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Jul 28, 2014


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.


Nov 17, 2009


Upon reading Clive Hamilton’s comments in yesterday’s Crikey (Hamilton: denying the coming climate Holocaust, Item 3), I opened up my copy of Martin Gilbert’s ‘The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy’ at random to page 230 where I discovered this passage:

A further fifteen thousand German Jews were sent to Kovno, principally from Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Breslau and Frankfurt.

An eye-witness in Kovno, Dr Aharon Peretz, later recalled how, as the deportees were being led along the road which went past the ghetto, towards the Ninth Fort, they could be heard asking the guards, “Is the camp still far?”

They had been told they were being sent to a work camp. But, Peretz added, “We know were that road led. It led to the Ninth Fort, to the prepared pits.”

But first, the Jews from Germany were kept for three days in underground cellars, with ice-covered walls, and without food or drink. Only then, frozen and starving, were they ordered to undress, taken to the pits, and shot.

The challenge for Clive Hamilton is to explain how an argument over appropriate policy for the future is equivalent to the Holocaust where millions of people were deliberately put to death. The Jews and the Gypsies and the homos-xuals and the clergymen and the trade-unionists and others of Europe did not die through inaction, but rather they were deliberately and systematically hunted down, and murdered in what can only be described as an industrial scale slaughter.

Hamilton can make as many fancy-pants arguments he likes about ‘consequentialism’ and what-not. To equate climate change scepticism (however defined — Kevin Rudd has three different definitions) with the Holocaust is the mark of a moral dwarf. It is a good thing that Hamilton speaks of morality and the science of climate change, because it turns out there is more to climate change than just the science.

Climate change involves scientific questions, economic questions, technological questions and, yes, moral questions too. Unfortunately we run out of the science very early in the piece. Even if we assume, for argument sake, that the IPCC version of the science is correct, that still does not take us very far. So imagine we know with more than 90 percent confidence that anthropogenic global warming is occurring, what next? We have exhausted our scientific knowledge already.

The questions, “Should we do anything?” “What should we do?”, and “How should we do it?” remain unanswered. These are not scientific questions at all. In the first instance there are economic questions, “How much will doing ‘something’ cost?”

Perhaps it would be cheaper to do nothing and adapt. Perhaps not. We simply do not know. The Australian Treasury modelling does not answer that question; indeed it doesn’t model the actual policy under consideration.

But Hamilton invites us to consider ‘morality’. So let’s raise some of those questions. Who should pay the costs of fixing the climate change problem assuming that it can be fixed? Perhaps the industrialised world; after all it is they who first caused the problem. But it is the developing world that will benefit most from solving the problem, so perhaps they should pay. On the other hand, it is previous generations that caused the problem and future generations that will benefit, so why should current generations bear all the costs?

That suggests that the costs of climate change abatement should be financed through some or other long-lived debt instrument that will transfer the burden (as well as the benefits) to future generations. Should costs be apportioned on an aggregate basis or a per capita basis? And so on.

There are heaps of unanswered questions and issues beyond the science that so excites the commentariat. All we really know is that the Australian government and other world governments want some sort of cap and trade scheme, and this is because of the science.  What is lacking is a discussion of the issues beyond the science. This important consideration has been lost in the name calling.

In simple terms, the science makes up a very small component of our decision making.

All the other aspects of the decision have not been adequately debated, and have not been well explained to the community, and labelling doubters and dissenters as mass-murdering war criminals is not appropriate in a democracy.

Sinclair Davidson is a professor in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University and a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.


Nov 16, 2009


Climate sceptics resent being called deniers because of the odium associated with Holocaust revisionism.

Even critics of the sceptics are careful to distance themselves from the implication that they are comparing climate denialism with Holocaust denialism for fear of being seen to trivialise the Holocaust by suggesting some sort of moral equivalence.

Judgments about moral equivalence depend on the ethical standpoint one adopts.

For consequentialists the morality of an action is judged by its outcomes. For those who adopt this ethical standpoint, any assessment of the consequences of the two forms of truth-rejection would conclude that climate deniers deserve greater moral censure than Holocaust deniers because their activities are more dangerous.

If the David Irvings of the world were to succeed, and the public rejected the mountain of evidence for the Holocaust, then the consequences would be a rewriting of history and a probable increase in anti-Semitism.

If the climate deniers were to succeed, and stopped the world responding to the mountain of evidence for human-induced global warming, then hundreds of millions of mostly impoverished people around the world would die from the effects of climate change.

They will die from famine, flood and disease caused by our unwillingness to act. The Stern report provides some sobering estimates: an additional 30-200 million people at risk of hunger with warming of only 2-3°C; an additional 250-500 million at risk if temperatures rise above 3°C; some 70-80 million more Africans exposed to malaria; and an additional 1.5 billion exposed to dengue fever.

Instead of dishonouring the deaths of six million in the past, climate deniers risk the lives of hundreds of millions in the future. Holocaust deniers are not responsible for the Holocaust, but climate deniers, if they were to succeed, would share responsibility for the enormous suffering caused by global warming.

It is a ghastly calculus, yet it is worth making because the hundreds of millions of dead are not abstractions, mere chimera until they happen. We know with a high degree of certainty that if we do nothing they will die.

But not everyone adopts a consequentialist ethic. An alternative ethical stance is to judge climate deniers not by the effects of what they do but by the rightness of their activities (a so-called duty ethic) or by their character and motives (a virtue ethic).

From a duty ethic position, the moral obligation climate deniers are violating is to the truth. Here there is a moral difference between denying the commission of a great crime, for which there are whole libraries of documentation, and rejecting the overwhelming evidence from science in which uncertainties nevertheless persist. This suggests that climate deniers are less culpable.

From a virtue ethic standpoint, moral culpability depends on motives. Attempting in good faith to uncover the facts is a good thing, which is why we regard genuine scepticism as healthy. Denialism is not scepticism but a refusal to accept the facts, the rejection of all of the evidence.

We think of Holocaust deniers as being immoral because we suspect them of being motivated by anti-Semitism or a desire for political advancement through stirring up racial hatred.

We think of climate deniers as being immoral because we suspect them of being motivated, not by truth-seeking, but by political goals, a desire for funds from fossil-fuel companies or personal aggrandisement.

Those who adopt a duty or virtue ethic would probably feel more personal antipathy towards a David Irving than towards an Ian Plimer or Andrew Bolt. There is something especially repugnant, even evil, about Holocaust denial. Denying or covering up a monstrous crime makes Holocaust deniers somehow complicit in it.

Better to have your daughter marry a climate sceptic, who is perhaps motivated by contrarianism, foolishness or self-importance rather than wickedness.

If, like me, you adopt a virtue or duty ethic, but one tempered by consideration of the consequences of an act, climate deniers are less immoral than Holocaust deniers, although they are undoubtedly more dangerous.

However, as the casualties from a warming world mount over the next decades, the denialism of those who continue to reject the scientific evidence will come to be seen as more and more iniquitous. So the answer to the question of whether climate denialism is morally worse than Holocaust denialism is no, at least, not yet.

Clive Hamilton is the Greens candidate in the Higgins by-election.


Oct 30, 2009



Nov 2, 2007


How could Tony Abbott get it so wrong, so often, so many ask? The answer is, of course, that he doesn’t think like most of us. He’s essentially a medieval Catholic, and his morality runs on a different model.

Consider this line about being “pure of heart”. Where does that come from? Most of us would think that presenting someone with an unfillable prescription was standard political theatre. And that a dying man probably has lee-way in any case.

Not our Tone. What seems to matter is your state of grace. In the catacombs of the mad Abbott’s mind, he’s equating a political stunt with the state of turning up for Communion without having shriven yourself of sins.

For this pre-Reformation morality, the sin is less important than the intent. We’re all born in sin after all, so committing them – playing fast and loose with an (at the time apparent) pregnancy, ‘forgetting’ that you met the archbishop, etc – simply rack up a few more days in purgatory.

Furthermore death, in this framework – what Evelyn Waugh, a believer, described as a ‘not entirely sane conspectus’ – is really just a change of address. So St T might be missing the big ‘woo-woo-woo’ sound we get in our heads when we confront someone who is soon going to be dead, for ever.

(Mind you, Howard’s unfortunate follow-up to cancer insensitivity – ‘well Tony’s taken his lumps’ – can only be described as Anglican par excellence. Dame Edna would be proud.).

Now before I get letters dipped in blood (ie wine), let me say that most Catholics are sensible people who don’t believe their morality should be determined by Dante’s back-of-the-envelope sketch of Hell mountain, and yes it is an oversimplification of doctrine.

But is there really any doubt that Abbott’s beliefs are relevant? After all, his conduct during the RU486 disgrace was a pure example of the Vatican doctrine of propaganda (their word), that you can tell a few lies for a higher truth.

And he hath been attended by a phalanx of the godly in the press, from Christopher Pearson to George Pell to the Devines (Frank and Miranda, not a doo-wop group) who all seem to hang onto some belief of this sort.

Given that St T is a possible leader of the November 25 rump – or once again health minister – should not the bell be tolled?