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A Companion to Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand


Rationalist Society of Australia

Ian Robinson

The Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) had its origins in a meeting of freethinkers in November 1906 in the study of Kerr Grant, a resident tutor at Ormond College in the University of Melbourne. The meeting was called by John Latham, who later had a distinguished career in Australian public life, including Leader of the Opposition in Federal Parliament and Chief Justice of the High Court. Other freethinkers from outside the university gravitated to the group, including Edward Higginson, and Monty Millar who fifty years earlier had helped to defend the Eureka Stockade. After meeting informally for a while, the group set up a formal Rationalist organisation in July 1909, with Latham as president and Higginson as secretary. In 1925 this morphed into the two arms of the Rationalist movement which still exist today: the Rationalist Association of Australia (RAA), an incorporated association limited by guarantee with restricted membership, which effectively acts as a board of trustees and holds most of the Rationalist assets; and the Rationalist Society of Australia, which anyone supporting its aims can join and which carries out the activities of the movement. Their inspiration was the Rationalist Press Association (RPA) in London, from whom they took their definition of rationalism: ‘the attitude of mind which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason, and aims at establishing a system of philosophy and ethics independent of all arbitrary assumptions or authority’. It needs to pointed out that rationalism here is not philosophical rationalism of the kind associated with inter alia Liebniz and Spinoza, where reason is opposed to experience as a source of knowledge. Rather, reason for the RSA is opposed to revelation on the one hand and arbitrary authority on the other, and is taken to be predicated on inputs from experience.

In order to promote a rational society, the RSA further aims to:

  • stimulate freedom of thought;
  • promote inquiry into religious and other superstitious beliefs and practices;
  • encourage interest in science, criticism, history and philosophy, as connected factors in a progressive human culture, independent of theological creeds and dogmas;
  • promote the fullest possible use of science for human welfare;
  • promote a secular and ethical system of education.

Over the past century the RSA has campaigned vigorously on many issues, including protesting against the introduction of Bible classes in government schools; opposing laws making blasphemy a crime; promoting science and in particular evolution, especially against creationism and its recent clone ‘intelligent’ design; advocating the clear separation of church and state, and especially combatting state aid for religious schools; contesting the prohibition of non-religious activity on Sundays; resisting the institution of chairs of divinity or theology at Australian universities; and opposing censorship in all its forms in support of freedom of expression, especially the right to criticise religion robustly. In promoting its interests it has sometimes allied itself with other organisations, including the Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty Victoria) and the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS), helping to fund the latter’s unsuccessful appeal to the High Court. In pursuit of a public hearing for its views, it and its members have sometimes suffered abuse, persecution and prosecution for blasphemy, and been banned from using public buildings for meetings. Because it was seen in the past as a dangerous radical organisation, many of its members, including the current President, have been singled out by ASIO for investigation.

Between the wars the RSA received substantial financial support from Walter Cookes, the owner of the Easywalkin’ footwear chain, and since then a number of substantial bequests have established its financial security. Over the years it has been stimulated by the energy and hard work of a host of prominent individuals, including: Alf Foster, who later served as a judge on the Arbitration Commission for many years; John Langley, an enthusiastic organiser and speaker who ran the RSA between the wars; and W. G. (‘Bill’) Cook, who dominated the Society in the post-war years and was a well-known media personality, writing articles and appearing on radio programs such as The Brains Trust. There has also been a close connection between the RSA and university philosophy departments, with many philosophers being members or supporters: for example, vice-presidents of the RSA have included the late A. C. (‘Camo’) Jackson, the late John McCloskey, and most recently Brian Ellis.


Drew Khlentzos

To some, Australian realism and Australian materialism are one and the same. However in contrast to ‘Australian materialism’, the term ‘Australian realism’ connotes an attitude as much as a doctrine: a no-nonsense approach to a cluster of tangled philosophical questions issuing in a blend of common-sense realism, scientific realism and materialism.

In fact, realism and materialism are not the same. There is no reason why metaphysical realism or its specification as ‘common-sense’ realism should commit its adherents to scientific realism. Nor is there any reason why realism should assume a materialist form. Still less that a no-nonsense approach to science, metaphysics and mind should inevitably result in commitment to either realism or materialism. That one still encounters the three doctrines confounded is largely the result of a historical contingency: that the powerful intellects and personalities that shaped the small community of Australasian philosophy all happened to be forceful advocates of realism both metaphysical and scientific, and also of materialism.

History of Realism in Australia

Nothing could have prepared 1920s Australia for John Anderson’s arrival to its shores. Free-thinking, politically radical, morally libertarian and materialist, the new appointee to the Challis Chair of Philosophy at the University of Sydney represented ideas and ideals all but incomprehensible to the conservative Christian consensus of the time.

Australian philosophy was no better prepared. In metaphysics, Idealism ruled by default. It wasn’t just that the first Australian philosophers, including Sir Francis Anderson at the University of Sydney and Sir William Mitchell at the University of Adelaide, were Idealists. Nor was it that Idealism only appealed to theists and the ‘vast flood of intellectual refugees from Christianity’ for whom ‘the problem was how to part with Christianity, while keeping cosmic consolation’, as David Stove (1991: 87–8) poignantly expressed it. Whilst the early Australian philosophers did link Idealism to theism, the intellectual appeal of Idealism derives not from angst about God or morality, nor any need for cosmic consolation, but from another source entirely: the difficulty of conceiving of the world our senses reveal to us as existing independently of any conception we might have of it. Mustn’t a mind-independent world either be unknowable (Kant) or an illusion (Berkeley)? The reason metaphysical realism claimed no adherents at that time was simple—no-one had the faintest idea how it could be true. How was one to abjure Idealism without renouncing the mental?

Whilst not renouncing the mind, John Anderson denounced its Idealistic pretensions. Far from being a force that conceptually constituted the world, the human mind was simply one empirical phenomenon amongst others, no different from the weather and the tides, to be studied as such by the methods of science. With the mind deflated, Anderson rounded on the Idealist’s notion of constitution: there were, he asserted, no entities constituted by their relations to the mind or indeed by relations to anything else. Whence, there were no sense-data nor any other mental contents qua objects of human perception or conception, neither were there any values comprising the ends of human conduct. Indeed, there was no such thing as consciousness if by ‘consciousness’ one meant something whose nature it was to represent the things in the world and/or the sensory disturbances at one’s nerve endings. The mind was characterised by feeling or emotion and was comprised of a network of conflicting dispositions.

Anderson’s anti-representationalism was systematic. He rejected propositions as intermediaries between thinkers and things. As a consequence, logic, in Anderson’s view, must deal directly with facts or states of affairs rather than their linguistic or mental representations in sentences or propositions. His views on ontology were egalitarian and pluralist: all that exists are objects and their properties in space and time. There is only a single level of being, so all spatio-temporal existents are on a par. However there is not only an unlimited multiplicity of things but each thing is infinitely complex, according to Anderson. By the end of Anderson’s thirty-year tenure at the University of Sydney, Idealism was no more: exposed by Anderson as a pernicious illusion. The foundations for realism, along with those for materialism, had been laid.

Things were very different in Melbourne during this period. There philosophy was thought of as something more than metaphysics. In contrast to their parochial Sydney counterparts, Melbournian philosophers were receptive to outside influences, particularly from Cambridge and Oxford. Yet they were no more capable of making sense of the metaphysical views of the Andersonians than Andersonians were of their linguistic views—where Andersonians thought realism clearly true, Melbourne’s Wittgensteinians found it incomprehensible.

The arrival of J. J. C. Smart in 1952 to take up the University of Adelaide chair deepened the divisions between Sydney realists and their critics. Smart had studied under Ryle in Oxford, accepting the latter’s behaviourism. Since the Adelaide department at the time was a joint philosophy and psychology one, Smart appointed a psychologist, U. T. Place. Place persuaded Smart that sensations were real mental processes that Rylean behaviourism could not explain. Most importantly, he convinced Smart that sensations were brain processes. Thus was born Australian materialism.

Smart played a pivotal role in establishing scientific realism in Australia. Thus, he argued that the success of physics would be inexplicable unless the entities it posits exist and the laws governing those entities are true. One consequence he drew was that the passage of time is an illusion. Time is nothing more than a series of events ordered from earlier to later. The common perception of temporal becoming, of the special immediacy and reality of an ever-changing present in comparison to the inaccessible past or the indefinite future, were expressions of a pervasive illusion, telling us something about human psychology rather than the nature of reality.

Smart’s many heirs include Graham Nerlich and Huw Price. In The Shape of Space (1994a), Nerlich persuasively argued for the reality of space as an entity and its indispensability in non-causal explanation of spatio-temporal phenomena. Huw Price took Smart’s B-theory arguments a step further in his Time’s Arrow and Archimedes Point: not only the passage of time but also its direction are anthroprocentric illusions. Temporal symmetry then permitted a novel and ingenious defence of realism about quantum theory.

Another philosopher influenced by Smart was D. M. Armstrong, John Anderson’s successor in the Challis Chair of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. Armstrong’s A Materialist Theory of Mind provided the seminal exposition of the Smart-Place view that mental states are brain processes identified by their causal roles. Smart’s realism was naturalistic: our grounds for believing in a mind-independent world are a posteriori and derive from science. Following Quine, Smart rejected a priori theorising—in particular he had no time for the traditional view of philosophy as conceptual analysis. Neither did Michael Devitt, who set out to answer the anti-realist critics of both common-sense realism and scientific realism in his influential book Realism and Truth.

Armstrong, on the other hand, was more sympathetic to traditional philosophy, regarding science’s theoretical posits as too important to be left to the scientists. In this he was influenced by David Lewis, who sought to rehabilitate conceptual analysis in the teeth of Quine’s arguments against analyticity: the task of conceptual analysis is to identify key terms within folk theories and to seek entities in the light of science that best deserve their folk appellations. Lewis’ influence on Australian realism was immense. The sub-title of From Metaphysics to Ethics (1998b) Frank Jackson’s compelling articulation of physicalism, bears testimony to this influence: ‘A Defence of Conceptual Analysis’.

Philosophical Issues Concerning Realism

The very fact ‘common-sense’ realism is seen as a species of metaphysical realism reveals the censure in store for those who demur from the latter. Few Australian philosophers dared. But there have been some. Brian Ellis, influenced by Hilary Putnam, defended the idea that truth is ideal verification. More recently Barry Taylor in his Models, Truth and Realism has mounted a detailed and powerful case for a non-realist theory of truth, following the lead of Putnam and Dummett.

Dummett’s heterodox view that the debate between realists and anti-realists is really about the right model of meaning for a disputed class of statements ruffled the feathers of metaphysicians who’d thought the ghost of linguistic philosophy had been laid to rest, but within Australia it resulted in no new program to investigate the foundations of metaphysical realism.

Hilary Putnam’s views (1994a, 1994b), on the other hand, were far harder to ignore. For Putnam, the philosopher who had done more than any other to expound the case for metaphysical realism, had then shocked his followers by declaring it to be untenable. In fact, both Dummett and Putnam asked good questions of the metaphysical realist.

Consider the sentence s: ‘Julius Caesar’s heart skipped a beat just before he crossed the Rubicon’. Realists think either s or ~s is made true by events for which we neither have nor can ever be expected to have, any evidence. Dummett asked how it could even be plausible, let alone correct, to explain speakers’ tendencies to agree that either s or ~s is true as a response to (or as otherwise directed onto) states of affairs they cannot detect? Yet it is precisely undetectable worldly conditions such as Caesar’s ectopic beats that metaphysical realists mean to countenance in declaring the nature of the world independent of our beliefs about it. Dummett’s challenge extends beyond linguistic behaviour to cognitive behaviour in general: why think it plausible that an agent’s belief that exactly one of s or ~s is true is linked in a semantically appropriate way to the states of affairs Ss and S~s given that s/he can detect neither Ss nor S~s?

Putnam’s challenges to metaphysical realism are more diverse, but underlying their diversity is the same question that exercises Dummett: how is mental representation of a mind-independent world supposed to be achieved? The problem is not so much the realist’s metaphysics of a world unconstrained by our beliefs about it, but rather the rationality of belief in such a world. Thus to provide reasons to accept the metaphysics, the realist apparently has to explain how our words or mental symbols lock onto the right mind-independent objects and properties. There may be some unexpected indeterminacy of reference but not of the type that would allow ‘cat’ to refer to cherries or ‘cherry’ to cats, a result that would subvert the whole notion of reference. Yet Putnam’s model-theoretic argument purports to show that referential relations between our symbols and mind-independent objects is indeterminate in just this way, a reductio of realism in Putnam’s view. This argument has prompted vigorous responses from realists such as David Lewis and Michael Devitt, but the underlying challenge to explain how semantic links are forged between mental symbols and mind-independent things remains unresolved.

Scientific realism has also attracted its fair share of critics, none more determined than Bas van Fraassen (1980). Whilst metaphysical realists of a more rationalist persuasion might be sceptical of the theoretical posits of science and the finality of its methods, van Fraassen’s critique is driven by a thorough-going empiricism: scientific realism is the result of unwarranted metaphysical assumptions. Here ‘metaphysics’ is used in the pejorative sense the positivists gave to it. Like them, van Fraassen is prepared to believe only in the observable; unlike them he holds no reductionist hopes for translating theoretical terms into observational ones. He is thus agnostic about electrons, black holes, gravity and evolution. Empirical adequacy rather than truth is the criterion by which scientific theories should be judged:


If I believe a theory to be true and not just empirically adequate, my risk of being shown wrong is exactly the risk that the weaker entailed belief will conflict with actual experience. Meanwhile by avowing the stronger belief, I place myself in the position of … having a richer, fuller picture of the world … a wealth of opinion I can dole out to those who wonder. But since the extra opinion is not additionally vulnerable, the risk is … illusory and so is the wealth. It is but empty strutting and posturing, this display of courage not under fire and avowal of additional resources that cannot feel the pinch of misfortune any sooner. (van Fraassen, in Churchland and Hooker 1985: 255)


Relevant Logic

Edwin Mares


Australasian logicians are internationally famous for their work in Relevant logic. In this article, I give a brief history of Relevant logic in Australasia. After a short introduction to Relevant logic, I look at three central themes in the history of the field in Australasia: (i) the development of its model theory; (ii) the development of its proof theory; (iii) the construction and examination of relevant mathematical theories.

What is Relevant Logic?

Relevant logic is a non-classical logic. It rejects certain of the inferences and theses that classical logic makes valid. In particular Relevant logic makes invalid the following ‘paradoxes of material implication’:


And, similarly, it rejects the following ‘fallacies of relevance’:


According to Relevant logicians, what the paradoxes of material and strict implication have in common is that they treat the implication connective as indicating a rather weak bond between the antecedent and consequent of the conditionals. Consider, for example, ‘p → (q → p)’. This thesis (taken as a valid formula) tells us that a proposition need only be true for any proposition whatsoever to imply it.

One way of avoiding some of the paradoxes of material implication is to treat the arrow as strict implication (as necessary material implication). This avoids making valid ‘p → (q → p)’ and ‘p → (¬p → q)’, but not the other two paradoxes. The problem with ‘(p ^ ¬p) →q’ and ‘p → (q ν ¬q)’ is that the antecedent and consequent seem to have nothing to do with one another—they are irrelevant to one another. And the same is the case for the premises and conclusions of the inferences given above.

Relevant logics are logical systems that avoid all such paradoxes and fallacies. They are weaker than classical logic in the sense that they do not include all the theorems of classical logic. It is a necessary (although not sufficient) condition of a propositional logic to be a Relevant logic that it has the variable sharing condition: if A → B is a theorem of the logic, then A and B must contain at least one proposition in common. (For a more technical overview of Relevant logic, see Routley et al. 1983 and Brady 2003. For a philosophical discussion, see Mares 2004.)

Theme 1: The Semantic Tradition

When Relevant logics were introduced in the 1950s, they were presented in terms of various proof theories. Philosophers (then and now) have been reluctant to accept logical systems unless they have model theoretic semantics. Consider, for example, modal logic. Although modern modal logics were introduced in the early part of the century, they did not gain widespread acceptance among philosophers until Kripke (and others) produced possible world semantics for them in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

There are two central problems in providing a semantics for Relevant logic: (1) the difficulty of finding a treatment of negation; (2) the problem of finding a treatment of implication.

The problem of negation becomes clear if one considers how validity is treated in modal logic. An inference from A to B is valid in a modal logic if every possible world (in every model for that logical system) which makes A true also makes B true. The semantics for Relevant logic are based on the possible worlds semantics of modal logic. In order to adapt this semantics to Relevant logic, and hence to avoid the fallacies of relevance, one needs worlds in which contradictions are true and worlds in which the law of excluded middle fails.

One of the now standard ways of doing this was first developed by Richard and Val Routley (then at the University of New England) in the late 1960s and early 1970s (see Routley and Routley 1972). The Routleys (later to become Val Plumwood and Richard Sylvan respectively) added an operator, *, to a set of worlds. A negative statement ¬A is true at a world x if and only if A fails to be true at world x*. Now it is easy to make a contradiction true at a world. Consider a proposition p. Let p be true at x but fail to be true at x*. In the Routleys’ model, x** = x. Thus, ¬p is also true at x, but ¬p fails to be true at x*. Thus, we now have one world in which a contradiction comes true and one in which the law of excluded middle fails. The operator * has become known as the Routley star. The use of the Routley star is known as the Australian plan in the semantics for Relevant logic.

Instead of calling the elements of their model ‘worlds’ (and hence conjuring up the notion of a possible world), the Routleys used the term setup. A possible world is supposed to be consistent and complete, and hence would not allow the violations of the laws of consistency and bivalence that the star was invented to enable. Later, however, Richard Routley at least came to believe that there are true contradictions and that there are possible worlds (one of which is the actual world) at which the law of consistency is violated.

The behaviour of negation in Relevant logics makes them paraconsistent logics. A paraconsistent logic is just a logic in which not every proposition can be inferred from any contradiction. As we have seen, this inference is one of the fallacies of relevance. In part because Relevant logics have been so well studied, and in part because they are often supposed to have virtues other than their paraconsistency, they are considered to be among the most important paraconsistent logics. Thus, Relevant logics and their semantics have become closely connected with the very strong tradition of paraconsistency in Australia. Among the more radical paraconsistent philosophers are Richard Routley and Graham Priest, who have developed a view called dialetheism, which holds that there can be true contradictions. Interestingly, although Routley first developed the ‘star semantics’ for relevant negation, the preferred semantics of dialetheists is usually the so-called American plan semantics (because it was originally developed by Mike Dunn in the U.S.), in which statements can have more than one truth-value. Ironically, Routley (who was born in New Zealand and became an Australian) was responsible for the completion of the American plan as a semantics for all of Relevant logic, not just relevant negation (Routley 1984).

Routley was also instrumental in finding a solution to the problem of implication. Once again consider the semantics for modal logics. If we take A → B to be true in a world if and only if in all accessible worlds in which A is true, B is also true, then we naturally find that A → A is true in every world. This leads us to accept that this formula follows validly from every other formula, but this is a fallacy of relevance. So we need setups in our semantics in which A → A fails. In the early 1970s, Routley and Robert Meyer (who was then at Indiana University) developed a semantics for implication based on a three-place relation on setups. A formula A → B is true at a setup x if and only if for all setups y and z such that Rxyz, if A is true at x, then B is true at z (Routley and Meyer 1973). This semantics separates the indices at which the antecedent is evaluated from those at which the consequent is evaluated, and provides an extremely flexible tool for the analysis of implication and can be used to treat a very wide range of logical systems.

By the mid 1970s both Richard Routley and Bob Meyer had moved to the Australian National University. There they formed the core of an extremely influential school of Relevant logicians. Together with their many excellent students—John Slaney, Michael McRobbie, Paul Thistlewaite, Steven Giambrone, Errol Martin, to name just a few—they developed the model and proof theory of Relevant logic into the rich and active field of research that it is today. This school has also hosted a large number of Relevant logicians visiting from elsewhere in Australasia—such as Ross Brady, Graham Priest, Greg Restall, and Chris Mortensen—and from around the world—such as Nuel Belnap, Alasdair Urquhart, Mike Dunn, Kit Fine, and myself.

Theme 2: The Proof-Theoretic Tradition

Although the dominant tradition in Australasian Relevant logic is model theoretic, there has been some interesting and important work in relevant proof theory in this region.

In the 1980s, Paul Thistlewaite, Bob Meyer, and Michael McRobbie constructed a sequent-style proof theory for the Relevant logic RL, which does not contain the distribution of conjunction over disjunction (and which, unlike the stronger system R, is decidable) (Thistlewaite et al. 1988). They used this proof theory as the basis for an automated reasoning program (a computer program that produced automated proofs), called KRIPKE.

In his (1990) paper, ‘A General Logic’, John Slaney sets out a very easy way of understanding the proof theories of the various Relevant logics that combines techniques from natural deduction with some from the sequent logic tradition. Greg Restall has developed and further examined Slaney’s systems, adding new connectives (such as modal operators) to the logics and placing them in context with other substructural logics (Restall 2000). A substructural logic is a logical system that rejects one or more of the structural rules of proof that are valid in classical or intuitionist logic. For example, some of these logical systems will not allow us to add arbitrary (irrelevant) premises to a valid inference and retain its validity, some systems will not allow us to change the order of premises in a valid inference, and so on.

Although the tradition in relevant proof theory is less well developed in Australasia than model theory, there is much interesting work to do and I am sure that it will increase in size and importance in the future.

Theme 3: Relevant Mathematics

The use of Relevant logics as bases for mathematical theories has been well explored in Australasia. Bob Meyer created R# which is a version of Peano arithmetic based on the strong Relevant logic R. Meyer gave a finitary proof that R# is absolutely consistent, that is, one cannot prove 0=1 in it (Meyer 1976). This proof opens up extremely interesting questions as to the status of Gödel’s second theorem in R#.

Ross Brady of La Trobe University has formulated set theories with naive comprehension axioms (which state that the extension of any formula constitutes a set) and shown that they are non-trivial and in some cases they are even consistent. A theory is non-trivial if and only if it does not entail every formula. Brady describes and motivates these systems, along with corresponding theories of properties in his book, Universal Logic (2006).

Chris Mortensen at the University of Adelaide has constructed a variety of relevant and paraconsistent mathematical theories and set out their uses in his book, Inconsistent Mathematics (1995).

Summing Up

The Relevant logic tradition in Australasia has been fruitful. Not only has it been a source of interesting developments in the logic itself—in the creation of systems, theories, and theorems—but in its interaction with the rest of philosophy. As a logical basis for dialetheism, Relevant logic has helped this view become a focus of serious discussion amongst philosophers of logic and metaphysicians. As a basis for mathematical theories, it has added to and helped to create new positions in the philosophy of mathematics.

Res Publica Journal

Bruce Langtry

Res Publica’s main focus is the application of philosophical skills and insights to public policy issues. The magazine is intended for a general readership.

It was founded in 1992 by the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Philosophy and Public Issues, one of the parent organisations of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE), which has had overall responsibility since 2000. Although both Centres have been primarily research-oriented, they also have had ‘knowledge transfer’ aims, which Res Publica has helped to fulfill.

Res Publica was initially distributed mainly to paying subscribers, but has for some time been distributed free in hard copy to journalists, members of parliament, academics, and people who have asked to receive it. Most issues since 2001 are also downloadable from the CAPPE website (<>).

Some of Res Publica’s authors have been eminent in Australian public life. They include Barry Jones, Michael Kirby, Davis McCaughey, and Ninian Stephen. Some contributors have been based overseas. Many have been well-known Australian academics—a majority have been philosophers, but there have also been people drawn from law, political science, anthropology, and other disciplines. Most contributions have been solicited by the editors, Kit Keuneman (1992–1994), Bruce Langtry (1995–2006) and Adrian Walsh (from 2007).

Volume 13 (2004) gives a good indication of the magazine’s range. In Vol.13 No.1, Igor Primoratz assesses different varieties of patriotism, and argues in favour of an ‘ethical patriotism’ which focusses not on the political, economic and cultural interests of one’s country and its people, but instead on its distinctively moral well-being.

Janna Thompson points out that at least some varieties of radical politics can play a valuable role in a liberal democracy, by criticising dysfunctional or unjust institutions and unidentified forms of oppression, and by thereby making it easier for people to contemplate substantial changes. She considers how various dangers can be avoided.

Adrian Walsh is concerned by the growing practice of policy makers to use assignments of cash values to goods and services, even ones which will not be bought or sold, such as volunteer work and parenting. Is it ethically acceptable to use a single metric to measure the value of everything—even, say, the value of a child? The use of such a metric fosters the idea that everything is replaceable, in the sense that its loss can be offset by the substitution of a good of a relevantly similar kind. Ascribing prices to everything also involves talking as if prices and ultimate values are correlated, and in fact financial cost-benefit analysis frequently becomes the only, or at least the dominant, consideration in discussion of policy issues.

John Kleinig’s short paper looks at codes of ethics in forensic science, and indicates some problems arising for forensic science practitioners in relation to such values as truthfulness and competence.

The following issue, Vol.13 No.2, contained the following articles: Hilary Charlesworth, ‘International Lawyers and the War in Iraq’; Tony Coady, ‘Hiroshima and the World of Terrorism’; Michael Kirby, ‘National Security: Proportionality, Restraint and Commonsense’; Marcia Neave, ‘The Ethics of Law Reform’.

Of the eight papers published in 2004, five were by philosophers and three by lawyers.

Frequency of publication has recently been reduced to one issue a year.


Jacqueline Laing

The modern language of rights provides a contemporary idiom for certain ancient and perennial questions about the nature of morality. These include debates about the objectivity and universality of ethics and the nature of human obligation, freedom and action. Jeremy Bentham famously denounced natural rights, arguing that if morality was founded upon pain and pleasure, then there could be no such thing as natural rights: ‘Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense—nonsense upon stilts’ (Bentham 1970: 30–1).

A subject of historical dispute concerns whether the human rights tradition is one that draws upon ancient and global sources that are religious, legal and philosophical in character, or whether it is a peculiarly post-Enlightenment creature that springs from conceptions of the democratic nation-state. There is certainly support for the claim that the notion of ‘ius’ developed from its more general definition in the middle ages as ‘the just thing in itself’ and ‘the art by which one knows or determines what is just’ (Aquinas 1920: II-II, q. 57, a. 1c, ad 1 and ad 2) to a more individualised ‘kind of moral power [facultas] which every man has, either over his own property or with respect to that which is due to him’ (Suarez 1965: 282). Whatever the truth of the historical debate, the intellectual antecedent to any discussion of rights or natural rights conceived precisely as objective and universal must include a discussion of natural law thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine and Aquinas. Within their diverse theories is to be found agreement that one problem with the idea that ‘ius’ is the product of human consensus, whether populist or elitist, is that an authoritative consensus can logically agree to impose injustice. The objection is summed up by Cicero: ‘Most foolish of all is the belief that everything decreed by the institutions or laws of a particular country is just. What if the laws are the laws of tyrants?’ (Cicero 1998: 111). Insofar as a rights theory purports to lay claim to universality and objectivity, it falls within this more ancient and international tradition from whose foundations, arguably, the modern realist conception of human rights has emerged. The trouble with the classical natural law tradition for many moderns, however, is that the source of the natural moral law is also regarded as the source of physical law and creation itself, a divine source. Nonetheless, the individualised rights theories of Francisco Suárez, Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Samuel von Pufendorf, and John Locke are far less hostile to established religion than are the writings of Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesqieu in France and many of the American founders. It is against this intellectual backdrop that the Australian dialogue about rights is placed.

Australian Contribution

Australian philosophy has been in the forefront of contemporary philosophical debate about whether rights are indeed illusory, who may be regarded right-holders or ‘persons’, and whether legally speaking there ought to be a Bill of Rights. J. L. Mackie (1991), under the influence of John Anderson, used an argument from queerness to defend a species of what he calls ‘moral scepticism’. John Finnis, by contrast, expounds an account of rights in the natural law tradition. In Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980) Finnis outlines a theory of ‘natural’, ‘human’ or ‘moral’ rights grounded in the requirements of practical reasonableness. Developing a theory of natural law and natural rights based on basic human goods like life, knowledge and friendship, he identifies the rational foundations of moral judgement and shows that there are human goods that can only be secured via the institutions of man-made law.

Accounts of rights outside the natural law tradition dominate contemporary Australian philosophy. Tom Campbell (2005) defends a version of democratic positivism, insisting that ‘[o]nce we say that there are moral rights which somehow or other exist whatever the social and legal realities of life … then we are on the way to destroying the distinctive usefulness of the idea of rights’ (2005: 196). At the same time, he admits ‘we need rights to limit and control democracy’ (2005: 197). Edmundsen (2006) argues that this admission involves Campbell in unavoidable circularity.

Jeremy Waldron (1993) defends a liberal version of rights. Perhaps recognising the need to ground the duty to promote communal goods in an adequate characterisation of them as desirable in terms of their worth to members considered as a group rather than as individuals, his analysis meets potential internal conflict with his further insistence on the truth of legal positivism, whether normative or otherwise.

Part of the problem is what the rights debate encompasses. If it amounts to the basic proposition that there are objective values that imply obligations for individuals, then the debate is part of a broader contest between so-called deontologists and consequentialists. Perhaps Australia’s best known successor to Bentham’s consequentialism is Peter Singer. Although often cited as the father of the animal rights movement, Singer uses the term ‘rights’ as ‘shorthand for the kind of protection that we give to all members of our species’ (1990: 8). He, like Bentham, rejects the notion that any creature, human or non-human, has any natural or moral right. This feature of his theory has triggered much discussion in the animal rights movement. Tom Regan, an American animal rights defender, asks whether Singer can be regarded a defender of animals given his preparedness to believe any right defeasible upon the demonstration that a better state of affairs would obtain. Others like Jenny Teichman (1996), Suzanne Uniacke (1992), and this author (1997) argue that Singer’s position on who is to constitute a ‘right-holder’ or ‘person’ is internally inconsistent given his queasiness about harvesting the organs of deliberately brain damaged infants. Elsewhere in her work, Uniacke (1996) in a manner reminiscent of Hohfeld’s correlations between claims, duties, liberties, no-rights, powers, liabilities, immunities and disabilities, defends a concept of rights forfeiture where one becomes an aggressor.

Perhaps the greatest need for an adequate foundation for rights is to be found in the writings of those keen to defend certain classes against injustice. Women’s rights, the rights of the unborn, and the rights of individuals irrespective of disability, race or sexual orientation depend upon rights grounded in reality and, moreover, rights of a less defeasible character than that propounded by the consequentialist. Accordingly, feminists like Germaine Greer (1970), Genevieve Lloyd (1984) and Nicola Lacey (2004) rely on an account of rights that cannot allow for the kind of defeasibility defended by Singer.

Whether the language of rights is adequate to meet the demands of social and inter-generational justice is widely debated. Defenders of distributivism like Campbell (2006) argue that rights are too individualistic and egoistic a notion to achieve social justice, while on an altogether distinct front, opponents of reproductive human cloning, for example, hold that these techniques compromise a person’s beginnings and thus the demands of inter-generational justice without necessarily involving a breach of an existing person’s rights. Likewise, those concerned to prevent the erosion and eradication of cultures may not find much solace in the language of individual rights (Laing 2004). Finally, rights discourse is unlikely to answer the needs of deep ecology, with its respect for nature, the universe and living things (Mathews 1991). However, with increasing funding for population control and sustainable development, whether the less metaphysical and more utilitarian implications of the environmental calculation will ultimately imply an erosion of the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable and unproductive of humans is a matter that will doubtless emerge in the near future.

An Australian Bill of Rights?

Non-cognitivism, rights scepticism and consequentialism aside, the incontrovertible barbarities of the twentieth century have inspired much international law and a modern-day insistence that rights, like thought itself, may be real albeit intangible. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed in 1948 shortly after Word War Two, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) all contribute to this discussion. At the same time, there is ongoing controversy as to whether Australia should adopt a Bill of Rights or whether doing so would undermine individual freedom, the rule of law and democratic accountability by placing power in the hands of an increasingly politicised and unelected judiciary. This political scepticism about the rationale of any charter or Bill of Rights is distinct from the moral scepticism about rights outlined so fulsomely by Bentham. Among Australia’s legal academic proponents of the Bill of Rights are Hillary Charlesworth (2002) and George Williams (2007). Opponents of constitutional reform include Gabrielle Moens (1994), James Allan (1998), Tom Campbell (2006) and Greg Craven (2004).


(Further reading: Baier, K 1958; Dworkin 1977; Gaita 1991; Gewirth 1982; Glendon 1991; Haakonssen 1996; Hindess 1996; Kamenka and Tay 1978; Lyons 1979, 1982; Mautner 2005; McCloskey 1965c; Monro 1959; Nozick 1974; Rawls 1971; Regan 2001; Tuck 1979; Waldron 1984; White 1984.)

A Companion to Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand

   by Graham Oppy, N. N. Trakakis