What’s it worth?

The contributors to the Policy Values and Principles Section demonstrate their belief in particular values or principles, and in doing so hint at more general values on which their principles are based. In this article I try to articulate these hints into a general value which might attract wide support. Fred Argy (‘Is Australia’s egalitarian society slipping away?’ Issue 38, 18 May 2005) defines an egalitarian society, concludes that Australia’s record as such a society is mixed and finds its future uncertain. The case for egalitarianism is ‘essentially social and moral’. Argy is critical of the disappearance of reform gradualism, the prospect of higher unemployment and less fiscal distribution and in particular ‘diminishing social mobility’ which reduces equality of opportunity.

Eva Cox (‘How do we define fair? A summary’ Issue 36 4 May 2005) includes in her suggested general principles the promotion of citizenship based on mutual respect, the recognition that we are all interdependent and that minorities are core components of the majority. Des Griffin (‘How do we define fair?’ Issue 38, 18 May 2005) takes the discussion further, suggesting that fairness no longer seems to encompass a concept of equity, of opportunity for all. As a remedy ‘we need to be more engaged’. Others such as Don Aitkin (‘Rethinking education’ Issues 33 & 34, 13 and 20 April 2005) take the same approach of pointing to a particular value (equality) which is being ignored, with bad consequences.

One way of bringing these and similar concerns together is to say that they all begin by showing respect and regard for people, for the human person. All of them would agree with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) that people should always be treated as ends in themselves and never as means. This has been rightly described as ‘an enormously influential idea’ which continues to attract support. See for example John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (Oxford 1972), the leading ideas of which are justice as fairness and a strongly egalitarian form of liberalism.

With this idea of the primacy of the human person in mind, we can look again at what the contributors discussed above are saying. It is this: they put forward and support policies which derive from and enhance personal worth and dignity (recognising people as ends in themselves) and are critical of those policies which they see as diminishing human worth and dignity (treating people as means for ideological or economic ends). Thus they support egalitarianism (the Australian ‘fair go’), social mobility, helping the marginalised, mutual respect and so on.

Likewise they are critical of an industrial relations system which already produces a class of ‘working poor’ who are paid only a few dollars an hour, and of the emerging dual systems of education, health, housing and public transport.

Such a general value is not only worthwhile in itself but has the added advantage of being a useful and ready check on the rightness or fairness of policies. Locking refugees up to win the last election, as the Prime Minister recently admitted doing, was wrong because it treated the refugees as a means to the electoral end. (This does not of course rule out the action being wrong for other reasons also.) Even descriptions of people in non-human terms (queue jumpers, dole bludgers, human resources presumably to be put on a par with financial and other resources) are sufficient to arouse suspicions that the policies which use such terms are morally dubious. So far, so good. What is perhaps harder to swallow is that such a value must also be applied to those who disagree with us, so that we should treat our adversaries too as being worthy of respect. This may be particularly difficult for those of us who fancy that we have a good turn of abuse. While the abuse can of course still be directed at bad or fallacious arguments, perhaps even this is not advisable. How many of us have had our minds changed by having our arguments subjected to abuse? Where we have changed our minds, has it not been as a result of sweet reason? Why should our adversaries be any different? Des Griffin urges us to become more engaged. Precisely: but perhaps there is a greater need to become more engaged with those with whom we disagree rather than with those who think as we do.

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