Stand Up and Shoulder the Consequences

The real test of our principles is when those with whom we disagree stand on them to justify doing something we hate.

Polling tells us that the vast majority of Australians support a woman’s right to choose. It also shows that most of us want the Federal Government to act to stop Japanese whaling in Australia’s self-declared whale sanctuary in the waters of Antarctica.

Most of us are repelled by placard-carrying pro-lifers who yell at women or impede their access to abortion clinics, and have heaps of sympathy for the Sea Shepherd crew, whose recent actions include illegally boarding the Japanese whaler the Nisshin Maru to covertly tag it with a tracking device, sabotaging the ship’s propeller and pelting the deck with rotten butter. But the truth is that both sets of protesters are doing similar things, and whatever limits we place on one, need also apply to the other.

To know what rules should apply, we first need to understand that the agendas of both protest groups are political, not matters of individual conscience. Objecting to something you find repugnant on the grounds of conscience is called conscientious objection, and is an individual right that any society dedicated to protecting the right of its citizens to self-rule must defend.

But the actions of pro-life clinic blockaders and radical environmentalists are not directed at liberating their consciences. “Footpath counsellers” are not medical professionals being compelled to participate in contraceptive counselling or abortion, and the crew of the Steve Irwin are not mariners who’ve been forced to whale. The problem for both groups is not that they are being compelled to do something they don’t believe in, but that something they don’t believe in is being allowed to happen at all.

There is nothing wrong with standing up to be counted when you believe law or policy or practice is wrong. There is nothing wrong with saying so in a way designed to highlight the injustice you perceive and – by changing public sentiment – making things different. You can even break the law to achieve these aims. In fact, breaking the law is what civil disobedience is all about.

But with rights come duties. Civil disobedience has high rates of collateral damage. It can obstruct the right of fellow citizens to act on their consciences, and stop them from getting on with the lawful activities that make up their day. So civil dissenters are obliged to do two things. The first is to break the law in the light of day. The second is to expect and accept punishment.

The upshot? That pro-lifers blockading clinics need to ensure that the full range of their “counselling” services are on show when the media or police come calling. And if the crew of the Sea Shepherd is ultimately found to have broken one or more maritime laws in defence of the whales, they are obliged to front up at the required jurisdictional port for their day in court.

Such conclusions hurt. Particularly for those, like me, who are passionate about women’s reproductive freedom and the well-being of whales.

But morally speaking, what is good for the goose must be good for the gander. Hypocrisy is a moral crime in nearly every ethical system because everyone knows this: that the mark of a truly ethical person is not their willingness to stand on principle when the consequences of doing so suit them, but their insistence on doing so when they don’t.

Publication history

Stand Up and Shoulder the Consequences  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)