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Was Julia Ethical? PDF Print E-mail

6 July: Was Julia Ethical?

Peter Bowden

This is a lighthearted, but serious extract from a paper that Peter Bowden presented at the Australasian Association of Philosophy conference at the University of NSW.  Peter examines the actions of Julia Gillard from the viewpoints of Plato, Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant and a number of other moral philosophers.  He attempts to balance the pragmatic and the empirical against the dialectic of philosophical discourse. 

 Malcolm Turnbull’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 30 said what many of us were thinking “Axed and humiliated. Somebody should give this poor bastard a hug”

“Rudd”, he said, “will be going through the darkest days of his life”  ...”The assassins struck and he was gone”

It was the factions we say. But let us not deceive ourselves. If Julia Gillard had not told the Prime Minister that she would challenge, then the factional bosses and the votes that they could deliver to her would be useless. It was her decision.

Politicians live and die by the sword, Turnbull tells us.  True, but does this make it right?   And can we assess the rights and wrongs of her actions by the great moral philosophers of history? 

This talk will try. But let us first point out one fact:

Kevin Rudd may be going through hell, but he is at least alive. There has been many a time in the history of our civilisations when regimes changed literally at the point of a sword, and often by the use of that sword. The Roman Empire, the most imposing we have ever seen, from Caesar onwards, witnessed many bloody successions. In the period of the soldier emperors (193–284 A.D.), from the assassination of Alexander Severus, sixteen men bore the title of emperor: Almost all, having taken power upon the murder of the preceding emperor, came to a premature and violent end.  The accession of Constantine (305 AD) ushered in the period of the Eastern Roman Empire, a period described by Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as a long tail of weakness and misery. There were certainly many instances of bloodthirsty succession, of the killing of brothers and nephews, even sons, who were potential challengers. One of the loveliest must have been the Empress Irene, who put out the eyes of her son, so that he would not be able to challenge her

The Eastern Roman Empire lasted a thousand years. But the histories of the western nations were little better. The English, the Scots and the French, the histories that we know best, have many examples of royal bastardry in the struggle for power in their kingdoms. Several of these murderous struggles are much closer to our own time than is the Roman Empire.

So we have come a long way in the last few hundred years… Kevin Rudd should be grateful, He still has his head.
So what does moral philosophy tell us about all this? And what of it can we use to pass judgement on our current Prime Minister.

We cannot really start with Plato and Aristotle, for under either of them Julia Gillard would not even be in the running. Aristotle was particularly condemnatory of slaves but women did not escape his condemnation.  Plato was no democrat, describing Pericles - the man who enshrined  democracy in  this world, - as a demagogue (The Classical World, 2006. p.153). In his dialogue Menexenus, Plato satirises Pericles’ magnificent advocacy of democracy, set out in Pericles’ oration to the fallen of Athens in the Peloponnesian war:

 "If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences

The two philosophers, Aristotle in his Politics, and Plato in The Republic questioned forms of government. They divided Athenian governments into monarchies, oligarchies, tyrannies and democracies.  Plato, in The Republic, put democracy as near the least desirable form of government. A tyranny of the uneducated leading the ship of state, he described it .  Plato in fact likens democracy to a ship run by an illiterate and unschooled crew. 

Apart from the all to brief period of democratic Athens, and the spluttering democracy of the Roman republic, it required a millennium and a half for a bloodless form of succession of power to be developed in the Western democracies. How much of the blame can we ascribe to Plato?

As an aside, I need to mention briefly another part of the UNSW paper on the role of moral philosophers. Plato also brought to perfection the dialectic form of reasoning – two people with different views, each arguing his or her position. It is the principle method of philosophical discourse. And of the development of philosophical thought. It reached its extreme in the sixth edition of a widely used undergraduate text, Philosophy. The Quest for Truth, by Louis Pojman. He states that he has “striven to present opposing views on virtually every topic “(2009).  . His, incidentally, is a peculiar assertion, even unintelligent , for the truth cannot have two sides.

John Lachs argues that “young philosophers are taught that argument is king …that knowledge of facts is superfluous” (2009).

The UNSW paper goes onto say that result of this commitment to argument has been a near-complete neglect of empirical research. Those findings which show approaches that strengthen moral behaviour – codes of behaviour, legislation, institutional changes in particular – receive no attention in the teachings and writings on moral philosophy.

But that issue takes us beyond what we can manage with this talk - on what would moral philosophers would say about Julia Gillard’s takeover. I shall cover the three main ethical theories, each of which has its supporters. I need to mention that each of the three can give different answers to the same ethical problem. The arguments between their proponents are described as” vigorous”, even “internecine” warfare, by very respectable philosophers. One result has been the attempts to find a universal theory – usually a picking and choosing from these three - which answers all ethical issues. I shall describer a couple of these blends. You can then use them to decide your answer to the question in the title to this talk,

Virtue Ethics, Usually ascribed to Aristotle, as today’s version of his Nichomachean Ethics. It is a fanciful claim, but in short, it tells us to decide an issue based on which virtue should predominate. David Hume tells us that there are perhaps seventy virtues, but Aristotle gives us only twelve. They were courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, proper ambition, patience, truthfulness wittiness, friendliness, modesty, and righteous indignation.

Aristotle gave his virtues as a mean between two extremes. The excess extreme for proper ambition was ambition itself. The deficient extreme for patience is lack or spirit. Could we not go back a few years and assert that we were not able to get rid of a Prime Minister who was out of touch with the nation, because of Peter Costello’s lack of spirit?

 If we extend the list of virtues to 70, then we will include loyalty. In Julia Gillard’s case, which virtue decides?   Loyalty to the leader (Kevin Rudd) or competence (in leadership.)? We cannot tell.

Moving on to the second theory:

Immanuel Kant   A Prussian philosopher (1724 –1804) gave us two magnificent categorical imperatives: In Kant’s words, the first is

Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it (your action) become a universal law

This first imperative is telling us that if you allow an action to become universal practice then it is ethically OK. Translating that to Gillard’s situation, it is saying that if we are willing to allow this method of changing a prime minister to become the general practice then it is ethical. So in asking that question, I would like to point out that in the increasing presidential style of Australian politics, we voted for Kevin Rudd. If we did just that what then is the argument for throwing him out? Another philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau has suggested that we have a contract, a social contract, between the governing and the governed.  If we have that contract, if we voted for Kevin Rudd’s expression of the policies he supported,  then what right has a third party, with the support of factional leaders, to abrogate it?

The second Kant imperative is ‘Do not use other people for your own ends’, or, in his own words:

Act in such a way that you always treat humanity whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end,

An example – incompetent employee who is destroying your unit’s performance. You have read all the management books and tried every method they suggest. Your unit’s work output and your own reputation is suffering.  But she is a single mother with children still at school. If you were to fire her, would you not be using her for your own benefit?

We can discuss that issue afterwards. But I can briefly give you one of the reasons why Kant does not provide a universal moral rule. We cannot permit people to lie at will, to tell untruths whenever it suits them.  So Kant has concluded that we should always tell the truth. But there are many times when the ethical option is to tell a lie.

John Stuart Mill – Utilitarianism

There are several forms of Utilitarianism, but the one I shall describe is outlined in Mill’s book of that name. It was the latest only book to be written with Utilitarianism as its sole title and setting out to describe that philosophical theory

His overriding rule was do not to harm others

The moral rules which forbid mankind to hurt one another (…which include wrongful interference with each others’ freedom) are more important to human well being than any maxims

Again he states

a person may possibly not need the benefit of others but he always needs that they do him no harm

Think about that. Is it not true?  Don’t we want, most of all, to avoid pain, harm or mental anguish being inflicted on us?  If we are to have a good life, no one should bring harm on us. Or if we are already suffering, we want the cause to be taken away. And if all are to have a happy life, is not it obligatory on all of us to avoid causing unhappiness on others ?

 Mill clearly used the term pain in a wide sense, for he offers the term “deprivation of pleasure’ as an alternative. He also includes “mental suffering” as one of the contributors to unhappiness

Mill did not stop there, He gave us several .rules, He put happiness as the an overriding objective of his version of utilitarianism, but he gave establishing happiness as an outcome of a higher ethical principle – avoiding harm , including harm to people with fewer numbers or less power. With a little help from his  On Liberty, his arguments could be encapsulated in four principles.
1 Avoid giving  pain, do no harm
2 Ensure justice, including the correction of injustice
3 Bring about happiness. Take care for minorities
4 Respect individuals & their freedoms

Julia has obviously caused Kevin Rudd considerable mental anguish. We could see that on TV. But could we alternatively argue that that the state of Rudd’s administration demanded that for the good of the nation, he be replaced?

Is there a better way to change our leaders? Will we find that better way one day? As we have developed our system for administrative change, from the very bloody processes of former times  (in which we mostly  had no say) to the much less bloody methods of today, will it not be possible one day to move to even more consultative process. Frequent citizen’s referenda, for instance, or election of committees on the functions of government? 

I have given you the three main moral theories. Most philosophers are aware of their inadequacies – and of the overriding fact that they can give conflicting answers. Several philosophers have developed hybrids that attempt to answer a wider range of ethical dilemmas. .Probably the best known is the work of Beauchamp and Childress who have taken from Kant and Mill and developed four principles that are taught in every medical school in the Western world. The four principles are Ensure Autonomy, Do no harm, Do good and Seek Justice

Wm. Frankena, is another who has promoted four principles in priority order

1. One ought not inflict evil or harm; 2. One ought to prevent evil or harm, 3. One ought to remove evil or harm; 4. One ought to do or promote good,

Perhaps the least well known is Peter Bowden’s who combines Mills’ four Utilitarian guidelines with Kant’s first  two categorical principles. Making six principles in all. He also, as does Frankena, and a couple of others, place “Do no harm” as the highest priority, above do good

So there you are. The ethical guideline that comes through the most strongly is ‘Do no harm’.

But other theories intrude .Perhaps the strongest is Kant’s second imperative. Do not use others for your own benefit”, But also introducing is the need to think about the issue. To reflect on the theories, and the options until you reach a consensus within yourself.

I will leave it to you: Was Julia Gillard ethical??  ………………………….


Peter Bowden, 6 July , 2010

Editor’s comment

This Philo Agora talk needs an epilogue. For it leaves to the attendees to decide. Several conclusions emerged: One is that the Socratic dialogue is no more helpful in reaching a consensus than it was 2500 years ago. Despite 40 or so dialogues, the majority conclusion was  that Julia Gillard acted ethically , but the reasons given were many – “that is politics”, the consequentialist benefits  to the Australian people” , “we did not vote for Rudd, we voted for the Party”. etc, etc, , A significant minority, however, felt that she acted unethically. A third minority pointed out that the country still had ethical issues to face (asylum seekers, climate control, who governs – big miners or the people?), which were more important that who was leader. Nobody took up the speaker’s suggestion that one day we may develop a way by which we can all influence political decisions).



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