Rosemary Kayess broke her neck when she was 20, causing her to become a quadriplegic, able to move her head but unable to eat and drink unassisted. Now, at 57, she is associate director of the Disability Innovation Institute, chairperson of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and lectures in international law at the University of New South Wales. With other panellists she appeared on a recent edition of Q&A on ABC TV discussing loneliness. The chair, Hamish MacDonald, asked her how she felt when she heard discussions through this pandemic about critical care triaging systems. She replied that those discussions ‘hit her in the face’, that she realised she had become ‘collateral damage’, that she was no longer ‘real’ in the eyes of people who didn’t think themselves mortally vulnerable to COVID-19, and that she was ‘dispensable’. MacDonald was moved, as were other panellists and members of the audience.
MacDonald and many in the audience felt compassion for her, but not only because of her pain: the reasons she gave for it mattered to them. The authority of her demeanour, the ring of truth in her tone, appeared to awaken them to, or deepened, an understanding of what it means for someone to be in her situation. That required them to take those reasons seriously even if they were unsure about whether they agreed with all of them. Their responses suggested that she made them wonder whether they wanted to live in a society in which people like her were looked upon as she believed she was.
The expressions Rosemary Kayess used are, of course, replete with ethical meanings and will be understood differently according to the ethical conceptions that determine those meanings. They carry moral resonances informed by the affirmation that no-one in her circumstances should be left pretty much to their own devices; that no-one should, because of political or institutional measures, become only partially morally visible—‘not real’—to their fellow human beings. Although no-one on the panel or in the audience said it, some might have come to believe, or to realise they had all along believed, that this is part of their very conception of the ‘quality’ of their life, of their wellbeing and of the common good.
That last point can be put more generally. Many people are attracted to the idea that morality is a set of rules that enable us to realise ends that most people can agree on independently of their ethical commitments; rules that need to be adapted as circumstances require it. There is, however, a fundamental difficulty with this beguiling perspective. Whatever ends one sets—quality of life, wellbeing, happiness, the common good, flourishing, self-actualisation—a question can always arise: what kind of wellbeing, quality of life, flourishing and so on can one decently enjoy?
Morality judges not only the means to our ends, but also the ends. The answer to the question will depend on the moral conception that informs one’s belief about what is decent. In a community whose members disagree deeply and widely about what to do and what morality is, what kind of importance it has in a life, the concept of ‘striking the right balance’ between ‘lives and livelihoods’, or between liberty and lives, for example, can play at best an attenuated role. Its application depends on agreement about the weight of considerations put on the scales and, more radically, on what the metaphor of weighing comes to when ethical disagreement is at issue. The same is true of the concept ‘all things duly considered’.
Along with many Western democracies, we are divided not only among ourselves, but also within ourselves. All of us are heirs to, or are affected in our ethical thinking by, complex, sometimes conflicting traditions that inform how we see the world ethically. We are seldom fully aware of what determines the deepest source of even the values most dear to us. Many people affirm that every human being possesses inherent, inalienable dignity and that no-one in our community should feel dehumanised by our institutional and political arrangements, as Rosemary Kayess did; but we are also ready to place at the centre of our ethical perspective concepts such as self-actualisation, flourishing and autonomy, which can come into conflict with such an affirmation. Or to take a different example: many of us warm to the idea that empathy or compassion should be at the heart of our ethics without realising that empathy for someone who has been wronged will be very different if you understand that wrong as a violation of their inalienable dignity than if you don’t. Empathy cannot take you to that concept of a violation: the kind of empathy whose nature is informed by it depends on prior possession of it. Ditto for compassion.
• • •
It is undeniable that we can be moved to believe we understand things more deeply by what someone says or does, whereas in fact we have been moved into muddle. Often, therefore we must step back and reflect critically on why we were moved. How do we do that well?
In an interview with Chip Le Grand, published in The Age (19 September 2020), Duncan Maskell, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, is reported as saying, ‘The question everyone is skirting around here is what is the appetite in any country for disease and mortality associated with this virus.’ He questioned whether hard lockdowns are justified. He went on to say, ‘We have to look at this as an overall picture. My personal view is there should be some form of sensible, public health, QALY-based analysis done and tough calls made. It boils down to a basic but very hard moral philosophy: What is the value of a 90-year-old’s life versus the value of the continuing livelihood and happiness of a 25-year-old?’
By way of explanation, Le Grand tells us that ‘Professor Maskell believes that decision-makers must consider the role of quality-adjusted life year (QALY), a unit of measurement used by economists to predict and assess the impact of health policies. In simple terms, it assumes that a life near its end, whether because of disease or its advance, is empirically different to a healthy life closer to its ‘beginning’. Le Grand also says that Maskell believes that we must ‘apply scientific rigour’ to the questions that ‘everyone is skirting’.
The ‘hard moral philosophy’ to which Maskell refers is not just the use of QALY, but the philosophy from which the concept of QALY emerges—conseqentialism—which claims (to simplify, but I hope not unjustly) that moral value resides solely in the consequences of our actions and secondarily in our intentions, character and other states or dispositions that issue in conduct. There are hardly any strict consequentialists, but many people are vulnerable to believing that they should be, because when they become aware of it as a theory, consequentialism can appear to give the best account, especially in politics, of why we should take consequences seriously and to provide a workable decision-making procedure. That is why I discuss Maskell rather than Julian Savulescu or Peter Singer, both consequentialists and both of whom have written about policies we have pursued during the pandemic.
Apparently Maskell doesn’t read the Murdoch press. Many of its columnists have argued for a position like his. Andrew Bolt has many times told his thousands of readers what answer they should give to Maskell’s question. It’s one that even Scott Morrison, who has insisted, for the most part against Daniel Andrews, that we must learn to live ‘side by side’ with the virus, found repellent. The idea I sketched earlier that ethics must serve a purpose that ordinary human beings can agree on whatever their moral outlook, or even if morality doesn’t matter to them, would incline them to be sympathetic to the drift of what Maskell said, though they may not believe that what matters most to them can be quantified. Some might find that crude and even repellent. Nonetheless the idea that acting for the best outcome for people’s wellbeing should be the basis of morality liberated from religion or false beliefs about human nature if it is to serve compassionate ends and the common good, seems to many people to be only common sense.
Leave aside for the moment that although it is obvious that the life of a 90-year-old and that of a 25-year-old are ‘empirically different’, the concept of ‘quality of life’ is not an empirical one. Nor is reflection on what ethically to make of it a ‘rigorous scientific inquiry’: an inexpungible part of it is philosophical. I’m pretty sure that Maskell knows this, but I suspect that he believes that moral philosophers are experts on philosophical questions about ethics, though he might acknowledge that even the most famous ethicist in the world cannot proclaim to their partner when they disagree morally, ‘Listen! I’m an expert on morals.’
It is a minor consolation of Trump’s rise to power, of his unstoppable mendacity and the brazen justification of it by talk of fake news and alternative facts, that a progressive intelligentsia suspicious of concepts of fact and truth have now embraced them. (See my essay ‘The Intelligentsia in the Age of Trump’, Meanjin, Issue 3, 2017.) The role of climate change in the frequency and severity of bushfires and the evident need of scientists during the pandemic have also enhanced the prestige of expert advice to government. This is to be welcomed, but expertise must be contained to its proper domains. Climate change raises various kinds of ethical issues as well as scientific and managerial ones—the misanthropy expressed by some climate change activists, for example. So too has the pandemic, the most pressing focused on the benefits and harms of lockdowns.
To deal with those ethical issues people have turned to ‘ethicists’, a word that surprisingly has not inspired satirists. Ethicists—who are usually believed to be experts—advise doctors, medical researchers, businesspeople, generals, immigration officials, artificial-intelligence researchers and many others who have come to acknowledge (some reluctantly) that a little more ethics would be a good thing. Some ethicists are philosophers, many are not, but all need philosophy in the assessment of how they construe their problems and the solutions they propose. The nature and state of philosophy is therefore of concern to anyone affected by what ethicists do and, indeed, by all citizens. They should reflect on what it shows about the culture, for good and for ill, that ethicists exist.
Moral philosophers disagree not only about what to do, but also about what morality is (if, indeed, it is one thing) and about the kind of significance it should have in one’s life. They disagree about what it is to do moral philosophy well, and even about what it is to do it at all. The latter disagreement is philosophical even when it is also an expression of professional arrogance. When the University of Cambridge offered Jacques Derrida an honorary doctorate, countless philosophers protested that he was undeserving of it and some said that it would shame the university if it were seen to accept that he is a philosopher. Derrida was quick to return the compliment to the kind of philosophy that at the time was called Oxford Philosophy.
That was in 1992, but the situation now is much the same. There is nothing approaching a consensus among philosophers about whether the many kinds of disagreements between them are contingent and therefore resolvable in principle, or whether they are intrinsic to the subject matter of ethics, but the fact that such disagreement exists denies moral philosophers any legitimate claim to be moral experts of any kind. Scientists make discoveries that go into encyclopaedias, for the most part without controversy, and sometimes earn Nobel Prizes. That tells us a lot about the kind of knowledge they seek and achieve and that gives them the right to claim expertise.
There are no Nobel laureates in morality or in moral philosophy because nothing that is done in the discipline counts as a discovery in the sense in which we speak of scientific discoveries.
That does not mean that anything goes. There is such a thing as the mastery of a discipline, and philosophy in the analytical tradition, which prevails in most of the English-speaking world, is one of the most rigorous disciplines in the humanities. Every reflective, discursive culture needs it. But its academic practice requires impartiality in marking, in examining, in making appointments and so on, which depends on acknowledgement of differences of the kind I have outlined.
Among the disagreements within the analytical tradition, and between it and the traditions dominant in Europe, is one about the role and importance of examples, real or imagined, and how to think clearly when we are moved by them. From one perspective the fact that you were awakened to a new or deeper understanding of things because you were moved is extraneous to the cognitive character of what you take to be the content of your awakening. That content (the argument goes) must be abstracted from the form in which it was delivered and moved you—in the case of Rosemary Kayess, her demeanour, the tone of her voice, the rhythm of her speech, her facial expressions, the fact that she was in a wheelchair struggling to speak. When the extraction has been achieved and what is taken to be cognitively salient is expressed differently, often more abstractly or even rendered suitable for mathematical formulation, people sometimes complain of that abstractness, implying that a better, more concrete formulation would give greater weight to the heart.
I believe that is a misleading way of putting something that is important. Rather than speaking of head and heart as differing ways of responding that can be friendly to one another provided that they are respectful of one another’s rightful territory, I would speak of a form of understanding in which feeling and thought cannot be separated. It marks a distinctive form of the cognitive with its appropriate rigour. ‘Sensibility’ is a good name for it. When it is educated (as much in art, especially in literature as in philosophy and other disciplines) it becomes critically attentive to just those things that the other conception I have sketched regards as cognitively irrelevant: to tone, demeanour, to a tendency to kitsch or pathos, for example. We need such a sensibility if we are to assess whether, in the context and manner in which Rosemary Kayess used them, terms such as ‘dispensable’, ‘not real’ and ‘collateral damage’ take us to, or away from, a lucid understanding of her pain.
In discussions such as this, some people appeal to Aristotle’s observation that one should not demand more rigour from a subject than it permits. He was right. Indeed, what he says is almost a tautology. But I would also say that the sensibility I have sketched does not compromise on rigour in ethical discussion because it believes the subject matter compels it to. It aspires to a different but no less stringent rigour.
• • •
Some people have suffered affliction so terrible that no-one would dare criticise them if they cursed the day they were born, yet they have spoken of their lives in accents of gratitude. We know from Primo Levi and others that this happened even in the Nazi death camps. Obviously their gratitude was not based on an assessment of the balance of good and ill in their lives. (Only someone with a tin ear could say that it looks as though there was some quality of life even in those camps, and how marvellous that some people could make such a lot of so little.)
If you find that unbelievable, a less extreme example might make the conceptual point more evident. Norman Malcolm, one of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s biographers, reports that when Wittgenstein was on his deathbed he asked his housekeeper to ‘tell them [his friends] that it has been a wonderful life’. Wittgenstein was not expressing an assessment of his life that would make it appropriate for someone to wonder whether Wittgenstein might modify what he said to conclude that his life could not be soberly described as wonderful, though it had been good despite much torment. Had Wittgenstein intended his remark to have that sense (that ‘grammar’ as he would put it), Malcolm would not have been moved in the way he was. Like the people in the camps, Wittgenstein expressed gratitude for his life considered as a certain kind of whole, and because it was not an assessment, a weighing of the good and the ill in it, it is right to call the gratitude unconditional, conditioned though it was by many things, most importantly the culture that nourished his sensibility.
To be sure, not everyone sees their life like that, but many people respond to accounts of those who do with humbled and grateful understanding. Often they also realise that they would not presume to say of anyone, whatever their circumstances, that they were not capable of taking such an attitude, assuming only that they were not prevented by illness or radical mental impairment from taking an attitude to anything at all. That realisation would take them into an ethical/conceptual space in which it comes naturally to affirm that every life is inalienable preciousness, or that every life is a miracle. I mean that such affirmations of gratitude are among the things that give sense to those expressions. ‘Inalienably’ precious because neither great affliction nor terrible wrongdoing can alienate them from it.
To those who would say that such ways of speaking depend on religion, I would reply that even if they came to us through a religious tradition, they might take root elsewhere if our ear for their expression is not impaired by the assumption that they must depend on religious assumptions. More strongly, I would say they could play that role in religion only because people had a sense that every life is precious independently of religious ideas and that, indeed, at its deepest the religious affirmation that every life is sacred could take hold in people’s ethical sensibility only because that was so.
• • •
Were I, now 74 years old, in a hospital and told that I could not be put on a ventilator because it had to go to a younger person, I would consent to it. I would not think of this as ‘above and beyond the call of duty’. For me this is ethically a no-brainer, which does not mean that I believe that anyone in a similar situation should think as I do, including the young person who would get the ventilator. Certainly, I would not respond graciously if they said, ‘Good on you, old man. You’ve made the right decision, impersonally considered. You’ve done your civic duty in this time of critically scarce resources.’ If they were to add that just by looking at me they could tell that my time-quality rating must be low, I would snatch the ventilator from them.
Considerations of the quality of my life before or after would play little, if any, role in my decision. I would not try to assess how many years I had to live and how good or bad they would be. I’ve had a wonderful life, but if it had been miserable and now the future looked good, I would lament my bad luck at not being able to enjoy life for the first time, but that would not enter my thinking about what to do. Nor would it matter if the young man were a chronic alcoholic, a wife beater and a labourer who would easily be replaced at work; or on the other hand, if he were an exemplary citizen, a brilliant doctor with rare talents, able to do much good.
Such considerations strike me as indecent as the claim that the brilliant and productive people in the death camps should have been saved ahead of dullards, criminals or those whose spirit appeared to be damaged beyond healing. But I would hope that the spirit in which the ventilator was taken from me was not informed by Maskell’s ‘hard moral philosophy’. If it were, then, like Rosemary Kayess, I too would think I had become dispensable in a community that had meant much to me, that my humanity was no longer fully visible to its members who were not mortally vulnerable to the virus, one of whom had given it to me.
Here is another example that makes the same point about the relevance of QALY to moral assessment and raises others central to my topic. Imagine someone who, during the pandemic, often ignores constantly reiterated rules about physical distancing, who parties on the beach with friends, his mask around his neck. He knows what the rules are and how easily the virus spreads. He has seen footage of mass graves around the world filled by people who died of COVID-19. He’s not a rebel, asserting his rights against what he perceives as authoritarian restrictions. Like many others he fails imaginatively to understand what it means to live in a world transformed almost beyond recognition by plague. He doesn’t really believe the old world has gone, or to the extent that he does it shows in an unarticulated melancholy, a grief, not so much for lost opportunities as for the world as he thought it was and would forever be. Suppose he catches the virus, that he gives it to his mother and knows that he has. The causal path of transmission is indisputable. When she dies he wails that he killed her.
Did he kill her? He caused her death by transmitting to her a mortal virus that he had recklessly acquired, saying impatiently, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know’, when told how infectious and dangerous it is. He had symptoms, but didn’t get tested. That seems to justify saying that he recklessly caused her death. Had he known he had the virus, told no-one and mingled freely in the house he shared with his parent, then I would not hesitate to say he killed his mother, unintentionally of course, but not accidentally. The moral difference between the last scenario and what he did cannot, I think, be determined only by a morally neutral philosophy of action.
What one makes of the difference will depend on the moral perspective one has on it. What he makes of it shows in his bitter remorse. Often, he might say that he cannot see how he can go on living. He might even try to kill himself. Some of his friends tell him that he’s over the top, that he should stop beating himself up. He replies that they don’t understand, just as he didn’t understand what he was doing when he was partying.
‘My God, what have I done? How could I have done it?’ These are the characteristic expressions of remorse; bewildered remembrance or perhaps, for the first time, a full realisation of the meaning of what one has done; incredulity at the fact that anything could have that kind of significance. Just as contact with great goodness—when good is constantly returned for evil, for example—can inspire wonder that there could be such a thing in the world, so in the case of remorse we are painfully wonderstruck by the inescapable reality of the moral realm. Remorse is, I believe, a state in which we come to the fullest and most authentic realisation of what it is to wrong someone.
Ironically, perhaps, in the incredulous realisation of the meaning of what we have done we are awakened to the full reality of another person—our victim—to a degree that is rare. Most of the time we are only partially aware of the full ethical reality of others, sleepwalkers through the forms of our fully realised humanity. A religious person might say that remorse is a form of contact with the sacred as it exists in the person one has wronged. I am not religious, so I speak instead of the inalienable preciousness of every human being. Remorse, I suggest, is an astonished encounter with the preciousness of the individual who has been wronged and, at the same time, with the ethical constitution of our humanity.
His father, a devoted husband to his mother, sorrows for him, for what it means for his son to have killed his mother. His sorrow and his son’s remorse have the same focus: what his son has morally become by virtue of what he has done. The father’s sorrow is severe yet tender—tender because he loves his son, severe because he will not allow him to evade the moral significance of what he did and became by doing it. He does not sorrow for his son because his son suffers the pain of remorse. He would suffer more if his son were not remorseful because it would mean that his son did not understand what he had done and what it means to be the wrongdoer that he is.
When it is not corrupted by forms of self-laceration that distract our attention from the victims of our wrongdoing, remorse represents one of the most sober moments of the moral life—that moment when a wrongdoer understands fully, perhaps even for the first time, what it means to have wronged someone. It is a form of recognition in which how terrible it is for the person one has wronged to suffer that wrong and how terrible it is that one has done it come forceably together.
Suppose now that the father knew that his wife had recently been diagnosed with a fatal disease that would kill her within a few months and that she would become wasted and degraded and be in intolerable pain. He decides he must tell his son. After he does so, could he say, ‘Now that I have told you that in only a couple of weeks her quality of life would have been almost zero, you shouldn’t feel so bad. You spared her much suffering.’ Not the man I have described.
What, then, do I make of the fact that almost every day governments apply QALY-type considerations when they make decisions that will determine how many lives are lost or saved? I would not deny such considerations can play a useful role in making calculations about whether to subsidise this or that drug or to build new roads, but that does not mean that they are more than ethical fictions that do useful heuristic work, as certain fictions do in physics. It shows nothing about the role they should play more generally when we think about life and its meanings. When there is discussion about what to make of the idea of inalienable dignity, or the preciousness of every life, or that every life is a miracle, surely no-one would think it relevant to say: ‘To help you think about this, let me inform you that the current value of a life in Victoria is $50,000.’
If they did, would you reply, ‘That’s not much. Surely a life is worth at least twice as much’?
• • •
Kayess included old people among those who would be treated as dispensable under the policies that ‘hit her in the face’. They too had impairments, she said. She was thinking of old people in aged-care facilities. In line with policy announcements during the pandemic, for the purpose of this essay I’ll take people to be old when they are 70 or over. I’ve suggested that old people, who have been lucky to reach ‘three score years and ten’, could consent to being triaged without feeling they had been treated as dispensable if the policy that allowed or required it expressed a certain spirit, which would be an expression of the wider culture, rather than only of the hospital in which it occurred. But the idea that a disabled person should be triaged because of a QALY assessment is a foul one and should be regarded as an offence against the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or other Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which is the only prohibition in international law that allows no exceptions.
When Daniel Andrews read out every day at his press conference the number of old people killed by the virus it engaged little public sympathy, I think: two females in their eighties, two males in their seventies, one male is his nineties and so on. It didn’t help to call those people males and females rather than men and women. Helen Reddy’s song would not have been a hit, let alone have played the role it did for women’s liberation, if its title had been ‘I am female’.
I do not know if it is natural for young people to condescend to old people, but it is a feature of our society, though not for its Aboriginal members who revere their Elders, a fact that we register without irony when we make Acknowledgements to Country. Kerry O’Brien and Helen Garner have observed in different tones that in mainstream Australia old people are ‘invisible’. O’Brien said he found respite from this in the fact that his work and reputation still render him visible (indeed highly visible) in some quarters.
Human beings are invisible, or not fully visible, to one another for a number of reasons. Simone Weil often quoted the words of a Spanish song, ‘If you want to become invisible, there’s nothing easier; become poor.’ Coloured people are often invisible to white people. Old people feel they have become invisible when they suffer the kind of condescension or indifference that makes clear that they are not perceived by younger people as ‘one of us’, the not-yet-old, whose full, historical presence to one another constitutes the human world for them.
To the young, the old are detached from their history, their identity attenuated, shrunk, sometimes to vanishing point, as happens to the old themselves when dementia sets in. Perhaps that is why some of their nurses in old-age homes reminded television audiences that the people dying of the virus had once been young; that, as one carer put it tearfully, they ‘built the nation’. Old people put up photos of their younger selves on Facebook so they can appear to themselves and to their ‘friends’ as historically constituted beings, one and the same person now as then.
O’Brien said that old people were invisible to younger people to support his claim that ageism exists in Australia. Insofar as ageism is based on beliefs about old people—that they resist relinquishing power and wealth, or tend to grumble about young people and go on and on about how things were better in their day—then this is different from old people not being visible, which is not a function of beliefs about them. Of course, you can be—most old people are, especially boomers—invisible and the subject of denigratory beliefs, some of them true. Which are true can in principle be determined by discussion, but you can’t discuss yourself into visibility: you first have to be visible for your opinion to be taken seriously.
• • •
Kayess didn’t speak about what it is like to die of COVID-19, nor did others on the panel or in the audience. Victims suffer terribly until they die, always alone even if someone is at their bedside in the final moments, in layers of PPE, when they are already unconscious.
We all die alone, some people say. That is obviously not an empirical generalisation: it’s a metaphysical lament. It is not intended to deny that human beings often die with others around them, nor that we take comfort from their presence and from the fact that all human beings die, that we are not one of the unlucky ones. It does not claim that the comfort is necessarily false. The ancient Greeks referred to human beings as The Mortals in accents of pity quite different from metaphysical angst. I doubt that anyone dying of COVID-19 would take comfort in the knowledge that others had died and will die of it. Some who grieve for them will be comforted by the fact that groups have been especially set up to console them. I suspect that most will be tormented until the day they die by the knowledge of how their loved ones suffered.
Those who were moved by Kayess would not, I believe, demur if I say they were brought to a kind of seriousness that took them to the reality of what she suffered when she realised she was regarded as ‘dispensable’, the reality in this case being that of ethical meaning rather than of facts. Imagine one of them saying to her or to an old person who said the same as she did and as movingly, with the same ring of truth: ‘It has taken me over 20 years of work, 60 hours and more a week, to build my small business, which now employs 40 people. The hard lockdown that was, for the most part, put in place to protect people like you, has brought my business to the point of collapse. I ask you to accept policies that will put your life at risk as soon as you leave the home to enter the public world, where we will, of course, observe physical distance, wear masks for a time, but where life will go on.’ Substitute for the voice of the small-business owner that of a victim of domestic violence, or a student bursting with talent but with joyful hope now blighted or someone suffering mental illness triggered or worsened by the lockdown.
You might think the words I have given this person are incomplete, that they should add that they do not plead for themself alone, but for themself and millions of others and for generations to come. But every individual in that aggregate, however large or small it is, must ask what they can say on their own behalf, or at least what they can decently hope for. Insofar as each person thinks of themself as part of a collective, it might be as a member of a community whose moral character depends on what each could say on their own behalf.
To this someone might say that while it may be useful to imagine such conversations because, like literature, they provide us with data for reflection—the insights they provide must be answerable to impersonal standards of reason if they are to be more than the expression of people’s opinion whose value may be less than we imagine if we have been moved emotionally.
It is true that the parties to such encounters must try to see things as they are rather than as they may be distorted by any number of things, including, of course, their personal failings. But earlier I sketched two different conceptions of what it is to do that. Both are efforts to see things impersonally, but only one is adequate to our subject matter.
I know that what I have said does not settle any of the issues I’ve discussed. I have tried to sketch a conceptual/moral space in which we might think about what is inescapably a political question: should we have hard lockdowns to protect those who are most likely to die of COVID-19? I have not said what old people and people with disabilities might answer if they were called to seriousness, as Kayess called some of her audience to seriousness, about their use of expressions such as ‘dispensable’. Only by reflection on such encounters, I believe, can we determine what counts as serious responses to the distinctive ethical demands of politics. Only then will people be able to know how to answer the challenge: ‘Words come cheap. It’s easy to talk in ways that fail to connect to the reality of what it is like to be locked in a flat by a man who beats you, cries that he loves you and then beats you again, or to be on the edge of psychosis, or perhaps tipped over it, or the heartbreak of seeing a family business lost along with its employees, some nearly 50 years old and unlikely to find work again.’ I suspect that is what Maskell had in mind when he urged, in a tone of impatient reprimand, that we take consequences seriously.
I have not tried to answer the question ‘Are hard lockdowns morally justified?’ I have tried instead to emphasise to someone thinking about it, the important implications of the fact that a situation presents as posing a moral problem only because it speaks to us from a moral standpoint; that there are different, sometimes irreconcilably conflicting, standpoints and that there are no experts who can tell us how we should understand our situation morally and, a fortiori, what we should do, or the spirit in which we should do it. A situation that presents to a person as a profound moral dilemma might present to another person as posing no moral problem at all, or as one that has an easy solution. Some will look on the second person as lacking moral imagination; others will see them as clear-headed. I don’t say that one person’s opinion is as good as another. To the contrary, I have emphasised that in a discussion about the moral consequences of the lockdown, one must try to see things as they are. Some opinions are wise, others are foolish and even reckless, but wisdom and sobriety are not given to us by experts.
One of the deepest moral and political thinkers I know, Marina Barabas, who lives in the Czech Republic, opposed the lockdown there. She said to me that she did so as ‘any true conservative would’. Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics is one of the books that shaped her understanding of conservatism. She would be dismayed by what Maskell said, by his condescension to what he believes opposes his view and by the fact that the ‘hard moral philosophy’ he recommends should, on reflection, be accepted as no more than ‘sensible’. A ‘COVID normal’, resistant to lockdowns, can therefore exist under a number of ethical conceptions, but the spirit in which things are done and in which people are treated will be very different between some of them, even when there is agreement about what to do.
• • •
The negative consequences of the pandemic will extend for generations to come. They are consequences for physical and mental health, standard of living, employment and so on whose undesirability is evident to any normally empathetic human being whatever their moral perspective. There will also be moral and political consequences. If decisions about what to do in the pandemic strengthen the place in our culture of the moral philosophy that Maskell recommends, then, from the perspective that every human life is seen as precious, from which the spirit in which something is done can be as important as what is done, that will be regarded a great moral cost.
It may have consequences for the ethical place of international law, in which talk of ‘the dignity of the person’ occurs in many preambles to its prohibitions, offering a perspective on the ethical significance of what it means to breach them. From Maskell’s perspective, the cultural dominance of various kinds of consequentialism will be proof of maturity, of a resolve to make hard decisions when reality has shown them to be necessary. What the ethical culture of the future is like will therefore determine the attitude people take to the hardships they suffer and the policies they believe were responsible for them.
That attitude can also be determined by the place they accord to agency and moral responsibility. It has been a strange feature of responses to the pandemic that in an age when certain causes—feminism, for example—have emphasised agency and autonomy against institutional pressures to diminish them, in the pandemic responsibility tends to be attributed to institutions and government to the exclusion of individual responsibility. Leaving aside the fact that the majority of aged-care deaths in Victoria’s second wave were in homes for which the federal government was responsible, the attribution of responsibility only to the Victorian government, and with venom towards Daniel Andrews personally, seems to assume that the virus was taken to suburban hotspots by the wind, as though infected security guards played no role in its spread. In its most basic sense attribution of responsibility is identifying a cause. Its ethical implications are complex. I have suggested they can be severe without being moralistic in the pejorative sense of that term, and that the concept of ‘knowing morally what one is doing’ has many layers, not all of them relevant to law.
Daniel Andrews and Victoria’s CHO, Brett Sutton, have tried to remind Victorians that it is individuals who spread the virus and at the same time to avoid being seen to hold anyone morally accountable if they do (Andrews has been inconsistent about this). Sutton appealed to general psychological facts about people to explain why people do as the young man in my previous example did. They could have said: ‘The virus is spread from one person to another. Some who spread it are morally accountable for doing it; others are not and those who are accountable are not thereby to be blamed in a sense that implies moralistically pointing fingers at them. None of which is to deny that institutions and governments are also, though differently, responsible.’ I hope that my discussion of the father’s response to his son, which I described as one of tender severity, explains that last point. And though his son might have said before he came to believe he killed his mother that he is just a statistic in the psychological science of human behaviour, he would not have said it afterwards. It’s a sad comment on our culture that intelligent people could get themselves into such a conceptual and moral mess.
The pandemic has cast a harsh light on inequalities in our society. I doubt that many people believe that we really are ‘all in it together’. Women, poor and people of colour have suffered more than most. It has also made many realise that people who had negligible social status and whose work was held in low esteem—nurses and other healthcare workers, supermarket workers, workers in warehouses, for example—are ‘front-line heroes’ who deserve more pay and, more importantly, equality of respect. That has given us a glimpse of what a humane society would look like; one in which every human being has their place in our sense of what it is to share a common humanity.
For people who live in such a society, the negative consequences of policies we have chosen to deal with the pandemic are likely to be different, and regarded differently, than in a society that Josh Frydenberg hopes will exist in five years’ time if we take his recently expressed enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher to express that hope. I understand why Thatcher inspires admiration, but she dismembered with reckless ferocity institutions for which she had contempt to an extent only Trump has bettered. She destroyed much of what was best in Britain’s postwar social democratic and conservative traditions.
There has never been a moment in my lifetime when we had less reason to be confident about what our society will be like in five years, let alone after that. I am writing this a few weeks before the US presidential elections. Trump has caught the virus and appears to have almost totally lost contact with reality. The pandemic is out of control in many parts of the world. Fires whose extent and severity are the result of climate change have burnt savagely in the United States. We know, however, what the almost certain consequences of climate change will be in the next ten years: massive political unrest—possible revolution following upon revolution—in poor countries devastated by drought, fires, starvation; and movements of people across the world in numbers none of us alive has seen.
Were that not so, we could be sure that Scott Morrison will win the next election and pursue the same policies as he did before the pandemic, only more so. Morrison realised relatively early that he had a crisis to manage and a reputation to restore, damaged as it had been by his failure to respond adequately to the fires of 2019–20. Management rather than governing is what he believes politics is about—running the country as though it were an enterprise, thinking of the people whose lives he manages as more often seeking tax cuts than the dignity of citizenship. For the most part he has managed the pandemic well, for which Australians have reason to be grateful. It was, however, always naive to believe that Morrison, surprised and impressed by the good he achieved by government intervention and massive public spending, would see value in commutarian, social-democratic politics.
There are forces, however, that suggest that the days of his kind of centre-right politics are numbered. Climate change is the most obvious. Within a few years, there will be mounting pressure for a new crime in international law, whose name we do not yet know, but whose ethical significance as a crime against the Earth and all things of it will be as grave as crimes against humanity now are. If that happens, then in both senses of the expression, business will not continue as usual.
Another force, potentially more transformative, has emerged unexpectedly, explosively. It revealed its power in the Black Lives Matter movement. I doubt that it was a coincidence that they occurred when the pandemic had already prompted discussion about how different politics might be when it is over, even if that would be some years later. The protests expressed righteous anger and hope, whose consequences are likely to be epochal, greater than those of the civil rights movements of the 1960s. In Australia hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and colours, but substantially young and white, were driven as much by their knowledge of the injustices suffered by Aboriginal Australians as by crimes against African Americans.
The potential of the protests to fertilise radical political imaginations well beyond matters of race is greater here than in other countries, including the United States. A significant number of Australians are thinking more deeply than ever before about what it means seriously to acknowledge the Aboriginal peoples as First Nations Peoples, and to be open to learning from them. Racists have always been prepared to learn from them about practical matters such as tracking and fire control. We are now ready to discuss what it means to lead a good life, what is shallow in our lives, what we have lost in our materialism, competitiveness and our evasion of mortality and our vulnerability to chance and relations between generations. In the closing lines of this essay, I will try to explain why I believe this can nourish hope for an enriched understanding of the dignity of our common humanity.
Over recent years we have become used to hearing, often after Acknowledgements to Country, that this is, always was and always will be Aboriginal land. That statement also appears increasingly often after the signature at the bottom of emails, sent from private homes as well as from institutions. You might also read, ‘Non-Aboriginal peoples in Australia are all settlers’, or ‘All of Australia is stolen land.’ The fact that such statements are now commonplace among sections of the intelligentsia has transformed what is at issue when talk is of self-determination, even for some Aboriginal people, I think. ‘Woke’ is an ugly word and ugly things have been done in the name of being woke or to ensure that people become woke, but ‘awakened’ is epistemically the right word to characterise the change from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and even from the reconciliation movements of the 1980s and 1990s to where we are now, as it is to characterise the change from a time when coffee-table books listed the Aboriginal peoples as among Australian fauna.
‘This was, is and always will be Aboriginal land’ and statements like it that I mentioned earlier cannot be taken at face value, not, at any rate, when they are made by non-Aboriginal people. I doubt that any non-Aboriginal Australian would say that treaty negotiations are indecent, to be entered into with clenched teeth, only as a necessity, because it is indecent to negotiate the conditions under which you will return what you have stolen. The ‘because’ in ‘We are settlers because this is and always will be Aboriginal land’ or in ‘This is stolen land because the Aboriginal peoples did not concede sovereignty’ is cognitively empty.
I’m writing this on a property in Central Victoria, of which the Dja Dja Wurrung were dispossessed. To the extent that I am resistant to agreeing that it was stolen from them, it is only because that seems too weak to describe the brutality of their dispossession and the failure of many Australians to acknowledge its moral and political significance. I do not believe that saying it is stolen land, and that it is and always will be Aboriginal land, captures that significance. If a group of Dja Dja Wurrung were to come here and say, ‘Legally, of course, we have no claim to the land to which the colonial government has given you title, but morally we ask you to accept that it is and always will be our land; that it was and remains stolen land and that you are a settler on it, different from the settlers who took it from us, but a settler nonetheless. We therefore ask you to give us half of it. Don’t ask what we will do with it. When thieves return property to its rightful owner, they have no right to make it conditional upon how the property will be used.’ I do not believe that anyone, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, could say, flatly, that what the people in my example said is morally right and that our task is to ensure that it becomes law.
Does that mean that when people say that the land on which they live and work was, is and always will be Aboriginal land, their words mean nothing? It doesn’t. The fact that so many Australians say such things, believing them to be obviously true, though not yet to most of their fellow citizens, expresses a qualitative cultural shift. I call it a ‘qualitative’ shift because it is different in kind from travelling further—even a lot further—on the road to reconciliation as that was understood in the 1980s and 1990s, and different in kind from travelling further along the road to the elimination of racism. Neither road will take us to a just treaty.
Many Aboriginal people do not regard themselves as Australians, in a way that goes deep in their identity. Most Australians assume that if Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples were to agree on what kind of ‘we’ they could truthfully and justly say in political fellowship, it would be ‘we Australians’. But it might not be. Or, in such circumstances the words ‘Australia’ and ‘Australian’ might have very different connotations and resonances. Or, more radically, there might be no ‘we’ that could truthfully express national political fellowship.
Chelsea Bond has spoken of a future in which Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians ‘negotiate conditions of coexistence’. That appears to entail political relations considerably more distant than one would hope for in a form of national political fellowship. But for what Bond believes or for the other possibilities I have sketched to be taken seriously, discussion would have to be conducted in a different ethical/conceptual space from the one in which Australians now argue about Australia Day, constitutional recognition, the Uluru Statement from the Heart or, as I suggested earlier, even Treaty. Openness to entering such a space is a precondition for full and truthful acknowledgement of what it means for Aboriginal peoples to be First Nations Peoples.
Are these real possibilities or are they fantasies? I believe they are real possibilities but insofar as they describe the preconditions for a just future, they also constitute a standard by which to judge the present relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. If political circumstances in the next few years prove uncongenial to their realisation, the standard will still exist. That will impose an obligation on anyone for whom justice matters to make the standard visible to their fellow citizens so that it again becomes a source of radical political action.
The metaphor of awakening is a useful one, but it has a serious limitation when applied to what I have just been saying: it implies a reality, independent of our recognition of it, but which we couldn’t see, or see clearly, because we were not fully awake. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians cannot foresee the outcomes of political discussions between them about sovereignty if those discussions are conducted in the conceptual space I have sketched. In part that’s because the outcomes of real conversations are always unforeseeable. More importantly, it’s because the concepts that would tell us what justice requires may not exist, waiting on our discovery of them. Those concepts will probably be forged in conversation. The contribution of Aboriginal people to their development would ensure that some of these discussions will be unfamiliar to Western political thought.
Where do you come from? is now a question to which many people respond with hostility, suspecting it is motivated by racism or xenophobia. That is a pity because it often expresses genuine curiosity about, and delight in, the plurality of peoples and the role that plays in our sense of what it is to be a human being. That means, as successful multicultural societies have shown, that often when people speak politically, they must do so from a particular cultural, racial and political history. This has sometimes been disparaged as ‘identity politics’, but it is often a matter of moral and political necessity, a condition of the integrity of political dialogue. Hannah Arendt wrote eloquently about that necessity:
Thus, in the case of a friendship between a German and a Jew under the conditions of the Third Reich it would scarcely have been a sign of humanness for the friends to have said: Are we not both human beings? It would have been mere evasion of reality and of the world common to both at that time; they would not have been resisting the world as it was. A law that prohibited the intercourse of Jews and Germans could be evaded but could not be defied by people who denied the reality of the distinction. In keeping with a humanness that had not lost the solid ground of reality, a humanness in the midst of the reality of persecution, they would have had to say to each other: a German and a Jew, and friends. But wherever such a friendship succeeded at that time (of course the situation is completely changed, nowadays) and was maintained in purity, that is to say without false guilt complexes on the one side and false complexes of superiority or inferiority on the other, a bit of humanness in a world become inhuman had been achieved.
Obviously the situation in Australia is not as extreme as the one Arendt spoke of, but her point applies, I believe, to political discussion between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in this land, and within the non-Aboriginal community between whites and people of colour and between generations.
Many non-Aboriginal Australians have come to realise that they have much to learn about how to treat their vulnerable members in the time of plague. The possibilities foreshadowed by that realisation, and others to which I have referred earlier, open the way to a new politics that would ameliorate the suffering caused by lockdowns and dissipate the resentment between generations, races, classes and genders that inequalities have generated. If instability in the world does close off those possibilities and we do not squander the opportunity to realise them, then, in the words of Hannah Arendt, we—all of us—will be able to prepare for the ‘task of renewing a common world’.
Raimond Gaita is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at King’s College London and Honourary Professorial Fellow at The Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne. He is the author of Romulus, My Father, A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love & Truth & Justice and, with Gerry Simpson, editor of Who’s Afraid of International Law?