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Care of strangers

August 30th, 2004

Here’s a guest post from regular commenter Brian Bahnisch, on the philosophy behind our stance on asylum seekers. It raises some important (though not entirely new) questions about the adequacy of utilitarianism in contexts like this.

In the comments thread of this post Jack Strocchi raised a number of issues concerning asylum seekers including utilitarianism as the basis for our stance. The legal/ethical basis for our stance is central and deserves greater scrutiny, discussion and reflection. The following is not intended as a complete philosophical justification for an alternative approach, merely to demonstrate that alternatives are possible.

I’m going to start with the statement that I don’t accept utilitarianism as providing an adequate basis for public policy or law generally, but in this case in particular.

Suddenly on this blog I feel like a pigeon amongst the cats, so I’ll base the argument mainly on my big gun, Desmond Manderson, whose views are compatible with my own.

On 24 August, 2001 Desmond Manderson, then Director of the Julius Stone Institute of Jurisprudence at the University of Sydney, had an article “Care of strangers’ published in the AFR. He clearly understands that the law operates in a social context, and is related to philosophy and values.

The Benthamite dictum has existed in my mind as “the greatest good for the greatest number.” To me this begs the question of what the ‘greatest good’ consists of, and who decides. Turns out I was wrong about the quote, which should read “the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people”. This is even worse because in ‘happiness’ we have a private good, which may be different for different people. Moreover the happiness of one may conflict with the happiness of another. Indeed it opens the way for the circumstance that the pain of one or some may contribute to the happiness of others.

It is easy to argue in these circumstances that governments in decent countries should protect individuals and small groups from the tyranny of the majority. This, Manderson says, is normally done on the basis of (human) rights.

The problem with interests and rights is that both are based on the individual, albeit within a social context. That is, happiness is an individual interest, which may conflict with the interests of others. Ditto for rights, but rights must be both claimed and granted in a social context. In other words rights are socially constituted.

This may work OK within the (democratic) tribe, or by extension within the state (if it is working properly in an inclusive way) but does not as such recognise the needs of the stranger in trouble. Nor indeed does it help alienated and voiceless groups within a society.

The problem here is that we may see it in our interests (and we do) to deny strangers the means to make a claim for refuge from persecution based on basic human needs and universally recognised human rights, recognised by us too as signatories to an international convention. In effect and actually we turn the strangers away without listening to them.

Manderson is suggesting here that our approach, our jurisprudence, is based on the notion that society is comprised of a collection of freely associating isolates. The self and self-interest is the ultimate ground of explanation. Altruism remains as a problem, or at best an interest of some of us.

Manderson turns here to an alternative jurisprudence “built on the work of the great ethical philosopher and Jewish theologian Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995).” According to Levinas, Manderson says:

“Our very sense of selfhood is a construction; it comes from our relationship with others, initially as a child and then throughout our lives. The ‘other’ comes ‘before’ the self because there is no self without them. We might even say that we are a mirror in which others are reflected.” [Personally, I think the mirror metaphor is too limited, but that’s another story.]

In view of this:

“We do not ‘give’ them [others] charity (or rights) from the depths of our autonomy. We already owe them a debt, for their otherness is the very condition of our existence. We are ourselves, not just among them but because of them. Charity or kindness is not a torchlight which we hold and decide to shine on someone else. No, it is the sunlight without which we could not see anything at all.

You will note here that we have moved from questions of law to questions of philosophy, not just ethics but the ontological question of the nature of our being. The ontology behind or assumed by utilitarianism is seldom discussed.

Responsibility, the second Levinas’ concept brought to bear, is our ability to respond. In a sense we don’t choose whether to respond, merely how. We are chosen by the proximity of the stranger in need. This responsibility “comes from the ‘face to face’ encounter with another person and cannot be satisfied by the rote application of rules.”

We can choose to accept or reject our responsibility. If we accept then both we and the ‘other’ grow in humanity. If we reject our responsibility we certainly diminish ourselves and may also harm others. In the end it’s a simple argument. We are all connected and we are here to help each other. Out of that we grow and, as a matter of grace, may become happy.

Manderson concludes:

“The fundamental test of justice is one of hospitality to the stranger. Too bad for us, but we do not have a say in the matter. In this, we are already the chosen people.”

That was Manderson’s challenge. Two days later the Tampa showed up. I’ll leave it to you to work out how well we went on the test.

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  1. d
    August 30th, 2004 at 10:39 | #1

    Brain
    I really enjoyed reading your post because it has a warmth of feeling that is very encouraging of others to consider your viewpoint.
    Might I add an extra plea that the charity you call for to be displayed towards others (which I have noted in your rispostes to myself for example) be also be extended more widely to the general tone of debate that occurs on this and other blogs, and in the politics area in general. For example we all forgo the uncharitable habit of calling others “liars” rather that say, mistaken, or in error, and also concentrate on dealing with issues rather than pursuing ad hominen attacks on integrity as a way of settling issies as is sadly the norm whick “skeptics” and “contrarians” are discussed.

    Perhaps we could rephrase your last quote to be “The fundamental test of civility is respectfull ness towards those whose views seem strange”
    It would be inconsistent to argue for displaying charity to strangers is a kind of moral sunlight, and not let that sunlight brighten the whole arena of discourse and particularly current political discourse.

  2. Homer Paxton
    August 30th, 2004 at 11:06 | #2

    Utilitarianism fails to address this issue as it only deals with ethics not morals. This has always been the weakness of utilitarianism.

    On the other hand Christians know that governments are judged by God on how they deal with the fatherless, the widows and the Aliens (refugees) ie the most disadvantaged in society.

    On this basis the government policy has been evil.

    Sydney Anglicans have been pointing this out to the ‘christians’ in the present government for some time.

  3. TJW
    August 30th, 2004 at 11:50 | #3

    “…we may see it in our interests (and we do) to deny strangers the means to make a claim for refuge from persecution based on basic human needs and universally recognised human rights…”

    I don’t think that we deny anyone the right to claim refuge. They can claim refuge in any number of foreign countries.

    The way I see it is that there is a finite resource (refugee places) and that demand far exceeds supply. In the interests of fairness, this resource should be distributed as equitably as possible in the circumstances. A key to this requires prioritisation among refugees to determine those most in need.

    This is where onshore processing becomes contentious, because once a individual is determined to be a refugee, the convention demands that they be granted refuge. It deprives us of the opportunity to make any attempt at prioritisation. With up to 20 million refugees (and displaced people) worldwide some are far more in need than others. A hands-off approach sees those refugees with the financial resources to get here placed at an advantage to those that are in more need but lack the means to get here.

    Of course, the offshore resettlement scheme is far from perfect. But it does form a (UN) co-ordinated attempt to resettle those refugees that are most in need of resettlement.

    Even this is an oversimplification of a very complex problem. I think it’s possible for a reasonable person to conclude either way whether we ‘passed’ the test.

  4. Jason Soon
    August 30th, 2004 at 13:32 | #4

    Brian
    I think you’re barking up the wrong tree by attacking utilitarianism. assuming the question is whether the handling of the tampa and detention centres was needlessly cruel not whether australia should have open borders, then one could still come to the conclusion that essentially yes it was, even on a national welfare basis using a utilitarian approach. firstly, just on the practicalities the question of whether detention is a more efficient approach than say, bail, is ultimately an empirical one that utilitarianism doesn’t prejudge one way or another.
    secondly, on a more reflective perspective, you’re assuming that some notion of human rights can’t be derived from utilitarianism. i think that’s wrong. yes, true, utilitarianism would say no rights are absolute but it might say that on the balance of probabilities and given the common risk and uncertainty that all humans are potentially exposed to (and history has already taught us that even well-assimilated, respected members of a high achieving highly civilised society like germany may one day have their lives turned upside down based on arbitrary factors like who their grandfathers were) then we all have a long-term rational self-interest in recognising on a reciprocal basis some right to shelter. utilitarianism can be appropriately modified to take the long view and when it does so its results converge (and indeed are no different to) some sort of veil of ignorance-based derivation of fundamental rights.

  5. James Farrell
    August 30th, 2004 at 15:33 | #5

    Brian,

    I like the idea of formulating a general ethical theory around altruism, and I wonder if it might have shades of Smith’s doctrine of sympathy. And the sunshine metaphor is terrific. But, like Jason, I’m not sure why you’re making utilitarianism your target, sepecially in this context. I haven’t so far heard anyone invoke Bentham (whom I admire)in defense of Ruddock (whom I don’t), so what’s brought this on?

  6. gordon
    August 30th, 2004 at 17:28 | #6

    Thanks, Brian, for an interesting post, especially in an election context. You may not have read the comments on Prof. Quiggin’s post of 25/8/04 (“The Other Deficit, Part II”), which developed into a (robust!) discussion of the costs of immigration in the US. It is a nice example of how a calculation of our material happiness affects our attitude to “strangers”. But I’m afraid I must disagree with your thesis.

    To get the cheapest shot out of the way first: substitution of a spiritual payoff for a material one is not abandoning utilitarianism; it is only changing the currency in use. What is the exchange rate?

    Second, it is not realistic to move directly from considerations of the individual to those of humanity as a whole when considering who is a “stranger”. There are at least two intervening levels of aggregation – the family and the nation-state – in between. People are more or less “strangers” to me depending not only on their humanity but on their membership of these groupings. One result of this is that I feel more strongly about relieving distress in my own family and in my nation than I do about distress among foreigners. This doesn’t mean I have no interest in suffering humanity at large. It means that I look for ways of relieving the distress of foreigners which impact least on the well-being (“happiness”, “wealth”, call it what you like) of my family and my nation.

    Third, I’m not happy with your definition of responsibility. Quoting Manderson (?), you say it: “…is our ability to respond. In a sense we don’t choose whether to respond, merely how. We are chosen by the proximity of the stranger in need.” But distress is caused by something or someone. If relieving distress is anyway related to removing the causes of distress, surely the “causer” (whom we might term the oppressor) should bear both the (moral) responsibility for causing the distress and the (practical) responsibility for relieving it. To suggest that I should relieve the distressed regardless of my responsibility for causing their distress is to reward the oppressor both by relieving him of his responsibility and by reducing the likelihood of resistance. It is a formula for “socialising the cost and privatising the gain” breathtaking in its comprehensiveness. And it likely implies a benefit for the distressed stranger at the expense of my family or nation, which I would baulk at (see above). Any one of these reasons would lead me to reject this definition of responsibility.

    The only exception that I can see is the case of a catastrophe without any human cause – maybe a large meteorite strike – where it becomes everyone’s responsibility to relieve the distressed just because there is no human agent on whom responsibility can be fastened. And even then I should be more generous to family or national victims than to foreign ones.

    When, therefore, I consider the causes of the distress of foreigners and find that these causes are often the actions of third parties as foreign to me as are the sufferers (eg. the chaos caused in the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan by repeated Great Power interventions), my reaction is that the distress may be at least lessened if these third parties either desisted from what they are doing (remove the cause), or offered compensation. Either would count as relieving distress.

    Remonstrating with the third parties, declining to participate in their actions or helping to fix compensation would then be both logical and cheap to my family and nation. I would therefore prefer to do that than allow lots of immigrants who may cost (family and nation) heaps (see reference to US immigration above).

    Where my family and nation are actually benefitting from the distress of foreigners, my reaction would be, if possible, to so compensate them that both parties are net gainers. If that is not possible, we are effectively at war. That is a state in which at least one party has decided that its welfare depends on exploiting, diminishing or maybe eliminating the other. In my approach such a state is possible. It is not, however, inevitable. I see no reason to think that the Manderson/Levinas approach would make it any less prevalent than it now is, and, by effectively decreasing the costs of oppression, Manderson/Levinas may well make it worse.

  7. wbb
    August 30th, 2004 at 18:17 | #7

    Jack Strocchi said “a national utilitarian ethic .. does not forbid exemplary deterrent measures”.

    Ruddock claimed repeatedly that the locking up of asylum seekers was in order to deter them from arriving. The deterrence was in order to be able to protect the best interests of the Australian community and off-shore refugees.

    This is the utilitarianism that Brian so well describes in a post that while ahead of its time, will with the flow of time become the accepted mainstream position once this tawdry over-heated historical episode has receded into the past.

    We do not normally countenance utilitarian deterrence that tramples on the welfare of fellow human beings. We often go to great expense on the behalf of the majority to help the very few or even the individual. We spare no expense to save the life of someone trapped under a snowdrift or to exhaustively test the case against somebody facing long imprisonment etc. Utilitarianism is not designed to help us think about extreme cases. And the plight of asylum seekers locked up in the desert is an extreme case.

    Utilitarianism can only offer a rule of thumb for macroeconomics and the like – it serves no purpose whatsoever when it comes to questions of law, or morality (including ethics.)

    When we say “but consider the principle” we are rejecting the utilitarian view point which will equate with the expedient. We are saying bugger the cost, there is something more important at stake. And, no, there is not necessarily a payoff in the long-term which will prove that the principle was actually justifiable from utilitarian position anyway. At least not in the useful sense that it could possibly have been computed up front by a utilitarian analysis.

    The adherence to a principle is taken with no regard to the likelihood of a general win for all. That is left to fate. Utilitarianism once it leaks into people’s world-view coarsens our humanity. It would even deny a place at the table for high-flown phrases like “humanity”. The idea is borne that we are mere economic agents etc. Nothing is further from the truth.

    The mere activity of people on these blogs is certain sign that something else apart from economic self-interest has a hand in ruling our hearts.

    Generosity and xenophobia are two. Neither can be understood by anything to do with utilitarianism.

  8. Jason Soon
    August 30th, 2004 at 18:44 | #8

    wbb most of your points are patently wrong. utilitarianism is about basing rules on *consequences* – without thinking systematically about consequences what have we got left?

    law is at least substantively about deterrence and rehabilitation, which are utilitarian concerns. we don’t punish people needlessly or for the sake of retribution or to build character or because it is ‘God’s law’ which non-utilitarian moralists might prefer but because we need to set up a framework which produces a particular feedback-response loop which reduces the incidence of particular conduct that if all were allowed to engage in would yield lower total social welfare than if such conduct were kept to a minimum. we set a rule saying that if you steal you go to jail for x years because that sets a price signal for stealing – all who steal get this feedback. more importantly, basing law on utilitarianism is more humane than basing law on the old testament ethics of ‘an eye for an eye’ etc. the criminal law system was more humane after Bentham than before. for instance as a utilitarian i think a reasonable case can be made for bail as an alternative to detention for refugees, not locking up non-violent criminals but putting them under electronic surveillance, and not criminalising behaviour like drug-taking.

    getting back to the detention issue – is it true that the cost of locking people up, the cost in terms of lost production when they could be out on bail and contributing to the Australian economy, the dimunition in respect for internationally recognised refugee rights (which I have argued can be derived from a utilitarian approach) due to the example set are really exceeded by the benefits from reduced incidence of people smuggling and therefore reduced incidence of illegal immigration to be guarded against, etc? Two utilitarians may come up with different answers – perhaps this concerns you but it’s a useful and necessary framework to have to look at the systemtatic condequences and try and evaluate them. so it’s true that utilitarianism conveys no certitude like old-time religion does. are rights absolute? would you really not torture somebody if there was a high probability that torturing them would save, say 10 million lives? who is the real monster in this case? utilitarianism doesn’t give easy answers but it guards against monstrous moral vanity that leaves no one better off. it should not be blamed for inhumanity or bad policy that may come from the bad data or bad interpretation of data of some of its practitioners.

  9. James Farrell
    August 30th, 2004 at 22:18 | #9

    Other than Jack, I should have said above. If he had found any authority to back his claim that utilitarians sanction punishment of the innocent he would have linked to it, so that was an obvious one to ignore, I would have thought.

  10. August 31st, 2004 at 00:20 | #10

    for a philosophy post, i thought you would use the philosophical sense of “begs the question” (petitio principii) and not the popular use of it…

    i understand that language evolves, and i dont get as worked up as my fellow philosophers, but i thought id inform you non philosophers of the error…

    note, there is also no distinction between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism…

  11. Brian Bahnisch
    August 31st, 2004 at 01:27 | #11

    As it happened I was out most of the day and when I left only d’s and Homer’s comments were there. Thanks d for your kind remarks. It put a spring in my step all day!

    For those who came in late d and I have had some robust discussion on GM foods, with some pashion but always civilised and respectful.

    There is so much to comment on I’ll have to think how to approach it. Meanwhile a few general comments.

    I don’t consider myself a philosopher, but did some in an arts degree 40 years ago, and some educational philosophy in a BEd Stud degree 20-30 years ago. Utilitarianism to me 40 years ago was like watching paint dry. At that time I was mainly interested in the nature of reality and all the ‘big’ questions. So I won’t be dealing with utilitarianism as a professional philosopher, because I can’t.

    Nor would I want to attack utilitarianism completely. I think it is one filter you can apply.

    I think I’ve been faithful to Manderson and I think he is saying we need to go beyond utilitarianism, rather than discard it.

    Nevertheless his thinking involves a paradigm shift in that it sees our personal experiential reality as derived from and embedded in the social. If you go back to Descartes “I think therefore I am” there are two important elements. First the “I” as the experiencing subject is posited. Second, there is a delineation (not sure of the best word here) is assumed between mind and body, with the mind being privileged.

    Manderson/Levinas are calling into question the primacy of the “I” (not, I think, erasing it).

    But Manderson is not making a big deal of the underlying philosophical issue. He is implying, though, that we should do altruism not because it leads to good outcomes but because of what we are. We are simply being true to our nature. And that is a pretty big deal.

    I thought the Manderson/Levinas position worth putting out there as a separate statement in the current debate. I’m delighted with the comments, but I’m going to have to go to bed right now!

  12. August 31st, 2004 at 12:36 | #12

    There are a number of different issues flowing around here. One important distinction is between utilitarianism as a moral philosophy (ala Peter Singer) and utilitarian as a political philosophy (ala Bentham). Another is between rule and act utilitarianism (as said c8to).

    But lets go back a step. Before looking at utilitarianism we must decide whether we’re judging an act by the nature of the act or by the consequence of the act. If we are to pick the consequence — then what consequence is considered “good”? The utilitarian answer cheats a bit by picking what I consider to be a tautological truism, basically, “good outcomes are good”. If we accept consequentialism, but disagree with utilitarianism, then somebody needs to tell me the virtue in making people unhappy. :\

    If we reject consequentialism then we need to consider what actions are appropriate. Once we look at this question, the libertarian political philosophy becomes hard to deny. Actions are just so long as they are not violent, and the consequence is not of concern.

    However, in reality (nearly) everybody is willing to sacrifice this deontelogical argument for the sake of consequences. As a basic and obvious example, we accept taxes (which, in case you hadn’t noticed, aren’t voluntary). Why? Because we think that the consequences (ie government spending) are positive (whether that’s true is another debate).

    While I find the logic of the utilitarian political philosophy undeniable, there is an additional question — and that is who should be included. If we include animals, then the appropriate rules change (meat eating becomes illegal). If we include featuses, then the approriate rules change (abortion becomes illegal). If we include foreigners, then the appropriate rules change (we must allow open immigration, give equal amounts of welfare to all people on earth etc). Most political commentators accept that the actions of the government should be concerned with the utility of their current human born citizens.

    Of course, once we step outside of political philosophy and into moral philosophy — it is very rare to find somebody consistantly applying a utilitarian framework. Care for strangers is largely a moral issue…

    ===================

    Only people who want to disagree with utilitarianism (such as wwb) think that it is about economic self-interest.

  13. Chris Borthwick
    August 31st, 2004 at 15:14 | #13

    Actually, from the utilitarian point of view Australia’s best bet is to subsume the asylum seekers issue in a larger picture. We would be best off offering citizenship and welfare to everybody from Niue, Nauru, Tuvalu,and a few other islands provided that they bought their seabed rights with them.

  14. Brian Bahnisch
    September 1st, 2004 at 13:54 | #14

    I had a really bad time this morning. I had several windows open and couldn’t seem to post anything. In the end I posted the longer one on Jack’s guest post instead of here. So here it is again, with apologies.

    James, as wbb says, Jack Strocchi said “a national utilitarian ethic .. does not forbid exemplary deterrent measures”. The utilitarian argument of the greatest good for the greatest number has frequently been used in the context of asylum seekers and it’s where Manderson starts substantatively. In a lecture or two we had in philosophy on utilitarianism in my youth, almost the first thing mentioned was the problem of the tyranny of the many over the few arising from Bentham’s view. I don’t know a lot about him and he may have other attractive virtues.

    C8to, thanks for not being too cross with me about the formal misuse of “begs the question.” A faint alarm did ring in my head, which was not in good shape at the time, but not loudly enough. Please substitute “fails to address the question.”

    Could you enlighten us laypersons what you mean by the distinction between “act utilitarianism” and “rule utilitarianism.” I can’t second guess Manderson, but it may be useful to think of utilitarianism as a process that has no necessary content, as I think gordon and Jason do. In my youth I didn’t regard utilitarianism as philosophy at all for similar reasons.

    [c8to has answered this here, thankyou.]

    At a bare minimum the concept of ‘utility’ will always surely attach to utilitarianism. There is also no doubt that Manderson is associating individualism with utilitarianism. Rightly or wrongly so have I. Not, however, as in what Jason Soon referred to as the “rational indidividual maximiser model” but certainly privileging the individual and rationality. One need go no further than a text like Andrew Heywood’s “Political Ideologies” (2nd ed, Palgrave, 1998) to read that liberalism privileges individualism and reason as well as freedom, justice and toleration.

    Manderson is suggesting that the notion of the individual self is derived from an intersubjective social reality. He further suggests that this changes how we should see ourselves.

    I find this idea attractive, partly because I prefer the French Revolution values “liberty, equality, fraternity” to the American foundatiional values of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. As Mark Bahnisch has suggested elsewhere the gendered “fraternity” requires a different word, and suggested “solidarity”. Better, I think, if such solidarity is based on an existential solidarity which not only tolerates diversity but rejoices in it, than a solidarity of commonly held ideas or ideologies.

    Gordon raised the issue of how far we extend this affiliation or intersubjective solidarity, pointing out that there were two levels of aggregation, family and nation state, between us plus stranger and all of humanity. Manderson is only talking about the stranger in our midst (the voiceless needy within our society) or the one who presents from outside seeking help. I can’t second guess him on gordon’s issue.

    For myself, I’d prefer to think initially in preindustrial terms, tentatively because of lack of knowledge. Here I’d suggest the important groupings are a food gathering and sharing group and the tribe. These would seem to be the important ones for affiliative love and identity formation.

    In the modern world neither of these is as strong. We have very restricted food and resource sharing groups, roughly the immediate family. Nation states are not always coextensive with the ancient tribe.

    We have been successful as a species, I think, precisely because we have weak instincts and are adaptable to new circumstances. Nevertheless as a species we may have some inherent behaviour patterns that helped us survive a couple of ice ages in our modern form (plus a bit of luck, probably) which persist. Cooperative activity in the provision of shelter, safety and sustenance are examples of such persistent behaviour especially in the immediate family group, strengthened, it would appear, by affiliative love.

    What is new in our world is a dominant economic system that has core values of exploitation and greed with built in tendencies to authoritarianism and predation.

    Also new is a dissolving of time and space, not completely and not entirely new, but the degree of dissolution amounts perhaps to a paradigm shift. If so I’ve reinstated globalisation in my thinking.

    New too is the pressure humanity is putting on the earth’s natural systems and resources.

    For us there is still a common failure of imagination with respect to the ‘other’, so the other remains ‘other’. A failure of perception and imagination too in the nature of the problems facing our species on the planet.

    In these circumstances the ontological argument only goes so far. In other words even by recognising the intersubjective nature of our being we are unlikely to translate this into actions that embrace the needs of all. So then you have to choose whether you ought to do anything about it or just look after your own immediate sphere of transactability. You might decide that your most effective sphere of personal transactability is local, but we need to take an interest in how remote peoples in remote continents are getting along because we are in the end interconnected and their story is part of our story.

    But in any case gordon it is not OK to deny the distress of others to teach their persecutors to behave better. That again is using people instrumentally to their detriment, even through inaction.

  15. gordon
    September 1st, 2004 at 17:02 | #15

    Brian, my three problems with your (Manderson’s?) definition of responsibility were: first, that it ignores causation of distress (effectively rewarding the oppressor), second that it is a formula for socialising costs and privatising gains, and third that it may well cost my more immediate affiliations more than we are willing to pay.

    Part of “rewarding the oppressor” was the reduction of the likelihood of resistance. This could take many forms; one form might be a lawsuit; another might be voting for a different party in an election. It doesn’t necessarily mean taking to the hills with a rifle.

    I do not think that suggesting to people that they should sue or that they might be better off under a Latham/Kerry/etc. regime than they are now amounts to “using people instrumentally to their detriment!” Nor do I think in general that there is anything wrong with resisting oppression, though there have been innumerable arguments about what action is justifiable in doing so. Remember that I am using “oppressor” here to mean “(human) cause of distress”, and adopted it for brevity’s sake. Maybe it’s a little too dramatic.

  16. Brian Bahnisch
    September 2nd, 2004 at 00:02 | #16

    Gordon, what you thought was a quote in your first comment was actually my precis (he has 660 words on ‘responsibility’). Manderson says that for Levinas “responsibility chooses us. Responsibility is first and foremost a response-ability, a demand placed on us regardless of our will. The choice is not whether we have a responsibility, but whether we choose to heed it. A parent with a young child. A child with an aged parent. Who would seriously contend that responsibility is a matter of choice or will? It is, instead, a fact of proximity.”

    The issue of proximity is important. Hence asylum seekers, once they present here in our land, are our responsibility irrespective of how they got here or who caused them to flee. (I’m assuming that all are given an initial benefit of the doubt while there claims are considered.)

    The issue of the conditions in their own land is irrelevant to attending to their need at that point, but clearly if we can do anything about it so that others will not need to flee, we should.

    The other problem seems to arise from the level of stress we are talking about. Manderson does, with the young child/aged parent examples, refer to the kinds of needs that may commonly arise within a society. However, the thrust of his article is about refugees fleeing their country. Here what the UN convention talks about is “persecution”, or fear there-of.

    Manderson’s argument at the outset is that rights only exist within a polity that recognises them and enforces them. I guess the UN convention on refugees (not sure of the correct title) tries to set up an international polity within which all people on the planet should have the right to live without fear of persecution.

    I’m all for it, but if we want to make it work we have to sign up for it, which we have, and then honour it, which I think we are trying to weazle out of.

  17. Brian Bahnisch
    September 2nd, 2004 at 09:49 | #17

    Gordon, I came up a bit short last night.

    The UN refugee arrangements are an attempt to extend the traditional notion of rights and responsibilities within a polity to the international scene through special arrangements for refugees fleeing persecution.

    Manderson uses Levinas’ ethics and jurisprudence to advocate an alternative jurisprudence which does not depend on a polity. It doesn’t require rights to be claimed by the “the most unequal, the most inarticulate.” Our response is called forth by proximity and manifest need, based on our common humanity, nothing else.

    Manderson says our response “is proportional to their vulnerability and not our choice. Our ability to respond determines the extent of our responsibility.”

    That “ability to respond” would include the our residual capacity after our duty to our immediate family, for example, which was part of your concern, I think. You wouldn’t put grandma out on the street and take in a refugee, as it were. But you wouldn’t try to excuse yourself on trivial grounds of minor inconvenience either.

  18. gordon
    September 2nd, 2004 at 14:05 | #18

    Brian, as I said in my original comment, I am not entirely dead to the plight of suffering humanity in general, but you are right about Grandma – and probably members of groups other than the immediate family and nation-state (which I gave as examples). I do think I see the position you are trying to describe, but I’m afraid I can’t go along with you, for the reasons already given.

    For what it’s worth, my own views revolve largely around the ideas of causation, responsibility and rights. The UN Human Development Reports of 2000 and 2002 developed the idea of rights-based, democratically-driven international action for human development, and I would mostly go along with the attitudes expressed there (I haven’t read every word of either report, so “mostly”). They are at: http://hdr.undp.org/reports/default.cfm

    I don’t believe that Australia should, for its own welfare, accept unrestricted numbers of refugees. Nor do I believe Australia has any responsibility to do so. My instincts tell me that without a population policy or an effective industry policy, we have no way of calculating how many.

    My instincts also tell me that it would be cheaper in the long run for Australia to push as hard as it can to ameliorate conditions in the refugees’ countries of origin, which I see as entirely compatible with the UN approach. My main objection to the Howard govt. approach is the long periods of detention in bad conditions.

  19. Brian Bahnisch
    September 3rd, 2004 at 00:01 | #19

    Gordon, my post grew out of John Quiggin’s post on Bail for asylum seekers. So it was a narrowing of the focus to what our response should be to onshore boat arrivals. I thought Manderson’s article was worth airing in this context, especially since it is locked up in the bowels of AFR archives.

    Also in exposition I tried to stick to the views expressed in the article and not confuse them with my own, which, as I said, I saw as compatible. I’m happy to say that in the exercise I’ve been learning too.

    I may have misunderstood you to some extent, but I did understand that you wanted to see the conditions in the source countries improve. Actually I broadly agree with your position as I understand it now.

    I’ve said elsewhere that I think numbers can be a problem. I’m not in favour of open doors and would also like to see immigration and humanitarian activities within the context of a population policy. It’s a question of balance. I feel our limit of 12,000 is low and arbitrary in the light of the need. I also think the notion of queues is largely a furphy. From Afghanistan, I understand, the nearest places one could apply were Bangkok and Jordan.

    I also support the notion of democratically driven development. We keep being told that free trade will fix it and “trade not aid” is a mantra in some quarters. Thanks for the reference to the UN reports. I’ll try to follow up.

    The World Bank has also been favouring locally driven development in its reports, I believe, but I’m not sure this flows through to their practices yet. They still have a research section that churns out stuff saying open slather for trade is best.

    On detention, I understand the need for detention for health checks and identity checks. Sometimes this can take time. Then, as in other countries, they should be released unless there is a reasonable belief that they will harm some-one or abscond. An identity system would help, but I’m not comfortable with demanding a bond.

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