The comment by Australia’s most eminent jurist High Court judge Michael Kirby 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, is a refreshing, perspective-inducing observation on the nature of social and moral discourse in Australia.

Justice Kirby’s comments were made in the context of an appeal against the control order slapped on “Jihad” Jack Thomas who was convicted under Australia’s tough anti-terrorism laws. Yet the underlying sentiment expressed by Kirby 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 discussion in Australia is best illustrated by the fact that the number one social justice issue over the past few months has been 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.

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.

Yet, as a community we continue to obsess about local non-issues. What are the moral defects that accounted for this?

There are three 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.

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.

The circumstances in which we are liable for our omissions are in fact demarcated by the “maxim of positive duty”, which prescribes that we must assist others in serious trouble, when assistance would immensely help them at minimal inconvenience to ourselves.

The last reason is the most fundamental. Contemporary moral discourse is framed in the language of rights. We like rights. They are individualising claims and seem to give us a protective sphere. But rights are nonsense.

The emptiness and absurdity of rights-based theories are highlighted by the fact that against this backdrop we have convinced ourselves that our right to keep our excess food outweighs the right to life of people in the developing world. It is only once we erase this indecent belief that world poverty will be history.

This can only occur if we abandon the notion of rights as the mainstay of moral discourse and make consequences the main moral building blocks. What matters most is maximising flourishing, not adding to the ever increasing catalogue of rights, which can only be enjoyed by many people at the conversation level.

The predictable response to my argument is that we should multi-task and fix backyard issues such as Hicks and global concerns. But history shows this doesn’t work. Concern for others, like economic resources, is finite. It is important that it is not warped by crusades that narrow our moral thinking and distort our compassion trigger.

If Australians really want to exercise their compassion gland, they should rally hard and long, but they need a worthy cause — try world hunger and gratuitous animal suffering.

Peter Fray

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