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Last month I was invited by Frances Widdowson, a faculty in the Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies at Mt. Royal University, in Calgary, to participate to a panel discussion on the topic of the “indigenization” of the university curriculum. It was a weird experience, to say the least. [Warning: if you think that as a White Male European I am automatically disqualified from offering reasoned opinions on matters pertaining the history of exploitation of Indigenous people by Western nations, you may want to stop reading and take a walk. I’m trying to save you a possible ulcer.]
The claim by Sally McManus, the new head of the ACTU, that when the law is unjust, ‘I don’t think there is a problem in breaking it’, returns us to a deep question in political philosophy: Why should I obey the law and the state more generally?
The howls of outrage from the Prime Minster and some of his colleagues (as well asThe Australian ) about her claims, are part political theatre, but also hint at the challenges these questions raise for self-consciously liberal societies.
What is political obligation?
To have a political obligation is to have a moral duty to obey the laws and support the institutions of one’s political community. In fact, I think political obligations are a broader category of duties then strictly legal obligations. The two can come apart. For example, I might have a legal obligation to pay tax in a deeply corrupt state, but not necessarily a moral obligation to do so.
So the hard question is how we come to actually acquire political and legal obligations. Is it through birth, or through consent? Or do we have ‘natural duties’ that flow from the existence of already reasonably just institutions. But what counts as ‘reasonably just’? And what are the conditions under which we might be ‘released’ from those obligations, if ever?
The PM surely doesn’t believe we must always obey the state – he cut his teeth as a young lawyer challenging the British government’s attempt to ban Peter Wright’s Spycatcher in Australia. On the other hand, McManus surely doesn’t believe we can simply opt out of every law we disagree with. Civil society would quickly become very uncivil.
The argument from fair play
The question of the duty to obey the law is an old question and the subject of one of Plato’s most famous early Socratic dialogues. In the Crito, Socrates engages in an intense conversation with his followers about whether or not he should flee the city that has just condemned him to death. In the end, he decides he should not, mainly because he feels it would involve breaking the commitments and agreements he has made with his fellow citizens and the city that has done so much to nurture and shape him.
Socrates makes a number of arguments in the course of the dialogue, but perhaps the most resonant for us today is an appeal to fairness. He suggests that to disobey the law would be to mistreat or disrespect his fellow citizens. If I have constrained my freedom to be bound by the law, under the premise that others will do likewise, then it’s unfair if you choose to disobey the law whenever it inconveniences you. The city can’t survive, let alone flourish, if that was our general attitude towards each other.
There is a gloriously robust literature in moral and political philosophy on the nature of political obligation and especially the argument from fair play. They key issue here, as far as McManus’s claim is concerned, is whether or not the laws we are subject to are indeed constitutive of a reasonably just, mutually beneficial, collaborative society. This generates the obligation to take on your fair share of the burdens of sustaining such a community. And so a general obligation to obey the law is grounded in the principle of fair play – doing your part to sustain a community you benefit from by others doing theirs.
One problem with this argument is that it might be too weak. How can my not obeying the law in some particular circumstance really undo a large-scale society like Australia?
On the other hand, a simple though experiment suggests it might also be too strong. Imagine a situation in which someone on your street mounts an impressive display of Christmas lights every year. Everyone on the street enjoys the lights enormously. But the following year, your neighbor turns up on your doorstep and insists that it’s your turn to do it this time. But you didn’t ask him to put up the lights. You didn’t consent to share in the burdens of doing so. And yet the principle of fair play would suggest you are so obliged.
Against political obligation?
This debate continues to rage on the pages of political philosophy journals and blogs. But it remains a critical issue too for contemporary politics, where people disagree vehemently about significant political, social and economic issues.
If we really don’t see our community as bound by laws that enable us to cooperate together in a mutually beneficial way, then it’s not clear that we have established a genuine political community in the first place. Citizenship surely involves more than merely a transactional relationship with others in our community.
On the other hand, given the extraordinary powers of the state, the conditions under which I become obliged must surely be stronger then merely being a member of that society. Don’t the laws themselves have to be just? Or, to return to a point I made above, don’t we have a general political obligation only if our political community in a broad sense is actually reasonably just? But is that really a feasible standard for the imperfect world in which we live? Doesn’t that mean that, ultimately, political obligation is basically impossible? (Of course, for anarchists, this is a very welcome conclusion!)
So the Prime Minister and his colleagues has overstated the case that in suggesting there might be times when disobeying unjust laws is justified, McManus is somehow advocating chaos. As a civil libertarian he should know better.
And yet McManus needs to understand that the grounds for civil disobedience must be carefully considered. It is a condition of genuine civil disobedience – as Martin Luther King so eloquently argued in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ – that you must be willing to suffer the consequences of disobeying the law in the hope of transforming the views of your fellow citizens. You need to take the public good to heart, and not simply your own particular interests. Socrates was willing to die for the sake of his city. Martin Luther King was imprisoned and ultimately assassinated. These are perhaps the extreme cases. But it speaks to the dilemma of how free societies deal with deep disagreement, including about the nature of injustice. It’s not clear yet how far the ACTU would be willing to go.
This article first appeared here in July 2011. You can also download the latest .pdf version here: Scientific Method . Our full range of Skeptics Guides can be accessed using the USEFUL INFO tab at the top of this page.
“Science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence. What’s left is magic.
And it doesn’t work.”
– James Randi
The term “Scientific Method” is used to describe the way scientific research is designed, performed and reviewed. Good science depends on rigour – strict and unfailing adherence to basic principles.
In simple terms, as a scientist, you would:
1. Make some observation about something that is going on in the universe.
As anyone who frequents this blog knows, I spend a lot of time talking about logical fallacies. I frequently criticize peoples’ arguments for having them, and I present them as a reason for rejecting particular lines of thought. Nevertheless, many people fail to realize just how important they are, and showing someone that they have committed a fallacy rarely makes them reject their argument. Indeed, I once had someone say, “just because my argument technically contains a fallacy doesn’t mean that the underlying logic is wrong.” In reality, however, that is exactly what it means. Logical fallacies are, by definition, flawed lines of reasoning, and anytime that an argument contains a fallacy, that argument must be rejected. Therefore, understanding logical fallacies is critical for analyzing arguments and holding rational views, and in this post, I want to try to explain why fallacies…
As we know, much of the Left (the “nonliberal” or “authoritarian” or “regressive” Left) has made concessions to illiberalism. When a religion whose members are mostly “people of color,” like, Islam, then it’s considered judicious to ignore the oppressive beliefs of that religion: homophobia, misogyny, censorship, demonization and calls for the murder of cartoonists, nonbelivers and apostates, corporal punishment, and so on. In other words, when pigmentation conflicts with oppression, this part of the Left favors pigmentation. The color of one’s skin takes precedence over the content of one’s character.
Here is a case in point. A 17-year-old Muslim girl was filmed with a cellphone “twerking” (dancing in a provocative manner while wiggling the butt) in the streets of Birmingham. The film was put on YouTube; have a look (it may disappear soon):
Sam Harris is peeved, and rightly so. Two recent articles, one in Salon by Nathan Lean and the other in Al-Jazeera online by Murtaza Hussain, have mounted nasty (and misguided) attacks on New Atheism because of its perceived “Islamophobia.” I’ve previously dissected Lean’s piece (see the first link), and Hussain’s is just as bad. Here’s a bit of it:
In the present atmosphere, characterised by conflict with Muslim-majority nations, a new class of individuals have stepped in to give a veneer of scientific respectability to today’s politically-useful bigotry.
At the forefront of this modern scientific racism have been those prominently known as the “new atheist” scientists and philosophers. While they attempt to couch their language in the terms of pure critique of religious thought, in practice they exhibit many of the same tendencies toward generalisation and ethno-racial condescension as did their predecessors – particularly in their descriptions of Muslims.
As I’ve written before, there’s a big fracas in Canadian politics about a motion (“M-103”, which is not a law but a recommendation) against religious discrimination, one that singles out “Islamophobia” as deserving special mention. The bill was introduced last December by the Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, a Pakistani-Canadian, and is being discussed now in the House of Commons. Here it is, and I’ve bolded the contentious part:
Systemic racism and religious discrimination
That, in the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear; (b) condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination and take note of House of Commons’ petition e-411 and the issues raised by it; and (c) request that the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage undertake a study on how the government could (i) develop a whole-of-government approach to…
If you ever found a Bill Leak cartoon mildly amusing, you should take a good, hard look at yourself. Bill’s gauge for emotional volume only needed to be calibrated between 9 and 11 (out of 10). Love the cartoons, or hate them: those are the sane options. No modern Australian cartoonist can claim to be so forceful, either in satirical purpose or in graphic line.
The cartoons put you on the spot; they demand a visceral reaction. It would be a bitter old wowser who claimed honestly to hate the lot, and a weirdly indiscriminate fan who could claim to love them all. Isn’t it curious how the only really funny satire is the stuff we already agree with? Leak divided his audience, image by image.
And, suddenly, there won’t be any more of them. A few hours ago I saw today’s cartoon about the former principal of Punchbowl High School and thought, “There’ll be trouble about that one.”
Well, there wasn’t time for the trouble to develop, because before I had picked the paper up off the nature strip, Bill had died of a suspected heart attack. Perhaps if all his critics staged one last howl of outrage, that would be the most fitting memorial to a remarkable exponent of Australia’s great cartooning tradition.
Let there be no talk today of left and right, of conservative or progressive. Bill was one of those rare artists who gives meaning to that ridiculously over-used word “larrikin”.
For a long time he was accused of being a rabid lefty; more recently he has been taking pot-shots at the would-be censors of the same group who used to love him when he was so rude about the Howard Government. What more do you need to know about the 2007 election campaign than this cartoon?
The truth is, he played hard and took no prisoners. There isn’t a sweet comic centre or a cherished community in his work. He took the most robust view of freedom of expression and was prepared to live with the consequences.
In recent years, that included a need for police protection and moving out of his home after cartooning the Prophet Mohammed. He lived by the pen, and has been threatened with the sword, even in 21st century Australia. He was loud in his principles, but they didn’t come cheap.
His main complaint about the Danish cartoons that caused a controversy in 2005 was that he could have drawn them so much better. Causing offense was a KPI for him, not a risk.
His 2016 cartoon, depicting an Indigenous man with a beer can who could not remember his son’s name, was called “racist and insulting” by the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. The cartoon sparked a complaint to the Human Rights Commission under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Leak asserted his right to publish on grounds of free speech and strongly defended his cartoon. The complaint was later dropped.
Satire is not a sympathetic art, and the only justification for its continued existence in a liberal and pluralist democracy is that there are still one or two public figures shameless or deluded enough not to respond to mild and sympathetic censure. Maybe one day we will reach a state of universal sense and sensitivity, but until then we need people like Leak.
He was the smart kid at the back of the classroom who sometimes seemed only to want to get a reaction. But, good heavens, could he draw!
Both the visual and conceptual concentration of his work when on song was remarkable. A serial entrant in the Archibald Prize, his portraits show an aesthetic power that also infused his cartooning.
Some of his great cartoons combine words and images in a single frame with unforgettable clarity and force. Consider this one from the 2010 Election Campaign:
Abbott’s angry ears mirror the horns on the “Scapeboat People” and everything about Gillard’s stance suggests fluster and bad faith. I could write on for pages, but it is better for you to pause over the cartoon, to think and feel it through. Then you might go back to the world of political debate with some of the gloss scoured off our over-spun leaders and off our complacent sense of this as a generous nation.
Some cartoonists try to laugh us gently out of our foibles. The now late, still great Bill Leak was not that sort of artist. He was always after the harsh, prophetic laughter of satire, that moment of shock when you are made to see something you’d rather ignore. No wonder he annoyed and delighted us in roughly equal measure.
The American Scholar is the house magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa honorary society, with the journal’s name taken from a speech given to that society by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1837. It’s published a number of distinguished articles, but a new one stands out: “On political correctness: Power, class, and the new campus religion“. It’s by William Deresiewicz, a widely published author and literary critic; and I wish I’d written the piece.
It’s long, and covers a lot of territory, but I highly recommend it. Its thesis is that “political correctness”, which Deresiewicz defines as “the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas”, is proliferating in American private universities (not so much in public ones), and has many pernicious effects, including these
Homogenizing the student body, so that anyone with dissident views (read: conservatives, religious people, moderate feminists, pro-Israelis) is afraid to express them for fear…
You’d think the state of Arkansas would have learned its lesson in the case of McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, a case decided in 1982 by the late U.S. District Court Judge William Overton. Ruling on Arkansas Act 590, the “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act”, which actually required the teaching of so-called creation science in the state’s public schools, Overton struck the law down firmly, asserting that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). In other words, Overton considered “scientific creationism” as simply a form of Christian doctrine, which it certainly was. The eloquent final section of Overton’s decision still lodges in my mind, and stands as the definitive reason why creationism doesn’t belong in public schools:
The application and content of First Amendment principles are not determined by public…