Category Archives: Politics

Why Conspiracy Theories Aren’t Harmless Fun

This piece originally appeared on The Conversation’s Cogito blog

WTC7We’ve just seen another mass shooting in the US. This time it was a church, and race hate was the cause. Other times it’s a school, or a cinema, or a university, or a shopping mall.

By now, the script is sickeningly familiar: the numbing details of horror, followed by the bewildered outrage, the backlash that attempts to delimit and isolate and resist any wider analysis, and finally the inevitable failure to act.

But in the age of the internet there’s an extra, ghoulish twist.

Within days, and increasingly, within mere hours and minutes, a tragic event is being filtered through a worldview that insists these events are not what they seem. Conspiracy theorists leap on the tragedy as yet more evidence of dark forces manipulating the world for their own nefarious ends. The kids killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT? They never existed. Their grieving families? “Crisis actors.” This is all Obama, you see, and his one-world-government comrades staging ‘false flag’ attacks to justify disarming the citizenry. He’s coming for your guns.

And yes, this process has already started around Charleston. Lunar right media identity Alex Jones’ Infowars immediately questioned if the shooting was a “false flag.” Others came out of the woodwork to insist the shooter’s manifesto was a fraud, and that the “shooter” was in fact a 33 year old Marine and former child star of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Doogie Howser MD.

Did you laugh just then? It’s understandable if you did. Most conspiracy theories are, unless you’re the one pushing them, pretty absurdly funny. Conspiracy theorists are always good for a chuckle.

Until they aren’t.

In his critical introduction to conspiracy theories, the sociologist Jovan Byford notes that the academic study of conspiracy theories went through a phase where scholars treated these theories as intriguing pop-culture artefacts that were essentially harmless. In the X-Files-inflected 90s, decades out from the horrific anti-Semitic conspiracy fantasties of Nesta Webster and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, it was easy to treat conspiracy theory as an exercise of playful postmodern irony. No-one gets hurt, right?

Tell that to Gene Rosen, who helped kids who had fled the shooting at Newtown only to be hounded with abusive phone messages from people accusing him of being a government stooge. Tell that to the families of Grace McDonnell and Chase Kowalski, two seven year olds killed at Newtown, whose parents had to endure a phone call from the man who stole the memorial to their children telling them their children never existed.

But the harmfulness of conspiracy theory arguably goes much deeper than this. It’s not just that conspiracy belief sometimes causes people to do terrible things. It’s that attachment to the conspiracy worldview violates important norms of trust and forbearance that are central to how we relate to each other and the wider world.

There’s remarkably little philosophical work done on conspiracy theory, though intriguingly most of what has been done has been done by Australians and New Zealanders such as David Coady, Charles Pigden, Steve Clarke, and recently Matthew Dentith (I haven’t yet had a chance to get hold of Dentith’s new book on the philosophy of conspiracy theory but it looks interesting). Most of what has been done has concentrated on issues of rationality and epistemology: is it rational to believe in conspiracy theories?

Interestingly, the answer is: more rational than we might think. After all, conspiracy theories manage to explain all the loose ends (“errant data”) that the ‘official’ story doesn’t. Viewed purely as a form of inference to best explanation, conspiracy reasoning doesn’t seem to be inherently illogical on its face.

However, as Byford points out, conspiracy theory is a “tradition of explanation” (conspiracy theories don’t arise from nowhere but draw upon earlier narratives, often with deeply problematic origins) that has a shockingly bad strike rate. Real conspiracies have certainly happened – Watergate, Iran-Contra etc. – but how many have ever been uncovered by conspiracy theorists?

Academic discussions of conspiracy theory tend to focus on long-lived varieties, the ones that attract large numbers of adherents around a relatively stable core. It’s that duration that allowed Steve Clarke to analyse these theories using the framework of progressive and degenerating research programs, borrowed from the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos. In science, progressive research programs explain more and more observations and make successful predictions. When confronted by data that seems to disconfirm the theory, they posit ‘auxiliary hypotheses’ that actually strengthen the theory, by allowing it to explain and predict even more.

Degenerating research programs, by contrast, are stuck on the defensive: they don’t explain any new observations, nor make successful predictions, and are constantly having to defend themselves from new data that contradicts the theory. Clarke is right that most conspiracy theories are like that. If the various US shootings are government false flags designed to help Obama implement gun control, why is it taking so long? Shouldn’t at least one whistleblower have come forward?

A conspiracy theorist, led by the inexorable logic of their tradition of explanation, might double down at this point: the conspiracies we think we know about are just covers for the real conspiracies, while the reason conspiracy theory never seems to yield results is that the conspirators are making sure it doesn’t. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence: it’s proof positive of a conspiracy.

You can see how that sort of theorising is, to a certain extent, a frictionless spinning in a void. Any observation confirms the conspiracy, and any data that seems to disconfirm it also confirms it. It’s an ‘explanation’ of observed reality that comes at the cost of making its central beliefs unfalsifiable. But that’s not the only problem.

To believe in conspiracy theory, you must believe in conspirators. To maintain a conspiracy theory for any length of time, you must claim that more and more people are in on the conspiracy. Clinging to degenerating research programs of this type involves making more and more unevidenced accusations against people you know nothing about. That’s not without moral cost. Suspicion should always involve a certain reluctance, a certain forbearance from thinking the worst of people – a virtue that is sacrificed in the name of keeping the conspiracy theory going. In the process, real human tragedy is made into a plaything, fodder for feverish speculation that does no real epistemic or practical work.

Our relationship to each other and to society as a whole also only works against a generalised assumption of trustworthiness. Imagine if you believed by default that everyone is lying to you: how could you possibly function, or even communicate? Laura D’Olimpio recently wrote on Cogito about the importance of trust, and the corresponding vulnerability that requires us to accept. One crucial dimension of trust as a pervasive phenomenon in our lives is its role in our epistemology: most of what we know, we actually take on trust from the testimony of others. I only know that Iceland exists because I don’t believe, to borrow a phrase from Tom Stoppard, in a ‘conspiracy of cartographers.’

To maintain a conspiracy theory requires us to throw out more and more of our socially-mediated sources of knowledge, and to give up more and more of the trust in each other and in our knowledge-generating mechanisms that we are utterly dependent upon. On some level, the ‘conspiracy theory of society’ ultimately asks us to give up on society altogether. And that takes us to a very dangerous place indeed.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Strange bedfellows: euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and libertarianism

Originally published at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there.

The suspension of Philip Nitschke’s medical registration, and the events leading up to it, has sparked one of the most heated discussions about euthanasia in Australia for some time.

What’s surprising, however, is that the debate hasn’t split along the usual pro-euthanasia versus “pro-life” lines. Instead, advocates of both euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide themselves have been condemning Nitschke for failing to urge a 45-year-old man, who had no terminal illness but who expressed a wish to take his own life, to seek psychiatric help.

Nitschke has insisted that it wasn’t his role to try to dissuade someone from “rational suicide”:

If a 45-year-old comes to a rational decision to end his life, researches it in the way he does, meticulously, and decides that … now is the time I wish to end my life, they should be supported. And we did support him in that.

The pushback against Nitschke from euthanasia campaigners such as Rodney Syme (as well as mental health advocates such as beyondblue’s Jeff Kennett) provides a valuable lesson about what can happen when two very different ethical approaches converge on the same policy prescription; it becomes important to discuss the principles, not just the policy.

The importance of liberty

This problem isn’t unique to the euthanasia debate. Last week, newly-minted Liberal Democrats senator David Leyonhjelm announced plans to introduce a bill to legalise same-sex marriage.

As a libertarian, Leyonhjelm has called for lower taxes and a massively reduced role for government. Yet his position on marriage equality aligns him with a policy more closely associated with the political left.

Andrew Becraft/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

He’s not the only right-wing supporter of same-sex marriage of course. But when someone like British Prime Minister David Cameron declares “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative, I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative,” he is doing something very different: he’s saying that marriage is a substantive good, and committed same-sex couples can and should be able to participate in that good.

Philosophers such as Richard Mohr have argued that committed same-sex relationships already are marriages in a substantive sense, and the law should simply recognise that.

For libertarians (for the most part), the only real substantive good is individual autonomy. Leyonhjelm doesn’t argue, as far as I can see, that certain types of relationship have a special, substantive value; he simply thinks “It is not the job of the government to define relationships.“ (In which case, we might ask, why should governments get involved in certifying marriage at all?)

Those of us who support same-sex marriage can probably live with that tension, if it delivers the outcome we want. But the philosophical tension between approaches is still there.

And the very moral thinness of libertarianism, its refusal to trade in any ethical currency other than liberty, sits uneasily with issues of life and death, where all sorts of other moral considerations are in play.

The limits of autonomy

That’s precisely why Nitschke’s comments about suicide are so shocking. Most arguments for euthanasia come down to a concern to alleviate needless suffering.

One reason death is viewed as normally being a harm to the person who dies is that it deprives us of goods we would have enjoyed had we lived. In a situation where there is nothing left in the patient’s future but pain and loss of dignity, there are no more goods to lose.

Compassionate regard for someone whose fate is in our hands may mean helping them achieve a quicker, more dignified death is the least-worst option.

Autonomy plays a crucial role in that, of course: we need to respect the patient’s decisions regarding their treatment, including their refusal of further interventions. Compassionate concern for others may mean allowing them a degree of control over their impending death.

Having only one source of light, the libertarian landscape is dimly lit. Graham Hodgson/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

What Nitschke’s libertarian position does, however, is strip out everything but autonomy and reduce the whole issue to one of individual choice.

Libertarianism’s moral moonscape

If you think, as Nitschke apparently does, that the question here is simply about exercising a right to suicide, why should it matter whether someone is terminally ill or not? If someone wants to die, and they’re clear-headed enough to make competent decisions, who are we to interfere with their personal liberty in order to stop them?

And yet most of us do have fairly clear moral intuitions that the suicide of an otherwise physically healthy person, possibly with treatable mental health issues, is a terrible thing.

Libertarianism either can’t make sense of that intuition, or treats it as irrelevant.

When teaching classes on the ethical debate over euthanasia, I’ve found that students often seem to struggle with explaining why it should matter whether the patient is dying (or at least permanently debilitated) or not. Yet from a mercy perspective, it matters very much that there are, in fact, no truly good options left open.

In part, this is because mercy is a particular kind of response towards another, a response that acknowledges their distinctive value – and understanding that value is essential to understanding the full tragedy of death, of what is lost when a person dies.

Acknowledging that value means accepting some limits on autonomy where avoidable death is involved.

Respect for patient autonomy needn’t involve the sort of wilful blindness Nitschke has shown. If we want to make the case for progressive reforms, such as euthanasia and marriage equality – as we should, vigourously and doggedly – we should resist doing so in terms that leave us unable to make sense of our moral environment.

Anyone seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue 1300 22 46 36

The spying game: what a 15th-century Irish warlord can teach today’s politicians

[Originally published at The Conversation; please feel free to join in the discussion]

Irish philosopher Richard Kearney visited Melbourne last year and, being the fine raconteur he is, told a great tale from his nation’s past. In 1492, Black James, nephew of the Earl of Ormond, and a group of heavily armed retainers sought sanctuary in the chapter house of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

Outside stood Gerard Mór FitzGerald, the powerful Earl of Kildare, and his men. A bloody feud between two dynastic families, the Butlers and the FitzGeralds, had culminated in this desperate moment.

From the other side of the door, FitzGerald pleaded with Black James to come out and negotiate a truce. Fearing that he and his men would be slaughtered the moment they stepped outside, James refused.

Then FitzGerald did something quite remarkable. He had his men cut a hole in the door – and thrust his arm through it. James could easily have hacked off FitzGerald’s arm. Instead, he shook it. The feud was over.

That’s the story that’s come down to us; maybe the reality was far less inspiring. FitzGerald, after all, was a man so charismatic he somehow used his own treason trial to convince Henry VII to send him back to Ireland as Lord Deputy:

All Ireland cannot govern this Earl; then let this Earl govern all Ireland.

And the claim that this event gave us the expression “to chance one’s arm”, though charming, seems improbable.

But FitzGerald’s gesture tells us something important about trust, vulnerability and the ways in which political self-interest can ensnare us in webs that can only be cut through by an ethical regard for the other.

The Westphalian world order of sovereign nations is often understood as a sort of anarchy. While nation-states apply the rule of law internally, the geopolitical realm is a lawless frontier of powerful national actors competing in the name of self-interest.

Diplomatic language may smooth this over with talk of “friends” and “special relationships” but scratch the surface and it’s basically just Game of Thrones with APEC shirts. And nowhere is that more evident than in how nations spy on each other.

Two spying scandals are currently swirling around Australian politics. Both involve Australian agencies listening to the conversations of our near neighbours in an attempt to further our “national interest”. Both involve electronic eavesdropping of a sort that would cause outrage if done to Australian politicians and their spouses. And in the discussion of both cases, the moral issues this activity raises have been mostly swept to one side.

Whenever a foreign intelligence story breaks in the media, the commentary tends to be built around catchy little chunks of realpolitik: everybody spies on everyone, and everyone knows it; nations have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, only permanent interests; and so on. Commentators have smugly invoked the “prissy moralising” of US president Herbet Hoover’s Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, who in 1929 closed the State Department’s cryptographic “Black Chamber” because:

Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.

Stimson, we’re told, just wasn’t in touch with the “reality” of global affairs. After all, on one popular estimate, the cracking of the German Enigma code shortened World War Two by up to two years and saved untold lives – and that success wouldn’t have been possible if not for secret work done by the Polish military well before the outbreak of war.

The subtext of all this seems to be “of course we spy on our neighbours – we have to, as it is in our national interest to do so”. Everything, it seems, must be subordinated to the national interest. The Prime Minister tells parliament his first duty is to advance the national interest, without telling us why acting in our own interests is always right or even permissible. Even the ABC has been accused of betraying “the national interest” by breaking the Indonesian spying story with The Guardian.

The responses in Indonesia and Timor Leste are likewise being interpreted through the prism of those countries’ domestic political and economic issues. There’s plenty of self-interest to go around.

But that shouldn’t alter our evaluation of whether it was right to eavesdrop on the wife of the Indonesian president or the East Timorese cabinet. Such an evaluation must get past the bizarre notion that ethical regard stops the moment we’re dealing with foreign nationals.

Morality doesn’t stop at the border. The fact that the Australian Signals Directorate operates under extra restrictions when dealing with “Australian persons”, for instance, doesn’t change what it is to spy on someone.

None of this amounts to an argument that covert foreign intelligence collection is never necessary or permissible. But we can accept that such activity might be crucial for saving lives and preventing crime without accepting that national interest is always a good enough reason to spy on someone. A standing desire to advance the nation’s geopolitical or economic interests does not, on the face of it, rise to the necessary level of moral urgency.

So, what does the Irish tale we started with have to teach us here? And how might it help the Abbott and Yudhoyono governments in finding a way forward?

There are two ways (at least) of looking at what FitzGerald did that day in 1492. One is that he took a calculated risk, based on his assessments of the probabilities of how Black James would react. He weighed up the risks and benefits and decided it was in his self-interest to take the gamble.

The other is that he took a leap of trust: that by placing himself in a position of vulnerability, he could open the situation up and allow new possibilities to emerge. Self-interest had led to hopeless deadlock, but surrendering to trust, giving up a degree of control, might just spring it open again.

Perhaps the second interpretation is just a piece of naïve romanticising, or simply overlaying a particular modern ethical view (one that bears a heavy imprint of 20th-century thinkers like Levinas and Buber) into a very alien, archaic context.

But perhaps it also suggests a way forward. Breaking through the calculus of competing national interests might involve setting self-interest aside, at least in a limited way. It might involve accepting vulnerability – and thereby taking a leap of trust, however small.

That may mean giving up the edge in international negotiations, or accepting that certain kinds of information just won’t be available under certain circumstances, for moral rather than practical or technical reasons. That may be frustrating and, yes, potentially dangerous.

A line between legitimate security interests and simply trying to feather our nest will constantly have to be walked. But some such distinction – and the willingness to live with the costs of doing the right thing – is essential.

The quarantining of geopolitics from ethics is looking more and more unsustainable. What might replace it, however, is unclear. If we want a truly ethical international order, not simply an anarchic competition of national interests in which might rather than right carries the day, the first step might be putting trust ahead of self-interest.

We might have to be the ones to chance our arm.

Waste not, want not – the politics of why philosophy matters

[Originally posted at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there]

Update: Read more on this topic from Robert Sinnerbrink, Thom Brooks, Daniel Stacey and Andy Weatherall
And so now we officially know: philosophy is a waste.

How can we be sure? Because Coalition spokesman for scrutiny of government waste Jamie Briggs has promised an Abbott government would get rid of “those ridiculous research grants that leave taxpayers scratching their heads wondering just what the government was thinking”.

Seriously, don’t bother with philosophy. Don’t bother trying to understand the rules of logic, or what constitutes a good argument, or what makes an action right or wrong. Don’t bother trying to follow humanity’s “great conversation” let alone trying to contribute to it. Waste of time and money.

Briggs cited four projects: one in anthropology, one in public art, and not one, but two in philosophy.

Why pick on philosophy? That’s not hard: we’re an easy target. “Philosopher” has become a byword for “useless and unemployable” (except we’re not), for “abstract and impractical”.

Of course, most disciplines suffer from misconceptions about what they do. Tell someone you’re a scientist and they’ll picture you in a white coat and goggles surrounded by bubbling Erlenmeyer Flasks; tell them you’re an anthropologist and they’ll probably imagine you hacking through jungle with a machete on your way to study some remote tribe.

Tell them you’re a philosopher? They’ll laugh. Or, worse, start quoting Deepak Chopra at you.

Philosophy has a particular vulnerability here because it’s not directly linked to any obvious economic output, it’s hard, and if you aren’t curious about ideas you’ll struggle to see the point of it. If you don’t view knowledge as having intrinsic rather than merely economic value, philosophy will be your go-to example of academic wankery.

And if you have a visceral dislike or suspicion of intellectuals – or want to curry favour with people who do – what could be more satisfying than calling out people who use words like “supererogatory” and “noetic” as useless blowhards?

But it’s not just philosophers who should be worried here. Ordinary taxpayers should be too.

All four of the projects Briggs cited have already run the gamut of the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) expert assessors and secured funding in a very difficult, competitive environment. In other words, people who know what they’re talking about looked at them and decided that they were world-class research.

But apparently Jamie Briggs – who seems to have no qualifications relevant to any of the research topics he attacked – knows better than the ARC’s College of Experts. And note that he wasn’t talking about cutting the overall research budget, just redistributing it so that humanities projects he and his colleagues can’t see the point of miss out. In other words, he’s saying that certain kinds of knowledge just aren’t worth producing, or at least not worth paying for.

We’ve been here before, back when Brendan Nelson was education minister and declared he had to look truck drivers and gasfitters in the eye and tell them he was allocating the ARC’s money properly.

The assumption here is that somehow ministers and truck drivers know better than the ARC’s own College of Experts what counts as a meritorious project. If it leaves you scratching your head then clearly it must be vacuous nonsense, right?

I’m hardly an impartial observer here. I had nothing to do with either of the projects Briggs attacked, but both of them focus on topics I also work on: selfhood and identity, and post-Kantian European philosophy of religion. In fact I’m currently writing a book that combines both these topics, so apparently I’m wasting both my time and your money to an absolutely stunning degree.

Except, no, I’m not. And neither were Paul Redding and Diego Bubbio, whose projects Briggs sneers at. Their work touches on questions that human beings cannot avoid asking: the nature of what we are, what exists, and of our place in the universe. They feed into active and productive literatures, and open up new avenues for exploration.

Projects like this matter. They matter because they advance fundamental avenues of inquiry that have been part of the human inheritance since, at least, the Axial Period. They enhance the scope, size and profile of Australian research and thereby help to attract talent. And having spent several years overseas on a series of postdoc grants, I know how crucial they can be as a mechanism for training researchers and for attracting and retaining people who can enhance Australia’s research profile and culture.

Perhaps most of all, funding a certain amount of basic, even speculative research shows that we are a society serious about knowledge itself, not simply about meeting our material needs. That is what the humanities do: they remind us we are human.

So yes, politicians need to stop attacking fundamental parts of human inquiry they don’t understand and don’t care about. But part of the responsibility here also falls to philosophers ourselves. We need to be much better at explaining what we do and why it matters. Scientists are at least talking about scientific literacy; “philosophical literacy” is hardly even discussed, except as a joke.

Over the last year I’ve done a bit of media work, here and elsewhere, and one thing it’s brought home to me is how philosophically naïve much of our public discourse has become. For instance, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have assured me that morality is obviously all just a matter of personal opinion – as if the last two and a half thousand years of moral philosophy never happened. We expect people to have views on right and wrong without equipping them with even the most basic tools to ask the relevant questions or assess the answers they’re offered.

As philosophers, we need to keep explaining why that’s a problem, why philosophy matters. We need to keep making the case, loudly and often, that our discipline is not simply a fun pastime for people who like to argue or quote Levinas in smoke-filled coffee houses. Rather, philosophy is the condition for all our knowing, all our enquiry. It is the only way we can answer those basic human questions we cannot help but ask: what is there, what do we know, how are we to live?

In making that case, we could do a lot worse than cite this quote from Bertrand Russell (which the Australasian Association of Philosophy recently posted on their Facebook page):

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected.

A nation that mocks philosophy is a nation content to remain “imprisoned in its prejudices”. Where is the minister who will look us in the eye and tell us that?

Australia: land of eccentric election candidates

[Originally posted at The Conversation UK; feel free to join in the discussion there]

UPDATE: The below piece ran in the Conversation’s UK edition on election eve 2013. The provisional election result has Clive Palmer elected to the seat of Fairfax and two of his senate candidates also elected. Congratulations, Clive. It also appears the hitherto unknown Australian Sports Party and the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party have both secured senate seats despite each attracting absolutely miniscule proportions of the vote. This sort of outcome is precisely what the ABC’s wonderful resident psephologist Antony Green has been warning us about for some time. Here’s his excellent analysis of what happened and how the system might be fixed.

 

Here’s a sentence you probably won’t hear again for a while: when I lived in the UK, I couldn’t get over how constructive and intelligent British politics was.

Having come from Australia, where Question Time in parliament has long since descended into hollow sloganeering and pointless vitriol – like kabuki theatre staged at a dog fight – Westminster politics seemed decidedly civil, even, well … reasonable.

The key to understanding Australian politics is that voting is both compulsory and preferential (or “Alternative Vote” as the UK knows it). This means that in order to win elections, candidates have to appeal to people who don’t care about politics and also to people who plan to vote for someone else anyway. The result is two major parties who, despite some genuine ideological divisions, basically disagree within a fairly narrow band. Unthreatening centrism and a “don’t scare the horses” mentality is the order of the day.

But there is another story at play here too. Australia’s notoriously complicated voting system for the Senate, combined with preference deals done between parties, means the balance of power in the upper house has often been held by independents and minor parties such as the Australian Greens and, until a few years ago, the Australian Democrats.

There’s also a slew of perennial campaigners such as the Shooters and Fishers Party (not to be confused with the Fishing and Lifestyle Party) and the Australian Sex Party. Tragically the latter refuses to use the slogan “Ain’t No Party Like An Australian Sex Party!”, but made up for it this year with the campaign line “As much as we like sex, we don’t like getting f***ed.” I’m not even making that up.

Minor parties may add colour and movement, but they are more than just electoral noise: they can exert a serious influence on preferences flows and ultimately on the composition of the Senate.

So with that in mind, here’s a quick primer on a couple of the more, ahem, “interesting” characters making their presence felt in this election.

Julian Assange

I’m guessing you may have already heard of would-be Senator Julian Assange, born and raised in the suburbs of Melbourne, lately of Knightsbridge.

Wikileaks decided to set up a political party to contest the Australian election in 2012, with Assange in the party’s number one slot for the Victorian Senate contest, the fact that he’s hiding in an embassy notwithstanding. In the event he wins, Assange will not be able to take up his seat for obvious reasons, and so the party’s number two candidate, Melbourne ethicist and author Leslie Cannold, would have taken his place. The party is standing on a platform of human rights, democracy, transparency and accountability.

Except that just a few weeks into the campaign his party promptly imploded and Cannold quit, along with other party figures. The reason? A lack of democracy, transparency and accountability. Oh dear.

The dispute was over the still-unclear set of circumstances which lead to Wikileaks directing its preferences minor right-wing parties ahead of the Greens in NSW, and preferencing against Greens Senator – and staunch Assange supporter – Scott Ludlam.

Also, this happened:

Bob Katter

Bob Katter’s father, Bob Sr, began his political life with the Australian Labor Party, moved to the Democratic Labor Party (formed after the anti-communist split) and eventually migrated to the mainstream Nationals, a rural/agricultural conservative party that works in coalition with the more metropolitan/business conservative Liberal Party. After Bob Sr lost his seat of Kennedy to Labor, Bob Jr won it back, but eventually resigned from the party and sat as an independent until forming the modestly named Katter’s Australian Party in 2011. KAP currently has seats in the Queensland Parliament. He famously appeared in a break dancing video to promote that campaign.

Katter is known for his very large hats and quite old-school blend of economic protectionism and social conservatism. He dislikes the supermarket duopoly (and its impact on farmers) and the carbon tax as much as he dislikes same-sex marriage. He once insisted there were no homosexuals in far north Queensland electorate. Not surprisingly he has been publicly at odds with his gay half-brother.

He also threw eggs at the Beatles once, because sure, why not?

Clive Palmer

It’s easy to mock Clive Palmer, and I’m lazy, so let’s do just that.

Clive Palmer is a mining magnate, onetime football team owner, and former Liberal National Party life member. Having amassed an enormous wealth (in the hundreds of millions), he has turned his attentions to building a replica Titanic and a Jurassic Park-style resort full of an animatronic dinosaurs, as well running for high office. To date he hasn’t married a sub-par singer and built her an opera house, but there’s time.

After planning to stand against Katter in 2012, Palmer became increasingly critical of the LNP and left to found his own Palmer United Party. His platform mostly seems to consist of “mining is great!” (again, opposed to the carbon tax) as well as what appear to be relatively progressive education and refugee policies.

Palmer’s public persona oscillates between “avuncular straight shooter” and “mad as a cut snake”. In response to a critical piece in the Murdoch press this week, Palmer accused Murdoch’s estranged wife, Wendy Deng, of being a Chinese spy. This isn’t the first time he’s played the “accuse your opponents of being in the pay of foreign intelligence services” card either: in 2012 he accused Greenpeace of being funded by the CIA in order to bring down the Australian coal industry.

The rest

We could go on: there’s notorious anti-immigrant former MP Pauline Hanson returning for another stab at the Senate, and firebrand anti-Islam preacher Danny Naliah (who appears to have blamed the 2009 Black Saturday fires, which killed 173 people, on changes to Victoria’s abortion laws).

But all jokes aside, the minor party candidates do tell us something about the state of Australian democracy. The two-party system assumes the diversity of political views can be accommodated within a hopelessly simplistic “left-right” division. Candidates like Katter – socially conservative but pro-nationalisation, anti-carbon tax but protectionist – give the lie to that simple binary. And we need to be reminded of how limited left-right politics is: perhaps Wikileaks’ progressive supporters would have been less shocked to see them preference against the Greens had they noticed the party’s apparent libertarian rather than social-democratic bent.

Compulsory and preferential voting – though both in themselves, I’d suggest, very good things, and worth defending – also compel the major parties to appeal to an “average voter” who turns out to look very much like the voters of suburban Sydney and Melbourne. Charismatic minor party figures may seem surreal and clownish to latte-sipping inner-city sophisticates like myself – but their messages gain traction because, for better or worse, they articulate the worldview of voters who don’t see themselves or their concerns reflected in Canberra.

If these candidates generate a true clash of ideas in a political landscape largely bereft of them, then perhaps we should be grateful for folks like Julian, Bob and Clive.

Fuming with outrage: Nazis, nannies and smoking

[Originally posted at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there]

A few years ago I saw a poster stuck to the wall of a train station in Copenhagen. The poster was a protest paid for by a prominent Danish musician against new regulations against smoking in public. At the top was a sarcastic “Congratulations on the smoking ban” followed by the German phrase “Gesundheit Macht Frei” (good health makes you free).

You might think invoking “Arbeit Macht Frei,” the slogan above the gates at Auschwitz, to complain about not being able to smoke in bars is pretty tasteless. More likely than not, it’ll also distract from the message you’re trying to send.

So, lesson learnt, defenders of smoking: no more comparing smoking ban proponents to Nazis, okay?

Enter The Australian’s Adam Creighton, comparing the Rudd government’s increase on tobacco excise to the anti-smoking campaigns of Nazi Germany. This should end well.

Now, to his credit, Creighton isn’t just running a lazy “argumentum ad Hitlerum” i.e. “You know who else hated smoking?” Rather, he’s claiming that Australia’s attempts to discourage smoking are “being sold with the same flawed economic and moral arguments that underpinned Nazi Germany’s policies.” Which arguments are these?

Individuals and the State

What the Nazis and the Italian Fascists believed, roughly, is that individuals only have significance and purpose through and in the State. This sort of totalitarianism is indeed repugnant, not just because of the suffering it causes, but because of the distorting and reductive view of the moral value of human beings it presents.

Against this, Creighton appeals to the liberal harm principle, as championed by figures like John Stuart Mill. Again, very roughly, this principle states that we’re only entitled to interfere in the actions of others where those actions cause harm to other people. You are morally permitted to do whatever you like so long as you’re not harming anyone else in the process.

So according to defenders of smoking, coercive attempts to reduce smoking infringe on an area that, so long as no-one else is affected, is properly a matter of free individual choice. Creighton accepts that restrictions on smoking in public are legitimate given the dangers of second-hand smoke, but punitive measures designed to stop people smoking are not:

government should butt out of individuals’ decision to smoke privately, or to engage in any other behaviour that might entail personal costs without harm to others.

Part of the reason Mill’s harm principle is intuitively satisfying is that individual liberty does matter. Both classical liberalism and its more radical libertarian offshoot respond to genuine and important features of the moral landscape: all else being equal it’s better if we let people do what they want. At its best, strident liberalism is a healthy bulwark against excessive paternalism and coercion.

But these positions also rely on a hopelessly atomistic picture of what human beings are. They see each of us as a free, rational, self-contained, self-directed agent, an independent, sovereign individual living alongside other sovereign individuals, entering into free contracts for mutual benefit.

Where does harm end?

Philosophers have spent a lot of time taking that view of human nature apart: we are far less free, transparent-to-ourselves and rational than liberalism (and the economic theories it underpins) assumes. We’re also far more radically interconnected and dependent upon others. Our borders are considerably more porous than the sovereign individual model would suggest.

But even within his own liberal worldview, Creighton’s argument runs into serious problems. For one thing even Mill had to allow that there are some harms you’re not permitted to inflict even upon yourself, such as selling yourself into slavery or committing suicide.

If you wrestle a gun away from a would-be suicide, we don’t take you to be committing assault – but surely killing yourself is an essentially “private” matter if anything is? If we’re allowed to stop people throwing themselves off bridges, why aren’t we entitled to at least make it harder (if not impossible) for them to kill themselves with tobacco?

And is smoking only a harm to the individual? The harm principle notoriously runs into problems with questions like this. Creighton insists that things like the “psychological costs of premature death” are “purely personal costs” and so none of the state’s business.

But of course death does not only affect the person who dies; deaths ramify through families, friendship circles, workplaces, social networks – just where does the private end and the public begin?

There’s more

And then there’s this:

Amazingly – given smokers choose to smoke – popular estimates of “net costs” ignore any personal benefit smokers might derive from smoking. And they disregard the offsetting savings from substantially lower health and age-pension costs as a result of smoking-induced premature deaths.

You read that right: we should factor in the money we save from smokers dying early as a benefit.

And therein lies the problem: casting this wholly as a private, personal freedom issue is basically a refusal to take the moral gravity of premature death seriously. That, in turn, involves denying that persons have an intrinsic worth, beyond whatever economic or social value they might happen to have – to understand the value of persons you have to understand what is lost to the world when they die, and vice versa.

Those who complain about a “nanny state” trying to stop people from getting themselves killed are ignoring the significance of death and the responsibilities that generates. And an outlook that thinks we should weigh that human tragedy against the money it saves us has long since lost any right to call itself morally serious.

None of this should be read as a plea to ban smoking: prohibition doesn’t exactly have a glittering history of success anyway. To reiterate, personal freedom matters, and we often need to leave people alone to make their own objectively dreadful choices.

But that right of non-interference may not be absolute, as the suicide and slavery examples show; and there is plenty of scope for policy moves designed to discourage people from harming themselves.

Of course, ideally we wouldn’t need to interfere in people’s lives at all. If you don’t want a nanny telling you what to do, maybe it’s time to grow up.

Drowning Mercy: Why We Fear The Boats

[Originally posted at The Conversation; I’d invite you to join the discussion there but they shut it down. Things got a bit heated, I think.]

There’s a Latin word: misericordia.

It’s usually translated “mercy” or “pity”. Thomas Aquinas took misericordia to be a kind of grief at the suffering of others as if that suffering were our own. Alasdair MacIntyre, the leading modern exponent of Thomist virtue ethics, sees misericordia as a responsiveness to the distress of others that offers the same concern we would normally show to those in our own family, community or country to total strangers.

Misericordia in this sense is the virtue of the Good Samaritan; it’s the virtue the ancient Chinese sage Mencius describes in the way we would rush to help a child who has fallen down a well, not through hope of reward, but simply through concern for the child – any child.

You might say this particular virtue went missing at sea the day the Special Air Service was ordered to board the MV Tampa. We have been doing our best to keep it from surfacing ever since.

And so it has come to this. Not only are we denying asylum seekers arriving by boat any prospect of resettlement in Australia, we are publishing pictures of their anguish at being told so. Whether this is genuinely meant to deter people from risking death on the high seas, or whether, as Melbourne philosopher Damon Young put it, it’s “immigration torture porn for xenophobes”, it seems we now see the suffering of others as an opportunity to exploit rather than a call to action.

The consensus among the commentariat has been that all this will go over beautifully in an electorate that has long seen boat arrivals as a standing existential threat. As journalist David Marr points out, Rudd is merely the latest prime minister to play on our disproportionate fear of “boat people”. The moves are new but the game itself is decades old.

It’s a bizarre national obsession and it begs for answers: why are we so scared of the boats?

No doubt straightforward racism is a very big part of it. But that can’t be the whole story: if it were, why has the government not been pilloried for talking about raising the overall humanitarian intake? Why is there no comparable outrage over the considerably larger number of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by air? If it’s about respect for Australian law, where’s the outrage over visa overstayers, a much larger cohort than asylum seekers? If it’s driven by opposition to population growth, where were all those “F—– Off, We’re Full” stickers when the Baby Bonus was introduced?

So what is it that boat arrivals symbolise that other forms of arrival don’t? Well, here’s a stab at an answer: they remind Australians that we haven’t earned what we’ve got.

Consider John Howard’s “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” line. That same message has been built into all our rhetoric on boat arrivals ever since: we don’t have to take you, and unless you come here entirely on our terms, we won’t. Form an orderly line, jump through this set of hoops, and maybe we’ll let you in. You’re welcome.

This emphasis on sovereignty over mercy serves to bolster the idea that “our way of life” is somehow ours by right, and so within our gift to bestow or withhold however we see fit. A gift, by its nature, must be freely given and gratuitous; it cannot be demanded of us. And it must be ours to give; we can only share what we ourselves are entitled to.

Except, of course, we haven’t earned such an entitlement at all.

Consider what Howard’s former chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos told a Q&A audience this week:

…our obligation…is to give people protection. It is not to guarantee them a first world lifestyle in every case when they come to Australia.

But then, by what right are we guaranteed such a lifestyle? What law of nature or reason determines that we get to live in luxury simply by virtue of the accident of birth?

Consider the slogan bandied about during the Cronulla riots: “I grew here, you flew here” – as if it was a personal achievement to be born on this part of the earth’s surface at this point in history. It’s not. It’s sheer dumb luck. It’s nice to be lucky, but it’s no merit.

I suspect on some level that’s what boat arrivals remind us of: the radical contingency of everything we have. It’s not just that we’re repulsed by undeserved misfortune – “there but for the grace of God go I”; “really makes you think, doesn’t it?” – we’re deeply unsettled by undeserved good fortune too.

As a species we always have been. That’s why we invented doctrines like karma, so we could insist that those born into abased misery or obscene privilege must, somehow, be getting their just deserts. In the modern West we have a similar myth: that “anyone can make it” if they just work hard enough, and so the poor must simply be lazy, undeserving – as if talent and even the capacity for hard work itself aren’t themselves dealt out by random chance.

Acknowledging such radical contingency knocks the ground from under out feet. It suggests our claim to our prosperity ultimately rests on happy accident rather than cosmic justice. No amount of “Cronulla capes” and bumper stickers and half-remembered tales of Bradman riding Phar Lap to victory at Gallipoli can change that.

K.E. Løgstrup, a 20th century Danish moral philosopher who deserves to be much better known outside Scandinavia than he is, argued that once we see the gratuitousness of what we have, we can no longer stand on our own rights in order to begrudge others our help. Our individual sovereignty is shattered by the realisation that everything we have is, ultimately, a gift we’ve received, not an entitlement we’ve earned.

Perhaps that’s why the boats scare us: they remind us of a far more demanding ethics lurking behind our comfortable norms of reciprocity and exchange. Perhaps that’s at least part of why we go to such lengths to dehumanise, to demonise, to refuse to see asylum seekers in their full humanity.

None of what I’ve just written fixes the problem or even offers any policy suggestions whatsoever. Understanding our motives won’t stop people dying at sea – as I write this, yet more lives have just been lost.

But the moral demand to respond with misericordia hasn’t gone away. And we cannot act morally, or even see others properly, if we’re more concerned about justifying our own privilege.