Popular, yes - but is it moral?

It’s been driving me crazy for years, but John Howard’s comments in Parliament early this week about the rectitude of mandatory detention and public support for it, tipped me over the edge. The time has come for some clarity in the minds of public figures and commentators about what public support for something does – and does not mean – in terms of morality.

In fact, the Prime Minister was clearer than most. At least his assertion that the mandatory detention policy was both “right” and supported by Australians attempted to discriminate between the morally correct and the popularly acclaimed. Many commentators never get that far. At a public lecture at an esteemed university last year, I listened to a highly regarded intellectual give a speech in which she both bemoaned the Howard’s government’s failure to heed the majority when it came to the war in Iraq AND rolled her eyes about the ignorant immorality of the masses when it came to mandatory detention. In the first instance, mass support was used as evidence of moral rectitude. In the second, the lack of it was, too. You can’t have it both ways, I pointed out at question time. From her expression, it was clear the contradiction never crossed her mind.

In the same way, shock-jocks and politicians dump on judges for sentences they deem to be “out of touch” with “community standards”, as if this misalignment was proof positive the judges got it wrong. Yet another demonstration of confusion amongst those who really ought to know better .

The truth is that there is no necessary relationship between what’s popular and what’s right. At the end of the 1800s in the US, the majority supported slavery; this century most Afrikaners supported apartheid. Until relatively recently, in historical terms, many Australians gave the White Australia policy a tic.

Why is confusion about what’s ethical, and what’s popular, so rife? Perhaps it’s to do with the importance to politicians of public opinion. If what matters – and according to some democratic theory anyway – what ought to matter to politicians is what the public thinks, than public opinion rightly becomes the arbiter of good and bad political behavior. From there, the equation of good political performance with good moral performance doesn’t require much slippage.

Or maybe the belief, widely-spruiked by populist politicians, that “average Australians” score highly when it comes to common-sense morality is to blame. Since by definition, most of us are “average” Australians, this equates majority views with moral ones.

Yet the truth is that public support for a policy indicates noting more than that most people like it. To gain an ethical seal of approval, the policy must conform to more abstract standards about decision-making wisdom, maximal utility or principles that crudely reduce to the golden rule and a steadfast commitment to never using others as a means to our ends.

According to any such criteria, serious questions can be raised about the Prime Minister’s claim that the government’s approach to unauthorized arrivals is “right”. And following this, that he would be right to gag debate on the Private Member’s bills designed to make the policy more compassionate and fair.

It’s hard to argue that a person of good character would permit others who’ve committed no crime – and have good odds of eventually being found to be a refugee – to be detained for lengthy periods or indefinitely. This makes the government’s migration policy problematic for those espousing Virtue Theory.

Utilitarian ethicists are about weighing overall benefits against harms. Current migration policy was adopted to contain the claimed risks posed by large numbers of bogus asylum seekers, yet since its inception changed politics in the regional have seen such arrivals slow to a trickle. The cost to individual asylum seekers, however, remains vast and includes physical and mental health problems that in some cases lead to self-harm and – when it comes to children – what experts claim may be irreversible developmental damage. Negligible benefits and vast and significant harms: where’s the morality in that?

Finally, at the heart of “do unto others” is a recognition of the human needs – and human rights – of others. Yet while the Government recognizes the human rights of Australians, detainees are treated as though they are less than fully human and therefore somehow deserving of the loss of dignity, justice and freedom they suffer. To put it simply, we have duties to these people – to honour their rights and of care – that we are failing to meet.

So while it may not be popular to say it, I find little in ethical theory to persuade me that the Government’s policy of mandatory detention is right. If the Prime Minister believes otherwise, he should welcome debate on the issue, rather than attempt to gag it, as a chance to make his case.