essential for survival in a brutal world). In freely choosing civic participation the individual relinquishes innate power (except in self-defence) and acquiesces to social rules. The social contract encapsulates the complex, evolving and sometimes conflicting nature of the relationship between the citizen and the state, and its ultimate purpose is to mediate a peaceful, orderly and humane society. The contract encompasses the citizen's duties (to comply with social norms) and rights (freedom and personal security), and the state's responsibilities (maintaining law and order) and powers (monopoly on the use of force).


The core values and ethical principles that have shaped the social contract and are the foundations for contemporary western society have their origins in ancient Greek philosophy. Aristotelean ethics locates primary moral agency in the free and reasoning individual, and defines the moral character of a "good man" living a virtuous and principled life. In contrast, deontological ethics defines the morality of actions by their compliance with social norms and duties, while teleological ethics (of which utilitarianism is an example) defines the morality of actions by their consequences (the greatest good).

The balance between the often competing elements of the social contract has shifted over the centuries, with major changes occurring after World War 2. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserted the principles of equality, mutual respect, non-violence, freedom of speech and democracy as the foundations for a peaceful, just, harmonious and inclusive society. The subsequent Cold War ultimately demonstrated that a nation's security cannot be enforced or assured through secrecy and state repression, and the impetus towards democracy and the capacity of citizens to hold officials and elected representatives to account gathered pace. In Australia the operations of the various national security functions were bought under explicit principle-based civilian rules intended to maintain essential checks and balances and prevent the abuse of state power.

In the 21st century the convergence and interaction of powerful and unprecedented forces may be transforming key aspects of the social contract in Australia. These disruptive forces appear to be changing the nature of the relationship between the citizen and the state, incrementally shifting the balance of power away from the citizen towards the state and subtly compromising a range of vital but implicit social conventions intended to safeguard civil liberties.

These disruptive forces have been primarily enabled by technological advances that provide virtually universal access to communications and vast quantities of information. Global networks have demonstrably facilitated innovation, economic development, growth and trade, creating wealth by enabling private enterprise. In just over two decades global trade has transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people previously living in poverty.

The same technologies have also provided an unprecedented opportunity and capability for the state, the media and enterprising individuals to influence and shape perceptions of reality, primarily through the use of intense visual and emotional imagery. Diverse forms of media stream an unremitting and overwhelming torrent of often superficial and undifferentiated information "noise" at the citizen. Constant projection of the complexity, intensity and dangers of contemporary life may ultimately challenge individual and social identity and undermine a sense of belonging and safety. In such an environment powerful but simplistic global brands can displace nuanced evidence-based discourse and real relationships.

Perhaps the most powerful of the disruptive forces in the 21st century is the emergence of the spectre of terrorism post 9/11 and its rise as a global brand representing an enduring existential threat. The spectre of terrorismhas been uniquely effective in undermining liberal democracy by catalysing a utilitarian state response that has progressively suspended or supplanted a range of long-standing principle-based conventions and rules intended to balance civil liberties and national security.


Terrorism is fundamentally the use of barbarity to engender visceral fear in the community and coerce disruptive social change by catalysing a militaristic response from the state. Like all global brands, terrorism is an amorphous and pervasive phenomenon that partly relies on its diabolical nature for its capacity to engender fear. Terrorism is a form of psychological (not real) warfare, and its capacity to engender visceral fear in the absence of a real and imminent threat may represent a form of psychosis.

The initial characterisation of the international response to the 9/11 attacks as a "war on terror" seems largely intended to justify the post 9/11 deployment of mainly Western military forces against armed insurgents in Afghanistan in 2001. In fact deliberate indiscriminate attacks on civilians do not "fit" within a war paradigm as such violence is explicitly prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, and extremists resorting to such violence are unable to gain recognition as lawful combatants. The description of one party to an armed conflict as terrorists may be intended to erode their legitimacy (as combatants) while reinforcing the apparently seamless connection between insurgents and the actions of extremists internationally.

21st century terrorism is a remarkable phenomenon in that it is largely reliant for its reach and impact on co-opting the state and the media into publicly amplifying and perpetuating its message of fear and imminent threat (promoting propaganda that sustains the terrorism brand). Barbarity is ideally suited to the intimacy and immediacy of a 24-hour real-time media cycle, and its emergence coincides with the mainstream media's increasingly desperate commercial need to "cut through" a crescendo of competing information noise with shocking images that elicit a visceral community reaction. Nightly graphic images of strewn body parts and distraught fathers carrying their dead infants in their arms reinforce a constant sense of dread. A single extremist with a knife or a gun and internet access can galvanise the world, and the prospects of "lone wolf" murderers stalking any and every community may be the latest iteration of the terrorism brand.

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About the Author

Bill Calcutt worked in a range of intelligence roles in the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the National Crime Authority from the early 1970s till the mid 1990s.

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