Settler rage and our inherited national guilt

Professor Marcia Langton offers a distinctive term for settler-Australian racism towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. She calls it the ‘settler mentality’. In her FODI Digital lecture Langton suggests that the experience of living unjustly on stolen Indigenous lands has produced in settler Australians a ‘peculiar hatred’ expressed through ‘settler rage against the people with whom they will not treat.’

While Langton observes the manifold evidence of ‘classical, formal racism’, she maintains that the underlying problem in Australia is ‘a settler population that cannot come to terms with its Indigenous population.’ Here, Langton touches upon a long running debate among scholars seeking to understand the ongoing conflict in Indigenous-settler relations. For some, race—and racism—are the primary lens for understanding both historical and contemporary injustice.

On this view, colonialism is in service to racism, enabling a white supremacist nation to take root on this continent. There is an abundance of evidence to support that claim, for example in the history of eugenicist practices in Australia including the ‘degrees of blood’ that for decades were used to justify the separation Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.

But for me there has always been more weight to support the counter view expressed by Langton.

Racism is real, certainly, but it operates in service to colonialism.

Colonialism cares less about the skin colour of the peoples it dispossesses and far more about accessing and controlling their land. It is in pursuit of land and the resources in and of that land that colonisers everywhere have committed atrocities against Indigenous peoples.

Australia is no exception. It is colonisation and the subsequent failure to negotiate treaties with First Nations on this continent that give rise to the settler state’s moral and legal illegitimacy. Colonisation is violent—no people anywhere in the world have been dispossessed of their land peacefully, and again, Australia is no exception.

Despite the state’s steadfast refusal to properly acknowledge this history, the evidence of over a century of frontier warfare is no secret. It never has been.

In her address, Langton mentions Australian historian Henry Reynolds’ book, This Whispering in Our Hearts, about those who recognised the injustices being perpetrated and were prepared to contest the violence of colonisation.

Langton points out that these settlers were well aware that they had ‘committed a monstrous crime’ and suggests that the criminality of the settler has produced in them a trauma similar to the kind that the German population had to deal with in the wake of the horrors of World War II. In making this comparison Langton references the German academic and novelist Bernhard Schlink’s famous novel The Reader.

In my own work I have drawn on another of Schlink’s books, the non-fiction volume Guilt About the Past, in which he unpacks the way in which the crimes of previous generations infect more than the generation that lives through the era (in his case Nazi Germany).

Schlink argues that guilt about the past also ‘casts a long shadow over the present, infecting later generations with a sense of guilt, responsibility and self-questioning.’ Schlink suggests subsequent generations create their own guilt when, in the face of evidence of past atrocities, they maintain a bond of solidarity with the perpetrators by failing to renounce their actions.

Australian national identity rests on the fantasy that the continent was virtually empty of people when the British arrived and went on to be peacefully settled.

Despite mounting scientific and historical evidence of the sophistication of Indigenous societies, the myth persists that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were ‘primitive’ and backward, and that colonisation brought them the benefits of Western ‘civilisation’.

Settlers hang onto these wrongheaded ideas as a means of justifying our presence and denying the horrors that accompanied dispossession. There is no easy path for reckoning with our forefathers’ crimes, there cannot really be redemption.

If we are here illegitimately then where do we properly belong? If the land is not ours then where should we live? If our presence here is the result of massacre and genocide how do we even begin to make that right?

And so the bonds of solidarity with the original perpetrators live on, deep within settler DNA. For every revelation of past atrocity there will be a critic ready to deny the harms done.

For every proposal to make amends for the past through more just relations today, there is a politician or a journalist ready to defend Australia’s colonial history as a sad but inevitable chapter on the road to modernity. For every call that we not celebrate our national day on the day the atrocities began for Indigenous peoples there is a chorus of criticism in defense of nationalism and ‘Australian identity.’

These responses are damaging to both settler and Indigenous peoples.

While Indigenous peoples are left still to struggle for justice, settlers are left with paralysis.

The peculiar hatred that Langton describes is like a poison in settler society. This poison makes us brittle, defensive, unkind, and greedy, unwilling to give up any of the wealth we have gained through atrocity and dispossession.

Yet even as it makes us sick, still we drink the poison up. This has been the settler’s choice since this continent was first invaded. We can, however, make a different choice. The antidote to the poison of settler society is justice, and it is not beyond our reach.

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

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What lurks behind the racism toward First Nations people?

Ethics Explainer: Testimonial Injustice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Do we all have equal claim to the truth?

In the face of such generosity, how can racism still exist?

Is there any polite or moderate way to condemn racism? I think not. Nor should there be. As the world has witnessed, on countless occasions, racism kills. It does so for the worst of all possible reasons – by denying the equal humanity of some people simply because of the colour of their skin.

The evil caused by racism is not ‘theoretical’. We do not need to speculate about the horrors that it has unleashed. We have only to listen to the evidence of the enslaved, the dispossessed and the murdered to know what follows when one group of people is thought to be ‘less fully human’ than another.

Some people are upset by the words ‘Black Lives Matter’. They assert an alternative proposition that, ‘All Lives Matter’. Well, of course they do. But that has never been denied by the BLM movement. BLM does not claim that only black lives matter. They do not say that black lives matter more than any other.

They simply state that black lives also matter – in a way that racism denies. And they are right. They might also ask, ‘where were the people chanting ‘All Lives Matter’ when the ‘original sin’ of racism was being visited on the world?’. Why has the ‘All Lives Matter’ brigade only found its voice now that the spotlight has been turned on the oppressors by the oppressed?

I come from a privileged background. So, I can barely imagine what it must be like to be on the wrong end of the racist scourge. I can only guess at my reaction – probably a burning rage at the sheer injustice of my treatment. Like the Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr – I would demand to be judged for the quality of my character rather than the colour of my skin. Denied that right, I would let loose my rage on an unjust world and those who represent the system that denied me the most basic form of dignity.

So, it eclipses all understanding to find that, in my experience, the vast majority of Indigenous Australians who have experienced racism are, in fact, amongst the most generous and accepting of people. Yes, there are angry firebrands. However, rather than replicate the wrongs they have suffered or become like those who have denied their humanity, most of those affected choose to repudiate racism by accepting others for who they are and not how they seem.

I speak of this from direct experience. A few days after my seventeenth birthday, I arrived on Groote Eylandt – the home of the Anindilyakwa people of East Arnhem Land and the Gulf of Carpentaria. This was the mid-1970s and the racism directed towards the local mob was common, open and shameless. I doubt that those involved would consider themselves as deliberately being racist. If anything, their racism was almost ‘casual’ in character – a product of ignorance, prejudice and ingrained habits of mind.

It’s hard to explain exactly how and why my experience was so different – perhaps it was my young age or a lucky accident … I really do not know. Whatever the reasons, a few of the Aboriginal men took me under their wing. Friendships developed and eventually I was given a skin name and inducted into a network of kinship ties that I value to this day. The point is that if you were to meet me ‘in the flesh’ you would simply see a middle-aged, white male. As far as I know, I have no genetic ties to the people of Groote. Yet, their acceptance of me has been complete and unconditional.

I have often questioned my experience – wondering if I might have invented a narrative to match an idealized version of myself. However, improbable as it might seem, the connections are real. I will never forget spending an evening with two members of the Amagula Clan (a brother and sister) who explained their kinship connection to me (I carry a Lalara name). Eventually, they simply placed their hands over my heart – to tell me that the colour of my skin, my ‘outward form’, did not matter. That this is not what they saw when they looked at me … but something altogether different. Both are dead – dying far earlier than would have been the case if Australia had been settled on more just terms.

My experience is not unique. Indeed, I believe that our First Nations people are willing to embrace anyone who cares to be open to their doing so. All that is asked is that there be a recognition of simple truths about our relationship to each other and to all that belongs to and is part of the country of which we form equal parts.

In the face of such generosity of spirit – how can we possibly allow racism to persist?

IMAGE CREDIT: The image displayed in this article is a painting by Alfred Lalara (deceased), a talented Groote Eylandt artist. The title is Angurugu River.

You can contact The Ethics Centre about any of the issues discussed in this article. We offer free counselling for individuals via Ethi-callprofessional fee-for-service consulting, leadership and development services; and as a non-profit charity we rely heavily on donations to continue our work, which can be made via our websiteThank you.

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How can racism still exist?

The ethics of tearing down monuments

In the UK and US and other nations around the world, public monuments dedicated to people who have profited from or perpetuated slavery and racism are being torn down by demonstrators and public authorities who sympathise with the justice of their cause.

Statues of Christopher Columbus, Edward Colston, King Leopold II and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee are amongst those toppled in protest.

What are we to make of these acts?  In particular, who should decide the fate of such monuments – and according to what criteria?

By their very nature, statues are intended to honour those they depict. They elevate both the likeness and the reputation of their subject – conferring a kind of immortality denied to those of us who simply fade away in both form and memory.

So, the decision to raise a statue in a public place is a serious matter. The choice reveals much about the ethical sensibilities of those who commission the work. Such a work is a public declaration that a particular person, through their character and deeds, is deserving of public commemoration.

There are six criteria that should be used to evaluate the public standing of a particular life. These can be applied at the time of commissioning a monument or retrospectively when determining if such a commemoration is justified.

  1. They must not be associated with any gateway acts

Are there aspects of the person’s conduct that are so heinous as to rule them out, irrespective of any other achievement that might merit celebration? For example, one would not honour a genocidal mass murderer, even if the rest of their life was marked by the most profoundly positive achievements. There are some deeds that are so wrong as to be beyond rectification.

  1. Their achievements must be exceptionally noteworthy

Did they significantly exceed the achievements of others in relevantly similar circumstances? For example, we should note that most statues recognise the achievements of people who were born into conditions of relative privilege. The outstanding achievements of the marginalised and oppressed are, for the most part, barely noticed, let alone celebrated.

  1. Their work must have served the public good

Did the person pursue ends that were noble and directed to the public good? For example, was the person driven by greed and a desire for personal enrichment – but just happened to increase the common good along the way? 

  1. The means by which they achieved their work must be ethical

Were the means employed by the person ethically acceptable? For example, did the person benefit some by denying the intrinsic dignity of others (through enslavement, etc)?

  1. They must be the principal driver of the outcomes associated with their deeds

    Is the person responsible for the good and evil that flowed from their deeds? Are they a principal driver of change? Or have others taken their ideas and work and used them for good or ill? It is important that we neither praise nor blame people for outcomes that they would never have intended but were the inadvertent product of their work. In those cases, we should not gloss over the truth of what happened. But if they otherwise deserve to be honoured for their achievements, then these should not be deemed ‘tainted’ by the deeds of others.

  2. The monument must contribute positively to the public commons

    Would the creation of the monument be a positive contribution to the public commons, or is it likely to become a site of unproductive strife and dissension? In considering this, does the statue perform a role beyond celebrating a particular person and their life? Is it emblematic of some deeper truth in history that should be acknowledged and debated? Not every public monument should be a source of joy and consensus. Some play a useful role if they prompt debate and even remorse.

It will be noted that five of the six criteria relate to the life of the individual who is commemorated. Only the sixth criterion looks beyond the person to the wider good of society. However, this is an important consideration given that we are thinking, here, specifically about statues displayed in public places.

The retrospective application of this criteria is precisely what is happening ‘on the streets’ at the moment. The trouble is that the popular response is often more visceral than considered – and this sparks deeper concerns amongst citizens who are ready to embrace change … but only if it is principled and orderly.

Of course, asking frustrated and angry people to be ‘principled and orderly’ in their response to oppression is unlikely to produce a positive response. That’s why I think it important for civic authorities to take responsibility for addressing such questions, and to do so proactively.

This was recently demonstrated by the Borough of Tower Hamlets that removed the statue of slave owner Robert Milligan from its plinth at West India Quay in London’s Docklands. As the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, noted: “it’s a sad truth that much of our wealth was derived from the slave trade – but this does not have to be celebrated in our public spaces”.

What does all of this mean for Australia? There will be considerable debate about what statues should be removed. I will leave it to others to apply the criteria outlined above. However, the issue is not just about the statues we take down.

What of those we fail to erect? Who have we failed to honour? For example, have we missed an opportunity to recognise people like Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy whose resistance to European occupation was every bit as heroic as that of the British Queen Boudica. Two warrior-leaders – the latter celebrated; the other not. The absence is eloquent.

You can contact The Ethics Centre about any of the issues discussed in this article. We offer free counselling for individuals via Ethi-callprofessional fee-for-service consulting, leadership and development services; and as a non-profit charity we rely heavily on donations to continue our work, which can be made via our websiteThank you.

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What are the unseen dangers of returning to business?

Ask an ethicist: do teachers have the right to object to returning to school?

In recent weeks, there has been a particularly intense debate about whether or not students should return to the classroom.

This article was first published by Crikey, in their weekly Ask the Ethicist column featuring Dr Simon Longstaff.

Much of that debate has focused on the interests of the children and their families. However, there is a third stakeholder group – the nation’s teachers – who need to be considered. Part ‘essential worker’, part ‘political football’, they have been celebrated on one hand and condemned on the other. So, what are the ethical obligations of those who teach our children during COVID-19.

As a starting point, let’s agree that education is a significant ‘good’ and that children should not be deprived of its benefits unless there are compelling reasons for doing so. Compelling reasons would include the potential risk of infection due to school attendance.

At present, the balance of evidence is that the risk of children becoming infected is low and that they are unlikely to be transmitters of the disease to adults – especially in well-controlled environments. However, why take any risk – if viable alternatives are available?

Here, we should note that the education of children has not been suspended during the crisis. Instead, it has continued by other – ‘online’ – means. This has required a massive effort by the teaching profession to ‘recalibrate’ the learning environment to support distance learning.

We should also note that the ability to provide distance education distinguishes teachers from other essential workers who, of necessity, must provide a face-to-face service. For example, while some doctors can consult with patients using ‘telemedicine’, most health care workers need to be physically present (e.g. when administering a flu injection, or caring for a bed-ridden patient, etc.).

So, if distance learning achieves the same educational outcomes as classroom teaching, teachers would not seem to be under any moral obligation to return to the classroom. However, the Federal Government has recently cited reports suggesting that online learning produces ‘sub-optimal’ outcomes for students (unwelcome news for children living in remote communities and educated by the ‘school of the air’).

If this is true, then it would suggest two things. First that the government should be massively increasing its investment in education for children who have no option but to engage in distance education. Second, that teachers should be heading back into the classroom.

However, what of the teacher who lives with people for whom COVID-19 is a particular threat … the aged and infirm? In those cases, the choice is not just a matter of balancing a public duty as an educator against a preference for personal safety. Rather, the teacher is caught in an ethical dilemma of competing duties.

In such a case, I think it would be reasonable for a teacher to claim they have a conscientious objection to returning to the classroom – grounded in a refusal to be the potential cause of harm to a loved one – especially when the only certain protection for the loved one is that the teacher remain isolated.

You can contact The Ethics Centre about any of the issues discussed in this article. We offer free counselling for individuals via Ethi-callprofessional fee-for-service consulting, leadership and development services; and as a non-profit charity we rely heavily on donations to continue our work, which can be made via our websiteThank you.

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Can you put a price on life?

There’s more than lives at stake in managing this pandemic

Imagine a parallel universe somewhere, one without a pandemic. What would you be spending this week concerned with? What social and political issues would you be wrestling with? How would you be spending your day?

Ironically, my parallel life looks very similar. Locked in a room, thinking a lot about pandemics. I’m not an epidemiologist or a public health expert though – in my parallel universe, I’m preparing to run a thought experiment for The Festival of Dangerous Ideas: The Ethics of the Apocalypse.

The basic premise is to find out whether, facing a couple of end-of-the-world scenarios, the audience can save the human race without losing their humanity in the process. I won’t give away how the event works or is scored, but there are a bunch of different victory conditions – survival is a necessary condition of success, but alone, it’s not sufficient.

That point bears repeating as we live through a pandemic of our very own: survival is a necessary, but insufficient condition for success.

By focusing solely on what is going to guarantee success or best facilitate a flattening of the curve and minimise deaths, we risk permitting a political and social environment that we would, in that parallel universe, reject outright.

Over the last few weeks, as Australia’s containment measures around COVID-19 have grown increasingly strict, there’s been a widespread movement demanding an immediate lockdown. #Lockusdown and other variations have trended on Twitter, and major mastheads have called for increasingly severe policing measures to manage the pandemic. Writing for The Guardian, Grattan Institute CEO John Daley wrote:

“There is no point trying to finesse which strategies work best; instead the imperative would be to implement as many as possible at once, including closing schools, universities, colleges, public transport and non-essential retail, and confining people to their homes as much as possible.

Police should visibly enforce the lockdown, and all confirmed cases should be housed in government-controlled facilities. This might seem unimaginable, but it is exactly what has already happened in China, South Korea and Italy.”

Similar comments have been made by other public commentators in support of such measures, including the ABC’s Norman Swan. Swan has pointed to the efficiency with which China were able to control the spread through draconian measures – including in one case, welding people inside their apartment building.

Imagine in a pre-COVID world, suggesting a liberal democracy like Australia look to the authoritarian state of China for political guidance. Yet, this is what happens when we reduce all things to a single metric: the goal of keeping people at home and flattening the curve of new infections. It is easy to conceptualise. We can visualise what it involves and we can imagine the benefits it confers.

However, whilst this logic is comforting – especially in times when fear and uncertainty are rife – it places us dangerously close to the crude and morally repugnant catch cry: the ends justify the means.

In NSW, new laws and extreme penalties aim to enforce self-isolation regimes – as John Daley’s piece suggested. The maximum penalties for leaving your home without a reasonable excuse (of which sixteen are listed) are six months imprisonment or a fine of up to $11,000.

Are you cooped up in your share house, finding it impossible to work? If you choose to go to the park, you’ll face a severe penalty. Considering using the time your teenager has off school to rack up some learner driving hours by leaving the city and heading to the mountains for a bushwalk? Want to do a drive-by birthday celebration in lieu of an actual party? All of them are now subject to police enforcement. Do any of them, and you’re potentially breaking the law.

There are still those who will argue that it’s good these activities have been made illegal. After all, if you go to the park and sit at a bench, you might pick up coronavirus from someone who was just sitting there, or leave some behind for somebody else. If you go for a drive, you may need to stop for petrol, or break down and need mechanical assistance… more exposures means more risk for vulnerable Australians. The elderly, those with chronic illness, Indigenous Australians and immunocompromised people might be more at risk if you do this. However, it doesn’t follow from this that we should threaten people with prison sentences for failing to play ball.

In suspending our ordinary ways of life, we don’t also suspend the moral norms and ethical principles that give them direction and meaning. Punishments should still be reasonable and proportionate to the offenses; we should still aim to strike a reasonable balance between risk, security and freedom.

As Schwatz Media’s Osman Faruqi – who has been following the authoritarian developments around COVID-19 management – noted ,we should remember that increased law enforcement itself carries a cost. Whilst we’re all equal before the law in principle, in practice, minority communities, the poor, homeless and a range of other groups – vulnerable Australians – tend to bear the brunt of increased police activity around the world.

Police have been encouraged to use their discretion in enforcing these laws, but discretion is subject to bias and inconsistency, as is any other aspect of our decision-making. If new police powers are necessary to protect vulnerable Australians from COVID-19, who will be protecting the Australians made vulnerable by these new laws?

In the best-selling board game, Pandemic: Legacy, players have to combat a fast-evolving, unknown virus, using various measures. Options range from quarantines to military lockdowns to the literal, nuclear option. However, because the goal of the game is simply to ensure humanity’s survival and the effective control of the pandemic, these options are all seen as morally equal.

In a game, that’s fine. In reality, as we go from suspending ordinary life to suspending more basic moral and political norms and rights, we need to be able to understand and consider the costs it involves. We can’t do that if our sole metric for success is flattening the curve.

In his column, John Daley wrote that “Covid-19 is the real-life “trolley problem” in which someone is asked to choose between killing a few or killing many.” This framing only obfuscates the deeper issues which pit health and safety against other essential political values; short-term outcomes against a long-term political landscape and the competing needs of different of vulnerable communities.

That’s not a simple trolley problem, it’s a political smorgasbord. And we need a much more sophisticated scoring system to work out what success looks like.

You can contact The Ethics Centre about any of the issues discussed in this article. We offer free counselling for individuals via Ethi-callprofessional fee-for-service consulting, leadership and development services; and as a non-profit charity we rely heavily on donations to continue our work, which can be made via our websiteThank you.

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Is authoritarianism the solution?

Disease in a Time of Uncertainty

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the outbreak of coronavirus, officially called “SARS-CoV-2”, that has caused disease primarily in Wuhan, China.

The virus, which causes a disease called coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), has spread to 25 countries, infected more than 73,000 people, and caused 1,873 deaths. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a “Public Health Emergency International Concern” and more than 50 countries — against the WHO’s advice — have implemented travel restrictions and quarantines in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease.

There’s been a lot of worry about this coronavirus, but arguably the thing that is driving this worry is uncertainty. It can’t be the deaths alone – fewer than 1,900 people have died of COVID-19. In contrast, since October, 14,000 people in the USA alone have died of influenza.

Unlike the 1918 influenza pandemic or the 2009 influenza pandemic, both of which killed young people faster than normal flu, the people who are dying of COVID-19 are typically old, have pre-existing diseases that make them vulnerable to pneumonia (one of the main ways COVID-19 kills you), or are heavy smokers.

Despite its rapid increase in cases in China — driven, in part, by a change in definition of how they count cases — the number of cases elsewhere has stayed relatively low.

A reported 2.5 per cent of the patients diagnosed in China have died, yet fewer than 0.4 per cent of patients elsewhere in the world have died – a bit more than seasonal flu, but not much, and not as widely.

So why the fear? And why the fantastical conspiracies: tens of thousands dead but hidden in China; a laboratory escape; or even a biological weapon? There are surely a lot of reasons: the actions of the Chinese government during the 2003 SARS outbreak; general distrust of China in a media responding to Washington’s belligerence; and some enterprising grifters out to make their name or make a buck.

Still, these all take hold in an environment of uncertainty. And in ethics, how we deal with uncertainty is a tricky case. A classic example of why uncertainty can be tricky from the perspective of ethics goes something like this.

Say I ask you to play a game: I roll a normal dice; if it lands 1-5, you get $1; if it lands on a 6, you pay me $2. To many people this seems like a good deal. Five chances to win; one to lose. You should expect, mathematically, to win 50c each game. But what if I pull out a weird, many sided dice with 120 sides. If the dice land 1-119, you get $1. But if it lands 120, I get $59. It might feel different, but the expectation (again, mathematically) remains the same.

Now imagine a huge dice in which that one chance of a loss was $10,000, or even $1 million… Part of the reason it feels different is psychological. After all, $59, or $10,000 is so much more than $2, and so even though your chances of losing are decreasing, the pit in your stomach at the thought of losing $10,000 is probably a lot more. Moreover, you’re risking that for $1 each time. Sounds like playing with fate, and you might not want to play with fate when fate could take your house if it wins.

Another part of the reason it feels different is that we don’t often encounter — or at least don’t recognise — extreme cases in our lives where we face a small chance of a huge loss. My colleagues and I have looked at this phenomena in the case of things like laboratory safety, or industrial regulations. But the same goes for things like pandemics.

Coronaviruses circulate in animal populations, usually certain species of bat, and typically don’t infect humans.

Occasionally a virus does, often through an intermediate species, and the results can be bad. It can be really hard to figure out how bad, though. So we don’t know when these viruses will appear, or how bad they are going to be.

Given that, it can be really easy to get complacent before the fact, and even easier to overreact after the outbreak starts. This leads us to take drastic actions such as to violate human rights in the name of protecting public safety (or at least appearing to protect safety), even when those actions are shown to be ineffective. But this is because instead of winning a dollar, preparedness costs us that dollar. It’s hard to get governments to spend dollars today that might not benefit us until 2030, but if we wait until we need it, we could lose everything.

It turns out that the best solution to these scary, uncertain diseases is to invest, as a society, day to day. That costs resources, but it’ll help out when the “big one,” the next 1918 flu, comes. COVID-19 is unlikely to be that kind of pandemic, but even it is testing global health systems.

We need, as a society, to get better at dealing with the uncertain, by investing in preparedness today.

Better healthcare systems; more nurses, doctors, and scientists; a more aware community; local plans for infection control that match the plans of national governments; and protections for people in quarantine so they don’t lose their livelihoods or, as is the case in some countries, have to pay for their own quarantine when they aren’t even sick.

These investments cost governments money. They cost us taxes. But if you’re scared of COVID-19, with all its uncertainty, you should be much more scared that we’re not doing the ordinary, everyday things that’ll keep us safe.

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Are we prepared for the next epidemic?

Respect for persons lost in proposed legislation 

The Ethics Centre is a strong supporter of human rights. As such, we agree with the principal purpose of the draft Religious Discrimination Bill (2019) legislation – which is to outlaw discrimination against all persons on the basis of their religion. However, we also argue that the exposure draft is deficient in a number of important ways.

We recently made a submission articulating these concerns in response to the second exposure draft of the proposed legislation.

Core to the submission is our belief that human rights form a whole and are indivisible. That is, we are disinclined to support legislation that creates broad, general exceptions to the principle of non-discrimination. This is especially so when the proposed exceptions risk abrogating the human rights of one group in favour of another.

It’s important to make it clear that the Centre’s approach is not based on a naïve belief that human rights cohere without tension. We know that this is not the case – and understand that religion is, by its very nature, a special case.

This flows from the fact that every religion makes rival, exclusive and absolute truth claims that resist any form of independent evaluation.

Add to this religion’s appeal to transcendent authority, its inclination to order the lives of its adherents and the emotional and spiritual investment it requires of individual and communal belief – and it’s not surprising that difficulties arise not only between religions but in connection with the expression of other human rights.

Our submission seeks to affirm the universal principle of ‘respect for persons’ and to propose criteria for limiting (without totally restricting) the extent to which religious belief can be used as a justification for discrimination.

‘Respect for persons’ is the ethical requirement that we each recognise the intrinsic dignity of every other person – irrespective of their, gender, sex, race, religion, age … or any other non-relevant discriminator. It is this principle that underpins all human rights – and cannot be set aside without undermining the whole edifice.

Given this, we argue that any exception to the prohibition of discrimination that is accorded to people of faith must be severely restricted. That is, lawful discrimination, by people of faith, must only be allowed to the extent strictly necessary to avoid material harm to the religious sensibilities of those affected.

In short: we set a very high bar for those seeking to discriminate against others in the name of religion.

For example, there is a good case for allowing a religious school to discriminate against a person seeking employment as its Principal while concurrently rejecting the religious beliefs that inform the school’s defining ethos.

However, there is no good reason for applying such a test to the employment of a member of the same school’s maintenance team. Nor is there any justification for discriminating against a person based, say, on their sexual orientation if, in all other respects, the person aligns with the religious beliefs of the school – as understood by a significant number of believers.

This brings us to another aspect of the Centre’s submission – that discrimination based on religion only be allowed where there is broad consensus, amongst the faithful, that a belief is a legitimate expression of their religion. This should help avoid giving protection to those who occupy the extreme fringes of religious belief.

Finally, none of the above should be read as justifying restrictions on religious belief. On the contrary, we support the right of people to believe whatever they like. Furthermore, we encourage people to act in accordance with a well-informed (and well-formed) conscience.

We also urge people to realise that to act in good conscience entails the possibility of being punished if your conduct is found to be contrary to law. Such is the case of conscientious objectors who resist conscription into the armed forces, or Roman Catholic priests who choose to respect the ‘seal of the confessional’ even if the law compels them to disclose specified admissions by penitents.

This is the balance that a society needs to maintain: respecting the moral courage of those whose religious beliefs compel them to act in a manner that society must prohibit for the sake of all.

For those who are interested, The Ethics Centre’s submission on the proposed legislation will be published by the Commonwealth Attorney General’s Department in due course.

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Should religion trump human rights?

Stop Idolising Youth - Recommended reads

Are we idolising youth? Recommended reads

Stop Idolising Youth - Recommended reads

IQ2 Australia debates whether we need to ‘Stop Idolising Youth’ on 12 June.

Advertisers market to youth despite boomers having the strongest buying power. Unlike professions such as law and medicine, the creative industries prefer ‘digital natives’ over experience.

Young actors play mature aged characters. Yet openly teasing the young for being entitled and lazy is a popular social sport. Are the ageism insults flung both ways?

1. Why do marketers hate old people?

Ad Contrarian, Bob Hoffman / 2 December 2013

Why Do Marketers Hate Old People?

An oldie but a goodie. Bob Hoffman is the entertainingly acerbic critic of marketing and author of books like Laughing@Advertising. In this blog post he aims a crossbow at the seemingly senseless predilection of advertisers for using youth to market their products when older generations have more money and buy more stuff.

“Almost everyone you see in a car commercial is between the ages of 18 and 24,” he says. “And yet, people 75 to dead buy five times as many new cars as people 18 to 24.” He makes a solid argument.

Read the full story


2. It’s time to stop kvetching about ‘disengaged’ millennials

Ben Law, The Sydney Morning Herald / 27 October 2017

It's time to stop kvetching about 'disengaged' millennials

Ben Law asks, “Aren’t adults the ones who deserve the contempt of young people?” He argues it is older generations with influence and power who are not addressing things as big as the non-age-discriminatory climate crisis. He also shares some anecdotes about politically engaged and polite public transport riding kids.

You might regard a couple of the jokes in this piece leaning toward ageist quips but Law is also making them at his own expense. He points out millennials – the generation to which he belongs and the usual target for jokes about entitled youth – are nearing middle age.

Read the full story


3. Let’s end ageism

Ashton Applewhite, TED Talk / April 2017



There’s something very likeable about Ashton Applewhite – beyond her endearing name. This is even though she opens her TEDTalk with the confronting fact the one thing we all have in common is we’re always getting older. Sure, we’re not all lucky enough to get old, but we constantly age.

In pointing to this shared aspect of humanity, Applewhite makes the case against ageism. This typically TED nugget of feel good inspiration is great for every age. And if you’re anywhere between late 20s and early 70s, you’ll love the happiness bell curve. In a nutshell: it gets better!

Watch on TED


4. Instagram’s most popular nan

Baddiewinkle, Instagram/ Helen Van Winkle



View this post on Instagram


A post shared by BBY BADDIE 👼🏼 (@baddiewinkle) on

Her tagline is “stealing ur man since 1928”. Get lost in a delightful scroll through fun, colourful images from a social media personality who does not give a flying fajita for “age appropriate” dressing or demeanours. Baddie Winkle was born Helen Ruth Elam Van Winkle in Kentucky over 90 years ago.

Her internet stardom began age 85 when her great granddaughter Kennedy Lewis posted a photo of her in cut-off jeans and a tie-dye tee. Now Winkle’s granddaughter Dawn Lewis manages her profile and bookings. Her 3.8 million followers show us audiences aren’t only interested young social media influencers. “They want to be me when they get older,” Winkle says. Damn right we do.

Follow her here


Event info

IQ2 Australia makes public debate smart, civil and fun. On 12 June two teams will argue for and against the statement, ‘Stop Idolising Youth’. Ad writer Jane Caro and mature aged model Fred Douglas take on TV writer Ben Jenkins and author Nayuka Gorrie. Tickets here.

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What are the characteristics of youth?

Are we prepared for climate change and the next migrant crisis?

Climate change and the next migrant crisis

A powerful infographic published in 2014, predicted how many years it would take for a world city to drown.

It used data from NASA, Sea Level Explorer, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Venice will be the first to go under apparently, its canals rising to wetly throttle the city of love. Amsterdam is set to follow, Hamburg next.

Other tools play out the encroachment of rising tides on our coasts. This one developed by EarthTime shows Sydney airport as a large puddle if temperatures increase by four degrees. There’s also research suggesting our ancestors may one day look down to see fish nibbling on the Opera House sails.

Climate change refugees will become reality

Sea level rise is just one effect of anthropogenic climate change that would make a place uninhabitable or inhospitable to humankind. It’s also relatively slow. Populations in climate vulnerable hotspots face a slew of other shove factors, too.

Already, we are seeing a rising frequency of extreme weather events. Climate change was linked to increasingly destructive tropical cyclones in a report published in Nature last year, and Australia’s Climate Council attributed the same to earlier and more dangerous fire seasons. Rapidly changing ecosystems will impact water resources, crop productivity, and patterns of familiar and unfamiliar disease. Famine, drought, poverty and illness are the horsemen saddling up.

Some will die as a result of these events. Others, if they are able, will choose to stay. The far sighted and privileged may pre-empt them, relocating in advance of crisis or discomfort.

These migrants can be expected to move through the ‘correct’ channels, under the radar of nativist suspicion. (‘When is an immigrant not an immigrant?’ asks Afua Hirsch. ‘When they’re rich’.)

But many more will become displaced peoples, forcibly de-homed. Research estimates this number could be anywhere between 50 million and 1 billion in the 21st century. This will prompt new waves of interstate and international flows, and a resultant redistribution and intensification of pressures and tensions on the global map.

How will the world respond?

Where will they go? What is the ethical obligation of states to welcome and provide for them? With gross denialism characterising global policies towards climate change, and intensifying hostility locking down national borders, how prepared are we to contend with this challenge to come?

“You can’t wall them out,” Obama recently told the BBC. “Not for long.”

While interstate climate migration (which may already be occurring in Tasmania) will incur infrastructural and cultural problems, international migration is a whole and humongous other ethical conundrum. Not least because currently, climate change migrants have almost no legal protections.

Is a person who moves because of a sudden, town levelling cyclone more entitled to the status of climate migrant or refugee (and the protection it affords) than someone who migrates as a result of the slow onset attrition of their livelihood due to climate change?

Who makes the rules?

Does sudden, violent circumstance carry a greater ethical demand for hospitality than if, after many years of struggle, a Mexican farmer can no longer put food on the table because his land has turned to dust? Does the latter qualify as a climate or economic migrant, or both?

Somewhat ironically (and certainly depressingly), the movement of people to climate ‘havens’ will place stress on those environmental sanctuaries themselves, potentially leading to concentrated degradation, pollution and threat to non-human nature. (On the other hand, climate migration could allow for nature to reclaim the places these migrants have left.)

There is also the argument that, once migrants from developing countries have been integrated into a host country, their carbon footprint will increase to resemble that of their new fellow citizenry – resulting in larger CO2 emissions. From this perspective, put forward by Philip Cafaro and Winthrop Staples, it is in the interests of the planet for prosperous countries to limit their welcome.

Not that privileged populations need much convincing. Jealous fear of future scarcity, a globalisation inflamed resentment towards the Other, a sense that modernity has failed to deliver on its promise of wholesale bounty: all these are conspiring to create increasingly tribalised societies that enable the xenophobic agendas of their governments. A recent poll showed that 46 percent of Australians believe immigration should be reduced, a percentage consistent with attitudes worldwide.


A divided world

In the US, there’s Trump’s grand ‘us vs them’ symbol of a wall. As reported in the Times, German lawmakers are comparing refugees to wolves. In Italy, tilting towards populism and the right, a mayor was arrested after transforming his small town into a migrant sanctuary.

Closer to home, in a country where the 27 years without recession could be linked to immigration, there’s Scott Morrison’s newly proposed immigration cuts. There’s Senator Anning blaming the Christchurch massacre on Muslim immigration. There’s the bipartisan support for the prospects, wellbeing and mental health of asylum seekers to deteriorate to such an extent, the UN human rights council described it as ‘massive abuse’.

Yet the local effects of climate change don’t have a local origin. Causality extends beyond borders, piling miles high at the feet of industrialised countries. Nations like the US and Australia enjoy high standards of living largely because we have been pillaging and burning fossil fuels for more than a century. Yet those least culpable will bear the heaviest cost.

This, argues the author of a paper published in Ethics, Policy and Environment, warrants a different ethical framework than that which applies to other kinds of migration. He concludes that industrialised nations “have a moral responsibility … to compensate for harms that their actions have caused”.

This responsibility may include investing in less developed countries to mitigate climate change effects, writes the author. But it also morally obliges giving access, security and residence to those with nowhere else to go.

Join the conversation

What level of protection do you expect from another country?