The role of emotions in ethics according to six big thinkers

It’s not easy to provide a clear definition of emotions. Philosophers and psychologists still haven’t agreed on what they are or whether they’re ethically important.

Most of us have lots of emotions and can name a dozen off the top of our heads pretty quickly. But there’s a lot more to understand. Why do they matter? Are we in control of our emotions? Should we prioritise our reason over our emotion?

Let’s take a look at what philosophy has to say.

Plato: reason rules emotion

For Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, emotion was a core part of our mind. But although it was core, he didn’t think emotions were very useful. He suggested we imagine our mind like a chariot with two horses. One horse is noble and cooperative, the other is wild and uncontrollable.

Plato thought the chariot rider was our reason and the two horses were different kinds of emotions. The noble horse represents our ‘moral emotions’ like righteous anger or empathy. The cranky horse represents more basic passions like rage, lust and hunger. Plato’s ideas set the precedent for Western philosophy in placing reason above and in control of our emotions.

Aristotle: what you feel says something about you

Aristotle had similar ideas and believed the wise, virtuous person would feel the right emotions at the right times. They would be depressed by sad things and angered by injustice. He also believed this appropriate kind of feeling was an important measure of whether you were a good person. He didn’t think you could separate the kind of person you were from the way you felt.

So if you find it funny when someone slips over in a puddle, Aristotle would argue that says something about you. It doesn’t matter whether you then offer them a towel or ask if they’re okay. The amusement you felt in response to their suffering reflects your character. He thought your job is to work hard so instead of laughing at such situations, you feel empathy and concern.

Hume: emotion rules reason

Scottish philosopher David Hume thought this view was naive. He famously said reason is “the slave of the passions”. By this he meant our emotions lead our reason – we never choose to do anything because reason tells us to. We do it because an emotion pushes us to act. For Hume, reason isn’t the charioteer driving our emotions, it’s more like the wagon being pulled along with no control over where it’s headed. It’s the horses – our emotions – calling the shots.

Hume and his friend Adam Smith developed a theory of moral sentiments that used emotion as the basis for their ethical theory. For them, we act virtuously not because our reason tells us it’s the right thing to do, but because doing the right thing feels good. We get a kind of ‘moral pleasure’ from acting well.

Kant: emotion strips our agency

Immanuel Kant thought this whole approach was entirely wrongheaded. He believed emotion had no place in our ethical thinking. For Kant, emotions were pathological – a disease on our thinking. Because we have no control over our emotions, Kant thought allowing them to govern our thinking and action made us ‘automated’, and that it is the only reason that made us autonomous and capable of making truly free decisions.

Freud: our unconscious drives us

More recent ideas have questioned whether there is such a thing as ‘pure reason’ (a concept Kant named one of his books after). Psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud encouraged us to see our motivations as driven by unconscious urges and inclinations. More recent work in neuroscience has revealed the role unconscious bias and heuristics play in our beliefs, thinking and decisions.

This might make us wonder whether the idea that reason and emotion are two separate, rival forces is accurate. Another mode of thinking suggests our emotions are part of our reason. They express our judgements about how the world is and how we’d like it to be. Are we passive victims of our emotions? Do we spontaneously ‘explode’ with anger? Or is it something we choose? Our answer will help us determine how we feel about things like ‘crimes of passions’, impulsive decisions and how responsible we are for the feelings of other people.

Carol Gilligan: What is this sexist nonsense?

You may have noticed that all the names on this list so far are men. For psychologist Carol Gilligan, that’s not a coincidence. In her influential work In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, Gilligan argued that the widespread suspicion of ethical decisions made on the basis of emotion, concern for other people and a desire to maintain relationships was sexist. Most theorists had argued that reason, not emotion, should drive our decisions. Gilligan pointed out that most of the ‘bad’ ways of making decisions (like showing care for certain people or using emotion as a guide) tended to be the ways women reasoned about moral problems. Instead, she argued that a tendency to pay mind to emotions, value care and connection and prioritise relationships were different modes of moral reasoning; not suboptimal ones.

For a long time, reason and emotion have been pitted against one another. Today, we’re starting to understand that, in many ways, emotions and reason are the same. Our emotions are judgements about the world. Our reasoning is informed by our mood, our environment and a range of other factors. Perhaps the question shouldn’t be “should we listen to our emotions?” but instead “how do we develop the right emotional responses at the right time?” That way, we can rely on our emotions as one of many pieces of information we can use to make better decisions.

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Should we prioritise reason over emotion?

Seven Female Philosophers You Should Know About

There’s no question that philosophy is littered with the workings of male minds. What’s less known are the many brilliant women whose contributions throughout history have shaped our world today. Here are seven female philosophers to celebrate this International Women’s Day.  


Mary Wollstonecraft 

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was a writer, philosopher and social activist. Wollstonecraft’s manifesto is 225+ years old, but far from obsolete. She passionately articulated for women to have equal rights to men in  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, a century before the term feminism was coined. In a social system where women were “kept in ignorance” by the socioeconomic necessity of marriage and a lack of formal education, Wollstonecraft advocated for a free national schooling system where girls and boys would be taught together. The word patriarchy was not available to Wollstonecraft, yet she argued men were invested in maintaining a society where they held power and excluded women. 

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”


Big Thinker: bell hooks

bell hooks

An outspoken professor, author, activist and cultural critic, bell hooks (1952 – present) work explores the connections between race, gender, and class. Ain’t I A Woman” laid the groundwork for hooks progressive feminist theory, linking historical evidence of the sexism endured by black female slaves to its long-standing legacy on black women today. Born Gloria Watkins, hooks adopted her pen name after her late grandmother, wanting it written in lower case to shift the attention from her identity to her ideas. Now 38 years on from its original publication, her work remains radically relevant to the world today. 

“A devaluation of black womanhood occurred as a result of the sexual exploitation of black women during slavery that has not altered in the course of hundreds of years.”


Simone De Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a French author, feminist and existential philosopher. She lived an unconventional life as a working experiment of her ideas. As an existentialist, de Beauvoir believed in living authentically and argued that people must choose for themselves who they want to be and how they want to live. The more pressure society – and other people – place on you, the harder it is to make that authentic choice, particularly for women. In her best-known work, ‘The Second Sex’ she famously posed that women are not born, they are made. Meaning that there is no essential definition of womanhood, rather social norms work hard to force them into a notion of femininity

“Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”


Shulamith Firestone

Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012) was a writer, artist, and feminist whose book, The Dialectic of Sex, argued the structure of the biological family was primarily to blame for the oppression of women. Firestone proposed that over the course of human history, society itself had come to mirror the structure of the biological family and was the source from which all other inequalities developed. With a radical and uncompromising vision, she advocated for the development of reproductive technologies that would free women from the responsibilities of childrearing, dismantle the hierarchy of family life and set the foundations for a truly egalitarian society.  

“the end goal of feminist revolution must be… not just the elimination of male privilege, but of the sex distinction itself.”


Hannah Arendt

Johannah “Hannah” Arendt (1906 – 1975) was a German Jewish political philosopher who left life under the Nazi regime for nearby European countries before settling in the United States. Informed by the two world wars she lived through, her reflections on totalitarianism, evil, and labour have been influential for decades. Arendt’s most well-known idea is “the banality of evil”, explored in 1963 in a piece for The New Yorker that covered the trial of a Nazi bureaucrat, Adolf Eichmann. Following the election of Donald Trump, sales of Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism, already one of the most important works of the 20th century, increased by 1600%. 

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”


Martha Nussbaum  

Martha Nussbaum (1947-present) is one of the world’s most influential living moral philosophers, trailblazing in her philosophical advocacy for religious tolerance, feminism and the merits of emotions. Nussbaum believes the ethical life is about vulnerability and embracing uncertainty. She famously argued for the place of emotions within politics, saying democracy simply doesn’t work without love and compassion. In ‘Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities’ Nussbaum took on the education system, proposing that its role is not to produce an economically productive and useful citizen, but people who are imaginative, emotionally intelligent and compassionate. 

“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control.”


Simone Weil

Simone Weil (1909–1943) was a Philosopher, Christian mystic and political activist in the French Resistance, who TS Eliot called a “genius akin to that of the saints”. Weil gave attention to working conditions and is known to have given up a life of privileged to work in factories. This experience shaped her writings, which consider the relationship between individual and statethe nature of knowledge, the spiritual shortcomings of industrialism and suffering as key to the human condition. In The Need for Roots, Weil argued that society suffered an ‘uprootedness’, a deep malaise in the human condition due to a lack of connectedness to past, land, community and spirituality.  

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.

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Tim Soutphommasane on free speech, nationalism and civil society

We believe conversations matter. So when we had the opportunity to chat with Tim Soutphommasane we leapt at the chance to explore his ideas of a civil society. Tim is an academic, political theorist and human rights activist. A former public servant, he was Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission from 2013 – 2018 and has been a guest speaker at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Now a professor at Sydney University, he shared with The Ethics Centre his thoughts on the role of the media, free speech, racism and national values.

What role should the media play in supporting a civil society?

The media is one place where our common life as a society comes into being. It helps project to us our common identity and traditions. But ideally media should permit multiple voices, rather than amplify only the voices of the powerful. When it is dominated by certain interests, it can destroy rather than empower civil society. 

How should a civil society reckon with the historical injustices it benefits from today?

A mature society should be able to make sense of history, without resorting to distortion. Yet all societies are built on myths and traditions, so it’s not easy to achieve a reckoning with historical injustice. But, ultimately, a mature society should be able to take pride in its achievements and be critical of its failings – all while understanding it may be the beneficiary of past misdeeds, and that it may need to make amends in some way. 

Should a civil society protect some level of intolerance or bigotry?  

It’s important that society has the freedom to debate ideas, and to challenge received wisdom. But no freedom is ever absolute. We should be able to hold bigotry and intolerance to account when it does harm, including when it harms the ability of fellow citizens to exercise their individual freedoms. 

What do you think we can do to prevent society from becoming a ‘tyranny of the majority’? 

We need to ensure that we have more diverse voices represented in our institutions – whether it’s politics, government, business or media. 

What is the right balance between free speech and censorship in a civil society?

Rights will always need to be balanced. We should be careful, though, to distinguish between censorship and holding others to account for harm. Too often, when people call out harmful speech, it can quickly be labelled censorship. In a society that values freedom, we naturally have an instinctive aversion to censorship. 

How can a society support more constructive disagreement?   

Through practice. We get better at everything through practice. Today, though, we seem to have less space or time to have constructive or civil disagreements. 

What is one value you consider to be an ‘Australian value’?

Equality, or egalitarianism. As with any value, it’s contested. But it continues to resonate with many Australians.  

Do you believe there’s a ‘grand narrative’ that Australians share?

I think a national identity and culture helps to provide meaning to civic values. What democracy means in Australia, for instance, will be different to what it means in Germany or the United States. There are nuances that bear the imprint of history. At the same time, a national identity and culture will never be frozen in time and will itself be the subject of contest. 

And finally, what’s the one thing you’d encourage everyone to commit to in 2021?

Talk to strangers more. 


To read more from Tim on civil society, check out his latest article here.

Tim Soutphommasane is a political theorist and Professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Sydney, where he is also Director, Culture Strategy. From 2013 to 2018 he was Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. He is the author of five books, including The Virtuous Citizen (2012) and most recently, On Hate (2019). 

This project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.

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Ethics Explainer: The Other

It’s sometimes said that if we were to find ourselves alone, stranded on a desert island, there’d be no need for us to think about ethics. It’s probably not true, strictly speaking, but it’s a useful way of demonstrating that an enormous amount of the work of ethics lies in puzzling out how we should make our way in a world jam-packed full of other people, all of whom are owed the same kind of respect we are.

As we become preoccupied with the busy, everydayness of our lives, we can often take the people around us for granted. In some cases, this mean we fail to be polite to them, or be grateful for the things they do to help us. In more extreme cases, we can objectify or commodify the people around us – treating them as though they were just tools for our own purposes, rather than people with rights and goals of their own. This runs against the moral imperative advocated by German philosopher Immanuel Kant to never treat people as a mere means to our own ends.

A common solution to this moral problem is to try to remind people of our ‘shared humanity’. We are advised to show empathy, imagine how other people might experience our words and actions and put ourselves in other people’s shoes. These strategies all boil down to one basic belief: if we can just realise how similar we are to the people around us, we’ll stop treating them poorly. For example, the Scottish philosopher David Hume believed sympathy was the foundation of ethics.

However, we should ask seriously how accessible other people’s minds are to us. Can a middle-aged white man really put himself in the shoes of a Rohingan woman being persecuted because of her faith, responsible for three children, none of whom have eaten in days? Perhaps not, and so it’s a problem if we argue that our moral concern needs to be grounded in a recognition of what we have in common. Because sometimes, we have nothing in common.

The Other is a term used to capture the ways other people are different from us. It’s also used to describe the people who we keep distant from us because we decide they’re not like us. The process of Othering occurs when we turn fellow humans into abstract entities we can distance ourselves from or treat as less-than-human.

We often think of our social relationships in terms of groups – we have an ‘in group’ and an ‘out group’. These groups are distinguished by who we identify ourselves with and who we identify ourselves against. Othering happens when we treat the members of the out group – the people we don’t identify with – as though they were less important than the members of our in group.

Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir thought “Otherness is a basic category of human thought”. As soon as we think about what something is, we think about the opposite – the Other. However, natural or not, Othering isn’t a neutral process – it tends to lead to the mistreatment of the people we decide are Other.

Once we identify the Other it becomes easier to justify treating them in ways we wouldn’t treat a fellow person. We can abuse, exploit or persecute them without feeling guilty. Othering was a factor in enabling the Holocaust, the slave trade and the Rwandan genocide. In each case, the victims’ humanity became invisible because people focussed on what made them different.

Given this, it would seem like the solution to Othering would be, as David Hume suggests, to focus on what we have in common rather than what sets us apart. But this isn’t a perfect solution either, because the process of distinguishing who we are from who we’re not is part of the way we develop our identity.

By focussing only on what is similar between us and other people, we lose an important tool in discovering our personal identity. Oftentimes it’s our differences that make us unique.

When we look at people as being ‘like us’, it can help us to relate but it can also be a little bit narcissistic. Instead of looking on the Other as someone unique, complicated and different, we treat them like a mirror. We try to find ourselves in other people instead of trying to find what defines them as them.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas thought process of engaging with the Other and acknowledging the differences between us and them was the basis of ethics. All our theories, concepts and ideas about what to do and how to live start by acknowledging that we must engage with other people who are different from us. Levinas believed that this otherness – which he called alterity – was something to celebrate. Rather than looking for commonality to ground our moral concern, we should recognise that another person is a universe of mystery to us. Something to fill us with awe, care and concern.

Encountering the Other is difficult. The Other challenges our way of doing things, demands our attention and holds us responsible for our actions. Their presence forces us to rethink our understanding of the way the world works. It’s much easier to overlook that difference by looking for similarities or make those differences seem evil than it is to genuinely engage with them. Yet this is exactly what Levinas wanted us to do.

In fact, Levinas wanted us to look the Other in the face. In doing so, we look upon the face of someone completely different from us. We also start to recognise our ethical responsibility toward them, which is a really simply one: don’t kill them.

Think of all the films and stories where someone is about to commit an act of murder until at the last minute they see the eyes of the person they’re going to kill. Suddenly, they can’t do it. One explanation for these changes of heart is that in looking into the Other’s face, these people realise their ethical responsibilities.

This philosophy of the Other is powerful because it encourages us to rethink our attitude toward difference. It acknowledges there are real and sometimes insurmountable differences between us but tells us that’s OK. Instead of getting caught up searching for what we have in common or stigmatising the things that set us apart, we should be open to learning from every individual we come across – no matter how much or how little of ourselves we see in them.

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Ethics Explainer: Consent

In many areas of life, being able to say “yes”, to give consent, and mean it, is crucial to having good relationships.

Business relationships depend on it: we need to be able to give each other permission to make contracts or financial decisions and know that the other person means it when they do.

It’s crucial to our relationships with experts who we rely on for critical services, like doctors, or the people who manage our money for us: we need to be able to tell them our priorities and authorise the plans they devise in light of those priorities. And romantic relationships would be nothing if we couldn’t say “yes” to intimacy, sexuality, and the obligations we take on when we form a unit with another person. 

Giving permissions with a “yes” is one of our most powerful tools in relationships. 

Part of that power is because a “yes” changes the ethical score in a relationship. In all the examples we’ve just seen, the fact that we said “yes” makes it permissible for another person to do something to or with us – when without our “yes”, it would be seriously morally wrong for them to do that very same thing. This difference is the difference of consent.

Defining Consent

Without consent, taking someone’s money is theft: with consent, it’s an investment or a gift. Without consent, entering someone’s home is trespass. With consent, it’s hospitality. Without consent, performing a medical procedure on someone is a ghoulish type of battery. With it, it’s welcome assistance. 

The same action looks very morally different depending on whether we have said “yes”. This has led some moral philosophers to remark that consent is a kind of “moral magic”

Interestingly, there are times when this moral magic can be cast even when a person has not said “yes”. In the political arena, for instance, many philosophers think it doesn’t take very much for you to have consented to be governed. Simply by using roads, or not leaving the territory your government controls, you can be said to have consented to living under that government’s laws. 

The bar for what counts as consent is set a lot higher in other areas, like sexual contact or medical intervention. These are cases when even saying “yes” out loud might not be enough to cast the “moral magic” of consent: we can say “yes”, but still not have made it okay for the other person to do what they were thinking of doing.

For instance, if a person says “yes” to sex or to get a tattoo because they are drunk, at gunpoint, ill-informed, mistaken, or simply underage, most ethicists agree it would be wrong for a person to do whatever they have said “yes” too. It would be wrong to give them the tattoo or try to have sex with them, because even though they’ve said “yes”, they haven’t really given consent. 

This leads philosophers to a puzzle. If saying “yes” alone isn’t enough for the moral magic of consent, what is?

Do we need the person to have a certain mental state when they say “yes”? If so, is it the mental state, the combination, or just the “yes” that really matters? This is a long and wide-ranging debate in philosophical ethics with no clear answer.

Free and Informed

Recently ethicist Renee Bolinger has argued that the real question is not what consent is, but how best to avoid the “moral risk” of doing wrong. She argues that in this light, we can see that what matters is not what consent is, but what our rules around consent should be, and those rules should consider consent a ‘performance’, or an action, such as speaking or signing something. 

Some policy efforts have tried to come up with “rules about consent” that codify when and why a “yes” works its moral magic. There is the standard of “free and informed” consent in medicine, or “fair offers” in contracts law. Ethicists, however, worry that these restrictions are under-described, and simply push the important questions further down the line. For instance, what counts as being informed? What information must a person have, for their “yes” to count as permission?

We might think that knowing about the risks is important. Perhaps a person needs to know the statistical likelihood of bad outcomes. However, physicians know that people tend to over-prioritise relatively small risks, and in emotional moments can be dissuaded from a good treatment plan by hearing of “a three in a million” risk of disaster. So would knowledge of risk be sufficient for informed consent, or do we need to actually know the probability?   

There is a final important question for our thinking about consent. Whatever consent is, are there actions you cannot consent to?

A famous court case called R v Brown established in 1993 that some levels of bodily harm are too great for a person to consent to, whether or not they would like to experience that harm. In any area of consent – medicine, financial, sexual, political – this is an important and open question.

Should people be able to use their powers of consent to do harm to themselves? The answer may depend on what we mean by harm

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How do we set the bar for what counts as consent?

There’s something Australia can do to add $45b to the economy. It involves ethics.

Australia faces a perfect storm. An economic deficit, a global pandemic, an uncertain future of work, and long-term social and environmental change around the climate crisis and reconciliation with Indigenous Australians to name but a few.

Adding to this magnitude of challenges are the low levels of trust Australians have in our leaders and our neighbours. In fact, research has found that only 54% of Australians generally trust people they interact with, and as a nation we score ‘somewhat ethical’ on the Governance Institute’s Ethics Index 

How do we navigate the road ahead? One thing is abundantly clear: we need better ethics. That’s why we commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to find out the economic benefits of improving ethics in Australia.  

The outcome is The Ethical Advantage, a report that uses three new types of economic modelling and a review of extensive data sets and research sources to mount the case for pursuing higher levels of ethical behaviour across society. 

For the first time, the report quantifies the benefits of ethics for individuals and for the nation. The ethical advantage is in, and the findings are compelling. They include:  

A stronger economy: If Australia was to improve ethical behaviour, leading to an increase in trust, average annual incomes would increase by approximately $1,800. This in turn would equate to a net increase in total incomes of approximately $45 billion. 

More money in Australians pockets: Improved ethics leads to higher wages, consistent with an improvement in labour and business productivity. A 10% increase in ethical behaviour is associated with up to a 6.6% in individual wages. 

Better returns for Australian businessesUnethical behaviour leads to poorer financial outcomes for business. Increasing a firm’s performance based on ethical perceptions, can increase return on assets by approximately 7%.  

Increased human flourishing: People would benefit from improved mental and physical healthThere is evidence that a 10% improvement in awareness of others’ ethical behaviour is associated with a greater understanding one’s own mental health.  

The report’s lead author and Deloitte Access Economics partner, Mr John O’Mahony, said:

“No one would seriously argue that pursuing higher levels of ethical behaviour and focus was a bad thing, but articulating the benefits of stronger ethics is more challenging.”

“Our report examines the case for improving ethics as a way of addressing these broader economic and social challenges – and the nature and extent of the benefits that would accrue to the nation if we got this right.” 

The report also identifies five interlinked areas for improvement for Australia and its approach to ethics, supported by 30 individual initiatives: 

  • Developing an Ethical Infrastructure Index  
  • Elevating public discussions about ethics  
  • Strengthening ethics in education  
  • Embedding ethics within institutions  
  • Supporting ethics in government and the regulatory framework 

The findings and recommendations demonstrate the value of The Ethics Centre’s continued contribution to Australian life. For thirty years, The Ethics Centre has aimed to elevate ethics within public debate, organisations, education programs and public policy. Executive Director of The Ethics Centre, Dr Simon Longstaff said the findings validate the impact of those activities and reveals the potential that can be unlocked with greater support.  

“The compelling moral argument that ethical behaviour binds a society and its institutions in a common good is now, thanks to Deloitte Access Economics’ research and modelling, also a compelling economic argument. Best of all, we need not be perfect – just better.”  

A copy of The Ethical Advantage can be found at this link.  

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How can ethics help us navigate the road ahead?

Businesses can’t afford not to be good

A famous New Yorker cartoon depicts a businessman sitting by a campfire, still in his suit, speaking to two young children.

“Yes, the planet got destroyed,” he concedes. “But for a beautiful moment in time we created value for shareholders.” 

The logic seems perverse, but more the worrying reality is that in reality, it’s quite pervasive. We’ve seen Royal Commissions into aged care and financial services, growing pressure on tech companies to address social issues and the overwhelming pressure for businesses to address climate change. Despite this, we have seen very few organisations making meaningful investments into ethics.

We should worry that we’re living in the campfire CEO’s beautiful moment in time.

At The Ethics Centre, we’ve spent over thirty years getting into what makes organisations tick. How they’re motivated, what they care about and what goals they serve. Time and again, we’ve seen how the real desire to act with integrity, uphold customer interests and attend to vulnerable people is pitted against business imperatives. 

No matter how many scandals we see, the message still seems to be the same: while you’re successful, you can be ethical. But if you’re not successful, you’ll need to park your ethics till you are.

This is the campfire CEO’s logic. By focussing on the (often illusoryshortterm value captured that ethical shortcuts can at times promise, businesses lose out in the long run. And thanks to new research commissioned by The Ethics Centre, we now know exactly how much businesses are losing out on by giving away the Ethical Advantage. We also know how much courageous businesses gain by making ethics a priority. 

Research by Deloitte Access Economics has revealed that businesses who are seen as ethical – fair in business, transparent and open – enjoy a higher returns on assets. They are also less likely to have staff experiencing mental health issues, because when we believe the people around us are ethical, we experience less mental health challenges.

What’s more, if we are able to improve the ethical standing of enough people and businesses, we’ll not only boost business returns, we’ll improve wages and GDP. Nice guys are the tortoises of the business world. They finish first in the long run.  

Cris Parker, head of the Ethics Alliance, a community of businesses committed to a more ethical way of working, says “when organisations make a concerted effort to invest in ethics, they create an environment where good intentions are just the beginning.”

She believes it is when ethics shifts from being a leader’s obligation to being a shared responsibility that real change happens. “It’s the cumulation of every employee serving that purpose, doing the right thing that really makes the difference.  

Realising these benefits requires us to recognise the source of the campfire CEO’s error: economic narrow-mindedness. The willingness to destroy the planet in favour of business returns (which is, in fairness, a caricature of most of today’s business leaders) demonstrates a failure to recognise how dependent our economy is on the wellbeing of the planet.

Similarly, pursuing economic returns without considering the means by which they’re achieved ignores the crucial role that trust, integrity and character plays in preserving our economy.

We don’t trade with people we think are going to betray us. We don’t invest when we can’t trust others to be careful with our investments. 

Michelle Bloom leads The Ethics Centre’s consulting and leadership team. She believes ethical improvement requires us to embrace complexity rather than looking for simple solutions.

Today, business leaders are dealing with very complex operating environments where action and bottomline results are rewarded over reflection, perspective seeking and co-ordination. This haste to decide without deliberation limits leaders to mechanistic solutions where systemic, novel and contextspecific approaches are required.”  

Unfortunately, realising these benefits is harder than it seems.

Much like an optical illusion you can only properly see by looking away from it, the economic benefits of ethics are only likely to be realised by those who seek it with integrity rather than a hunger for profit. 

Hypocrites and cynics need not apply for the ethical advantage. But for the sincere and the patient, results will come in time. However, it will require businesses to campaigning not just for their industries to be better as a whole, but for the large-scale Ethical Infrastructure investments Australia needs to ensure we have trustworthy markets, institutions and systems. 

For Michelle Bloom, alongside large-scale change, organisations need to get their own house in order. “Embedding an Ethics Framework into the organisational system and its processes is the first step,” she says. Next is developing your leaders systemic and ethical thinking to make good decisions in complexity as well as ensuring the culture of the organisation aligns to your Ethics Framework. 

Each of these steps, alongside developing the capacity for good decision-making and embedding ethics into the design of all products and services, are markers of the kind of integrity that grants the Ethical Advantage.  

In our line of work, we often hear from so-called pragmatist who see ethics as a nice idea that doesn’t work in the real world. The numbers are in, and it turns out the most pragmatic thing to do is make ethics a top priority. Anything else would be bad business.   

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How can we make ethics a top business priority?

Ethics Explainer: Ethical Infrastructure

When we think about the kinds of things a society needs for its survival and flourishing, we tend to begin with the basic necessities.

A society needs enough food to feed everyone, road and transport infrastructure, housing. It needs laws to manage how people treat one another, systems of government to make decisions. In a modern society, complex communications and other forms of technical infrastructure are required.  

Each of these this is a component of a society’s infrastructure. Each is essential to the common good, survival and wellbeing of a society. However, just as essential for the wellbeing of a society is ethical infrastructure – the formal and informal means by which society regulates the use of power by both public and private institutions to ensure it serves the common good.  

The term ethical infrastructure has been used in a number of countries around the world, including The United States of America. However, it has typically been used to refer to systems of control, compliance and risk management. There is an opportunity to expand the idea of ethical infrastructure so it does not simply refer to the basic rules of public service. 

A society can have a clear set of rules and principles about appropriate spending, disclosure of interests and so on, and still not have systems and institutions that serve the common good. We need only look at the United States for proof of this.  

This is why it is better to consider ethical infrastructure to be  collection of institutions, systems, norms and processes that we use to ensure not only that society is operating effectively, but that it is operating ethically.  

To understand why this is necessary, consider the fact that there is a person or group who is responsible for, and in control of, each piece of social, physical or digital infrastructure we have and need. This control confers power. The power to give or deny essential resources to some groups, to favour some people over others or to mismanage those resources due to incompetence, laziness or selfishness.  

Handing this kind of power over to somebody without some assurance they will use it well would be reckless and foolish. Indeed, some of the most influential voices in Western political philosophy – Thomas HobbesJohn LockeJean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls – have argued that it’s only when the powerful are willing to act in the interests of those they are meant to serve that they should have any power at all. Ethical infrastructure refers to the means by which a society can ensure power is exercised in the common interest, and take meaningful action when it is not.  

A clear example of a piece of ethical infrastructure would be laws, policies and systems protecting the actions of whistleblowers, who draw attention to unethical behaviour – often by the powerful. Many organisations lack appropriate systems and processes for employees to flag ethical issues, and even if they have these processes, there are often cultural factors that mean those processes don’t have the results they should. This can drive some whistleblowers to look for other avenues outside their organisation, but often do not feel supported – practically or legally – in doing so.  

Thinking about an issue like this as a challenge of ethical infrastructure helps us see it as a systemic issue. It is not simply a matter of new laws. We also need to normalise new ways of thinking about dissenting, concerned or outspoken staff within our organisations.

We need to ensure individuals have the training and support they need to identify and draw attention to ethical issues and we must have appropriate accountability in cases where it appears important information has been covered up or kept secret. This complex and powerful network of norms, policies, institutions, processes and people is a society’s ethical infrastructure. 

Each aspect of a society’s infrastructure is designed to allow its citizens to flourish: provided with the means to live prosperously, confidently, safely and well. Ethical infrastructure serves this goal in two ways. First, it ensures the other aspects of our infrastructure are serving everyone’s needs, and second, it gives people the confidence to take risks, act creatively and magnanimously, trust in their neighbours, leaders and institutions and feel confident in theirs and their loved ones futures.  

Because without this, no amount of sophisticated infrastructure will secure what we’re all searching for: a life worth living 

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How can we ensure power is exercised in the common interest?

Meet Eleanor, our new philosopher in residence

At TEC, we firmly believe ethics is a team sport. It’s a conversation about how we should act, live, treat others and be treated in return.

That means we need a range of people participating in the conversation. That’s why last year, we asked for funding support to bring another philosopher into our team. Thanks to our donors, we are excited to share that we have recently appointed Eleanor Gordon-Smith as a Fellow. Already established as one of Australia’s leading young thinkers, Eleanor is a published author, broadcaster and in demand speaker. She’s also currently reading for her PHD at Princeton University. To welcome her on board and introduce her to you, our community, we sat down for a brief get-to-know-you chat with her.

Tell us, what attracted you to becoming a philosopher?

I remember sitting in my first philosophy class and feeling like this was what thinking should really be like. I left knowing less than I thought I did when I arrived – all my other classes were about the legislative agenda around human rights and my philosophy class said wait, what’s a right and what counts as human? I loved the ability to ask those questions and from that day on it’s always felt like that’s where the real action is: the deep questions that we too easily take for granted. 

Do you specialise in a key area or areas?

I cross-specialise in ethics, language, and epistemology [the study of knowledge]. In all three areas I am interested in the powers we can only have because we are social creatures. I work on moral powers that we can only exercise in social settings – such as consent, and promise – how linguistic meaning can be constructed and destroyed by social relationships, and how being embedded in societies can facilitate or disrupt our processes of gaining knowledge. The uniting theme across my work is that we depend on each other for many of our most important abilities and powers, such as speaking, learning, or coming up with moral frameworks, and yet a lot of the time other people are very bad. So what are we to do, if we rely on each other for our most foundational abilities but frequently “each other” is the source of our problems? So far I only have the question. But that’s where all good philosophy starts… 

Sounds like a phenomenal place to start. Now let’s have a fan-girl moment. Who is your favourite philosopher?

There are too many to name but Rae Langton, who spent a lot of time in Australia, is a huge inspiration for me, and I like to think about how to precissify Robert Adams’ remark which seems to me to get to the heart of moral philosophy: “we ought, in general, to be treated better than we deserve”.

Let’s jump over to COVID and restrictions, the impact these are having on our lives, our interactions, how we work and so on. What do you hope we learn or gain from this experience?

Truthfully I think the most we can hope for is a greater appreciation for the profound fragility of the things that normally keep us functioning. Our friendships, entertainment, ways of being in the world, all so easily threatened by simply not being able to leave the house very much. I have found that very humbling, and very difficult. I hope also we can learn to be a little more compassionate with ourselves about the fact that we are all creatures who need to live and will one day die. Before Covid, it was very easy to see each other and ourselves as our jobs, or athletic achievements, or how we’re measuring up to a set of criteria about how our lives “should” be going. Seeing everybody’s houses and children and needs via Zoom will I hope let us be compassionate about the fact that we all have them, and there’s no shame in taking care of them.

We’ve all had a guilty pleasure of sorts during the pandemic. Can you share with us yours?

I bought a robot vacuum cleaner and I like to follow him around and tell him he’s missed a spot.

Amazing. Let’s get to know you better. What is a standard day in your life?

I read a lot, work on [podcast] episode plans, put several thousand post-it notes on the wall – each one a piece of tape from an interview, a fact, a piece of theory, a well-phrased, or a scene – and rearrange them until I can see a story unfolding alongside a philosophical idea. I read philosophy, listen to a lot of radio and podcasts because there are so many clever people in that sphere whose work I admire, and try to stop by 9pm. Although if I’m honest, that’s rare these days. 

You wrote a book – what is it about?

Stop Being Reasonable. It’s a series of true stories about how we change our minds in high-stakes moments and how rarely that measures up to our ideal of rationality. Each chapter features interviews I conducted with someone about a moment in their life that they changed their mind in a really drastic way: a man who left a cult, a woman who questioned her own memory of being abused, a man who changed his mind about his entire personality after appearing on reality TV, someone who learned their family wasn’t really their family, and so on. Each story highlights a sometimes-maligned strategy for reasoning that many of us turn out to use all the time, especially when it really matters: believing other people, trusting our gut, thinking emotionally, and so on. The book is a plea for a more capacious ideal of rationality, such that these things ‘count’ as rational thinking as well as the emotionless first-principles reasoning we usually associate with that term. 

Let’s finish up close to home. What does ethics mean to you?

People sometimes think ethical thinking promises a set of answers. It might, but I think it’s much more about learning to ask a different set of questions. So many of our disagreements and deepest divisions are built on argumentative frameworks that we almost never dredge to the surface and examine. We take things for granted about what matters, why, how to measure it, and what follows from the fact that those things matter. Learning to think ethically is about examining those things – about realising which systems of value we subscribe to by accident, and trying to make our value systems more deliberate.

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Ethics Explainer: Testimonial Injustice

Telling people things – or giving ‘testimony’ – is one of our quickest, oldest, and most natural ways of adding to human stores of knowledge.

Philosophers have spent thousands of years wondering when, and why, certain beliefs count as knowledge – and when certain beliefs count as justified. Many agree that when we are told something by someone reliable, trustworthy, and in possession of the facts, their testimony can be enough to justify a belief in what they say. 

I can tell you that it will rain later, you can tell me which way the train station is, we can both go to a lecture by an expert and walk away knowing more. 

But we can’t accept all the information we hear from other people. Not all testimony can ground knowledge – some of it is lies, errors or opinion. That’s why credibility is important to the process of learning by being told. 

The enlightenment philosopher David Hume argued that we shouldn’t set our standing levels of credibility too high: he thought “testimonial beliefs” were only justified when we had back-up justification from other sources like our own eyes, readings, and observations. 

Immanuel Kant, by contrast, thought that we had a “presumptive duty” to believe what our fellow humans told us, since believing them was a mark of respect

Regardless of the debate about how much credibility we should give people, there’s no denying that how much credibility we do give plays a big role in what we can learn from each other, and whether we learn anything at all. 

Sometimes we allocate credibility in ways that are unfair, unreasonable or outright harmful. Beginning in the 20th Century, Black and female philosophers started pointing out that women, people of colour, people who spoke with an accent, and people who bore visible markers of poverty were disbelieved at far higher rates than the general population. 

Because of existing prejudices against these people, some ethicists posit, they are being systematically disbelieved when they speak about things they, in fact, are reliable experts about. This is what philosophers term “a credibility deficit”. People could experience a credibility deficit when they speak about elements of their own experience, like what it was like to be a woman in domestic servitude.

It could also include elements of the world around them – such as the denial of black people’s reports of violence by white men. 

Credibility deficits are not just a matter of knowledge but a matter of justice: if we are not believed when we tell other people true things, we can be shut out of important social processes and ways of being recognized by other people. One of the most important ways that credibility deficits play out is in court, or in other reports to do with crimes and legal proceedings.

After abolition in the United States but before the civil rights movement, black peoples’ testimony was not recognised as a source of legal information in courts. That legacy has long undermined the way that black people’s testimony is viewed in courts, even today. 

Philosopher Miranda Fricker uses a scene from To Kill A Mockingbird to highlight the way Tom’s race, when combined with his being in a white courtroom affects his Tom credibility. hough he is in fact telling the truth, and though there are no obvious reasons to disbelieve him, the white jurors in the American South are so trained by prejudice that they regard his race itself as a reason to disbelieve him. It is not the facts of the story itself that mean jurors do not believe it, but facts about who is telling it. 

Clip: Tom Robinson’s cross-examination from To Kill A Mockingbird.

This was a common and tragic way that credibility deficits played out in the real world: there is a long history of white women being believed over black men even when they made false and damaging claims. 

The tradition of “testimonial injustice” in philosophy argues that credibility misallocation is more than a mistake. It is an injustice because we have a moral duty to see other people as ‘full’ people and to treat them with respect, but discounting people’s word because of prejudice is a way of denying them that respect.

In some ways, to refuse to believe someone without defensible reasons is to refuse to recognise them as a person.

Philosophers like Miranda Fricker, Jose Medina, Dick Moran, and a long tradition of black feminist epistemology including Charles Mills and bell hooks have explored the ways that being a free and equal citizen requires being believed as one. There are wide-ranging debates among these thinkers over many areas inside testimonial injustice, including whether and why being believed is foundational to being seen as a person, what kinds of credibility we could ‘owe’ one another, and whether people besides the disbelieved party are wronged by a faulty allocation of credibility.

One important question is whether it could be wrong and if so to whom, to give out too much credibility instead of too little. If it’s unfair to afford someone too little credibility, what should we say of affording too much? Are they wrong? If so, why? And, who is wronged by giving someone more credibility than they deserve?

A case study that might demonstrate this question is the familiar setting of the classroom. A male teacher-in-training with 6 months experience might be regarded in the classroom as more authoritative than a female teacher with many years’ more experience. This need not mean that the students disbelieve the female teacher. They could simply believe the male teacher more readily, with fewer questions, and with more of a sense that he is credible and has gravitas in the learning environment.

They could simply give him more credibility than he deserves. Who is wronged by this, if the female teacher is still believed when she speaks? Are the students wronging themselves? Are they accidentally wronging the male teacher, even though he benefits from the arrangement? These are important open questions that ethicists are still debating. 

Another question is what kind of credibility we have to give to others in order to do right by them. Hume knew that we could not believe everything we hear. How much must we believe, in order to avoid this distinctive form of injustice? 

Despite these unresolved matters, testimonial injustice is an important ethical phenomenon to be aware of as we move through the world trying to be responsible speakers and hearers. It’s important to living ethically that we keep prejudice and it affects out of our beliefs as well as out of our acts. 

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Do we all have equal claim to the truth?