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The empty moral calculus of Turnbull and Trump

  • 10 August 2017


The Turnbull-Trump tapes took one back. For some, it was back to the Watergate Tapes and the innocent years of Richard Nixon. For those of us of a certain age and faith, it was back to the primitive and unenlightened world of Abraham.

Both Turnbull and Abraham bargained about numbers: Turnbull by reducing the number of asylum seekers from Manus Island that Trump might take; Abraham by reducing the number of just men he would need to produce for God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction.          Abraham’s conversation is part of a fragmented cycle of stories about the division of land between Abraham and Lot, his nephew. Lot chooses the downlands; Abraham the uplands.

Lot eventually settled near the area that includes Sodom, which God had decided to destroy because of its wickedness. He tells Abraham, who had offered hospitality to God’s emissaries, what he has decided, and has sent emissaries to get first hand information.

There is a bargain between the bazaar-wise Abraham and God. Abraham pushes down the number of good men needed to save Sodom from 50 to 10. God’s emissaries go on to Lot’s house in Sodom and are hospitably received.

But at night, every man of the town tries to break into the house to rape the two guests. So much for the 10 just men! God then tells Lot to get out of town and destroys the cities.

This story cycle is built around acceptance of a universal moral order guaranteed by God, the violation of which has consequences. The stories explore what room that universal moral order leaves for personal responsibility and virtue. They ask whether personal human goodness could avert the consequences of the sin of the majority.

In more general terms, the question is posed: Is there space for compassion in the moral order? Abraham’s successful bargaining proves that there is, and that the outcome—the escape of Lot’s family—shows that the moral order respects the humanity of each human being. People matter as persons, not as generalisations, and compassion is integral to any good society.

Although this is a primitive story, its characters have the dignity proper to people who are players in a much larger drama. As the number of just men required to save Sodom falls, so the value of each human being rises. The level of tolerance of the mess inherent in displays of compassion also rises.


"We see two men