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Ethics v. politics

Ethics is usually limited to the scope of individuals—describing when and how we should act. Marian Sawer has broadened this notion to apply to the role of the state. She describes the history, impact and legacy of social liberalism—a philosophy that the state should adopt an interventionist role to achieve ethical outcomes.

The Ethical State? is an enthralling narrative of  the history and philosophy of ethics  and its political application in England, New Zealand and Australia, from the transformation of Mill and Locke’s negative conception of liberty (ie. freedom from interference) to the work of Oxford scholar T.H. Green who pioneered social liberalism.

Green is the ‘hero’ of this tale, a compassionate man, who saw the suffering of late 19th century England, and advocated a philosophy of positive liberalism to guide state action. He went further than Bentham’s utilitarian principle that the state exists to provide material happiness for the greatest number of its citizens, and argued that the state’s role was to provide equal opportunity for all citizens to achieve their potential development.

This book, adapted from Sawer’s articles and essays, is a work of non-fiction that reads like a compelling character drama. The various chapters concentrate on of the idea of an ethical state, and how these notions were received in the Australian colonies as they pressed towards federation. Later chapters on the struggle of the ALP to fully apply the social liberal agenda to all citizens—not just the ‘working man’, and the Liberal party’s rejection of social liberalism and its embrace of economic rationalism (neo-liberalism), make for fascinating political analysis. The tale of how several social liberalist Liberals crossed the floor in the late 1980s to support the ALP’s equal opportunity legislation is engaging, and the names of those involved, including current ministers, is eye-opening.

Drawing upon her interest in women’s involvement in politics, the book also examines the rise of social liberalism in Australia and New Zealand which led to the early adoption of female suffrage and the old age pension, though female employment and equal pay had to wait for a second wave of social liberalism.

At a time when the ethical state is derided as the ‘nanny state’, and the masculine values of neo-liberalism (rugged independence, unhindered competition, autonomy and formal equality) are ascendant, Sawer’s book should be read by any Australian with an interest in politics, the role of the state, and history in general.

This book is more than a philosophical analysis of social liberalism. It is a gripping yarn about one of the forces that has shaped the political conscience of our nation.  

The Ethical State? Social Liberalism in Australia, Marian Sawer.
Melbourne University Press, 2003. isbn 0 522 85082 0, rrp $29.95

David Ferris is a graduate of commerce and law at Melbourne University.



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