Rodger Shanahan's piece on Australian uranium sales to the UAE makes a familiar argument about the moral price we must pay in order to sell our goods to odious regimes.

But he assumes that the moral dimension falls completely on one side: you can either do the right thing morally and your economic interests suffer, or you can serve mammon and let the rights and freedoms of the people whose government you are trading with go to hell.

But as Paul Keating said yesterday at the Hugh White book launch and as Hugh argues in his book, material progress is itself a moral good. Lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty, broadening their life choices, improving their health and education, improving their life expectancy, moving them out of manual subsistence labour: these are all advances in human freedom, and helping China achieve them is in part a moral choice, not just a self-serving economic one.

In the case of the UAE, such arguments today carry less force, given that the country is already quite wealthy. But you might add to the moral calculus the good we are doing by helping the UAE move away from fossil fuels.

In dealing with China, we as a country have certainly had to censor ourselves over some of China's dreadful abuses of its own people. But what's the alternative? If Australia decided, on human rights grounds, not to trade with China, that would have a moral cost. The greater freedom we achieved to criticise China would come at the expense of China's growth, which would be retarded by our actions. That would lead to genuine suffering.

Trading with odious regimes doesn't always make us immoral. It just means that we recognise the competing moral goods in play and the moral dimension of economic progress. Politics is almost always about choosing the lesser evil, and the moral calculus is never as sharply defined as Rodger implies.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.