By Dr Simon Longstaff
Recent debate about Australia’s official response to the phenomenon of asylum seekers fleeing to our shores without official permission has highlighted a particularly potent ethical dilemma facing the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Mr Rudd is a man of deep faith and personal conviction who has publicly commended the example set by the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoffer who was, by the standards of his day, an ‘illegal people smuggler’. Mr Rudd is also a Prime Minister – charged with acting in the public interest and let’s face it, in the interests of the political party that he leads. The famous ‘problem of dirty hands’ begins with this duality – between the demands of individual conscience and the demands of public office. Ideally, the demands of each should be the same – or at least complimentary. But what if they are not? In those circumstances, should a man like Kevin Rudd ‘get his hands dirty’ by violating the dictates of his own conscience in order to serve the public interest?
It is important to note here that the challenge before Kevin Rudd, in this case, is not that he should do exactly as Bonhoffer did. After all, the actions of Bonhoffer were in a different time and in aid of people facing a different kind of evil. The people-smugglers of today exploit the vulnerability of those wanting to chance a risky voyage to Australia – a chance that they are prepared to take for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, Bonhoffer was motivated solely by a selfless Christian charity and sought to offer protection to Jewish people at risk of annihilation by the Nazi State. So, it is entirely possible that Kevin Rudd might, in all good conscience, distinguish between the circumstances in which Bonhoffer acted and those in which he finds himself. But what if, in his deeper self (in his soul) Kevin Rudd does not see the distinction so clearly?
Some have argued that a political leader cannot legitimately expect to accord their individual conscience primacy over the public interest. While they might hope to govern without ever encountering any major divergence between the two, they must ultimately accept the possbility that this might occur and that should this be so, then they will bear the terrible, personal cost of violating their conscience in service of the public.
The ‘problem of dirty hands’ has inspired some powerful writing by authors like Machiavelli, Max Weber and Michael Walzer. I would especially recommend Walzer’s 1973 classic, “Political Action: the problem of dirty hands”. Without trying to trace the lineaments of Walzer’s confronting argument, I would highlight Wlazer’s observation that, if nothing else, we should hope for a political leader who cares so much to act in good conscience that, if they do not, then their life will be ruined forever. Yet, Walzer also hopes for a political leader who will not privilege the dictates of his or her own conscience, who will be prepared to destroy their sense of integrity and who will readily accept that the public will both accept the benefits that flow from this sacrifice and insist on the right to punish them for their ethical transgressions. Wlazer’s essay makes chilling reading for any political leader and should be compulsory reading – for all.
This was not the choice faced by Bonhoffer – who chose to encounter the terror of his own death but not the destruction of his soul. As a political leader, Kevin Rudd does not risk death as a consequence of the decisions he makes about people seeking asylum outside formal channels. But what, if any, of the risk to the Prime Minister’s soul?
The point of Bonhoffer is not so much in what he did (vitally important as it was) – but in why he acted to his extreme risk; in his demonstration of moral courage sufficient to act in accordance with his conscience. On this understanding of the significance of Bonhoffer, Kevin Rudd only encounters a serious problem if he finds himself acting in a manner contrary to his own conscience. And only Kevin Rudd knows if this is so.
Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre www.ethics.org.au