Moral myopia and the historical and international dimensions of justice

Bruce Buchan, Griffith University

Rama Mani Beyond Retribution: Seeking Justice in the Shadows of War, Cambridge, Polity, 2002 (256 pp). ISBN 0-74562-836-2 (paperback) RRP $57.00.

Janna Thompson Taking Responsibility for the Past: Reparation and Historical Justice, Cambridge, Polity, 2002 (200 pp). ISBN 0-74562-885-0 (paperback) RRP $58.00.

At few times in Australian history have citizens been confronted with such urgency by the question of what moral consideration we owe to others, at home and abroad. Calls for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, an apology to the ‘stolen generations’, and even for a treaty have raised as yet unanswered questions about the degree of moral consideration that white Australians owe to Indigenous Australians. Presently, however, Australians seem more attuned to problems outside the nation; problems often portrayed as ‘threats’ to their borders or ‘national security’. The intermittent flow of asylum seekers, the nebulous fear of ‘terrorism’, the recent commitment to military and civil intervention in the affairs of neighbouring nations, not to mention recent participation in the ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq (and Afghanistan), have each highlighted questions about what moral consideration Australians owe to foreign citizens.

Reading these two books—one written by a scholar in Australia (Thompson), the other by an overseas scholar (Mani) with little to say specifically about Australia—underscores the connection between these two sets of questions. Rama Mani’s Beyond Retribution is a detailed study of the limitations of current approaches to ‘peacebuilding’—the restoration of peace in societies riven by war and conflict (pp. 53–157). Successful peacebuilding, Mani argues, must be about more than restoring order—it must be about achieving justice through reparation for past wrongs and redistribution of resources to enable a more secure future for survivors (p. 174). In the process, she contends that the international community, by which she really means the prosperous West (the United States, Europe, Canada, Australia, etcetera) and global institutions (the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, etcetera) bear a major moral responsibility for ‘building peace’ in traumatised societies, and for the current paucity of successful efforts to do so (pp. 78–9). Mani therefore argues for a greater commitment of international actors and organisations to building the moral, social and economic foundations for the rule of law in traumatised societies, rather then the flimsy expediency of achieving political stability (p. 78). She also provides some familiar criticisms of IMF-sponsored ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’, and the narrow vision of security and development associated with the so-called ‘Washington consensus’ (pp. 130–5). Nonetheless, Mani finds room for some optimism and points to the greater recognition of the language of peacebuilding in recent pronouncements from the World Bank and IMF (pp. 152–5).

From the point of view of citizens in Western nations, Mani’s argument is important for two reasons. First it is a powerful contribution of informed and passionate scholarship directly challenging the indifference of the wealthy toward the suffering of the impoverished world. Indeed, a key implication of Mani’s approach, and one that seems entirely lost in the recent obsession with ‘security’, is that the safety and peace of those in the West is directly linked to the plight of those in non-Western countries. The moral point is that for too long Westerners have viewed their own peace and prosperity in inverse proportion to the suffering and injustices suffered by others beyond their shores.

The second important feature of Mani’s argument is more perplexing. Many would accept the premise that the West owes far more in both moral and material concern to non-Western nations and peoples, but are troubled by the thinly veiled colonial overtones that accompany Western interventions in the affairs of other nations. Robert Cooper, for instance, claimed in the wake of September 11 that what the world needs is a ‘new’ imperialism of Western values backed by Western might (2002, pp. 17–18). Although critical of the insensitivity of Western nations toward the problems of war-torn underdeveloped nations, Mani seems curiously reticent on this issue. Indeed, overtones of an assumed superiority of Western values pervade her initial discussion of the importance of notions of justice, in which she ambiguously calls for a greater recognition of non-Western views, but seems to assume the universality of the Western language of political thought (pp. 23–50).

Mani challenges the indifference of the wealthy toward the suffering of the impoverished.

As others have noted (Bowden 2004; Buchan 2002; Connolly 1999), there has been a worrying revival of the language of civilisation with its presumption of Western normative superiority in recent literature on international relations. In some senses, the invocation of the certainties of civilisation can be interpreted as a response to the uncertainties of the ‘new’ world of state failure and terrorism. In the Australian domestic context however, the historical effects of the commitment to civilisation, understood as a project of governing (that is, ‘civilising’) the ‘uncivilised’, continue to reverberate in relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. While the Australian government has been eager to champion Western civilisation globally, they have maintained a consistent line against acknowledging the effects of civilisation domestically, maintaining that the injustices of the past, no matter how noble in intention, belong in the past, and are not matters for present moral concern (much less an apology) (Buchan, 2002/2003). Consequently, the moral questions raised by the dispossession of Indigenous peoples are supplanted by the practical questions of service provision and financial accountability of Indigenous corporations. However, as important as these concerns are, it is not clear—as Janna Thompson’s book eloquently demonstrates—that they can be separated from fully acknowledging and addressing the moral issues arising from the historical dispossession of the original inhabitants.

Janna Thompson’s Taking Responsibility for the Past is an insightful and systematic study in applied moral philosophy investigating what the inhabitants of former settler-colonial societies (such as our own) owe to the descendants of the original inhabitants who were dispossessed. The moral and political questions Thompson confronts are both profound and profoundly difficult to resolve. To what degree are the current inhabitants of such societies responsible for what their forebears did? If we are responsible, to whom do we owe consideration—to the biological descendants of those who suffered, or more widely to those who continue to endure poverty and social injustice as a result of prior dispossession? If we owe consideration, what kind do we owe—land, monetary compensation, an apology?

Thompson’s argument hinges on the idea that the treaties (or agreements) that one political community (or ‘nation’) makes with another must be understood as ‘transgenerational’ (p. 30). In other words, the treaties our nation makes today place a significant moral obligation on us and our descendants to honour those treaties, if not exactly to the letter, then at least according to our considered evaluation of them in light of our genuinely held standards of justice. If treaties placed no such obligation on the next generation, then the force of those treaties would be negligible, they would signify no permanent or on-going commitment to keeping good faith with the parties to those treaties. The corollary of seeing treaties as ‘transgenerational’ is to see the harms that flow from their abrogation as ‘transgenerational’ also (p. 61). When representatives of the British imperial government signed treaties with the Indigenous populations of Canada, for instance, recognising their legal status and land rights, and then subsequently ignored, dishonoured, or broke the terms of those treaties, they were directly responsible for inflicting harms on those Indigenous peoples and their descendants that endure to this day. The obligation to correct those injustices through reparation and reconciliation falls not simply to the political community that made the treaty (Britain), but to the citizens of Canada, on whom the mantle of sovereignty was bestowed by the former imperial power (pp. 77–86).

The questions Thompson confronts are both profound and difficult to resolve.

So far as this goes, Thompson’s argument is both reasonable and compelling; it is attuned to the difficulties of adjusting claims over long periods of time, and to the principled pragmatism with which nations must evaluate the commitments made by their forebears, and sometimes find ways to renegotiate them. However, in Australia in particular the problem is more intractable. Thompson mostly discusses cases where historic treaties were signed, where the terms of those treaties can still be read on the page, and where few could dispute their deliberate and persistent abrogation through history. What then of Australia, where, since colonisation began in 1788, first the British and then subsequent Australian governments explicitly and consistently denied such a treaty to the original inhabitants? What is more, most of Thompson’s analysis is couched in terms of treaties understood as agreements made between ‘nations’, legitimate political communities whose respective sovereignty is recognised by each signatory. Once again, the Australian case stands out. While Indigenous ‘nationhood’ was recognised elsewhere (in Canada and North America for example), it was never recognised here by any Australian government. What then does justice require in these circumstances, where we have no treaties and no history of negotiation and mutual recognition between Indigenous and non-Indigenous political communities to guide us? Thompson seems to want to avoid this issue by focussing on the moral dilemma of balancing the conflicting claims of those who inherit wealth derived from previous unjust Indigenous dispossession, and the claims of the heirs of those originally dispossessed (p. 124).

As compelling as that problem is, Thompson’s approach overlooks a yet more fundamental historical and political problem in Australia, namely that the dispossession of Indigenous peoples was justified (once again, often by means of the language of civilisation) on the basis that they had no organised social structure or political community (with laws, government, and sovereignty). Following the precedent set by the Mabo No 2 case (1992), the determination of Native Title in Australia has been separated from the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, as if the two were entirely independent of one another. The historical record however, littered with the tendentious efforts to justify dispossession of territory through the denial of sovereignty, indicates that they were not. The current impasse on Native Title, amply demonstrated by the unsuccessful claim of the Yorta Yorta people, would seem to suggest that to correct the injustices of the past we need a greater recognition of the links between the dispossession of Aboriginal people and the denial of Aboriginal sovereignty. Making reparation for stolen lands therefore might require a political recognition of the sovereignty that has long been denied to peoples now increasingly demanding it.

Determining the extent of moral consideration across borders and over the course of time is never easy, but both of these books go a very long way toward addressing this problem. If there is a theme that links the arguments of both, it is that those with privilege cannot afford to deny or ignore their obligations to those who have little or none. Increasingly we are being asked to consider our communities and our values as threatened by menacing forces. Security has become a salient theme in contemporary Australian politics. What is often overlooked in this drive for security is that all threats have a history; few (if any) are born of pure, unbidden, and unprovoked malice. Indeed, much of the political and economic chaos that feeds these threats can be traced to the Western obsession with a narrow version of economic development which imposes ever more burdensome fiscal regimes on others in the name of ‘liberalisation’ or ‘good governance’ (Tirman 2004; Walker 1997).

No one will be secure where a few continue to benefit at the expense of others.

If there is a ‘threat’ to our ‘security’ today, it is the threat that comes from this myopic vision. If we see others as offenders and ourselves as offended against, we will fail to see that correcting the injustices of the past is essential to securing the future for all. As Mani and Thompson each suggest, commitment to addressing and redressing the injustices committed in the recent (and not-so-recent) past, makes the lives of those who have suffered those injustices more secure, peaceful, and prosperous. In this way, the security of those who have (directly or indirectly) benefited from historic injustices can be tied to the security of those whose lives are still overshadowed by those injustices. No one will be secure where a few continue to benefit at the expense of others.

Today, the concept of civilisation is being upheld as the touchstone of Western identity, the precious quality that is under attack. As the ‘war on terror’ rages on, Western leaders have revived the language of civilisation to identify who it is that ‘we’ in the West are, and what our ‘security’ consists in. This language has also been used to sustain an increasingly militarised distinction between ‘us’ (in the ‘civilised’ world) and ‘them’ (in the ‘uncivilised’ world). The danger inherent in this talk of civilisation is that it subsumes the language of politics (the language that is, of compromise, diplomacy, or even what Michael Oakeshott (1962, p. 112) so memorably called the language of ‘attending to the arrangements’ of a community) within an over-arching imperative of superiority. It was the presumption of civilisation that long enabled white Australians to act in the ‘best interests’ of Indigenous Australians, even where this involved the deliberate infliction of suffering, of family break-up, and child separation. This kind of ‘civilisation’ has perhaps had its day, but as Thompson reminds us, we still have a long way to go to address the legacies of generations of policies shaped by the commitment to civilisation.

On the global scene however, there is a more open enthusiasm for civilisation, fuelled it would seem, by the elevation of Huntington’s (1996) ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis into a prophetic vision. Many of course remain rightly sceptical of this approach, but its allure for Westerners in the present climate of fear and insecurity is palpable. In the ‘new’ world of ‘security’ through pre-emption, our civilisation and its values trump all other considerations. As a consequence, re-thinking the historical and international dimensions of justice is crucial. Only by doing so, can we challenge the presumption that many Westerners seem to have made that their civilisation not only gives them the moral vantage point to know what is best for other people, but that the perception of threat to their civilisation also provides them with the moral right and rationale to act on it.


Bowden, B. 2004, ‘In the name of progress and peace: The “standard of civilisation” and the universalising project’, Alternatives, no. 29, forthcoming.

Buchan, B. 2002, ‘Explaining war and peace: Kant and liberal IR theory’, Alternatives, no. 27, pp. 407–28.

Buchan, B. 2002/2003, ‘”Aboriginal welfare” and the denial of Indigenous sovereignty’, Arena Journal, no. 20, pp. 97–121.

Connolly, W. E. 1999, ‘The new cult of civilisational superiority’, Theory and Event, vol. 2, no. 4. [Online], Available: [2003, March 9].

Cooper, R. 2002, ‘The post-modern state’, in Re-Ordering the World: The Long-Term Implications of September 11, ed. M. Leonard, Foreign Policy Centre, London.

Huntington, S. P. 1996, The Clash of Civilisations and the Re-Making of World Order, Simon and Schuster, New York.

Oakeshott, M. 1962, Rationalism in Politics, Methuen, London.

Tirman, J. 2004, ‘The new humanitarianism—How military intervention became the norm’, The Boston Review, December–January, [Online], Available: [2004, February 2].

Walker, R. B. J. 1997, ‘The subject of security’, in Critical Security Studies: Concepts and Cases, eds K. Krause and M.C. Williams, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp. 61–81.

Bruce Buchan teaches history, moral and political philosophy in the School of Arts, Media and Culture at Griffith University. His research focuses on the relationship between war, state formation, and empire in the development of Western political thought. He is currently researching the evolution of concepts of sovereignty and Indigenous sovereignty in the colonial and post-colonial Australia and Canada, funded by a Griffith University New Research Grant.