Raimond Gaita’s contributions to public debate in Australia first became well known through some 50 columns he wrote for the Australian intellectual/political magazine, Quadrant. Lay readers who encountered him for the first time episodically, in articles on one issue of public controversy or another, might imagine that Gaita’s thought was a series of one-off responses to the provocations of these particular issues, united perhaps by attitude and style, rather than by deeper connection. Particularly in the disputatious, but rarely argumentative, public culture of Australia, if your response was different, that was as far as you needed to go. You had him branded: friend or foe.
What is missed and trivialised in such (very common) sorts of responses is the extent to which Gaita had come to these skirmishes well provisioned. He had, as it were, assembled his troops in Good and Evil. An Absolute Conception and others of his philosophical works (A Common Humanity), independently from sending them off on these particular public expeditions, and not even for that purpose. Or to use another, marginally less lame, metaphor, his is a rather powerful stream of thought. Its tributaries go in many directions, and adapt to different and particular circumstances. You can follow them without knowing their origin, there are still many things to learn, and there are always novelties along the way; it is a running stream, after all, not a stagnant pool. But to understand the source and depth of it all, it helps to read his public writings in the light of his academic ones. You still may not accept his conclusions, but you will have at least a deeper understanding of what you are rejecting or, perhaps, missing.
In the paper, prepared for a Festschrift for Gaita, I outline some elements of his account of moral understanding, which he later brings to discussions of Aboriginal-white relations. Then I discuss one legal case – Mabo (1992), on which Gaita has written. I conclude by reflecting on the significance he attributes to this case, and the significance of what he attributes to it. Neither that case nor native title, the issue it treats, is the only or even pre-eminent source of the moral perturbations that have recurred over the history of white settlement in Australia. However, there is something foundational about the issues they raise which warrants special attention.
Date of this Version
Martin Krygier, "The Meaning of What We Have Done" (June 2010). University of New South Wales Faculty of Law Research Series 2010. Working Paper 23.