Ask me tell me: Why women think it’s ok to lie about contraception

‘Ask Me, Tell Me’ is a series created by you. You told us what you want to talk about by contributing your thoughts to an interactive artwork at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

This week: what happens to sex when people can’t trust each other? We look at the ethics and politics of sex.

Sexual ethics is prickly business. For the sake of exploring your contribution dear FODI patron, let’s assume you’re a man who has been lied to by a now pregnant woman who said she couldn’t conceive because she was using contraception.

Speaking of assumptions, it’s easy to assume our personal experiences are common, particularly big, life-changing ones like this. Experience is after all the key learning module in the school of life. But an assessment of the world based on our own experiences or one-off things we see, no matter how prominently they feature in our lives, is not exactly objective (although it’s a common cognitive bias we all can slip into).

Seeing ‘women’ as a group who lie to get pregnant isn’t a fair assessment of all women. Like every other group in society that shares some sort of common ground, women don’t think the same way or collectively decide what’s ethical and what’s not.

Also, there’s not much evidence to support this being a common practice of women other than a poll by That’s Life! magazine.

Nevertheless, none of this is to deny what we’re assuming has happened to you. It’s just pointing out it’s unlikely to be a prevalent phenomenon.

…men could choose to have no legal rights or responsibilities to a child as a way of correcting the alleged power imbalance in which men are held accountable as parents even if they would have preferred a pregnancy be terminated.

Whether or not it’s common for women to fib about using contraception to get pregnant doesn’t change the extent to which you must feel betrayed, trapped, angry and lied to. You’re facing the prospect of a lifelong commitment you believed wasn’t on the cards. Can anything be done about it?

There are a couple of ways to prevent others from finding themselves in the same situation. A Swedish group recently campaigned to give men the right to ‘legally abort’ from children. Under the proposal, men could choose to have no legal rights or responsibilities to a child as a way of correcting an alleged power imbalance that holds men accountable as dads even if they never wanted to be one.

‘Legal abortions’ don’t seem to actually be legal anywhere in the world but the argument in favour of them is that they level the playing field. Many of course would see women as the ones bearing more of the challenges of unwanted pregnancies than men, given they’re the ones who have to carry and give birth to the child.

Nevertheless, ‘legal abortions’ is an idea several thinkers, often women, have been discussing for a while.

Sex is risky – not only because of the possibility of children or infection – but because it leaves us physically and emotionally vulnerable.

An easier option would be for men to take contraception into their own hands. Condoms have been available for a long time. They’re 98% effective, prevent sexually transmitted infections and tend to be cheaper than female methods. And in years to come, a male contraceptive pill may well be available – a promising trial study of a male pill was abandoned due to side effects.

However, trust has become an issue here as well, with some women not having faith in men to take care of contraception. The Guardian columnist Barbara Ellen describes this as “the relentless howl of distrust between the sexes, echoing down the years”. Perhaps the best solution is one in which both men and women use contraception.

In many ways, this is a neat solution but can we really use technology as a substitute for sexual trust? Or, if men and women are doomed to distrust one another as Ellen suggests, what are the consequences of sex without trust? We trust sexual partners to use protection and contraception. We trust them to be concerned for our pleasure as well as theirs, to recognise our boundaries and seek our consent before doing anything to us or demanding anything from us, to respect our privacy and so on. At the heart of all of this is the understanding that sex is risky – not only because of the possibility of babies and infection – but because it leaves us physically and emotionally vulnerable.

Philosopher LA Paul describes becoming a parent as a ‘transformative experience’ – an experience that changes who we are so fundamentally it’s impossible to know whether the person we will become will regret our decision or not.

None of this gives you, FODI punter, much to go on with. You’ve been lied to, you’re facing long term consequences as a result and now you have to choose what kind of parent you want to be. And because you were lied to you’ve been put in this position unjustly and against your will, which is wrong by almost any measure.

Unfortunately, you still have to decide what to do. Philosopher LA Paul describes becoming a parent as a ‘transformative experience’ – an experience that changes who we are so fundamentally it’s impossible to know whether the person we will become will regret our decision or not. By definition, we can’t know what the right thing to do is.

Paul thinks this is true for all parents, not just those facing unwanted pregnancies. Even though there’s not much guidance on what you should do in this situation, it might be reassuring to know every potential parent is facing the same impossible decision. In the end, Paul suggests the best way to make this decision is to base it on what we want to discover, not what we think we’d enjoy.

And if you’re still stuck, you can always contact Ethi-call – The Ethics Centre’s free helpline – where you can speak with one of our counsellors to help make a decision aligned with your own values, principles and conscience.

Follow The Ethics Centre on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

Ethics Explainer: Hedonism

Hedonism is a philosophy that regards pleasure and happiness as the most beneficial outcome of an action. More pleasure and less pain is ethical. More pain and less pleasure is not.

What is hedonism?

Hedonism is closely associated with utilitarianism. Where utilitarianism says ethical actions are ones that maximise the overall good of a society, hedonism takes it a step further by defining ‘good’ as pleasure.

There are different perspectives on what pleasure and pain really mean. For Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher, pleasure was the absence of pain. Though his name has become synonymous with indulgence – “Epicurean holidays”, a food app called “Epicurious” – he advocated finding pleasure in a simple life with a bland diet.

If we live a rich, complex lifestyle we risk suffering more when it ends. Best not to love them to begin with, he suggests.

John Stuart Mill believed in a hierarchy of pleasures. Although sensory pleasures might be the most intense, it was fitting for higher order beings – like humans – to enjoy higher order pleasures – like art. “It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”, he said.  (With evidence to suggest pigs can orgasm for up to fifteen minutes, Mill’s account feels a little incomplete).

Most people will agree pleasure and pain are important for determining the value of something. That’s not enough to make you a hedonist. What makes hedonism unique is the claim only pleasure and pain matter. That’s where people tend to be more hesitant.

The experience machine

The philosopher Robert Nozick wanted people to feel the pinch of measuring life only based on pain and pleasure. He developed a thought experiment called the experience machine.

Imagine a machine that can plug into your brain and simulate the most pleasurable life you could imagine. It would respond to your specific desires – you could be a rock star, philosopher or space cowboy depending on what was most pleasurable. But if you plugged in, you could never unplug. Plus, although you’d feel as though you were experiencing amazing things, you’d be floating in a vat, feeding through a tube.

Nozick thought most people would choose not to plug into the machine – proving there was more to life than pleasure and pain. But Nozick’s argument depends on people’s lives being of a certain quality. It’s easier to value hard work and authenticity if you’re confident your life will be pretty pleasurable. For those living in constant fear, pain, or misery, perhaps the authenticity of their experience matters less than some simple moments of bliss.

Melbourne Cup: The Ethical Form Guide

The nation stops – and turns a blind eye.

The Melbourne Cup is the race that ‘convenes’ rather than ‘stops’ the nation.  It’s a classic example of a moment when the abstraction that is the nation – large, sprawling, messy and diverse – is made temporarily and symbolically concrete. This is an illusion. But perhaps a necessary one.
The mega media sport spectacle is highly serviceable to the fantasy of the united nation because it is popular culture played out in real time. Sport is implicated in the idea of a singular Australian identity because it is apparently open and meritocratic, and also has operated historically as a vehicle for the projection of ‘Australianness’.

The Melbourne Cup represents the pros and cons of contemporary sport and society. It is devoted to pleasure as an interruption of the daily work routine that consumes more and more of our time. It is carnivalesque – fleetingly turning the world upside down.

But it is characterised by the range of excess demanded by consumer capitalism – risky financial expenditure, alcohol consumption and repressive co-optation. All of this activity is conducted using the body of the horse that is celebrated one minute and whipped the next, highly prized for sporting and breeding performance in some cases and turned into abattoir fodder in others.

National sporting spectacles are here to stay. The ‘people’, the state and the commercial complex demand them, but they should not be excuses for rampant collective self-delusion.

– David Rowe, Professor of Cultural Research at Western Sydney University.

If you loved horses, you wouldn’t treat them as commodities

We’re often told those involved in the horse racing industry truly love horses and treat them with the utmost respect. I have no doubt they believe that to be true, but their actions don’t support these claims.

If those working with horses truly loved them, they would spend time and money re-homing and appropriately retiring racehorses at the end of their careers. Instead, the evidence suggests racehorses are only loved when they have the potential to make money. When they’re injured or no longer able to race, they’re often sent off to the knackery without a second’s thought.

The racing industry pushes horses beyond their natural limits. This results in short careers and extensive injuries, such as those suffered by Admiral Rakti last year. Since Admiral Rakti’s death, 127 horses have died on Australian race tracks.

The ultimate image for this exploitative approach to racing is the whip, which desperately needs to be banned. In doing so, we would see horses performing at the peak of their natural ability rather than desperately running due to fear and pain.

– Elio Celotto, Campaign Director at the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses.

The risks of horse racing are imposed on unwilling participants

Horse racing differs ethically from other sports. In other sports, it is the participant who freely decides to accept the risks. In horse racing, the risks are relatively low for the riders and extremely high for the animals.
It is not unethical to accept the risks of a given sport. Nor, in my view, is it always unethical to take the life of animals. The question is whether the costs of horse racing are reasonable, or whether they are unacceptably high.

Most Australians today would have ethical objections to entertainments such as bullfighting or dog fighting, or the use of non-domestic animals in circus acts. The number of horses slaughtered annually as a result of the racing industry far exceeds the number of animal deaths from most of these other entertainments.

The costs of the racing industry are unacceptably high. The situation is unlikely to improve as long as horse racing in Australia remains so closely tied to the enormous economic interests of the gambling industry.

– Ben Myers, Lecturer in Systematic Theology at United Theological College.

The Melbourne Cup sweep is harmless fun, but not in the classroom 

The effects of gambling are an oft-discussed topic among my colleagues, but in the past week the discussion has been triggered by an all-staff email about the office’s annual Melbourne Cup Sweep. One staff member felt it was totally inappropriate for an organisation operating in mental health and wellbeing to be promoting in any way a day of socially acceptable statewide gambling.
I actually disagree, although not strongly. A sweep is a one-off, fixed price competition, not much different from a raffle. It’s in no way addictive in the way that poker machines and online betting can be.

The normalisation of gambling is certainly insidious. There is some evidence that the younger a person is when they have their first betting win, the more likely they are to develop problems down the track. So a sweep in a primary school does sound icky to me.
– Heather Grindley, Public Interest Manager at the Australian Psychological Society.

The spectacle is lost in a “feeding frenzy” of gambling

The Melbourne Cup is a genuine Australian icon. However, it’s now also a commodified hub for a gambling feeding frenzy. This is a tough time of year for people who are trying to restrain their gambling.
Effective regulation can undoubtedly reduce the harms associated with gambling. Cup Day should be a reminder that commercialised gambling corrupts sport and induces misery for many, including those who never gamble. Decent regulation might reduce super-profits but it would certainly help make Australia’s unique sporting and social environment safer, more fun and lot more enjoyable.

– Charles Livingstone, Senior Lecturer in Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University.

The Melbourne Cup pits debauchery against dignity

As I write, many will be gathered in offices, pubs and racecourses around the country dressed to the nines. Fascinators, frocks, loud ties and sharp suits are the order of the day for the “world’s richest race”.
And yet by the end of it all, many punters will be staggeringly drunk – their state highlighted by its juxtaposition to their glamorous attire. Every year, tabloids gleefully post pictures of women in various stages of undress – simultaneously glorifying and shaming the debauchery that accompanies a race some revellers will likely miss, having already passed out.

Ultimately the Melbourne Cup is full of ethical polarities. It follows the highs and lows of the race itself. Fine champagne is popped in celebration as punters pass out from one too many drinks, horses are glorified as they are exploited, and once-off punters dress up and participate in the same gambling industry that destroys so many lives.

Racing Victoria were unavailable for comment but directed readers to their position on equine welfare.

The Ethics Centre Nominated for a UNAA Media Peace Award

Stan Grant ethics centre

The Ethics Centre is proud to announce that we’re a finalist in this year’s United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Awards.

We’ve been nominated in the “Promotion of Social Cohesion” category for our IQ2 Debate: Racism is Destroying the Australian Dream.

The UNAA Media Peace Awards – which were handed out for the first time in 1979 – seek to promote understanding about humanitarian and social justice issues by recognising those in the media whose contributions stimulate public awareness and understanding.

Past winners include Andrew Denton, Paul McGeough, Michael Gordon, Jenny Brockie, Zoe Daniel and Waleed Aly. The United Nations Association of Australia is one of 100 associations around the world which promote the ideals and work of the UN in local communities.

More than 70 journalists, producers, photographers and film makers are among the finalists in 13 categories. Media reporting on the plight of asylum seekers and the rights and treatment of Indigenous Australians features heavily in the list of finalists for this year. See the full list here.

Thanks to all our audience members and supporters who continue to make IQ2 possible for us. We couldn’t do it without you.

The winners of the awards will be announced in Melbourne on 24 October, UN Day. In the meantime, watch our entry – Racism is Destroying the Australian Dream.

Ethics Explainer: The Harm Principle

The harm principle says people should be free to act however they wish unless their actions cause harm to somebody else.

The principle is a central tenet of the political philosophy known as liberalism and was first proposed by English philosopher John Stuart Mill.

The harm principle is not designed to guide the actions of individuals but to restrict the scope of criminal law and government restrictions of personal liberty.

For Mill – and the many politicians, philosophers and legal theorists who have agreed with him – social disapproval or dislike (“mere offence”) for a person’s actions isn’t enough to justify intervention by government unless they actually harm or pose a significant threat to someone.

The phrase “Your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins” captures the general sentiment of the principle, which is why it’s usually linked to the idea of “negative rights”. These are demands someone not do something to you. For example, we have a negative right to not be assaulted.

On the other hand, “positive rights” demand that others do certain things for us, like provide healthcare or treat us with basic respect. For this reason, the principle is often used in political debates to discuss the limitations of state power.

There’s no issue with actions that are harmful to the individual themselves. If you want to smoke, drink, or use drugs to excess, you should be free to do so. But if you get behind the wheel of a car while under the influence, pass second-hand smoke onto other people, or become violent on certain drugs, then there’s good reason for the government to get involved.

Attempting to define harm

The sticking point comes in trying to define what counts as harmful. Although it might seem obvious, it’s actually not that easy. For example, if you benefit by winning a promotion at work while other applicants lose out, does this count as being harmful to them?

Mill would argue no. He defines harms as wrongful setbacks to interests to which people have rights. He would argue you wouldn’t be harming anyone by winning a promotion because although their interests are set back, no particular person has a right to a promotion. If it’s earned on merit, then it’s fair. “May the best person win”, so to say.

A more difficult category concerns harmful speech. For Mill, you do not have the right to incite violence – this is obviously harmful as it physically hurts and injures. However, he says you do have the right to offend other people – having your feelings hurt doesn’t count as harm.

Recent debates have questioned this and claim that certain kinds of speech can be as damaging psychologically as a physical attack – either because they’re personally insulting or because they entrench established power dynamics and oppress minorities.

Importantly, Mill believed the harm principle only applied to people who are able to exercise their freedom responsibly. For instance, paternalism over children was acceptable since children are not fully capable of responsibly exercising freedom, but paternalism over fully autonomous adults was not.

Unfortunately, he also thought these measures were appropriate to use against “barbarians”, by which he meant non-Europeans in British colonies like India.

This highlights an important point about the harm principle: the basis for determining who is worthy or capable of exercising their freedom can be subject to personal, cultural or political bias. When making decisions about rights and responsibilities, we should be ever careful about the potential biases that inform who or what we apply them to.

Workplace Ethical Frameworks

Workplace ethics frameworks

A placard used to hang in the office of Milton Hershey, founder of the revolutionary chocolate company carrying a simple motto: “Business is a matter of human service”.

Hershey shaped his organisation around a progressive, generous employment model. In a time when corporate leaders were seen as villains and Theodore Roosevelt won the White House election on the promise of breaking up monopolies and regulating business more firmly, Hershey’s was seen by many as a model of responsible, prosocial business.

At the same time, Cadbury in the UK were making similar moves. Each company built a fully-serviced town for their employees, offered children an education, taking responsibility for supply chains, and gave the public tours of the facilities.

In Connect: How Companies Succeed by Engaging Radically with Society, John Browne suggests the companies “identified the potency of a corporate vision delivered through employees” – a message which is “as true today as it was in 1900”. Who said chocolate wasn’t good for us?

Today, we’d recognise elements of their activity – firm social purpose and activity driven by value rather than profit – as elements of an ethics framework, a central, defining expression of what a company believes in and seeks to uphold.

Ethics frameworks consist of three things: a purpose statement, values and principles.

They aren’t documents to be filed away or popped in a corner of the company website, never to be read. Writing a document about who we are and what we stand for means nothing unless those statements are lived and breathed in the company operation.

Like the confectioners of the early 20th century, the very best companies bring cohesion to their business decisions by showing staff the meaning of their values, purpose and principles. They work with them to show how these core ideals guide everyday business decision making.

Purpose statements can be long or short. They usually don’t focus on products or services but how, as Hershey recognised, your company is satisfying a community need.

Values and principles enable employees to distinguish between good and bad decisions. They help to frame business activity to ensure it stays true to its purpose and contract with society.

Together these form your ethics framework: the bedrock or ‘DNA’ of your organisation. A good framework will be:

  • Practical – able to be applied in practice and with consistency.
  • Authentic – it will ‘ring true’.
  • Stable – will not change much (in its essence) over the long term.
  • Understandable – by all of those required to apply it in practice.

Having an ethics framework isn’t designed to maximise profits. It’s designed to protect and improve the relationship between business and society – but it does often benefit the business as a commercial enterprise as well. By motivating employees and demonstrating the value and purpose of the business to them, they serve as ambassadors for your organisation.

What’s more, trusted organisations are more likely to survive the instances when they fall foul of public opinion. In 1909, Cadbury – until then widely respected – were accused of being involved in slave labour in Portugal. Despite the public outcry, Cadbury were able to survive the incident and restore their reputation because of the goodwill they’d earned through authentically living their ethics framework.

Although purpose statements, corporate values and organisational principles aren’t a guarantee of perfect ethical conduct, they are a crucial ingredient in building a culture in which bad behaviour is discouraged and dis-incentivised – and a flag of goodwill to stakeholders that your organisation is looking to serve humanity and not just turn a quick buck.

Ethics Explainer: Values

On any given day, each of us will experience a rush of emotion and make a decision based on our gut reaction, intuition, or conscience. Someone spits on the street and our ‘against the rules’ or ‘hygiene’ button gets pushed. We see a photo of a child powerless and mistreated and our ‘justice fire’ gets lit.

This gut reaction is an emotional expression of our deeply held beliefs about what we value as right and good. Our values describe what we want to see in the world and how we should behave. This set of views about what is right and wrong is sometimes referred to as our moral compass.

We each hold a personal system of values arranged in order of priority. For example, some people may prioritise personal freedom over security and other people will do the opposite. Many people also hold a collective value system, reflecting a cultural or societal attitude. These different value sets vary in terms of how cohesive they are – they might be complementary or contradictory.

Scholars have categorised values in various ways – religious, political, aesthetic, social, ethical, moral, and so on. One study found ten distinct values recognised across different cultures: power, achievement, hedonism, stimulation, self-direction, universalism, benevolence, tradition, conformity and security.

Values inform and influence our attitudes, choices and behaviours. They provide both conscious and unconscious guidelines for the goals we pursue, how we pursue them, our perceptions of reality, and the ways we engage in the world.

Where do our values come from?

Your values reflect how, where and when you were raised. They are generally received through culture, often transmitted between parents and children. We also learn from the stories we read, things we watch, life challenges, and through experiences of the morally authoritative people in our lives.

Our value system forms when we are young and unaware of what is going on and continues developing throughout our lives, with conscious self-correction and moral development. As we grow older, it can be difficult to shift deep seated values that are no longer appropriate or relevant. But thanks to our capacity for critical discernment, our values are never entirely ‘fixed’.

Why do different people value different things? 

Because people grow up in different families with different backgrounds and histories, personal values differ from one person to the next. However, shared experiences lead to some common values. There are more shared values, norms, and patterns of behaviour between of people in the same environment – be it a community, an organisation, a country, or a football team.

Even the same values can look different when practiced by different cultures. For instance, wearing black to a funeral is a mark of respect for human life in some cultures while in others, mourners wear white. Each share the same value – respect for the dead – but the norms surrounding the value differ.

What do we do when values clash? 

Have you found yourself torn between telling the truth and avoiding upsetting someone else? Have you ever felt unsure about how to respond to someone with a different value set to your own?

When we face these conflicts, we’ve entered ‘the ethics zone’ and we have to decide what we should do. The process of engaging with the clash involves examining gut reactions, considering other perspectives, consulting with trusted mentors, being open to alternative viewpoints and possibilities, and critically examining our feelings.

The more we engage in this kind of process of ethical reasoning, the better we get at it. This approach strengthens our muscle for ethical decision making so we can respond when our values are in tension. Instead of relying on an unexamined ‘gut instinct’, we hone an informed and reflective conscience to negotiate ethical tension and conflicts of values.

Ethics, morality, law – what’s the difference?

Ethics Explainer: Ethics, morality & law

Ethics, morality, law – what’s the difference?

Some people talk about their personal ethics, others talk about a set of morals, and everyone in a society is governed by the same set of laws. They can be easy to conflate.

Knowing the difference and relationship between them is important though, because they can conflict with one another. If the law conflicts with our personal values or a moral system, we have to act – but to do so we need to be able to tell the difference between them.


Ethics is a branch of philosophy that aims to answer the basic question, “What should I do?” It’s a process of reflection in which people’s decisions are shaped by their values, principles, and purpose rather than unthinking habits, social conventions, or self-interest.

Our values, principles, and purpose are what give us a sense of what’s good, right, and meaningful in our lives. They serve as a reference point for all the possible courses of action we could choose. On this definition, an ethical decision is one made based on reflection about the things we think are important and that is consistent with those beliefs.

While each person is able to reflect and discover their own sense of what’s good, right, and meaningful, the course of human history has seen different groups unify around different sets of values, purposes and principles. Christians, consequentialists, Buddhists, Stoics and the rest all provide different answers to that question, “What should I do?” Each of these answers is a ‘morality’.


Many people find morality extremely useful. Not everyone has the time and training to reflect on the kind of life they want to live, considering all the different combinations of values, principles, and purposes. It’s helpful for them to have a coherent, consistent account that has been refined through history and can be applied in their day to day lives.

Many people also inherit their morality from their family, community or culture – it’s rare for somebody to ‘shop around’ for the morality that most closely fits their personal beliefs. Usually the process is unconscious. There’s a challenge here: if we inherit a ready-made answer to the question of how we should live, it’s possible to apply it to our lives without ever assessing whether the answer is satisfactory or not.

We might live our whole lives under a moral system which, if we’d had the chance to think about, we would have rejected in part or in full.


The law is different. It’s not a morality in the strict sense of the word because, at least in democratic nations, it tries to create a private space where individuals can live according to their own ethical beliefs or morality. Instead, the law tries to create a basic, enforceable standard of behaviour necessary in order for a community to succeed and in which all people are treated equally.

Because of this, the law is narrower in focus than ethics or morality. There are some matters the law will be agnostic on but which ethics and morality have a lot to say. For example, the law will be useless to you if you’re trying to decide whether to tell your competitor their new client has a reputation for not paying their invoices, but our ideas about what’s good and right will still guide our judgement here.

There is a temptation to see the law and ethics as the same – so long as we’re fulfilling our legal obligations we can consider ourselves ‘ethical’. This is mistaken on two fronts. First, the law outlines a basic standard of behaviour necessary for our social institutions to keep functioning. For example, it protects basic consumer rights. However, in certain situations the right thing to in solving a dispute with a customer might require us to go beyond our legal obligations.

Secondly, there may be times when obeying the law would require us to act against our ethics or morality. A doctor might be obligated to perform a procedure they believe is unethical or a public servant might believe it’s their duty to leak classified information to the press. Some philosophers have argued that a person’s conscience is more binding on them than any law, which suggests to the letter of the law won’t be an adequate substitute for ethical reflection.


Send in the clowns: The ethics of comedy

We’ve all heard jokes that were ‘too soon’ or went ‘too far’. Maybe you laughed hysterically or maybe you were offended. We asked a few comedians how they negotiate the thorny side of humour.

Avoid lazy stereotypes

“It’s easy to be lazy because so much comedy comes from stereotypes … but there is more interesting humour found by digging deeper”, says Suren Jayemanne. By focusing on the absurdity of the stereotype rather than the stereotype itself, you can laugh with the subject of the joke rather than at them.

Jayemanne uses the example of Indian taxi drivers. “The reason is because so many of their qualifications aren’t recognised, so the stereotype is one we’ve imposed on them as a society.” So instead of making fun of Indian cab drivers, he jokes about using them as a chance to get a cheap second medical opinion.

For Karen Edwards, the use of stereotypes really depends on the audience. As an Aboriginal comedian, she thinks stereotypes can be relatable. “I use [Aboriginal] stereotypes in front of our own mob and they find it relatable – if blackfellas won’t be offended by a joke then I’ll run with it.”

This means she still avoids the more offensive, lazy stereotypes, “like petrol sniffers – that’s offensive even if it’s said by an Aboriginal”.

Free speech doesn’t mean you should run your mouth

“Some people think free speech in comedy means they should be able to say anything that pops into their head on stage – that’s crazy to me,” says Tom Ballard.

“The big conversation in comedy right now seems to be about political correctness, the restrictions on free speech, how our jokes reflect on us as comedians and which jokes are worth saying”, he adds. “If we’re talking about stuff about which we have no experience … is our dumb joke worth it given the offence it might cause to people who have?”

The free speech defence can also be used as a cop-out, says Bish Marzook. “The people who are calling out the comedians also have the right to free speech – you have a right to say you didn’t find their joke funny.”

“If you have absolute free speech you’re probably restricting other essential rights as well,” adds Jayemanne.

Punch up, not down

Jayemanne explains how comedians have become mindful of not piling on to groups who are already struggling against social issues. “I think because you’ve got a pulpit to speak from, it’s important to be conscious of who the victim of your joke is.”

“You don’t want to be part of the problem,” says Ballard. Sometimes that means thinking carefully about whether your joke is consistent with the kind of society you want to create. Take Islam, for instance.

“I’m not a fan of religion, I’m an atheist – but I’m also a white man in a climate where apparently 49 percent of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration… I don’t want to contribute to the victimisation and abuse of those people.”

Comedy takes topics most people would assume are taboo or tragic and turns it into something cathartic.

I ask whether avoiding punching down meant comedians needed to have a kind of ‘oppression hierarchy’ to know who sat below them on the pecking order. Marzook admits it can be hard.

“I identify as a person of colour and a woman, so I know there are things I can say but I also have a lot of privileges people don’t know about.”

“Just because you’re conscious of punching down doesn’t mean you can’t talk about disadvantage,” adds Ballard, whose last show Boundless Plains to Share focused on asylum-seeker politics. “I wanted to talk about refugees… but in terms of the ‘punch’, it was always about the people in power.”

Are some topics off-limits?

Edwards thinks some topics shouldn’t be the subject of comedy. “No matter how funny, there are certain things I’d never touch. I’m not going to make jokes about babies dying… like all the ‘dingo ate my baby’ jokes – why? It’s too tragic.”

For Marzook, it depends on the context – are you saying something funny and thoughtful?

“The reason I went into comedy is to make a point of what’s happening in the world… I would encourage people to tackle hard issues. If it’s racist or untrue then that’s the problem and someone should point it out.”

Ballard thinks the idea of off-limits topics is “a tired angle”.

“We know comedians like Amy Schumer, Jon Stewart and Chris Rock exist – it’s pretty settled that edgy comedy is possible,” he says.

Even so, at a certain point in his last show on asylum seekers, he couldn’t make jokes. “There were some things about the nature of the system that I simply couldn’t make funny and so the show became more earnest and theatrical. At a point I just had to say this is fucked up.”

“I think an ethical comedian is one who listens and takes seriously the possibility of offence.” – Tom Ballard

Jayemanne thinks comedy needs to tackle the hard stuff, and that people want comedians to do so. “Comedy takes topics most people would assume are taboo or tragic and turns it into something cathartic. If you shy away you’re sheltering people, but humour is such an important tool for helping people deal with difficult topics.”

“It helps make the medicine go down,” adds Ballard.

Listen to your audience and be forgiving

“Comedy is about truth and, to an extent, egalitarianism. It’s a social, communal thing,” says Ballard. “I think an ethical comedian is one who listens and takes seriously the possibility of offending – there are things to be learned from the audience.”

Marzook worries comedians will shy away from serious issues because the costs of getting it wrong can be so severe. “Now everyone is so scared of making a mistake, and they should be, but if the consequences weren’t so severe, like online shaming, losing your job… maybe people would be willing to admit they made a mistake and we could move on.

“I guess it’s just about doing your best.”

Ethics Explainer: Ethics

What is ethics?

If you’re struggling to answer this, you’re not alone. Despite considering ethics a crucial part of our lives in a variety of different contexts, a common definition of the word can elude us.

Most of us are comfortable labelling products, people, and businesses ‘ethical’ and ‘unethical’. So, let’s get a clear understanding of these titles mean.

Here’s an easy way of breaking ethics down into four areas.



The question

Ethics is a process of reflection. We ‘do ethics’ every time we try to answer the question, “What should I do?”

Ethics doesn’t discount emotional responses but it does require us to be thoughtful when weighing up a decision. Rather than acting on instinct alone, ethics asks us to reasonably consider our options. An assessment of what we know, what we assume and what we believe, helps us choose a course of action most consistent with what we think is good and right.

While ethics is a branch of philosophy concerned with what’s right and wrong, it doesn’t seek to produce a list of rules to apply to all people at all times. Two people can both think ‘ethically’ about a situation and come up with very different decisions about what they should do.

Turning to an ethicist to get a definite answer on what’s right and wrong misses the point. Reflecting on the question “What should I do?” helps us discover and live by our values, principles, and purpose.

Values – ‘What’s good’

When faced with a decision, every person is going to choose the option they believe is best. It could be self-destructive, mean, or foolish – but the decision maker will always see more good in the option they settle on.

When you decide what you want to eat for lunch, you’ll consider a range of possibilities and choose one you think is good. Sometimes you might define good as ‘healthy’, other times as ‘tasty’, sometimes as ‘cheap’ and occasionally as a combination of all of them. Once you’ve got your definition down, you’re going to pick the option you think is most good.

Values are what help us define what’s good. Some of these will be unique to the individual but many values are held in common by cultures all around the world because they speak to the basic needs of human beings.

Freedom, safety, community, education, and health are all valued by people from very different walks of life. Each culture may express their values differently – norms of friendship will differ between cultures – but the basic value is still the same.

We tend to value lots of different things and prioritise them differently depending on our circumstances. In our youth we might rank excitement and fun over safety but later in life those values could shift in the other direction. This reflects changing beliefs about how much good is preserved by each value and how much they matter to us.

Principles – ‘What’s right’

Knowing what’s ‘good’ is an important step in ethical decision-making, but most of us believe there are better and worse ways of getting the things we value. We value honesty but are still careful with how we give criticism to colleagues – even if it would be more honest to be blunt.

This is the role of principles – they help us identify the right or wrong way to achieve the things we value. Some common examples are:

The Golden Rule: Treat other people the way you’d like to be treated.

Universality: Don’t ask other people to act in a way you wouldn’t be willing to act in the same situation.

Machiavellian: I’ll do what works and gets me what I want, no matter how it affects other people.

Notice how these principles are value-neutral? This means you can use them no matter what your values are – some may even seem unethical to you. Different people want to be treated in different ways – some gently and others with ‘tough love’ – but everyone can use the Golden Rule as a way to guide their decisions.

Purpose – picking your values and principles

There are a huge amount of values and principles to choose between. Many of us don’t choose at all, sticking with the systems we inherited from family, culture, or religion.

If we were to choose, which ones would we decide to act on? Which ones would we care about most? This is where understanding our defining purpose is important.

Some philosophers believe every person has the same purpose – like flourishing, maximising wellbeing for others, or fulfilling their obligations. Others think people should be able to find or choose their own purpose.

What our purpose should be is hard to determine. Organisations have an easier run of it – they’re usually designed with a purpose in mind and can choose principles and values accordingly.

For example, news organisations exist to inform the public. From this they can find values like truth and integrity as well as principles like impartiality and rigorous checking of sources.

Some individuals have thought about purpose in terms of ‘vocations’ – the types of activities we commit our lives to. These can include professional roles but can also include things like parenting, volunteer work, or self-improvement.

The initial question, values, principles and purpose form the building blocks of our ethical thinking. They don’t provide us with easy answers to the question ‘What should I do?’, but they help us to understand what a good answer might look like.