Human rights

The ethics of Manus Island

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Manus Island refugee after PNG police destroyed the camp and refugee possessions (Image via @jarrodmckenna).

Thinking that what is happening on Manus Island is wrong isn’t just a matter of opinion. Dr Samuel Douglas argues that we have good reason to think that it isn’t morally justifiable and neither is the behaviour of the politicians who continue to support it.

MANUS ISLAND. Its legacy will be written on our national character in the indelible ink of human suffering.

Unfair imprisonment, beatings, intimidation, deaths, untreated (and untreatable) mental illness, despair, loneliness, uncertainty and injustice.

We cannot wish these things away, however much we might like to.

Not long ago, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton peered out of his lair and voiced his opinion on the "moral vacuum" of protesting against the government’s actions on Manus, as well as the cardinal sin of causing money to be wasted on cleaning graffiti off Minister for Revenue and Financial Services Kelly O’Dwyer’s office. Reaction on social media – especially Twitter, where he made the pronouncement – was swift and severe. But none struck me with as much force as the response of Australian philosopher, Patrick Stokes:

He’s right. To lecture others on the topic of what "moral" is would involve Peter Dutton understanding and (at least occasionally) acting on considered ideas of what is right. Anyone who is responsible for the humanitarian crisis on Manus either doesn’t understand what is ethical or just plain doesn’t care. That might sound harsh, but measuring what has happened, against a couple of ethical theories, very quickly shows how little justification there is for what we have done.

Kant argued, at great length and with considerable force, that it was wrong to use people solely as a means to an end. By this, he meant that we shouldn’t just use people to achieve our aims; we should value the inherent dignity, autonomy and humanity of these people just as much as we value what they can do for us. Importantly, he held this to be true even if our aims are noble. Intentions are important, but using someone is still using someone.

Instantly, this looks bad for our treatment of the men on Manus Island. These men have been kept there, not allowed to enter Australia – and (at the time of writing) not allowed to be transferred to New Zealand – and the reason for this is so we can make an example of them in order to "stop the boats" (though there’s evidence that they haven’t stopped trying to make the trip). More cynically, both the ALP and Coalition must think that there are sufficient votes in such a policy, so they are being used for that purpose as well. And nothing will convince me keeping people convicted of no crime in a prison camp with no certainty about the future is respecting their dignity and humanity.

Of course, Kant’s account isn’t the only game in town when it comes to ethics. Much has been made, especially on the side of ALP support for this travesty, of the idea that the suffering of these men is justified because stopping the boats and ending the drownings at sea is for the greater good. Yes, it’s unpleasant, but the total amount of suffering is less because of it, or so the argument goes. This appears to be utilitarian reasoning; that what is right is whatever brings about the greatest happiness or least suffering for the greatest number of people.

Appearances are, in this case, deceptive. For one thing, the Manus situation – and entire "Pacific Solution" in general – come perilously close to embodying the main criticism against simplistic utilitarian ethics: that it seems to justify torturing, or even killing, individuals if that leads to the greatest happiness for the majority of people. This is morally troubling for many people, as we normally expect that certain individual rights can never be completely overridden by the needs of the group.

Worse, even if we could get past this, it isn’t clear that the suffering of our maritime arrivals has reduced the net amount of suffering in the world. Maybe, if we can believe the official spin, there are fewer drownings at sea. But we have no evidence to suggest that fewer people fleeing persecution have died in their pursuit of freedom — just that if they are dying, they are doing it somewhere else. 

And there are worse things than death. Does the suffering of these people reduce the suffering of others displaced by war, sectarian conflict and violent oppression? I think not. Does it reduce any suffering or increase any happiness for anyone, anywhere? The only people who might be happier are politicians who can cash in on our xenophobic fears to stay in office and Australians who want to pretend that we have no personal responsibility in all of this. This doesn’t sound like a recipe for long-term happiness. Nor does it really fit with any broader moral intuition about what "good" is.

Is it good to use refugees to inflame our baser instincts? How is individual or collective moral development advanced by denying the truth of the situation?

Those with either a nationalistic or pragmatic viewpoint might object that our government is obliged to serve the interests of Australians before all else. But I don’t think this means our government should serve our interests at the expense of those outside our borders (and I think our neighbours would agree). I also don’t see how stunting the capacity of Australians to empathise with people who aren’t exactly like us can ever be a good thing.

Patrick Stokes is correct. Peter Dutton has no right or capacity to lecture us on what is moral. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, ever keen to not be left out, is in the corner of that same ideological glasshouse, throwing stones for all to see by failing to call for these men to be brought to the Australian mainland.

But none of us deserve to be smug in our conscientious objection to this shameful exploitation of human life. Until voters exert enough pressure at the ballot box, or in the street, for at least one of the major parties to show some integrity and humanity, we are all complicit in this.

PNG police clearing Manus Island refugee camp (Source: Al Jazeera)

You can follow Dr Samuel Douglas on Twitter @BeachPhilsophy.

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