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Jul 28, 2014

Rundle: the tortured moral philosophy of offshore detention

Degrading the distinction between action and the consequences of non-action undermines all morality. Crikey's writer-at-large parses the moral arguments for offshore detention and the current bombing of Gaza.


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.

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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29 thoughts on “Rundle: the tortured moral philosophy of offshore detention

  1. Colby Hanks

    Excellent article, thanks Guy! 🙂

  2. Limited News

    A good piece.

    With regard to asylum seekers an alternative to moral judgment is a libertarian approach: asylum seekers risk their lives (and unfortunately their children’s) coming by boat but this is a matter for them and not really any of our business per se. So the statist “conservative” right adopts the language of the nanny-state as cover – it is all statist thinking underneath.

    The normalisation of statism is the only area where the ABC and other government-funded bodies might truly have an ideological blind-spot.

  3. JohnB

    Thanks for the compelling clarity, Guy.

    You have stripped the arguments down to their basics.

  4. Humphrey Bower

    In addition to the perspectives of Bernard Williams’s ‘counter-factual’ ethics, libertarian ethics and even basic utilitarianism (weighing up the consequences of actions with a view to minimising suffering) one might invoke Kantian ethics, according to which human beings must always be viewed as ends in themselves rather than mere means to an end, whatever that end may be (stopping the boats, stopping the rockets, etc). In both cases, asylum seekers and civilians in Gaza are being punished en masse in order to deter the actions of others (hypothetical future asylum seekers, people smugglers, Hamas rocket launchers), which clearly violates this basic principle. The only humanitarian way to ‘stop the boats’ and prevent drownings is to process asylum seeker claims quickly and fairly wherever they happen to arrive (Malaysia, Indonesia) – or if this is impractical or impossible in those countries, transport them safely to Australia to be processed here.

  5. CML

    Good article, Guy.
    Since, in reality, the Israelis will continue their slaughter, and morality seems to be a dead issue in this scenario, why don’t we all work towards building an Iron Dome defence system over Gaza??!!
    That way, they can all continue their uncivilised/barbaric ‘war’ with few people actually being killed. At least it would even up the playing field a bit!

    As for the asylum seeker problem – sorry, I don’t have any answers. Continuing education of the bogans perhaps? But while we live in a democracy where a bare majority agree with the current government’s policies on, dog help us, ‘stopping the boats’, one of two things only can happen. Either we keep our democracy and accept the will of the majority, or we move to a dictatorship led by those who don’t want to stop the boats.
    There doesn’t seem to be any rational middle ground here. And until there is, everyone loses, especially the asylum seekers.

  6. MarilynJS

    I am sick of the silly nonsense that thousands of refugees have drowned or that the deaths were not preventable. In fact Marg Hutton at Sievx.com has them all listed and documented going back 15 years, and she has all the documents that prove the only time refugees drowned is when we wanted them to and refused to rescue them.

    Natalie O’Brien obtained facts and documents under FOI that make for gut wrenching reading, I suggest Guy before you again make wild claims of thousands of refugees drowning you should read the site.

    Now while we pretend that we have stopped a few refugees from drowning the reality is that 15 million kids under 5 have died of starvation while we have squandered $ 4 billion to build refugee prisons and use the navy as a blockade and we have cut foreign aid to the bone.

    Refugees are drowning but millions more are not, we seem to expect them all to stay and die rather than save their own lives and condemn them to hell if they dare to pay their own way with the constant wrong headed moronic whinging about evil smugglers.

    Here the evil is us.

  7. MarilynJS

    CML, we don’t uphold laws on the whim of what the bogans want, we uphold the laws because they are there to protect every person on the planet and one day it will be us who need those laws.

    When we do we better hope we come across people who are better than we are.

  8. MarilynJS

    Actually all those whining that the boats are innately dangerous are wrong, and claiming we have to stop them or have the right to stop them are deluded.

    What we have to do is uphold their rights under many laws and conventions and defend their right to seek protection no matter how they do it.

    It’s not up to us to pretend that we own the ocean and can dictate it’s use and whom it is used by, our only right on the ocean, indeed an obligation, is to rescue anyone in trouble and not molest or interfere with any vessel that isn’t in trouble and we have to let them land.

  9. Pedantic, Balwyn

    Guy, There is a world of difference between an unarmed, peaceful asylum seeker and a Hamas terrorist, but your article seeks to equate one with the other and expect similar outcomes for their actions.
    The Palestinians and Israelis are entitled to their own independent states, but Hamas is dedicated to destroying Israel. Hamas shoots rockets from schools and hospitals, whilst holding Gaza citizens in those same sites, to draw the fire of the IDF and blame it for civilian casualties.
    Israel is being tough on Hamas, but only because Hamas started the war and has broken the ceasefire. Remember that Australia is using its military might and concentration camp like conditions to dissuade refugees from heading down under. Israel is using Iron Dome to protect its citizens from deadly attack, the two situations are not comparable.

  10. Guy Rundle

    hi humphrey

    thanks for that – but my feeling is that Williams gets around the impossibility of living kantian ethics, because in most cases, whether it’s wage labour or war, we’re treating the human being as a means. unavoidable in complex circumstances. the question is to work out when it is clearly wrong to do so, when it is potentially wrong, and when it isn’t. The kantian position leaves us with a gap between philosophy and politics which williams et al don’t.


  11. Coaltopia

    The Mongolian Octopus lives-on.

  12. fractious

    Pedantic #9:
    “Israel is using Iron Dome to protect its citizens from deadly attack, the two situations are not comparable.”

    If that were all it is doing, you might have a point.

    But it isn’t, and you haven’t.

  13. MarilynJS

    Hamas did not start a war, they have been in a legal right of resistance against aggressive illegal occupiers. The mind set that the attacked must never fight back drives me nuts.

  14. Scott

    Couple of points.

    1. The Financial Review on a Friday a few months ago did actually review Bernard Williams’ work, so I disagree with your statement that the mainstream has abandoned serious book review.

    2. As to the Israel situation, it comes down to power and action. Israel is in a position in that it has the power to act in the face of HAMAS agression, in this case, a dominant military. So of course, they act.

    In a crisis, it is always better to do something, rather than nothing. Even if it is the wrong decision, from the act alone you have more information than you did before and have influenced events, potentially for the better.
    By not acting, you propogate the status quo and hence have neither improved yourself or the situation.

    Inaction is the worse thing. Because by that lack of action alone, you have given up your ability to influence events and hence are constrained by either other actors in the field (who don’t share your lack of motion) or pure fate; neither of which ever give you a fighting chance.

  15. CML

    Pedantic, you are wrong. I understood the article to say that Guy was applying moral philosophy to both situations, not comparing the two. Big difference!
    Agree with fractious though – if protecting their citizens was all Israel was doing, that would be fine. But somewhere along the line they seem to have acquired a blood lust for killing Palestinians. NOT FINE!!
    Over 1,000 dead, including hundreds of innocent children, is an abomination.

    And Marilyn – you can preach the law to all and sundry, but if the law is supposed to be ‘protecting’ the asylum seekers, it is not doing a very good job.
    As I understand it, any UN Convention or Law cannot interfere with the sovereignty of an individual state. If that were the case, no country would have a bar of the UN.
    And if, as you say, all these international/domestic laws are being broken, why haven’t the perpetrators been arrested and charged with any crime? Mainly because there is no authority anywhere on the planet to do so.
    In other words, the Law is an ass! It is attitudes you have to change, and that is going to take lots of education and a very long time!!

  16. Andybob

    CML, I agree attitudinal change is required. Fortunately whenever Australians meet refugees and talk to them, there is hope. Look at Christmas Island. The local people there are supportive of refugees. But those who have never met a refugee can be whipped into a frenzy of fear for political purposes. We are a country that requires more than 100,000 immigrants every year to maintain our economy, yet we go all funny at the thought of boats arriving. Planes, apparently, don’t scare us. What exactly are we scared of ?

  17. Guy Rundle


    fair enough on AFR, although it was most likely a reprint of an international piece

    As to, it is always better to do something than nothing, what?

    Firstly, you’re talking in instrumental not moral terms. In moral terms, not switching the train is doing something. You’re actively not killing someone

    But even in instrumental terms – someone falls down a flight of stairs, and crashes at the bottom. They can’t move their legs. Move them, or not?

  18. Mark Kennedy

    Mass lethality – that’s a good one – mass murder I think you mean. I recommend the essays of George Orwell.

  19. David Hand

    Thanks Guy,
    This is a powerful argument why Australia should get out of the refugee convention. That would eliminate the need for offshore detention, or detention in Australia.

    Guy you are wrong to state that Gaza “is under the total control of Israel”. If it was, there wouldn’t be any rockets there to be fired on Israeli settlements.

  20. warwick fry

    Guy – you have hit top form. The ‘moral dilemmas’ I had to feed up to tutored (and tortured 😉 media students years ago ignored the distinction between the ‘ethical’ and the ‘moral’ It took an old BLFimista to ask the question, wherein lies the dilemma (pun intended)between the ethical and the moral. You nailed it. Ethical decisions exist in the personal relations between human beings. Moral decisions reside in the social context. To what degree do they become institutionalized? It is the ‘fourth dimension’ – decisions that ‘exist’ in a social context beyond the fake immediacy of an either/or time space. The fake dilemmas of media studies courses. Bring back Philosophy and Literature and Economics (not marketing and management!)
    Talking about the social failures of our current(Australian)government and bureaucracies – the way you have, will hopefully open the gates to an intelligent discussion of an issue that has been so painful to some of the best minds of our generation, and an unbound wound to our identity as Australians.

  21. Itsarort

    James A. Michener once wrote that to understand the Jewish ‘plight’ one had to read and understand Deuteronomy. Of course, that was long before the 90’s, Neo-Cons and a very public , political and ethical shift to the Right of all things Jewish. The fear of asylum-seekers and the continued destabilisation of the Middle-East are two sides of the same coin. Until the West, or at least its financiers, shut down Israel at the source, that is, it’s continued post-WWII colonialism of land (or wealth [same thing]) in the region, these sporadic spikes of violence in Gaza will continue. And thus, the Palestinian ‘plight’ will also continue to cause shock waves across the world in all it’s manifestations regardless of anyone’s philosophy.

  22. Bo Gainsbourg

    With asylum seekers it occurs to me that the issue of deaths at sea is a real and challenging one for those of us who seek a more humane policy. But it’s also challenging for those who claim that their methods avoid it. If by deterring people they are either simply drowning elsewhere or possibly being killed at home then what have we done other than put the issue out of sight? Many deaths in the Mediterranean will possibly be people that before would have sought asylum here for example. What is our responsibility then? Or are we saying no-one has the right to seek asylum anywhere outside non existent queues?

  23. Humphrey Bower

    Thanks Guy for your thoughtful response. My feeling is that there is in fact a gap between ethics and politics; the latter typically involved choosing between the lesser of two evils (current government policy on asylum seekers fails this test as well) rather than avoiding evil altogether. Kant’s principle incidentally acknowledges and attempts to bridge this gap in its actual wording (roughly translated): ‘treat human beings NOT MERELY as means to an end BUT ALSO as ends in themselves’ (again, a resounding failure on the part of the Australian and Israeli governments). Best, Humph

  24. JohnB

    @David Hand:
    “Guy you are wrong to state that Gaza “is under the total control of Israel”. If it was, there wouldn’t be any rockets there to be fired on Israeli settlements.”

    Clutching at very weak straws, no?

    Israel has the money, the power, control over land and sea perimeters and much more. Israel determines regularly what the terms of engagement will be and when the conflict will resume. Only Israel has the power to bring real change.

    Neither the Gazans nor their leaders, whether Hamas or some other, have any of the above.

    It is Israel alone which determines how many hundreds or thousands of Gazans will die. It is possible that even the Israelli death count is majority due to friendly fire, in which case they have responsibility for the majority of their own casualties. What are the ethical and moral implications of that calculus?

    It is unrealistic to the point of complete silliness to pretend that the pea-shooters from the south equate in any real way with the mighty military incursions from the north.

    If Israel seeks peace, this is clearly not the way to achieve it.

  25. David Hand

    John, my point is a very simple one. To say that Gaza “is under the total control of Israel” implies through the use of spin, that Israel can send a couple of trucks into Gaza with a warrant signed by someone in charge and take possession of the rockets. This sort of spin is designed to make Israel look even worse than it already does and further releases Hamas from any responsibility for what is happening.

    Clearly you are wrong when you state that Israel has control over the land and sea perimeters because the rockets are still getting through so they can be fired into Israel.

    I agree with your last point that what Israel is now doing will not achieve peace but a discussion about morality and ethics around Gaza should look at Hamas as well.

  26. JohnB

    David, the desperate situation which Israel has forced Gaza into leaves no room for alternatives to Hamas. Any other leadership would quickly look and act like Hamas and would have no more control over the ineffectual rockets than does the current regime.

    Gazans have no choice. They are desperate and fragmented.

    It is disingenuous to say that Israellis cannot drive trucks freely in their subjugated lands.

    Everything is up to Israel. There is no other possible game changer, except possibly for the Israel itself to be brought to its knees by outsiders, which is essentially a WW3 scenario, given the locked-in positions of many others.

    Practically, militarily, morally, legally and ethically, it is Israel which must offer peace if continued strife is to be avoided. That will not happen, so where do the supporters of Israel think that this will lead?

  27. David Hand

    Hamas has alternatives.
    The fact that you deny this is a classic example of the polarising thinking that loads the blame for this disaster on one side and why I won’t be commenting to you again.

  28. Daly

    Thanks Guy. What a pleasure to read an analysis based on philosophy and to follow the thread. This never happens in MSM. I suppose that is why I continue to subscribe to Crikey….


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