When considering the major issues of the day that concern the living, not the dead — i.e. Gaza and asylum seekers — one’s thoughts turn naturally to post-Wittgensteinian moral philosophy. In that respect, it’s a pity that book review pages in Australia have long since abandoned the regular examination of serious work, since it has deprived readers of the chance to encounter the work of the philosopher Bernard Williams, whose collected essays and reviews were recently published.

Wittily titled Essays and Reviews, the collection offers a comprehensive treatment of one of the most vexed questions of moral philosophy of our time: the division between what you do and what occurs by your inaction. This is often made concrete by a game called the “switching problem”, in which you are posed the following dilemma — an out-of-control train full of passengers is hurtling down the tracks towards a switch point. If it stays on the given route, it will crash into a station, killing everyone. But you can switch it onto a track where someone — for reasons unknown — has been tied to the rails. Do you switch the train? If there’s a hundred people on the train and a crash is otherwise certain, the answer seems pretty clear. But what if a crash is only 50% likely?

What if there are only two people on the train? The combinations are endless, but one of the clear points Williams makes is that we cannot be indifferent as to whether the act to be assessed is done by us, or by someone else through our inaction. With only two people on the train, we should rely on a deep-rooted sense that it would be unfair to the one person tied to the track to switch the train — or if there were only a 25% chance of a crash, even with a much greater number of people. We should not only trust that deep-seated instinct over abstract systems, Williams argues, but we should also be aware of the more complex effects of taking lethal action. For what if the “switching” issue occurs once a week? Clearly, it’s a hell of a way to run a railroad, but the effect is also to institutionalise the practice of committing a lesser wrong as a moral action. The institution becomes formed around the lesser wrong, and that becomes its identity. Failing to make a distinction between the results of action and the consequences of non-action is thus posited as a central task of having a morality.

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Thus put, getting the switching issue wrong — becoming too wanton about dispatching other people to avert action to third parties — lies at the heart of institutional degradation. And it’s worth explaining it at length, because it’s the error that is at the heart of any number of issues around the world today — but especially of the two moral-political questions of our time: Gaza and asylum seekers.

In the case of asylum seekers, the major challenge to those opposing the current government’s policy is that it has stopped the regular traffic across a risky sea route, which had resulted in a number of lethal disasters and a death toll in the hundreds (or, if the SIEV-X is added in, into the thousands). It’s a serious challenge, even though most of those making it are using it cynically, and favoured mandatory detention and offshoring on other grounds before. We can’t be indifferent to the idea that deaths may be prevented by an action that is less than lethal.

“In Gaza and Manus, and many places more, an immoral logic is pretending to be a moral one by appealing to abstract and impersonal processes, and by degrading the essential distinction between action and the consequences of non-action.”

The obvious — though politically unrealistic — moral alternative would be to offer people safe passage to Australia by plane from Indonesia, to make their case for asylum. That’s not going to happen, and so the problem becomes the morality of the switch. The trouble here is that mandatory detention, and even offshoring, has not proven sufficient to deter people. So the government has gradually tightened the switch until the regime is one of unquestioned psychological and existential torture, especially of children. The regime used to deter is not one of harshness, but of abandonment to a stateless limbo, ruled over by private corporations. The very disciplines used to design the incarceration — institutional psychology, sociology, etc — are those that tell us that such conditions do permanent and irreversible damage to many adults and most children. So because we do not take seriously the notion that what is done by us matters, what we are willing to do slides into further and further depravity. Furthermore, it works its way back up the chain — employees of the Immigration Department, who simply want to have a solid job in public service, become the de facto managers of a psychic torture apparatus. Were the government to propose that one in 50 people seeking asylum were to be randomly shot in the head as a deterrent to the passage of boats that kills thousands, we would all see the clear immorality of it. Because it is disguised in a murkier and degraded process of soul-murder, the action still appears to be appropriate.

The same carries for the ongoing Israeli destruction of Gaza. Once again, the wider political context makes it clear that the Gazans are being oppressed — that they are not an independent state throwing missiles across a border, but a marooned stateless zone, under the total control of Israel, with Egyptian acquiescence. That doesn’t answer the immediate moral question as to what you should do if someone is lobbing missiles at you that can reach much of the country. But the switching issue does, since the Iron Dome defence system has prevented all but a few missiles from doing lethal damage. The Israeli response — of mass terror bombing, sold as targeted surgical intervention — thus has no moral justification, because it is using mass lethality to “prevent” a purported mass lethality that simply has not occurred, and appears to have very little chance of occurring. It’s the lethal switch to prevent an accident with a vanishingly small chance of occurring. Thus, when supporters of the current state terror on Gaza try to argue for it, they tie themselves in knots. When challenged at the degree of carnage that is being caused, they respond as Nick Dyrenfurth does in The Age today:

“The IDF is exercising ‘disproportionate force’, some allege — what on earth does this phrase actually mean? Would a few hundred Jewish Israeli deaths even up the blood-soaked scoreboard? Perhaps Israel should turn off its highly effective Iron Dome Defence system for a few hours and let the rockets do their handiwork?”

Steadily more hysterical versions of this can be found elsewhere, not least by Joan Rivers on YouTube. In other words, a non-event (and therefore a non-lethal entity) is being used to justify a massively lethal event — thus hiding from oneself the commission of arbitrary lethal action. When one objects to this, the charge is that we want the more lethal event to occur (more Israeli deaths) to make the engagement “moral”.

In other words, moral debate must presuppose that Israel has a moral right to launch such attacks — and thus objection to it can only mean that one believes there is not enough death on the other side, rather than that the conditions of present and future lethality on the Israeli side have simply not provided justification for their current lethal action. It is simply illogic, which is why it has the appearance of hysteria about it. Whatever claims it may make as realpolitik, it has none as a moral policy, and there is no need to go to the wider picture of Palestinian oppression to condemn it. In Gaza and Manus, and many places more, an immoral logic is pretending to be a moral one by appealing to abstract and impersonal processes, and by degrading the essential distinction between action and the consequences of non-action. It is the grim logic of large forces, and it ultimately undermines all morality.

Opposing it on the grounds that what you do and take responsibility for matters is the basis of the deep disquiet and the proper moral outrage that many feel at these actions. It is worth connecting these sentiments of the heart with those of the head to more fully and effectively oppose them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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