Asylum seeker ethics is simple



Ethics for Dummies book coverWhen governments and other authorities treat people harshly, as is now happening to asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, someone will normally ask whether what they are doing is right. This is the ethical question, and it will receive one of three responses.

Many will say that government policy making has nothing to do with ethical reflection. What a duly elected government does with majority support is by definition right. The strong do what they wish, and the weak suffer what they must. This position should be respected for its honesty even though it will corrupt a society.

Many will engage with the questions of right and wrong and draw conclusions. Some will argue that the harm inflicted by government policy is ethically defensible. Others will deny it.

Finally, some people will withhold judgment, arguing that the question is ethically complex and even confusing. Asylum seeker policy, for example, must take into account many issues, such as the protection of borders, the number of refugees Australia can take, the deaths at sea, the behaviour of people smugglers, the attitude of the community to refugees and the cost of receiving asylum seekers. An ethical judgment on the any part of the policy must await consideration of all these factors. In other words we must offer an acceptable alternative policy before judging elements of an existing policy to be unethical.

I would argue that this position is mistaken. When we are considering the harm inflicted on people by governments the ethical questions are quite simple. The complexities and confusions arise properly only after we have answered them. They concern how to shape a policy that is both effective and ethically defensible, and how we are to handle living in a society whose government we believe to act unethically.

If we are asked whether it is right to inflict harm on others, we would normally say it is not. The exceptions are when people consent to the harm because it is for their own good, as it might be in medical procedures, or when the harm they suffer is in response to wrongdoing on their part, as it might be in gaol sentences, or when they personally represent a danger to society, as they might in the isolation of plague carriers.

But when the disrespect for people's human dignity is inflicted to secure goals that have nothing to do with their needs or wrongdoing, it is clearly and simply ethically unjustifiable. And it should be said to be such.

So it would be ethically unjustifiable for a government to achieve the goal of population control by having new born babies killed. It would be ethically unjustifiable for a government to alleviate racial tension by making citizens belonging to a racial minority wear a scarlet uniform. It would ethically unjustifiable for a school to allay anger at the behaviour of some of its older students by expelling and shaming a group of younger students.

For the same reasons it is ethically unjustifiable for the Australian Government to imprison in dangerous and uncontrolled situations one group of asylum seekers in order that their hardship will deter others from claiming protection, and so from the risk of drowning.

From the ethical point of view the ill treatment of asylum seekers is neither complex nor confusing. In fact in a just society ethical judgment simplifies the making of policy. It eliminates unacceptable options and so encourages good policy making.

Complex questions do arise after the ethical questions are answered. The first question is how to deal in an ethically principled way with the many factors that need to be addressed in good policy. We ought to engage with these complexities, and should expect from time to time to be confused by them. But our confusion at this complexity does not extend to the judgment of what is right and wrong in the way people are treated.

The second complex set of questions is psychological or spiritual in character. When we have come to a conclusion that people are being treated wrongly, how do we relate to people who argue that their treatment is right, or that governments should not be concerned with what is right or wrong? And if our judgment is shared only by a small minority in our society, should we keep our opinions to ourselves for fear of seeming self-righteous? Such questions can lead us to back off our judgment about right and wrong.

As we wrestle with these questions our proper stance is one of courage, simplicity and humility. In holding to what we believe to be true we have Luther's words to guide us, 'Here I stand, I can do no other'. And if we need ecumenical support, we have Ignatius' account of what is necessary for salvation: 'to obey the law of God in all things so that not even if I were made lord of all creation, or to save my life here on earth, would I consent to violate a commandment ... that binds me under pain of mortal sin'.

But especially if we are in the majority on any issue, the challenge is to recognise our fallibility, and to engage without shouting, or demeaning those who hold different views.

And finally, we can face complex questions about how we are to act. Generally if we come to the judgment that our government is treating people wrongly, our judgment should flow into action, whether it be through prayer, conversation, writing to our local member or attending a vigil for the afflicted.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, asylum seekers, ethics, Nauru, Manus Island


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Existing comments

I don't know why it takes an old atheist like me to point out the morality of do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's not that hard but our racist polity and media make a meal out of demonising the same people year in and year out to win votes for the former and sell paper for the latter.
Marilyn | 20 March 2014

and it is as simple as- praying, talking, writing, standing vigil -i Thank you Andrew for stating so clearly what can be made to appear so complex.
Anne Chang | 20 March 2014

Deutschland, 1935 again? "I would argue that this position is mistaken. When we are considering the harm inflicted on people by governments the ethical questions are quite simple. The complexities and confusions arise properly only after we have answered them. They concern how to shape a policy that is both effective and ethically defensible, and how we are to handle living in a society whose government we believe to act unethically."
Carol | 20 March 2014

Thanks for this clear exposition of the ethics (or, rather, their lack) of mistreating asylum seekers in order to prevent others from attempting the journey.
Steve | 20 March 2014

Thank you for this clear moral and ethical guidance, Andrew, and also pointing out the spiritual implications for the soul of our country - and in our own lives. I encourage each reader to send this along with personal comments to their own MP and ask them to exercise the courage to give voice to their own ethical convictions even if it is goes against the grain of their political party's policy - which in the majority of cases it does. For those of us living in southeastern Australia we can attend the big rallies calling for better policy on the refugee/asylum seekers issue on Palm Sunday in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. And if there is not vigil planned yet in our own community, we can organise one -- a lot of small vigils all over the country on Palm Sunday will send a powerful message.
Clair.Hochstetler | 20 March 2014

Andrew, I think this piece is one of your finest. Thank you. I have spent much of the last fortnight writing to federal Parliamentarians, including all those who are Jesuit alumni, protesting at the evil that is being done on Manus and Nauru. I would like to ask readers of Eureka Street to write too. It can seem that there is nothing we can do; this is at least something, and even though letters can easily be disregarded, if there are enough of them the politicians will take note. Who knows but something may come of the effort. There were splendid articles in the Fairfax press and in The Saturday Paper last weekend to give anyone who wanted it ample matter to write about. I loved the idea of a Jesuit quoting Luther, but you are absolutely right. It slips my mind who said that evil thrives when good men do nothing. Letter writing is something we can do.
Joe Castley | 20 March 2014

Firstly all people should be treated humanely. The asylum seeker problem is mostly about economic refugees, I agree with Bob Carr. Why come through so many safe countries if it is genuine asylum. It is normal to want an improved economic position but nobody can just turn up in another country. The main problem for most Australians is for example, not wanting the problems in the UK to happen here. If you want to flourish in another country, then do in Rome as the Romans do and leave abhorrent customs and racial problems behind and don't bring them here. Of course this doesn't apply to everyone, but it does apply to a minority and there is the problem. For example, my friend's daughter is very fair and blonde. In their beachside suburb she was regularly taunted by big groups of youths arriving at weekends. Being called Skippy was the easy part, she was terrified and obviously not the only one, until the locals finally took matters into their own hands. Was the ensuing result racial as reported, no, emphatically no, it was about bullying bad behaviour. Please can we all be kind to each other and live in harmony.
Jane Penseur | 20 March 2014

OK, here's the opposing view... We live in an imperfect world. Sometimes it is necessary to commit an evil in order to prevent a greater evil. Indonesian TV frequently carries "infomercials" by entities showing what a great place Australia is ("Even the toilets are clean!") and offering to get you there. "People smugglers" in Indonesia operate openly - their government turns a blind eye to the lucrative trade. The ABC recently showed an "asylum seeker" who had made two boat attempts after being rejected by official channels. Why was he rejected? We do not know, but surely it must be assumed that there was a good reason. Boat people and occupants of off-shore detention are coached in how to use the media to reinforce their case. The media generally is all too willing to be complicit in this.
Ian | 20 March 2014

Andrew: "it is ethically unjustifiable for the Australian Government to imprison in dangerous and uncontrolled situations one group of asylum seekers........." In a democracy, Governments are at the mercy of voters, and it seems most voters either approve or accept what the Government is doing. But what is the ethical position of the Government if the Government wins that support by manipulating the position by the use of spin; using misleading slogans like "queue-jumpers", "illegals" and the like, and worse, by concealing the truth of the position under specious reasons?. Or that of "Right-wingers" who support this kind of behaviour?
Robert Liddy | 20 March 2014

Bravo! Wish all of us would be brave enough to be counted. Remember Nazi Germany? This is the most intelligent and compassionate article I have read on this issue and would love to see it on the front page of all the major Australian newspapers, - and Andrew Hamilton on the ABC's Q and A panel. Refugee suffering and our complicit silence are criminal.We have to act NOW, and we can!!
Annabel | 20 March 2014

Where on earth is the voice of the Australian bishops in all this? The season of Lent could have been a time to mount a massive program of awareness raising and education, of prayer and even civil disobedience to protest the inhuman and immoral treatment of asylum seekers. As Andrew makes clear, you don't have to have a perfect solution to the whole complex problem to be able - and morally bound - to stand up and say "This is wrong!" The last time the Catholic and Anglican Archbishops spoke with one voice it was to stop the Labor party re-distributing money to poor schools! Do they have nothing to say about what is happening on Manus Island? Instead we have bishops talking about meatless Fridays! The hierarchy of the Church, with its claims to moral and spiritual leadership has never looked so impotent, so compromised, so tame, so irrelevant. Let one priest speak up for, say, women's ordination, and he'll be in deep trouble - here we have a largely Catholic Govt - and Opposition, treating desperate people in unjust and cruel ways - and the bishops are virtually silent. When will they visit Australia's Lampedusa?
Michael B Kelly | 20 March 2014

Jane Penseur: "The asylum seeker problem is mostly about economic refugees,"............ OR ?? are economic refugees just being used to muddy the waters? There are thousands of asylum seekers who have been processed by the UNHCR as genuine Refugees .We are trying to avoid any all. Problems with assimilation reflect lack of 'education' of both the new arrivals and also of the older insular-minded population. It shouldn't just be left to chance
Robert Liddy | 20 March 2014

Thank you for that clear exposition . I will use it as you suggest.
Faye Lawrence | 20 March 2014

A profoundly reasoned article, and great comments from all! I am highly embarrassed by our government's ignoring of many of the basic principles of humanity. I find their policies inhumane and abhorrent. Does the end ever justify the means, policy principles the Liberals have oh so lovingly embraced? Or should humanitarian and spiritual principles come above all other considerations, including duplicity? Particularly in this Gordian Knot of a problem, things may not always be crystal-clear. Like Ian, I found myself unimpressed in the ABC report about that Iranian "refugee" rejected for immigration through legitimate channels, who then undertook with his family not one but TWO back-to-back people-smuggler voyages. That, the family's well-dressed appearance, and his own story-telling did not give the impression that they had escaped Iran as refugees in fear of their lives. And finally, I wondered how he thought his threats to kill, his invoking of "9/11" as retribution, and calls of "F*** Australia!" might convince Australia we made a mistake in rejecting him three times? I wonder whether, in some cases at least, it's not so bad that some of our prospective newcomers find somewhere else to bless with their presence? However, overwhelmingly I agree with Andrew.
Paul | 20 March 2014

“It is ethically unjustifiable for the Australian Government to imprison in dangerous and uncontrolled situations one group of asylum seekers in order that their hardship will deter others from claiming protection, and so from the risk of drowning.” It is never legitimate to do evil to achieve good. It would certainly be intrinsically wrong to act in such a manner described by Fr Hamilton. But I submit: it’s not, on the face of it, what the Australian Government is doing. 1. There is no evidence that the Government INTENTIONALLY contrived a dangerous and uncontrolled situation on Manus Is SO THAT it could place asylum seekers there as a disincentive to would-be boat people. 2. Equally, there is not even evidence that the Government MERELY FORESAW the Manus Is. riot, and placed boat people into that situation SO THAT others would be deterred from getting into boats. 3. Rather, the government’s deterrence strategy lies in denying the boat people an internment camp on Australian soil, and stipulating that, should they be assessed as genuine asylum seekers, asylum will be arranged in a country other than Australia (to wit, PNG – though negotiations are still to be completed on this arrangement). So, violence and danger on Manus Is, whether or not it occur, is not part of the strategy. 4. True: were, eg, the riots to have continued unabated and the government not to make genuine efforts to protect the innocent in that circumstance, then one might have an ethical case to make that the government was RECKLESSLY INDIFFERENT to the rights of the inmates to safety for whatever reason (including a deterrence motive). But that is an hypothetical scenario not applicable to the Government: the riot episode has ended for now, and the government is taking steps to minimise the chances of such events happening again. Thus, as long as the Government policy is implemented as planned, no detainees’ rights are being infringed. Detainees have a right to have their status determined, to be cared for in safety while the assessment takes place, the right to return home or move to other countries if they so desire, and to be granted asylum (but not - necessarily - in Australia) should they be assessed as asylum seekers. All these rights are being respected (though the riot did obviously compromise safety for a period), as far as I can tell. In conclusion: Certainly a key plank of the Manus Is strategy is to end boat arrivals. But it is being carried out in a way that is intended to be consistent with a respect for the basic human rights of the detainees, albeit not in a way that the detainees might themselves prefer or have expected. With due respect and humility, I reject the thesis that the government’s actual Manus Is strategy, as opposed to the version constructed (no doubt in good faith) by Fr Hamilton in this post, is intrinsically - or as Fr H puts it, “simply” - unethical.
Name | 20 March 2014

Thank you Andrew, for a brilliant article.Oh that it could printed in our secular papers. I concur with the sentiment of Michael B. Kelly. Where are our spiritual leaders. Have they gone into hiding and put this issue in the' too hard basket'? Could this be one of the reasons there are fewer people at Mass? What is happening to our church? Also , Clair Hoehstetler,I would love to know where the peaceful demonstrations are on Palm Sunday. many thanks
Bernie Introna | 20 March 2014

There is nothing good or ethical by hiding under the skirt of a church promoting the people smuggling industry. This industry is evil and only evil people continue to support it. There are no sensible arguments to support such a greedy, evil crime ridden industry. I think Andre Hamilton should get a Nobel Prize for Hypocrisy.
Beat Odermatt | 20 March 2014

Ethics - can't agree that it's simple, Andrew. A strong ethical position, properly formed, from education, reflection and experience is hard-won, and in it's dynamic, resulting from the ever changing world we live in, challenges us in integrity every day. If it were so simple why would we not have higher ethical standards adhering to and emanating from more of our key politicians. There would be less party machine, more 'crossing the floor' and more independents. The fourth estate would be stronger and there would be more news outlet proprietors because they would have felt more strongly about speaking than about being economically comfortable. Perhaps we need the types of people that become 'fearless' journalists in search of the/a truth. Perhaps a good dose of ethically motivated thought leaders rather than cynical vote catchers and the numbers apparatchiks commissioning popularity polls. No, not easy. Even though the basic principles may be easy to grasp (+1 Marilyn, 1st comment on this) I reckon that if they were easy to live then we wouldn't have a Judeo-Christian story. So although I'm generally terribly disappointed in our leadership at many levels, perhaps we harvest what we sow. Following on from Andrew mentioning Luther, may I suggest Walton Padelford's Dietrich Bonhoeffer & Business Ethics as a source of ethical inspiration applicable to today's complexities.
Mich Cook | 20 March 2014

Thanks for the rich and varied responses. A couple of comments to carry on the conversation. Ian and Mich Cook both emphasise the complexity of ethical reflection in a broken world, Ian to allow the end to justify evil means in some circumstances, and Mich to stress political realities. I still believe that ethical reflection on the cases I mentioned is simple. The political and personal difficulty lies in doing what we believe to be ethical. The objection to allowing the end to justify the means under some circumstances is that it sells out the principle that human dignity must always be respected. When that is eroded, how would you resist other uses of human beings as means to other ends? I have difficulty with Bonhoeffer's argumentation at this point, but that is conversation for another day. Name's courteous argument examines the Government's intention to do harm, focusing on the riot on Manus Island. The deeper harm, though, is from detention itself. My experience in one detention centre supports Pat McGorry's description of them as factories for producing mental illness, and so for the social evils that flow from it. Detention magnifies anxiety, depression and hopelessness in people already vulnerable from the situations they have escaped. The conditions on Manus Island and Nauru further exacerbate this harm, as reports from insiders and visitors have shown. In my judgment this constitutes massive harm to people, and this harm is known to government. And as Name acknowledges, the detention that causes it is at the heart of the policy of deterrence. Events like the riot are predictable under the policy, even if - as Name correctly argues - not planned.
Andy Hamilton | 21 March 2014

An excellent article, Andrew, but I would beg to disagree with your argument. The problem with asylum seekers arriving by boat is a complex one and does not admit to a simplistic solution. It is possible to be against people smuggling yet deplore offshore processing and all its attendant ills. Luther's statement, when he pinned his theses to the doors at All Saints Church, Wittenberg, was about a religious dispute. Like Jesus, Luther kept the realms of Caesar and God separate. Of course it is possible for Christians like you to take a moral stance on an issue such as this but the world of politics is a very murky and amoral one. That is why Jesus was not primarily a political revolutionary although his life, teaching and example changed things. I think anyone working to change public opinion on asylum seekers and their treatment will have to work hard, long, patiently and non-controversially in the public arena. A broken record technique like Marilyn's is futile: she adds nothing positive to the debate.
Edward Fido | 21 March 2014

Thank you Andrew Hamilton. We are in the minority but now that there are thousands protesting and attending candle light vigils, perhaps, just perhaps, more and more people will come to realise that it is unethical to treat asylum seekers in this cruel way.
Zia | 21 March 2014

to Mich Cook - I understand your point, but I still agree with Andy's point that ethics itself is simple - based on the values of the dignity of the human person. The difficulty is not determining what is ethical, but practicing ethics in a political context. THe business of politics might be about convincing people that a policy is just and ethical, but that does not make it so.
AURELIUS | 21 March 2014

Yet the people who are the political leaders in Australia and educated by the Jesuits are the very ones who are making sure this confusion continues. So the question has too be asked. Did the education they receive train them to be this way? A glimpse from the past shows that same combination (Jesuits, power and political ambition) were key factors in the inquisition. What are the Jesuits doing about it besides yourself?
Laurie Sheehan | 22 March 2014

Well said Andrew. We cannot promote the end (preventing smugglers from profit) by justifying the means (torturing their customers) without becoming even worse people than the smugglers. We are committing an evil crime against humanity for political hokey pokey.
Marion Wilson | 22 March 2014

I find it difficult to accept that asylum seekers willing to risk their life on a rickety boat are likely to be merely economic refugees. I also find it difficult to accept that this government would not have foreseen the likelihood of the PNG centres being hell holes. The government is well aware that in Australian detention centres people become mentally ill and we have to ask whether our politicians care. When people are powerless, being treated worse than criminals and feel hopeless about the rest of their life it's not unreasonable to expect frustrations to boil over. You don't have to be a sociologist to realise that. Now, Abbott is not going ahead with the human rights investigation into what occurred on Manus Island. Can this also be explained away as being unintentional?
Zia | 23 March 2014

Thanks, Fr H for your thoughtful response. I ("Name" above) mistakenly inferred from the reference to “dangerous and uncontrolled situations” that you had in mind the riot on Manus Is. Nevertheless, I think the thrust of my argument remains. If the evils such as the riots and mental illnesses (and I’ll concede for the sake of discussion here the levels of mental illness being noted) are merely foreseen, and not planned, then the case before us is, I suggest, already significantly distinguishable from those ethically “simple” examples cited (killing babies to avoid overpopulation, etc) where the evil is directly intended – planned – as a means to a further end. For when evils are not directly intended (unlike those cited cases), one must engage in a calculus to determine if the act, of which the evil is a side-effect, is proportioned to its end. The act (here: detention & processing away from Australia) could still be unethical. The evil of the side effect (here: mental illness, riots, etc) might outweigh the directly intended good end of the act (discouraging boat arrivals & drownings). And this might come about because, as mentioned in my post above, the actor is in some way welcoming the side effect as assisting him to achieve his end (so that to some degree it comes within his direct intention. Here: reports of mental illness & riots being quietly welcomed as adding to aimed deterrence effect), or because the actor is not as attendant as he ought to be to the magnitude of the evil (e.g. he is recklessly indifferent. Here: wilfully averting gaze to sufferings of detainees as documented by medicos, etc). On the other hand, the act could be proportioned to its end, and so ethical, if the reluctantly tolerated attendant evil is outweighed by the direct and indirect benefits of the good end aimed at (so, here: e.g. many deaths at sea averted; detainees who are not asylum seekers decide to return home, enabling asylum seekers in camps overseas – possibly themselves enduring mental torment – to move up the queue and speeding up processing of the genuine asylum seekers in our own detention centres, etc). My purpose here is not to argue which of these alternatives is the better view, but to suggest that, even if unethical, the government’s asylum seeker policy is not “simply” so: the government, (I think we both agree?), is not directly willing mental illness/riots etc in the detention centres in order to deter boat journeys.
HH | 23 March 2014

O K -Stop our robust policies & let everyone who can afford to hire a boat come--watch the uncontrolled flow.Meanwhile those millions who have nothing, stay home &starve.Our politicians ca'n't win
Brian | 28 March 2014

As you said Andrew, the exclusions are" in response to wrong doing". These illegal immigrants should come through the front door, so that we can ascertain in an orderly way who is an asylum seeker versus a queue jumper. No country can tolerate open borders. Never criticise unless you have an alternative. Most arriving have been through several safe countries.
PETER | 03 April 2014

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