The phrase “Under New Management” brings to mind signs bearing this message placed in shop windows or an advertisement promoting a restaurant. Depending on whether one admired or detested the “old management” it is a sad or hopeful message, respectively. It also brings to mind the implied message captured in the old adage “a new broom sweeps clean”. It’s interesting to think of the recently elected coalition government in Australia, both collectively and in its individual members, especially the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, as “new brooms”.

Brooms are mundane, ordinary, efficient, and useful – they do the job they were designed to do, but nothing more, yet not having one when needed, or having the wrong one for the task at hand, can make for a very difficult situation. Brooms are not controversial, unless being ridden by a witch. As far as I know, Harry Potter aside, wizards don’t ride brooms, so Prime Minister Abbott will be able to save taxpayers money on “brooms for riding”, as all but one of his ministers are wizards, not witches. The dearth of women appointed to Cabinet appears to have been a focus of harsh criticism by many Australians, especially women.

The genesis of these musings is a request from Graham Young, the editor-in-chief of On Line Opinion, who asked me to consider what advice I would give to Australian politicians as a new government takes the reins. A myriad of thoughts came to mind, many of them linked with my professional work as an ethicist.

Sometimes it’s very difficult to “do ethics”. Ethical conflict occurs when we disagree about what ethics requires; ethical distress occurs when we know that unethical conduct is taking place, but it seems an overwhelming task to prevent it, partly because doing so faces us with harms or risks to ourselves. But politicians faced with unethical situations shouldn’t give up in despair – good guys do win out, even if only in the long run. A paper I heard at a conference on the history and philosophy of science illustrates such an outcome. The message of this paper for politicians is that they could think of themselves when making decisions as choosing, according to what they decide, whether to be a lemming or a rat.

Rats and lemmings

Philosophers are using computers to create sequential, computer-generated, decision-making sets. They generate, for instance, five thousand consecutive decisions or ten thousand consecutive decisions.

In one of these experiments, the philosophers started with two equal-sized groups of decision makers: one they called rats, the other lemmings. The rats (the bad guys) were represented by tiny red squares. They always decided just in their own self-interest and without regard to the welfare of others. The lemmings (the good guys) were yellow squares. They did the opposite; they tried to protect others, their relationships and the community, as well as themselves. At first, the rats won hands down. Initially, the yellow squares disappeared very quickly; the lemmings were losing badly. But eventually, the lemmings started to come back; yellow squares began to appear among the red ones.

What was most interesting and the most important message from this study was that as long as a small cohesive cluster of lemmings remained, they were not lost forever; they came back – eventually ethics was spreading again throughout the society. But if that small group was lost, if their number fell below a small critical mass, the whole graph turned red and could not be reversed. So, one ethical person plus a few ethical friends who all support each other really matters ethically.

It’s a message that’s both hopeful and fearful. A few ethical voices crying in the wilderness do matter and can make a major difference. But loss of those voices causes a complete loss of ethics. Politicians must make sure that doesn’t happen, because sacrificing ethics to win political victories would, indeed, make them hollow ones.

Loss of faith and trust

Politics is a two-way street of relationships between politicians and the public, and changes on both sides must be taken into account.

The public has lost faith in authority figures, in particular, politicians and the political process, in all secular, post-modern, Western democracies. This is manifested in countries such as Canada which do not have compulsory voting, in very low – and ever decreasing – voter turnout. When non-voters are asked the reason for their lack of participation, they respond along the lines, “Why bother to take the trouble to vote, it makes no difference anyway,” often adding that “You can’t trust any politicians, they’re all the same, primarily out to benefit themselves and their friends.” With its compulsory voting, this indicium is not available in Australia, but, I believe, one could safely assume there is similar disillusionment with politicians and politics, and cynicism with regard to them. Opinion polls in Australia show that the levels of trust in politicians and political representatives are at an all-time low. In short, trust is a major issue. So what can and should politicians do to rectify this situation?

The basis on which societal-level trust is established has shifted in post-modern Western societies from the paternalistic blind trust – “trust me to make all the decisions, because I have knowledge, power and status that you don’t have, and I know what is best for you and will act in your best interests” – to the egalitarian earned trust – “trust me because I will show that you can trust me and thereby earn your trust”. Earned trust is hard to gain and easy to lose, especially in our era of instant communication through social media. Earning trust requires authenticity, openness, honesty and integrity. It is a continuing process, not an event and, in particular, requires the sharing of information with those who give their trust and their informed consent to the decisions taken.

All of which means, first, that the public has a critical role in decisions about the ethics and values that should govern our societies and, second, that politicians must put in place structures to ensure those ethics and values are consistently applied by themselves in practice, and that the public can see this is the case. Dialogue and ethics talk with constituencies within and beyond the political arena are critical to achieving that goal.

Moreover, to maintain the public trust, upon which “peace, order and good government” depends, politicians must develop a manifest culture of responsibility and must avoid one of entitlement. If democracy, as we know it, is to survive, we can’t afford for “political ethics” to be able to be jokingly described, with at least some accuracy, as an oxymoron. Ethics must be embedded in all aspects of politics and not be seen as just an “add on” or a public relations exercise necessary to make the business of governing palatable to the governed.   

Questioning the blanket promotion of change and choice

As is true in Australia, in the last decade in Canada, so-called “progressive values” have come to the fore and their advocates have lobbied politicians and used legal challenges in the courts to try to have them implemented. A strategy for succeeding in having these values, such as always giving priority to respect for individual autonomy (“intense” or “radical” autonomy), implemented is to claim that all progress requires change and only those who are ossified, in one or another respect, will resist it. Such a claim based on the necessity of change is strongly manifested in the calls to legalize euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. But this is a dangerous trend, which politicians need to resist, when the proposed change involves watering down foundational societal values, such as respect for human life and places our most vulnerable citizens, such as people who are old, frail or disabled, at serious risk of abuse.

Change, in itself, is not a virtue or value and the same is true for individual choice, the expansion of which is often the change sought. Rather, whether the changes and choices we make are ethical depends on how and what we change, and what we choose. Very often politicians can be afraid of being labeled “dinosaurs” or “Luddites”, or “conservative has-beens” or “religious” in a derogatory sense, pursuant to a “label and dismiss” strategy employed by the “progressive values” adherents. Politicians need to take a principled stance and not allow the voices of “hard vocal minorities” to block out those of “soft silent majorities”.

Values conflicts and moral courage

As elected representatives, politicians undertake a fiduciary or trust based obligation to Australian society and fulfilling that obligation can take courage. It can take great courage to say “no” to something you believe to be inherently wrong, especially when those with power over you want you to say “yes” and the people with power over you include advocacy groups or the electorate as a whole. But society looks to you to have the moral courage to say “no” to what you believe to be ethically and morally wrong. Doing so can involve fear, just as the exercise of physical courage does. That is especially true when standing up for something you believe to be ethically required loses you friends or allies or not only affects you, as an individual, but also, puts those you love in a situation of risk or distress.

This possibility is particularly likely in relation to the social values issues that are currently the focus of hot debate in both Australia and Canada. Most of them can be classified as political “hot potatoes” or a “third rail of politics” – touch them as a politician and you are politically dead in the sense that you lose voter support from one side or the other. These issues include: euthanasia; abortion; same-sex marriage; regulation of reproductive technologies and related issues such as surrogate motherhood and “designer babies”; legalizing drugs — for example, marijuana; how to treat illegal immigrants; an aging population and how to care for them, let alone give them the respect they deserve; access to healthcare.

There are also very strong currents of concern here in Canada regarding corruption in public office; loss of trust in authority figures especially politicians and the police; thoughts that democracy, as we know it, might be in for a big change; high levels of unemployment among the young and those aged over 50; violent demonstrations and confrontations; increasing disparity in income between the “haves” and the “have nots”; homelessness and poverty, both in Canada and Canadians worrying about this globally; and so on. Within my own immediate context, there is also questioning as to whether universities, as we know them, will continue to function and deep concern about the entire educational system, in general. These issues require long term perspectives, not short term, politically popular responses. Long-term approaches are often hard-to-sell, because they involve short term sacrifices and hardships. Consequently, implementing them requires political courage.

Avoiding breaches of ethics

So with all those issues in mind, and many others I haven’t mentioned, I’d like to close with a few pieces of advice for “Australia’s new management team”, which I’ve found over the years to be important ethically:

* Learn to live as comfortably as you can with unavoidable uncertainty. Many ethical mistakes are made when we act prematurely to try to achieve certainty – we are then certain, but ethically wrong. Politicians are especially at risk of making this mistake. When you don’t know or are uncertain, say so. People will respect you for your honesty, courage and humility.

* Recognize when you face an ethical issue. Major mistakes are made, especially in the professional, political or bureaucratic world, when an ethics problem is mistakenly identified as a communications or public relations problem and dealt with as such. That usually results in its being spin-doctored which only augments the ethical difficulties: what started out as one ethical issue, becomes multiple ethical difficulties.

* Integrity, authenticity and honesty matter and always will, especially for politicians.

* Try to foster a climate of realistic hope, that is, hope based in truth. Above all, avoid nihilism, which destroys hope and generates cynicism. Hope is the oxygen of the human spirit. Without it our spirit dies; with it even seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be overcome. Moreover, to have the courage we all need, whether as electors or politicians, we must have hope – courage and hope are inseparable twins.

* Despite how it might seem, one voice standing up for what is ethical really does matter – indeed, it can be crucial. One person can make a difference –in fact, it’s often only one person who does. One of my fears for the future is that people will lose the courage to speak honestly, openly and with the integrity of their beliefs intact. We must have the courage to stand up for what we believe in, even when many others disagree with us, and politicians are very important role models in this regard. v*You are also especially important actors and role models in re-balancing the intense individualism, that so dominates our present Western societies to their detriment, with concern and care for communities and society. And that concern and care must extend to future generations and societies – we must hold the future on trust for those who will follow us.

*Recognize that moral risks should be given at least as much weight as risks to our physical safety and well-being. Moral risks are risks to our shared values, principles, attitudes and beliefs, what I call, collectively, our “metaphysical ecosystem”. We have come to realize that we must protect our physical ecosystem and hold it on trust, because it’s not indestructible; the same is true for our metaphysical ecosystem and you, as leaders in society, have a very important role in this latter respect.

* We should keep in mind Thomas Jefferson’s advice: “It’s not our failures that count, but what we do with them”.

Finally, to summarize my advice, I believe all of us, but especially politicians, need to cultivate three long-recognized virtues, which are of new relevance and particular importance at present:

First, hope, in particular for a future world. This requires honesty and authenticity in facing difficult situations and not making empty promises.

Second, wise ethical restraint – the old virtue of prudence – especially in the interests of the generations who will follow us. This requires a strong and healthy sense of obligation and an absence of one of entitlement.

And, third, courage, especially the courage to stand by what you believe to be ethical and rejecting that which you believe to be unethical, when doing so involves a cost to yourself, such as risking your future in politics.

In conclusion, no one has a good sense of where the world is going and the past does not predict the future. Witold Rybczynski’s book Home: A short history of an idea, which documents how the availability of electricity caused a revolution in people’s domestic lives, powerfully demonstrates the truth of that. Almost certainly, the Internet will be regarded in the future as having done the same with respect to how humans communicate. But, while recognizing the revolutionary potential of scientific discoveries and the increase in knowledge they bring, we still need to use human memory (John Ralston Saul’s evocative term for history) and imagination (our capacity to contemplate the future) as important ethical warning mechanisms. And we ignore our feelings at our ethical peril. Science is now backing up what we’ve always known in these regards but have denigrated in recent times, namely, that moral intuition and examined emotions are important human ways of knowing, especially about ethics. We are not just logical, cognitive beings, essential as the human capacity to reason is; rather good ethical judgment requires that we use all our human ways of knowing and we, including politicians, should not be frightened of doing so.

So, I wish Australia’s “new management team” bonne chance and bon courage in creating an ethical future for all Australians and Australia.

Margaret Somerville, an Australian, is founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law in Montreal, Canada. This article was originally published at Online Opinion and is reproduced here with permission.

Margaret Somerville AM, DSG, FRSC, FRSN, DCL is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor...