MICHAEL D BREEN. Head, Heart and future Hope.

Now there is talk about a new generation in Australian Politics. So what is new? Not the players.  Not the structures, nor the  rules of engagement. Could it be a more basic factor is needed? Could it be, for want of a better term, the ‘moral infrastructure’? Is this the bedrock foundation, the sine qua non for any successful rebuild? This would involve the ways in which individuals and groups regulate their behaviour. 

If the first responsibility of governments is safety of citizens, it is possible to be safe while the very agencies of government and its members are untrustworthy? Many Australians would say the only thing you can trust from politicians is their desire to be reelected. If you add the media to mistrustful agencies the safe ground diminishes further. If we are broken from inside that is where we need to concentrate to restore some  semblance of trust and trustfulness and hope for the future.

A nation’s most cherished values are almost indefinable. They get expression in the most untranslatable words of our dialect. Australians can be proud of the expression ‘fair dinkum’ or, as my father economical would say, ‘dinkum’. What a noble sentiment is dinkum. It suggests honesty, no bullshit, truth, reliability as the fulcrum for belief or disbelief. It is a criterion, a measure, a value. It’s the basis of the pub test. Is it still valid currency?

Unless politicians and our relationship with them become more solid I doubt there can be beneficial reform. The same is true of the commercial world. Are we experiencing the same malady as the US? This quote seems apposite. 

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy having to do with how we know things and what it means for something to be true or false, accurate or inaccurate.    The US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening. 
David Roberts in Vox Nov 2, 2017.

By moral infrastructure I mean being truthful, just and empathetic.There at least two bases for morality. The first is the ethics from first principles like ‘tell the truth’, ‘don’t steal’, ‘don’t kill’. Principles need to be applied, but it is in the application that there is wriggle room. Unfortunately some of our best minds and money go into professionals wriggling with the law, with marketing and sales. But we know that the law is not morality, nor court behaviour an edifying standard. Nevertheless few would suggest telling lies is a good principle.

The second basis for morality is what is called ‘existential ethics’. It goes like this; what considering  all the circumstances, looks like an OK way to act here and now? That area is much more relative than solid principles and much more fluid. It is also enormously influenced by the culture. An eye for an eye in some cultures, respect for elders in others. I fear that in Australia a common criterion is what is called the eleventh commandment, “Thou shall not get caught.”

The area of first principles is more visible and publicly known. Existential ethics are practiced closer to the individual heart and mind. 

We should note here that moral intelligence is, like intellectual intelligence stretched across a normal curve range from the the obsessively scrupulous to the moral  imbecile who has no capacity for ethical judgment.

All that stated how would that fit with national reform? Three areas present themselves: truth, justice and empathy.

Truth. From Pontius Pilate to Donald Trump there are veracity dilemmas. In Australia we ask ‘Is he, are you, fair dinkum?’ Mostly we do not see what happens in parliament, or offices, in local government  or corporation corridors. That matter is mediated to us by the media. They report it do us. They offer it for our consumption. They are act like an x-ray machine reporting on the less visible. Not only despots but other forces want to control and contaminate the media for power or greed. The media are also contaminated by those sometimes referred to as the whores of capitalism; the spin merchants and public relations industries who will do anything for a bob.

Still we have a hunger for the truth and something of a right to it. That means we need to teach English as a forensic tool for making sense of the world. It also means that any politician or party who approximates truthfulness is more powerful in the long run. This requires what the Germans call ‘civil courage’ not the courage of war but the courage of being fair dinkum in peacetime.

Secondly, Justice; a fair go for all based on principle not charity nor sympathy but equity sometimes called commutative justice. This regulates stability by managing inequality.

Again do not confuse justice with the law. Given the right amount of dollars it is possible to hire a lawman to enable the unconscionable.

One example of justice is in price fixing. Once the price was the cost of the job plus a margin for profit. Now it is ‘What will they pay? What can I get away with?’ But what will who pay? Those with a lot of dollars, the unemployed, the strugglers? Mostly it is those with most resources who decide what the poor will  pay. 

Another cruel example of everyday injustice is telling older people or those without computers to  ‘Just go on line’ to do business or get information. 

Thirdly, Empathy. Aussies are wonderful at the personal level towards victims of floods, fire and misfortune. At the personal heart level we do well. But at the public level we have allowed inhumane brutality towards victims of persecution and victims of misfortune. We have allowed budgets to be cut from welfare services, bogus  employment statistics and allowed wages to flatline. We have permitted aid to poorer nations to be slashed; which is not just a lack of fraternal empathy but is national security insurance. 

Sadly we have allowed neo-con tendencies to punish poverty and expect the supply of services to the needy to come from lamington drives and small ‘p’ philanthropy. 

A serious lie has been visited on the population and it has been accepted. In his earliest statements as newborn Prime Minister Morrison laid this lie as an opener. The lie is that we are an economy and that economic progress is national progress. We are not an economy. We are a collection of communities under a commonwealth. We are a society. We are not customers of government services. We are citizens who have a stake in how our taxes are spent.

There is a western world vacuum where christianity had once been normative. That vacuum will not be supplied by teaching ethics nor morality any more than passing a driving license test in the rules of the road will ensure safe driving. We have to live it and insist on it.

The dividing line between moral and immoral goes through the middle of our hearts. Only when we rebuild from inside will the edifice be solid on a sound moral infrastructure. We cannot command politicians nor business leaders to be moral. But we can continue to ask of ourselves and others ‘Is that, are we fair dinkum?’ 

Michael D. Breen Is a retired organisational psychologist. He attempts to practice Zen Buddhism and learns it from his chickens and walking in the bush.

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Roger Butcher

Thank you Michael. A thought provoking piece in a time of disillusionment. I like the phrase “veracity dilemmas” – these seem to be rather thick on the ground. And sadly, “fair dinkum”has been purloined by the politicos and shouty media people. As an individual, I can maintain my connection to “fair dinkum” and that gives me the heart to carry on. And I know that people as individuals are caring and thoughtful which gives me hope for the future.

Evan Hadkins

Well said Michael, thanks.

I think institutions can be useful in shaping people and their ethics.