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July 29, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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Weekly Rant: Once Upon a Conscience Vote

Once upon a conscience vote, John Key made an edict. He stood before the media throng and calmly declared: “All National MPs will vote in favour of the Skycity bill. This is our conscience vote” [Paraphrased]. Response from individual MPs was muted, with new list MP Claudette Hauiti voicing the general consensus, “That’s where my conscience lies and that’s where the party is going to be voting.”

So, I’m guessing most of you know all about the Skycity deal. You know, the one where the Government traded New Zealand’s gambling laws for a conference centre? A lot of people were up in arms about it. Opposition forced the matter to a conscience vote. Then came the farce—John Key announcing that on THIS conscience vote, National would vote along party lines.

That’s pretty out-there. I mean, aren’t conscience votes meant to be about, you know, conscience?! I mean, I have a conscience. You have a conscience. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that John Key has a conscience. What about his MPs? Don’t they get a say? And if not, why not?

The answer to this question lies in the approach National has taken to the whole Skycity deal. It explains why National has stonewalled this conscience vote, and it has some pretty scary implications. Craig Foss, MP for Tukituki, sums it up pretty nicely in his justification, “My conscience will be thinking about the thousand-plus jobs the whole conference centre will create.”

Foss’ position seems pretty straightforward: in essence, it doesn’t matter whether the Bill is right or wrong, what matters is all the good it will do! Smiley face. Heart icon. National loves you! This view has been the consistent stance that National has taken on this issue. And it justifies Key’s treatment of the conscience vote. What’s the need for a conscience vote if morality is irrelevant to the issue?

We could demonise Foss for his lack of principle, but the ethical position he espouses isn’t actually all that uncommon. The idea that the moral worth of an action is determined by its consequences is an idea from classical utilitarianism, and it’s an idea that has a decent amount of standing in society today. In the eyes of many, an action may be justified solely because of the positive consequences it brings or the negative consequences it prevents. We need to be very cautious of taking this position. Consider New Zealand’s recent reduction of its refugee intake through deals with Australia, or its continued failure to meet its promised contributions towards global development assistance. These could both be argued to be occasions in which morality was sidelined by the cost–benefit analysis.

So, why do we have such an issue with John Key’s vetoing of the conscience vote? Is it simply because we innately value people’s freedom of choice? Or is it something more? Personally, the utilitarian view of this government worries me, because I happen to believe that there is an objective morality, that actions may be right or wrong regardless of their consequences. I can truthfully say that even if the Skycity Conference Centre provided 100,000 jobs, that would not change my opinion that it is wrong for the Government to effectively sell policy. Utilitarianism just doesn’t cut it for me, because it enables us to do things that we inherently know are wrong, such as murder or torture, provided that the cost–benefit analysis stacks up right.

Maybe for some of you this is old hat—you long ago looked at the world and divined that utilitarianism and personal relativism just don’t make for a functional society. You decided that conscience does have utility. But I guess this leaves us with a lot of questions about the place of conscience. If we’re accepting that there is a need for conscience rather than simply interest-based utilitarianism, then there has to be a standard set by which we judge actions. I’d say as New Zealanders, we pride ourselves on a sense of fair play and justice. As a nation, we have a history of standing up on matters of conscience, whether it be over the Springbok tour, French nuclear testing in the Pacific, or sending soldiers to Iraq. Clearly in these instances, we had a sense of what was right and what was wrong. My question to you as we finish is: where does this Kiwi moral code come from, and how can we apply it to modern political issues? We are often told that the multiplicity of views and mitigating factors makes the idea of an objective moral standard a nonsense, yet situations like the Skycity deal make me think otherwise. The amount of outrage at this Bill has been heartening. However, this is not enough. Rejecting utilitarianism does not give us the framework for making ethical decisions. I venture to suggest that we need more. You still have to find a source for your moral guidance. And there aren’t too many that really work. Look into it. See what works. Because once our society is based on conscience, I think our politicians will just have to follow.

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