Ethic Cleansing
The Bulletin, December 15, 2004, pp. 39-42

As we reach the end of 2004, Australia and the United States have re-elected their governments and seem to be going down similar paths. In the US, according to exit polls, 22% of the electorate said “moral values” were the most important factor in their choice of candidate – ranking higher than either the war in Iraq or the economy. Of this 22%, almost four out of five voted for George W. Bush, and if the polls are accurate, those voters played a decisive role in his re-election. Morality has always featured prominently in Bush’s speeches. Now his moral choices will be under more scrutiny than ever.

Moral values do not appear to have played so large a role in the Australian election, which focused more on economic management and national security. Since the election, however, some prominent Australians have tried to import America’s “culture wars”. Health Minister Tony Abbott lamented the “unambiguous moral tragedy” of abortion, and called for a re-examination of Medicare payments for that procedure. He has also drawn attention to the issue of teenage promiscuity as a moral problem, seeking to raise the age at which parents can have access to their teenagers’ medical records.

Meanwhile Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, has attacked “secular democracy” because it allows pornography, abortion, high levels of marriage breakdown, in vitro fertilisation and stem cell research. In its place, Pell would like to see “democracy founded on the transcendent dignity of the human person” – a dignity that he believes comes into existence at conception. Never mind if that’s a minority view in Australia – there is, Pell assures us, “nothing undemocratic” about bringing into Australian politics the “truth” of this transcendent dignity, and of “our dependence on God”.

Pell’s attempt to build his own religious beliefs into the very definition of democracy would be amusing if it were not uncomfortably reminiscent of his Church’s centuries-old tradition of siding with authoritarians and fascists against secular democratic movements. But Pell’s list of the evils permitted by our democratic system serves as a useful indication of the ethical priorities of one of Australia’s religious leaders. These priorities may well be shared by Abbott, who is also a Catholic, and perhaps also by Prime Minister John Howard – even if Howard, ever the shrewd politician, is unlikely to stir up issues that might show his moral beliefs to be unpopular with the Australian electorate.

Pell’s list resembles that on which the “moral-values” voters in the US seem to focus. For them, stopping gay marriage and abortion are priorities but there is also a concern about stem cell research that leads to the destruction of human embryos. Nor is pornography far behind these concerns. Many Americans who support Bush cite Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Superbowl, which exposed her breast on national television, as a sign of the nation’s moral decline. Under Bush, the regulators of the airwaves are imposing heavy fines on radio and television for showing a female breast or using any specified Anglo-Saxon words describing sexual activity or sex organs.

What is absent from these lists of evils, whether they come from the American religious right or from Australia’s own Christian conservatives, is any reference to America’s or Australia’s glaring failures as global citizens – even though these failures continue to be responsible for the loss of millions of innocent human lives.

Consider: more than a billion people live in desperate poverty, barely existing on the purchasing power equivalent of about $US1 ($1.28) per day. Poverty this severe kills, from starvation, malnutrition and the inability to obtain even the most minimal health care. Most of its victims are children. According to UNICEF, the United Nations fund for children, 11 million children die needlessly each year. That’s more than 30,000 every day, or 10 times the number of people killed in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. At the Millennium Summit held in New York in 2000, the leaders of 148 nations, including Australia and the US, committed themselves to a series of development goals, including the reduction of child mortality by two-thirds by 2015. If the world’s poorest families had access to safe drinking water and basic health care that goal could be achieved and 20,000 lives per day would be saved. But two recent reports – UNICEF’s “Progress for Children: A Child Survival Report Card”, and the World Bank’s “Global Economic Prospects” – indicate that while some countries, especially China and India, have made substantial progress, others are falling further and further behind. Nor have the rich nations done enough to enable the poorest nations to make the progress that is required.

The UN has asked the rich nations of the world to give 0.7% of their gross national income – 70¢ in every $100 they earn – in foreign aid. Some nations, such as Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have met or exceeded that target. This is a list that ought to be more important to our national self-esteem than our Olympic medal-winning tally. But if we rank nations by the proportion of gross national income given as foreign aid, we find that Australia – despite its strong economic performance in recent years – is in the lower half, giving 0.26%, or not much more than a third of the UN target. Countries such as France, Ireland and Portugal all donate a higher proportion of their gross national income for foreign aid than Australia does. The US, for all its emphasis on “moral values”, is at the very bottom of the table, giving only 0.13% of its gross national income – or 13¢ in every $100 it earns – in foreign aid. (If we add in private philanthropy, the amount rises to about 17¢, still not enough to move the US from the bottom position.)

Contrary to what some may believe, giving enough aid to achieve the millennium development goals is well within the capacities of the rich nations. According to a World Bank study, it would require an additional $US40bn to $US70bn annually, or roughly a doubling of existing aid, from the developed nations as a whole. To put that in perspective, it is the equivalent of every citizen of an industrialised nation buying one can of soft drink less every week, and donating the money saved to foreign aid. Or compare it with government expenditure; the current annual US defence budget is $US460bn – and the amount that the US alone has already spent on the war in Iraq would have covered the expenditure required from all the rich nations for two or three years, depending whether we take the lower or higher end of the estimated range.

By any standards, this seems to be a moral issue of the utmost importance. If we are opposed to the loss of innocent human life, as Abbott, Pell, Bush and others frequently say they are, we should be greatly concerned about the avoidable loss of tens of thousands of innocent lives every day. Even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that the lives of human embryos are precious from the moment of conception, surely the death of a two-year-old or a four-year-old child is still a greater tragedy than the loss of an unborn human life, if only because the death will cause more grief to the parents and others who have come to know the child as an individual in a way that no one can ever know an embryo or foetus.

If those Australians and Americans who talk of moral values pay scant attention to their countries’ poor records in foreign aid, they totally ignore another unfolding moral challenge that both nations are failing: climate change. The Kyoto Protocol will finally come into effect in February 2005, thanks to Russia’s belated ratification. With the US refusing to ratify the treaty, and a provision that it must be signed by nations responsible for 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions before it becomes operational, the treaty would have died without Russia’s adhesion. More than a decade of highly labour-intensive negotiations by hundreds of government leaders and officials would then have been for nothing. Perhaps Howard and Bush were hoping that would happen. Apart from the US, the only industrialised nation that has refused to participate in the agreement is Australia.

That those who talk about moral values never mention greenhouse gases is an indication of the extent to which they are stuck in biblical concepts of “sin”. Obviously, when the foundations of Jewish and Christian moral thinking were laid down over the past 3000 years, climate change wasn’t an issue. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see that what Australia and the US are doing in this area is wrong.

The atmosphere is something that no one owns. If it belongs to anyone, it belongs to the world’s people in common. That wasn’t a problem, as long as we thought that we could never use it up. But now we know that the atmosphere has a limited capacity to absorb our waste gases. We have already exceeded that limit, and the world is becoming warmer. Glaciers are retreating all over the world; Arctic ice is melting. Sea levels are rising; rainfall patterns can be expected to fluctuate unpredictably. The consequences will be especially dire for impoverished nations with low-lying coastal plains, for they will be unable to defend themselves against the rising seas. Some small Pacific island nations may disappear and tens of millions of peasant farmers who cultivate delta regions of Bangladesh and Egypt could lose their land to a rising tide of salty water.

Even worse scenarios are possible. Richard Posner, a conservative American judge who has never been identified with the greens or other environmentalists and who prides himself on his unbiased assessments of the facts, recently published Catastrophe, a book that urges us to take more seriously the risk that our greenhouse emissions could trigger a spiral of uncontrollable changes that make our planet totally uninhabitable.

The cuts set out in the Kyoto Protocol are not nearly enough to ensure that we avoid disaster, but they’re a start, and we should build on them. Since the atmosphere is a common resource, we need to find a fair way of dividing up its limited capacity to absorb our waste gases safely. This is an ethical problem in exactly the same way that dividing up a cake is an ethical problem when there are 10 hungry people, each of whom would gladly eat a quarter of the cake. The problem is that the US and Australia, already two of the best-fed people at the table, are taking slices of the cake that are, in proportion to their population, about six times larger than they should be taking. The US, with less than one-twentieth of the world’s population, is responsible for more than a third of its greenhouse gas emissions, while Australia, with only 0.3% of the world’s population, produces at least 1.4%. Australia’s emissions exceed France and Italy, each of which has about three times as many people as Australia.

Australia’s position is particularly indefensible because, during the Kyoto negotiations, it was given very favourable treatment. Almost all the industrialised nations agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels – on average, to 5% below. Only six of the 32 industrialised nations were allowed a target above 1990 levels, and only two – Australia and Iceland – were allowed to go more than 1% above those levels: Australia’s target was 8% above 1990 levels. Spurning this generous offer, Australia refused to ratify Kyoto.

So the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the world’s most generously treated industrialised nation, have both refused to sign on to the only treaty we have that controls greenhouse gases. Instead, it’s business as usual, gaining economic advantage from the fact that their competitors will have to incur costs to reduce emissions, and ignoring the likely damage they are doing to other human beings living in more precarious circumstances. How’s that for moral leadership? Why aren’t Australia’s “moral leaders” showing their concern about this moral failing?

One ethical problem often links up with another. Australia’s refusal to share the burden of cutting greenhouse gas emissions will probably contribute to a stream of refugees, perhaps from those delta regions of Bangladesh, or from the Pacific island nations that have no future when sea levels rise. That will put further pressure on the Howard government’s tough policy on asylum-seekers, for these refugees will – quite reasonably – argue that as Australia is partly responsible for their predicament, it has a moral responsibility to admit a proportion of those rendered homeless or without means of support by climate change.

Although global poverty and climate change are, in my view, the two greatest ethical challenges that the re-elected governments of Australia and the US face, it is impossible to conclude without mentioning the ethical responsibilities arising from their war against Iraq. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has now clearly indicated the war was, in his view, illegal – and it’s a view shared by many international jurists. Even Bush and Howard now admit the “pre-emptive” war was fought against a nation that had no weapons of mass destruction and was not the threat they had, in war-mongering speeches, portrayed it as being. Post-invasion arguments that the war was one of humanitarian intervention have been undermined by a report by American scientists published in the British medical journal The Lancet, estimating the invasion had, by mid-September, caused 100,000 deaths above the number expected to die during the same period if there had been no invasion. Even those who disagree with this estimate, such as UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, acknowledge that about 15,000 civilians have died as a result of the war. There is no evidence to suggest that Saddam Hussein killed so many in the year or two before the war. Moreover, the occupying forces have failed to bring peace to Iraq, and the killing is continuing.

When Bush told then US Secretary of State Colin Powell he was thinking of attacking Iraq, Powell reminded him of what is known in the US as the Pottery Barn rule: “You break it, you own it.” Having broken Iraq, the US and its allies have a responsibility to fix it – and that means enabling it to hold elections as soon as possible and providing the government with the aid it requests – and only the aid it requests — to rebuild the country.

The larger ethical issue raised by the war on Iraq, however, is how to build a more peaceful world. In attacking Iraq, Bush and Howard ignored UN inspectors in Iraq who had failed to find the alleged weapons of mass destruction. The UN, the only truly global institution we have for resolving disputes between nations, was brushed aside. The doctrine of pre-emptive war on which Bush and Howard relied to justify their attack, now stands discredited by the fact that the first time it was invoked is also an example of its misuse.

In December, a report by 16 eminent people commissioned by Kofi Annan suggested options for reforming the UN Security Council to make it a more effective and representative body. The reforms should be supported, although one could wish that the panel had gone so far as to urge that the present holders of the veto – the US, Britain, France, Russia and China – should, for the greater good of the whole, give up this privilege. They hold it for the reason that they were on the right side at the end of World War II, when the UN was founded. But the world has changed, and it is time to devise a different decision-procedure. Instead of allowing a single nation to veto a security council resolution, a special majority, perhaps two-thirds, or three-quarters, should be required for a decision. The standing and prestige of the UN urgently need to be restored, so that it can once again play a central role in peace-keeping.


Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Ethic Cleansing'