Thursday, January 22

Moral analysis, dubious conclusions

Perhaps it's the silly season, when newspaper editors get a bit desperate for stuff to fill their pages (although surely not this year, with the inauguration of Barack Obama!), or perhaps it's all that spare time academics have during the university vacation.

Whatever, January seems to be a month which sees Deakin University law professor Mirko Bagaric (pictured) at his most prolific with confronting commentaries, and opinion page editors at their keenest to publish them.

On Monday this week, The Australian published his attack on compulsory superannuation – “a train wreck in the making”. Two days later, The Sydney Morning Herald ran his piece attacking recent appeals for wage restraint to help preserve jobs – “Rudd's war on the middle class” (links to these and other articles will be found at the end of this blog post).

Professor Bagaric is confronting because he argues a relentlessly logical moral philosophy. One of his books is How to Live: Being Happy and Dealing with Moral Dilemmas.

But too often, it seems to me, his views reject those feelings of empathy, of “connectedness,” of pity, or the sharing of joy, which seem to mark us as members of the human race.

By his logic, the moral dilemmas of civilian casualties in Gaza seem to resolve into a heartless calculus of which action results in the fewest women and children slain over time.

It allows him to begin this week's SMH article:

The biggest enemy of "working families" is not the financial crisis. It is the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and his offensive and simplistic suggestion that middle Australia should show restraint in wage negotiations so as not to compromise their jobs.

People are not morally obliged to remedy problems not of their doing. Families struggling to afford the necessities of modern life made no contribution to the financial problems. They owe nothing to the rest of community when it comes to wage negotiations.

Yet even here, we seem to have a dilemma. Fight to get all you can for your family, and stuff the community? But where does your family end and “community” begin? Are your cousins in the family, or out in the community to look after themselves as best they can?

Bagaric isn't dead-set against the odd kindly gesture, however:

In some cases individuals need to help others or make sacrifices for the good of the community. However, circumstances requiring such benevolence are rare. They are defined by the maxim of positive duty, which prescribes that we must help others in serious trouble, when assistance would immensely help them at no or little inconvenience to ourselves.

That is why it is repugnant to refuse to throw a rope to a person drowning near a pier, but why we are entitled to decline to allow a homeless person to live in our spare bedroom.

In his argument against superannuation, Bagaric's assertions are far too sweeping – and at times, incorrect. One wonders whether he knows what he's railing against. For a start, he seems to confuse the drop in the value of ordinary superannuation accounts with the deficit in funds required to pay generous defined retirement benefits to politicians, judges, and the like.

Confronted with a sentence like this,

If the Government wants to maintain its fanatical obsession with compulsory superannuation . . .

the reader is entitled to wonder whether the author is undertaking a balanced assessment – or venting some obsessive spleen of his own.

A lawyer may enjoy the privilege of destroying unsound legal reasoning, and then walk away and ignore the consequences. But if Bagaric had more of the economist in him, he'd look to this question – if we abolish compulsory super, what would take its place? The answer must be, An even greater “train wreck”.

Despite all this, perhaps we should welcome Bagaric's contributions (and there are dozens more, if you'd like to look them up on the links below), if only because they should set us thinking. Even if it's only to show where the law professor errs, it's a debate worth having.

Bagaric's article in The Australian opposing compulsory super as a train wreck may be read here. Letters published in the Oz the next day, and today (Thurs), the Oz ran this article in reply from Fiona Reynolds. As chief executive of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees, she would surprise us if she said anything else, but her arguments are convincing.

Bagaric's article in The Sydney Morning Herald mocking wage restraint, and some letters in reply (scroll down to "Rudd's right: let's work our way out of crisis together").

Bagaric has a full archive of posts to the On Line Opinion blog.

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