Consequentialism is a group of normative ethical theories which hold that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for judging the rightness or wrongness of the conduct in question.
Taken to its most extreme conclusion, the concept of consequentialism is commonly encapsulated in the saying, ‘the ends justify the means’. This implies that as long as the outcome achieved is considered beneficial and desirable, the morality of the actions taken to achieve that outcome is irrelevant.
Taken to its most extreme, consequentialism can be a very dangerous and troubling philosophy, because it can offer justification for crimes against humanity and other, less serious but nevertheless, morally questionable actions, in order to achieve a desired outcome.
There have been many well-known consequentialists in the course of history, but perhaps the best known practitioner was the 15th to 16th century Italian historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist and writer, Niccolò Machiavelli.
His political treatise, ‘The Prince‘ (‘Il Principe‘), was published in 1513 after the House of Medici had recovered its power, and Machiavelli no longer held a position of responsibility in Firenze. The character of The Prince is believed to have been based on the life of Cesare Borgia, whom Machiavelli served as an adviser. Machiavelli emphasised the importance of a strong ruler who was not hesitant to be harsh towards his enemies, and even his own subjects.
The Prince gave rise to the concept of ‘Machiavellianism’, a widely used term with highly negative connotations, used to characterise unscrupulous politicians of the type Machiavelli described in The Prince. The treatise itself gained timeless notoriety because most readers perceived Machiavelli endorsing and celebrating evil and immoral behavior. Because of this, the term ‘Machiavellian’ had come to be associated with ruthless ambition, deceit and brutality.
Most people are likely to be able to think of a politician, or government, off the top of their heads, who fits the Machiavellian description.
Today, I can identify shades of Machiavellian thinking in our current government, especially when it comes to their asylum seekers (‘Stop the Boats’) and border protection policies. In their practical implementation these policies are now reflective of the philosophy of ‘the ends justify the means’.
If I had any doubt about this characterisation of our asylum seekers and border protection policies, those doubts were dispelled by recent allegations made against the Navy, and the consequent responses by our Prime Minister.
On 12 June it was reported the Australian Navy had allegedly secretly paid US$30,000 directly to people smugglers to turn their boat around.
Our Prime Minister, despite having been given repeated opportunities to do so, refused to categorically deny this shocking allegation.
The moral issue is crystal clear: if it is wrong for desperate refugees to pay people smugglers for passage by boat to safety, as it is constantly asserted by the government, how can it be right for the government to pay the same people smugglers to turn around, and destine those people to further dangers and utter uncertainty?
Talking to ABC, Professor of International Law at the Australian National University Don Rothwell noted that, if the allegation was true, under regional protocols such activity could be tantamount to people smuggling, and would likely be illegal conduct by the government itself.
The Hon Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister of Australia, was offered the opportunity time-and-time again to deny these allegations. He consciously chose not to do so:
What we do is stop the boats by hook or by crook, because that’s what we’ve got to do and that’s what we’ve successfully done.
By hook or by crook we are going to stop the trade.
I am proud of the work our border protection agencies have done, I really am proud of the work that they’ve done and they’ve been incredibly creative in coming up with a whole range of strategies to break this evil trade.
We will do whatever is reasonably necessary to protect our country from people smuggling and from the effect of this evil and damaging trade. (emphasis added)
Tony Abbott quoted in Asylum seekers: Tony Abbott refuses to deny Australia paid thousands to people smugglers (ABC News, 12 June 2015)
Consequentialism to the rescue: after all, if you can convince yourself that preventing refugees reaching our shores by boat is the ultimate goal, and a beneficial and desirable outcome for the nation, then anything you do to achieve that outcome, whether immoral or illegal, is justified.
Even handing over more than $30,000 in taxpayers’ money to people smugglers. The ends justify the means …
‘By hook or by crook’ – an old English phrase meaning ‘by any means necessary,’ suggesting that one need not be concerned with morality or other considerations when accomplishing some goal.
On Sunday Tony Abbott had refused again to say whether payments have been made to people smugglers to turn their boat around.
There is really only one thing to say here and that is we have stopped the boats, that’s good for Australia, it’s good for Indonesia and it’s particularly good for all of those who want to see a better world.
Tony Abbott quoted in Were asylum seeker boats paid to turn back? (The Australian, 14 June 2015)
Other government ministers came to the aid of the Prime Minister and noted he was simply continuing the long-standing practice of the government in not commenting on operational matters, making the situation clear as mud.
The prime minister has essentially stuck to his very long-standing practice of not to provide a running commentary on operational matters.
He didn’t confirm or deny, he didn’t make comment one way or the other. He certainly didn’t indicate that payments have been made.
Mathias Cormann quoted in Paying boats ‘tantamount to people smuggling’ (Sky News, 13 June 2015)
Other government MPs were less than helpful by arguing bribing people smugglers to turn asylum seeker boats around is cheaper than the processing of asylum seekers.
The amount of money that was allegedly paid is nothing in comparison to the cost of processing the excessive amount of people who came to Australia as a result of people smuggling activity.
Philip Ruddock quoted in Philip Ruddock says paying smugglers costs nothing compared to processing illegal boat arrivals (Herald Sun, 15 June 2015)
Beyond the questionable morality and legality of the alleged payments to people smugglers, there is also a practical question nagging me: if you were a people smuggler and you just heard the Australian government had handed US$30,000 to the crew of one boat to turn back, how would you react? How effective can this tactic be? It may have turned one boat around, but chances are it could launch dozens more in the hope of cashing in.
If our border protection policy is now officially run under the principle of ‘by hook, or by crook’, it would represent a new low point for the rule of law in Australia, ironically just as we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Notably, the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs had seen the writing on the wall, and warned recently of executive overreaches and the dangers of giving ministers further powers without proper checks and balances. The very thing the government is scheming to do, according to recently leaked ministerial briefing papers. The leak indicates serious internal misgivings about the direction the Coalition is taking.
With the UN starting to ask questions, and the opposition formally requesting an investigation, it’s highly likely we haven’t heard the last word on this matter. Very embarrassingly, this saga is also starting to make international news, and it’s not a flattering coverage.
Our Prime Minister may think of himself as a Machiavellian Prince, but I suspect Machiavelli would find him an unsatisfactory, and unworthy contender.
Similarly, based both on his actions and words, I find him and unsatisfactory and unworthy Prime Minister.