Ethics Explainer: Virtue Ethics

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

It defines good actions as ones that display virtuous character, like courage, loyalty, or wisdom. Bad actions display the opposite, 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.

But it’s one thing to know what’s right – 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 middle being the mean). 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 the mean between these two. In this case, that would be gently but honestly telling your friend you think they’d look nicer in another outfit.

Imagination

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” isn’t very practical. 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 we value it above anyone or anything else.

A virtue ethicist might refuse to do what will benefit the most people if it doesn’t position them as the good guy. Is that the right thing to do?

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What are your habits of good character?


Ethics Explainer: Consequentialism

Consequentialism is a theory that suggests an action is good or bad depending on its outcome.

An action that brings about more benefit than harm is good, while an action that causes more harm than benefit is not. The most famous version of this theory is Utilitarianism.

Although there are references to this idea in the works of ancient philosopher Epicurus, it’s closely associated with English philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism focussed on which actions were most likely to make people happy. If happiness was the experience of pleasure without pain, the most ethical actions were ones that caused the most possible happiness and the least possible pain.

He even developed a calculator to work out which actions were better or worse – the ‘felicific calculus’. Because it counted every person’s pleasure or pain as the same, regardless of age, wealth, race, etc. utilitarianism could be seen as a radically egalitarian philosophy.

Bentham’s views are most closely aligned with act utilitarianism.  This basic form of consequentialism holds an action as ethical if and only if it produces more beneficial/pleasure-causing outcomes than negative/pain-causing ones. Whenever we are faced with a decision, an act consequentialist will expect us to ask that question.

John Stuart Mill, a student of Bentham’s, disagreed. He believed it was too difficult for a society to run if it had to consider the specific costs/benefits of every single action. How could we have speeding laws, for example, if it would sometimes be ethical to break the speed limit?

Instead, Mill believed we should figure out which set of rules would create the most happiness over an extended period of time and then apply those in every situation. This was his theory of rule utilitarianism.

According to this theory, it would be unethical for you to speed on an empty street at two o’clock in the morning. Even if nobody would be hurt, our speeding laws mean less people are harmed overall. Keeping to those rules ensures that.

 

Consequentialism is an attractive ethical approach because it provides clear and practical guidance – at least in situations where outcomes are easy to predict. The theory is also impartial. By asking us to maximise benefit for the largest number of people (or, for Peter Singer and other preference utilitarians, any creature who has preferences), we set aside our personal biases and self-interest to benefit others.

One problem with the theory is that it can be hard to measure different benefits to decide which one is morally preferable. Is it better to give my money to charity or spend it studying medicine so I can save lives? Consequentialism can struggle to compare different moral values.

The other concern people express is the tendency of consequentialism to use ‘ends justify the means’ logic. If all we are concerned with is getting good outcomes, this can seem to justify harming some people in order to benefit others. Is it ethical to allow some people to suffer so more people can live well?

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Is it okay to do bad things for a good cause?


What your email signature says about you

Getting too many unethical business requests? Sreedhari Desai’s research suggests a quote in your email signature may be the answer to your woes.

In a recent study Desai enrolled subjects to participate in a virtual game to earn money. The subjects were told they’d earn more money if they could convince their fellow players to spread a lie without knowing about it. Basically, subjects had to trick their fellow players into believing a lie, and then get those other players to spread the lie around the game.

What subjects didn’t know is that all their fellow ‘players’ were in fact researchers studying how they would go about their deception. Subjects communicated with the researchers by email. Some researchers had a virtuous quote underneath their email – “Success without honor is worse than fraud”. Others had a neutral quote in their email signature – “Success and luck go hand in hand”. Others had no quote at all.

And wouldn’t you know it? Subjects were less likely to try to recruit people with a virtuous quote in their email. The quote served as a “moral symbol”, shielding the person from receiving unethical requests from other players. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Desai outlines what’s happening in these situations:

When someone is in a position to request an unethical thing, they may not consciously be thinking, “I won’t ask that person.” Instead, they may perceive a person as morally “pure” and feel that asking them to get “dirty” makes an ethical transgression even worse. Or they may be concerned that someone with moral character will just refuse the request.

So, if you want to keep your hands clean it may be as simple as updating your email signature. It won’t guarantee you’ll do the right thing when you’re tempted (there’s more to ethics than pretty words!) but it will ensure you’re tempted less.

There are other, more expensive ways to avoid unethical approaches via email.

And in case you’re looking for a virtuous quote for your email signature, we surveyed some of our staff for their favourite virtuous quotes. Here’s a sample:

  • “The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates
  • “No man wishes to possess the whole world if he must first become someone else” – Aristotle
  • “Protect me from what I want” – Jenny Holzer
  • “A true man goes on to the end of his endurance and then goes twice as far again” – Norwegian proverb
  • “Knowledge is no guarantee of good behaviour, but ignorance is a virtual guarantee of bad behaviour” – Martha Nussbaum

A small disclaimer to all of this – it might not work if you work with Australians. Apparently our propensity to cut down tall poppies and our discomfort for authority extend to moral postulations in email signatures. Instead of sanctimony, Aussies are likely to protect people with fun or playful quotes in their emails. Desai explains:

“We’re studying how people react to moral symbols in Australia. Our preliminary study showed that people there were sceptical of moral displays. They seemed to think the bloke with the quote was being ‘holier than thou’ and probably had something to hide.”

So, as well as your favourite virtuous quote, you might want to bung a joke on the bottom of your emails to please your sceptical Antipodean colleagues, lest they lead you into temptation.

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What’s the line between principled and preachy?


Stan Grant

What comes after Stan Grant’s speech?

Stan Grant’s speech broke your heart – five views on what to do about it.

1) Tanya Denning-Orman say’s It’s not hard to capitalise on Grant’s momentum.

Last year Stan Grant delivered an address that left a crowd of hundreds speechless. This week, those same words jumped out of computer screens and into the hands of ordinary Australians and polarised millions of lounge room commentators. When this happened, he forced an entire nation to confront a history that no one wants to talk about.

He made you uncomfortable because he put a human face to the stats and figures that so commonly define First Nations peoples. Stan reminded you that we are people of law, lore, music, art and politics, and he inspired you to reimagine who we all are as Australians.

Yesterday, commentators described the impact of this speech as a “Martin Luther King moment”. Today, those of us who live it know that it’s all come and gone before. Noel Pearson delivered a speech that commentators said would be spoken about for years. In the months that followed, there was silence. With just a few words Charlie Perkins could mobilise crowds to take to the streets. Is it that easy to forget?

Knowing this, tomorrow the challenge will be that this momentum, created by a Wiradjuri man, doesn’t drown in a sea of barbecues and beers that is ‘Australia Day’. Just as Stan Grant said, we are better than this.

This time let the power of the word inspire you to make a change beyond ‘a thumbs up’ on a post and clicking the share button. We can insist that schools teach Australia’s silenced history. We can hold our governments to account. We can be empowered by our shared story.

Never before have we been so connected – we can create a global movement through our fingertips.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s not that hard to do.

Tanya Denning-Orman is the Channel Manager for NITV. Follow her on Twitter @Tanyadenning.

2) Luke Pearson argues that sentiment isn’t social justice. Now is the time to do something

The worry with making white people ‘feel all the feels’ as we sometimes say online, is that it won’t lead to any change in thought, behaviour or actual contributions to the work that needs to be done. Worse, it can actually do the opposite.

White people’s emotional experiences are all too often used to validate privilege and identify themselves as ‘one of the good ones’. This shifts the responsibility to act away from them and onto ‘those other people’.

Novelist Teju Cole labelled this phenomenon the ‘White Saviour Industrial Complex’, saying “The White Saviour Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

This response gives people the moral authority to continue to justify racist responses that make them feel good about their privilege and direct and indirect contributions to racism and oppression. This attitude is what all too often justifies brutal government responses to complex problems.

In Australia this takes the form of punitive approaches to an endless list of humanitarian issues. The NT Intervention, offshore detention, military action overseas, Aboriginal deaths in custody, and increased rates of Indigenous child removal and incarceration whilst simultaneously defunding strategies to reduce these numbers…

This attitude leads people to get upset or feel attacked whenever white privilege is mentioned. They remove themselves from any responsibility purely by virtue of their emotional experiences, not recognising they are the ones who benefit most from their emotional experiences.

The very same people who claim to be our biggest supporters still argue that “we need to stop talking about race” rather than arguing “we need to stop racism”. They say “we are all Australians” without seeing the irony – erasing the identity of others was the outcome intended by culture genocide and assimilationist ideals. They feel betrayed when this is challenged because they feel they are owed for the emotional experiences they have felt.

If your response to videos like Stan Grant’s speech is to pat yourself on the back for a job well done without actually considering your place in the status quo and whether or not your ideas are just rebranded versions of the racism people have been fighting against for centuries, you are a part of the problem.

The same goes if you recognise the above but don’t actually do anything to change things. If you sit silently when you see racism within your own family, your workplace, your social group… If you don’t support those who work at the coalface, addressing the ongoing impacts of colonialism or who work at the highest levels trying to prevent it from continuing…

You are part of the problem.

“I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly”, writes Teju Cole.

Ditto for Australia.

Luke Pearson is the Founder of IndigenousX, indigenousx.com.au. Follow them on Twitter @IndigenousX.

3) Anita Heiss anticipates that the real power of Stan’s speech is yet to come 

As part of the debate, Stan Grant’s words were powerful. They were honest. They came from the heart and they were passionate. Unfortunately, for many of us they were not something new. They were words we had said ourselves in vain, similar to words we had heard from our parents and our peers. And so, we watched and sat in pain yet again at the reality of what is our great Australian nightmare.

For me the importance of Stan’s speech is that it has managed to reach a global audience. It has been heard by some who, for whatever reason, knew nothing about the facts Stan, a strong Wiradjuri man, was sharing as part of a debate that, in all honesty, was not much of a debate.

Words can be powerful. They can make us change the way we think. They can help us understand and feel empathy, but what are words without actions? I think the real power will come now, post Stan’s speech in a call to action to all those tweeting and facebooking to actually do something!

Teachers, watch the entire debate with your students. Get them to discuss, debate and talk about the issues raised. Parents, do the above also!

Corporates, politicians, policy makers, what are you doing in your worlds to address the inequities Stan mentioned? Immortality rates, incarceration rates, the ongoing removal of children?

Re-tweeting is not enough! You cannot claim to want equality for Indigenous Australians if you are not prepared to participate in the change – the actions – required to make that happen.

Build partnerships with Indigenous organisations that are already working in the areas you have influence in. Form lasting strategies to create the change this country needs. But please know, it’s not going to be easy, or going to be fixed overnight. Over 200 years of damage needs to be repaired to make the nightmare a dream.

Dr Anita Heiss is a proud member of the Wiradjuri nation. She is an author and Manager of the Epic Good Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @AnitaHeiss.

4) Kelly Briggs feels that we’ve had ‘Stan Grant moments’ before

I am confounded that some are comparing Stan Grant’s much admired speech from the IQ2 debate last year on Australia’s racism to Martin Luther King. Doing so erases Aboriginal activists who have come before us, including Dr Charlie Perkins.

Perkins headed what is now known as the ‘Freedom Rides’ – a busload of Sydney University students who toured particularly racist northern New South Wales towns to shine a spotlight on the heinous racism and segregation between blacks and whites in 1965. His passionate activism in towns, pubs, RSLs, swimming pools and the like saw changes to many rules and regulations.

Now that Stan Grant’s speech has gone ‘viral’, will it engender any changes to current governmental policies? Put back any of the money ripped out of the budget allocated to Aboriginal programs and issues? Create a much needed conversation about Australia’s ongoing overt and casual racism?

I don’t think it will. Stan Grant, while passionate, has not added anything new to what Aboriginal people have been saying in blogs, news articles and on social media for the better part of a decade. So, while I admire Stan’s stance, I do not hold out any hope that it will not be forgotten in a week, or that it will make a difference.

Kelly Briggs blogs at thekooriwoman.wordpress.com. Follow her on Twitter @TheKooriWoman.

5) Siv Parker on why we haven’t done this before

We haven’t had enough feel-good moments cast around Aboriginal Australia for this nation to be in a position to waste one. So where to from here?

An icebreaker may help to shake off a few nerves. It would be easier on all of us if we took a breath and agreed that we haven’t done this before.

Bridge walks, town meetings, community events, the apology and the land help to give us all our bearings.

But a digital world makes it easier to satisfy a yearning for substance, to extend ourselves beyond fleeting online interactions.

The anticipated referendum around constitutional reform is a hook on which to hang our shared history. I have no doubt we can agree to include Indigenous Australians in the constitution. I am not the only one willing to make a start on talking about what that could look like.

We won’t need to invoke great moments from foreign countries to define us, we can create our own. Indigenous people are on the crest of a wave in asserting ourselves in words, art, performances and knowledge systems that has been decades in the making. This nation can do better. That is the promise within our ancient storytelling tradition. A story is not a one-sided affair. We don’t listen to a story, we become a part of it. In years to come, they will continue to tell stories that includes us all.

Siv Parker is an award-winning writer and blogger. Follow her on Twitter @SivParker.

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How can we fix racism in Australia?


Stan Grant: racism and the Australian dream

On the IQ2 stage in 2015, Stan Grant opened the hearts and minds of the audience with his powerful speech on racism in Australia.

The IQ2 debate, ‘Racism is Destroying the Australian Dream’ was a finalist in the United Nations Media Peace Awards for its role in stimulating public awareness and understanding. Stan’s iconic talk continues to move and inspire millions.

COMPLETE TRANSCRIPT

“Thank you so much for coming along this evening and I would also like to extend my respects to my Gadigal brothers and sisters from my people, the Wiradjuri people.

In the winter of 2015, Australia turned to face itself. It looked into its soul and it had to ask this question. Who are we? What sort of country do we want to be? And this happened in a place that is most holy, most sacred to Australians. It happened in the sporting field, it happened on the football field. Suddenly the front page was on the back page, it was in the grandstands.

Thousands of voices rose to hound an Indigenous man. A man who was told he wasn’t Australian. A man who was told he wasn’t Australian of the Year. And they hounded that man into submission.

I can’t speak for what lay in the hearts of the people who booed Adam Goodes. But I can tell you what we heard when we heard those boos. We heard a sound that was very familiar to us.

We heard a howl. We heard a howl of humiliation that echoes across two centuries of dispossession, injustice, suffering and survival. We heard the howl of the Australian dream and it said to us again, you’re not welcome.

The Australian Dream.

We sing of it, and we recite it in verse. Australians all, let us rejoice for we are young and free. 

My people die young in this country. We die ten years younger than average Australians and we are far from free. We are fewer than three percent of the Australian population and yet we are 25 percent, a quarter of those Australians locked up in our prisons and if you are a juvenile, it is worse, it is 50 percent. An Indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high school.

I love a sunburned country, a land of sweeping plains, of rugged mountain ranges.

It reminds me that my people were killed on those plains. We were shot on those plains, disease ravaged us on those plains.

I come from those plains. I come from a people west of the Blue Mountains, the Wiradjuri people, where in the 1820’s, the soldiers and settlers waged a war of extermination against my people. Yes, a war of extermination! That was the language used at the time. Go to the Sydney Gazette and look it up and read about it. Martial law was declared and my people could be shot on sight. Those rugged mountain ranges, my people, women and children were herded over those ranges to their deaths.

The Australian Dream.

The Australian Dream is rooted in racism. It is the very foundation of the dream. It is there at the birth of the nation. It is there in terra nullius. An empty land. A land for the taking. Sixty thousand years of occupation. A people who made the first seafaring journey in the history of mankind. A people of law, a people of lore, a people of music and art and dance and politics. None of it mattered because our rights were extinguished because we were not here according to British law.

And when British people looked at us, they saw something sub-human, and if we were human at all, we occupied the lowest rung on civilisation’s ladder. We were fly-blown, stone age savages and that was the language that was used. Charles Dickens, the great writer of the age, when referring to the noble savage of which we were counted among, said “it would be better that they be wiped off the face of the earth.” Captain Arthur Phillip, a man of enlightenment, a man who was instructed to make peace with the so-called natives in a matter of years, was sending out raiding parties with the instruction, “Bring back the severed heads of the black troublemakers.”

They were smoothing the dying pillow.

My people were rounded up and put on missions from where if you escaped, you were hunted down, you were roped and tied and dragged back, and it happened here. It happened on the mission that my grandmother and my great grandmother are from, the Warrengesda on the Darling Point of the Murrumbidgee River.

Read about it. It happened.

By 1901 when we became a nation, when we federated the colonies, we were nowhere. We’re not in the Constitution, save for ‘race provisions’ which allowed for laws to be made that would take our children, that would invade our privacy, that would tell us who we could marry and tell us where we could live.

The Australian Dream.

By 1963, the year of my birth, the dispossession was continuing. Police came at gunpoint under cover of darkness to Mapoon, an aboriginal community in Queensland, and they ordered people from their homes and they burned those homes to the ground and they gave the land to a bauxite mining company. And today those people remember that as the ‘Night of the Burning’.

In 1963 when I was born, I was counted among the flora and fauna, not among the citizens of this country.

Now, you will hear things tonight. You will hear people say, “But you’ve done well.” Yes, I have and I’m proud of it and why have I done well? I’ve done well because of who has come before me. My father who lost the tips of three fingers working in saw mills to put food on our table because he was denied an education. My grandfather who served to fight wars for this country when he was not yet a citizen and came back to a segregated land where he couldn’t even share a drink with his digger mates in the pub because he was black.

My great grandfather, who was jailed for speaking his language to his grandson (my father). Jailed for it! My grandfather on my mother’s side who married a white woman who reached out to Australia, lived on the fringes of town until the police came, put a gun to his head, bulldozed his tin humpy and ran over the graves of the three children he buried there.

That’s the Australian Dream. I have succeeded in spite of the Australian Dream, not because of it, and I’ve succeeded because of those people.

You might hear tonight, “But you have white blood in you”. And if the white blood in me was here tonight, my grandmother, she would tell you of how she was turned away from a hospital giving birth to her first child because she was giving birth to the child of a black person.

The Australian Dream.

We’re better than this. I have seen the worst of the world as a reporter. I spent a decade in war zones from Iraq to Afghanistan, and Pakistan. We are an extraordinary country. We are in so many respects the envy of the world. If I was sitting here where my friends are tonight, I would be arguing passionately for this country. But I stand here with my ancestors, and the view looks very different from where I stand.

The Australian Dream.

We have our heroes. Albert Namatjira painted the soul of this nation. Vincent Lingiari put his hand out for Gough Whitlam to pour the sand of his country through his fingers and say, “This is my country.” Cathy Freeman lit the torch of the Olympic Games. But every time we are lured into the light, we are mugged by the darkness of this country’s history. Of course racism is killing the Australian Dream. It is self-evident that it’s killing the Australian dream. But we are better than that.

The people who stood up and supported Adam Goodes and said, “No more,” they are better than that. The people who marched across the bridge for reconciliation, they are better than that. The people who supported Kevin Rudd when he said sorry to the Stolen Generations, they are better than that. My children and their non-Indigenous friends are better than that. My wife who is not Indigenous is better than that.

And one day, I want to stand here and be able to say as proudly and sing as loudly as anyone else in this room, Australians all, let us rejoice.

Thank you.”

About IQ2

IQ2 covers the biggest issues of our times, building a bridge between ideological extremes to deliver smart, civil and engaging debate. We believe there’s never been more important time for respectful conversations about the issues that matter.

About Stan Grant

Stan Grant is a Wiradjuri man and an Australian journalist. Highly awarded for his contribution to journalism, including a Walkley for his coverage on indigenous affairs. Stan has worked for the ABC, SBS, Seven Network, Sky News and CNN. He is also the best-selling author of Talking to My Country.

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Are we ready for a national identity?


HSC exams matter – but not for the reasons you think

Every year at around the time of the Higher School Certificate (HSC) exams, the same messages appear. The HSC isn’t everything – don’t stress! One year the then NSW premier Mike Baird weighed in with, “Life isn’t defined by your exams. It begins after they have finished.”

I remember getting those messages when I did the HSC but they seemed hard to swallow at the time. I’d spent 13 years being told of the importance of school marks and HSC results. High achievers earned awards. The importance of ‘rankings’ put me in competition with my peers and I measured success in Band Sixes.

If we’re going to convince students not to stress too much about results we need to do more than tell them to relax.

If we’re going to convince students not to stress too much about results we need to do more than tell them to relax. Years of conditioning makes students believe the HSC and Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) scores have the power to determine their future. For some, the numbers can determine their self-worth.

What we need to do is explain the moral place of education in our lives and how the HSC sits in relation to it.

Why do we worry about academic achievement at all?

One reason is because we recognise knowledge and learning as being beneficial to society. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull talks to anyone who will listen about the importance of an agile innovation economy. Such an economy relies on creative thinking and education.

Sadly, we live in a world where not every person can receive an education. Still, if we’re wise, we can make sure that every person can benefit from education. As French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote, “knowledge is power”.

Knowledge controlled by a privileged few is a recipe for dictatorship. Used wisely it can provide the power to make our imperfect world a little bit better.

We don’t just value knowledge because it’s useful. Not all learning leads to new inventions, helps the poor or changes the world. That doesn’t mean it’s pointless. Knowledge is ‘intrinsically good’. Learning for learning’s sake is a completely reasonable and very human activity.

Excelling in academic life also takes more than just knowledge or intellect. It requires a curious mind, perseverance and open-mindedness among other things.

In this sense, the HSC results do matter. They show the extent to which students have developed certain virtues of mind and character.

The HSC is an opportunity to reflect on the huge amount of knowledge gained over years of education … It does not predict the future.

What can this tell us about the HSC? A few things. First, the praise we heap on high achievers is not only about the number itself but about the virtues demonstrated in achieving the mark. These virtues aren’t unique to students who score high marks.

Some high-achieving students might be getting by on natural ability rather than any special virtue. This means the final result matters less than the way it was achieved.

Second, the HSC is an opportunity to reflect on the huge amount of knowledge gained over years of education. It’s a chance for students to be proud of what they’ve learned. But that’s all it is. The HSC tells students what they have learned up until this point. It does not predict the future.

Many people who have struggled with exams have flourished and many who have excelled in school have struggled in the real world. The markers of success in school, work and life cannot be fully represented in a single number – much less the worth or value of a person.

Finally, excellence in academic life takes more than individual virtue. It takes a decent slice of luck and help from others. Individual academic achievement is the product of collective effort. Teachers, parents, friends and factors beyond our control help determine both our success and our failure. This provides a dash of both perspective and humility.

HSC marks and ATAR scores try to represent a range of complex processes in a useful and efficient way. But it is those processes that really matter – not the final number itself.

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Can excellence be measured?


The Ethics of Online Dating

“Who here tonight has used online dating?” asked panel moderator Jackie Dent. Almost half the hands in the room, accurate for wider Australian demographics, shot up.

 

“Rather than the last resort, it’s become the logical first step. But it isn’t an even split between the sexes: it’s a buyer’s market for men”, said cyberhate researcher Emma Jane.

But even if half of us are doing it, most things digital tend to get tagged as ‘inauthentic’ and there’s still a stigma around online dating (less so with apps). So when it comes to creating a profile, what constitutes an ‘authentic’ representation of who we are? What we think is import to know about us is not always what other people think is important to know. Is it important to disclose the colour of your eyes? That you’re married? That you have HIV?
HIV activist Nic Holas generally recommends disclosing your HIV status up front so you don’t set yourself up for rejection, even though some people don’t want to disclose because it doesn’t give them a chance to fully explain their situation. “It’s only reasonable to disclose your status when sex is a sure thing”, said Holas. “In NSW, if you are HIV positive, you’re legally obliged to tell anyone who you intend to have sex with. But that’s not the case all over Australia.”

Does online dating make us racist?

The online space is a wonder world for niche interests and narrow preferences. If your thing is getting it on in a coffin, there’s “Vampire Passions” or if you just want to spoon-feed your lover quinoa salad, there’s “Gluten Free Singles”. But what if your thing is just ‘white guys’?

“No one would walk into a bar wearing a T-shirt that said ‘No Asians!’. But there’s no end to Grindr profiles with stupid lines like, ‘No rice, no spice, but black guys to the front of the line ;-)’”, said Holas.

“If you were approached in a bar by someone who is Asian, even if you don’t intend to sleep with him, there are plenty of ways to let him down without making explicit reference to his race – or for that matter, his height, weight, or HIV status.”

“You can’t feel empathy unless you’re in some way vulnerable. We’re still at an awkward early stage of a digital era that doesn’t really compensate for physical embodiment,”, added philosopher Matthew Beard. Which is kind of what Louis C.K. reckons when it comes to letting kids use text messaging: if you call someone fat but you’re not there to see how it hurts them, you don’t learn not to call people fat.

Which begs the question, is it fair to call it online dating when our ultimate judgments will always be made in person? Well, there are plenty of people using the likes of Tinder and Grindr to meet friends or just to chat. While there are sites like “Girlfriend Circles” that are designed especially for finding friends, the app market is still in waiting.

Can an algorithm know us better than we know ourselves?

But not everyone’s brutally honest about what they want. We might not want to admit to ourselves or to a computer that we have a racial preference, but the algorithm works it out pretty quickly. “After you’ve interacted with three people, that’s enough data for the algorithm to ignore what you said you want”, said algorithm scientist Luiz Pizzato.

“It’s like Clippy the paperclip popping up to say, ‘Hey, it looks like you’re being a bit racist. Let me help you with that”, added Beard. Only, everyone hated that overly enthusiastic paperclip so the algorithm uses stealth.

The most conventionally attractive people don’t necessarily get the most messages. “Most users assume that ridiculously good looking people will get flooded with messages, so they don’t message. Those people with looks that polarize, people who would get 10s and 3s in a hot or not challenge, are the ones who get the most messages”, said Pizzato.

Does online dating make us more likely to lie?

Both men and women add about five centimetres to their height and about 20% to their income when they fill out an online profile. And when you’re instant messaging on a device with a camera, quick verification snaps of “those extra inches in other departments”, added Holas, is standard practice for gay guys.

But not being 100 percent honest online isn’t an indictment of online daters’ morality, thinks Beard. “Online dating doesn’t inspire lying, it just exposes it. It holds a magnifying glass to the human experience of meeting people.” Who can honestly say they haven’t told a few lies or sweetened the truth on a first date?

Cheating

What do you do when you see a friend’s partner on a dating platform? And if you’re partnered, is talking to people online the same as flirting in a bar? “I think the best gauge of what counts as cheating is to ask yourself, ‘Am I comfortable telling my partner about this?’” said Holas.

While studies show that men are more likely to cheat in general, there isn’t much reliable research to conclude whether online platforms make cheating easier. “In any case”, said Jane, “something like five to 15 percent of children are not fathered by their biological father. So the idea that men are the only ones who cheat is clearly inaccurate.”

Scamming

The sharks are still lurking, but since the online waters have deepened and sites have more safety nets, they’re less of a threat. “Scammers often masquerade as religious people. They do this because they tend to then attract genuinely religious people who are often trusting and caring and then the scammer abuses that trust for money or a visa or whatever else,” said Pizzato.

What’s Next?

When there are too many online offerings, we tend to see a throwback. But it tends to be token, suggests Beard. “The resurgence of speed dating in hipster bars says more about their love of irony than anything else.” The shift to online dating is only going to gather pace as more and more services come onto the market.

What might those new services look like? “The gay community is always an early adopter market”, said Holas, “so you should expect to see heteros opening up to the idea of meeting new people in new ways soon enough.”

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Are you less honest online than in person?


Why have an age discrimination commissioner?

Why have an age discrimination commissioner?

Why have an age discrimination commissioner?

The Federal Attorney-General recently decided to amend the 2004 Age Discrimination Act to provide for a an Age Discrimination Commissioner in response to growing evidence of damaging discrimination on the basis of a person’s age.

This discrimination is all too widespread. It affects older people in the main, though people of any age, including young people, experience age discrimination at times.

We are increasingly aware that many able-bodied, keen and productive employees are forced out of the workforce in their early 50s, sometimes even before that, for no reason other than that the employer has bought into the idea, false as it is, that only younger people are dynamic, energetic and able to learn new ways of doing things.

This is age prejudice and it must be tackled.

Any form of prejudice in our society diminishes the person or the groups suffering from this discrimination and diminishes our society as a whole. At the Australian Human Rights Commission, our slogan is: ‘human rights—everyone, everywhere, every day’. We understand that a person’s human rights do not diminish because of their age, just as they should not be diminished because of their race, gender or in the case of a disability.

Australia has had laws against race, gender and disability discrimination for quite a long time. The Australian Human Rights Commission was established by law in 1986, to protect and advocate human rights and to work against illegal discrimination.

As our society and our law-makers came to understand the terrible damage done to individuals and to society by discrimination we have long been familiar with, they came to the recognition that there is another form of discrimination which potentially affects every single human being, and this is age discrimination.

When I think of the long journey we took in Australia to challenge and then to start to reduce discrimination on the basis of sex, I worry that it might take us another generation to get on top of age discrimination. But when I think this through, I come to the view that age discrimination is something we can challenge today and every day in many effective ways.

While it is always hard to get rid of deep-seated prejudices in society, we’ve all had a bit of experience in doing that and I hope we can learn from that experience and remove the burden of age discrimination quickly and completely.

At the Australian Human Rights Commission, my main tool in carrying out this work is the Age Discrimination Act 2004. Like other anti-discrimination laws, it makes illegal discrimination on the basis of age in fundamental areas including employment, finance, education, and goods and services.

The discrimination that is illegal and is causing great damage to individuals and to our economy is most strongly evident in employment.

The discrimination that is illegal and is causing great damage to individuals and to our economy is most strongly evident in employment. I have seen in my short period in this job a great deal of evidence that the mature age worker, and people from 45 are often categorised as mature age, is frequently subjected to workplace discrimination. This unfair treatment can lead to people in their early 50s finding themselves unemployed.

This can be a disaster. Because of age discrimination, people at that age have a very difficult time finding another job. They try hard, they submit many applications, but all too frequently they get knocked back without even an interview.

Of course at that age they are unlikely to have a lot of superannuation and they are not eligible for the age pension. They have to try to manage on the very low Newstart Allowance. Female employees can be in an even worse position because generally they have only small superannuation savings even if they are of an age that they can access their superannuation savings.

At the same time, employers throughout our economy, large and small businesses, are crying out for more skilled workers. Every day the media publishes stories about skills shortages holding back our economic growth.

Well, you might think the solution is obvious. It is in principle, quite obvious to me. Employers need to throw out their prejudices against mature age workers, look closely at the needs of their businesses, and the existing skills of their older workers, and see what steps they need to take to match the two.

In many cases, it will be simply a matter of providing their older workers with some training to upgrade their skills. In other cases, when they consult their employees, they may find that offering them more flexible hours, such as a shorter working week or a shorter working day, will ensure that the employees can keep their jobs and the businesses can continue to profit from their experience and loyalty.

The Hon. Susan Ryan AO was appointed Age Discrimination Commissioner on 30 July 2011. This is an extract from a speech she delivered to a Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission Forum on the Rights of Older People in Melbourne on 28 October 2011. You can read this speech in full at humanrights.gov.au

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Are older workers less capable?