Employee activism is forcing business to adapt quickly

Employee activism

It was not that long ago that publicly disagreeing with your employer’s business strategy or staging a protest without the protection of a union, would have been a sackable offence.

But not today – if you are among the business “elite”.

Last year, 4,000 Google employees signed a letter of protest about an artificial intelligence project with the Department of Defense. Google agreed not to renew the contract. No-one was fired.

Also at Google, employees won concessions after 20,000 of them walked out protesting the company’s handling of sexual harassment cases. Everyone kept their jobs.

Consulting firms Deloitte and McKinsey & Company and Microsoft have come under pressure from employees to end their work with the US Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), because of concerns about the separation of children from their illegal immigrant parents.

Amazon workers demanded the company stop selling its Rekognition facial recognition software to law enforcement.

Examples like these show that collective action at work can still take place, despite the decline of unionism, if the employees are considered valuable enough and the employer cares about its social standing.

The power shift

Charles Wookey, CEO of not-for-profit organisation A Blueprint for Better Business says workers in these kinds of protests have “significant agency”.

“Coders and other technology specialists can demand high pay and have some power, as they hold skills in which the demand far outstrips the supply,” he told CEO Magazine.

Individual protesters and whistle-blowers, however, do not enjoy the same freedom to protest. Without a mass of colleagues behind them, they can face legal sanction or be fired for violating the company’s code of conduct – as was Google engineer James Damore when he wrote a memo criticising the company’s affirmative action policies in 2017.

Head of Society and Innovation at the World Economic Forum, Nicholas Davis, says technology has enabled employees to organise via message boards and email.

“These factors have empowered employee activism, organisation and, indeed, massive walkouts –not just around tech, by the way, but around gender and about rights and values in other areas,” he said at a forum for The Ethics Alliance in March.

Change coming from within

Davis, a former lawyer from Sydney, now based in Geneva, says even companies with stellar reputations in human rights, such as Salesforce, can face protests from within – in this case, also due to its work with ICE.

“There were protesters at [Salesforce annual conference] Dreamforce saying: ‘Guys, you’re providing your technology to customs and border control to separate kids from their parents?,” he said.

Staff engagement and transparency

Salesforce responded by creating Silicon Valley’s first-ever Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology as a vehicle to engage employees and stakeholders.

“I think the most important thing is to treat it as an opportunity for employee engagement,” says Davis, adding that listening to employee concerns is a large part of dealing with these clashes.

“Ninety per cent of the problem was not [what they were doing] so much as the lack of response to employee concerns,” he says. Employers should talk about why the company is doing the work in question and respond promptly.

“After 72 hours, people think you are not taking this seriously and they say ‘I can get another job, you know’, start tweeting, contact someone in the ABC, the story is out and then suddenly there is a different crisis conversation.”

Davis says it is difficult to have a conversation about corporate social activism in Australia, where business leaders say they are getting resistance from shareholders.

“There’s a lot more space to talk about, debate, and being politically engaged as a management and leadership team on these issues. And there is a wider variety of ability to invest and partner on these topics than I perceive in Australia,” says Davis, who is also an adjunct professor with Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Innovation.

“It’s not an issue of courage. I think it’s an issue with openness and demand and shifting culture in those markets. This is a hard conversation to have in Australia. It seems more structurally difficult,” he says.

“From where I stand, Australia has far greater fractures in terms of the distance between the public, private and civil society sectors than any other country I work in regularly. The levels of distrust here in this country are far higher than average globally, which makes for huge challenges if we are to have productive conversations across sectors.”

 

This article was originally written for The Ethics Alliance. Find out more about this corporate membership program. Already a member? Log in to the membership portal for more content and tools here.

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What ethics should athletes live by?

Athletes are bound by multiple codes – including the formal rules of the games they play and the informal conventions that define what is deemed to be acceptable conduct.

Professional athletes are often bound by a more stringent code that governs many aspects of their public and private lives.  In an era of social media and phone cameras, lucrative sponsorships and media rights, online sports betting and performance enhancing drugs, there is very little that isn’t regulated, measured or scrutinised.

The culture of sport

The formal rules of any game establish the minimum standards that bind players and officials equally in order to ensure a fair contest. Not surprisingly, the formal rules are relative to the sports that they define: you can tackle someone to the ground in a rugby match (provided they’re holding the ball), but it would be deemed unacceptable in tennis.

But there are also conventions and informal obligations that define the culture of sport. For example, most sports establish informal boundaries that seek to capture a spirit of good sportsmanship.  The cricketer who refuses to “walk” after losing their wicket  – or who delivers a ball under-arm – may not be breaking any formal rule, but they’ll be offending the so-called spirit of cricket.

The sanctions for such an offence may be informal, but may blight that player’s career.

 

A question of trust

In sport, the bottom line is trust. Sportspeople are stewards for the games they play – with an obligation not to destroy the integrity of the sports in which they participate. Athletes tend to be intensely competitive, seeking victory for themselves, for their team or sometimes their nation.

Professional sports sell themselves to the public on the basis that the contests are real and, hopefully, fair.   Every time two teams or competitors walk out onto the field of play, they place so much at stake – far more than just the result of one game.

That is why evidence of match fixing, doping or cheating is so destructive – it destroys public trust in the veracity of the competition that people pay to watch. It damages the reputation of the sport. And it is ultimately self-defeating – always leaving doubt in the dishonest victor’s mind, denying forever the satisfaction of a honest win.

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Is it fair to expect an athlete to be an ethical role model?


Film Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

Film Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

Film Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

James Baldwin was one of the great American writers of the twentieth century.

His elegant, articulate and keenly perceptive work bore witness to the hostile, day-to-day realities in which African Americans lived, and the psychological implications of racism for society as a whole.

His fifth novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, is no exception. Forty-four years after it was published, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins has adapted it for the screen.

 

A different type of love story

A hypnotic, visually sumptuous and intimate love story, Beale Street has little of the structure of a traditional romance. The film begins, for instance, with the generic arc of courtship already complete. We first see the two young protagonists – Tish Rivers and her boyfriend Alfonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt – walking slowly together in a park, their affections clear and perfectly mirrored. Growing up as childhood friends in the Bronx, there was never a time they did not love each other.

The story instead bears testimony to the resilience of love, and the strength it endows those who have faith in it. Here, we witness its many forms arrayed against a vast, malicious and coldly impersonal system which is rigged to destroy black lives and fracture the most precious of bonds.

Barely a minute into screen time, the plot throws Fonny (Stephan James) behind a glass wall. He’s in jail after being accused of rape. To his accuser and certainly the police, his innocence is irrelevant. As a black man, his identity in the white cultural imagination is as a violent savage – he was always-already condemned, regardless of his actions. It is through this transparent barrier that Tish (KiKi Layne) tells him that she is carrying his child.

When the past and present merge

Following this revelation, the story diverges in two interweaving streams of past and present. One, filled with hope and secret joys, sees the young couple come to understand each other as man and woman, while nursing dreams of a future together. In the second narrative, hope is not a simple impulse but an inviolable duty, as their baby swells in Tish’s womb, Fonny’s case stagnates and despair threatens. Each scene is freighted with the viewer’s knowledge that the lovers’ destiny is not their own.

Tish’s tale

This second narrative is also very much Tish’s story, and shifts its focus to a different kind of love. Beale Street is most affecting in its portrait of the Rivers family, who support Tish wholly and will do whatever they must to fight for her and the new life within her. Regina King won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Tish’s mother Sharon, who embodies a fierce, calm and indominable maternal courage. Her father Joseph (played with a rich, growling warmth by Colman Domingo) and older sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) readily take on the role of advocate and defender.

Their unity has its foil in Fonny’s family, the Hunts, who refuse to partake in any struggle they did not ask for. Headed by a spiteful and Godfearing mother, who curses her unborn grandchild and rationalises prison as a place in which Fonny can find the Lord, theirs is a pride born of self-serving weakness. The Rivers’ contrasting pride is one born of unassailable dignity and a determination to act, in spite of the odds arrayed against them.

“What do you think is going to happen?” asks Mr Hunt when Joseph lays out a plan for them to steal from their workplaces to help their children.

“What we make happen.”

“Easy to say,” Hunt protests.

“Not if you mean it,” Joseph levelly responds.

Emotional explotation

Through these characters, Beale Street puts forward the case for love as the single most steadfast bastion against the dehumanising machine of systemic oppression. Those characters without this vital force are vulnerable to emotional exploitation – betraying family and friends to protect themselves. Hunt’s mother sacrifices her son rather than align herself with his fate.

Fonny’s old friend Daniel also deserts him when his words could have saved him, his integrity broken by the terror of returning to a prison that broke him. And Fonny’s accuser is so traumatised, she is locked in a prison of her own pain, insensible and insensitive the suffering of others.

None of these individuals are free. Living in a constant wash of fear without refuge or reprieve has deprived them of their integrity, transforming them into actively complicit agents in the perpetuation of a racist structure. This, Baldwin’s story reveals, is perhaps the most wretched and insidiously effective mechanism of tyranny.

Racial tensions

Daniel is sure that white man is the devil. But Beale Street itself doesn’t espouse this view. At crucial junctures, white allies take risks to intercede against social, economic, police and court racial injustice. A Jewish real estate agent grants the lovers a path to an affordable home. An old storekeeper stands up to a reptilian policeman. And Fonny’s lawyer is a ‘white boy just out of college’.

At two hours, the film is languid and poetic, with gorgeous cinematography by James Laxton. The deliberate slow pacing and the use of frequent close-ups demands of the viewer they recognise the central (and very beautiful) characters as subjects. In a culture which frequently effaces black bodies, fetishises them, or arbitrarily fashions them into villains, these images are quietly radical. The film plays out between the steady gaze of the two lovers, and plays within the gaze of an audience that can’t look away.

Quietly significant too, is the film’s inclusion of moments which are superfluous to the plot, but vital to the immersive legacy of Beale Street. One, impossible to forget: Tish’s parents swaying before a jazz record in the family loungeroom, holding each other close, smiling in the new knowledge of themselves as grandparents to be.

Final thoughts

Opening in Australia on Valentine’s Day, Jenkins’ film is a tender dream of two lovers trapped in a too-real nightmare. It is not difficult to remember that this nightmare still torments the freedoms of racial minorities in America, ‘the land of the free’, and other nations too – whether they characterise themselves as progressive democracies or not.

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australia-day-change-the-date

Australia Day: Change the date? Change the nation

australia-day-change-the-date

Like clockwork, every January Australians question when is, or even if there is, an appropriate time to celebrate the nationhood of Australia.

Each year, a growing number of Australians acknowledge that the 26thof January is not an appropriate date for an inclusive celebration.

There are no sound reasons why the date shouldn’t be changed but there are plenty of reasons why the nation needs to change.

I’ve written about that date before, its origins and forgotten stories and recent almost-comical attempts to protect a public holiday. I choose not to repeat myself, because the date will change.

For many, the jingoism behind Australia Day is representative of a settler colonialism state that should not be preserved. A nation that is not, and has never been fair, free or young. So, I choose to put my energy into changing the nation. And I am not alone.

People are catching up and contributing their voices to the call to change the nation, but this is not a new discussion. On 26 January 1938, on the 150thanniversary of the British invasion of this continent, a group of Aboriginal people in NSW wrote a letter of protest, calling it a Day of Mourning. They asked the government to consider what that day meant to them, the First Peoples, and called for equality and justice.

Since 1938, the 26thof January continues to be commemorated as a Day of Mourning. The date is also known as Survival Day or Invasion Day to many. Whatever people choose to call that day, it is not a date suitable for rejoicing.

It was inconsiderate to have changed the date in 1994 to the 26th January. And, now the insensitivity is well known, it’s selfish not to change the date again. The only reasons I can fathom for opposition to changing the date is white privilege, or perhaps even racism.

These antiquated worldviews of white superiority will continue to haunt Australia until a critical mass has self reflected on power and privilege and whiteness, and acknowledges past and present injustices. I believe we’re almost there – which explains the frantic push back.

A belief in white righteousness quietened the voices of reason and fairness when the first fleet landed on the shores of this continent. And it enabled colonisers and settlers to participate in and/or witness without objection decades of massacres, land and resource theft, rape, cultural genocide and other acts of violence towards First Peoples.

The voice of whiteness is also found in present arguments, like when the violence of settlement is justified by what the British introduced. It is white superiority to insist science, language, religion, law and social structures of an invading force are benevolent gifts.

First Peoples already had functioning, sophisticated social structures, law, spiritual beliefs, science and technology. Combining eons of their own advances in science with long standing trade relations with Muslim neighbours, First Peoples were already on an enviable trajectory.

Tales of white benevolence, whether real or imagined, will not obliterate stories of what was stolen or lost. Social structures implanted by the new arrivals were not beneficial for First Peoples, who were barred from economic participation and denied genuine access to education, health and justice until approximately the 1970s.

Due to systemic racism, power and privilege, and social determinants, these introduced systems of justice, education and health still have entrenched access and equity barriers for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Changing the nation involves settler colonialists being more aware of the history of invasion and brutal settlement, as well as the continuing impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It involves an active commitment to reform, which includes paying the rent.

The frontier wars did not result in victory for settler colonialists, because the fight is not over. The sovereignty of approximately 600 distinctly different cultural/language groups was never ceded. Despite generations of violence and interference from settler colonialists, First Peoples have not been defeated.

“You came here only recently, and you took our land away from us by force. You have almost exterminated our people, but there are enough of us remaining to expose the humbug of your claim, as white Australians, to be a civilised, progressive, kindly and humane nation.”

Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights!: A Statement of the Case for the Aborigines Progressive Associations’, The Publicist, 1938, p.3

Having lived on this continent for close to 80,000 years and surviving the violence of colonisation and ongoing injustices of non-Indigenous settlement, the voices of First Peoples cannot be dismissed. The fight for rights is not over.

The date will change. And, although it will take longer, the nation will change. There are enough still standing to lead this change – so all Australians can finally access the freedoms, equality and justice that Australia so proudly espouses.

Karen Wyld is a freelance writer and consultant of Martu descent, living on Karuna Country.

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Is it time to curb immigration in Australia?

To curb or not to curb immigration is one of the more polarising questions Australia is contemporarily grappling with, amid anxieties over an increasing population and its impact on the infrastructure of cities.

Over the past decade, Australia has seen a 2.5 million rise in our population, with a growth of almost 400,000 people in the last year. The majority of last year’s increase – about 61 percent net growth – were immigrants.

Different studies reveal vastly different attitudes.

While Australians have become progressively more concerned about a growing population, they still see the benefits of immigration, according to two different surveys.

Times are changing

In a new survey recently conducted by the Australian National University, only 30 percent of Australians – compared to 45 percent in 2010 – are in favour of population growth.

The 15 percent drop over the past decade is credited to concerns about congested and overcrowded cities, and an expensive and out-of-reach housing market.

Nearly 90 percent believed population growth should be parked because of the high price of housing, and 85 percent believed cities were far too congested and overcrowded. Pressure on the natural environment was also a concern.

But a Scanlon Foundation survey has revealed that despite alarm over population growth, the majority of Australians still appreciate the benefits of immigration.

In support of immigration

In the Mapping Social Cohesion survey from 2018, 80 percent believed “immigrants are generally good for Australia’s economy”.

Similarly, 82 percent of Australians saw immigration as beneficial to “bringing new ideas and cultures”.

The Centre for Independent Studies’ own polling has shown Australians who responded supported curbing immigration, at least until “key infrastructure has caught up”.

In polling by the Lowy Institute last year, 54 percent of respondents had anti-immigration sentiments. The result reflected a 14 percent rise compared to the previous year.

Respondents believed the “total number of migrants coming to Australia each year” was too high, and there were concerns over how immigration could be affecting Australia’s national identity.

While 54 percent believed “Australia’s openness to people from all over the world is essential to who we are as a nation”, trailing behind at 41 percent, Australians said “if [the nation is] too open to people from all over the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation”.

Next steps?

The question that remains is what will Australia do about it?

The Coalition government under Scott Morrison recently proposed to cap immigration to 190,000 immigrants per year. Whether such a proposition is the right course of action, and will placate anxieties over population growth, remains to be seen.

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We’ll be debating IQ2: Immigration on March 26th at Sydney Town Hall, for the full line-up and ticket info click here.

Immigration Infographic - 2

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Ethics programs work in practise

New research released today reveals that organisations with clear ethics programs are more likely to be seen as responsible in their business practises by their employees.

The new survey, undertaken by The Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) in partnership with our team at The Ethics Centre (TEC) found that the majority of Australian employees are aware that their organisations have each of the building blocks of an ethics program; a code of ethics, training, and a ‘speak up’ line.

“Ethics at Work” was launched to The Ethics Alliance members this morning through an intimate panel discussion that explored the implications of the findings, featuring Philippa Foster Back of IBE, John Neil and Cris Parker of TEC and Jill Reich of Uniting.

The survey reveals that awareness of ethics programs positively impact how employees feel their company deals with stakeholders. Those with an ethics program are significantly more likely to feel that their organisation acts responsibly in business dealings, at 84 percent. This compares to less than half of those without an ethics program (49 percent). There was one counter-intuitive result where 42 percent agreed their line manager rewards employees who get good results even if it’s through questionable practises.

We’ve spent the last 30 years working with individual organisations to establish ethical frameworks, and worked with many major organisations in recovery from ethical failure. The impact of clear lived values and principles at all levels of an organisation is tremendous, and instrumental to a positive, supportive culture.

The survey also illuminated the role managers play in upholding behaviours within the workplace. Managers were more likely than non-managers to view their organisation positively, both in engagement with stakeholders (77 percent vs 71 percent), and in application of social policy (75 percent vs 67 percent).

It further identifies pressures felt and attitudes toward management positions:

  • Managers are more likely to feel pressure to compromise their ethical standards than those not in a management position (by nine percent)
  • They were also much more likely to have lenient views toward charging personal entertainment as expenses and using company petrol for mileage
  • Employees who have felt pressure to compromise their ethical standards were also more likely to feel their manager failed to promote/reward ethical behaviour (43 percent).

At an employee level, almost one in four reported awareness of misconduct in the workplace, yet worryingly only one in three of those workers decided to speak up.

Of those who have experienced misconduct at work, the most common types were bullying and harassment (41 percent), inappropriate or unethical treatment of people (39 percent) and misreporting of working hours (32 percent).

In addition, more than one in ten (13 percent) have felt pressured to compromise their ethical standards in the workplace.

The Ethics Centre, and our membership program The Ethics Alliance are committed to raising the ethical standards of business in Australia. To find out more about our work visit www.ethics.org.au

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The Ethics Centre: A look back on the highlights of 2018

The Ethics Centre: Highlights of 2018

Sometimes, good people do bad things. The last year confirmed this. Banks, schools, universities, the military, religious institutions – it seems 2018 left no sector unshaken.

These are the sorts of issues we confront every day at The Ethics Centre. In our reviews and confidential advice we have seen similar patterns repeat over and over again.

Yes, bad apples may exist, but we find ethical issues arise from bad cultures. And even our most trusted institutions, perhaps unwittingly, foster bad behaviour.

That’s why we have an important job. With your support we help society understand why ethical failures happen and provide safeguards lest they repeat.

As The Ethics Centre approaches its 30th birthday, we’d love to say we’re no longer needed. We hoped to bring ethics to the centre of everyday life and think we’ve made a small dent into that task. But there’s no point pretending there’s not a long way to go.

We thank you for supporting us and believing in us and are proud to share the highlights of another busy year with you.

 

If you’re short on time to read the full report now (and we’d really love you to take a look some time at what a small organisation like ours can achieve), here are seven highlights we’re particularly proud of:

• We launched The Ethics Alliance. A community of organisations unified by the desire to lead, inspire and shape the future of how we do business. In one year, 37 companies have benefited from the innovative tools that help staff at all levels make better decisions.

• We published a paper on public trust and the legitimacy of our institutions. Our conversations with regulators, investors, business leaders and community groups, revealed a sharp decline in the trust of our major institutions. We identify the agenda they need to in order to maintain public trust and contribute meaningfully to the common good.

• We ramped up Ethi-call. Calls to our free, independent, national helpline increased by 74 percent this year. That’s even more people to benefit from impartial, private guidance from our highly trained ethical counsellors.

• We reviewed the culture of Australian cricket. When the ball tampering scandal hit the world stage, Cricket Australia asked us to investigate. We uncovered a culture of ambition, arrogance, and control, where “winning at all costs” indicted administrators and players alike.

•We released a guide to designing ethical tech. Technology is transforming the way we experience reality. The need to make sure we don’t sacrifice ethics for growth is more pressing than ever. We propose eight principles to guide the development of all new technologies before they hit the market. You can download it here.

•We redesigned the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. FODI was created to facilitate courageous public conversation. The Ethics Centre and UNSW’s Centre for Ideas collaborated to untether the festival and produce a bold and necessary world class cultural event. Every session sold out.

• We grew our tenth year of IQ2. We doubled the number of live attendees and tripled the student base showing audiences are more intelligent and hungry for diverse ideas than they are often given credit for. We welcomed a new sponsor Australian Ethical whose values align with our own. There’s never been a better time to support smart, civic, public debate.

Download: The Ethics Centre Annual Report 2017-2018

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Ethics Explainer: Existentialism

Ethics Explainer: Existentialism

Ethics Explainer: Existentialism

If you’ve ever pondered the meaning of existence or questioned your purpose in life, you’ve partaken in existentialist philosophy.

It would be hard to find someone who hasn’t asked themselves the big questions. What is the meaning of life? What is my purpose? Why do I exist? For thousands of years, these questions were happily answered by the belief your purpose in life was assigned prior to your creation. The existentialists, however, disagreed.

 

Existentialism is the philosophical belief we are each responsible for creating purpose or meaning in our own lives. Our individual purpose and meaning is not given to us by Gods, governments, teachers or other authorities.

In order to fully understand the thinking that underpins existentialism, we must first explore the idea it contradicts – essentialism.

Essentialism

Essentialism was founded by the Greek philosopher Aristotle who posited everything had an essence, including us. An essence is “a certain set of core properties that are necessary, or essential for a thing to be what it is”. A book’s essence, for example, is it’s pages. It could have pictures or words or be blank, be paperback or hardcover, tell a fictional story or provide factual information. Without pages though, it would cease to be a book. Aristotle claimed essence is created prior to existence. For people, this means we’re born with a predetermined purpose.

This idea seems to imply, whether you are aware of it or not, your purpose in life has been gifted to you prior to your birth. And as you live your life, the decisions you make on a daily basis are contributing to your ultimate purpose, whatever that happens to be.

This was an immensely popular belief for thousands of years and gave considerable weight to religious thought that placed emphasis on an omnipotent God who created each being with a predetermined plan in mind.

If you agreed with this thinking then you really didn’t have to challenge the meaning of life or search for your purpose. Your God already provided it for you.

Existence precedes essence

While philosophers including Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche questioned essentialism in the 19th century, existentialism was popularised by Jean-Paul Sartre in the mid-20th century following the horrific events of World War II.

As people questioned how something as catastrophically terrible as the Holocaust could have a predetermined purpose, existentialism provided a possible answer that perhaps it is the individual who determines their essence, not an omnipotent being.

The existentialist movement asked, “What if we exist first?” At the time it was a revolutionary thought. You were created as a blank slate, tabula rasa, and it is up to you to discover your life’s purpose or meaning. While not necessarily atheist, existentialists believed there is no divine intervention, fate or outside forces actively pushing you in particular directions. Every decision you make is yours. You create your own purpose through your actions.

The burden of too much freedom

This personal responsibility to shape your own life’s meaning carries significant anxiety inducing weight. Many of us experience the so called existential crisis where we find ourselves questioning our choices, career, relationships and the point of it all. We have so many options. How do we pick the right ones to create a meaningful and fulfilling life?

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does” – John-Paul Sartre

Freedom is usually presented positively but Sartre posed your level of freedom is so great it’s “painful”. To fully comprehend your freedom you have to accept only you are responsible for creating, or failing to create, your personal purpose. Without rules or order to guide you, you have so much choice that freedom is overwhelming.

The absurd

Life can be silly. But this isn’t quite what existentialists mean when they talk about the absurd. They define absurdity as the search for answers in an answerless world. It’s the idea of being born into a meaningless place that then requires you to make meaning.

The absurd posits there is no one truth, no inherent rules or guidelines. This means you have to develop your own moral code to live by. Sartre cautioned looking to authority for guidance and answers because no one has them and there is no one truth.

Living authentically and bad faith

Coined by Sartre, the phrase “living authentically” means to live with the understanding of your responsibility to control your freedom despite the absurd. Any purpose or meaning in your life is created by you.

If you choose to live by someone else’s rules, be that anywhere between religion and the wishes of your parents, then you are refusing to accept the absurd. Sartre named this refusal “bad faith” as you were choosing to live by someone else’s definition of meaning and purpose – not your own.

 “The literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself” – Albert Camus

So, what’s the meaning of life?

If you’re now thinking like an existentialist, then the answer to this question is both elementary and infinitely complex. You have the answer, you just have to own it.

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Ethics Explainer: Hope

We hope for fine weather on weekends and the best for our buddies – an obvious statement that hardly screams ethics.

But within our everyday desires for good things, lies a duty to each other and ourselves to only act on reasonably held hopes.

The ethics of hope

One of Immanuel Kant’s simple but resonant maxims is ‘ought implies can’. In other words, if you believe someone has an ethical responsibility to do something, it must be possible. No person is under any obligation to do what is impossible. You might call me a bad person for failing to fly through the sky and save someone falling from a great height. But your condemnation will be rejected as ill-founded for the simple reason only fictional characters can perform that feat.

Many other things – including extremely difficult things – are reasonably expected of others. A person might promise to climb Mount Everest (or at least make a serious attempt) prior to their 50thbirthday. This might present the greatest challenge imaginable. Yet we know scaling the heights of Everest is possible. As such, the person who made this promise is bound to honour their commitment.

Of course, at the time of making such a promise, no person can know with absolute certainty they will be able to meet the obligation they have taken on. There are just too many variables outside of their control that can frustrate their best laid plans. Weather conditions might lead to the closure of the mountain. The need to provide personal care to a loved one could extend well beyond any anticipated period. Given this, our ethical commitments are almost always tinged with a measure of hope.

What is hope?

Hope is an expectation that some desirable circumstance will arise. Hope sometimes blends into something closer to ‘faith’ – where belief about a state of affairs cannot be proven. However, for most people, most of the time, ‘hope’ is a reasonable expectation.

For example, if a person makes commitments that critically depend on other people keeping their promises, that person cannot know for certain they can honour their word. Yet, if these people are known and trusted, perhaps based on past experience, then a hopeful dependence on their performance would be reasonable.

The same can be said of other commitments, such as promising to meet for a picnic on a particular day. You might make the plan in the hopeful expectation of fine weather and do so with good grounds based on a checked forecast predicting clear skies.

There are two things to be noted here. First, some aspects of hope depend (for their reasonableness) on the ethical commitments of other people (for example, to keep promises). It follows there will often be a reciprocal ethical aspect to the practice of ‘reasonable’ hoping.

Second, it’s not enough to be naively hopeful. Instead, one needs to take reasonable efforts to ensure there is some basis for relying on a hoped-for circumstance. This is especially so if the hoped-for circumstance is of critical importance to matters of grave ethical significance – such as making a promise to someone.

Given this, there may be good grounds to calibrate commitments in line with the degree to which you might reasonably hope for a particular circumstance to prevail. For example, rather than making an open commitment to meet for a particular picnic on a particular day it might be better to qualify the point by saying, “I promise to meet you if the weather is fine”.

 ‘It’s not enough to be naively hopeful.’

We often see the absence of this kind of forethought when it comes to the promises made by politicians during elections. They will make promises – probably based on hopeful projections about the future – only to find themselves accused of lying or having acted in bad faith when the promise is not honoured.

It’s insufficient for the politician to say they merely ‘hoped’ to be able to keep their word and that they now find their situation to be unexpectedly different. It would have been far better and far more responsible to qualify the promise in line with what might explicitly and reasonably be hoped for.

Two final comments. First, it should be understood a person often has some control over whether or not their hopes can be realised. As such, each person is responsible for those of their actions that impinge on the way they meet their obligations – we are not simply ‘bystanders’ who can idly hope for certain outcomes without lifting a finger to make them manifest.

Second, given our inability to know what the future holds, hope always plays a role in the process of making ethical commitments. The key thing is to be reasonable in what we hope for and to calibrate our commitments accordingly.

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Have you made promises you were uncertain you could keep?


Temple Grandin

Big Thinker: Temple Grandin

Big Thinker: Temple Grandin

Turning a perceived disability into a new way of solving problems, Temple Grandin has revolutionised the meat processing industry and changed the way the world views autism.

Temple Grandin (1947 – present) is an autism advocate and animal scientist who works to improve animal treatment in the livestock industry. Grandin has also changed public perceptions of autism, helping educators to maximise the strengths of those with autism, rather than focusing only on deficiencies.

An animal lover and meat eater, Grandin has used her autistic trait of “thinking in pictures” to design livestock facilities and educate meat produces on how to minimise animal suffering. As a result, she says there’s been ‘light years of improvement’ in an industry where half of all cattle in the United States are handled in facilities she designed.

 

This isn’t enough for some animal rights activists though, who accuse her of trying to soften the image of a ‘violent’ sector.

Thinking like a cow

Temple Grandin did not talk until she was three and a half years old. She struggled to communicate throughout her childhood, and other students bullied her at school.But there was one high school teacher, Mr Carlock, who saw something special in her. He mentored the troubled girl and encouraged her to study science.

Shocked by the cruelty she saw in abattoirs, Grandin combined her love for science and animals by fixating on designs to improve animal welfare in these facilities. Grandin knew she learned better by visualising, rather than reading and hearing long strings of words. In this respect, her thinking pattern was similar to animals, who don’t ‘speak’ a language.

She observed cattle in slaughterhouses, seeing how they responded to fear, senses, smells and visual memories. When cows can see they’re about to be killed, they panic, fall and injure themselves. To combat this, Grandin invented the curved loading chutes, which block their vision of what’s ahead, keeping them calm.

This not only improves animal welfare, it saves producers the cost of cattle death, injury and bruising – which also reduces the quality of meat. Grandin has spent her career designing livestock facilities to improve the way animals are treated.

In 1997, she worked with McDonalds after activists exposed animal torture on their production plants. She helped the fast food chain clean up cruel practices and restore its public image.

In 2010, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world for her work in animal welfare.

We need autistic minds

Grandin has also changed public perceptions of autism, a condition relatively unknown when she grew up. She argues people on the autism spectrum – who tend to struggle with verbal communication but think in pictures – can provide more insight in certain fields than those who think in a more conventional mathematical way.

“Visual thinking is an asset for an equipment designer. I am able to ‘see’ how all parts of a project will fit together and see potential problems.”

Grandin encourages teachers to develop the strengths of autistic children, and has devised clever ways to combat perceived flaws.Like many on the spectrum, she is oversensitive to touch. “I always hated to be hugged”, she says.

So at age 18, she built a ‘squeeze machine’ – two hinged wooden boards lined with foam rubber, which allows users to control the amount and duration of pressure applied. Therapy programs across the United States continue to utilise squeeze machines, with research showing they help relieve stress in users.

Sleeping with the enemy

While a hero to the autism community, Grandin’s work divides animal welfare activists. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal (PETA), the world’s largest animal rights group, appreciate and publish her work. Others, like biologist Marc Bekoff, have a beef with her getting in bed with an industry that kills animals so humans can eat them.

“No animal who winds up in the factory farm production line has a good or even moderately good life.” – Marc Bekoff

Grandin’s retort is that without meat eaters, farm animals would have no life at all. She argues if animals are going to die anyway, it’s important to minimise their suffering.

Does this apply to humans too?

The New York Times once asked her if she’d consider helping to make capital punishment more humane. Her response was blunt.

“I have read things about the malfunctions of the electric chair… I know how to fix it, but I will not use my knowledge to have any involvement in that. I will not cross the species barrier to help kill people. Period.”

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Should an animal lover work with animal killers?