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Offshore processing and the perils of unfettered consequentialism

By Nathan Bell and Asher Hirsch

With almost weekly tragedies coming out of Australia’s offshore detention regime, many across the world often ask: “how can such a democratic and free country allow the horrors of these policies to take place?” Most recent of these events is the death of a Sudanese refugee in Manus Island, raising concerns about access to adequate healthcare and independent oversight. Offshore processing, returning fleeing persons to vulnerable or threatening situations, indefinite detention and sexual abuse, are just some of the litany of ethically fraught consequences involved in Australia’s current asylum policies. Certain concepts in philosophy can inform an understanding of how such a draconian policy can develop.‘Consequence’ is a key word in this context.  One way to understand how the Australian community allows such acts to occur is to explore the role ‘Consequentialism’ has played in the asylum seeker debate.  Consequentialism is an ethical philosophy which holds that consequences, rather than principles, are what matters when it comes to determining right and wrong.  It is related to the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, who argued for the greatest happiness of the greatest number – that is, the maximization of overall utility, regardless than an argument from a set of formal principles.

Consequentialism reveals itself in the arguments made by our political leaders and mirrored by the acceptance of their policies in wider community – that we need to be tough on those who travel by boat, in order to dissuade others from taking a similarly dangerous journey. In other words, ‘the ends justify the means’.

Taking this view to the extreme shows how we can get to the point we are at.  If the ends justify the means, then anything can be done in the name of saving the lives of hypothetical thousands of drowning refugees. We can torture them, we can detain them, we can abuse them, if what we are doing is outweighed by the hypothetical lives we save.  Leaving aside cynicism about the government’s motives and taking their argument at its face, it nevertheless entails trading one set of human beings against another. The U.S. refugee deal, which may be stopped by Trump, is one example of a trade in the lives of refugees. Additionally, Australia’s humanitarian refugee intake is linked to the results of its punitive offshore detention regime and turn-back policy, what Tony Abbott described when he was Prime Minister as a ‘human dividend’ (the economic language in the context of human dignity is telling).

But is a consequentialist approach best?  The abandonment of a rule or principles-based ethics can lead to the problem of the slippery slope, where ever harsher penalties apply to offset an anticipated consequence.  But this in turn produces a set of deleterious consequences which are themselves highly problematic.  The moral claim can be reversed: can it be held that one set of consequences are definitely worse than the other?  What justifies this claim?  This is meeting consequentialism on its own turf.  However, it may be necessary to counter consequentialism with a deontological approach.

One can contrast the consequentialist approach with its major counter-point in philosophy, ‘deontology’.  In sum, deontology represents a principle or rule-based approached to ethics: that some actions are simply wrong in principle, regardless of their consequences. Torture, for example, can never be justified for a deontologist, as it is simply a moral horror, even if some set of good consequences might be achieved thereby.  The most famous exponent of a deontological approach is the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who held that human beings should always be treated as ends in themselves, never as a means to an end.  For people seeking asylum, this would mean being attentive to the plight of each individual, rather than regarding them as one aspect of a consequentialist, economistic logic where human beings are dividends or bargaining chips.

Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’ also applies in the asylum context – do what you think others should be able to do as well (‘will that the maxim of your action should be universalisable as a general law’).  The example that Australia’s policies set to other states, and the touting of our policy around the globe, factors into the moral calculus of current policies.

As any first-year university human rights student knows, pushing either a deontological or consequentialist position too far can be problematic; can one hold to principle despite any consequences, or to consequences in the face of abandonment of all principle?  There is perhaps a necessary tension here – but the position of the Australian government has gone too far in one direction.  A healthy dose of deontology is required – which means an asylum approach that is principled and rules-based, one founded upon the ideals of human rights recognised by the international community.  In this way, to borrow a line from another philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, human beings may ‘cease being interchangeable like coins’.