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.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


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?

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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 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.


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