Australia’s budget woes, such as they are, have led the Treasurer to announce (December 15) further cuts in government spending, including cuts to overseas aid. The amount now allocated is 0.22% of national income. Tim Costello, the CEO of World Vision Australia, has described these measures as immoral. Is he right to do so?
Morality is an institution, a way of behaving, that by its very nature does not discriminate between people (and other moral subjects), and so one might wonder what it has to do with the business of government or state. The world is divided into countries which, for the vast majority, are controlled and organised by the apparatus of individual states. Australia, for instance, is a liberal-democratic state, which means that its government is elected by the people and Australians have every right to expect the government to act in their best interests, and not, for instance, act in the best interests of others. Australians would, for instance, quickly throw out a government that tried to impose very high taxes and then send the revenues to poor people overseas - a measure that some moral philosophers who endorse consequentialism (I am thinking about Peter Singer in particular) might applaud. So if morality, by its very nature, does not discriminate, and if government, by its very nature, does discriminate, how can a policy decision be said to be immoral? Given their restricted sphere of action, it may appear that governments have something in common here with actors that are not fully-fledged moral agents.
There is one obvious sense in which it could discriminate: it could discriminate between its own people. Many suspect that the political parties of countries like Australiado discriminate in subtle and not so subtle ways. At present the Liberal Party government is clearly doing so in not so subtle ways, in its struggle to get the budget ‘under control’: the burden is falling on the poorer sections of the Australian community. This is immoral in what one might see as a qualified sense of the word: even within its restricted sphere of action, the present government discriminates when it should not do so. Is there any other sense in which a government could be said to be immoral?
So far I have been talking about morality in a purely formal sense, about the form of the institution as non-discriminatory. My own view of substantive morality, about the content of moral principles – a view developed elsewhere on this site – is that an act is immoral if it harms without justification. An unjust war would be an example of an (a series of) immoral act(s), such as Australiahas committed more than once in the past decade. On my view, not giving aid or cutting aid may be mean, and it may reflect on the character of the person or collective – and the present government of Australiais nothing if not mean – but it is not actually immoral. There are other systems of substantive morality, such as certain forms of consequentialism, that require moral agents to prevent harm, not merely not cause harm. Overseas aid certainly can prevent harm. On this view, moral agents should help those less fortunate than themselves. Which brings us back to Tim Costello.
I am not convinced that governments are morally obliged to help those who are not citizens of their own particular countries. However, I think that citizens of rich countries like Australiashould expect their governments to devote a decent percentage of their national income to foreign aid, and when they don’t, they should speak out. Not many do in Australia. It is certainly very discouraging to see a government spending large amounts of money on the means to harm – weapons for instance, and overseas processing centres for refugees – and so little on the means to prevent harm. It is, again, the moral obligation of citizens to engage with such important national issues, and speak out in any way they can.