You are walking by a shallow pond and see a young child drowning. You could wade into the pond and save her, but doing so would ruin a $500 pair of shoes. Are you morally required to save the child? If you answer yes, then there is another question for you: Why are you not under an equal or greater moral duty to contribute $500 to fight global starvation—an act of generosity that could save 10 lives or more? (Peter Singer paraphrased via SSIR article, ‘Not-So-Ordinary Altruism‘)
The common good aims at ‘the good of all without sacrificing the dignity of the one’. This is very different to the utilitarian approach, where the quote attributed to Stalin springs to mind, ‘to make an omelette you have to crack a few eggs’. Or in the Peter Singer example, let the child drown who is close to you, so you can save the many further afield.
This balance between the common good and the dignity of each person is of vital importance when trying to make sense of serious, actual existing, large-scale moral and public policy dilemmas.
In Australia, politicians have justified great use of force and harsh treatment of people seeking asylum in the name of saving people from drowning. We are expected to tolerate or even support the mistreatment of the minority for the good of the majority. We make life intolerable for the asylum seeker, to deter more from coming.
There are credible reports of violence and sexual abuse in Australian detention centers established off-shore. While it is certain that violence and abuse is not an intended outcome of Australian policy, it is hard to believe that this kind of behavior wasn’t foreseen by policy makers when it was decided to put people in tents in very harsh conditions. These conditions do not bring out the best in human behaviour.
The difficulty comes in when we think of proximity. Surely we have more responsibility to our nearest neighbour? Perhaps, but we should also recognise that those countries that enjoy less social problems and greater income equality are also more generous to those abroad. Perhaps it isn’t one or the other (lesser of two evils is still an evil as an old friend said to me once).
By making the above arguments I’m definitely not claiming that Peter Singer supports mistreatment of asylum seekers. However there is a dangerous logic at play.
People are starving at sea who are desperate and stateless. The response from Australia is to turn away. We stop people dying at sea by letting people starve at sea. The greatest good for the greatest number?