He said, she said: Investigating the Christian Porter Case

On 4 March 2021 Attorney General Christian Porter identified himself as the unnamed Minister who had been accused of a 1988 rape in a letter sent to the Prime Minister and some senators.

He strenuously denies any wrongdoing and has refused to step down from his role.

ABC News reports that ‘the letter urges the Prime Minister to set up an independent parliamentary investigation into the matter’ — but should there be an investigation?

The Problem With Testimony

When it comes to accusations of sexual assault, it seems like the situation comes down to a clash of ‘testimony’ — she said, he said. But who is to be believed?

Testimony, to clarify, isn’t just any old speech act. Testimony is speech that is used as a declaration in support of a fact. “The sky is blue” is testimony; “I like strawberries” isn’t.

Generally, people are hesitant to accept testimony as good, or strong evidence for any sort of claim. This is not because testimony is always unreliable, but because we think that there are more reliable methods of attaining knowledge.

Other methods include direct experience (living through or witnessing something), material collection (looking for evidence to support the truth of a claim), or through the exercise of reason itself (for instance, by way of logic or deductive reasoning).

In this case, it seems like what would need to occur is a fact-finding mission which could add weight either to the testimony of either Porter or the alleged victim.

What is very surprising, then, is that only some people support such an investigation, while others have rejected the move as unnecessary, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison. These people deem Porter’s testimony credible. But should they?

Judging Credibility

It isn’t strange to find that people are willing to treat testimony as sufficient evidence for a claim. We often do. Testimony is used in trials. Every news report is testimony. The scientific truths we have learn from books or YouTube are testimony. You get the picture. We may think we are always sceptical of testimony, but we could hardly get by without it.

So, we do rely on testimony. Just not all testimony. When it comes to believing testimony, what we’re really doing is judging the speaker’s credibility. The question is thus: should we trust what a specific person says about a specific matter in a specific context?

The problem is that we’re actually not very good at working out which speakers are credible and which aren’t. Often we get it wrong. And sometimes we get it wrong because of implicit biases—biases about types of people, biases about institutions, and the sway of authority.

As philosopher Miranda Fricker has pointed out, when people do not receive the credibility they are due—whether because they receive too much (a credibility excess) or too little (a credibility deficit)—and the reason they do not receive it is because of such biases, then a testimonial injustice occurs.

“Being judged credible to some degree is being regarded as more credible than others, less credible than others, and equally credible as others,” explains philosopher José Medina.

In a she said, he said case, if we judge one person as credible, we’re also discrediting the other.

Fricker explains that testimonial injustice produces harms. First, there is a harm caused to the listener: because they didn’t believe testimony they should have, they failed to acquire some new knowledge, which is a kind of harm.

However, testimonial injustices also harms the speaker. When someone’s testimony is doubted without good reason, we disrespect them by doubting their ability to convey truth – which is part of what defines us as humans. This means testimonial injustices symbolically degrade us qua [as] human. Basically, to commit a testimonial injustice means we fail to treat people in a fundamentally respectful way. Instead, we treat them as less than fully human.

Is there a Credibility Deficit or Excess in Porter’s case?

Relevant to the issue of credibility attribution in the wake of a sexual assault allegations is the perception (and fear) shared by many that women lie about sexual assault.

In fact, approximately 95% of sexual assault allegations are true. This means it is highly improbable (but not impossible) that the alleged victim made a false claim.

It is not just stereotyping about lying and vindictive women that can interfere with correct credibility attribution. As Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has reminded us, Porter “is entitled to the presumption of innocence, as any citizen in this country is entitled.”

This commitment we share to presume innocence unless or until guilt is proven is a significant bulwark of our ethico-legal value system.

However, in a case of “she said, he said”, his entitlement to the presumption of innocence automatically generates the assumption that the victim is lying. Given that false rape allegations are so infrequent, the presumption of innocence unfairly undermines the credibility of the complainant almost every  time.

This type of testimonial injustice may seem unavoidable because we cannot give up the presumption of innocence; it is too important. However, the insistence that Porter receive the presumption of innocence rather than insisting we believe the statistically likely allegations against him may point to another problem with the way assign credibility.

As philosopher Kate Manne has observed, particularly when it comes to allegations made by women of sexual assault by men, the accused are often received with himpathy—that is, they receive a greater outpouring of sympathy and concern over the complainants. She explains, “if someone sympathizes with the [accused] initially…he will come to figure as the victim of the story. And a victim narrative needs a villain…”

So here’s the rub.

If a great many people in a society share the view that women lie, then they tacitly see complainants as uncredible.

And if a great many people in a society feel sorry for certain men who are accused of sexual assault, then they are likely to side with the accused. In turn, those who are accused of sexual assault (usually, men) will automatically receive a credibility excess.

Is this what has happened in Porter’s case? Note that an investigation could lend credibility to either party’s claims. This is where the police would normally step in.

Didn’t the Police Investigate and Exonerate Porter?

You would be forgiven for thinking that NSW Police had conducted a thorough investigation and had cleared Porter’s name judging by the way some powerful parliamentary figures have responded to Porter’s case.

For example, in his dismissal of calls for an independent investigation, Scott Morrison said that it “would say the rule of law and our police are not competent to deal with these issues.” Likewise, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said: “The police are the only body that are authorised to deal with such serious criminal matters.” Nationals Senator Susan MacDonald also opposed the investigation, saying: “We have a system of justice in this country [and] a police service that is well resourced and the most capable of understanding whether or not evidence needs to go to trial — and they have closed the matter.”

Case closed. This must mean that there’s no evidence and that an independent inquiry would be pointless, right?

Not quite. NSW Police stated that there was “insufficient admissible evidence” to proceed with an investigation. They did not say that there was no evidence of misconduct. Moreover, the issue for criminal proceedings is that the alleged victim did not make a formal statement before she took her own life.

In other words, the complainant’s testimony does not get to count as evidence because, technically, there is no testimony on the record.

Preventing Testimonial Injustice

Since the alleged victim had not made a formal statement to Police at the time of her death, the call for an investigation into Porter’s conduct can be seen as a means of ensuring Porter does not receive a testimonial credibility excess and the complainant a testimonial credibility deficit.

To stand by Porter’s testimony in a context where it is widely – and falsely – believed that women make false rape allegations, and where the police are seen as the only body capable of exercising an investigation (when in fact they are not), would be to commit a testimonial injustice.

As former Liberal staffer and lawyer Dhanya Mani says, “The fact that the police are not pursuing the matter for practical reasons does not preclude or prevent the Prime Minister from undertaking an inquiry into a very serious allegation… And that inquiry will either exonerate Christian Porter and prove his innocence or it will prove otherwise.”

It is important to understand that an independent investigation is not bound by the exact same evidentiary rules as are the police and courts. It may be possible for others to testify on her behalf. Other evidence which is inadmissible in court may be admissible here. An independent investigation at least offers the possibility that the complainant’s testimony will get a fair hearing.

Also worth noting is where the presumption of innocence would end. For a crime, guilt should be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. For civil cases, that standard is “on the balance of probabilities”. What standard should an independent investigation use? I would suggest the latter, precisely because testimony is likely to be all the evidence there is.

To prevent a testimonial injustice—attributing too much credibility, or too little, to someone undeserving of it—these allegations must be investigated.

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Is there a credibility deficit in Christian Porter’s case?

Who's to blame for Facebook’s news ban?

News will soon return to Facebook, with the social media giant coming to an agreement with the Australian government. The deal means Facebook won’t be immediately subject to the News Media Bargaining Code, so long as it can strike enough private deals with media companies.

Facebook now has two months to mediate before the government gets involved in arbitration. Most notably, Facebook have held onto their right to strip news from the platform to avoid being forced into a negotiation.

Within a few days, your feed will return to normal, though media companies will soon be getting a better share of the profits. It would be easy to put this whole episode behind us, but there are some things that are worth dwelling on – especially if you don’t work in the media, or at a social platform but are, like most of us, a regular citizen and consumer of news. Because when we look closely at how this whole scenario came about, it’s because we’ve largely been forgotten in the process.  

Announcing Facebook’s sudden ban on Australian news content last week, William Easton, Managing Director of Facebook Australia & New Zealand wrote a blog post outlining the companies’ reasons. Whilst he made a number of arguments (and you should read them for yourself), one of the stronger claims he makes is that Facebook, unlike Google Search, does not show any content that the publishers did not voluntarily put there. He writes: 

“We understand many will ask why the platforms may respond differently. The answer is because our platforms have fundamentally different relationships with news. Google Search is inextricably intertwined with news and publishers do not voluntarily provide their content. On the other hand, publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue.”

The crux of the argument is this. Simply by existing online, a news story can be surfaced by Google Search. And when it is surfaced, a whole bunch of Google tools – previews, summaries from Google Home, one-line snippets and headlines  give you a watered-down version of the news article you search for. They give you the bare minimum info in an often-helpful way, but that means you never click the site or read the story, which means no advertising revenue or way of knowing the article was actually read. 

But Facebook is different – at least, according to Facebook. Unless news media upload their stories to Facebook, which they do by choice, users won’t see news content on Facebook. And for this reason, treating Facebook and Google as analogous seems unfair.  

Now, Facebook’s claims aren’t strictly true – until last week, we could see headlines, a preview of the article and an image from a news story posted on Facebook regardless of who posted it there. And that headline, image and snippet are free content for Facebook. That’s more or less the same as what Facebook says Google do: repurposing news content that can be viewed without ever having to leave the platform 

However, these link previews are nowhere near as comprehensive as what Google Search does to serve up their own version of news stories for the company’s own purpose and profit. Most of the news content you see on Facebook is there because it was uploaded there by media companies – who often design video or visual content explicitly to be uploaded to Facebook and to reach their audience.  

However, on a deeper level, there seem to be more similarities between Google and Facebook than the latter wants to admit, because the size and audience base Facebook possesses makes it more-or-less essential for media organisations to have a presence there. In a sense, the decision to have a strategy on Facebook is ‘voluntary’, but it’s voluntary in the same way that it’s voluntary for people to own an attention-guzzling, data sucking smartphone. We might not like living with it, but we can’t afford to live without it. Like inviting your boss to your wedding, it’s voluntary, but only because the other options are worse.  

Facebook would likely claim innocence of this. Can they really be blamed for having such an engaging, effective platform? If news publishers feel obligated to use Facebook or fall behind their competitors that’s not something Facebook should feel bad about or be punished for. If, as Facebook argue, publishers use them because they get huge value from doing so, it does seem genuinely voluntary – desirable, even.  

Even if this is true, there are two complications here. First, if news media are seriously reliant on Facebook, it’s because Facebook deliberately cultivated that. For example, five years ago Facebook was a leading voice behind the ‘pivot to video’, where publishers started to invest heavily in developing video content. Many news outlets drastically reduced writing staff and investment in the written word, instead focussing on visual content.  

Three years later, we learned that Facebook had totally overstated the value of video – the pivot to video, which served Facebook’s interestswas based on a self-serving deception. This isn’t the stuff of voluntary, consensual relationships.  

Let’s give Facebook a little benefit of the doubt though. Let’s say they didn’t deliberately cultivate the media’s reliance on their platform. Still, it doesn’t follow obviously from this that they have no responsibility to the media for that reliance. Responsibility doesn’t always come with a sign-up sheet, as technology companies should know all too well.  

French theorist Paul Virilio wrote that “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution.” Whilst Virilio had in mind technology’s dualistic nature, modern work in the ethics of technology invites us to interpret this another way.

If inventing a ship also invents shipwrecks, it might be up to you to find ways to stop people from drowning.

Technology companies – Facebook included – have wrung many a hand talking about the ‘unintended consequences’ of their design and accepting responsibility for them. In fact, speaking before a US Congress Committee, Mark Zuckerberg himself conceded as much, saying:  

“It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm, as well. And that goes for fake news, for foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy. We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake. And I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here. 

It seems unclear why Facebook recognised their responsibility in one case, but seem to be denying it in another. Perhaps the news media are not reliant – or used by – Facebook in the same way as they are Google, but it’s not clear this goes far enough to free Facebook of responsibility. 

At the same time, we should not go too far the other way, denying the news media any role in the current situation. The emergence of Facebook as a lucrative platform seems to have led the media to a Faustian pact – selling their soul for clicks, profit and longevity. In 2021 it seems tired to talk about how the media’s approach to news – demanding virality, speed, shareability – are a direct result of their reliance on platforms like Facebook.  

The fourth estate – whose work relies on them serving the public interest – adopted a technological platform and in so doing, adopted its values as their own: values that served their own interests and those of Facebook rather than ours. For the media to now lament Facebook’s decision as anti-democratic denies the media’s own blameworthiness for what we’re witnessing.  

But the big reveal is this: we can sketch out all the reasons why Facebook or the media might have the more reasonable claim here, or why they share responsibility for what went down, but in doing so, we miss the point. This shouldn’t be thought of as a beef between two industries, each of whom has good reasons to defend their patch. 

What needs to be defended is us: the community whose functioning and flourishing depends on these groups figuring themselves out.

Facebook, like the other tech giants, have an extraordinary level of power and influence. So too do the media. Typically, we don’t to allow institutions to hold that kind of power without expecting something in return: a contribution to the common good. This understanding – that powerful institutions hold their power with the permission of a community they deliver value to – is known as a social license

Unfortunately, Facebook have managed to accrue their power without needing a social license. All power, no permission. 

This is in contrast to the news media, whose powers aren’t just determined by their users and market share, but by the special role we afford them in our democracy, the trust and status we afford their work isn’t a freebie: it needs to be earned. And the way it’s earned is by using that power in the interests of the community – ensuring we’re well-informed and able to make the decisions citizens need to make. 

The media – now in a position to bargain with Facebook  have a choice to make. They can choose to negotiate in ways that make the most business sense for them, or they can choose to think about what arrangements will best serve the democracy that they, as the ‘fourth estate’, are meant to defend. However, at the very least they know that the latter is expected of them – even if the track record of many news publishers gives us reason to doubt. 

Unfortunately, they’re negotiating with a company whose only logic is that of a private company. Facebook have enormous power, but unlikthe media, they don’t have analogous mechanisms – formal or informal – to ensure they serve the community. And it’s not clear they need it to survive. Their product is ubiquitous, potentially addictive and – at least on the surface – free. They don’t need to be trusted because what they’re selling is so desirable 

This generates an ethical asymmetry. Facebook seem to have a different set of rules to the media. Imagine, for a moment, if the media chose to stop reporting for a fortnight to protest a new law. The rightful outrage we would feel as a community would be palpable. It would be nearly unforgivable. And yet we do not hold Facebook to the same standards. And yet, perhaps at this point, they’ve made themselves almost as influential.  

There’s a lot that needs to happen to steady the ship – and one of the most frustrating things about it is that as individuals, there isn’t a lot we can do. But what we can do is use the actual license we have with Facebook in place of a social license.  

If we don’t like the way a news organisation conducts themselves, we cancel our subscriptions; we change the channel. If you want to help hold technology companies to account, you need to let your account to the talking. Denying your data is the best weapon you’ve got. It might be time to think about using it – and if not, under what circumstances you might 

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

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Does Facebook have a different set of rules to the media?

Tim Soutphommasane on free speech, nationalism and civil society

We believe conversations matter. So when we had the opportunity to chat with Tim Soutphommasane we leapt at the chance to explore his ideas of a civil society. Tim is an academic, political theorist and human rights activist. A former public servant, he was Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission from 2013 – 2018 and has been a guest speaker at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Now a professor at Sydney University, he shared with The Ethics Centre his thoughts on the role of the media, free speech, racism and national values.

What role should the media play in supporting a civil society?

The media is one place where our common life as a society comes into being. It helps project to us our common identity and traditions. But ideally media should permit multiple voices, rather than amplify only the voices of the powerful. When it is dominated by certain interests, it can destroy rather than empower civil society. 

How should a civil society reckon with the historical injustices it benefits from today?

A mature society should be able to make sense of history, without resorting to distortion. Yet all societies are built on myths and traditions, so it’s not easy to achieve a reckoning with historical injustice. But, ultimately, a mature society should be able to take pride in its achievements and be critical of its failings – all while understanding it may be the beneficiary of past misdeeds, and that it may need to make amends in some way. 

Should a civil society protect some level of intolerance or bigotry?  

It’s important that society has the freedom to debate ideas, and to challenge received wisdom. But no freedom is ever absolute. We should be able to hold bigotry and intolerance to account when it does harm, including when it harms the ability of fellow citizens to exercise their individual freedoms. 

What do you think we can do to prevent society from becoming a ‘tyranny of the majority’? 

We need to ensure that we have more diverse voices represented in our institutions – whether it’s politics, government, business or media. 

What is the right balance between free speech and censorship in a civil society?

Rights will always need to be balanced. We should be careful, though, to distinguish between censorship and holding others to account for harm. Too often, when people call out harmful speech, it can quickly be labelled censorship. In a society that values freedom, we naturally have an instinctive aversion to censorship. 

How can a society support more constructive disagreement?   

Through practice. We get better at everything through practice. Today, though, we seem to have less space or time to have constructive or civil disagreements. 

What is one value you consider to be an ‘Australian value’?

Equality, or egalitarianism. As with any value, it’s contested. But it continues to resonate with many Australians.  

Do you believe there’s a ‘grand narrative’ that Australians share?

I think a national identity and culture helps to provide meaning to civic values. What democracy means in Australia, for instance, will be different to what it means in Germany or the United States. There are nuances that bear the imprint of history. At the same time, a national identity and culture will never be frozen in time and will itself be the subject of contest. 

And finally, what’s the one thing you’d encourage everyone to commit to in 2021?

Talk to strangers more. 


To read more from Tim on civil society, check out his latest article here.

Tim Soutphommasane is a political theorist and Professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Sydney, where he is also Director, Culture Strategy. From 2013 to 2018 he was Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. He is the author of five books, including The Virtuous Citizen (2012) and most recently, On Hate (2019). 

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

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What elements of a civil society are important to you?

No justice, no peace in healing Trump's America

What fate should be reserved for Donald Trump following his impeachment by the US House of Representatives for his role in inciting insurrection?

Trump’s rusted-on supporters believe him to be without blame and will continue to lionise him as a paragon of virtue. Trump’s equally rusted-on opponents see only fault and wish him to be ground under the heel of history.

However, there is a large body of people who approach the question with an open mind – only to remain genuinely confused about what should come next.

On the one hand, there is an abiding fear that punishing Trump will fan the flames that animate his angry supporters elevating Trump’s status to that of ‘martyr-to-his-cause’. Rather than bind wounds and allow the process of healing to begin, the divisions that rend American society will only be deepened.

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On the other hand, people believe that Trump deserves to be punished for violating his Oath of Office. They too want the wounds to be bound – but doubt that there can be healing without justice. Only then will people of goodwill be able to come together and, perhaps, find common ground.

There is merit in both positions. So, how might we decide where the balance of judgement should lie?

To begin, I think it unrealistic to hope for the emergence of a new set of harmonious relationships between the now three warring political tribes, the Republicans, Democrats and Trumpians. The disagreements between these three groups are visceral and persistent.

Rather than hope for harmony, the US polity should insist on peace.

Indeed, it is the value of ‘peace’ that has been most significantly undermined in the weeks since the Presidential election result was called into question by Donald Trump and his supporters. Rather than anticipate a ‘peaceful transition of power’ – which is the hallmark of democracy – the United States has been confronted by the reality of violent insurrection.

As it happens, I think that President Trump’s recent conduct needs to be evaluated against an index of peace – not just in general terms but specifically in light of what occurred on January 6th when a mob of his supporters, acting in the President’s name, broke into and occupied the US Capitol buildings – spilling blood and bringing death inside its hallowed chambers.

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There is a particular type of peace that can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon legal codes that provide the foundation for many of the laws we take for granted today. The King’s Peace originally applied to the monarch’s household – not just the physical location but also the ruler, their family, friends and retainers. It was a serious crime to disturb the ‘King’s Peace’. Over time, the scope of the King’s Peace was extended to cover certain times of the year and a wider set of locations (e.g. all highways were considered to be subject to fall under the King’s jurisdiction). Following the Norman Conquest, there was a steady expansion of the monarch’s remit until it covered all times and places – standing as a general guarantee of the good order and safety of the realm.

The relevance of all of this to Donald Trump lies in the ethical (and not just legal) effect of the King’s Peace. Prior to its extension, whatever ‘justice’ existed was based on the power of local magnates. In many (if not most places) disputes were settled on the principle of ‘might was right’.

The coming of the King’s Peace meant that only the ruler (and their agents) had the right to settle disputes, impose penalties, etc. The older baronial courts were closed down – leaving the monarch as the fountainhead of all secular justice. In a nutshell, individuals and groups could no longer take the law into their own hands – no matter how powerful they might be.

These ideas should immediately be familiar to us – especially if we live in nations (like the US and Australia) that received and have built upon the English Common Law. It is this idea that underpins what it means to speak of the Rule of Law – and everything, from the framing of the United States Constitution to the decisions of the US Supreme Court depend on our common acceptance that we may not secure our ends, no matter how just we think our cause, through the private application of force.

As should by now be obvious, those who want to forgive Donald Trump for the sake of peace are confronted by what I think is an insurmountable paradox. Trump’s actions fomented insurrection of the kind that fundamentally broke the peace – indeed makes it impossible to sustain. The insurrectionists took the law into their own hands and declared that ‘might is right’ … and they did so with the encouragement of Donald Trump and those who stood by him and whipped up the crowd in the days leading up to and on that fateful day when the Capitol was stormed.

There literally can be no peace – and therefore no healing – unless the instigators of this insurrection are held to account.

Finally, this is not to say that Donald Trump must suffer his punishment. There is no need for retribution or a restoration, through suffering, of a notional balance between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. It may be enough to declare Donald Trump guilty of the ‘high crime and misdemeanour’ for which he was impeached. And if he remains without either shame or remorse, then it may also be necessary to protect the Republic from him ever again holding elected office – not to harm him but, instead, to protect the body politic.

Given all of this, I think that healing is possible … but only if built on a foundation of peace based on justice without retribution.

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Is healing possible without justice?

liberalism image: Girl hanging outside window

Ethics Explainer: Liberalism

Liberalism image: Girl hanging outside car window

Liberalism is founded on the belief that individual freedom should be the basis of a just society.

Who should decide how you live your life: where you reside; what career you choose; whom you can marry; and which gods you worship? Should it be your parents? Or your religious or community leaders? Should it be determined by the circumstances of your birth? Or perhaps by your government? Or should you ultimately be the one to decide these things for yourself?

If you answered the latter, then you’re endorsing the values of liberalism, at least in the broadest sense. Liberalism is, at its heart, the belief that each individual person has moral priority over their community or society when it comes to determining the course of their life.

This primacy of individual freedom and self-determination might seem self-evident to people living in modern liberal democracies, but it is actually a relatively recent innovation.

The Birth of Liberalism

In most societies throughout history and prehistory, one’s beliefs, values and social role were imposed on them by their community. Indeed, in many societies since agricultural times, people were considered to be the property of their parents or their rulers, with next to no-one having genuine freedom or the power of self-determination.

Brave (or foolhardy) was the medieval serf who took it upon themselves to defy their local church to practice their own religion, or defy their family tradition to seek out their dream job, or defy their clan to marry whomever their heart desired.

The seeds of modern liberalism were planted in England in the 13th century with the signing of the Magna Carta, which weakened the unilateral power of the King over his minions. This started a process that eventually enshrined a number of individual rights in English law, such as a right to trial by jury and equality before the law.

Soon even rulers – whether monarch or government – came to receive their legitimacy not from divine authority, tradition or fiat but from the will of the people. If the rulers didn’t operate in the interests of the people, the people had the right to strip that legitimacy from them. This made democracy a natural fit for nations with liberal sensibilities.

The other motivating force for liberalism was the horrifically destructive religious wars that wracked Europe after the Reformation, culminating in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Given the millions of lives lost due to religious and ideological differences, many people came to see that tolerance of different beliefs and religious practices might be a better alternative to imposing one’s beliefs on others by force.


Modern Liberalism

Liberalism was fleshed out as a comprehensive political philosophy by thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke and John Stuart Mill, and more recently by John Rawls. While they differed in their emphases and recommendations, all liberal thinkers were committed to the core idea that individuals were – and ought to be – fundamentally free to live as they choose.

Philosopher John Locke argued that liberalism stemmed from our very nature, arguing that all people are essentially in “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”

Most liberal thinkers argued that individual freedom should only be limited in very special circumstances.

One of those limitations was not impinging upon the freedom of others to live according to their own beliefs and values, hence the importance of tolerance and preventing harm against others. As they say, your freedom to swing your arm ends where another person’s nose begins.

One common theme of liberalism is the importance of free speech. John Stuart Mill, for example, argued that each individual ought to be able to seek the truth for themselves rather than being obliged to accept the views imposed on them by authorities or tradition.

And in order to seek truth, they need to be able to explore, express and interrogate all beliefs and arguments. And the only way to do that was to allow wide-ranging free speech. “There ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered,” he wrote.

This freedom of speech should be limited only in very particular circumstances, such as when that speech is likely to cause direct harm to others. So shouting “fire” in a packed theatre when no such fire exists is an abuse of free speech.

This “harm principle” is still a topic of considerable debate amongst liberals and their opponents, especially around what ought to be considered sufficient harm to justify suppressing speech.

Other liberal thinkers emphasised the fact that not every person was equally able to exercise their freedom through no fault of their own. Poverty, sexism, racial discrimination and other systemic barriers mean that freedom and power are unequally distributed.

This led to what is often called “social justice” liberalism, which seeks to remove those social barriers and enable all people to exercise their freedom to the fullest extent. Some focused on economic redistribution, such as the liberal socialists, while others focused on social barriers, like feminists and anti-discrimination campaigners.

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Who should decide how you live your life?

Berejiklian Conflict

The next phase in the political life of NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, depends on answers to three questions.

First, was her former relationship with Daryl Maguire not just ‘close’ but, in fact, an “intimate personal relationship”? Second, did the Premier make or participate in any decisions that could reasonably be expected to confer a private benefit on Mr Maguire? Finally, if the answer is ‘yes’ to each of these questions, then did Ms Berejiklian declare her interest in the Ministerial Register of Interests and seek the permission of Cabinet to continue to act? 

Nothing else matters – not the Premier’s choice of friends, not her judgement … only the answer to those three questions. 

The reason for this can be found in the NSW Ministerial Code of Conduct (the Ministerial Code) which has the force of Law. As might be expected, the Ministerial Code imposes obligations that are in addition to and are more onerous than, those applying to Members of Parliament. 

The Preamble to the Ministerial Code of Conduct says, amongst other things, that, “In particular, Ministers have a responsibility to avoid or otherwise manage appropriately conflicts of interest to ensure the maintenance of both the actuality and appearance of Ministerial integrity.” With that end in mind, the Code not only takes account of the personal interests of individual Ministers – but also those of members of their families. It is here that the precise nature of the Premier’s relationship with Mr Maguire risks becoming a matter of public, rather than personal, interest. This is because the Ministerial Code of Conduct defines a “family member”, in relation to a Minister, as including, “any other person with whom the Minister is in an intimate personal relationship”. 

‘Intimate’ is not a word used in the ICAC hearing to describe the Premier’s relationship with Mr Maguire.

Instead, it was agreed that theirs had been a “close personal relationship” – the precise nature of which was never explained. However, the evidence suggested that the words ‘close’ and ‘intimate’ may have been synonymous. If so, then Mr Maguire will have fallen within the definition of ‘family member’ during the period of his relationship with the Premier. 

However, this (in itself) is neither here nor there. The nature of Ms Berejiklian’s relationship with Mr Maguire was (and should have remained) aentirely private matter up until the point where the Premier became involved in any Ministerial decision that “could reasonably be expected to confer a private benefit” on Mr Maguire. Only then did the public interest become engaged. 

So, did any such decisions come before the Premier (acting alone or in Cabinet) during the period of her relationship with Mr Maguire? And if so, did she declare her interest as she is required to do under the Ministerial Code? The matter would then have been in the hands of her Cabinet colleagues as the final provision of the Code states that, “a ruling in respect of the Premier may be given if approved by the Cabinet”. 

The Premier obviously knew something of Mr Maguire’s hopes and plans – even if she thought them to be fanciful. She knew of his financial exposure and the material impact that NSW Government decisions might have on his personal wealth. We also know that, for a time, Mr Maguire was at the centre of the Premier’s private affections. The issue is not that the Premier would have acted against the public interest for the benefit of Mr Maguire. I sincerely doubt that she would ever do so. It is most importantly a question of what was done to ensure the maintenance of both the actuality and appearance of Ministerial integrity. 

The Premier had a formal obligation to declare her relationship with Mr. Maguire if, a) it was intimate, b) she was involved in deciding any matter that could reasonably be expected to confer a private benefit on him. It was then up to her Cabinet colleagues to rule on how she should proceed from there. Beyond settling these questions, the public has no legitimate interest in the private life of Gladys Berejiklian – except, perhaps, to extend to her our sympathy if she has been drawn inadvertently into a web of grief spun by a former friend. 

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Did the Premier loose her moral compass?

Character and conflict: should Tony Abbott be advising the UK on trade? We asked some ethicists

Former Aussie PM Tony Abbott’s recent appointment to an unpaid role as a trade adviser to the Johnson government in the UK has sparked controversy in both countries.  

UK government MPs have continually been asked what it means to have a man who is, by the judgement of many in both countries, “a misogynist and a homophobe”, as well as a climate change denier and – more recently – sceptical about coronavirus lockdown measures.  

In Australia, politicians, journalists and citizens have all questioned the appropriateness of a former Prime Minister accepting a position that leaves him serving a foreign government. Whilst Abbott has obligations under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme that are designed to prevent conflicts of interest, there are many who believe Abbott is equipped with too much internal knowledge of Australia’s trade interests, internal party politics and regional issues in the Pacific – accrued as Prime Minister – for him to serve another government.  

Given the range of questions that arise around both conflict and character, we made a list of some of the big ethical questions the Abbott situation brings up, and spoke to a few ethicists to help answer them. 


1. Abbott is a private citizen now. Shouldn’t he be able to take any job he wants? 

Being Prime Minister isn’t like any other job,” says Hugh Breakey, a Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University’s Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law. Abbott would have been privy to high level information and forward planning that he is obligated to hold secret.” If a potential employer of Abbott – whether in a paid role or not – would benefit from this situation, Breakey argues that it would give Abbott a conflict of interests.  

But it’s not just a question of conflicts of interest. In situations like this, it is reasonable to consider whether this role was given as a “kind of payback for favourable treatment during his time in power,” Breakey says.  

However, whilst Abbott’s appointment may generate potential conflicts of interest and are “legitimate lines of ethical inquiry”, Breakey believes they are not problems for Abbott’s appointment.  

However, Simon Longstaff, executive director of The Ethics Centre, disagrees. “There just can be no guarantee that Britain’s interests will always coincide with Australia’s. Given this, the fact that one of our former Prime Ministers would ever serve a foreign power almost beggar’s belief,” he said. 


2. If Abbott’s trade qualifications make him a good candidate, should we overlook his other beliefs and opinions? 

I believe that a representative of any country, in any honoured capacity like this one, should be a morally upstanding person. Tony Abbott is not that, given his history of misogyny, homophobia, and racism,” says Kate Manne, philosophy professor at Cornell University.  

However, Hugh Breakey worries that an approach like this risks jeopardising our commitment to non-discrimination and supporting a diverse set of beliefs and ways of life. Sometimes, he says, ethics might require us to overlook the questionable beliefs of a potential political appointment.  

At least some of the views taken by Abbott on these matters have religious influences, and many similar (and, indeed, far more conservative) views are held by religious devotees across many of the world’s major faiths. Prohibiting from public offices and services all those who hold such views… would allow widespread religious discrimination. 

However, another complication arises when it comes to whose views and personality traits we tend to overlook. Cognitive biases, social norms and systemic beliefs like sexism and racism can mean we’re more likely to overlook controversial beliefs or difficult personalities when they belong to men, people who are straight or white.  

Kate Manne suspects that “both women and non-binary people are far less likely to be viewed as truly qualified or competent, unless they’re also perceived as extraordinarily caring, kind, and what psychologists call communal.” She adds that the tendency to separate the professional and personal/political aspects of someone’s identity is “far less available to women and gender minorities.”

3. Should we label Abbott a misogynist or homophobe based only on his public comments and policies? 

“The truth is, few people would know Tony Abbott well enough to say with any confidence what he truly feels or believes, and those who do know him paint a very different picture to the one sketched by his critics,” says Simon Longstaff. “A person can be opposed to same-sex marriage and yet not be a homophobe,” he adds. 

However, for Kate Manne, the central question of misogyny or homophobia isn’t whether the person feels a certain way toward women or queer people, it’s what effect they have on those communities.  

Misogyny to me is not a personal failure or an individual belief system: it’s a system that polices and enforces a patriarchal order,” she says. “I define a misogynist in turn as someone who’s an ‘overachiever,’ or particularly active, in this system. 

Manne says, “misogyny on this view is less about what men like Abbott may or may not feel toward women, and more about what women face as a result of their toxic, obnoxious, and contemptuous behaviour.”  

For Manne, this means Abbott can be reasonably called misogynist and homophobic on this basis. His status as a former PM and his very public comments have done considerable work to uphold a system that oppresses women and LGBTIQ+ people. She cites examples such as calling abortion the ‘easy way out’, standing next to a ‘ditch the witch’ sign or talking about feeling threatened by gay people as evidence of Abbott’s contributions.  

4. How should
we balance the need to reject some beliefs because they’re not morally acceptable or legitimate with our commitment to pluralism? 

Democracies gain critically in legitimacy by being able to conduct inclusive deliberations where diverse views can be raised and considered,” says Hugh Breakey 

Naturally, no-one can or should expect immunity from social consequences for what they say in public discussionBreakey adds. “The more that institutional sanctions are applied on the basis of positions taken in [controversial] debates the narrower the spectrum of positions that are likely to be defended, and the more that different views will fail to be represented.” 

Kate Manne suggests a simple principle to test which voices we should accept as part of our political life: “It’s good to have a variety of voices, but those voices need not to silence or speak over the voices of other people,” she says 

Abbott’s voice does not meet that simple test.  

Unlike Manne, Breakey doesn’t suggest Abbotts views sit outside the realm of acceptable political opinions, he agrees with Manne’s principle. “If we want democracy to be more than the tyranny of the majority, or (worse still) rule by elites, then we need more civic tolerance afforded to those who think and speak in disagreeable ways. 

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Does a former PM have a duty to country?

What's the use in trying?

In early 2020 I sat in a friend’s house on the coast of New South Wales listening to smoke alarms go off in canon, triggered by the air itself, thick with smoke from the active fronts of the worst bushfire season in living memory.

The roads were lined with scorched animals and the climate crisis seemed as inevitable as it did cataclysmic. It was unthinkable then that this moment of apparently superlative awfulness would, in a matter of months, recede to just one more entry in a year-long list of suffering, death, and massive-scale crisis. 

The lucky of us stayed inside afraid for months. The unlucky died, or lost loved ones and could not go to their funerals. There was widespread and systematic police violence against black people and against the people who protested it. USD $3.6 trillion was wiped off the stock market in one week.

The first six months of 2020 presented an unusually literal illustration of an old ethical question: why bother when the conclusion feels foregone?

What many of us felt about the climate in January was a well-known phenomenon: the fatigue of feeling useless when we felt we could not rely on the powerful to make changes or on other people to do their part. This feeling was quickly matched by parallels in resistance to systemic racism, in fighting an economic downturn and even in pandemic compliance. 

Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, data modelling revealed that social distancing would only work if 8 out of 10 of us followed the rules. If only 70% of us stood six feet apart, washed our hands, and stayed inside for weeks on end, it would be as though none of us had. To the misanthropist who felt that 30% of people would surely disregard the rules, a motivational gap loomed: why do what I can to help, when I’m not confident it will

Even to the most resiliently motivated, parts of 2020 posed this problem. Hundred-thousand strong protests in the United States were not enough to prevent the deaths of more unarmed black people, nor to prevent protestors themselves from being pepper-sprayed at close range.

The indefatigability of the protests seemed met by the indefatigability of the problem.  For many people it became impossible to feel calm or ordered anywhere as long as case numbers rose. So it seemed foregone that our homes would not feel calm or ordered either, and the motivation to improve them frayed in proportion to the dishes in the sink. 

The philosopher and psychologist William James knew that certain beliefs can be self-validating; that confidence in outcomes, however, we come by it, can make itself well placed. The sailors who think they can pull the heavy rope are more likely to summon the gusto and collective coordination required to make it the case that they can. This first half of 2020 was a vivid illustration of the photonegative; the fact that uncertainty about outcomes can be enough to puncture our drive to pursue them. 

So what is there to be done? Few of us believe that this pessimism or uncertainty in fact means that it is not worth protesting, or washing our hands, or doing the dishes. We still rationally endorse that we ought to do these things. But it becomes a wrench, an act of shepherding ourselves, parent-like, and it wears us down. It leads us to misanthropy. 

An answer lies in looking more closely at one facet of what 2020 has cost us. We lost the most unthinking parts of our lives; the well-worn routine of the drive home or the setup at the gym, the clockwork Wednesday night choir, the disappearance into a team practicing a physical skill. 

These were moments where what we did was not to achieve, or to think, but to be in a process. It was immaterial to us whether we achieved victory or even improvement, since our commitment to doing them was not dependent on whether we did. What we wanted was to be absorbed, to be a creature who acts.  

We are, unavoidably, creatures who act. But as philosopher Mark Schroeder has noted, there is an asymmetry between our options in thought and our options in action. We have three options about what to think: we can believe what is on offer, reject it, or withhold judgement. But in action we have only two options; act or do not. There is no way to be in the world that avoids this two-prong choice. 

When we realize this, we can shift our focus in a way that avoids futility fatigue. Our moral duty to act – and so too, our motivation – need not be entirely derived from what will happen once we do. It may be that what we owe each other is action itself, and effort itself. 

In turn, this can release us from some pressure that comes with knowing that our goals will be difficult to achieve and fragile once we get them. We can simply aim at the action itself. We can find in resistance, in participation, and in care, a goal which is not about the altering of the world but about the observation of the act itself. 

In this state, our uncertainty is no longer a threat to our motivation. With this as our focus and our source of energy, we may find that we are, in the end, more effective at altering the world.  

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 one person make a difference?

Whose home, and who’s home?

Australian citizens who live overseas and want to return to Australia, with some exceptions, now have to pay for their mandatory two-week hotel quarantine.

This new rule applies for those returning to New South Wales or Queensland. It means that a single adult returning home must have AUD $3000 to pay for their stay. Last week New Zealand announced a similar policy: citizens returning home to stay less than 90 days will be charged for their quarantine. 

Announcing the policy, NSW Premier Gladys Berijiklian said “Australian residents have been given plenty of time to return home, and we feel it is only fair that they cover some of the costs of their hotel accommodation”. 

The locution of having “been given” time to return home sounded curious to many of us who reside overseas. We were unaware that living elsewhere had been a matter of taking. 

In the comments sections of news articles about the announcement, the Premier’s sentiment was echoed by other Australians. A recurring theme appeared: overseas Australians who returned home now are being selfish to expect taxpayer help

What could fairness require, in a pandemic? It is not fair that some people will get COVID and others will not. It is not fair that some will die while others survive. These are circumstances where a question about fairness is simply not askable; there is only tragedy, which does not have a possible equitable distribution. 

One way to be unfair in a pandemic might be to expose other people to risk. People arriving from overseas certainly do that, and it is crucial to Australia’s efforts to contain the coronavirus that it curbs the risk from international travellers. Like many other countries, Australia was within its rights to close its borders early to international travellers in recognition of this risk. 

The very concept of citizenship, however, prohibits closing borders entirely. No matter where citizens ordinarily live, their government has a duty to allow them to cross the border of their home. This is what it means to be a citizen. 

There is a problem of incommensurability here. How does the need to mitigate a biothreat weigh against the standing rights of citizens to cross a border? One is a value of rights and obligations; the other is a value of consequences and threat reduction. Neither of these values presents itself in a standardised unit to be compared against the other.

The question is not quite “how do we make a good decision?” but “which kind of good should we be interested in?”. This is a fairly common problem.

Not all of the things we want governments to provide can be coherently measured against each other, so when they come into conflict, it’s not clear how to even begin making the trade. Privacy against safety, health against freedom, service provision against non-interference. 

The Government appears to have chosen fairness as the value to adjudicate between the two. The Premier described the policy as “only fair”, since “Aussies overseas have had three or four months to figure out what they want to do”. Prime Minister Scott Morrison echoed this, saying overseas Australians “obviously delayed [their] decision”, and Winston Peters of the New Zealand First Party said that asking taxpayers to pay for fellow citizens’ quarantine was “grossly unfair”.

There are two features of the decision that challenge the terms of fairness here. One is that it seems only to apply to Australians overseas. We would not, for instance, describe it as “only fair” to deny Medicare coverage to an Australian at home who contracted COVID-19 after breaking quarantine rules, even though there is an argument that this is ‘only fair’. Like the quarantine fee, it would mean that those who had ‘plenty of time’ to follow the rules did not impose a burden on the taxpayer when an emergency befell them.

The second is that it is not clear that fairness is the value we should default to in the midst of a global pandemic. In an article for Guardian New Zealand, Elle Hunt suggested that these policies are a failure of empathy. “Discriminating against all but the most wealthy members of the diaspora is a rare failure of not just compassion but imagination – to reach a more equal solution, and to imagine the painful personal circumstances in which it might be warranted.”

Empathy asks different things of a government than fairness. It asks for mercy and the maximum provision of services to those who are suffering. It asks for an imaginative capaciousness about what life is like for citizens whose jobs, families, friends and visas would have been in peril if they had returned earlier. It asks for magnanimity, forgiveness, and generosity.

Empathy may not be a viable long term guiding principle for a political party. But in a pandemic, we may find that the alternative language of fairness and moralising either loses its footing entirely or forces us to absurd conclusions.

“Only fair” was how the Premier described the policy, but we have more values than only fairness. A global emergency may be the time to use some.

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 do you define fairness?

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?