Follow us on

In Murky Waters: On Paying People Smugglers

by Dr Patrick Stokes
18 June 2015
If the government did give money to people smugglers, is that bribery? If it is bribery, is that necessarily and inherently a bad thing? With Kant by his side, Patrick Stokes wades through these murky waters.

Recent allegations that the government bribed people smugglers with tens of thousands of dollars to turn around at sea have, rightly, been met with shock. If substantiated, the naked pragmatism of such a move destroys the moral rhetoric around “border protection”.

If, as we’ve long been told, the purpose of turning back boats is to stop drowning deaths at sea by disrupting the business model of people smuggling, then paying people smugglers to turn back makes no sense. If, on the other hand, we simply don’t want to have to deal with asylum seekers, bribing the boats seems a grimly effective way of achieving this.

The moral questions, however, don’t stop there.

One question is how to characterise paying people smugglers to turn around. Is this, as the Prime Minister put it, simply a “creative” response to an intractable problem? Or is it, as many of his critics have suggested, actually engaging in people smuggling ourselves? Or is it more akin to paying a bribe?

No doubt the government would reject both those latter characterisations. Bribery doesn’t seem appropriate if we take it that ‘bribery’ is an improper inducement to someone to act in an unjust way. Thinking about bribery, however, is instructive in this case, for as soon as we do we come up against a couple of important tensions.

The first is a tension between how we evaluate individual acts and how we evaluate a series of acts overall. This is often a matter of consequences. If lying is inherently wrong, then no individual act of lying is legitimate, no matter what the consequences. This led Immanuel Kant to insist that you’re not allowed to lie even to save a life. But consequences do seem to matter, very much.

Imagine we could bribe a prison guard to release an unjustly convicted prisoner from death row. Such an act clearly violates norms against bribery, but it would prevent a grotesque injustice and save a life. It’s hard to see how bribery is a worse outcome than unjust killing. And yet, paying bribes encourages a culture of bribery, which might expose others to unjust situations in future.

Likewise, paying a ransom may have better short-term consequences (the hostage is released) but worse long-term ones (the kidnappers are encouraged to keep taking hostages). Refusing to pay ransoms under any circumstances might therefore seem the overall better strategy. But that doesn’t alter the fact that in individual cases this means preventable death.

Tragic dilemmas are just that – tragic. We’re trapped between the competing demands of the specific and the general. You’ll be doing the wrong thing whatever you do, but you can’t simply do nothing.

But as always, consequences aren’t the whole picture. Intentions play a role too. Paying a bribe to free an innocent person from death row is clearly a different act to bribing an official to wave your planning application through. But what about paying a bribe to the town planner to get an orphanage approved? Or to gather evidence in order to expose corrupt officials?

Is paying informants justified if the practice helps shut down smuggling rings? Is stopping this boat or shutting down this smuggling ring worth it if it gives criminals more resources?

Within days of the claims about paying smugglers to turn around, reports emerged that when Labor was in government, intelligence agencies had paid certain people smugglers for information. Again, the same issues are at play. Is paying informants justified if the practice helps shut down smuggling rings? Is stopping this boat or shutting down this smuggling ring worth it if it gives criminals more resources?

Intentions matter. Paying informants with the intention of shutting their business down seems quite different to paying them to take their business elsewhere.

Moral creativity is a good thing. It helps us find the best – or more often the least-worst – path through the ethical thickets. But in ethics as in accounting, creativity can slip into something more sinister very easily.

 Dr Patrick Stokes is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University.