Arrogant ethics


Ethics book and scalesTerms of opprobrium are packaged for different recipients. People who defend the rights of people who are unemployed, refugees or Indigenous, for example, can be called chardonnay sipping socialists or bleeding hearts.

Why one particular variety of a substance whose whole raison d'être is to sozzle should be so disdained is a mystery. Nor is it clear why a bleeding heart should be regarded as a more fatal condition than a bloodless heart. The core business of hearts, after all, is blood.

These phrases are standard ordnance in knockabout polemic. Things get more serious when critics lower their voice, adopt a serious mien, and warn you against claiming the moral high ground, or even blame you for taking it. It's as if, like Odysseus chained to the mast, you must take drastic steps to avoid seduction by the siren voices wafting from the mist-shrouded moral high ground.

Yet just what the moral high ground is, how you would claim it or be claimed by it, and why its possession should put at risk your right to be heard, are rarely specified. We clearly need a handbook that will enable us to recognise the moral high ground and detour around it.

The moral high ground is a military metaphor. To take the high ground gives your forces an advantage because they can look and fire down on the opposition. In the same way, to take the moral high ground is believed to give you a decisive advantage in an argument.

You can achieve this highly desirable state of affairs in two ways. The first is to display the coherence between what you argue for and how you live your life. If this harmony contrasts with the dissonance between your opponent's actions and words, they cede to you the moral high ground.

Dissidents who argue for a democratic and peaceful society, for example, may come into conflict with an authoritarian government that pretends to benevolence. They may then commit themselves to demonstrations that embody the peaceful and consultative values of the society they call for. If the government employs violence against the protests, it undermines its claim to benevolence and ultimately its legitimacy. The dissidents occupy the moral high ground.

They will be accused of doing so, too. In this case the accusation is simply a frustrated tribute to the effectiveness of the dissidents' argument and an acknowledgment of the ethical poverty of the government's position.

The witness of people with evident integrity embodying their cause in their acceptance of punishment at the hands of those whom they challenge is always difficult for heavy-handed institutions to counter. It reveals the brutality concealed behind the spin that the institution promotes.

The second way of claiming the high moral ground is seemingly less demanding. It is to claim ethical support for the position that you take, with the corollary that the opposed positions taken by others are ethically defective and inferior. Your ethical argument entails you claiming the moral high ground.

When I argued, for example, that the Malaysia solution was ethically flawed on the grounds that it failed to respect the human dignity of those who were due to be swapped to Malaysia, I necessarily implied that ethical arguments in favour of the solution were flawed and unsupportable. The argument also implied that those who disagreed with me really should consider their position, change their views and perhaps their behaviour.

That may seem arrogant, but it is the nature of any ethical argument about right and wrong. Those who disagree with my argument would similarly imply that my argument was ultimately unsupportable and that I should desist from my criticism of the Malaysia solution. If moral argument is seriously entered into and not simply an intellectual game, the stakes are high. Both sides must begin by claiming the moral high ground. But only one side should ultimately be left in possession of it.

It is precisely the seriousness of moral argument that underlies some objections to claiming the high moral ground. It demands that others examine their own ethical framework and are ready to change their behaviour. This can be unwelcome. Socrates met this kind of resistance when he disturbed people from their unconsidered way of life. But ultimately no one has a right never to live undisturbed by moral discomfort.

We would be rightly open to criticism, however, if we claimed the moral high ground presumptuously. We could simply declare that the course of action that we support is self-evident, refuse to consider opposed positions, and regard our opponents as knaves, cowards or fools.

This claim to the moral high ground fails because it does not respect the demands of moral argument. Those who engage properly in moral argument assume that they may be wrong. So they are open to persuasion by opposed arguments. They also recognise that others can in good faith differ from them on moral issues. Moral argument assumes only that both sides commit themselves to seek the truth of the matter and to follow it.

There is nothing wrong about claiming the moral high ground. But claiming it makes its own demands. Modesty, courage and generosity of spirit, for three.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Malaysia solution, moral high ground



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Existing comments

One would have thought that a much more valuable contribution ...instead of this...would havce been a focus on the Gillard governmnt's the face of the High Court's revisit the so-called Malaysian solution.....especially now that the spectre of the London and Paris riots have been raised in a bid to completely discredit the concept of onshore asylum seeker processing.

Time later, Andrew, for picking apart the bones and nicietes of ethics. For now, for pity's sake, let's cut to the custard!

The time to reflect on a patient's condition is not when he's bleeding to death but when the flow's been staunched...even at the risk of stating what some may term the bleeding obvious.

Australia is poised at the brink, that's what should be urgently occupying the nation's mind...and directing its actions. Get into it your offering was a real disappointment!

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 08 September 2011  

It's oxy moronic to say one has Christian values on the one hand while simultaneously accusing the compassionate and the just on the asylum seeker issue as arrogant ethicists.

Jesus was arrogant on ethics to the point that he demanded one leave mother and father to follow him up to the moral high mount - a place where asylum seekers are welcomed and and their lives and rights kept safe.

I do recall seeing that the Sacred Heart of the Christ bleeds.

Stay arrogant in your ethics, Andrew.

Vacy Vlazna | 08 September 2011  

Or, you could make the observation that those who support the transportation of souls to fascist states to gain votes in the next election and lift poll ratings before that distant point are engaged in base and gross acts of abuse.

Thus saving your breath on engaging those with a Westie mindset, dressed up as 'moral concern', as with Bowen, who is 'very concerned' with the safety of those who come by boat (but not at all with those who come by plane).

Engaging in wars in two of the nation-states that produce refugees might have been partially to blame for our dilemma, and might be worth pointing out too, but of course, that might threaten votes too.

Having a UN that largely ignores states that engage in civil wars,unless it serves the objectives of the West,as with Sri Lanka- no one really cared if that war went on for ever, another source of our refugees, might not have helped but in that case, there were simply no votes in it for anyone, maybe?

Those who support Gillard's adoption of all of Abbott's 'border' policies have never made any effort to justify their arguments on 'moral grounds' anyway (Bowen surely cannot believe his 'moral' claims at all?) but it would be an interesting exercise to see them doing it.

Harry Wilson | 08 September 2011  

Andy's article is about taking the high moral ground - and he has done that in a tough and rugged way, setting the boundaries of the battleground so broadly that he has invited competitors more interested in winning a game of moral on-upmanship rather than the best interests of asylum seekers (BRIAN HAILL's response)

The task of ethics is to open up the boundaries of the moral battlefield - not to narrow them by focussing on the political ping pong ball of the day. Andy has indeed cut to the custard by leaving no stones unturned.

AURELIUS | 08 September 2011  

Dear Andrew, I understand the frustration that attends the experience of trying to say something moral to our community. Your use of the illustration of the dissidents and government dialectic was interesting, as it offers something far more clear cut than say trying to claim some sort of moral high ground closer to home, in the multifaceted polyhany of a contemporary democracy.

I sometimes wonder whether Australians, for all their professed disdain for academic pursuits, are really amongst the most astutely critical readers / hearers. They wouldn't ordinarily know who Nietzsche was and what he said about the ethics surrounding calls for justice, and yet they seem to display an uncanny affinity for his critique that, it is possible for individuals or groups to call for justice from basically less than pure motivations, and to be blind to their own interests in the debate. They seem to ask this question of every public utterance 'in who's interest is this being said, offered etc?'.

Speaking about justice, we must be motivated by genuine charity in order to gain the ear of the Australian electorate. Furthermore, they need to see that charity demonstrated before they will listen. If this is right at all then the church, in this difficult discursive environment, now has a real opportunity to live up to its vocation. I'm just not sure it will be as easy as we might hope, that is, Im not sure that skillful debate all by itself will win the day.

Dave | 08 September 2011  

good on ya, Andrew. Keep up the articulate Christian voice of compassion so much needed to be heard in the land.

Gary Bouma | 08 September 2011  

In the Gospels the person who speaks for the refugees, the unemployed and the indigenous is Jesus. It is observable that no one today calls Jesus a bleeding heart or a chardonnay sipper, even those who publically dispute Christianity. Why is that? Jesus is moving everyone in the Gospel stories in a direction where they find themselves increasingly belonging, so he starts with those in the society who have least sense of belonging, like lepers and outsiders and those with mental challenges and deluded men and crazy ladies.

A main drive of the Gospels is that we act like Jesus, or figure out what Jesus wants of us next. Curiously or not, it is these same Jesus people who search their hearts for the right thing to do and drink wine (of all things) to remember Jesus and keep in touch. These people have big hearts and are serious drinkers, if only a sip at a time.

Desiderius Erasmus | 08 September 2011  

An excellent treatise, Andrew, on the obligations of both taking and striving for the moral high ground. Your comment,"...ultimately, no-one has a right never to live undisturbed by moral discomfort" defines for me one of the claimed personal "rights" of the modern world which in claiming this "right" abandons the Judeo-Christian basis of Western civilisation. In so-doing,ethics has become a casualty and we are worse off because of that and in danger of complete re-definition of what you would call the high moral ground. Such a reversal probably represents a decline rather than progress in our civilisation.

john frawley | 08 September 2011  

If HARRY WILSON’S so-called ‘Westie mindset’ means that those living in western suburbs of our cities are ignorant, racist and uneducated (‘redneck’, ‘ bogan’) then I take offence at his continual use of this derogatory label. If you are sincere about seeking justice, then using classist, elitist, narrow-minded terminology merely undermines your task and can only end in more bigotry.

And MR WILSON, your continual use of ‘quotation marks’ to highlight whatever ‘your cause’ may be, does not make your contribution ‘more valid’.

Instead of inferring that people from a particular geographic or socio economic position are ignorant, please be more descriptive to avoid prejudice.

AURELIUS | 08 September 2011  

An outsanding piece, Andy. It is as elegantly argued as it is morally sure. Our political debates have been very low recently: just point-scoring.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe | 08 September 2011  

"There is nothing wrong about claiming the moral high ground. But claiming it makes its own demands. Modesty, courage and generosity of spirit, for three. "

Yes, unfortunately, those who claim the moral high ground often don't recognise the danger of pride - you can sense the judgemental pleasure in their thinking: 'I'm obviously on the moral high ground, so I'm better than you'. That's what puts people off.

Russell | 08 September 2011  

Dear Andrew,

Our Year 12 Religion & Society, Unit 2: Ethics students are evaluating your arguments, in regard to asylum seekers and the Malaysian solution (amongst others), for our latest Assessment Task before they go off into the real world post 2011 VCE.

While the fact that we are using freedom and right relationships as our evaluation criteria (or our moral high ground, if you like), the more impressive thing is that the students are engaged in the real arguments not the fluff of unsubstantiated and un-argued opinion.

My next challenge is to encourage the students to 'subscribe' to Eureka Street online so that their real world thinking can continue beyond the secondary classroom; even and especially if they disagree!

Ryan McBride | 08 September 2011  

'Dear AURELIUS', my but you are a very easily 'upset' person.

A 'Westie' is a merely a shorthand stereotype, and not an exclusive term at all. Why, there are Westies on the North Shore, and throughout our political parties.

You may prefer Bogan, sorry, 'Bogan', that is your choice, dear boy.

No need to take 'the high moral ground' with me.

Actually, I thought the article somewhat lifeless and avoided getting to any worthwhile point, as with much of the material here and I would never go as far as Gary Bouma's over egged praise for it, or your own for that matter.

It makes a modest point, I do grant that but clearly amongst 'friends', so was it really worth making beyond being an example of in-house conversation?

I am however, rather taken by Russell's comments and wonder if some sort of misplaced hair trigger 'pride' is what you suffer from?

"Yes, unfortunately, those who claim the moral high ground often don't recognise the danger of pride - you can sense the judgemental pleasure in their thinking: 'I'm obviously on the moral high ground, so I'm better than you'. That's what puts people off."

Harry Wilson | 08 September 2011  

Fr Andrew, how about an article on the morality of our playing cricket with Sri Lanka,given the atrocities that have been (very convincingly, it seems) alleged (against both sides, but more so the government) in the civil war, and the refusal of the government to allow these accusations to be investigated. I'm surprised that there has been so much silence on the subject since the Four Corners program. we refused to play with South Africa for years for reasons that hardly seem more grave.

Gavan Breen | 08 September 2011  

I loved the article because it gently and clearly explained where the moral high ground might lie. I am utterly sick of people telling me that I have strong passionate 'opinions' when I try to support a more compassionate approach to asylum seekers. They patronise me and call me a bleeding heart.

I believe that if we have ethics, our government must not enter into a Malaysia or Pacific type of solution to solve the problem of asylum seekers/boat people (now renamed irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs). This is based on facts - the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers are genuine and have suffered - not on opinions. Why can't people see or accept this?

Some facts exist which are not opinions - eg pedophilia is always wrong, as is bashing your wife; this is not just an opinion. Wilfully contributing to harm and suffering of people is also always wrong. Therefore, why go there at all?

Eveline Goy | 08 September 2011  

Nice to see a little biff between Harry and Aurelius. I sometimes think that Eureka Street is just preaching to the converted, politically speaking, but this proves me wrong.

So long as it's constructive biff, of course.

Penelope | 08 September 2011  

And now we have the formally ethical Wayne Swan who argued against the pacific solution claiming that Malaysia is the best deterrent for asylum seekers as if forcing asylum seekers to stay in purgatory is some morally correct position.

It's a very bad sport that will not accept the umpires decision that laws have been broken and still continue to terrorise other innocent people.

Just think, so far Bowen terrorised and illegally jailed 550 people who came after his announcement, After weeks of terror they are now staying here anyway but they are more traumatised than in the beginning.

Then he terrorised another 335 people until he was told it was illegal, now the families are being brought to the mainland anyway.

What is he going to do now, break the law again to terrorise another small group of people only to find himself back in court and ordered to stop it.

When will they get it through their thick skulls that the courts cannot be expunged from decisions of the parliament, that is why we have the separation of powers.

Bowen seems to want to be a dictator so perhaps Libya or Syria would suit him better.

Marilyn Shepherd | 08 September 2011  

Eveline, I have the same problem. I read out the law and get told it is my opinion.

Marilyn Shepherd | 08 September 2011  

Thanks for the helpful comments on my article, and for the suggestions of subjects to which I might profitably give my attention.

I found myself musing over Russell's comment:
'Yes, unfortunately, those who claim the moral high ground often don't recognise the danger of pride - you can sense the judgemental pleasure in their thinking: "I'm obviously on the moral high ground, so I'm better than you". That's what puts people off.'

My reaction is very often the same as Russell's. But sometimes I later recognise that my response came out of projection. I had projected on to the 'high moral grounders' my own guilt upon recognising dimly that my attitudes and judgments were questionable. The objects of my scorn had done no more than simply and non-judgmentally make their argument.

Am I alone in this kind of double response?

Andy Hamilton | 08 September 2011  

Thanks once again Andrew. I enjoyed reading and being challenged by your argument re the moral high ground. Your clarity of expression is matched by your modesty when you accept the right of others to make their argument that you might consider it, and if convinced by the truth of its logic, be forced to accept it. Such is the stuff of good ethical debate.For what it is worth, I stand in solidarity with you on the asylum seeker issue. It appears that The Greens is the only party expressing a similar moral stance. It appears that we are bereft of leaders in the Government or Opposition parties who have the courage to lead opinion rather than sway to polls and vote catching pronouncements.

Ern Azzopardi | 09 September 2011  

To Andrew! I believe that your arguments have nothing to do with morals and far less than “being on moral high ground.” I think your arguments are based on tunnel vision and total lack of understanding how ordinary Australian live and think. I think your arguments do support criminal people smuggling and are highly immoral and highly despicable.

You find ways to demonstrate disrespect to the good people in Australia willing to support charity and goodwill towards the less fortunate. You ignore the goodwill of our political leaders trying to find ways to fairly treating asylum seekers and at the same time trying to support an ever increasing demand on our health and education system.

Beat Odermatt | 09 September 2011  

Much needed reflection...loved this article.

Marg | 12 September 2011  

I agree Hamilton. Eveline & Marilyn Shepherd-you will not agree with me but I would out you two in the third catagory, because, as I also care about refugees, but you do not acknowledge the ethical flaws in your own views when they would be acted out. That does not mean a fact is not a fact. It does mean that two facts that sit uncomfortably can be true at the same time. For examples, see the following article, and I ask you to put YOURSELF in Bowen's shoes rather than just judge him as a scapegoat the way most media encourages us to. I have a bleeding heart-but to me, that label is an excuse for both sides.

Marilyn, pls respond. I have time ;^)

Despairing Dragon | 17 September 2011  

Great article Andrew, I was struggling with a similar response to some thoughts I penned on the London riots. I was trying to the idea that moral argument will always sound patronizing simply because it confronts. Your best line is this one, although your use of a double negative obscures your pointing, I think:

"But ultimately no one has a right never to live undisturbed by moral discomfort."

Drop out the 'never' and I think it works.

Michael Elphick | 28 September 2011  

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High Court grounds Malaysia Solution

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  • 01 September 2011

From now on, the High Court will apply a very fine tooth comb to any legislation allowing ministers to ship asylum seekers offshore.  Unless there were to be a bipartisan agreement in the Parliament or a government deal with the Greens, asylum seekers arriving by boat now need to be processed fairly, promptly, on our terms and on our turf.



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