Virtue, are you being your best self?

We’ve all heard the common catchphrase (and insta hashtag) ‘living your best life’. Instead, virtue ethics asks us: are you being your best self?

Here’s a little activity for you: if you can, go find a wall near you. Keep your arms by your side and lean against the wall – put a bit of pressure on so you feel your arm really pushing into the wall. After about 30 seconds, lean away from the wall.

If you’ve done it right, your arm should rise into the air involuntarily. Your arm has (very briefly) recalibrated its default pressure settings. If you’d like to, try it again, but this time, try really hard to stop your arm from rising. It’s hard work! You’ve primed your arm to rise, and rise it shall.

It turns out, it’s not just our limbs that we can ‘prime’ in different ways. Our thoughts, feelings and actions can be similarly primed – though it takes a bit more than thirty seconds. Our decisions can be primed in different ways by our past actions and choices.

For instance, when we’re in a particularly introverted stage of life, where hanging out at home is our preference, we get in the habit of turning down social invitations. After a while, even before we’ve thought about the invite – does it sound fun? Are they good friends? – we’re already mentally constructing our excuse for not coming.

Understanding the way our past choices prime the way we feel about our current decisions is the crucial point for virtue ethics. Virtues are traits of character that incline us toward what’s good.

The more times we make good, virtuous choices, the more primed we are to make them again in the future. It becomes a less difficult process.

However, the more times we choose against what’s good, the harder it gets. Instead of virtues, we develop vices. These vices don’t make it impossible to make good choices – just like it’s not impossible to keep your hand held down after leaning against the wall – but it feels less natural to us to do so.

We’ve got to work that bit harder. We no longer feel the “it’s a big deal” sting of doing something wrong – that feeling fades the more times we do it. So we’re more likely, if we’re not really engaged in what’s happening, to default to what we’ve done before.

Virtue ethics recommends we set ourselves up for success. Make the choices now that you want to come easily to you in the future.

If you’re anything like me, a lot of your time in the shower is spent imagining everything your ideal self would be able to do, achieve and be. Virtue ethics is about starting to close the gap between who we are and who we want to be.

One big puzzle for virtue ethics is to work out exactly what counts as a virtue. Virtue ethics owes a lot to the Ancient Greeks. But they didn’t have much room in their philosophy for kindness and benevolence. While those virtues don’t appear until much later with the advent of Christianity, kindness is now considered a primary virtue.

A puzzle for anyone who wants to cultivate virtue is to work out which ones really matter. Fidelity? Kindness? Integrity? Reliability? Courage? Honesty? A number of social, cultural and moral beliefs can be encoded in our ideas of virtue. For instance, we often consider ‘toughness’ to be a virtue – particularly for men – but whether it is a virtue, and what that virtue entails, is up for debate as we realise the importance of empathy and emotional intelligence.

A life of virtue is not an easy way to live your life – we all want to take ethical ‘cheat days’ where we throw all our habits out the window and just indulge. Plus, thinking about what the most virtuous version of you would do in a complex situation isn’t always helpful: sometimes, it’s just not clear what the path of virtue is.

Still, maybe the person who is best prepared to work out a virtuous option in an impossible situation is a person who is, you know, virtuous.


  • Imagine if someone had been watching your behaviour today. Would they have assigned any virtues to you? What about vices?
  • Let’s take as our starting point that nobody has a perfectly accurate picture of their own virtue or vice. Regardless of whether you think you’re an ethical saint or sinner, what could you do to get a more impartial picture of where you’re at?
  • Think about the person you really want to be, or the person you think you are at your core, but don’t always feel like you’re able to be. What gets in the way of you being that fully realised version of yourself?
  • Who is someone you consider to be virtuous – someone who you admire because of their moral character? What is it about them that you admire? Can you identify some of those traits in yourself? Is there anything you could do to surface those traits in your own life?

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In our next unboxing we: bring it all together

Christmas is upon us. It’s a time of giving. A time for celebrating with family and love ones. And a time to navigate a number of sticky ethical challenges.

It starts early in the morning; the gifts are distributed, and you unwrap Grandma’s exquisitely wrapped parcel only to reveal a hideous pair of underwear that may have once been in fashion during the great depression. You immediately call on your best poker face, but it may have already betrayed your disappointment. Should you lie and say, ‘thanks Nan, I really love them?’

Next comes the Christmas lunch tirade; you’re seated next to an opinionated uncle you only see once a year at Christmas who, predictably, after too many of his favourite Christmas beverages begins an annual festive diatribe that escalates rapidly from the opinionated to the offensive. Do you speak your mind?

Finally, the inevitable clash with your mother in law; she cannot help being critical about everything surrounding the festivities. The inevitable flare-up will happen after clearing away lunch, which you like to refer to it as the annual arm wrestle, a well-worn conflict over everything from how to stack the dishwasher to how the kids can and cannot play. This year will no doubt be worse as you are hosting the event. Do you stand your ground?

Most of us ask “What should I do?” when we think about ethics. However, we can approach it another way by asking, “What kind of person should I be?” Philosophical thinkers in this tradition turn to virtue ethics for the answers.

While it’s one thing to ask what kind of person should I be, it’s another thing to know how to live as that person. For Aristotle the answer to both of these questions is to act virtuously. Acting as though we already possess the best virtues is how we develop a virtuous character.

And if ever there was a time to test out the virtues of our character, it’s Christmas.

Virtue ethics, unlike other approaches, does not provide specific rules for addressing ethical questions. Instead, good actions are those that a person of good character would display. Aristotle, one of the most influential philosophers in this tradition, developed a comprehensive system of virtue ethics.

Let’s take a look at how it can help us navigate the minefield of Christmas’ annual dilemmas.

The underwear from Grandma? If asking what should you do, you might take a lead from consequentialism. You could simply smile and say ‘I love it Grandma’. After all, she meant well, a white lie makes her happy, keeps the economy ticking and doesn’t rock the family emotional boat. It produces the best overall outcome.

Other philosophers might suggest a different approach. Those in the deontological tradition, such as Immanuel Kant would argue that lying of any kind is unethical, even those white lies that are intended to spare someone’s feelings.

Unlike other approaches to ethics, virtue ethics does not rely on rules to guide action. While ‘do not lie,’ is a rule, ‘being honest’ is a virtue.

However, a virtue, on its own, doesn’t tell us too much that is helpful because virtues are interrelated, you can’t have one virtue without having others. To have a virtue is to be a particular type of person with a particular mindset and outlook on life. They are what’s called a ‘multi-track disposition’ – they go all the way down.

Honesty is not the only virtue at stake here. Acting virtuously requires us to calibrate between virtues. Because Grandma has the best intentions, she will no doubt take your honesty to heart. Honestly speaking your mind could be selfish at one extreme, and while a white lie at the other end might be considered selfless. What sits between these extremes Aristotle called the Golden Mean.

What would a fair person do? They might tell Grandma that they appreciate the thought but would like to do justice to her intentions by exchanging the gift for something that they will like, wear and remember Grandma every time they put it on.

So, let’s see what virtue ethics can teach us about managing that outspoken uncle. Imagine that dessert is now served and your uncle has flipped the switch to obnoxious. You try and avoid engaging with his tirades every year, but this year he is particularly offensive. His views are not only a dampener on the festive feels, but several members of the family are visibly hurt and upset by some of his more extreme views.

All families have their patterns that play out when people come together and the pre-determined roles we all play are difficult to shift.

What would we do if we were already a virtuous person? By imagining what a virtuous character would do in this situation we can start to practically explore how to become the best version of ourselves.

In the virtue ethics approach imagination is important in helping to shift unthinking and prescribed patterns of behaviours. What would we do if we were already a virtuous person? By imagining what a virtuous character would do in this situation we can start to practically explore how to become the best version of ourselves.

A virtuous person might ask themselves ‘how would I like to be treated if I were them?’ This particular uncle may not have many opportunities in their daily life to be heard. In many of the virtue ethics traditions compassion is a cardinal virtue. Exercising the virtue of compassion allows us to not only avoid rushing to judgement, but also gives us space to disarm the triggers that usually fire off in response to his toxic views.

The virtue of temperance – self-control and restraint – also helps here. While his views may trigger you strongly, appealing to logic with counterarguments will most likely not be effective.

It is almost impossible to change a person’s strongly held views with counter-logic. Paraphrasing back the points and emotions they are expressing not only lets them know their experience matters but also provides a circuit breaker by reflecting back their views. Research suggests that engaging in this way can make someone feel more understood and, as a result, less defensive or difficult.

When unsure about what the best virtue looks like in practice, virtue ethics suggests looking to someone of good character for direction by imagining how they would act in the same situation. Moral exemplars are an important feature of virtue ethics. Ethics is messy and no decision procedure provides a precise algorithm which will tell us definitively what to do when faced with difficult choices. Moral exemplars are people in our world who possess the best form of the virtues. Knowing what to do is not simply a matter of internalising a rule; for Aristotle virtue ethics it is about doing the right thing at the right time, in the right way and for the right reason. Moral exemplars help show us the way.

So, when it comes to the inevitable clash with your mother in law, imagine what someone you admire most would do. A moral exemplar might act intentionally with the virtues of humility, grace and generosity, showing her that what is important in hosting Christmas is not the power struggle to control the day but respecting differences and others’ boundaries. They might find ways to include some of her traditions in the day.

The development of character is at the heart of virtue ethics. We develop that character throughout our life through the virtues and in doing so we make wise choices.

This Christmas people may be looking at you to be that person.


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Can virtue ethics get you through a tricky Christmas situation?

Beachgoers would have noticed our lucky country has been hit with a rather European trend. Or is it South American?

Women and girls of all ages and shapes were donning g-string swimsuits and Brazilian bottoms. Arse cheeks were out and as sun-kissed as a brown forearm, curiously suggesting they had never been covered up. Insert thinking emoji face here.

If conversations and interactions underneath Instagram posts are anything to go by, people seem to care a lot about this newish oceanside fashion. People have been looking and commenting and rubbernecking and commenting some more. Was that the sound of a drone hovering over the group of young women lying belly down on the sand?

“Whether a bit more butt cheek is nudity or not, our different reactions to the sight of peach shaped posteriors reflect so much on our different ideas of bodies, gender, and sexuality.”

Whether a bit more butt cheek is nudity or not, our different reactions to the sight of peach shaped posteriors reflect so much on our different ideas of bodies, gender, and sexuality. Australia is one of the most diverse countries in the world, so it makes sense some sort of overarching cultural attitude to how much skin we should show doesn’t exist. Even individuals will sometimes revere and scorn the sight of skin – context is everything.

Nudity can be a beautiful thing. It’s darn delightful to see the kids running around the backyard in the nutter on a hot day as the sprinkler runs, free of all the bodily self-consciousness that will hit them in adolescence. Such sweet, innocent freedom.

But by the time we’re all growed up, we’re sexual beings and our bods better be covered or it’s just down right creepy – unless you’re at the beach of course. It’s often said women are more free to dress how they like in any environment but even a boringly functional shoulder on a hot summer’s day is wildly inappropriate in some workplaces. Then again, imagine a man exposing his knees by wearing shorts in a corporate environment or strutting into the boardroom in flip flops.

Shoulders, knees and toes, so risqué. No wonder people love to get semi-nude when they’re near sand and saltwater. The working week’s uniform is so prudish when compared with the itsy bitsy teenie weenie things we’re permitted to sport in public at the beach. And perhaps that’s the beauty of this summer’s bare butt trend – a liberation of the social and cultural expectations most are happy to play along with but only for limited week day bursts.

Maybe it’s the influence of Kim Kardashian’s glorious glutes. Maybe HBO started the nudity thing years ago – Australians tend to follow northern hemisphere trends a season or more later. Maybe it isn’t about popular culture at all and it’s just that women want more skin tanned and are seeing it’s now acceptable. Could we stretch this to a health argument by bringing up vitamin D? Or is it just that despite the good advocacy work of the Cancer Council, people can’t resist the warm, fuzzy feeling of sunrays touching their arse?

“On one hand, you could argue the butt cheek trend is marking a positive social shift in attitudes to women’s bodies – one where we’re less concerned about the shape or size of anyone’s booty.”

On one hand, you could argue the butt cheek trend is marking a positive social shift in attitudes to women’s bodies – one where we’re less concerned about the shape or size of anyone’s booty and getting it out there shows women and girls in particular aren’t as hung up about their physical selves as we once believed.

On the other hand, you could argue this is a submission to sexism. Plenty of people don’t like to see women and girls enjoying their bodies this way. While arguments in favour of modesty can attract accusations of a controlling type of chauvinism, they are often made in defence of women’s liberty. Why must the so called fairer sex feel an obligation to display so much skin? Can’t women and girls have fun in the sun without feeling they need to sexualise themselves? Is all this bum display a nasty product of patriarchy getting its insidious tentacles into our beachside R&R?

I descend from a people not known for bodily inhibitions. If Hungarians aren’t presented with a sign in public baths telling them to don swimwear, the only suit necessary is the one your mama gave you. Some baths even supply disposable coverings for men and women’s nether regions in case they forget to pack something (although I suspect there are a few Magyars who don’t own a cozzie).

The other side of my family values dressing modestly in public. Headscarves are worn to social gatherings and ankles covered. Someone walking bare butt into a space, let alone naked, is unimaginable.

So, do we care which direction Australian beaches head? And how does a culturally diverse country make a general rule around appropriate levels of dress?

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Is modesty an outdated virtue?

Virtue ethics is arguably the oldest ethical theory in the world, with origins in Ancient Greece.

It defines good actions as ones that display embody virtuous character traits, like courage, loyalty, or wisdom. A virtue itself is a disposition to act, think and feel in certain ways. Bad actions display the opposite and are informed by vices, such as cowardice, treachery, and ignorance.

For Aristotle, ethics was a key element of human flourishing because it taught people how to differentiate between virtues and vices. By encouraging examination, more people could live a life dedicated to developing virtues.

It’s one thing to know what’s right, but it’s another to actually do it. How did Aristotle advise us to live our virtues?

By acting as though we already have them.

Excellence as habit

Aristotle explained that both virtues and vices are acquired by repetition. If we routinely overindulge a sweet tooth, we develop a vice — gluttony. If we repeatedly allow others to serve themselves dinner before us, we develop a virtue – selflessness.

Virtue ethics suggests treating our character as a lifelong project, one that has the capacity to truly change who we are. The goal is not to form virtues that mean we act ethically without thinking, but to form virtues that help us see the world clearly and make better judgments as a result.

In a pinch, remember: vices distort, virtues examine.

A quote most of the internet attributes to Aristotle succinctly reads: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”.

Though he didn’t actually say this, it’s a good indication of what virtue ethics stands for. We can thank American philosopher, Will Durant, for the neat summary.


Aim for in between

There are two practical principles that virtue ethics encourages us to use in ethical dilemmas. The first is called The Golden Mean. When we’re trying to work out what the virtuous thing to do in a particular situation is, look to what lies in the middle between two extreme forms of behaviour. The mean will be the virtue, and the extremes at either end, vices.

Here’s an example. Imagine your friend is wearing a horrendous outfit and asks you how they look. What are the extreme responses you could take? You could a) burst out laughing or b) tell them they look wonderful when they don’t.

These two extremes are vices – the first response is malicious, the second is dishonest. The virtuous response is between these two. In this case, that would be gently — but honestly — telling your friend you think they’d look nicer in another outfit.


The second is to use our imagination. What would we do if we were already a virtuous person? By imagining the kind of person we’d like to be and how we would want to respond we can start to close the gap between our aspirational identity and who we are at the moment.

Virtue ethics can remind us of the importance of role models. If you want someone to learn ethics, show them an ethical person.

Some argue virtue ethics is overly vague in guiding actions. They say its principles aren’t specific enough to help us overcome difficult ethical conundrums. “Be virtuous” is hard to conceptualise. Others have expressed concern that virtues or vices aren’t agreed on by everybody. Stoicism or sexual openness can be a virtue to some, a vice to others.

Finally, some people think virtue ethics breeds ‘moral narcissism’, where we are so obsessed with our own ethical character that we value it above anyone or anything else.

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What are your habits of good character?

In the Wallabies’ semi-final match against Argentina, David Pocock played over 70 minutes with a broken nose. Although Adam Ashley-Cooper would walk away as man-of-the-match thanks to a hat-trick of tries, most commentators agree Pocock’s heroics had as much impact on the result as anything else.

Pocock played all 80 minutes, made 13 tackles, ran the ball eight times, broke two tackles and made four turnovers. Despite only playing four games in the World Cup, he leads the tournament for turnovers with 14.

Fox Sports News described him as “the world’s best player” whilst the Sydney Morning Herald labelled him “The single most important player to take the field come Sunday morning”.

None of this should come as much surprise – as a back rower, Pocock’s success is derived as much by will power, courage, and perseverance as it is by skill. And Pocock has it in spades. He explains:

“My parents were always clear with my brothers and I when we were growing up that you have to have the courage of your convictions and that when you commit to something you must fully commit.”

That quote didn’t come from a post-match interview but from one of Pocock’s blog posts following his arrest in December 2014. Unlike some other footballers, Pocock’s arrest wasn’t a boozy 3am affair. A spokesperson for the environment and public supporter of Julia Gillard’s Carbon Tax, he was arrested for a nonviolent protest against Whitehaven’s coal mine at Maules Creek.

Pocock spent around 10 hours chained to a farmer who was, in turn, chained to one of Whitehaven’s superdiggers.

This wasn’t much of a surprise to those following Pocock’s career. He has been outspoken on a range of issues for several years. He and his partner, Emma Palandri, refuse to marry until LGBTQIA+ couples in Australia can do the same. Although describing themselves as married, the pair have not signed the legal documents to verify it. “‘I don’t see the logic in excluding people from making loving commitments to each other,” Pocock explains.

It’s not the only time Pocock has stood up for LGBTQIA+ rights. In a match against the NSW Waratahs earlier this year he reported NSW lock Jacques Potgieter for repeatedly using a homophobic slur. Amidst some criticism (and praise) Pocock refused to yield – even as some speculated it would cost him the Wallabies captaincy.

Pocock has repeatedly put his head on the block for the causes he believes in.

Pocock’s on-field success cannot be readily distinguished from his off-field activism. In a sentiment widely attributed to Aristotle (but actually a summary of his views), “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Courage – or fortitude as Thomas Aquinas called it – is the virtue that enables you to do what you believe to be right despite the difficulties involved. No matter the cost. Not a surprising trait in a man who fellow Wallaby Michael Hooper says “puts his head in some places that are pretty dangerous and gets the ball out”.

After Maules Creek the Australian Rugby Union issued Pocock with a formal warning. They wrote, “While we appreciate David has personal views on a range of matters, we’ve made it clear that we expect his priority to be ensuring he can fulfil his role as a high-performance athlete”.

It’s a tough ask for someone like Pocock to separate his politics from his rugby. Pocock’s on-field success cannot be readily distinguished from his off-field activism.  In a sentiment widely attributed to Aristotle (but actually a summary of his views), “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”.

Pocock’s courage under fire, his perseverance and his commitment are habits. What makes him a high-performance athlete isn’t just his physical frame but his mental discipline and personal virtue.

We can’t switch virtues on and off when they suit us – we either have them or we don’t. When Pocock gets up to make a crucial tackle or to reach the breakdown a fraction earlier than his rivals to steal the ball he demonstrates the same commitment that saw him support LGBTQIA+ rights, defend the environment, speak about his eating disorder or discuss his faith publicly.

Pocock could no more remain silent off the field than he could hold back on it. His character disposes him to holding fast to what he believes is good. Doing otherwise would dull both his crucial sporting instincts and what makes him an upstanding human being.

You can’t praise Pocock’s on-field achievements whilst also condemning his off-field activism. They’re children of the same beast – his unwavering commitment.

Though there are no doubt those who disagree with Pocock’s views, you can’t praise his on-field achievements whilst also condemning his off-field activism. They’re children of the same beast – his unwavering commitment.

There is ongoing debate regarding whether or not professional athletes should serve as role models. The ability to play sport well doesn’t translate into the moral virtues required in a role model. As Charles Barkley famously remarked, “Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” If Pocock’s prominence both on and off the field are born of the same character traits, then his example allows us to see the role model debate in a new light.

Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi once remarked, “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather, a lack of will”. Had he not died 18 years before David Pocock was born, you’d swear Lombardi was talking about him.

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Do we need more athletes to become ethical role models?

Corporate Australia is having a rough time in 2023.

PwC made headlines for selling out Australian citizens by flogging details of the government’s tax avoidance schemes to potential corporate tax avoiders. Qantas has been raked over the coals for, amongst other things, lying to customers and illegally sacking workers. Elsewhere corporations are pilloried for scandalously excessive executive pay, Dickensian industrial relations standards, wilfully aggressive tax avoidance, and heartless profiteering 

Research by the market researchers at Roy Morgan recently revealed that the level of trust Australians have in corporations is at the lowest it has ever been since they started measuring it. The downward trend started with COVID but has been in free fall since the middle of 2022. Roy Morgan CEO Michelle Levine describes what is going on as the result of ‘moral blindness’ of corporations.  

There is an apparent irony in play. Today’s corporations are accused of this moral blindness, while many publicly embrace ethics by taking increasingly active roles in important matters of public purpose and social impact. Corporations are weighing in on a variety of crucial political issues, such as the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, LGBTQIA+ rights, and the climate crisis. 

Business as a force for good?

In the era of ‘woke capitalism’ the business world seems to feel little cognitive dissonance, let alone hypocrisy, about parading their ethical credentials in public while acting like ruthless and exploitative profiteers in the market. Being economically exploitative and socially progressive is the name of the game for many corporations.

The socially progressive position regards businesses as having the potential to be a ‘force for good’, especially by adopting progressive positions on social and environmental causes. Think of Qantas’ ‘pride flights’, PwC’s commitment to social impact, or the broad adoption of diversity and climate change initiatives by businesses of all kinds.  

Many regard corporate engagement with political causes as being genuinely motivated by ethical care for their ‘stakeholders’. This view is not universal. Others see corporate activism as comprising of shallow, inauthentic and self-interested grandstanding. Between green-washing, woke-washing and virtue-signalling, corporations have been accused of using ethics to feather their own nests.  

Yet others see corporate social and environmental engagement as incontrovertible evidence that CEOs have been held captive by radical left-wing activists. By this account weak-willed executives are being exploited by nefarious militants trying to use corporations as a Trojan Horse to infiltrate mainstream society.  

The ‘vile maxim’ of corporate selfishness

Whichever position you might be aligned with, so-called ‘woke’ practices are in apparent contrast to the exploitative and ruthless competitive behaviours of companies like Qantas and PwC that have contributed to the demise of trust in corporations. When it comes to business, the ethical principle at play is akin to what, many years ago, economist Adam Smith condemned as the ‘vile maxim’. As he wrote in The Wealth of Nations back in 1776: 

All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. As soon, therefore, as they could find a method of consuming the whole value of their rents themselves, they had no disposition to share them with any other persons. 

It is clear that many people running businesses today are enthusiastic followers of this vile maxim. To suggest this is ‘moral blindness’ can be misleading because (no matter how vile) there is an ethics at play here, and one that is widely accepted. Ayn Rand notoriously championed such an ethics as being beholden to ‘the virtue of selfishness’. By Rand’s account, pursuing self-interest is a valid, if not desirable, moral position. She stood against sacrifice as being a moral principle, instead seeing merit in “concern with one’s own interests”.  

Free market capitalism was, for Rand, an ideal manifestation of her ethics. This all suggests that selfishness is not moral blindness, it is part of an ethical system that drives much business behaviour. It is also the ethics that is at the heart of Australia’s lack of confidence in the corporate world.  

How to build trust

Between the twin poles of ‘woke capitalism’ and the ‘vile maxim’ we have something of a corporate identity crisis. Increasingly selfish profit-seeking in the economic sphere is matched with attestations to the pursuit of public good in the social sphere. That is not to say that all companies are vile or woke, clearly many are not. It is a fair call that enough of them are that it has led to a breakdown of public confidence in corporate Australia.  

What does this all mean for how Australian corporations can build public trust? One answer is resolving their identity crisis by truly embracing and communicating the role of business in a liberal-democratic society. While businesses are responsible for returns on capital investment, that is neither their sole nor primary purpose. Neither is supporting progressive social positions without concern for the economy. 

In its present condition Australian corporate capitalism is characterised by skyrocketing economic inequality, excessive executive pay, inflation fuelled by profiteering, and increasingly precarious employment. That Australian citizens do not trust corporations is an entirely rational assessment.  

Corporate Australia’s challenge is to actively recognise and pursue its real social purpose. This purpose is about driving innovation and economic growth for shared prosperity, providing meaningful and secure jobs with decent pay, paying taxes that fund public services, as well as ensuring investors get a reasonable return.

Rebuilding trust is simple. What remains to be seen is which of Australia’s fallen corporations will have the courage to abandon their attachment to the vile maxim.  

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If we are to engage with the ethical complexity of the world, we need to learn how to hold two contradictory judgements in our mind at the same time.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) 

– Walt Whitman, Song of Myself 

A fraction of a second after the first atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico in 1945, a dense blob of superheated gas with a temperature of over 20,000 degrees expanded to a diameter of 250 metres, casting a light brighter than the sun and illuminating the surrounding valley as if it were daytime. We know what the atomic blast looked like at this nascent moment because there is a black and white photograph of it, taken using a specialised high-speed camera developed just for this test.  

Trinity Test Fireball, July 16, 1945

I vividly remember seeing this photo for the first time in a school library book. I spent long stretches contemplating the otherworldly beauty of the glowing sphere, marvelling at the fundamental physical forces on display, awed and diminished by their power. Yet I was also deeply troubled by what the image represented: a weapon designed for indiscriminate killing and the precursor to the device dropped on Nagasaki, taking over 200,000 lives – most civilians. 

I’m not the only one to have mixed feelings about the atomic test. The “father” of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer – the subject of the new Christopher Nolan film – expressed pride at the accomplishment of his team in developing a weapon that could end a devastating war, but he also experienced tremendous guilt at starting an arms race that could end humanity itself. He reportedly told the U.S. President Harry S. Truman that his involvement in developing the atomic bomb left him feeling like he had blood on his hands. 

In expressing this, Oppenheimer was displaying ethical ambivalence, where he held two opposing views at the same time. Today, we might regard Oppenheimer and his legacy with similar ambivalence. 

This is not necessarily an easy thing to do; our minds often race to collapse ambivalence into certainty, into clean black and white. But it’s also an important ethical skill to develop if we’re to engage with the complexities of a world rendered in shades of grey. 

In all things good, in all things bad

It’s rare that we come across someone or something that is entirely good or entirely bad. Fossil fuels have lit the darkness and fended off the cold of winter, but they also contribute to destabilising the world’s climate. Natural disasters can cause untold damage and suffering, but they can also awaken the charity and compassion within a community. And many of those who have offered the greatest contributions to art, culture or science have also harboured hidden vices, such as maintaining abusive relationships in private. 

When confronted by these conflicted cases, we often enter a state of cognitive dissonance. Contemplating the virtues and vices of fossil fuels at the same time, or appreciating the art of Pablo Picasso while being aware of his relationship towards women, is akin to looking at the word “red” written in blue ink. Our minds recoil from the contradiction and race to collapse it into a singular judgement: good or bad. 

But in our rush to escape the discomfort of dissonance, we can cut ourselves off from the full ethical picture. If we settle only on the bad then we risk missing out on much that is good, beautiful or enriching. The paintings of Picasso still retain their artistic virtues despite our opinion of its creator. Yet if we settle only on the good, then we risk excusing much that is bad. Just because we appreciate Picasso’s portraits doesn’t mean we should endorse his treatment of women, even if his relationships with those women informed his art. 

Ambivalence doesn’t mean withholding judgement; we can still decide that the balance falls clearly on one side or the other. But even if we do judge something as being overall bad, we can still appreciate the good in it.  

The key is to learn how to appreciate without endorsement. Indeed, how to appreciate and condemn simultaneously.  

This might change the way we represent some historical figures. If we want to acknowledge both the accomplishments and the colonial consequences of figures like James Cook, that might mean doing so in a museum rather than erecting statues, which by their nature are unambiguous artifacts intended to elevate an individual in the public eye. 

Despite our minds yearning to collapse the discomfort of ambivalence into certainty, if we are to engage with the full ethical complexity of world and other people, then we need to be willing to embrace good and bad simultaneously and with nuance, even if that means holding contradictory attitudes at the same time.

So, while I remain committed to the view that nuclear weapons represent an unacceptable threat to the future of humanity, I still appreciate the beauty of that photo of the first atomic test. It does feel contradictory to hold these two views simultaneously. Very well, I contradict myself. I, like every facet of reality, contain multitudes.

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It was with a measure of apprehension that I recently travelled to the cinema to watch Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.

I was conscious of being an atypical audience member – with most skewing younger, female and adorned in pink (I missed out on all three criteria). However, having read some reviews (both complimentary and critical) I was expecting a full-scale assault on the ‘patriarchy’ – to which, on appearances alone, I could be said to belong.  

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the film Barbie 

However, Gerwig’s film is far more interesting. Not only is it not a critique of patriarchy as a singular evil, but it raises deep questions about what it means to be human (whatever your sex or gender identity). And it does this all with its tongue firmly planted in the proverbial cheek; laughing not only at the usual stereotypes but, along the way, at itself. 

The first indication that this film intends to subvert all stereotypes comes in the opening sequence – an homage to the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rather than encountering a giant black ‘obelisk’ that reorients the history of humankind, a group of young girls wake to find a giant Margot Robbie looming over them in the form of ‘Stereotypical Barbie’. Until that time, the girls have been restricted to playing with baby dolls and learning the stereotypical roles allotted to women in a male-dominated world. 

Barbie (Margot Robbie). Warner Bros. Pictures

What happens next is instructive. Rather than simply putting aside the baby dolls in favour of the new adult form represented by Barbie, the girls embark on a savage work of destruction. They dismember the baby dolls, crush their skulls, grind them into the dirt. This is not a gentle awakening into something that is more ‘pure’ than what came before. From the outset, we are offered an image of humanity that is not one in which the divide between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘dominant’ and submissive’, ‘peaceful’ and ‘violent’ is neatly allocated in favour of one sex or another. Rather, virtues and vices are shown to be evenly distributed across humanity in all its variety. 

That the violent behaviour of the little girls is not an aberration is made clear later in the film when we are introduced to ‘Weird Barbie’. She lives on the margins of ‘Barbieland’ – both an outcast and a healer – whose status has been defined by her broken (imperfect) condition. The damage done to ‘Weird Barbie’ is, again, due to mistreatment by a subset of girls who treat Barbie in the same way depicted in the opening scenes. Then there is ‘Barbieland’ itself – a place of apparent perfection … unless you happen to be a ‘Ken’. Here, the ‘Patriarchy’ has been replaced by a ‘Matriarchy’ that is invested with all of the flaws of its male counterpart. 

In Barbieland, Kens have no status of their own. Rather, they are mere cyphers – decorative extensions of the Barbies whom they adorn. For the most part, they are frustrated by, but ultimately accepting of, their status. The conceit of the film is an obvious one: Barbieland is the mirror image of the ‘real world,’ where patriarchy reigns supreme. Indeed, the Barbies (in all their brilliant variety) believe that their exemplary society has changed the real world for the better, liberating women and girls from all male oppression.  

Alas, the real world is not so obliging – as is soon discovered when the two worlds intersect. There, Stereotypical Barbie (suffering from a bad case of flat feet) and Stereotypical Ken are exposed to the radically imperfect society that is the product of male domination. Much of what they find should be familiar to us. The film does a brilliant job of lampooning what we might take for granted. Even the character of male-dominated big business comes in for a delightful serve. The target is Mattel (which must be commended for its willingness to allow itself to be exposed to ridicule – even in fictional form). 

Unfortunately, Ken (played by Ryan Gosling) learns all the wrong lessons. Infected by the ideology of Patriarchy (which he associates with male dominance and horse riding) he returns to Barbieland to ‘liberate’ the Kens. The contagion spreads – reversing the natural order; turning the ‘Barbies’ into female versions of the Kens of old.  

Fortunately, all is eventually made right when Margot Robbie’s character, with a mother and daughter in tow, returns to save the day.  

Ken (Simu Liu), Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Rosling). Warner Bros. Pictures

But the reason the film struck such a chord with me, is because it raises deeper questions about what it means to be human. 

It is Stereotypical Barbie who finally liberates Stereotypical Ken by leading him to realise that his own value exists independent of any relationship to her. Having done so, Barbie then decides to abandon the life of a doll to become fully human. However, before being granted this wish by her creator (in reality, a talented designer and businesswoman of somewhat questionable integrity) she is first made to experience what the choice to be human entails. This requires Barbie to live through the whole gamut of emotions – all that comes from the delirious wonder of human life – as well as its terrors, tragedies and abiding disappointments. 

This is where the film becomes profound.

How many of us consciously embrace our humanity – and all of the implications of doing so? How many of us wonder about what it takes to become fully human? Gerwig implies that far fewer of us do so than we might hope.

Instead, too many of us live the life of the dolls – no matter what world we live in. We are content to exist within the confines of a box; to not think or feel too deeply, to not have our lives become more complicated as when happens when the rules and conventions – the morality – of the crowd is called into question by our own wondering. 

Don’t be put off by the marketing puffery; with or without the pink, this is a film worth seeing. Don’t believe the gripes of ‘anti-woke’, conservative commentators. They attack a phantom of their own imagining. This film is aware without being prescriptive. It is fair. It is clever. It is subtle. It is funny. It never takes itself too seriously. It is everything that the parody of ‘woke’ is not. 

It is ultimately an invitation to engage in serious reflection about whether or not to be fully human – with all that entails. It is an invitation that Barbie accepts – and so should we. 

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The billionaire has become a ubiquitous part of life in the 21st century.

In the past many of the ultra-wealthy were content to influence politics behind the scenes in smoke-filled rooms or limit their public visibility to elite circles by using large donations to chisel their names onto galleries and museums. Today’s billionaires are not so discrete; they are more overtly influential in the world of politics, they engage in eye-catching projects such as space and deep-sea exploration, and have large, almost cult-like, followings on social media. 

Underpinning the rise of this breed of billionaire is the notion that there is something special about the ultra-wealthy. That in ‘winning’ capitalism they have demonstrated not merely business acumen, but a genius that applies to the human condition more broadly. This ‘epistemic privilege’ casts them as innovators whose curiosity will bring benefits to the rest of us and the best thing that we normal people can do is watch on from a distance. This attitude is embodied in the ‘Silicon Valley Libertarianism’ which seeks to liberate technology from the shackles imposed on it by small-minded mediocrities such as regulation. This new breed seeks great power without much interest in checks on the corresponding responsibility.

Is this OK? Curiosity, whether about the physical world or the world of ideas, seems an uncontroversial virtue. Curiosity is the engine of progress in science and industry as well as in society. But curiosity has more than an instrumental value. Recently, Lewis Ross, a philosopher at the London School of Economics, has argued that curiosity is valuable in itself regardless of whether it reliably produces results, because it shows an appreciation of ‘epistemic goods’ or knowledge.  

We recognise curiosity as an important element of a good human life. Yet, it can sometimes mask behaviour we ought to find troubling.

Hubris obviously comes to mind. Curiosity coupled with an outsized sense of one’s capabilities can lead to disaster. Take Stockton Rush, for example, the CEO of OceanGate and the author of the tragic sinking of the Titan submarine. He was quoted as saying: “I’d like to be remembered as an innovator. I think it was General MacArthur who said, ‘You’re remembered for the rules you break’, and I’ve broken some rules to make this. I think I’ve broken them with logic and good engineering behind me.” The result was the deaths of five people.  

While hubris is a foible on a human scale, the actions of individuals cannot be seen in isolation from the broader social contexts and system. Think, for example, of the interplay between exploration and empire. It is no coincidence that many of those dubbed ‘great explorers’, from Columbus to Cook, were agents for spreading power and domination. In the train of exploration came the dispossession and exploitation of indigenous peoples across the globe.  

A similar point could be made about advances in technology. The industrial revolution was astonishing in its unshackling of the productive potential of humanity, but it also involved the brutal exploitation of working people. Curiosity and innovation need to be careful of the company they keep. Billionaires may drive innovation, but innovation is never without a cost and we must ask who should bear the burden when new technology pulls apart the ties that bind.  

Yet, even if we set aside issues of direct harm, problems remain. Billionaires drive innovation in a way that shapes what John Rawls called the ‘basic structure of society’. I recently wrote an article for International Affairs giving the example of the power of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in global health. Since its inception the Gates Foundation has become a key player in global health. It has used its considerable financial and social power to set the agenda for global health, but more importantly it has shaped the environment in which global health research occurs. Bill Gates is a noted advocate of ‘creative capitalism’ and views the market as the best driver for innovation. The Gates Foundation doesn’t just pick the type of health interventions it believes to be worth funding, but shapes the way in which curiosity is harnessed in this hugely important field.  

This might seem innocuous, but it isn’t. It is an exercise of power. You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to appreciate that knowledge and power are deeply entwined. The way in which Gates and other philanthrocapitalists shape research naturalises their perspective. It shapes curiosity itself. The risk is that in doing so, other approaches to global health get drowned out by focussing on hi-tech market driven interventions favoured by Gates.  

The ‘law of the instrument’ comes to mind: if the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail. By placing so much faith in the epistemic privilege of billionaires, we are causing a proliferation of hammers across the various problems of the world. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for hammers, they are very useful tools. However, at the risk of wearing this metaphor out, sometimes you need a screwdriver.  

Billionaires may be gifted people, but they are still only people. They ought not to be worshipped as infallible oracles of progress, to be left unchecked. To do so exposes the rest of us to the risk of making a world where problems are seen only through the lens created by the ultra-wealthy – and the harms caused by innovation risk being dismissed merely as the cost of doing business.

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Nothing can or should diminish the good done by Gladys Berejiklian. And nothing can or should diminish the bad. One does not cancel the other. Both are true. Both should be acknowledged for what they are.

Yet, in the wake of Independent Commission Against Corruption’s finding that the former premier engaged in serious corrupt conduct, her political opponent, Premier Chris Minns, has refused to condemn the conduct that gave rise to this finding. Other politicians have gone further, putting personal and political allegiance ahead of sound principle to promote a narrative of denial and deflection.

Political corruption is like a highly contagious virus that infects the cells of the brain. It tends to target people who believe their superior virtue makes them immune to its effects. It protects itself from detection by convincing its hosts that they are in perfect ethical health, that the good they do outweighs the harm corruption causes, that noble intentions excuse dishonesty and that corruption only “counts” when it amounts to criminal conduct.

By any measure, Berejiklian was a good premier. Her achievements deserve to be celebrated. I am also certain that she is, at heart, a decent person who sincerely believes she always acted in the best interests of the people of NSW. By such means, corruption remains hidden – perhaps even from the infected person and those who surround them.

In painstaking legal and factual detail, those parts of the ICAC report dealing with Berejiklian reveal a person who sabotaged her own brilliant career, not least by refusing to avail herself of the protective measures built into the NSW Ministerial Code of Conduct. The code deals explicitly with conflicts of interest. In the case of a premier, it requires that a conflict be disclosed to other cabinet ministers so they can determine how best to manage the situation.

The code is designed to protect the public interest. However, it also offers protection to a conflicted minister. Yet, in violation of her duty and contrary to the public interest, Berejiklian chose not to declare her obvious conflict.

At the height of the COVID pandemic, did we excuse a person who, knowing themselves to be infected by the virus, continued to spread the disease because they were “a good person” doing ‘a good job’? Did we turn a blind eye to their disregard for public health standards just because they thought they knew better than anyone else? Did it matter that wilfully exposing others to risk was not a criminal offence? Of course not. They were denounced – not least by the leading politicians of the day.

But in the case of Berejiklian, what we hear in reply is the voice of corruption itself – the desire to excuse, to diminish, to deflect. Those who speak in its name may not even realise they do so. That is how insidious its influence tends to be. Its aim is to normalise deviance, to condition all whom it touches to think the indefensible is a mere trifle.

This is especially dangerous in a democracy. When our political leaders downplay conflicts of interest in the allocation of public resources, they reinforce the public perception that politicians cannot be trusted to use public power and resources solely in the public interest.

Our whole society, our economy, our future rest on the quality of our ethical infrastructure. It is this that builds and sustains trust. It is trust that allows society to be bold enough to take risks in the hope of a better future. We invest billions building physical and technical infrastructure. We invest relatively little in our ethical infrastructure. And so trust is allowed to decay. Nothing good can come of this.

When our ethical foundations are treated as an optional extra to be neglected and left to rot, then we are all the poorer for it.

What Gladys Berejiklian did is now in the past. What worries me is the uneven nature of the present response. Good people can make mistakes. Even the best of us can become the authors of bad deeds. But understanding the reality of human frailty justifies neither equivocation nor denial when the virus of corruption has infected the body politic.


This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

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