Care of strangers

Australian Border Force missed a Vietnamese boat, so now we have Dozens of migrants missing in crocodile-infested Daintree rainforest after boat sinks:

The boat containing irregular migrants that ran aground near the mouth of the Daintree River on Sunday 26 August 2018.

Steve Ciobo, newly minted Minister for Defence Industry, and a Queenslander from the Gold Coast, declared they should be taken to Nauru.

Australian Border Force tweeted that they were probably fisher folk, but Peter Dutton, bereft of immigration responsibilities but still presumable owning Australian Border Force, declared them to be illegal immigrant brought by people smugglers and said they would be deported at the first opportunity, warning that another 14,000 were waiting to get on boats (pay-walled).

I decided to re-post a guest post I did for John Quiggin on August 30, 2004.

Care of strangers

In the comments thread of an earlier post Jack Strocchi raised a number of issues concerning asylum seekers including utilitarianism as the basis for our stance. The legal/ethical basis for our stance is central and deserves greater scrutiny, discussion and reflection. The following is not intended as a complete philosophical justification for an alternative approach, merely to demonstrate that alternatives are possible.

I’m going to start with the statement that I don’t accept utilitarianism as providing an adequate basis for public policy or law generally, but in this case in particular.

Suddenly on this blog I feel like a pigeon among the cats, so I’ll base the argument mainly on my big gun, Desmond Manderson, whose views are compatible with my own.

On 24 August, 2001 Desmond Manderson, then Director of the Julius Stone Institute of Jurisprudence at the University of Sydney, had an article “Care of strangers’ published in the AFR. He clearly understands that the law operates in a social context, and is related to philosophy and values.

The Benthamite dictum has existed in my mind as “the greatest good for the greatest number.” To me this fails to address the question of what the ‘greatest good’ consists of, and who decides. Turns out I was wrong about the quote, which should read “the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people”. This is even worse because in ‘happiness’ we have a private good, which may be different for different people. Moreover the happiness of one may conflict with the happiness of another. Indeed it opens the way for the circumstance that the pain of one or some may contribute to the happiness of others.

It is easy to argue in these circumstances that governments in decent countries should protect individuals and small groups from the tyranny of the majority. This, Manderson says, is normally done on the basis of (human) rights.

The problem with interests and rights is that both are based on the individual, albeit within a social context. That is, happiness is an individual interest, which may conflict with the interests of others. Ditto for rights, but rights must be both claimed and granted in a social context. In other words rights are socially constituted.

This may work OK within the (democratic) tribe, or by extension within the state (if it is working properly in an inclusive way) but does not as such recognise the needs of the stranger in trouble. Nor indeed does it help alienated and voiceless groups within a society.

The problem here is that we may see it in our interests (and we do) to deny strangers the means to make a claim for refuge from persecution based on basic human needs and universally recognised human rights, recognised by us too as signatories to an international convention. In effect, and actually, we turn the strangers away without listening to them.

Manderson is suggesting here that our approach, our jurisprudence, is based on the notion that society is comprised of a collection of freely associating isolates. The self and self-interest is the ultimate ground of explanation. Altruism remains as a problem, or at best an interest of some of us.

Manderson turns here to an alternative jurisprudence “built on the work of the great ethical philosopher and Jewish theologian Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995).” According to Levinas, Manderson says:

    “Our very sense of selfhood is a construction; it comes from our relationship with others, initially as a child and then throughout our lives. The ‘other’ comes ‘before’ the self because there is no self without them. We might even say that we are a mirror in which others are reflected.”

[Personally, I think the mirror metaphor is too limited, but that’s another story.]

In view of this:

    We do not ‘give’ them [others] charity (or rights) from the depths of our autonomy. We already owe them a debt, for their otherness is the very condition of our existence. We are ourselves, not just among them but because of them. Charity or kindness is not a torchlight which we hold and decide to shine on someone else. No, it is the sunlight without which we could not see anything at all.

You will note here that we have moved from questions of law to questions of philosophy, not just ethics but the ontological question of the nature of our being. The ontology behind or assumed by utilitarianism is seldom discussed.

Responsibility, the second Levinas’ concept brought to bear, is our ability to respond. In a sense we don’t choose whether to respond, merely how. We are chosen by the proximity of the stranger in need. This responsibility “comes from the ‘face to face’ encounter with another person and cannot be satisfied by the rote application of rules.”

We can choose to accept or reject our responsibility. If we accept then both we and the ‘other’ grow in humanity. If we reject our responsibility we certainly diminish ourselves and may also harm others. In the end it’s a simple argument. We are all connected and we are here to help each other. Out of that we grow and, as a matter of grace, may become happy.

Manderson concludes:

    “The fundamental test of justice is one of hospitality to the stranger. Too bad for us, but we do not have a say in the matter. In this, we are already the chosen people.”

That was Manderson’s challenge. Two days later the Tampa showed up. I’ll leave it to you to work out how well we went on the test.

Thus the post of 2004.

Manderson’s representation, following Levinas, of the essential social nature of our being is better expressed than I could ever manage.

In the original post a vigorous commentary discussion followed. I felt that Manderson is saying, rather than set aside utilitarianism in this context, and indeed in public policy and law generally, we need to take it on board and go beyond it. However, it does call into question the privileging of individualism as a foundational value of liberalism. Contrast, for example, the centrality of individualism in American social thinking, where we have ‘Life’ liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ with Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

In the former, a person is seen as free and independent, having certain inherent rights, from which they enter into a state of society.

In the latter people are seen as born dependent social beings who grow in individuality and freedom. Happiness of the individual as a prime aim does not figure.

Last night I was struck by a gut-wrenching story on the 7.30 Report Healthcare workers speak out about the health of child refugees on Nauru.

Children were being raised (not the right term) in a human environment where they had little chance of ever becoming fully formed as human personalities. The prospect is that their lives would be blighted forever.

Do the ethics of the situation change because there might be so many seeking to come here? I think that is what makes the issue of refugees and asylum seekers a ‘wicked problem’, a problem that is difficult or indeed impossible to solve.

However, we have no choice. We are chosen, and we will be measured by how we respond. Indeed, our choice may diminish us.

23 thoughts on “Care of strangers”

  1. Thanks Brian,

    There are so many areas of reply to such a complicated issue that I can’t find a starting point.

    Other than introducing the word “ choice “ to the discussion.
    A “ choice “ can only be made by an individual presented with more than one alternative.

    It is incorrect to say ( not that anyone here has ) “ a collective choice “.

  2. Ah, this article brings back memories of my youth and many earnest discussions late into the nights. Utilitarianism, like Democracy, is a wonderful idea; pity about the imperfect human beings who cherish it.

    Without wishing to sound unkind or to sound as though I am trying to argue from authority, my own experience of migrants (invited or otherwise), of displaced persons, of refugees (innocent or fugitives from well-deserved justice or simply those on the losing side) has made me a lot more cynical than a lot of my fellow Australians over the “asylum seeker” issues.

    I do abhor the racist clap-trap about unauthorized arrivals on Australian territory. I do abhor all the dog-whistling too. However, I also abhor the actions of the evil, greedy, show-off lawyers and the selfish “look-at-me, look-at-me!!” activists who forced the “Pacific Solution” on us when people who had entered Australia in an irregular manner could have been detained, in modest comfort and reasonable dignity, right here in Australia until their cases could be determined with justice and within a reasonable time.

    If a series of thorough investigations shows that these lawyers and self-appointed activists were nothing but frontmen both for the people traffickers and for the foreign prison corporations, I’ll probably be one of the few people in Australia who will not be shocked and surprised.

    Sorry, Brian, I have too much respect for those with a genuine – sometimes lifelong – commitment to whatever they believe in to have anything but contempt for fake activists and for shonky lawyers.

    I hope the two missing Vietnamese are found quickly, before the crocodiles get them..

  3. Jumpy, seems to me there are three basic ways a group can make choices.

    First, majority rules. 50% + 1 carries the day.

    Second, consensus. Everyone has to agree, and everyone has a veto.

    Third, a leader listens to the arguments and discussion and then makes a call.

    I recall Kim Beazley talking about Bob Hawke’s cabinet style. Hawke wanted consensus, but his skills were in conflict resolution, not consensus building. Beazley reckoned that their expectation was that the leader would make the call, so there was a lot of frustration.

    I believe Keating usually had an idea what he wanted to do, so the troops (cabinet ministers) task was to change his mind, which I understand he would do if coherent arguments were offered.

    I understand Gillard had a dysfunctional cabinet, because with the glowering presence of Rudd, no-one wanted to say anything.

    Sorry, this seems a bit off-topic.

  4. Graham, I’m not quite that cynical, but people espousing high principles in this area seldom have solutions that are even close to practical.

    FWIW I suspect the boatload that hit the Daintree were people who wanted a better life, rather than fleeing persecution. Judging who is genuine can be devilishly difficult. If the authorities use people who know their circumstances, they may be misled by local prejudice.

    What we are doing in Manus and Nauru is in a league of its own, however.

  5. Tell you what, though.
    If the Govt plays up the crocodile story, it might slow the boats…..

    Put ashore near the Daintree, get eaten alive!!
    Land on the north west desert regions, you’ll have heat, thirst, scrub and gravel to contend with. Elsewhere it’s crocs, deadly jellyfish, storms. Watch out for the venomous snakes. (Plenty of them in the ACT too).


    Correct, Graham.
    They could be detained in dignified conditions.

    Camps on hot and humid islands, tents, etc. aren’t up to scratch; or that’s what most of us would have said….. years ago.

  6. Brian

    First, majority rules. 50% + 1 carries the day.

    Second, consensus. Everyone has to agree, and everyone has a veto.

    Third, a leader listens to the arguments and discussion and then makes a call.

    None of those are collective choices.
    The first is just adding up individual choices under a democratic system. The second I’m not sure that’s the definition of consensus but still it’s like the first. And the third is an individual choice of one person.

    Anyway, back too “ Care of Strangers “
    We all, as individuals, have a set of care or empathy priorities that are arranged in an order or hierarchy because it’s impossible to either care for everything equally or respond in a way to each issue that can’t be criticised as not enough.

    Australia is one of the highest migrant accepting Countries in the World. The notion that Australians are somehow xenophobic or anti immigration is absurd. Australians quite sensibly and laudably prefer orderly, controlled and safe.

  7. Jumpy, you are just playing with words. Institutions and formal associations of people exist, as do informal associations. All are capable of making decisions to take collective action.

  8. Jumpy, I didn’t say Australians were xenophobic or anti-immigration.

    That old canard about Australia being the one of the highest migrant accepting countries in the world when we lock out all those who would come here of their own accord is absurd.

  9. Brian: Many institutions require more than a simple majority to make changes (ex: 2/3 majority)
    Leaders can use a number of strategies for making decisions. My list includes:
    Autocrat. Leader makes decision without consulting.
    Consulting autocrat: Leader makes decision after consultation.
    Democrat: Leader works with group to make a democratic decision.
    Consensus: Leader works with group to reach consensus.
    Delegate: Leader leaves the group to make decision.
    None of these approaches are the best all the time. The best can depend on the people being led, the importance of the decision and the urgency of the decision. (Good leaders know when to use these various approaches and when to change their minds.)
    Combinations can also be used. For example, a leader may delegate after making an autocratic decision re the boundaries and/or aims that the decision must satisfy.
    One organization I have belonged to considers consensus desirable but has mechanisms to stop the desire for consensus allowing a difficult person to do an Abbott. The process they follow when discussion gets bogged down is:
    Chair suggests a resolution and asks if anyone opposes.
    If someone opposes they are asked if anyone wants to block consensus.
    If someone blocks, further efforts may be made to reach consensus. This may include setting up a subgroup to try and resolve complex issues.
    If the matter cannot be resolved by consensus or the issue is not particularly important, the issue is resolved by a vote. Dissenters can have their dissent recorded.
    Seems to work well.

  10. The notion that Australians are somehow xenophobic or anti immigration is absurd.

    Sorry Jumpy, I must disagree. I’m old enough to remember when it was the Greeks and Italians who clustered in ghettos and refused to assimilate; they didn’t even speak English (a complaint I myself made on more than one occasion) and my God! their food – they ate bait and that stinky garlic.
    Then it was the migrants from Yugoslavia; all knife fights and Ustashi – we’ll all be murdered in our beds.
    Followed by the Vietnamese, who also didn’t assimilate or even speak English – the bastards, after all we did for them.
    Aussies have treated each new wave of immigration with hostility based (I believe) mainly on fear of “the other”.
    Once we get to know the newcomers we accept them and the benefits they bring our country, but our automatic first response is xenophobia.

  11. If we lack compassion, lack a tolerance of harmless difference and if we lack the willingness to help others in real need, we become less than truly human.

    However how we manifest these qualities must be within our own control – perhaps, guided by ethicists, pastors, ministers, priests, monks, nuns, rabbis, learned imams, impartial scholars, genuine charity workers, long-time residents in particular communities and the like who have proven themselves to be compassionate, tolerant, helpful and wise.

    We got and well-deserved the shameful reputation we now have in Australia when, without good cause, we surrendered control of our own compassion, tolerance and efforts to a mob of evil-doers : people-traffickers, drug wholesalers, rapacious lawyers, dog-whistling politicians, greedy migration agents, prison-industry racketeers, ratings-chasing shock-jocks, wealthy layabouts, racists on the make and fraudulent activists.

    Since it is our own lack of attention and our own moral weakness that has caused all of the unnecessary abuses of our fellow human beings in need and has caused the squandering of our wealth, I offer a very simple – some might think, simplistic – solution:
    Each one of us strives to claw back control of our own compassion, our own tolerance and our own ability to help others in need.
    Each of us makes our own counter-attack against the evil-doers whom we have permitted to manipulate our feelings and opinions, whom we have allowed to steal our time, our money, our attention, our efforts.

    It is possible to restore Australia’s reputation now that we have become known as a nation of very nasty yet very gullible people. It is also possible to help those in dire need swiftly, appropriately and at a far, far lower cost. But that can happen only if each of us does something both good and practical in this field ourselves – and we don’t leave all decisions and actions to manifest evil-doers.

  12. Brian

    Jumpy, I didn’t say Australians were xenophobic or anti-immigration.

    I didn’t say you did, did I ?

    That old canard about Australia being the one of the highest migrant accepting countries in the world when we lock out all those who would come here of their own accord is absurd.

    Australia is consistently in the top 10 migrant settling Nations Per Capita, it’s not a canard at all.
    About 45 per thousand every year.
    It obviously doesn’t lock everyone out.

    Are you suggesting the Australian border be totally open to everyone that wanted to come here of their own accord ?

  13. Graham, you are correct.
    We should each personally and loudly condemn the structures,systems and methods of the Countries these poor sods are fleeing from.
    I’m sure they love their homelands but not their domestic oppressors.

    In this most recent case the Socialist Republic of Vietnam run by their Communist Party.

  14. Oh, we’ve flipped to refugees now have we.
    I don’t know why, Vietnam is over 5000 km from Cairns.
    If I’m fleeing persecution, be it from a socialist republic controlled by communist or not, I’m for the nearest port in a storm.
    Here a tip, get a map of the World with Vietnam at the centre and draw a circle with a 5000 km radius.

  15. Australia does not have a good record in dealing with migrants and with refugees – despite all the self-congratulation heaped on themselves by our marvellous Lords-and-Masters.

    Filipinos have always had a good fit with Australia and its values, yet it is only in the last few decades that we have deigned to allow a handful of them into this country.
    A million refugees fled Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and found reluctant refuge in the hard-pressed Republic of South Africa; did we invite hundreds of these English-speaking, hard-working refugees to Australia? Not on your nelly! If these confounded blacks couldn’t afford the grossly overcharged services of OUR migration agents, then they could damned-well rot there in the slums of South Africa or go home and be very nice and polite to Mr Mugabe. That was Australia’s attitude.
    About the only bright glimmer in a thoroughly dismal record was when Australia gave temporary shelter to a small number of refugees from Kosovo.

    Care of Strangers? Well, yes. Provided they have plenty of money – or can attract money. Provided they are fashionable. Provided they have really plausible sob-stories (whether partially true or thoroughly fictional doesn’t really matter). Naturally, we can’t allow more than a token handful of those awful Palestinians, Assyrian Christians or Yazidis, for instance, into Australia, regardless of what grim perils hang over their heads; they might be bad for business, or, heaven forbid, they might actually dare to assimilate into the broader Australian community and enrich us all.

  16. Sorry Jumpy, when I talked about “That old canard about Australia being the one of the highest migrant accepting countries in the world” I didn’t notice that you had moved from refugees to migrants. The post was really about refugees, but you could extend it to anyone coming here who is different.

  17. Jumpy, there are masses of programs on Radio National this week about China. In one they pointed out that in China the basic unit of society was the family rather than the individual.

    The point here is that society is the fundamental concept. Without society there is no ‘individual’. Society is the sine qua non for human existence over time.

    In philosophical terms society is a necessary but not sufficient condition for human existence.

  18. Are you suggesting the Australian border be totally open to everyone that wanted to come here of their own accord ?

    The short answer is, no.

    Germany couldn’t keep doing what it did in 2015, and any Australian government that restored onshore processing the way Labor had it in 2013 would be a one-term government.

    There is another way, drawing from what happened when Vietnam went communist, with collection points and co-operation between countries willing and able to resettle.

    I just spent half an hour answering this at length, then lost the lot. Don’t have time now to do it again.

  19. Brian

    The short answer is, no.

    Ok, good, we can all see there are hundreds of millions that would rather live under Australian conditions than where they are now given the chance.
    So I’m assuming ( correct me if I’m wrong please ) that there should be an amount limit on immigration numbers.

    At the moment the migration consists of skilled sponsored, skilled unsponsored, humanitarian, family reunion, spousal and a few more. Is it just the ratios you want to change to more heavily favour humanitarian over the others ?

    I’m really honestly just trying to find out what’s being called for here.

  20. Graham Bell

    Your advice at 6.04am yesterday (30th August) is excellent and thought-provoking.

    My limited experience of volunteering locally, and discussions with other volunteer friends, makes me think that contributing to a cohesive group (e.g a local charity, local volunteer fire brigade, etc.) assists the community and helps build personal friendships in novel ways. In all cases, there is clear and obvious benefit.

    (It’s not an anonymous donation to a national appeal for funds; though they too have a place.)

    The volunteers I know are not smug, nor do they feel superior about their efforts. Far from it. But there is satisfaction and fellowship in the work.

    Thank you, Graham.

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