Tyranny and the ethical removal of children

I promise this’ll be my last post on the whole apology business for a while. 🙂 In response to my entry, “An apology for what?“, Cam Riley posted this comment:

Tyranny is tyranny – and removing children from their parents due to their skin colour is a tyrannous act. The goal of republican government is to remove all tyranny from the system. Consequently, past tyrannous acts need to be recognized as such.

I responded pretty quickly with:

I’m not denying that it was an act of tyranny (in the sense of oppression, not in the sense of a single ruler), only that the word “tyranny” is one with massive emotional and judgemental baggage in the same way as “genocide”. Its use may be justified in a literal sense, but it will rarely serve to improve the situation in a world of real politik. In any event, I accept the pragmatic necessity of an apology even if I do not fully accept the moral obligation to apologise today for something that was honestly believed to be just at the time.

I was thinking about this over dinner and it seems to me that there are three largely distinct issues at point here:

  1. The disenfranchisement of a people, meaning that any act of government concerning them was an act of tyranny
  2. The ethical question of when it is acceptable to remove a child from its family
  3. The question of whether the policy of forced removal “worked” in the sense of improving the livelihoods of those children

As I previously mentioned, I do not deny that the stolen generations represented an act of tyranny. That is a definitional consequence of Aboriginal disenfranchisement. But a tyrant may make a good decision that benefits people, just as a democracy may make a bad decision that harms them. There is no disputing the injustice of Aboriginal disenfranchisement in and of itself, but it was parallel to and, at worst, an enabler of the tragedy of the stolen generations, not the cause of it and therefore not the source of the moral wrong.

On the second point, society today still accepts that it is sometimes warranted to forcibly remove a child from its family. This is a terribly difficult decision, but as a society, we judge that it is ethical when that child is held to be in considerable danger. In the UK, for example,

A court can only make a care order if it is sure that:

  • the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm
  • the harm is caused by the child’s parents
  • the harm would be caused because of insufficient care being given to the child by the parents in the future
  • the child is likely to suffer harm because they are beyond parental control

I accept as fact that the Australian government’s policy of removal was based, for the most part, on the ethnicity of the children taken and not their individual safety. That on its own was immoral and warrants reparation to balance the damage done. The problem is that, while the act was wrong, it was performed under the honest (but false) belief that it was the best thing to do. At the time, I have no doubt, it would have been widely believed that although the removal of children was regrettable, the ends justified the means.

Which brings us to the third point. I seriously wonder whether the stolen generation would be as much of an issue today if the policy had been a roaring success. What if the democracy, acting tyrannically over the disenfranchised, made a bad decision that nevertheless turned out to be beneficial to all involved, with Aboriginals today enjoying educational, health and income outcomes equal to non-indigenous Australians? It ought to still be as much of an issue, but I suspect that it wouldn’t be.

The difficulty in passing judgement on the drafters of the Aboriginal Protection Act (1869) is that while we have the benefit of perfect hindsight, they did not enjoy the benefit of perfect foresight. Does anyone seriously claim that they still would have gone ahead with it if they had they known – and comprehended – what the full consequences of their actions would be?

All of which means that I find myself (a) supporting calls for reparation and (b) opposing the apology on moral grounds, but supporting the necessity of it on pragmatic grounds.

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