John Rawls and the Aboriginal Question

Everywhere you look these days, there is “the voice”. Of course, we had Robbie Williams at the AFL Grand Final recently belting out the old Whispering Jack 80s classic of the same name.  If only we could just leave the voice at the MCG.  The clever political play by Albo – make everyone who opposes our scheme look like ugly bigots for a couple of years – means that we will have to revisit all of the same old tedious questions. 

As always, politicians are proposing a non-solution to a non-problem. Or, should I say in this case, a problem – endless white guilt – for which there can never be a solution. At least not a complete or even a satisfactory one.  We simply cannot unmake British imperialism no matter how much we might (or might not) wish to.  (Of course, British imperialism was one of many imperialisms, and some are still ongoing, like the US’s continued attachment to fighting foreign wars that are none of its business, sometimes accompanied by occupation).

Other Australian problems, like Aboriginal joblessness in remote areas and the ugly and violent patriarchy of Indigenous communities are wicked issues, though not impossible to tackle.  Just because we haven’t helped the communities concerned solve them to date doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying.  Warren Mundine, Jacinta Price, Nigel Scullion and Tony Abbott, to name but four practical, outcomes-focused public figures of good will, have long believed that we should try.  These are things we can try to do something about.  But we religiously avoid these, while we blast away at creating meaningless voices. 

To repeat, the creation of a voice will never assuage the guilt post-colonialists reflexively feel for what the earlier generations of European imperialists did or are reputed to have done.  We should not try. 

One of the enduring questions facing our indigenous brothers is, are they happy with life?  Yes, I do realise that you cannot ascribe something like “happiness”, or, indeed, its opposite, to a whole people.  Yet people often do this very thing.  They say that a whole race has been dudded.  They say that a whole race is searching for meaning.  They argue that a whole race wants a voice. 

Did anyone ever ask Indigenous people?  All of them?  How would they answer this question, individual by individual: “On balance, are you happy or not that the British settled your former continent in the late eighteenth century?”  And superimposed a new, ultimately democratic system upon their existing tribal one. I wonder what the majority answer would be.  The Maori leaders in New Zealand actually did face this choice, back in the early 1800s. They consciously chose British imperialism for rational reasons at the time.

The late, esteemed Harvard philosopher John Rawls made his reputation with his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, published in 1971.  To provide a Wikipedia-level summary, he argued that people in a Lockean (after the liberal giant John Locke) state of nature, behind what he called a “veil of ignorance”, would choose a particular outcome.  They would choose a welfare state.  Socialism, if you will.  In other words, if we didn’t know what our life would be like, we would opt for self-protection rather than leaving our fate to, say, the market place favoured at the time by Rawls’ legendary Harvard colleague and sometime philosophical opponent, Robert Nozick.  On Rawls view, we would play it safe.  We would choose a system of government that provided for our needs if things went wrong.  Rawls was a liberal giant, a storied defender of the Nanny State.  It all rings a bell in this age of safetyism.

On another definition of his methodology:

Rawls suggests that we should imagine ourselves sitting behind a veil of ignorance that keeps us from knowing who we are and identifying with our personal circumstances. By being ignorant of our circumstances, we can more objectively consider how societies should operate.

As a heuristic device, the state of nature has stood the test of time.  It is still philosophically respectable.  What would we do if we had to take a punt on our life-chances, and what would we demand of our polity?  Would we be, dare one say it, “conservative”?  Follow what some today term the precautionary principle?

So, according to Rawls, approaching tough issues through a veil of ignorance and applying these principles can help us decide more fairly how the rules of society should be structured. And fairness, as Rawls and many others believe, is the essence of justice.

It is a little like leaving our baggage at the door, stripping ourselves of our vested interest.  All very interesting, but what has John Rawls’ theory of justice to do with the Aboriginal question (or questions)?

As noted at the outset, the current times throw up, endlessly, the Aboriginal question.  Inevitably, with the coming to office of a Labor government, the question arises, what will they do to demonstrate their credentials in relation to justice for our “First Nations”?  We didn’t have long to wait, of course.  Under the previous administration, we had the recognition proposal. Gary Johns, a long-time critic of “the Aboriginal industry” asked, relevantly, “recognise what?” Inevitably, Labor has upped the ante.  They want “the voice”.  A cynic might see this new push as a crafty political strategy to wedge the opposition, to open up a whole new opportunity to demonise opponents as “racist”.

At the heart of all of the debates are two core issues.  One, how do we deal with the legacy of colonialism, whether or not it is regarded as appalling?  And, two, given the fact that Britain settled  Australia, what should we do now to address both the injustices arising from the Brits’ arrival and the ongoing issues?  Should we forget the history, about which we can now do precious little, and get on with it?

Perhaps John Rawls can help here. Underlying all of these politically crafted agendas lies the core question, what would Aborigines choose in a Lockean/Rawlsian state of nature?  Which Aborigines would choose what?  If they could have been provided with a template in 1788 for their futures, would they, like the Maori chiefs in New Zealand (sorry, Aotearoa these days), have chosen a pragmatic solution to embrace the Brits and take a chance?

Of course, Aborigines did not have that choice.  But can Rawls’ notion of the veil of ignorance give us some clues as to what Aborigines of the day might have chosen?  Might they have chosen, shock and horror, Anglo settlement?  The Brits brought innovation, agriculture, democracy, law and order, industrial society, trade opportunities (valued massively by the Maori), and sport.  Cricket, Australian Rules Football and Rugby League and Union.  Yes, they brought grog and disease too, and all the rest, but it was, after all, a benign invasion by the Brits.  It could have been the French, or the Dutch.

Yes, this is a never-ending debate without resolution. 

But we are where we are.  We look at the footy, we see Aboriginal stars doing what so many do remarkably well.  We see the now much celebrated Indigenous culture, the art, the tourism, the celebrations.  Aborigines now have an international brotherhood of Indigenous peoples that is only on offer via the colonialists.  None of this would have happened without the “invasion”.  On balance, what would the First Nations brother (yes, they were sexist, back then, and now) have chosen in 1787, behind the veil of ignorance?  I am not equipped to decide.  But prominent philosophers like Rawls might just have some insights.  Yes, they are white and male…

Rawls’ tome was, not without intent, called A Theory of Justice.  Aboriginal supporters would say, ‘white man’s justice, what justice?’  Yet Rawls was a-racial, as are philosophers at their best.

Rawls suggests that we should imagine we sit behind a veil of ignorance that keeps us from knowing who we are and identifying with our personal circumstances. By being ignorant of our circumstances, we can more objectively consider how societies should operate.

Would and should our “personal circumstances” have included race?  Would the Aboriginal of 1787, behind the veil of ignorance, have been objective?  Yes, I know, objectivity is seen as a white male construct, like science, religion and the rest. To assert that an Aboriginal in 1787 would not have been capable of liberal-rational decision-making would be, well, blatantly racist.  He or she might even have been enticed by the Western philosophic “trick” of the state of nature device.

I know what I would have chosen as an Aboriginal in 1787.  But that is just me.  I would have chosen footy, cricket, the industrial revolution, internal plumbing, advanced medicine, innovation, a moderately democratic polity, moderately free markets, podcasts, video and the rule of law.  And I am not remotely a fan of John Rawls, by the way.

The “Aboriginal question” will never be settled.  Let us face this now.  It is one of those wicked problems.  History is what it is.  We cannot go back.  But if we could, and we could have had a “voice to parliament” in 1787, I wonder what the chosen Aboriginal “representatives” of the day would have come up with, way back then.

17 thoughts on “John Rawls and the Aboriginal Question

  • Brian Boru says:

    Question; “Should we forget the history, about which we can now do precious little, and get on with it?”
    Answer; Yes.

  • Biggles says:

    ‘Endless white guilt’ is largely a construct of the Left to divide the nation. As a fourth generation Anglo-Celtic man, I feel no ‘guilt’ whatever. Raking over the ashes of history serves none of us any good. Let us oppose the divisiveness of the Left and get on with restoring Australia to the fine country it once was.

  • john.singer says:

    What would the “Voice” have done to avoid the situation of two Western Australian boys being charged with rape?

  • Sindri says:

    “US imperialism”. Who would have thought to see such a self-indulgence in Quadrant? As Gerard Baker said in today’s Australian, “Today, while genuine tyrants worldwide vaunt their barbarity, we insist our leaders are the real despots”. He was talking about the noisy left, of course. It’s bizarre to see conservatives engaging in this sort of talk, sawing away at the branches they are sitting on just as enthusiastically as the left.

    • Doubting Thomas says:

      Could not agree more, Sindri. The US imperialism thing was a cheap shot way below what one expects to see in Quadrant. The US is invariably damned if it does intervene and damned if it doesn’t.
      And I would also expect authors in Quadrant to avoid nonsense terms like “First Nations”.

    • pmprociv says:

      Good onya, Sindri and Doubting Thomas — my sentiments exactly. I was shattered by the rabid anti-USA, pro-Putin comments in a neighbouring article (A Letter to an Ingrate Russian Emigre). So sad that some Quadrant readers are ignorant of history, and/or blinded by an anachronistic ideology, once Lenin’s but now Putin’s “useful idiots”.

  • DougD says:

    We are told by their advocates that The Voice and Treaty will enable us to move to reconciliation. How will we know it if we ever see it? No more placards proclaiming “Always was, always will be” or demanding “sovereignty now” or the mendacious “Stop police killings in jail”?

  • Paul from Sydney says:

    Nice use of Rawls’ as a thought experiment

    Jacinta Price will tell you that many Aborigines in traditional societies today need to make that choice still to step into the Western world or be consigned to a horrible life, particularly the women like her mother who refused to be the child bride and second wife to an Aboriginal man and successfully sought freedom outside the community. Was it better pre-1788? Maybe, but modernity would have come one way or another, and the same conditions from which they have to escape now likely would have happened anyway as the grog flowed.

  • Peejay says:

    Why should I have guilt feelings just because I’m not aboriginal?. My forebears never had anything to do with mistreatment of natives.To say that present Australians who aren’t aboriginal are just as guilty as the original colonists and perpetrators of atrocities is the most racist thing one could claim. Because you are not black you are guilty and must feel shame. NOT.

    Part of the human condition is that we can be compassionate (well most of us). We would not have survived as a species without it..We can be compassionate for the hurt and suffering of people around the world in present time. Today with instant media we can see it as it happens and it can affect us emotionally and at times bring people to tears. Today we can share the same feelings for historic injustices against aboriginals However I argue that todays aboriginals are infinately better of than they were pre 1788 with the harshness of the land and the regular cycles of famine and feast, flood and drought and the need to cull their numbers for the sake of the majority to survive.

    I just cannot accept the concept being promoted by aboriginals (both black and white) that they own Australia in its entirety and the rest of us must pay reparations for the privelige of living here. It’s quite preposterous.

    To follow their logic North and South America, Mongolia and Tibet, and much of Europe should be handed back to the original owners. Good luck with that one.

    History is what it is we cannot change it but some are trying very hard and successfully. Our children are being taught falsehoods at every turn. They will grow up as clueless victims of the Far Left Wokies whose real agendas have nothing to do with aboriginal advancement for their goal is worldwide.

  • Daffy says:

    If I recall Manning Clark accurately, the current Aboriginal group ousted two previous groups. So I’m thinking that someone else ‘owned’ the land. But, how does one “own’ land that one cannot ever hope to occupy? That sounds selfish! What is the right thing to do when a bunch of refugees from the harshness of their homeland turn up? Why, open borders prevail, let ’em in, be hospitable, share….exactly what happened. But the ‘red necks’ the anti-refugee crowd started pinching their sheep, killing them and stealing their food. Now, that wasn’t going to end well. But it did, largely. The governments sought to apply British law against settlers who overstepped the mark.
    The nub of the issue is that we can’t undo history, and life and affairs were utterly different then. We cannot judge those times. We live now, so we must get on building the Commonwealth that we all share in. The ‘voice’ be damned.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Thanks Paul for your thoughts on this. I’m afraid I agree with Biggles. I’m pure Anglo -Saxon- Frisian-Jute whose pioneering Grandfather came to N.Q. in the 1880’s at the age of 16 and not only do I feel no guilt,……. quite the opposite. None of todays aborigines have lived the life of real aborigines at the time of our arrival, not one, and there has never been any testimony from any of the real original aborigines but we do have plenty of testimony from plenty of whites who knew them and actually lived with them. William Buckly lived with them for 32 years as an escaped convict starting from 1803, so he really knew them and he should be read. He said the slaughter and cannabilism between the tribes went on all the time, i.e. ALL the time, with the worst time always being at night and of course I’m quoting from the excellent article written by Michael Connor for Quadrant. The aborigines of today should be thanking God we arrived when we did, to create Australian and rescue them from all that….in my opinion anyway.

  • john.singer says:

    The Aboriginal people had opportunities in 1789 to rally behind a Voice. Governor Phillip gave them the opportunity to rally behind Arabanoo, Colbee and/or Bennelong. The did not. The majority, behind a veil of ignorance, saw no need.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    Always was, always will be, Tasmanian land.
    For the saying of that, all my comments since at the ‘liberal’ Guardian have been disallowed.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Re post-colonialist guilt, it is worth remembering that there was also actual colonialist guilt. The post-colonialist variety is largely an artefact of the pretentious modern phenomenon of ‘virtue signalling’. In colonial times, the British themselves recognised, debated – and failed to resolve – the complex moral and practical problems that arose from the colonial enterprise. Today’s generations do not seem to realise that the relevant issues, mostly centred around the ethical use of power, were thashed out ad nauseam by government officials, interested parties, the general public and political activists at the time. We should emulate the colonial generations in so far as their focus was on the actual situations confronting them. They were not obsessed with the alleged wrongs of past centuries.


    “History is what it is. We cannot go back”. Nor should we allow it to be re-written. Those malcontents attempting to change society by re-writing history are really trying to do so by conquest. It’s what the left does well. They follow the Alinsky rule book and accuse their opponents of conquest whilst doing the same thing.

  • pmprociv says:

    Why do people go on about “Aboriginal joblessness in remote areas”? Lack of job opportunities in remote areas has always been a problem, for people of all backgrounds. It’s why we see so many remote towns, worldwide, dwindling and dying, with their denizens fleeing to the cities and suburbs. “Move to where the work is” has been the prevailing mantra. Already, 80% of Australia’s ATSI people live in non-remote areas; what’s so precious about the remainder, who choose to dwell mainly in dysfunctional communities entirely dependent on welfare?

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