To deal with this crisis, we need to talk about ethics, not economics

As Melbourne goes into the most intense lockdown measures we’ve seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, activity in the state grinds to a halt. 

In media outlets around the country, contrarian commentators are running pell-mell to explain why the lockdowns are the wrong move, and why we should be hastening to open the economy, even if it means paying a price in lives.  

Others have been sprinting at a similar speed to disprove them – perhaps moving too fast, and in so doing so, having the argument on their terms.  

Consider two of the loudest critics of the purpose of the lockdown: UNSW Economics professor Gigi Forster and Adam Creighton, economics editor at the Australian newspaper. Forster has argued that the costs – measured in terms of overall wellbeing – are more greatly increased by our response to Covid-19 than by the virus itself. 

Creighton’s arguments are related, though he has emphasised more the difference between quantity and quality of life. On the lockdowns in Melbourne, he recently tweeted “What’s the point in being alive if you can’t live?


Perhaps the loudest response to each of them has been to say that a successful economic exit from the COVID-19 pandemic relies on successfully controlling the virus through measures like lockdowns, social distancing and so on. Even on economic terms, it won’t work to allow the virus to run through the community. We can’t come back economically unless we succeed medically. It’s not a zero-sum game. 

I’m not the right person to decide whether or not that argument is correct. But that’s not my primary concern either. Instead, my concern is that in arguing the facts on this particular issue – that economically we are better off by controlling the spread of the virus – we have granted them their first principleNamely, that the correct course of action is whichever one makes the most sense economically and does the most work to maximise quality of life for the largest number of people.  

In granting this principle, we’re rushing over a lot of controversial territory. For instance, we might want to take issue with Creighton’s argument on other grounds – that whilst it is important to be able to live fully, in order to so, we need to be alive. The idea that ‘life is for living’ only makes sense if we also say that some people shouldn’t be permitted to stay alive. And many people won’t want to say that.  

The point is, the ‘maximise wellbeing’ argument implies a harsh form of utilitarianism. It suggests we accept that there are some people who will have to pay the price for our flourishing.

Maximising benefit still leaves some people to suffer. Usually, it means leaving the same people who have suffered before to suffer again. After all, the most vulnerable already have a low quality of life, so if they end up dying, statistically speaking, it doesn’t show up as much of a loss.  

When we encounter arguments like those of Creighton and Forsterwe have a choice to make: what matters most to us? Is our primary concern making as many people as possible as well off as we can? Or do we to stand in solidarity with those who are worst off, and refuse to flourish at their expense 

There are schools of thought and philosophers and arguments that will give you cover whichever way you make that choice. But it is a choice to be made. Wcan’t just interrogate the conclusions of these arguments, we need to question their starting (and often hidden) premises.   

During this pandemic we have started to see some of the hidden premises bubble to the surfaceOverwhelminglythe result has been a discomfort at the idea that we get to decide who we are willing to sacrifice for our collective benefit. 

I hope that’s an idea that we rememberBecause that’s not a problem that started with COVID-19Instead, it’s a trade-off that is hardwired into our economic systemIn many ways, it’s perfectly logical to suggest we let more people die from Covid-19 if it means we all benefit. After all, it’s what we’ve always done. 

We need to recognise that it’s not just people who champion beliefs and values. It’s the very systems that inform and shape our world. 

If we don’t want our collective benefit to be paid for by those who most need our care, we need to do more than debate the people floating this idea. We must interrogate the system that gave rise to those views at all. We need to recognise the ways in which it is our default setting and find the courage to imagine another way of doing things. 

It’s often said there are no atheists in the foxholes. It feels like there are also few nihilists in a crisis. Circumstances like these sharpen our moral intuitions and surface underlying tensions in society.  

Our responsibility, as well as getting through this and getting each other through this, is to ensure that in times of comfort we retain that ethical sharpness and continue to refuse to flourish when that requires others to fail. 

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 we measure wellbeing economically?


The sticky ethics of protests in a pandemic

[Video Transcript]

This week has seen the unfolding of a classic ethical dilemma.

A clash between the ethics of peaceful citizens wishing to exercise their democratic right to gather in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the ethics of medical experts, the NSW Government, the Supreme Court and the NSW Police Force – all of whom combined to prevent these same citizens from gathering together in numbers thought to represent a risk to human health and safety.

The strangest thing of all was that people on both sides of this dilemma supported the objectives of the protesters – with the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Nick Coatsworth, saying that on any other day, and in any other circumstance, he would be in the ranks of the protesters – championing their cause. Even the NSW Police Commissioner, Mick Fuller, sounded genuinely sympathetic.

So, how did people sharing so much in terms of good will find themselves so divided … and what are we to make of the merits of each side of the argument?

To say that these are extraordinary times is the understatement of the year. The second wave of infections, in Victoria, has ramped up the pressure as we witness the infection spread like wildfire. What started off as a lazy spark is now a growing conflagration – burning up the lives of the vulnerable as it spreads from hotel, to tower block, to abattoir, to aged care homes. The medical fraternity is seeing frontline staff having to withdraw to quarantine as the beds begin to fill. Meanwhile, lockdown and mounting concern is further depressing economic activity.

Is there any wonder that the authorities in NSW are desperate to prevent the same sparks from igniting here? Already, we know that the tinder is dry … with minor outbreaks flaring up across the city. Infection rates in Sydney are on the knife-edge. So when the best available medical advice was that it is too dangerous for a mass gathering of those who support the proposition that Black Lives Matter, a Supreme Court Judge ordered that the protests not proceed – not to suppress the free expression of political opinion but instead to protect the vulnerable many from the risk posed by the sincere and committed few.

Against this, the protest organisers argued that they would guarantee a safe event with people masked and physically distant. They charged the authorities with hypocrisy, pointing out that if people are allowed to travel to work or gather for church services or engage in any one of a number of other types of permitted activity, why single out and ban a protest to condemn the deaths in custody of First Nations people? It’s a good question.

Opponents to the gathering could argue that a protest is, by its very nature, an unruly venture. No one can ever know, in advance, who will turn up, in what numbers, in what mood, with what motives? Even the best organised political gathering can get out of control. It is at least arguable that there is a valid distinction to be made between protest marches and other gatherings.

Even so, it’s hard not to think that it might have been better to set clear guidelines for the gathering, and only then intervene if they were not followed. As noted above, the protest organisers were publicly committing to an event in which every person wore a mask and maintained proper distancing in a large, open air environment.

One wonders what might have been possible had the police and organisers been able to work together to uphold such standards. In those circumstances I reckon that the organisers might have been just as willing, as the police, to close down the event if their supporters failed to observe the rules.

However, we shall now never know.

Some might suggest an ulterior motive in curbing a protest about black lives and Indigenous deaths in custody. If you belong to one of the marginalised groups who have lost loved ones to the criminal justice system due to racism and prejudice, it would be easy to believe that the cancellation of a protest march is just the latest example of unjust oppression.

However, in this case, I do not think that would be a fair or accurate judgment. As I noted above, there was a palpable air of good will in support of the protesters’ objectives, if not their chosen means on this occasion.

Instead, fear of what might have happened seems to have won the day. In part, this is because the public is merciless and unforgiving whenever public officials make the slightest mistake. Again, Victoria is a case in point, with the Andrews government being hauled over the coals for its evidently ineffective management of the pandemic. I very much doubt that Daniel Andrews, or his colleagues, would be cut any slack, by the Victorian public, if they invoked arguments about democracy and free speech to defend their decision making.

NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, would have this example in mind, concluding that few politicians are ever punished for going overboard on public health and safety. More’s the pity.

In my opinion, politicians should be held to equal account for going further than is reasonable or proportionate -especially because of the implications on civil liberties, not least for especially vulnerable and disenfranchised groups. Governments that curb the liberty of citizens should only do so for reasons of necessity, and then only in a manner that is reasonable, proportionate and equitable. Yet, rarely do we see such standards being invoked by a fearful public.

There is a fine line between genuinely protecting the public from harm and constraining the democratic rights of citizens; there is a fine line between exercising those rights and avoiding preventable harm to others.

Ideally, one limits those rights to the bare minimum necessary to secure the public good. It is an open question as to whether or not that occurred in this case.

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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Where do you draw the line?


Stop giving air to bullies for clicks

By now, most people will have heard of the antics of the person who berated staff at Bunnings – simply because the staff insisted that she wear a mask before entering the store.   

As is common these days, the altercation was filmed on someone’s phone and uploaded to social media channels. However, the story also captured the attention of mainstream media. What would normally have been an incident of minor importance soon became a topic of the national conversation – bringing fame (or infamy) to the antagonist. 

I do not want to add to this person’s unwarranted celebrity. In part, this is because I do not think people should be rewarded for being rude and aggressive. In part, it is because I do not want tfuel further interest in ideas that are not just wrong – but dangerously so.  

Instead, I want to focus on two issues of relevance to the media. First, should oxygen be given to people and ideas that do not deserve the public’s attention? Second, how can we avoid causing unintended harm done to people who have legitimate reasons for not wearing face masks – but who are made to feel like a pariah for not doing so? 

The first of these issues is one of general concern. Naturally enough, the media is keen to cover stories that engage the interest of their audience. This is perfectly understandable in a context where maintaining audience numbers is critical to survival. People want to hear about the extraordinary. However, there are times when giving people what they want is not in their interest – a principle that holds for individuals as it does for wider society. An alcoholic might want another drink – but it is not in their interest to give them one! 

The world abounds with crackpots, conspiracy theorists – and the like. At one level, it is easy to dismiss them as a part of a radical fringe whose ludicrous beliefs are merely entertaining. However, we should never underestimate the ability of such groups to wheedle their way into the public consciousness – even to the point where what seems to be extreme on one day eventually becomes commonplace … just part of the background beliefs of our time. We have seen this in the case of anti-vaxxers, or the people who believe that infection rates for COVID-19 are linked to 5G telephone towers, or that one’s gender or race determines character … and so on.  

As noted above, some of these ideas can be explosive in their effects … with the potential for damage easily predicted. Yet, if the proponents are sufficiently weird, wonderful or compelling, then there is a chance that their views might be amplified by a media seduced by the novelty of what is being presented. This is not to suggest that the media approves of the ideas it promotes. If anything, most outlets probably assume that wacky ideas are pure entertainment – that no one will actually be seduced by ridiculous ideas. Unfortunately, history is full of examples of improbable beliefs becoming embedded in ‘mainstream’ ideologies. 

 This is not to suggest that the media should never cover stories like the incident at Bunnings. However, I think a decision to tell such a story comes with an additional obligation explicitly to discount the validity of claims that are false and misleading. That is, there are times when just reporting the facts will not be enough. Instead, editorial judgement needs to be brought to bear. 

The application of judgement is also required in minimising the unintended, adverse effects of moderating opinion about matters like the wearing of face masks during a rampant pandemic. The person at Bunnings objected to wearing a mask as if to do so was some kind of violation of basic human rights. Those arguments were singularly poor – and potentially dangerous – as they uncritically undercut most efforts to preserve the health and safety of the community. However, there could have been another person – perhaps suffering from a medical condition – for whom not wearing a mask is a matter of necessity (not choice). The arguments of that person deserve to be taken seriously. 

While it is important to repudiate the crackpots, we should do so with care not to inflame public prejudice of a kind that discounts every objection as invalid. Some people have perfectly good reasons for not conforming to accepted norms that are justifiable in general. 

The bully at the Bunnings door did little to advance the public debate about the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the community. But perhaps she has done some good – in prompting further reflection about what, when and how the media chooses to amplify through its channels. 

This article was first written for, and published by Crikey. It has been republished here with permission.

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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Punching up: who does it serve?

I recently watched Hannah Gadsby’s comedic tour-de-force, Douglas. It is sharp and provocative – but wonderfully insightful. In the course of her performance, Hannah explains that she applies to her humour the principle of ‘punching up’.

It is an approach employed by comics when deciding who is a legitimate target for ridicule and satire. The idea is pretty simple, it’s fine to take aim at someone who is more powerful than you – but never those who are relatively weaker. The operating assumption is that the powerful are unlikely to be harmed by a bit of fun at their expense, while the weaker have suffered enough without having to cope with a comic’s insults.

The idea of ‘punching up’ seems to have taken on a life beyond the world of comedy. More generally, those who stand higher up the ladder of power and privilege are now expected to accept, without retaliation or reproach, whatever comes their way from those located on lower rungs of the ladder. Sitting at the top are cis-gendered, white men, like me. If we complain, then this is just evidence of our ‘thin skin’ and an inability to take a serving of what we have been dishing out for millennia.

It is easy to identify who is currently at the top of the ladder. However, beyond that point, working out the relativities of who is ‘up’ or ‘down’ becomes increasingly difficult. After all, there is no natural hierarchy of power, privilege, disadvantage or subjugation.

Instead, positions change as the wheel of history turns – with some groups ascending at one point only to see their position reversed at another. For example, consider the case of the Aztecs. Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, they commanded an empire built on the conquest, enslavement and ritual sacrifice of those who fell under their sway. Yet, today, their descendants are a dispossessed people with an extraordinarily resilient culture that has survived centuries of attempted suppression by their colonisers.

So, who gets to ‘punch up’ (or be ‘punched’) is relative to time and culture. The role of being a priestess can be at the apex of power and influence in one setting but marginalised in another. A banker can be reviled as a ‘usurer’ in the past only to be celebrated by future generations.

However, that’s not where the relativities end. Conduct that is condoned in one case will be condemned in another – even though the things done are identical. For example, what is praised as being ‘forthright’ in a man has often been criticised as ‘aggression’ in a woman. Asymmetry of judgement also applies in the context of ‘punching up’. Behaviour that is justifiably condemned in a powerful person is often excused or ignored if practiced by a relatively powerless individual.

So, what are we to make of this? First, let’s acknowledge that there are some individuals and groups who have been systematically marginalised, over such a long period of time, as to deserve the opportunity to ‘even things up’ in any contest. Only those blinded by prejudice would deny this to be so.

However, this is not to say that relative historical disadvantage should excuse anything done – just as long as it is directed at the relatively powerful. A person fighting a stronger adversary may pick up a stick to ‘even the odds’ – but it would be wrong for them to attack an unarmed person with a firearm. To do so would involve a disproportionate use of force.

Likewise, I think it wrong to belittle or vilify a person (any person) in a deliberate attempt to wound them with words. That is not comedy – it is abuse. Comics make a person uncomfortable as a way of drawing attention to an issue of underlying importance – but their aim is not (and should not be) to harm. To do otherwise is to adopt the stance of the bully … which is wrong whatever one’s relative position in life.

I realise that it is easy to recommend restraint when one belongs to a powerful or privileged group – as I do. However, I am not a supporter of relativism in ethics (or elsewhere). To wound another – willfully or recklessly – is wrong.

The fact that it occurs as a result of anger or frustration might explain such behaviour – but it does not justify it. I know that this will be a view unpopular with those who have a taste for revenge – who believe in the proverbial ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’. However, I prefer the position of the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote that:

“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.”

Yes, great wrongs need to be made right – but justice cannot be produced by injustice.

So, does this load the greater obligation onto the shoulders of those who have traditionally been on the wrong end of the stick? On the contrary, those of us who enjoy the greatest power and privilege should accept the greatest obligation to act ethically … not least because we have the capacity to do so.

We should begin by recognising and redressing the disparities of our day; we should acknowledge that we did not earn our privileged position – but were simply lucky enough to be born blessed with opportunity. It is not out of guilt, but with a sense of justice, that we should seek to redress historical and contemporary sources of inequity.

Perhaps then the urge to punch will eventually be assuaged, and something better – that could never have grown in the soil of anger and resentment – can emerge to see the light of day.

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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Who do you 'punch up' to?


Education is more than an employment outcome

This week the Federal Government announced university funding restructures that made a clear statement – to prioritise ‘useful’ degrees.

This decision is significant for a number of reasons. First, it has further shifted the cost of a university education away from government and onto students. It has done so on the assumption that education benefits the individual more than the society to which they contribute.

Second, the government has nominated some courses of study as being more likely to lead to employment than will others. Somewhat paradoxically, the government is reducing the cost of study for those most likely to get jobs, while increasing it for those it thinks will struggle to find employment due to their ill-considered choice of subjects. ‘Cost’ is deliberately unrelated to ‘ability to pay’ – and requires those with apparently poor employment prospects to subsidise the education of their more fortunate peers.

It’s clear that the government hopes market forces will encourage more people to take on ‘useful’ courses of study. However, in a further ironic twist, the new policy relies on the fact that many people will not. Otherwise, the economics won’t work. Fortunately (for the policy) there will be limited places available for the study of ‘useful’ courses in nursing, teaching and agriculture. This means that some of the students who rationally seek a ‘good deal’ will be forced to accept their ‘second choice’ – even to the point of having to suffer through a relatively expensive ‘dead-end’ degree in the Humanities.

However, this piece is not meant to be an examination of the paradoxes of government policy. Rather, I want to look at a deeper issue – the underlying assumption that resources are best invested in ‘useful’ things.

Demonstrating ‘usefulness’

This thinking stalks my waking hours – as it probably does anyone running an organisation that is not immediately and demonstratively ‘useful’. For those of us working in the not for profit world, the word ‘useful’ is never used. In its place is the notion of ‘impact’. Conventional wisdom dictates that one must demonstrate impact – or die!

The thinking that drives a demand to measure, report on and invest in ‘impact’ is the same thinking that leads a government to focus its investment in higher education on supporting courses that lead to the ‘jobs of the future’. With limited taxpayer and philanthropic dollars to spend, why not invest in those things that can prove themselves most effective? It’s easy to argue that this is the rational thing to do… but is it?

What is the ‘impact’ of Bell Shakespeare staging King Lear? What is the ‘impact’ of the National Gallery of Australia hanging Blue Poles? What is the impact of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas? I think it impossible to trace the impact of any of these works. We can measure outputs – the number of attendances, mentions in the media, donations received, and so on. But these numbers don’t identify the ideas or experiences seeded in the theatre, a gallery or at a festival that germinate – perhaps years later – and change the world.

Ideas can change the world

We underestimate the value of things like philosophy when assessed over the long term. Nearly every branch of knowledge that we draw on today including science, mathematics, economics, medicine and psychology were thought into existence by philosophers.

People motivated by nothing more than a love of wisdom (philo-sophia) have changed the world. The original concept of the atom came from Democritus. Pythagoras brought us the role of constants in mathematics. The classification of species began from Aristotle. Thomas Hobbes ideated the modern nation state. Adam Smith brought us the free market and Peter Singer animal rights. With the benefit of hindsight, their impact is obvious. But few of the world’s great philosophers could have demonstrated ‘impact’ while working on their seminal ideas.

I understand the strong desire to measure impact, to invest in making a tangible difference. I understand why governments want to fund ‘practical outcomes’ such as helping people to secure future employment. However, there is something deeply irrational about turning one’s back on forms of education and endeavour that emphatically shape the world – but at a pace and by means we cannot easily measure.

If ‘impact’ is the only measure of something’s worth, then we might as well close down the arts, the humanities, and a whole lot more. However, this would be to deny a fundamental truth that has informed all great societies: some things matter not because of their impact – but in and of themselves.

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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Impact is a dangerous word


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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Ask the ethicist: If Google paid more tax, would it have more media mates?

If multinational tech platforms paid more tax on the revenues they made in Australia, would they be in a better moral position to resist government attempts to force them to pay a ‘license fee’ to news media? 

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

There are a couple of ways to look at this question – one as a matter of principle, the other through the lens of prudence. In terms of principle, I think that we should treat separately the issues of tax and the proposed ‘licence fee’. This is because each issue rests on its own distinct ethical foundations.

In the case of tax, all citizens (including corporate citizens) have an obligation to contribute to the cost of funding the public goods provided by the state. For example, a company like Google shares in the benefits of a society that is healthy, well educated, peaceful and effectively governed under the rule of law. All who draw on and benefit from such public goods should contribute to the cost of their generation and maintenance.

Instinctively, most citizens believe that we should each pay our ‘fair share’ of tax. However, that belief is at odds with the fact that our formal obligation is not to pay a fair amount of tax but, instead, to pay only the amount of tax due to be paid as defined by law. Most of us don’t have much choice about how we discharge this formal obligation – as our taxes are automatically remitted to the Australian taxation Office (ATO) by our employers.

However, most corporations, including Google, have considerable latitude when calculating the tax they think due. For example, corporations have a clear choice about the extent to which they move right to the edge of what the law allows: ‘avoiding’ (which is legal) but not ‘evading’ (which is illegal) tax obligations that, to an ordinary person, might seem to be due.

It is this approach to ‘tax planning’ that allows Google to earn revenue, in Australia, of $4.3B yet only pay tax of $100M. Google has a perfectly rational argument about how this can the case – and relies on the fact that it should only pay tax that is legally due.

However, as is the case with other multinational corporations who make similar calculations, Google’s position fails the ‘pub test’ in that it seems to be unfair? Why? Because it seems inherently improbable (and improper) that such massive local revenue should flow offshore to benefit people who contribute nothing to maintain the society that has made possible such a financial windfall.

The issue of Google paying a ‘licence fee’ to the creators of news content is somewhat different. In general, you’d think it a reasonable expectation that a company pay for the inputs it draws on to make a profit. After all, businesses pay for labour inputs (wages), for financial inputs (interest and dividends), for material inputs (cash outlays), etc. So, why not pay for content that is derived from other sources?

Of course, what’s good for the ‘goose’ should be good for the ‘gander’. Companies like News Corporation and Nine should also be asked if they pay for all of the inputs that they draw on to make a profit? For example, do they pay for all published opinion pieces, or for the interviews they conduct, etc.? However, in general, it seems reasonable to expect that Google (and other companies) should pay for what they derive from others.

Of course, Google does not agree – and is especially opposed to Australian proposals because, if adopted, they will set a precedent that other countries are likely to follow. It is this consideration that leads us to look at the issue through the lens of prudence.

Governments (of all political hues) are especially attentive to the demands of the media. What NewsCorp and Co. want, they usually get … unless opposed by the one force that wields even greater influence over the judgement of politicians – the force of public opinion. So, if Google wishes to prevent or limit the levying of a ‘licence fee’, its most potent ally might have been the Australian public.

However, the electorate is unlikely to back the interests of a company that is perceived not to back the interests of the people whose taxes provide the infrastructure on which Google depends for the enrichment of its overseas owners.

This is where principle and prudence align. Google (and other multinational corporations) should pay taxes that amount to a fair contribution to the maintenance of public goods. Had it done so, then Google might have many more friends who might stand beside it in its battle with other powerful corporations like NewsCorp and Nine.

I am not sure if arguments from principle or prudence will really carry much weight. Perhaps the situation needs to be expressed in the language of financial self-interest. Compared to a licence fee (which might be as high as $1B per annum), would a less aggressive approach tax planning have have been a good investment?

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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The value of a human life

One of the most enduring points of tension during the COVID-19 pandemic has concerned whether the national ‘lockdown’ has done more harm than good.

This issue was squarely on the agenda during a recent edition of ABC TV’s Q+A. The most significant point of contention arose out of comments made by UNSW economist, Associate Professor Gigi Foster. Much of the public response was critical of Dr. Foster’s position – in part because people mistakenly concluded she was arguing that ‘economics’ should trump ‘compassion’.

That is not what Gigi Foster was arguing. Instead, she was trying to draw attention to the fact that the ‘lockdown’ was at risk of causing as much harm to people (including being a threat to their lives) as was the disease, COVID-19, itself.

In making her case, Dr. Foster invoked the idea of Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALYs). As she pointed out, this concept has been employed by health economists for many decades – most often in trying to decide what is the most efficient and effective allocation of limited funds for healthcare. In essence, the perceived benefit of a QALY is that it allows options to be assessed on a comparable basis – as all human life is made measurable against a common scale.

In essence, the perceived benefit of a QALY is that it allows options to be assessed on a comparable basis – as all human life is made measurable against a common scale.

So, Gigi Foster was not lacking in compassion. Rather, I think she wanted to promote a debate based on the rational assessment of options based on calculation, rather than evaluation. In doing so, she drew attention to the costs (including significant mental health burdens) being borne by sections of the community who are less visible than the aged or infirm (those at highest risk of dying if infected by this coronavirus).

I would argue that there are two major problems with Gigi Foster’s argument. First, I think it is based on an understandable – but questionable – assumption that her way of thinking about such problems is either the only or the best approach. Second, I think that she has failed to spot a basic asymmetry in the two options she was wanting to weigh in the balance. I will outline both objections below.

In invoking the idea of QALYs, Foster’s argument begins with the proposition that, for the purpose of making policy decisions, human lives can be stripped of their individuality and instead, be defined in terms of standard units. In turn, this allows those units to be the objects of calculation. Although Gigi Foster did not explicitly say so, I am fairly certain that she starts from a position that ethical questions should be decided according to outcomes and that the best (most ethical) outcome is that which produces the greatest good (QALYs) for the greatest number.

Many people will agree with this approach – which is a limited example of the kind of Utilitarianism promoted by Bentham, the Mills, Peter Singer, etc. However, there will have been large sections of the Q+A audience who think this approach to be deeply unethical – on a number of levels. First, they would reject the idea that their aged or frail mother, father, etc. be treated as an expression of an undifferentiated unit of life. Second, they would have been unnerved by the idea that any human being should be reduced to a unit of calculation.

…they would have been unnerved by the idea that any human being should be reduced to a unit of calculation.

To do so, they might think, is to violate the ethical precept that every human being possesses an intrinsic dignity. Gigi Foster’s argument sits squarely in a tradition of thinking (calculative rationality) that stems from developments in philosophy in the late 16th and 17th Centuries. It is a form of thinking that is firmly attached to Enlightenment attempts to make sense of existence through the lens of reason – and which sought to end uncertainty through the understanding and control of all variables. It is this tendency that can be found echoing in terms like ‘human resources’.

Although few might express a concern about this in explicit terms, there is a growing rejection of the core idea – especially as its underlying logic is so closely linked to the development of machines (and other systems) that people fear will subordinate rather than serve humanity. This is an issue that Dr Matthew Beard and I have addressed in the broader arena of technological design in our publication, Ethical By Design: Principles for Good Technology.

The second problem with Dr. Foster’s position is that it failed to recognise a fundamental asymmetry between the risks, to life, posed by COVID-19 and the risks posed by the ‘lockdown’. In the case of the former: there is no cure, there is no vaccine, we do not even know if there is lasting immunity for those who survive infection.

We do not yet know why the disease kills more men than women, we do not know its rate of mutation – or its capacity to jump species, etc. In other words, there is only one way to preserve life and to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed by cases of infection leading to otherwise avoidable deaths – and that is to ‘lockdown’.

…there is only one way to preserve life and to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed by cases of infection leading to otherwise avoidable deaths – and that is to ‘lockdown’.

On the other hand, we have available to us a significant number of options for preventing or minimising the harms caused by the lockdown. For example, in advance of implementing the ‘lockdown’, governments could have anticipated the increased risks to mental health leading to a massive investment in its prevention and treatment.

Governments have the policy tools to ensure that there is intergenerational equity and that the burdens of the ‘lockdown’ do not fall disproportionately on the young while the benefits were enjoyed disproportionately by the elderly.

Governments could have ensured that every person in Australia received basic income support – if only in recognition of the fact that every person in Australia has had to play a role in bringing the disease under control. Is it just that all should bear the burden and only some receive relief – even when their needs are as great as others?

Whether or not governments will take up the options that address these issues is, of course, a different question. The point here is that the options are available – in a way that other options for controlling COVID-19 are not. That is the fundamental asymmetry mentioned above.

I think that Gigi Foster was correct to draw attention to the potential harm to life, etc. caused by the ‘lockdown’. However, she was mistaken not to explore the many options that could be taken up to prevent the harm she and many others foresee. Instead, she went straight to her argument about QALYs and allowed the impression to form that the old and the frail might be ‘sacrificed’ for the greater good.

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 much is a human life worth?


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?