Second thoughts on Brett

Catallaxy’s Andrew Norton blogs a review of Judith Brett’s new book Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class. He actually makes me want to read it, and seems to explain its content and purpose far more thoroughly than Paul Kelly’s effort in the Australian. Kelly appears simply to have seized on a minor aspect of Brett’s book and used it as a springboard to make his own hagiographic points about John Howard.

Norton’s observations on Brett’s hypothesis of the “moral middle class” are worth reproducing:

The argument that will prove most contentious is about the ‘moral middle class’. She notes how the middle class has defined itself in moral terms, as displaying certain values that distinguish it from the working class. In the earlier years, this came from a sense of duty, and Brett persuasively shows how this was displayed in the middle class response to various national crises. This ethos, though never extinguished, has greatly weakened since the 1950s, for many reasons peace and affluence reducing the need for it, the decline of the churches, and the rise of a new form of individualism based on self-expression rather than self-reliance.

Brett identifies the new moral middle class in the Whitlam generation, people with low levels of support for the Liberals. I think the moralising middle class is a better description of the Whitlam generation. Moral terms and judgments pervade their language in a way that perhaps it does not for the remaining middle class base of the Liberals, but on the whole they do not display personal morality in the way of the old moral middle class. The Whitlam generation think that that the government is the major agent of morality, while the old moral middle class believed that morality was displayed in their own actions. While their language is often prosaic or sentimental, I think the Liberal middle classes still display a moral code in their attitudes to family, work, community and nation. Howard is an effective politician partly because he manages to tap into this morality (Brett is good on how Howard has reworked old Australian symbols).

Norton makes a valid point, I think. The deontological approach to rights holds that they are inextricably bound up with duties. I have rights and freedoms; others have duties to respect them; and I have a duty to respect others’ rights and freedoms. The very existence of rights is sustained by this interlocking web of rights and duties. Arguably an additional element is that I have a duty to exercise my rights responsibly, lest others eventually decide that those sorts of rights should no longer be respected.

In many ways I find this a more useful account of a moral basis for rights than the thought games of philosophers like John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Looked at deontologically, the erosion of modern society’s moral base derives from the decoupling of rights and duties. Today we see ourselves only as holders of inalienable (or at least fundamental) rights; the notion that we may also have duties is seen as alien and even quaintly old-fashioned. It’s the Age of Entitlement, a mindset which engenders both a feeling of permanent grievance and a conviction that government has an unconditional, open-ended obligation to enforce and honour our rights, while we owe nothing in return.

Communitarianism represents an attempt, however half-baked, to reintroduce deontological thinking into public discourse. “Mutual obligation” could have served a similar and much more valuable function had it not been hikacked by the neoliberal bean-counters to provide a plausible excuse for cutting welfare spending by imposing (deliberately) excessively onerous conditions on benefit payments.

The problem for Norton is that deontology is just about as far as it’s possible to get from the sort of self-centred, “invisible hand” neoliberalism he appears to support.

The problem with communitarianism (and arguably deontology in general) is that it suggests no principled basis for prioritising rights, and can too easily be utilised as a cloak for paternalistic, authoritarian governments deciding what’s good for the rest of us under the guise of the “duty” rubric. On the other hand, asserting that unregulated market forces (the clash of unmediated self-centredness) will somehow produce a superior result is at least equally dangerous. Somewhere between these two extremes lies the basis for a good society.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Richard O
Richard O
2022 years ago

Ken,

Your comment: “Today we see ourselves only as holders of inalienable (or at least fundamental) rights; the notion that we may also have duties is seen as alien and even quaintly old-fashioned. It’s the Age of Entitlement, a mindset which engenders both a feeling of permanent grievance and a conviction that government has an unconditional, open-ended obligation to enforce and honour our rights, while we owe nothing in return”, hit the nail right on the head about how the Whitlamites see the world. I think it is the defining reason why I strongly disagree with their mindset. When you look at it, theirs’ is a very selfish attitude to society.