Isn’t ‘moral compass’ a catchy phrase? And isn’t losing it a pretty serious indictment? It suggests that anyone who has lost his or her ‘moral compass’ is to be looked down upon as an unworthy reprobate. Andrew Wilkie introduced the term to label PM Gillard and her Government over their approach to live cattle exports to Indonesia and asylum seekers
. And how easy is it to nod wisely in agreement, without giving much thought to what the term really means, and what implications flow from it. Dictionary.com
defines ‘moral compass’ as “anything which serves to guide a person's decisions based on morals or virtues.”
Once the term ‘moral’ is used we find ourselves in deep water as the issue of ‘morality’ arises. It gets complicated; we are into philosophy. What is morality? According to Wikipedia “Morality is a sense of behavioral conduct that differentiates intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good (or right) and bad (or wrong). A moral code is a system of morality (for example, according to a particular philosophy, religion, culture, etc.) and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code. Immorality is the active opposition to morality, while amorality is variously defined as an unawareness of, indifference toward, or disbelief in any set of moral standards or principles.”
I’m afraid it gets more complicated, but we need to go a little deeper to get down to what this business of losing one’s moral compass is all about. Wikipedia
goes on to say: “Morality has two principal meanings: In its "descriptive" sense, morality refers to personal or cultural values, codes of conduct or social mores that distinguish between right and wrong in the human society. Describing morality in this way is not making a claim about what is objectively right or wrong, but only referring to what is considered right or wrong by an individual or some group of people (such as a religion). This sense of the term is addressed by descriptive ethics. “In its "normative" sense, morality refers directly to what is right and wrong, regardless of what specific individuals think. It could be defined as the conduct of the ideal "moral" person in a certain situation. This usage of the term is characterized by "definitive" statements such as "That act is immoral" rather than descriptive ones such as "Many believe that act is immoral." It is often challenged by moral nihilism, which rejects the existence of any moral truths, and supported by moral realism, which supports the existence of moral truths. The normative usage of the term "morality" is addressed by normative ethics.”
So to get a handle on what losing one’s moral compass means, we must get into what is moral and what is not.
Let’s start with the live cattle issue. From public reaction to the Four Corners
program, it appears the most people regard the way in which cattle are processed in some abattoirs in Indonesia as appalling; many would label it immoral. Even those supplying the cattle have expressed their abhorrence. Yet Meat and Livestock Australia has been slow and reluctant to express its abhorrence, and its Jakarta representative reports that MLA has been aware of animal cruelty in some abattoirs for years. So it looks as if different people and different groups apply different standards of morality to the same situation as displayed on Four Corners
. Some, such as Andrew Wilkie, the RSPCA, and like-minded folk, consider the situation is so immoral that they want all live cattle exports banned permanently, and regard those who resist this by imposing only a temporary ban, to wit the Gillard Government, as having ‘lost their moral compass’.
Looking at it from the cattlemen’s point of view, despite their concern for their animals, they might consider it immoral for the Government to suddenly halt their trade and impose heavy financial burdens and possibly bankruptcy upon them. The MLA at present sees no reason to compensate them from MLA funds, something the cattlemen might view as immoral since they collect $4.20 for every beast sold and have many millions of dollars in reserve. They may consider that the MLA has lost its moral compass by declining compensation.
So in accusing any person or group of ‘losing its moral compass’, the accusers are imposing their moral standards on the accused. That’s where it gets tricky and dangerous. They are applying moral standards in a normative sense in that they are defining what is “right and wrong, regardless of what specific individuals think.”
It seems that is what those who insist on a complete ban are doing.
Now before we get into an argument about what is acceptable in the live cattle trade, where there will be a variety of views, be aware that this is not the purpose of this piece. The purpose is simply to point out that as soon as people talk about others losing their moral compass, they are making a value judgement about the morality of the situation under scrutiny and the morals of those on either side of the debate, and indeed are representing their moral values as the superior ones.
In the live cattle debate there would likely be a very large majority of the population deeply distressed by what is happening, and sympathetic to the call for a permanent ban on live exports. But does that entitle them to label those who don’t want to go that far as having ‘lost their moral compass’?
The asylum seeker issue has divided the community more evenly. There are those who consider it immoral to place people in detention for processing their asylum claims. They would release them into the community for processing there. But many would consider it immoral to release them unprocessed and perhaps endanger the community. Some resent it and no doubt think it immoral to provide benefits to those arrivals beyond those afforded our own citizens. So whose morality is ‘right’? What morality should prevail? Which of these different groups should be labeled as having ‘lost their moral compass’?
Many see the Malaysian arrangement as immoral, threatening as is suggested harsh conditions for those sent there and inhuman conditions for children. Even more are against removing to Malaysia unaccompanied children arriving on boats. But on the other side of the argument, there are those who support the deportation of these ‘queue-jumping’ arrivals, and applaud this attempt to disrupt the people smuggling trade. They see it as humane to discourage people from risking their lives on leaky boats; we have heard politicians argue this case over and again.
So whose morality is ‘right’? What entitles anyone to label those who hold one view or the other as having ‘lost their moral compass’? Yet that is how Andrew Wilkie and refugee advocates are labeling PM Gillard and her Government over their attempts to negotiate an arrangement with Malaysia. They seem to discount that part of the proposal that will admit to our country 4000 already processed legitimate refugees. The negative of sending 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia, designed as it is to stop boat arrivals, outweighs in their mind the positive of resettling 4000 legitimate refugees from Malaysia in our country. That is a value judgement to which they’re entitled, but does that entitle them to label those who support the Malaysian arrangement as having lost their moral compass?
In conclusion, left me emphasize again that the purpose of this short piece is not to debate the whys and wherefores of these two curly issues, but to question the right of Andrew Wilkie, or anyone else for that matter, to impose his morality on those who do not accept his viewpoint and characterize them as having lost their moral compass? To me that is a bridge too far because such pejorative labels, like slogans, stick and unfairly diminish those so labeled.
Is his moral compass better than mine, or Julia Gillard’s, or that of anyone else?
What do you think?