The moral imagination and the public sphere

In The Presidential Papers Norman Mailer wrote: ‘In the middle classes, the remark, “He made a lot of money,” ends the conversation. If you persist, if you try to point out that that money was made by digging through his grandmother’s grave to look for oil, you are met with a middle-class shrug.’

In contemporary Australia we might easily substitute Mailer’s conversation killer for ‘It will fix the budget’, ‘He stopped the boats’ or ‘Your electricity bill will go down’. It’s a modest feat of the imagination to picture the new grandmother’s graves: ‘By ripping $54 a week out of the hands of unemployed single mothers’, ‘By sending refugees to prison camps in the world’s poorest and least safe countries’ and ‘By ending effective action to avert a looming global catastrophe’, respectively.

Within the public sphere the space for the discussion of ethics seems to be shrinking. The news that Australia is to resettle refugees in Cambodia – one of the poorest countries in South East Asia and currently engulfed in a human rights crisis – has been met with a middle-class shrug. Successive governments have promised budget surpluses but the political discourse around these promises has never extended to a conversation about how a surplus is going to materially improve the lives of Australians.

The first Abbott budget is a further case in point. There has been no conversation about why we should accept that the elderly, students, women and the unemployed should disproportionately shoulder the burden of improving the country’s finances. The so-called ‘budget emergency’ is elevated to an incontestable, national anthem-like roar even as genuine emergencies are denied or disregarded everywhere: domestic violence, climate change, human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, Indigenous disadvantage in our own country. Political expediency dwarfs the ethical perspective, the discourse degenerates into abstracted number crunching, and our moral imaginations wither.

Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, wrote a piece for the Guardian in February in which he argued that Australians have become ‘hyper-individualised’ and are becoming less trusting of each other, more discriminatory towards people born in Asia, and less caring about asylum seekers. According to Krznaric, empathy levels are falling steeply all around the world. It is good news for politicians like Tony Abbott, who has consistently denigrated asylum seekers, and the far-Right UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage who has just ridden a wave of xenophobia to success in European elections in Britain.

It is not very surprising that a philosopher like Krznaric should take exception to signs that social atomisation is reaching the proportions of a plague in the developed world. What is unusual is who some of the people who profess to share this point of view are. One is Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, who argued in a speech given in London this week that: ‘Prosperity requires not just investment in economic capital, but investment in social capital.’ In Carney’s proposed ‘inclusive capitalism’, bankers, economists and traders would share a guiding sense of their responsibilities to the broader system. The Global Financial Crisis gave us a new yardstick for social irresponsibility but the world seems unready for Carney’s quixotic vision. We know, in our heart of hearts, that we have not done nearly enough to prevent another major economic collapse (possibly as soon as by the end of the decade), and that almost nobody who caused the GFC has faced legal sanctions in the six years since it happened.

If the GFC was a failure of the moral imaginations of the bankers who could not see the families whose homes they were foreclosing on to repay dodgy loans, then it is a failure the roots of which go deeper than laissez-faire capitalism, and the fruits of which extend further than the millions of American taxpayers who ultimately had to pick up the tab. ‘The big picture,’ wrote Krznaric, ‘is clear: there’s a growing empathy deficit that is creating new levels of social division.’

New maybe, but not unprecedented. There are disturbing parallels – recession, mass unemployment, the ascendancy of the far-Right in Europe, and even a reported spike in anti-Semitism – between the modern era and the 1930s, which saw fascist and totalitarian states lay the groundwork for the Second World War through the demonisation of minorities. It might be unwise (it would certainly be premature) to make too much of these somewhat superficial resemblances, but it is vitally important that we remember where societies can end up when the lights are turned off on the collective moral consciousness and the public simply gets used to living in the dark.

Ray Bradbury conceded of his famous dystopia, Fahrenheit 451, that in reality it isn’t necessary to burn books in order to destroy a culture – it is enough that people are persuaded to stop reading them. In the same way, it doesn’t take a dictatorship or a global war to diminish our empathic responses to the suffering of other people. In fact, as Joseph Goebbels intimately understood, it is exactly the other way about: the more the moral perspective is neutered, the wider the doors of civilisation are flung open to cruelty and horror of all kinds.

There is no precise remedy for this, though the fact that our capacity to empathise is hardwired into our brains and is active from a very young age opens up some intriguing possibilities. Recent empathy experiments – such as Hello Peace!, which saw more than one million phone calls connecting Arab and Jewish strangers – have had heartening results. But the growing bodies of anthropological and neuroscientific studies of moral engagement will presumably leave the wider public discourse mostly untouched. There is surely a danger that, as our schools flood with Christian chaplains, the space vacated by the humanist discussion of ethics will be ceded to the fog of religious abstruseness.

The journey of Australia’s maltreatment of asylum seekers is an instructive lesson in what can go wrong when the moral consequences of government policy become locked into reactive rather than extrapolative debates: mandatory detention in 1992, Temporary Protection Visas in 1999, the Children Overboard affair in 2001, the murder of Reza Berati on Manus Island and the resettlement of refugees in Cambodia in this year. The ends, we are always told, justify the means. The moral imagination must be nurtured at every level, from the schoolyard up, because it gives individuals the wherewithal – the social capital – to stand in the shoes of those who have to live with the day-to-day consequences of the means as well as the ends. We are not Reza Berati, or one of the more than 1,000 crimeless children who remain locked up in our detention centres, but a culture worthy of the name depends on our ability to imagine that we might have been.

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Great piece. There never is, was or will be an economic ‘bottom line’. How big a tome would it take to contain a compendium of neocon conversation killers? The socially disadvantaged interred beneath a mountain of imaginary economic drivel.

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