How to improve your organisation’s ethical decision-making

Are you confident in your organisation’s ability to negotiate difficult ethical terrain? The Ethics Centre’s Decision Lab is a robust process that can help expand your ethical decision-making capability.

Imagine you run a not-for-profit that helps people experiencing problem gambling. You are approached by a high-net-worth individual connected to the gambling industry who is interested in making a substantial donation to your organisation. Funding is always hard to come by and you know you could reach many more people in need with this money. Do you accept the donation? 

Or imagine you are the CEO of a publicly listed consulting firm that is deciding whether to take on a new client in the fossil fuel industry. You suspect it would be unpopular with younger members of your staff and some of your other clients, but it’s a very lucrative contract and it would significantly boost your bottom line ahead of reporting season. Do you take on the client? 

What if you sat on the board of a major corporation that is planning to make a public statement urging the government to adopt a new progressive social policy. The proposed policy does not impact your business directly, but a majority of your staff support it. However, you personally have misgivings about the policy and suspect some other employees do as well. Do you put your name on the public statement? 

What would you do in each of these situations? If you do have an answer, could you explain how you arrived at your decision? Could you defend it in public? Could you defend it on the front page of the newspaper? 

Dealing with ethically-charged situations like these is never easy. Not only do our decisions have a material impact on multiple stakeholders, but we also need to be able to communicate and justify them. This is complicated by the fact that many of the influences on our ethical decision-making are implicit, meaning we risk making decisions based on unexamined values or we might struggle to explain how we arrived at a particular conclusion. 

This is why The Ethics Centre has developed Decision Lab, a comprehensive ethical decision-making toolkit that surfaces the implicit elements in ethical decision-making and provides a robust process to navigate the ethical dimensions of critical decisions for organisations big and small. 

Decision Lab

The Decision Lab process begins by clarifying the organisation’s core purpose, values and principles. The purpose includes the organisation’s overall mission, which is what it is aiming to achieve, and its vision, which is what the world looks like when it has achieved it. The values are what the organisation believes to be good and the principles are the guiderails that guide decision-making. 

Even organisations that have published mission statements and codes of conduct will find that employees will have different understandings of purpose, values and principles, and these differences can influence ethical decision-making in a profound way. By bringing these perspectives to the surface, the Decision Lab process enables the diversity to be recognised and engaged with constructively rather than leaving it implicit and having different individuals pulling in different directions. 

The Decision Lab also explores the process of decision-making, testing critical assumptions and taking multiple perspectives into account to ensure no key elements are overlooked. Take the hypothetical above about the not-for-profit. It would be easy to focus on the issue of whether it is hypocritical to accept money from those associated with gambling in order to fight problem gambling. But it is also crucial to consider the impact on other stakeholders, such as the beneficiaries of the not-for-profit’s services, their families and communities, or consider whether the perception of hypocrisy might affect future fundraising. 

Shadow values

The process also acknowledges common biases and influences that can derail decision-making. A common one is the organisation’s Shadow Values which are the hidden uncodified norms and expectations promoted often out of awareness that can influence how the entire organisation operates. For example, many organisations explicitly subscribe to values such as integrity, but the shadow values might promote loyalty, which could prevent an employee from calling out a senior manager who is misrepresenting the work being done for a client.  

The Decision Lab then provides a checklist for decisions that can be used as a ‘no regrets test,’ ensuring that all relevant elements have been considered. For example, should the consulting firm reject the contract with the fossil fuel company, it could suffer a backlash from shareholders, who argue that the board has a responsibility to create value for shareholders within the law rather than pursue political agendas. The Decision Lab checklist would ensure that such eventualities are considered before the decision was made. 

The decision-making process is then stress tested against a variety of hypothetical scenarios, such as those above, that are tailored to the organisation’s mission and circumstances. This allows participants to put ethical decision-making into practice, engage in constructive deliberation and learn how to evaluate options and develop implementation plans as a team. 

On completion of the Decision Lab, The Ethics Centre provides a customised decision-making framework that is tailored to the organisation and its needs for future reference. 

Open book

The Decision Lab is a powerful and practical tool for any organisation looking to improve its ethical decision-making. It also has other benefits, such as increases awareness of the lived organisational culture, including the beliefs, attitudes and practices shared amongst its people. It identifies how the current culture and systems are enabling or constraining the realisation of the organisation’s goals. 

By unifying employees around a common purpose and encouraging values-aligned behaviour, it ensures that the entire organisation is working as a unit towards a shared vision. The deliberative process also helps to build a climate of trust within the organisation, which aids in avoiding and resolving conflicts, as well as promoting good decision-making.  

Individuals and organisations are constantly making decisions that have wide-reaching impacts. The question is: are you doing it well? The Decision Lab can ensure that your organisation’s decision-making is done in an open, robust and constructive manner, producing more ethical decisions and contributing to a positive work culture.  


The Ethics Centre is a thought leader in assessing organisational cultural health and building leadership capability to make good ethical decisions. To arrange a confidential conversation contact the team at Or visit our consulting page to learn more. 

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How should businesses navigate ethical issues?

5 things we learnt from The Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2022

Crime, culture, contempt and change – this year our Festival of Dangerous Ideas speakers covered some of the dangerous issues, dilemmas and ideas of our time. 

Here are 5 things we learnt from FODI22:

1. Humans are key to combating misinformation

 Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen says the world’s biggest social media platform’s slide into a cesspit of fake news, clickbait and shouty trolling was no accident – “Facebook gives the most reach to the most extreme ideas – and we got here through a series of individual decisions made for business reasons.”  

While there are design tools that will drive down the spread of misinformation and we can mobilise as customers to put pressure on the companies to implement them, Haugen says the best thing we can do is have humans involved in the decision-making process about where to focus our attention, as AI and computers will automatically opt for the most extreme content that gets the most clicks and eyeballs.

2. We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable

In an impassioned love letter “to the man who bashed me”, poet and gender non-conforming artist, Alok teaches us the power of vulnerability, empathy and telling our own stories. “What’s missing in this world is a grief ritual – we carry so much pain inside of us, and we have nowhere to put the pain so we put it in each other.”  

The more specific our words are the more universally we resonate, Alok says, “what we’re looking for as a people is permission – permission not just to tell our stories, but also to exist.” 

3. We have to know ourselves better than machines do

Tech columnist and podcaster, Kevin Roose says “we are all different now as a result of our encounters with the internet.” From ‘recommended for you’ pages to personalisation algorithms, every time we pick up our phones, listen to music, watch Netflix, these persuasive features are sitting on the other side of our screens, attempting to change who we are and what we do. Roose says we must push back on handing all control to AI, even if it’s time consuming or makes us feel uncomfortable. 

“We need a deeper understanding of the forces that try to manipulate us online – how they work, and how to engage wisely with them is the key not only to maintaining our independence and our sense of selves, but also to our survival as a species.” 

4. We can use shame to change behaviour

Described by writer Jess Hill as “the worst feeling a human can possibly have”, the World Without Rape the panel discuss the universal theme of shame when it comes to sexual violence and its use as a method of control.  

Instead of it being a weight for victims to bear, historian Joanna Bourke talks about shame as a tool to change perpetrator behaviour. “Rapists have extremely high levels of alcohol abuse and drug addictions because they actually do feel shame… if we have feminists affirming that you ought to feel shame then we can use that to change behaviour.” 

5. Reason, science and humanism are the key to human progress

Steven Pinker believes in progress, arguing that the Enlightenment values of reason, science and humanism have transformed the world for the better, liberating billions of people from poverty, toil and conflict and producing a world of unprecedented prosperity, health and safety.  

But that doesn’t mean that progress is inevitable. We still face major problems like climate change and nuclear war, as well as the lure of competing belief systems that reject reason, science and humanism. If we remain committed to Enlightenment values, we can solve these problems too. “Progress can continue if we remain committed to reason, science and humanism. But if we don’t, it may not.” 


Catch up on select FODI22 sessions, streaming on demand for a limited time only.

Photography by Ken Leanfore

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Ethics Explainer: Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory (CRT) seeks to explain the multitude of ways that race and racism have become embedded in modern societies. The core idea is that we need to look beyond individual acts of racism and make structural changes to prevent and remedy racial discrimination.


Despite debates about Critical Race Theory hitting the headlines relatively recently, the theory has been around for over 30 years. It was originally developed in the 1980s by Derrick Bell, a prominent civil rights activist and legal scholar. Bell argued that racial discrimination didn’t just occur because of individual prejudices but also because of systemic forces, including discriminatory laws, regulations and institutional biases in education, welfare and healthcare.  

During the 1950s and 1960s in America, there were many legal changes that moved the country towards racial equality. Some of the most significant legal changes include the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which explicitly banned racial apartheid in American schools, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

These rulings and laws formally criminalised segregation, legalised interracial marriage and reduced restrictions in access to the ballot box that had been commonplace in many parts of America since the 1870s. There was also a concerted effort across education and the media to combat racially discriminatory beliefs and attitudes.

However, legal scholars noticed that even in spite of these prominent efforts, racism persisted throughout the country. How could racial equality be legislated by the highest court in America, and yet racial discrimination still occur every day?  


Critical race theory, often shortened to CRT, is an academic framework that was developed out of legal scholarship that wanted to explain how institutions like the law perpetuates racial discrimination. The theory evolved to have an additional focus on how to change structures and institutions to produce a more equitable world. Today, CRT is mostly confined to academia, and while some elements of CRT may inform parts of primary and secondary education, very few schools teach CRT in its full form.  

Some of the foundational principles of CRT are:  

  1. CRT asserts that race is socially constructed. This means that the social and behavioural differences we see between different racialised groups are products of the society that they live in, not something biological or “natural.”  
Source: Museums Victoria Collections

There is a long history of people using science to attempt to prove that there were significant social and psychological differences among people of different racial groups. They claimed these differences justified the poor treatment of people of different ‘inferior races’, or the ‘breeding out’ of certain races. This is how white Australians justified the atrocities committed in the Stolen Generations, such as the attempted ‘breeding out’ of Aboriginal people.  

        2. Racism is systemic and institutional. Imagine if everyone in the world magically erased all their racial biases. Racism would still exist, because there are systems and institutions that uphold racial discrimination, even if the people within them aren’t necessarily racist.  

There are many examples of systemic and institutional racism around the world. They become evident when a system doesn’t have anything explicitly racist or discriminatory about it, but there are still differences in who benefits from that system. One example is the education system: it’s not explicitly racist, but students of different racial backgrounds have different educational outcomes and levels of attainment. In the US, this occurs because public schools are funded by both local and state governments, which means that children going to school in lower socioeconomic areas will be attending schools that receive less funding. Statistically, people of colour are more likely to live in lower socioeconomic areas of America.  So, even though the education system isn’t explicitly racist (i.e., treating students of one racial background differently from students of a different racial background), their racial background still impacts their educational outcomes.

        3. There is often more than one part of identity that can impact a person’s interaction with systems and institutions in society. Race is just one of many parts of identity that influences how a person will interact with the world. Different identities, including race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, religion and ability, intersect with each other and compound. This is an idea known as “intersectionality.” 

Most of the time, it’s not just one part of a person’s identity that is impacting their experiences in the world. Someone who is a Black woman will experience racism differently from a Black man, because gender will impact experience, just like race. A wealthy Chinese-Australian person will have a different experience living in Australia than a working class Chinese-Australian person. Ultimately, CRT tells us that we need to look at race in conjunction with other facets of identity that impact a person’s experience.  

Critical Race Theory and racism in Australia

As Australians, it’s easy to point the finger at the US and think “well, at least we aren’t as bad as them.” However, this mentality of only focusing on the worst instances of racism means we often ignore the happenings closer to home. A 2021 survey conducted by the ABC found that 76% of Australians from a non-European background reported experiencing racial discrimination. One-third of all Australians have experienced racism in the workplace and two-thirds of students from non-Anglo backgrounds have experienced racism in school.  

In addition to frequent instances of racism, Australia’s history is fraught with racism that is predominantly left out of high school history textbooks. From our early colonial history to racial discrimination during the gold rush in the 1850s to anti-immigration rhetoric today, we don’t need to look far for examples of racial discrimination. A little known part of Australian history is that non-British immigrants from 1901 until the 1960s were told that if they moved to Australia, they had to shed their languages and culture.  

Even though CRT originates in the US, it is a useful framework for encouraging a closer analysis of Australia’s racist history and how this has caused the imbalances and inequalities we see today. And once we understand the systemic and institutional forces that promote or sustain racial injustice, we can take measures to correct them to produce more equitable outcomes for all. 

If you want to learn more about how race has impacted the world today, here are some good places to start:  

  • Nell Painter’s Soul Murder and Slavery – her work has focused on the generational psychological impact of the trauma of slavery. Here is an interview where Painter talks a little bit about her work.  
  • Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, with the New York Times – you can listen to the podcast on Spotify, which has six great episodes on some of the less reported ways that slavery has impacted the functioning of US society.   
  • Dear White People – a Netflix show that deals with some of the complications of race on a US college campus.  
  • Ladies in Black – a movie about Sydney c. 1950s, shows many instances of the casual racism towards refugees and immigrants from Europe.  

For a deeper dive on Critical Race Theory, Claire G. Coleman presents Words Are Weapons and Sisonke Msimang and Stan Grant present Precious White Lives as Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2022Tickets on sale now.

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How does race impact you?

Big Thinker: Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker (1954-present) is an experimental psychologist who is “interested in all aspects of language, mind, and human nature.” In 2021, Academic Influence calculated that he was the second-most influential psychologist in the world in the decade 2010-2020.

Steven Pinker is a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, psycholinguist, popular science author and public intellectual. He grew up in Montreal, earning his Bachelor’s degree in experimental psychology from McGill University and his PhD from Harvard University. He is currently the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard. 

At the start of his graduate studies, Pinker found himself interested in language, and in particular, language development in children. In 1994, he went on to publish the first of his nine books written for a general audience, entitled The Language Instinct. In the book, Pinker introduces the reader to some of the fundamental parts of language, and argues that language itself is an instinct that makes humans unique. 

Language, society and the mind

Try and have a thought without any language. It might be an idea or a memory that appears in your mind with no words or internal monologue. It’s quite difficult to switch off the voice in our heads for more than a few seconds. Pinker researches this connection between language and how our minds work. 

To date, Pinker is the author of nine books written for a general audience. He covers a wide range of topics and questions that get at the heart of how we learn languages and what this does to our minds. His book The Stuff of Thought (2007) looks at how language shapes the way we think. He begins by suggesting  that when we use language, we are doing two things: 

  1. Conveying a message to someone
  2. Negotiating the social relationship between ourselves and whoever we are speaking to  

For example, when a professor stands at the front of a lecture hall and tells her students “may I have your attention, class is about to begin” the professor is doing two things. First, she is alerting her students that class is starting (the message), and second, she is operating within the professor-student hierarchy (the social relationship) in which students should give their attention.  

Taking this framework for language, Pinker works to untangle some of the complicated questions around language, such as “Why do so many swear words involve topics like sex, bodily functions or the divine?” and “Why do some children’s names thrive while others fall out of favour?” 

Trends of today: is violence declining? 

Pinker’s academic interests and research extends beyond language. In 2011, he published The Better Angels of Our Nature, which makes the claim that violence in human societies has generally decreased steadily over time. 

Historical data from past centuries are far less complete, but the existing estimates of death tolls, when calculated as a proportion of the world’s population at the time, show at least nine atrocities before the 20th century (that we know of) which may have been worse than World War II.”

Violence in this case does not just mean war. Pinker also looks at collapsing empires, the slave trade, the murder of native peoples, treatment of children and religious persecution as acts of violence in the world. While it feels like we see and hear about a lot of violence today, he notes that it’s often because these are ‘newsworthy’ events. 

In the case of violence, you never see a reporter with a microphone and a sound truck in front of a high school announcing that the school has not been shot up today, or in an African capital noting that a civil war has not erupted.”

After establishing the trend of declining violence, he looks at historical factors that work to explain why we live in a less violent world. Some of these trends include increasing respect for women, the rise in technological progress, and more application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs. 

Current work

Steven Pinker’s work has received a number of prizes for his books, including the William James Book Prize three times, the Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize, the Eleanor Maccoby Book Prize, the Cundill Recognition of Excellence in History Award, and the Plain English International Award. He has also served as an editor and advisor for a variety of scientific, scholarly, media and humanist organisations.

Steven Pinker still spends his time researching a diverse array of topics in psychology, language, historical and recent trends in violence, and neurobiology. One specific area he is currently researching is the role of common knowledge (i.e., things that we know other people know without having to say what we know) in language and other social phenomena. 

Steven Pinker presents Enlightenment or Dark Age? as part of Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2022. Tickets on sale now.

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Read before you think: 10 dangerous books for FODI22

Truth, trust, tech, tattoos and taboos – The Festival of Dangerous Ideas returns live to Sydney 17-18 September with big ideas, dicey topics and critical conversations. 

From history and science, to art, politics, and economics, FODI holds issues up to the light – challenging, celebrating and debating some of the most complex questions of our times. 
In partnership with Gleebooks, these 10 reads from this year’s line-up of thinkers, artists, experts and disruptors will sharpen your mind, put your mettle to the test and help you stay ahead of the discussion:


Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon

Talking from their own experiences as a gender non-conforming artist, Alok Vaid-Menon challenges the world to see gender in full colour.

Alok // Live at FODI22 // Beyond the Gender Binary // Sat 17 Sept // 7:15pm


Lies, Damned Lies by Claire G. Coleman

A deeply personal exploration of Australia’s past, present and future, and the stark reality of the ongoing trauma of Australia’s violent colonisation.

Claire G. Goleman // Live at FODI22 // Words are Weapons // Sun 18 Sept // 11am


See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill

A confronting and deeply researched account uncovering the ways in which abusers exert control in the darkest, and most intimate, ways imaginable.

Jess Hill // Live at FODI22 // World Without Rape // Sun 18 Sept // 2pm


Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Exploring the formidable challenges we face today – rather than sinking into despair we must treat them as problems we can solve.

Steven Pinker // Live at FODI22 // Enlightenment or a dark age? // Sun 18 Sept // 6pm


Futureproof: 9 rules for humans in the age of automation by Kevin Roose

A hopeful, pragmatic vision for how we can thrive in the age of AI and automation.

Kevin Roose // Live at FODI22 // Caught in a Web // Sat 17 Sept // 3pm


Rebel with a cause by Jacqui Lambie

The Senator’s memoir that is as fascinating, honest, surprising and headline-grabbing as the woman herself.

Jacqui Lambie // Live at FODI22 // On Blowing Things Up // Sat 17 Sept // 11am


The Uncaged Sky by Kylie Moore-Gilbert

The extraordinary true story of Moore-Gilbert’s fight to survive 804 days imprisoned in Iran, exploring resilience, solidarity and what it means to be free.

Kylie Moore-Gibert // Live at FODI22 // Expendable Australians // Sat 17 Sept // 4pm


Quarterly Essay 87: The Ethics and Politics of Public Debate by Waleed Aly & Scott Stephens 

In this edition of Quarterly Essay, Aly and Stephens explore why public debate is increasingly polarised – and what we can do about it.

Waleed Aly & Scott Stephens present a special edition of The Minefield live at FODI22 // Contempt is Corroding Democracy // Sun 18 Sept // 3pm

Strongmen by Ruth Ben-Ghiat

A fierce and perceptive history, and a vital step in understanding how to combat the forces which seek to derail democracy and seize our rights.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat // Live at FODI22 // Return of the Strongman // Sat 17 Sept // 5pm


When America Stopped Being Greatby Nick Bryant

The history of Trump’s rise is also a history of America’s fall – not only are we witnessing America’s post-millennial decline, but also the country’s disintegration.

Nick Bryant // Live at FODI22 // American Decadence // Sun 18 Sept // 12pm

These t
itles, plus more will be available at the
FODI Dangerous Books popup running 10am-8pm across 17-18 September at Carriageworks, Sydney. Check out the full FODI program at

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Come join the Circle of Chairs

More than thirty years ago, philosopher and Executive Director of The Ethics Centre, Dr Simon Longstaff AO placed a dozen chairs in a circle in Martin Place in the centre of Sydney’s busy CBD. Next to them he put up a sign that said: “If you would like to discuss ideas with a philosopher join the circle”. 

At first, the circle attracted little more than sidelong glances from curious passers-by. But it wasn’t long before people paused to read the sign, a few of them taking up the offer to occupy one of the chairs and start a conversation. Soon the circle was full and the discussion buzzing. 

Simon discovered that many people had an unsated appetite for a different kind of conversation than the one that usually unfolded with friends, family and colleagues or, heaven forbid, online.  

This was a kind of conversation where they could open up and express their deepest beliefs and attitudes, where they could ask questions without people presuming the worst about them, where they could have their ideas challenged without feeling judged or threatened, and where they could explore a topic before making up their mind.  

Simon returned regularly to Martin Place with his circle of chairs, and each time more and more people stopped by to discuss ideas with him and the others seated around the circle. People started to come from far and wide to join in the conversation, having heard about it from friends or family. Rarely were chairs left empty.  

With his Circle of Chairs, Simon had effectively created a space where people were safe to talk about difficult and challenging subjects. What made it work was that it wasn’t just free and unregulated discourse. Simon was able to bring his skills as a philosopher to facilitate the conversation and set appropriate norms that enabled people to speak and listen in good faith in ways that are difficult to achieve in everyday conversations. 

This exercise all those years ago served as a crucial spark that led to the creation of The Ethics Centre, which still works to create safe spaces to discuss difficult and important subjects to this day. 

Welcome to the conversation

Presented by The Ethics Centre, Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) is Australia’s original disruptive festival. By holding uncomfortable ideas up to the light and challenging thinking on some of the most persevering and difficult issues of our time, FODI aims to question our deepest held beliefs and desires. 

Which is why Dr Simon Longstaff’s original vision of a Circle of Chairs is returning to this year’s FODI, in partnership with JobLink Plus. With six sessions held over the two days, we’re inviting festival goers to take up a chair and sit shoulder to shoulder with leading philosophers Dr Simon Longstaff, Dr Tim Dean and Dr Kelly Hamilton, who will be joined by special guest conversationalists to unpick some of modern life’s most dangerous ethical dilemmas. 

Will you agree with your fellow FODI attendee’s views? Pull up a chair and join or simply watch the guided conversations unfold as together we examine how we’re really feeling, thinking and doing.  

We hope to see more safe spaces opening up outside of FODI to help us all have the opportunity to share our authentic views and tackle the most challenging, and important, questions that we face today.

Circle of Chairs returns to Festival of Dangerous Ideas live 17-18 September at Carriageworks, Sydney. Book your free ticket to one of the sessions here. Supported by Joblink Plus.

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How can we freely discuss ideas without fear or judgement?

Ethics Explainer: Gender

Gender is a complex social concept that broadly refers to characteristics, like roles, behaviours and norms, associated with masculinity and femininity.  

Historically, gender in Western cultures has been a simple thing to define because it was seen as an extension of biological sex: ‘women’ were human females and ‘men’ were human males, where female and male were understood as biological categories. 

This was due to a view that espouses the idea that biology (i.e., sex) predetermines or limits a host of social, psychological and behavioural traits that are inherently different between men and women, a view often referred to as biological determinism. This is where we get stereotypes like “men are rational and unemotional” and “women are passive and caring”.  

While most people reject biologically deterministic views today, most still don’t distinguish between sex and gender. However, the conversation is slowly beginning to shift as a result of decades of feminist literature.  

Additionally, it’s worth noting that outside of Western traditions, gender has been a much more fluid and complex concept for thousands of years. Hundreds of traditional cultures around the world have conceptions of gender that extend beyond the binary of men and women. 

Feminist Gender Theory 

Feminism has had a long history of challenging assumptions about gender, especially since the late twentieth century. Alongside some psychologists at the time, feminists began differentiating between sex and gender to argue that many of the differences between men and women that people took to be intrinsic were really the result of social and cultural conditioning.  

Prior to this, sex and gender were thought be essentially the same thing. This encouraged people to confer biological differences onto social and cultural expectations. Feminists argue that this is a self-fulfilling misconception that produces oppression in many different ways; for example, socially and culturally limiting attitudes that prevent women from engaging in “masculine” activities and vice versa.  

Really, they say, gender is social and sex is biological. Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir famously said: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”.  

Gender being social means that it’s a concept that is constructed and shaped by our perceptions of masculinity and femininity, and that it can vary between societies and cultures. Sex being biological means that it’s scientifically observable (though the idea of binary sex is also being questioned given there are over 100 million intersex people all over the world). 

Philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir argued that gendered assumptions and expectations were so deeply engrained in our lives that they began to appear biologically predetermined, which gave credence to the idea of women being subservient because they were biologically so. 

“Social discrimination produces in women moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to be caused by nature.” 

Gender and Identity 

Gender being socially constructed means that it is mutable. With this increasingly mainstream understanding, people with more diverse gender identities than simply that which they were assigned at birth (cisgender) have been able to identify themselves in ways that more closely reflect their experiences and expressions. 

For example, some people identify with a different gender than what they were assigned at birth based on their sex (transgender); some people don’t identify as either man or woman, and instead feel that they are somewhere in between, or that the binary conception of gender doesn’t fit their experience and identity at all (non-binary). In many non-western cultures, gender has never been a binary concept. 

Unfortunately, with the inherently identity-based nature of gender, a host of ethical issues arise mostly in the form of discrimination. 

Transgender people, for example, are often the target of discrimination. This can be in areas as simple as what bathrooms they use to more complicated areas like participation in elite sports. Notably, these examples of discrimination are almost always targeted at transfeminine people (those who identify as women after being assigned men at birth). 

Additionally, there are ethical considerations that have to be taken into account when young people, particularly minors, make decisions about affirming their gender. Currently, it’s standard medical practice for people under 18 to be barred from making decisions about permanent medical procedures, though this still allows them to (with professional, medical guidance) take puberty blockers that help to mitigate extra dysphoria linked to undergoing puberty in a gender the person doesn’t identify with. 

Gender stereotypes in general also have negatives effects on all genders. Genderqueer people are often the targets of violence and discrimination. Women have historically been and are still oppressed in many ways because of systemic gender biases, like being discouraged to work in certain fields, being paid less for similar work or being harassed in various areas of their lives. Men also face harmful effects of rigid gender norms that often result in risk-taking behaviour, internalisation of mental health struggles, and encouraging violent or anti-social behaviour. 

The Future of Gender 

This has been an overview of the most common views on gender. However, there are also many variations on the traditional feminist view that other feminists argue are more accurate depictions of reality.  

bell hooks was known to criticise some variations of gender that revolved around sexuality because they did not properly account for the way that class, race and socio-economic status changed the way that a woman was viewed and expected to behave. For example, many views of gender are from the perspective of white, western women and so fail to represent women in more marginalised circumstances. 

Along similar lines, Judith Butler criticises the very idea of grouping people into genders, arguing that it is and will always be inherently normative and hence exclusionary. For Butler, gender is not simply about identity, it’s primarily about equality and justice. 

Even some earlier gender theorists like Gayle Rubin argue for the eventual abolishment of gender from society, in which people are free to express themselves in whatever individual way they desire, free from any norms or expectations based on their biology and subsequent socialisation. 

“The dream I find most compelling is one of an androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love.” 

Gender is currently a very active research and debate area, not only in philosophy, but also in sociology, politics and LGBTQI+ education. While theories about identity often result in conflict due to its inherently personal nature, it’s promising to see such a clear area where work by philosophers has significantly influenced public discourse with profound effects on many people’s lives. 


For a deeper dive on gender, Alok Vaid-Menon presents Beyond the Gender Binary as part of Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2022. Tickets on sale now.

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What do we owe to others?

Big Thinker: Joanna Bourke

Joanna Bourke (1963 – present) is an historian, academic and philosopher who specialises in understanding the history of social and cultural phenomena. Her work has profoundly shaped our understanding of many fundamental aspects of human experience. 

Joanna Bourke was born in New Zealand, and lived in Zambia, Solomon Island, and Haiti as a young child. She graduated from Auckland University with a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in history, and went on to complete her PhD at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. 

The dark parts of human experience

After writing her dissertation, titled Husbandry to Housewifery: Rural Women and Development in Ireland, 1890-1914 (1989), Bourke became interested in the experiences of men and women during wartime. Her work as a social and cultural historian has led her down a path of dealing with some of the less pleasant parts of being human, including topics such as pain, killing, war, violence, fear and rape. Bourke has been drawn to these elements of human experience because she feels that “these are the disciplines that have the most to offer us in terms of intellectual responses to current crises.”

Bourke’s book An Intimate History of Killing (1999) asks the question: what are the factors within society and in a war that turn a regular person into a good killer, or more politely, a good soldier? To answer her question, she uses excerpts from diaries, letters, memoirs and reports of Australian, British and American veterans of WWI, WWII and the Vietnam war. Bourke concludes that ordinary, gentle human beings can (and often do) become enthusiastic killers during a war because the structure of war encourages soldiers to feel pleasure from killing.

Some of her writing is also born out of personal experience. After a massive operation and a broken morphine drip, Bourke started thinking about pain and how difficult it is to describe in the English language. In her book The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers (2014), she concludes that it is useful to think about pain in adverbial terms” because “it describes the way we experience something, not what is experienced.” As well as tracing the history of pain from the 1800s to present, she also details how factors such as race, class, gender and age have influenced the medical treatment of pain and often resulted in cruel abuse and neglect.  

“Life’s too short for second editions.” 

Joanna Bourke’s academic interests are vast. She has written 13 books and published over 100 articles, often tackling controversial and taboo topics. 

In her recent book Loving Animals: On Beastiality, Zoophilia and Post Human Love (2020), Bourke argues that we should take a more nuanced approach to how we understand loving relationships between humans and non-human animals. When we take this more nuanced approach, Bourke finds that we are able to gain a clearer understanding of the nature of relationships, love and what we owe each other. 

I will be suggesting that animals are actors in society. This serves to challenge the anthropocentrism of history, human exceptionalism, and the idea that ‘culture’ is an entirely human preserve.”

Bourke begins by pointing out that “studies suggesting a link between bestiality and psychosis should be treated with caution due to sampling bias, because they were conducted on people already within the penal system, rather than a cross-section of the population.” She calls us to think about how we can so freely say that we love our pets, but turn a blind eye to slaughterhouses and factory farming. Bourke wants us to ask: what does it mean to love a non-human animal, and more broadly, what does it mean to love? 

When we remove human exceptionalism from our understanding of human-animal relationships (which Bourke urges that we must), we can begin to think more about what we owe animals and how moral attitudes such as care, compassion, affection and pleasure are not unique to human beings. 

Current work

Bourke is currently a professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London in England. She is also the Principal Investigator for a project called SHaME, or Sexual Harms and Medical Encounters. The project explores the medical and psychiatric aspects of sexual violence, with the aim of moving beyond the shame of sexual assault and address it as a global health crisis. 

Her newest book Disgrace: Global Reflections on Sexual Violence, which has been partially motivated by her work with SHaME, will be available for purchase in Australia on August 15.


Joanna Bourke presents The Last Taboo as part of Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2022. Tickets on sale now.

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What does it mean to love a non-human animal? What does it mean to love?

Finance businesses need to start using AI. But it must be done ethically

Banking and finance businesses can’t afford to ignore the streamlining and cost reduction benefits offered by Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Your business can’t effectively beat the competition marketing any product in the 21st century without using big data and AI. Given the immense amount of consumer data available – and the number of channels, segments and competitors – marketers need to use AI and algorithms to operate successfully in the online environment.

But AI must be used prudently. Business managers must be meticulous in setting up rules for the algorithms’ decision making to prevent AI, which lacks a human’s inherent moral and ethical guiding force, from targeting ads towards unsuitable or vulnerable customers, or making decisions that exacerbate entrenched racial, gender, age, socio-economic, or other disparities and prejudices.

The Banking and Finance Oath’s 2021 Young Ambassadors recognised a gap in the research and delivered report: AI driven marketing in financial services: ethical risks and opportunities. It unravels the complexities of AI’s impact across the financial services industry and government, and establishes a framework that can be applied to other contexts.

In a marketing environment, AI can be used to streamline processes by generating personalised content for customers or targeting them with individual offers; leveraging customers’ data to personalise web and app pages based on their interests; enhancing customer service with chatbots; and supporting a seamless purchasing journey from phone to PC to in-person at a storefront.

Machine learning algorithms draw from immense data pools, such as customers’ credit card transactions and social media click-throughs to predict the likelihood of customers being interested in a product, whether to show them an ad and what ad to show them. But there are ethical risks to navigate at every step – from the quality of the data used to how well the developers and business managers understand the business objectives.

Using AI for marketing in financial services comes with two significant risks. The first is the potential for organisations to be seen as preying on people in vulnerable circumstances.

AI has no moral oversight or human awareness – it simply crunches the numbers and makes the most advantageous and profitable decision to lead to a sales conversion.

And if that decision is to target home loan ads at people going through a divorce or a loved one’s funeral, or to target credit card ads at people who are unemployed or living with addiction, without proper oversight, there’s nothing to stop it.

The other risk is the potential for data misuse and threats to privacy. Customers have a right to their own data and to know how it’s being used – and what demographics they’re being placed in. If your data’s out of date or inaccurate, or missing in sections, you’ll be targeting the wrong people.

All demographics – including racial background, socio-economic status, and individual psychological profile – have the potential to be misused by AI to reinforce gender, racial, age, economic and other disparities and prejudices.

Most ethical failings in AI-driven marketing campaigns can be traced back to issues with governance – poor management of data and lack of communication between developers and business managers. These data governance issues include: siloed databases that don’t share definitions; datasets that don’t refresh quickly enough and become outdated; customer flags that are incorrect or missing; and too many people being designated as data owners, resulting in the deferral of responsibility.

In human driven decision making, there’s a clear line of command, from the Board, to management, to the frontline team. But in AI-driven decision making, the frontline team is replaced by two teams – the AI developers and the team of machines.

Communication gaps emerge where management may not be familiar with instructing AI developers and the field’s highly technical nature, and the developers may not be familiar with the jargon of the business. Training across the business can act to fill these gaps.

Before any business begins to integrate AI into its marketing (and overall) strategy, it’s crucial that it adopt a set of basic ethical principles, these being:

  • Beneficence (or do good): personalise products to improve the customer’s experience and improve their financial literacy by delivering targeted advice.
  • Non-maleficence (or do no harm): ensure your AI marketing doesn’t target customers in inappropriate or harmful ways.
  • Justice: ensure your data doesn’t discriminate based on demographics and exacerbate racial, gender, age, socio-economic or other disparities or stereotypes.
  • Explicability: you need to be able to explain how your AI system makes the decisions it does and the relation between its inputs and outputs. Experts should be able to understand its results, predictions, recommendations and classifications.
  • Autonomy: at the company level, governance processes should keep humans informed of what’s happening; and at a customer level, responsible decision making should be supported through personalisation and recommendation tools.

The reality is that no business can afford to ignore the benefits AI offers, but the risks are very real. By acknowledging the ethical issues, businesses can seize the opportunities while mitigating the risks, benefiting themselves and their customers.

Download a copy of the report here.

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How can we use artificial intelligence humanely?

We are being saturated by knowledge. How much is too much?

We’re hurtling into a new age where the notion of evidence and knowledge has become muddied and distorted. So which rabbit hole is the right one to click through?

Our world is deeply divided, and we have found ourselves in a unique moment in history where the idea of rational thought seems to have been dissolved. It’s no longer as clear cut what is right and just to believe….So what does it mean to truly know something anymore?

According to Emerson, the number one AI chat bot in the world, “rational thought is the process of forming judgements based on evidence” which sounds simple enough. It’s easy to form judgements based on evidence when the object of judgement is tangible — this cheese pizza is delicious, a cat playing a keyboard wearing glasses is funny. These are ideas on which people from all sides of the political spectrum can come to some form of agreement (with a little friendly debate).

But what happens when the ideas become a little more lofty? It’s human nature to believe that our one’s ideas are rational, well reasoned, and based on evidence. But what constitutes evidence in these information rich times?

We’re hurtling into a new age where even the notion of “evidence” has become muddied and distorted.

So where do we even begin — which news is the real news and what’s the responsible way to respond to the news that someone as intelligent as you, in possession of as much evidence as you, believes a different conclusion?

Philosopher Eleanor Gordon-Smith suggests, “There are many, many circumstances in which we decline to avail ourselves of certain beliefs or certain candidate truths because we’re being very Cartesionally responsible and we’re declining to encounter the possibility of doubt. And meanwhile, those of us who are sort of warriors for the enlightenment of being very epistemically polite and trying to only believe those things that we’re allowed to do so on. The conspiracy theorists, meanwhile, consider themselves a veil of knowledge, which then they deploy in a very different way.”

Who gets to be smart?

Before the Enlightenment, the common man had no real business in the pursuit of knowledge, knowledge was very fiercely guarded by the Church and the Crown. But once it dawned on those honest folk that they could in fact have knowledge, it almost became a moral imperative to seize it, regardless of the obstacles.

Nowadays avoiding knowledge is an impossibility impossible. Access to information has been wholly democratised, if you’ve got a smart phone handy, any Google search will result in billions of possible pages and answers. It’s now your choice to determine which rabbit hole is the right one to click. To the untrained eye, there’s no differentiating between information that is thoroughly researched and fact checked and fake news. And according to Eleanor Gordon-Smith it is this saturation of knowledge has come to define our generation. So much so that the value of knowledge “has been subject to a kind of inflation”.

She asks, “how do you restore the emancipatory potential of knowledge that the Enlightenment founders saw? How do you get back the kind of bravery, the self development, the political resistance, the independence in the act of knowing in this particular moment…is there a way to restore the bravery and the value of knowledge in an environment where it’s so cheap and so readily available?”

It is this saturation of knowledge has come to define our generation. So much so that the value of knowledge “has been subject to a kind of inflation”.

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek suggests that perhaps our mistake is putting the Englightment on a pedestal, that those involved in the Enlightment’s pursuit of knowledge mischaracterised those who came before them as naive idiots. “Modernity is not just knowledge. It’s also on the other side, a certain regression to primitivity. The first lesson of good enlightenment is don’t simply fight your opponent. And that’s what’s happening today.”

Perhaps ignorance really is bliss

In the age of disinformation, misinformation and everything in between, admitting you don’t know something almost feels like an act of rebellion. American philosopher Stanley Cavell, boldly asked “how do we learn that what we need is not more knowledge but the willingness to forgo knowledge” (it’s worth noting that this line of questioning saw his publications banned from a number of American university libraries).

Sometimes it is better to be ignorant because, “true knowledge hurts. Basically, we don’t want to know too much. If we get to know too much about it, we will objectivise ourselves, we will lose our personal dignity, so to retain our freedom it’s better not to know too much.” – Žižek

Žižek however admits that we are in a the middle of the fight. We are not at the end of the story. We cannot afford ourselves this retroactive view in the sense of: who cares what is done is already done? “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, we have to change it. We tried to change the world too quickly without really adequately interpreting it. And my motto would have been that 20th century leftists were just trying to change the world. The time is also to interpret it differently. That’s the challenge.”

When the AI chat bot Emerson is asked, “how can you know if something is true” it responds, “truth is a matter of opinion” and given these tumultuous and divided times we are living through, there is perhaps no truer statement.

To delve deeper into the speakers and themes discussed in this article, tune into FODI: The In-Between The Age of Doubt, Reason and Conspiracy.

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How much knowledge is too much?