Tag Archives | justice

The Ethical Question

Practical Wisdom
by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe
Riverhead Books, 2010, 324 pages.
Harvard University, presented by Michael Sandel
Lecture Series, 2005, 12 x 55 minutes.
Friday Night Lights
Television series, 2006–2011, 76 episodes.

The ethical question is a simple one. It can be asked any number of ways, but the best form may be the simplest—what should I do here?

It’s a question everyone can recognise, one we all answer many times every day. When we think about ethics as an idea, we tend often to be tempted by thought experiments that pose impossible moral choices (imagine you’re driving a trolley car hurtling out of control down a hill towards five workers on the track who will be killed if you hit them. Now imagine there’s a side track you can swerve onto to avoid them, but instead you will hit and kill a single worker. What should you do?). Indeed, a scholarly appraisal may well conclude there is no moral way out of some situations. And yet, as Mary Midgley reminds us, in real life, real people still make real choices, however impossible. Morality does not occur in a vacuum.

What can we learn from people’s real ethical choices? What do we think we know? Ideas about morality have extraordinary reach and purchase in our public lives. This is of course evident when we talk about censorship, free speech or Roe v Wade, but also in ways that are less obvious and more pervasive, more pernicious.

Are people basically good, wanting to do the right thing but not always sure what it is? Or are people basically vicious and only out for themselves, needing to be restrained from violence against each other by a powerful and compelling mediator?

More importantly, do either of these views reflect things as they really are? Should we say instead either that most people are good, but a few evil folk do terrible things, or the reverse? The white hat/black hat idea is a popular one intuitively held by many of us, but as Midgley again reminds us, most binaries are false. When we say either/or, we should not forget to consider and. If we are to learn anything from looking at evil, it must surely be that things are not so convenient as black hats and white hats. The greatest evils are done by ordinary people who think they are doing good.

That makes the ethical question a little more urgent. Each time we ask ‘what should I do here?’, we must have some basis for answering.

Continue Reading →

A Tall Story

The Tall Man
Directed by Tony Krawitz
Documentary, 2011, 78 minutes.

The Tall ManOn the morning of November 19, 2004, Cameron Doomadgee, an indigineous resident of Palm Island in tropical Queensland, was arrested for swearing at Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley and taken to the local police station. 45 minutes later, he was found dead in his cell. Later, he was found to have had four broken ribs and a ruptured liver and spleen. The police claimed he had tripped on a step. It is perhaps the most high profile case of an Aboriginal death in custody on record, and certainly one of the most complicated.

Doomadgee and Hurley were the same age — 36 at the time of the incident. In some ways what happened reads as a story of two men from very different walks of life who cross paths and cannot help but bring their different social circumstances and history to bear upon the situation. Those histories, and the timeline of events following Doomadgee’s death, are the subject of Tony Krawitz’s documentary The Tall Man. The film aired on SBS in 2011 and is based on the book of the same name by Chloe Hooper.

The film puts the audience in the position of a jury as it follows the events following Doomadgee’s death and by the end we form a fairly clear impression of what happened, given the available evidence. But The Tall Man is equally concerned with how those affected have made sense of what happened and what the sequence of tragic events tells us about race relations in Australia. This is where the film is most powerful. Continue Reading →

Unhobbling Democracy

Politics is failing. The public square in Australia, like so many other Western countries, is a broken and desolate place. Danu sifts through the wreckage looking for clues, and wonders how committed we really are to democratic citizenship.

It is now de rigueur to make the observation in Australia (and numerous other countries) that faith and trust in politics and especially our political leaders has deteriorated to what must surely be an all-time low. That the only box voters are prepared to tick is the one marked ‘None of the Above’.

This will either resonate with you or it won’t. In any case, plenty of ink has been spilled on the subject elsewhere, especially in diagnosing (and misdiagnosing) its causes and effects and I feel no urge to expend much effort arguing the proposition further here. I actually want to talk about democracy, but it will help to keep this disillusionment in mind.

It is interesting that Australia’s current government in particular should be especially pilloried — the object of a pitch and tenor of grumbling and derision not seen in some time. Whether this is because of the unfamiliar minority governing arrangements, the indelible sense of illegitimacy surrounding how the government came to power, its lack of clear vision, purpose and moral courage, the unpopularity of its policies, the scantily-clad sexism towards its leader or simply its sheer ineffectiveness, is hard to say. There are interesting things to be said about all these claims and in my view they all have some merit, but that is not our subject today.

Rather, I’d like to consider just what it is we want from our political institutions and what exactly we expect them to do. Continue Reading →