I am convinced that peace needs more than a political solution - more than ideology, more than changed laws, better social security, and so on. The disgraceful behaviour of the Australian Prime Minister towards a hunger-striking farmer gives us an opportune example. Is the problem the lack of ethics - or the wrong ethics?
I am sure Mr Rudd doesn't think he did anything wrong by allowing someone to almost starve to death (it was good fortune that he didn't) just for want of a meeting with Mr Rudd to discuss his grievances. The 'big picture' undoubtedly demanded the death of one insignificant victim of government policies. Rudd is a utilitarian (or at least he acts and quacks like one). Utilitarianism, the near-universal ethic of our age, is particularly bad at the job most of us trust it for. Peter Spencer went on a hunger strike over de facto confiscation of his land without compensation. Justin Jefferson, writing in Quadrant had this to say about it:
The problem facing the Commonwealth government in Peter Spencer’s case is that on the one hand it’s embarrassing to have him dying of starvation up a pole because they denied him justice after forcibly taking billions of dollars worth of property in violation of the Constitution; and embarrassing to be caught out ignoring him, and lying to the population that it was all the States’ fault. But on the other hand, the Commonwealth has stolen too much property to be able to pay for it; and is too greedy to give it back.
It is no defence of this injustice to say that other environmental and planning laws also restrict people’s private property use-rights. That only begs the question whether they also represent unjust acquisitions.
It does not answer to assert that government acts in the national interest. That is precisely what is in issue. If it’s in the national interest for the government to take people’s property without their consent in breach of the law by threatening them with force, then presumably armed robbery and extortion might be in the national interest too.
Jefferson goes on to list various arguments that don't work: the laws are to protect native vegetation; native vegetation acts were done to protect biodiversity; ecological sustainability; and so on. But read between the text: a common feature in all the arguments that Jefferson demolishes is that they are based on bottom-line, "this is better than that, so do this" thinking. Indeed, we all imbibe this thought pattern from the moment we are born; many will ask: "But what else can there possibly be?"
The Principle of Goodness, that's what. And it solves all these ethical dilemmas. The basic problem is stated in Jefferson's first paragraph: the government has taken so much private property it can't pay for it and is too greedy to return it to its rightful owners. Now the government might choose to follow this policy regardless of ethics, and no ethical argument can persuade someone who deliberately choose to behave unethically; but I don't think that happens very often at all. More likely, the government thinks it has chosen "the lesser of two evils", or "the best for the majority", or "the environment overrides the welfare of the few" - or some such argument based on some kind of utilitarianism.
There are quite a lot of utilitarianisms, and they are not all consistent with each other. There is the well-known utility of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" (as in the first two hypothetical excuses in the previous paragraph), and then there is the utility of the superior, or more pressing, purpose (as in the last hypothetical, in which the environment trumps human interests). People will swap between utilitarianisms from moment to moment, often unaware that their beliefs and choices, taken as a whole, are inconsistent and mutually incompatible. For example, many who will regretfully, but willingly, allow Peter Spencer to starve on his pole trying to protect his rightful property, will use the superior-interest argument that the environment trumps human interests. But a moment later they may be found defending agonising experiments on animals to find cures for human diseases, because human interests trump animals' interests. Is it that an entire species trumps human interests but isolated animals do not? What, then, of exterminating the polio virus? Is it that the environment only trumps human interests because it serves the greater human interest of supporting the human species? But many environmentalists consider humans themselves a disease to be wiped out. And, of course, however many environmentalists will agree with expunging the fruit of Peter Spencer's life's work, I have yet to see a single one who will so willingly cooperate with similar action against their own interests. Utilitarianism only works 'for other people'. And one way or another, utility arguments end up a hornets' nest of personal judgments for which no compelling and convincing argument can be made: buy it or not, your choice, but never ever will it help a society sort out the mess of competing personal interests and beliefs.
Not so the Principle of Goodness, a succinct statement of an age-old spiritual insight: Never deliberately harm an innocent, and always try to achieve benefit for all sentient beings. From Buddha to Jesus to Socrates to Gandhi, all the greatest souls have practised it. In this case, it simply prohibits deliberately wrecking a few people's lives for the good of the rest of us. Don't surrepticiously confiscate people's land. Is that unworkable? Rudd can certainly obey that rule, the only question is, will he be re-elected if he does? Well he would have to start by either not confiscating the land or paying just compensation. In the former case he could argue to the electorate that the cost was too great - tot up the figures and show us. In the latter case he could say "It would cost X billion dollars and we need to pay it to avoid so-and-so disaster." I think a reasonable politician could sell either of those two propositions if the figures made it good policy - as long as stealing land is not put on the table.
And the way to keep it off the table, of course, is to demand ethics in public life in general: No, no one "has to take the hard decisions" - a euphemism for deliberately harming someone. And the ethics must be the Principle of Goodness, not nosey-parkering into things that are none of our business. Forget about politicians' sex lives, and remember their ethical choices in how they run public policy. The Principle of Goodness is really simple, so simple it often looks as if nothing has happened. The very best often tends to be invisible; but things 'just work'.