Thursday, December 10, 2015

It’s about the money stupid! Ethics101 at COP21

Hugh hanging out at COP21 with the great climate ethicist
Donald Brown (Widener Uni, Pennsylvania)
It is perhaps unsurprising news that most developed countries employ scant moral reasoning when devising their NDCs. (NDCs are the nationally determined contributions each country puts forward to respond to the threat of climate change.) Instead, evidence suggests that countries calculate what level of effort fits with their own economic self-interest. Sometimes they  temper this calculation with a reputational concern for remaining in-step with the NDCs of similarly-positioned countries.

But it is surprising news that in many countries, not only the media but also major non-government organizations (NGOs) seem incapable of systematically challenging their countries’ NDC on moral grounds. States are thus able to avoid responding to common-sense moral questions like ‘What if everyone followed the same policy we are employing?’ and ‘How would we feel about this policy if another state was imposing such risks upon us?’

Mitigation-centred thinking

One result of this dearth of basic ethical interrogation is that the moral dialogue in developed countries tends to focus on national mitigation efforts. Attention hones in on the percentage of economy-wide carbon reduction the country promises to achieve. (Alternatively, the country may report the actual tonnage of carbon they aim to remove from their overall emissions. This is usually a more informative metric.) The protocols of the global climate regime mirror this focus on mitigation.

But as soon as we consider the situation from a developing country perspective, it is easy to see that such efforts – important as they are – constitute only one part of the developed countries’ moral responsibilities. Another numerical figure is at least as important: the brute sum of cash that developed countries are willing to hand over each year in order to fund developing countries. Such funds can help developing countries to: (a) pursue their own low-carbon economic pathways, (b) put in place adaption measures to deal with the challenges raised by inevitable future warming, and (c) respond to climate-related humanitarian disasters, such as island states facing rising sea-levels.

These three issues make up the thorny question of finance at the heart of the Paris talks – the core question that will probably only be resolved in the final drawn-out-but-nevertheless-frantic moments of negotiation over the next few days. The question comes down to this: How much will developed countries assist developing countries in the form of mitigation efforts, adaptation, technology transfers and loss and damage?

Reasonable finance

It would be easy to write these claims off as opportunistic demands for massive transfers of cash from the global north to the global south. To be sure, it would be naïve to suppose some avaricious governments are not seized by the prospect of gleefully carving out their piece of (say) a $100-billion-per-annum pie.

Yet the grim moral reality for developed countries – and one that their citizenry must begin seriously appreciating – is that any fair moral outcome must include enormous financial assistance for developing countries. (To be clear, we are not speaking here of emissions-trading, where rich states pay for poor states to mitigate so that the rich states can continue emitting. The mitigation, adaptation and loss-and-damage finance questions remain quite independent of developed countries’ own mitigation responsibilities.) 

Of course, there is room for argument about what a fair division of burdens in confronting climate change challenges would look like. Some might prioritize historical responsibilities for previous emissions – perhaps going back to the dawn of the industrial revolution, or perhaps just from the time that the problem became widely recognized around 1990. Others would prefer to look forward, and to work from a principle where those possessing the greatest capacity to act shoulder the greatest burdens (as progressive tax systems work in most advanced economies). After all, it seems unconscionable to demand that the poorest of the poor should make sacrifices from their already meager economic prospects to deal with a problem to which they have not contributed.

The original text of the Framework Convention reflects both these concerns for historical responsibility and capacity.

Hugh at COP21 alongside lots of important and clever people.
Certainly, there can and should be robust debate about the status, nature and interpretation of these and other relevant moral principles. None of the above remarks should be seen as definitive. However, the reality remains that on almost any recognizable moral principles, developed countries should be doing vastly more than they are – not only in terms of their own emissions but also in assisting developing countries in their adaptation and mitigation efforts. The recent Civil Society Review of country’s NDCs graphically shows this. It allows readers to select from an array (an ‘equity band’) of moral principles, and to give those principles different interpretations and prioritizations. And it shows that even the edge of the equity band that is most favourable to developed countries imposes far greater financial burdens than any of them have yet acknowledged. (My country, Australia, scores woefully on even the most generous parameters available. See also the Climate Action Tracker’s report on Australia.)

Reasonable transparency and differentiation

All of this might give the impression that the developing countries are entirely on the side of the angels. But the moral arguments cut both ways. The G77+China group continues to insist that the dividing line between developed and developing countries was set by the Annexes of the 1992 Convention. But moral principles of responsibility and capacity must attend to the realities at any point in time – such as the realities of China’s enormous economic growth and ensuing carbon emissions over recent decades.  

So too, if developed countries are morally required to part with vast sums of money, then developing countries need to acknowledge that such funds come attached with powerful duties of accountability and transparency. As obligations for finance grow in significance for the Paris Agreement, so must responsibilities for governance.

Neither of these sets of duties – for developing and developed countries alike – will be easy for duty-bearers to stomach. But in the face of a challenge as great as climate change, the need for a moral perspective has never been greater.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Goodes and Bads of Booing

Week in, week out, opposition fans have greeted Adam Goodes—superstar Sydney Swans footballer and strong advocate for Australia’s indigenous peoples—with a chorus of booing. Debate rages even within the AFL Commission around whether the booing is legitimate, or is done for racist reasons.

In the furor surrounding this controversy, social commentators and online pundits tend to argue past one another, brusquely dismissing the other side’s claims. However—as often in ethical issues—this story has two sides, each with something legitimate to say.

But—as often in ethical issues—this doesn’t mean a clear moral answer doesn’t emerge as to what to do now.

Legitimate booing
It’s often pointed out that some of the reasons fans give for booing Goodes seem weak. After all, if you consistently booed every opposition player who had ever played for a free kick, or who threw his weight around physically, your voice would be hoarse by quarter-time.

But these objections miss the point that, ordinarily, fans don’t need good reasons to boo opposition players. For example, playing at the Gabba in his landmark 400th game, Kangaroo Brent Harvey was jeered by the Brisbane crowd late in the game. Why? Probably simply in response to the raucous Kangaroos’ fans, who were cheering every time their milestone man touched the ball. Cheering, booing, chanting, clapping and trading jibes all happen spontaneously in the vocal, competitive, and often exciting environment that makes up a trip to the footy.

As well, some of the booing has an obvious enough origin: Goodes’ celebratory ‘war-dance’ during the AFL’s indigenous round, directed towards the opposition side’s supporters. It’s rare for AFL players to directly engage with opposition fans in any way, as it never fails to fire them up. (Players can also be sanctioned for deliberately offending opposition supporters.) An act like Goodes’ was bound to spark a raucous response. Some of the crowd might even have felt that responding with silence would be patronizing.

(Note that if Goodes had performed the dance at the game’s beginning, directing it towards the opposition team—like the New Zealand All Black’s haka – this justification would not apply. Just following this thought for a moment… Imagine if the AFL picked this up for the 2015 finals, and after the national anthem, perhaps any time both teams fielded Aboriginal players (which is usual), those players would then perform the dance in challenge to the opposition team. I predict the crowd’s cheering would drown out any forlorn boo-ers!)

In sum, defenders of the booing are correct that some of the booing stems from quite ordinary sources, innocent of any racial overtones.

Illegitimate booing
Yet the booing has continued well beyond its usual life-span—becoming more relentless as the months passed by. It became a ‘thing’: a widespread social phenomenon distracting from the game, rather than being a part of it.

As the action shifts from a sporadic occurrence to an ongoing phenomenon, the moral issues change. Individual booing now becomes part of a larger collective activity, with different consequences—such as potentially hounding a great player from the game.

So too, the passage of time allows the views of those affected to be known. Goodes himself has felt the need to take time out of the game (hopefully temporarily). Indigenous players, Goodes’ team-mates, and now the entire playing community through a recent team-captains’ statement have called for an end to the practice.

The specter of racism drives this widespread concern.

Undeniably, Australia has racists. Undeniably too, some of these racists like to go to football and racially vilify non-white players. This is why in 1993 Nicky Winmar had to famously take a stand against racist abuse, and why the AFL possesses, and routinely acts upon, its racial vilification policy. Some of these racists are bound to seize this opportunity, and use the cover of ordinary crowd booing to deliberately vilify Goodes.

In fact, we have good reason to believe some of the booing is unconsciously racist as well. It is a well-known psychological fact that (as Immanuel Kant once observed) we tend to present our actions – to ourselves as much as to others – in the best possible light. We find excuses and rationalizations for our uglier moments, trying to preserve our sense of personal moral decency. Since this holds true of all people, it remains true for football fans. We might not know which fans do this, but the uncomfortable truth remains that some are surely glossing over their unconscious racist sentiments with contrived excuses.

Since the ordinary reasons for booing tend to fade once the game finishes and the weeks pass, it seems plausible to conclude that these racial elements, conscious or unconscious, are substantial enough to fan the flames and drive the now widespread phenomenon.

Where does this leave us?
As a result, we have solid reason to believe a decent proportion of the booing is racist in nature. A significant portion of the crowd are racially vilifying Adam Goodes, and this vilification is (understandably) impacting upon him.

These facts change the action’s moral status.

Imagine you are a fan, and your reasons for previous booing have nothing to do with racism (you are an ‘equal opportunity’ knocker). The facts being what they are, you cannot now boo without facilitating racists vilifying Goodes. Perhaps worse, you yourself cannot be distinguished from such racists. An external observer—other people in the crowd, families, children, indigenous footballers, Goodes himself—know that there are racists vilifying him, and they cannot know that you aren’t one of them.

This, I think we can all agree, constitutes a decisive reason to stop the booing.

Ultimately, opposition supporters had reason to boo Goodes at various moments in the past, and they have every reason to be affronted by knee-jerk accusations of racism for their doing so. But the situation has now progressed to the point where there is compelling reason to stop.

(A first version of this blogpost was originally published by The Ethics Centre.)

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Understanding the Separation of Powers

Many ordinary folks, and sometimes even lawyers and political theorists, find the idea of the separation of powers confusing. People tend to be unsure what it actually entails – and those that know what it means can wonder why on earth we would want it.

This blogpost aims to offer a plain language explanation of the separation of powers and its attractions.
Anyone who tells you this book has any simple
doctrines in it has not read it!
(Readers interested in learning more will find more detailed exploration of these themes in: Breakey, H. (2014). Dividing to conquer: Employing the separation of powers to structure institutional inter-relations. Research in Ethical Issues in Organizations, 12, 29-58. Special offer!! During July 2015, courtesy of this article being a winner in Emerald’s ‘Outstanding Author Contribution in the 2015 Emerald Literati Network Awards for Excellence’, the article’s full-text can be downloaded free.)

The too-simple notion of the separation of powers

Many readers would be familiar with a simplistic notion of the separation of powers, sometimes called a ‘tripartite’ separation because it divides the institution of government into three distinct institutions based on their separate functions. On this footing, the separation of powers equates to a constitutional principle saying that: (a) different institutions peopled by different personnel, (b) should perform the separate tasks of government, and that there are, (c) three such tasks: rule making, rule judging, and rule enforcing (in technical terms: legislating, judging and executing).

Some writers trace this tripartite principle to Montesquieu’s (1748/1989) The Spirit of the Laws, and Montesquieu was certainly one of the first political theorists to consider the reasons why dividing a system of government along these lines might carry surprising benefits. But in Montesquieu’s work the principle turned out to be anything but simple. In fact, I doubt anyone attributing such a notion to Montesquieu has never even opened his insightful but complex work, riddled as it is with historical curiosities and delighting in happenstance political arrangements that produce unexpectedly good results. Whatever one might say about Montesquieu’s thought, it is anything but simple. (My copy of The Spirit of the Laws runs to a lazy 722 pages!)

On this tripartite principle, a good political system aims to have a legislature (e.g., parliament) to create laws, an executive to police those laws, and a judiciary to judge them. The system will also make sure that each institution keeps to its own devices – the executive and the judiciary aren’t allowed to dabble in law-making, and the parliament leaves the business of judging laws to the judiciary, and so on.

The problems with the simplistic tripartite notion

This notion of the separation of powers suffers from several problems. Perhaps the most obvious worry is that tripartite system, as described above, has never actually existed. All effective political systems actually possess myriad inter-connections between their institutions, allowing each institution to ‘interfere’ in certain ways with the other bodies’ workings.

Consider the notion of ‘checks and balances’. Checks and balances involve one institution being able, under certain conditions, to block or resist another institution’s activities. Such checks effectively scramble the very divisions created by (and apparently recommended by) the tripartite separation of powers. To allow the executive to veto legislation, or to allow the judiciary to strike down legislation through judicial review, amount to letting non-legislative powers interfere with the legislature’s business of creating new law.

Another problem bedeviling the tripartite notion is that it is hard to see why we would want it. Sometimes enthusiasts for the separation of powers speak as if the idea is to have three opposing institutions running the country in order to keep them busy jostling for power among themselves. But why (you might ask) is that meant to be a good idea? The thinking is that the internal jockeying for power will keep the institutions distracted from doing what people with political power normally do – namely, to enrich themselves by oppressing everyone else. They’re too busy dealing with the in-fighting to achieve the type of full-throttle exploitation and extortion that despots usually manage to achieve.

That’s the theory, anyway. And maybe there is something to it. But, if so, we’re going to take a lot of convincing. Creating internal divisions in an institution, after all, is not normally a good policy for ensuring that institution runs well. Usually the reverse is true.

How then should we understand the separation of powers?

A better way of thinking of the separation of powers is to see it as a grab-bag of clever strategies for structuring political institutions so as to stymie their capacity to behave badly. If we go back to the major political theorists developing the separation of powers – figures such as Montesquieu, Locke, Madison, Kant and Machiavelli – we do not find a clean tripartite division. We find a series of insights about how attending to the inter-relations between institutions can help ensure those institutions perform their intended roles.

Sometimes these strategies include creating sharp divisions between organizations, so as to make sure that specific tasks are performed by those best-suited to perform them, or to avoid an obvious conflict of interest.

More often, though, creating sharp divisions is not good policy. Instead, dividing the institutions is only half the story – the first half of the story. The real purpose of separating institutions is to create new inter-connections between them, or to share a larger task across them, in order to secure a better outcome.

In a nutshell, we separate only to re-connect.

One example: politically motivated arrests

Perhaps the single most powerful way a government can injure a citizen is by arbitrary arrest and prosecution, and perhaps its single most dangerous occurrence happens when such arrests are politically motivated, such as the arrest of opposition figures and dissidents.

Consider how the separation of powers quells such dangers. An individual judge cannot physically arrest a citizen and gather evidence against her—nor can the judge create a law targeting that citizen. For that the judge needs the police (a part of the executive). Equally though, the police can arrest the citizen, but cannot judge and punish her. For that they need the judge.

This means that the state can only deliberately target particular persons when the bodies conspire in their persecution, for then the police can make a fabricated arrest, sure in the knowledge that the judge will sentence their victim. So too, if the reigning faction in the legislature wants to imprison members of the opposition, then they must conspire with both the executive and the judiciary to do so.

Having separate institutions performing these roles does not prevent conspiracies from happening. Of course, members of the legislature can collude with members of the executive and the judiciary. But the real trick of the separation of powers is that it requires such a conspiracy to occur. Such nefarious schemes are much easier to manage when one small clique, in a single institution, controls all these levers of power. Conspiracies, on the other hand, are notoriously fraught enterprises when they begin to span over many different people at different institutions.

In such ways as these, the separation of powers doesn’t seek to make political repression and the abuse of power impossible. It just makes it much harder, and much riskier, than it would otherwise be. (This is why the first thing that despots like Hitler do when they come to power is to sweep aside such separations, and gather all the levers of power under their own direct control.)

Why does it work?

But why – you might ask – is it helpful to have multiple institutions with different roles in various processes? If it is sensible to distrust one institution acting alone, why shouldn’t we harbor the same distrust (twice the distrust!) for two institutions, each potentially abusing their power as they vote and veto?

Theorists like Montesquieu, Locke and Madison actually provide an array of sophisticated answers to such questions. I’ve summarized some of these into a little set of theorems:

In what we might call the ‘one good apple’ theorem, if we spread the performance of a given activity across multiple actors, then if just one actor in the chain acts in good faith (or if her self-interest tends to align with the public interest), then she can thwart all manner of evil enterprises.

On another approach, ‘the non-aligned interests’ theorem points out that even if various people want to abuse their power by enriching themselves and persecuting their enemies, if they are not part of the same group in the same institution, they probably will not share the same ideas on who should get rich and who should get persecuted. Because there is a separation between the groups, each has self-interested reason not to be complicit in the others’ schemes. Why should they help someone else get power and wealth? On this footing, the separation of powers takes advantage of the natural resistance of selfish people to do anything outside their narrow self-interest.

Next, the ‘aligned legitimate interests’ theorem points out that even completely self-interested agents will always have at least some interest in doing the jobs they are supposed to do. By effectively performing her role, an agent increases the legitimacy of her institution, and cements her own authority within it. Also, as a member herself of the general citizenry, the institutional agent benefits from the existence of social peace and liberty created by a functioning political regime. As such, if all the self-interested, biased ways of performing her role are vetoed by checking powers (in line with the non-aligned interests theorem above), then the agent is left only with her remaining non-partisan interest, which is to enhance her status and the status of her institution by actually performing her role well.

All proceeding according to plan, the separation of powers might therefore pull off a quite remarkable feat: through its strategic separations and re-connections, it might entice a myriad of mostly self-interested actors to act in the public interest.


Summing up, the separation of powers (as we find it in Montesquieu, Locke, Madison etc) gathers together a host of insights for structuring institutions so as to make those institutions more likely to be productive and honest. It is based on a realistic assessment of human nature, accepting that bad people will sometimes get into power, and that power will sometimes tempt good people to do bad things.

Separating supreme political power across institutions does not stop bad people getting into power. But, in drawing on an array of insights about human nature, the separation of powers makes it harder for bad people to do bad things. It is for this reason that so many early Enlightenment political theorists seized upon the separation of powers as a weapon against despotic and absolutist governments. Faced with supreme monarchies, the Enlightenment philosophers realized the wisdom of dividing and conquering. They aimed to separate the powers, but only in order to reconnect them in subtle and ingenious ways – ways that tended to make corruption, despotism and the abuse of power harder and riskier.

(In this blogpost I have expressed all these insights in a very summary fashion, and of course more argument and defence would be required to show how they can combine in fruitful ways, and the conditions under which they will tend to work. Again, for those interested in knowing more, the issues raised here are dealt with in detail in Hugh Breakey (2014). Dividing to conquer: Employing the separation of powers to structure institutional inter-relations. Research in Ethical Issues in Organizations, 12, 29-58). (During July 2015, the Article may be downloaded for free.))

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Is Australia as bad as IS? Skewed criticism may leave you wondering

Perpetrator of crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide. Documented serial violator of international law and the most fundamental human rights. Complicit in territorial aggression.

All these accusations, and countless more like them, have recently been made by mainstream commentators, respected academics and official international figures.

Of whom do they speak? Australia, of course.

But does such insistent, brutal critique create a misleading picture of actual moral performance?

Relentless, powerful criticism

Many readers will be familiar with these accusations. Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers attracts well-publicised accusations of crimes against humanity and prompts serial reports of its serious breaches of human rights. Australia has recently been accused of racist and discriminatory acts of cultural genocideethnic cleansing and “acts of war” for proposals to remove basic services to its remote indigenous communities. Australia’s (lack of) action on climate change allegedly amounts to crimes against humanity and its involvement in Middle East conflicts is tantamount to the crime of aggression.

Image result for australian flag pics

A country to be proud of? 
Meanwhile, major human rights reports highlight a “grim outlook” for Australia.

It is little wonder that respected international figures should thus mention Australia in the same breath as brutal regimes like Islamic State (IS), Syria and North Korea.

Actual moral performance

With all this in mind, you might be surprised where Australia sits in global human rights rankings. Australia consistently places in the very top echelon of such rankings, as seen herehere and here. Equally, it is a strong performer on governance valuesdemocracy indexes and combined measures of happiness.

Why do such comparative measures matter? After all, what possible solace can it be to someone suffering from violations of their rights to recognize that other places are even worse?

Yet comparative measures are important. They can remind us that key parts of our system are working, and therefore that reforms must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. They can underscore that other alternative forms of government may risk a step backwards more than a move forward.

More generally, when we see how much every state struggles with protecting rights, we begin to conceive what a powerful moral challenge we have set for ourselves. In 1748 Montesquieu could observe that, despite ordinary people’s love of liberty, and hatred of violence, most peoples in the world lived subject to despotism. His words still ring true today. Constructing political systems, run by fallible, diverse human beings, that reliably protect rights is notoriously hard to do.

It is true that none of this will (or should) impress any single person or group actually getting their rights violated. Calling attention to specific rights-violations and demanding targeted reforms remains as important a task in a country like Australia as in Syria.

But as well as focusing on discrete issues that are going wrong, sometimes we all need to make over-arching judgments about whether the state warrants our support and allegiance. When faced with things that are going badly wrong, we need to know whether we need reform or revolution. If our problems are systemic, then we probably need the latter. And when faced with opportunities (such as sending Australian troops as peacekeepers to Timor-Leste, or securing a seat for Australia on the Security Council) we need to be able to judge the likelihood that our state actors will behave well, or whether they will abuse their power. Both these sorts of issues require over-arching appraisals of how the general system is working.

(Of course, we should equally pay attention to comparative measures when they give us less happy news. Comparative measures can alert us to ways that other countries have made improvements or resisted changes that have led to their better performance (e.g., in their treatment of refugees and indigenous peoples).

What explains this gap between the critiques and Australia’s actual rankings?

As I have already stressed, one can be comparatively a top performer and still be plagued with serious problems, including serious rights violations.

But instead of using language appropriate to talking about serious problems, commentators routinely invoke notions of horrifying criminality. Through talk of genocide and atrocity, commentators often fail to distinguish between, on the one hand, savage slaughter and full-throttle repression and, on the other, rash, botched, insensitive, unilateral, penny-pinching, ham-fisted or politicised responses to genuinely tough ethical questions.

I must stress that to say that X is not Y, where Y is horrifyingly bad, is not to say that X is good, acceptable, or even legal. Nor is it to say that we do not need to urgently change our involvement in X. X may be bad and we may need to do everything we can to prevent it. But the distinction between the wrongs of X and horrors of Y may still be important. For too often acts of horrifying evil do happen in our world, and our responses to such evils cannot be the same as the way we respond to more everyday failings. We need to preserve a language that expresses the urgency and consensus appropriate in the face of acts of genocidal evil and intolerant slaughter.

But the problem of hyperbolic assertions in discrete cases is only half the issue. Even when the problems are described in appropriately measured tones, the debate can still be skewed towards criticism. Political discourse, media and activism all tend to focus on crisis, sensation and scandal.

Even academia is not immune. Social “critique” rightly bears a special place in academic life, but can direct attention towards what is going wrong, rather than what is going right.

Some of these practices – for example, politicians’ confected outrage – are lamentable. Other practices, such as academics and independent bodies speaking truth to power, are vital. Nevertheless, these many different phenomena combine to paint a misleadingly depressing picture of the country’s moral landscape.

Aren’t there benefits to this negative focus?

Even if the picture is skewed towards critique, real benefits arise. A negative slant can head off the natural tendency towards romanticizing one’s own community. Such a tendency can tempt us towards ugly nationalism or delusions about inherent cultural superiority.

Having high local expectations can also help secure important reforms and prevent complacency. For example, by congratulating ourselves on our high global rankings, Australians might spurn the call for new human rights legislation — even though this might be a powerful method for responding to the serious problems we do face.

But at what cost?

Hyperbole can undercut support for important causes when objective, balanced argument would work better.

Rather than changing their behaviour, people might switch off from critique. They might see the United Nations and human rights itself as nothing but unrelenting sources of shame and rebuke.

So, too, other countries can easily brush aside Australia’s entreaties to respect rights and international law. Who are we to preach to others — like Russia or Indonesia — if our own brand is irreparably tainted (as Iran recently queried)?

But perhaps the most serious ramifications of this cultural phenomenon lie in the potentially corrosive effect on ordinary people’s moral character.

Like every society, Australia needs to encourage reasonable allegiance and commitment to its social and political processes. We are all shocked when young people choose to betray Australia’s values by joining a genocidal regime like IS. Yet our own “public relations” efforts showcase our flaws, not our successes.

If people give up on the society around them, then they can tend to excuse their own moral failings and self-righteously disconnect from political life. Why play fair if the system is corrupt?

Finally, while it can feel good to scold wrongdoers, encouragement often works better for achieving results (and if we really care about human rights, isn't that what really matters?). As Thomas Merton once said: “In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him.” If Merton is right – and nothing I have ever seen in my many years of debating morality with others suggests he is wrong – then moral outrage and a relentless focus on what is going wrong are utterly unhelpful ways of convincing people to do better. A much better policy involves stressing how much people are doing right, and how noble and tolerant many of their values and actions are, and then moving to consider whether the current problem-areas can be improved to the same standard.

Indeed, convictions about the high standards of one’s institution or community can themselves motivate a ruthless and energetic stance toward ridding that institution of wrongful behaviours or elements. Australia’s Army Chief, Lieutenant General David Morrison, now-famous speech on sexism in the Australian Army provides a striking illustration. 

Summing up

In the current environment, Australians would struggle to feel any kind of “cultural ownership” of human rights. This is a real shame. From the most inauspicious beginnings, Australians have built their country into an extraordinary, albeit uneven, human rights success story.

They should be inspired to go on living up to their status as one of the leading protector of human rights worldwide.

(A shorted version of this article was previously published at The Conversation.)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Charlie Hedbo attack: When should we hold a group morally responsible for a member’s evil?

When should we hold a group morally responsible for a member’s evil? In the wake of the Charlie Hedbo attacks, many will demand answers about Islam’s role in promoting violence. And as we brace for the inevitable backlash against ordinary Muslims, in France or elsewhere, questions will be raised about different nations’ collective responsibility for individual violent acts of Islamophobia and racism. Both questions (and others like them, such as wider responsibility for violence against women) involve judging a group’s moral responsibility for some of its members’ actions.
Such judgments are ethically complex, and it can prove hard to make them with any consistency. All of us can be tempted to swiftly declare the collective responsibility of other groups (such as Muslim responsibility for terrorism), even as we shrug off the same accusation when it is applied to us (Western responsibility for Islamophobic violence or abuse).
Contributory responsibility
One immediate challenge for these judgments of collective responsibility is that ‘responsible’ is a slippery word. When we say someone is morally responsible for some act, we usually mean that they were directly responsible for performing that act. But often in cases of large-scale collective responsibility, we mean something looser. We mean that the accused contributed in some indirect way to what happened, laying the groundwork for an environment where the violent action became more likely.
Sometimes, attributing this type of ‘contributory’ responsibility can be straightforward. Most people would agree enthusiastic Nazi party members bear at least some blame for its atrocities. Even if the party-member did not personally commit such evils, his or her racist, brutal beliefs helped contribute to what happened. Certainly, few doubt that inciting others to violence can be a serious wrong, a theme captured in Aesop’s famous fable of The Trumpeter Taken Captive, where a trumpeter who encourages his army to fight is found blameworthy even though he carries no weapon himself.
Outside of such clear-cut cases, weighing contributory responsibility proves much more difficult. Despite the violent actors’ appeals to their religious or patriotic motives, the larger collectives almost always denounce the violence. Religious leaders demand the religion utterly forbids terrorism. Political leaders stress that racist violence contravenes national traditions of tolerance and the rule of law. Each might appeal to other factors leading to the specific violence, such as political rather than religious commitments, or personal criminality or insanity. For example, debate rages as to whether the recent siege in Sydney was a religiously motivated lone-wolf terror attack, or the final implosion of a troubled misogynist mind. Similarly, those who defend against any possibility of some collective responsibility for the Paris attacks tend to stress insanity and criminality, rather than commonly held beliefs.
Sometimes, the collective might hedge its condemnation of the terrorist or racist violence. The collective might accept that some of the culprit’s reasons for anger and frustration were valid, or that the culprit was genuinely persecuted, even as they deplore the violence. In such cases, outsiders can feel the collective is partially excusing the actor’s wrongdoing, even as those in the group can point to a clear distinction between endorsing ends versus endorsing means. Both these opposing concerns (of excuse versus distinguishing means and ends) are genuine ethical issues, and need to be weighed carefully in any given case.
Positive responsibility
We can also use ‘responsibility’ in a different sense, where we locate a person or group that we think should have worked to actively prevent the act from happening. While this person didn’t cause the act, even indirectly, we might believe he or she was nevertheless in charge of doing everything possible to prevent it happening. In this case, we might agree a religious or political leader didn’t facilitate an act, but still feel they ‘could have done more’ to positively prevent it. If so, when we demand that the leader condemn the violence, we might not be saying we suspect them of contributing to it, but rather that we think the leader is well-placed to hold a positive moral responsibility to try to prevent further attacks, and that this is an appropriate way of their doing so.
Group cohesiveness?
Judging collective responsibility also involves measuring a group’s cohesiveness, the extent to which it operates as a unified agent, with its various parts able to work together or at least influence each other. Group cohesiveness can be hard to measure. Why? Because when someone does something terrible that we can hardly imagine doing, we naturally ask what could have motivated them. If we are outside their group (religion, nation), we can suppose the reason lies in this factor of group-membership that distinguishes us from them. If we are inside the group, then instead we naturally search for some other distinguishing feature. Each process can distort our reasoning, but at least the view from inside the group introduces more sophistication into our enquiry. From outside, communities often look homogenous. From inside, we can appreciate the profound differences, divisions, partitions and personalities that prevent the group from functioning as a single community, much less a unified agent. 
Let’s try for consistency
As we can see, any attribution of collective responsibility ultimately hinges on subtle principles regarding individual moral agency, and complex factual claims about group solidarity. Despite these difficulties, like most ethical questions we can benefit from trying to be consistent in our judgments. This article has discussed two applications of collective responsibility: collective religious responsibility for terrorism, and collective national (or cultural) responsibility for violent acts of racism and Islamaphobia.
What’s remarkable about these two issues, in my experience, is that those who make the collective attribution in one case are quick to deny it in the other. A person who believes Islam is essentially violent rarely accepts that (say) Australia is essentially racist. And vice versa: the person who happily asserts that Australia is a racist country and it behoves all of us to stand up against such ugliness would never think to demand that Islam is a violent religion or that all Muslims must take responsibility for quelling the dangerous minority with their group.
In other words, we can all learn from the ways we ourselves resist the collective responsibilities others attribute to us, even as we demand such responsibilities of others. This isn’t to say the two issues (of violent terrorism and racist violence) are equivalent: a person may have principled conceptual reasons and empirical evidence to make one attribution even as they deny another. Instead, the point is that thinking about how we personally make these different judgments can help us reflect on the complexities involved.
…and caution
Finally, it bears mention that even in those cases where we do allocate responsibility, there remains a question of what the best and most helpful moral response to that finding is. Locating even a genuine case of blameworthiness does not tell us what action should be taken, much less whether we should be the one take it. Deciding that another person does bear moral blame certainly does not authorize us to take retribution. Believing that it does, after all, is one of the fundamental moral failings of both the terrorist and the racist thug.
[A shorter version of this blogpost was originally published at The Conversation.]