A burning question about the bushfires

At the height of the calamity that has been the current bushfire season, people demanded to know why large parts of our country were being ravaged by fires of a scale and intensity seldom seen.

In answer, blame has been sheeted home to the mounting effects of climate change, to failures in land management, to our burgeoning population, to the location of our houses, to the pernicious deeds of arsonists…

However, one thing has not made the list, ethical failure.

I suspect that few people have recognised the fires as examples of ethical failure. Yet, that is what they are. The flames were fuelled not just by high temperatures, too little rain and an overabundance of tinder-dry scrub. They were also the product of unthinking custom and practice and the mutation of core values and principles into their ‘shadow forms’.

Bushfires are natural phenomena. However, their scale and frequency are shaped by human decisions. We know this to be true through the evidence of how Indigenous Australians make different decisions – and in doing so – produce different effects.

Our First Nations people know how to control fire and through its careful application help the country to thrive. They have demonstrated (if only we had paid attention) that there was nothing inevitable about the destruction unleashed over the course of this summer. It was always open to us to make different choices which, in turn, would have led to different outcomes.

This is where ethics comes in. It is the branch of philosophy that deals with the character and quality of our decisions; decisions that shape the world. Indeed, constrained only by the laws of nature, the most powerful force on this planet is human choice. It is the task of ethics to help people make better choices by challenging norms that tend to be accepted without question.

This process asks people to go back to basics – to assess the facts of the matter, to challenge assumptions, to make conscious decisions that are informed by core values and principles. Above all, ethics requires people to accept responsibility for their decisions and all that follows.

This catastrophe was not inevitable. It is a product of our choices.

For example, governments of all persuasions are happy to tell us that they have no greater obligation than to keep us safe. It is inconceivable that our politicians would ignore intelligence suggesting that a terrorist attack might be imminent. They would not wait until there was unanimity in the room. Instead, our governments would accept the consensus view of those presenting the intelligence and take preventative action.

So, why have our political leaders ignored the warnings of fire chiefs, defence analysts and climate scientists? Why have they exposed the community to avoidable risks of bushfires? Why have they played Russian Roulette with our future?

It can only be that some part of society’s ‘ethical infrastructure’ is broken.

In the case of the fires, we could have made better decisions. Better decisions – not least in relation to the challenges of global emissions, climate change, how and where we build our homes, etc. – will make a better world in which foreseeable suffering and destruction is avoided. That is one of the gifts of ethics.

Understood in this light, there is nothing intangible about ethics. It permeates our daily lives. It is expressed in phenomena that we can sense and feel.

So, if anyone is looking for a physical manifestation of ethical failure – breathe the smoke-filled air, see the blood-red sky, feel the slap from a wall of heat, hear the roar of the firestorm.

The fires will subside. The rains will come. The seasons will turn. However, we will still be left to decide for the future. Will our leaders have the moral courage to put the public interest before their political fortunes? Will we make the ethical choice and decide for a better world?

It is our task, at The Ethics Centre, to help society do just that.

Join the conversation

Are we all responsible for the fires?

Time for Morrison’s ‘quiet Australians’ to roar

The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has attributed his electoral success to the influence of ‘Quiet Australians’.

It is an evocative term that pitches somewhere between that of the ‘silent majority’ and Sir Robert Menzies’ concept of the ‘Forgotten People’. Unfortunately, I think that the phrase will have a limited shelf-life because increasing numbers of Australians are sick of being quiet and unobserved.

In the course of the last federal election, I listened to three mayors being interviewed about the political mood of their rural and regional electorates. They said people would vote to ensure that their electorates became ‘marginal’. Despite their political differences, they were unanimous in their belief that this was the only way to be noticed. They are the cool tip of a volcano of discontent.

Quiet or invisible?

Put simply, I think that most Australians are not so much ‘quiet’, as ‘invisible’ – unseen by a political class that only notices those who confer electoral advantage. Thus, the attention given to the marginal seat or the big donor or the person who can guarantee a favourable headline and so on…

The ‘invisible people’ are fearful and angry.

They fear that their jobs will be lost to expert systems and robots. They fear that, without a job, they will be unable to look after their families. They fear that the country is unprepared to meet and manage the profound challenges that they know to be coming – and that few in government are willing to name.

They are angry that they are held accountable to a higher standard than government ministers or those running large corporations. They are angry that they will be discarded as the ‘collateral damage’ of progress.

And in many ways, they are right.


Is democracy failing us?

After all, where is the evidence to show that our democracy is consciously crafting a just and orderly transition to a world in which climate change, technological innovation and new geopolitical realities are reshaping our society. Will democracy hold in such a world?

By definition, democracy accords a dignity to every citizen – not because they are a ‘customer’ of government, but – because citizens are the ultimate source of authority. The citizen is supposed to be at the centre of the democratic state. Their interests should be paramount. 

Yet this fundamental ‘promise’ seems to have been broken. The tragedy in all of this is that most politicians are well-intentioned. They really do want to make a positive contribution to their society. Yet, somehow the democratic project is at risk of losing its legitimacy – after which it will almost certainly fail.

In the end, while it’s comforting to whinge about politicians, the media, and so on, the quality of democracy lies in the hands of the people. We cannot escape our responsibility. Nor can we afford to remain ‘quiet’. Instead, wherever and whoever we may be, let’s roar: We are citizens. We demand to be seen. We will be heard.


The Ethics Centre’s next IQ2 debate – Democracy is Failing the People – is on Tuesday 27 August at Sydney Town Hall. Presenter and comedian Craig Reucassel will join political veteran Amanda Vanstone to go up against youth activist Daisy Jeffrey and economist Dr Andrew Charlton to answer if democracy is serving us, or failing us.

Join the conversation

Should politicians assume the voice of the voiceless?

Drawing a line on corruption: Operation eclipse submission

The Ethics Centre (TEC) has made a submission to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) regarding its discussion paper, The Regulation of Lobbying, Access and Influence in NSW: A Chance To Have Your Say.

Released in April 2019 as part of Operation Eclipse, it’s public review into how lobbying activities in NSW should be regulated.

As a result of the submission TEC Executive Director, Dr Simon Longstaff has been invited to bear witness at the inquiry, which will also consider the need to rebuild public trust in government institutions and parliamentarians.

Our submission acknowledged the decline in trust in government as part of a broader crisis experienced across our institutional landscape – including the private sector, the media and the NGO sector. It is TEC’s view that the time has come to take deliberate and comprehensive action to restore the ethical infrastructure of society.

We support the principles being applied to the regulation of lobbying: transparency, integrity, fairness and freedom.

Key points within The Ethics Centres submission include:

    • There is a difference between making representations to government on one’s own behalf and the practice of paying another person or party with informal government connections to advocate to government. TEC views the latter to be ‘lobbying’
    • Lobbying has the potential to allow the government to be influenced more by wealthier parties, and interfere with the duty of officials and parliamentarians to act in the public interest
    • No amount of compliance requirements can compensate for a poor decision making culture or an inability of officials, at any level, to make ethical decisions. While an awareness and understanding of an official’s obligations is necessary, it is not sufficient. There is a need to build their capacity to make ethical decisions and support an ethical decision making culture.

You can read the full submission here.


Dr Simon Longstaff, Executive Director at The Ethics Centre, presented as a witness to the Commission on Monday 5 August. You can read the public transcript on the ICAC website here.

Join the conversation

How could you have avoided the biggest you’ve ever made?

Stop Idolising Youth - Recommended reads

Are we idolising youth? Recommended reads

Stop Idolising Youth - Recommended reads

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

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

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

1. Why do marketers hate old people?

Ad Contrarian, Bob Hoffman / 2 December 2013

Why Do Marketers Hate Old People?

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

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

Read the full story


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

Ben Law, The Sydney Morning Herald / 27 October 2017

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

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

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

Read the full story


3. Let’s end ageism

Ashton Applewhite, TED Talk / April 2017



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

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

Watch on TED


4. Instagram’s most popular nan

Baddiewinkle, Instagram/ Helen Van Winkle



View this post on Instagram


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

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

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

Follow her here


Event info

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

Join the conversation

What are the characteristics of youth?

Corruption, decency and probity advice

Corruption, decency and probity advice

Corruption, decency and probity advice

Corruption and probity are hot topics in Australia’s public sector. Even a cursory glance at recent cases brought before corruption watchdogs shows this.

The long running stories and court cases that follow have become a staple of national news bulletins. Any time a state asset is built, sold or disposed of, there are serious questions to be asked.

Probity – which is a corporate noun for ethics or honesty and decency – has established its place in the architecture of technical services that assess, assure and measure high-risk public sector projects. Probity advising and auditing is crucial when how a project is executed is just as important as any intended outcome.

As the line separating public and private sector accountabilities becomes less clear, non-government actors are increasingly looking to probity professionals to help ensure – and show – integrity in their dealings. However, before doing so it is important the probity professionals themselves improve the integrity of their process and gain a more sophisticated understanding of ethical frameworks.

Probity services are provided both by large accounting firms and a growing band of smaller boutique operators. Probity plans (documents that set out how the project will be run to ensure the integrity of the process) are now a mandatory requirement for many public projects.

Probity professionals use a number of lenses to monitor and promote ethical decision making in execution, typically through the following fundamentals:

Value for money: Was the market tested adequately to ensure an organisation was achieving the most competitive result, which made the best use of resources?

Conflicts of interest and impartiality: Were processes in place to manage any actual, perceived or potential conflicts of interests?

Accountability and transparency: Was an auditable trail maintained to provide evidence of the integrity of the process? Was enough information made available to promote confidence – for example, were selection criteria and time lines for decision making adequately communicated?

Confidentiality: When sensitive information from stakeholders is received, such as private or business-in-confidence information, was there a process in place to identify and protect this information?

The growth of probity services over the last 30 years undoubtedly reflects their ability to add value to projects. However, over that same period there has been concern that practitioners have at times diminished, rather than promoted, probity fundamentals. Some of the critical factors include:

  • Relying too heavily on compliance monitoring at the expense of ethical considerations
  • Allowing their duties to be too narrowly defined by clients
  • Lacking the confidence to challenge impropriety
  • Allowing themselves to be “shopped” (much like “legal advice shopping,” clients can go from one probity advisor to another until they get the advice they want).

There is also concern that public sector agencies can overuse these services, having the effect of “contracting out” their probity obligations in their regular operations.

To some extent these are symptoms of the unregulated nature of probity services. There are no formal qualifications required for probity advisors and auditors and no professional standard governing them.

Their difference from traditional audits or investigations has led to some misunderstanding of their role and judgements which can lead to unfair criticism of probity professionals, but also to exploitation by both clients and probity practitioners.

To tackle these problems and prepare for a broader role in guiding business dealings, probity practitioners need to acknowledge their own industry’s need for an ethical framework and an increasingly robust standard for professional practice.

This framework would acknowledge their implied obligation to society to be more than a mere compliance check, and, on behalf of the average Joe on the street, to be the one in the room to ask a simple pub test question: after all the boxes have been ticked, does it look and sound like an ethical process?

To do this the profession needs to imagine its duty in broader terms than self-interest or the interest of clients, but to society in general, in line with other professions tasked with acting in the public interest.

For some time, probity professionals have used policy documents such as the NSW Code of Practice for Procurement to gauge the ethical performance of government projects. However, as their duty and work expands to different sectors and in line with changing community expectations, they will need to be able to identify the ethical frameworks peculiar to those sectors and to the organisations they are commissioned by.

Used effectively, an ethical framework is the foundation of an organisation’s culture.

When requested to provide probity related advice, The Ethics Centre includes the ethical framework amongst its list of fundamentals. This allows our clients to do more than tick boxes. It allows them to assess whether they have lived up to their ethical obligations, the values they proport to uphold and their promise to the community.

In a world in which trust is in deficit, these are important skills to have.

Join the conversation

Should large scale projects undergo an ethics test?

Where do ethics and politics meet?

In the Western philosophical tradition, ethics and politics were frequently deemed to be two sides of a single coin.

Aristotle’s Ethics sought to answer the question of what is a good life for an individual person. His Politics considered what is a good life for a community (a polis). So, for the Ancient Greeks, at least, the good life existed on an unbroken continuum ranging from the personal through the familial to the social.

In some senses, this reflected an older belief that individuals exist as part of society. Indeed, in many cultures – in the Ancient world and today – the idea of an isolated individual makes little sense. Yet, there are a few key moments in Western philosophy when we see the individual emerging.

St Thomas Aquinas argued that no individual or institution has ‘sovereignty’ over the well-informed conscience of the individual.

Renee Descartes placed the self-certain subject at the centre of all knowledge and in doing so undermined the authority of institutions that based their claims to superiority on revelation, tradition or hierarchy. Reason was to take centre stage.

Aquinas and Descartes (along with too many to be named here) helped to set the foundations for a modern form of politics in which the conscientious judgement of the individual takes precedence over that of the community.

Today, we observe a global political landscape in which ethics can be hard to detect. It’s easy to say that many politicians are ruled by naked greed, fear, opinion polls, blind ideology or a lust for power.



This probably isn’t fair to the many politicians who apply themselves to their responsibilities with care and diligence.

In the end, ethics is about living an examined life – something that should apply whether the choices to be made are those of an individual, a group or a whole society.

Join the conversation

Does ethics have a seat in the house of politics?


Increase or reduce immigration? Recommended reads


Immigration is the hot election issue connecting everything from mismanaged water and mass fish deaths in the Murray Darling to congested cities and unaffordable housing.

The 2019 IQ2 season kicks off with ‘Curb Immigration’ on 26 March. It’s something Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to do today if re-elected and opposition leader Bill Shorten has committed to considering.

Here’s a collection of ideas, research, articles and arguments covering the debate.

New migrants to go regional for permanent residency, under PM’s plan

Scott Morrison, SBS News / 20 March 2019

Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed his immigration plan today. He confirmed reports he will lower the cap on Australia’s immigration intake from 190,000 to 160,000 for the next four years. He announced 23,000 visa places that require people to live and work in regional Australia for three years before they can apply for permanent residency. “It is about incentives to get people taking up the opportunities outside our big cities” and “it’s about busting congestion in our cities”, Morrison said.

Read the full story


Australian attitudes to immigration: a love / hate relationship

The Ethics Centre, The New Daily / 24 January 2019


You’ll hear Australians talk about our country as either a multicultural utopia or intolerant mess. This article charts many recent surveys on our attitudes to immigration. The results show almost equal majorities of us love and hate it for different reasons, suggesting individual people both support and reject immigration at the same time. We’re complex creatures.

Read the full story


Post Populism

Niall Ferguson, Festival of Dangerous Ideas / 4 November 2018

Niall Ferguson

At the Festival of Dangerous Ideas on Cockatoo Island, Niall Ferguson presented his take on the five ingredients that have bred the nationalistic populism sweeping the western world today. Point one: increased immigration. Listen to the podcast or watch the video highlights. Elsewhere, Ferguson points to Brexit and the European migrant crisis and predicts, “the issue of migration will be seen by future historians as the fatal solvent of the EU”.

Listen to the podcast now


Human Flow movie

Ai Weiwei / 2017

Part documentary and part advocacy, Human Flow is a film by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei that “gives a powerful visual expression” to the 65 million people displaced from their homes by climate change, war or famine. It is not the story of ‘orderly migration’ based on skilled visas or spatial planning policies, but rather, one of mass flows across countries and continents.


Government needs to wake up to impact of population boom

PM, ABC RN / 23 February 2018

IQ2 guest and human geographer Dr Jonathan Sobels is interviewed by Linda Mottram on the impact of Australia’s population growth on the continent’s natural environment. He’s not the only person concerned about this. A 2019 study by ANU found 75 percent of Australians agree the environment is already under too much pressure with the current population size.

Tune in now 


Counter-terrorism expert Anne Aly: ‘I dream of a future in which I’m no longer needed’

Greg Callaghan, The Sydney Morning Herald / 18 November 2016


Dr Anne Aly is a counter terrorism expert come politician with “instant relatability”, according to this feature piece on her. Get to know more about her interesting life and career before catching her at IQ2 where she’ll argue against the motion ‘Curb Immigration’. Aly is the Labor Member for the West Australian electorate of Cowan and first female Muslim parliamentarian in Australia.

Read the full story


Event info

Get your IQ2 ‘Curb Immigration’ tickets here
Satya Marar & Jinathan Sobels vs Anne Aly & Nicole Gurran
27 March 2019 | Sydney Town Hall

Join the conversation

When should the natural environment be put before people?

After Christchurch

What is to be said about the murder of innocents?

That the ends never justify the means? That no religion or ideology transmutes evil into good? That the victims are never to blame? That despicable, cowardly violence is as much the product of reason as it is of madness?

What is to be said?

Sometimes… mute, sorrowful silence must suffice. Sometimes… words fail and philosophy has nothing to add to our intuitive, gut-wrenching response to unspeakable horror.

Thus, we bow our heads in silence… to honour the dead, to console the living, to be as one for the sake of others.

In that silence… what is to be said?


Yet, I feel compelled to speak. To offer some glimmer of insight that might hold off the dark — the dark shades of vengeance, the dark tides of despair, the dark pools of resignation.

So, I offer this. Even in the midst of the greatest evil there are people who deny its power. They are rare individuals who perform ‘redemptive’ acts that affirm what we could be. Some call them saints or heroes. They are both and neither. They are ordinary people who act with pure altruism – solely for the sake of others, with nothing to gain.

One such person is with me every day. The Polish doctor and children’s author, Janusz Korczak, cared for orphaned Jewish children confined to the Warsaw Ghetto. At last, the time came when the children were to be transported to their place of extermination. Korczak led his children to the railway station — but was stopped along the way by German officers. Despite being a Jew, Korczak was so revered as to be offered safe passage.

To choose life, all he need do was abandon the children. At the height of the Nazi ascendancy, Korczak had no reason to think that he would be remembered for a heroic but futile death. He had nothing to gain. Yet, he remained with the children and with them went to his death. He did so for their sake — and none other. In that decision, he redeemed all humanity — because what he showed is the other face of our being, the face that repudiates the murderer, the terrorist, the racist…the likes of Brenton Tarrant.

I know that many people do not believe in altruism. They will offer all manner of reasons to explain it away, finding knotholes of self-interest that deny the nobility of Janusz Korczak’s final act. They are wrong. I have seen enough of the world to know that pure acts of altruism are rare — but real. And it only takes one such act to speak to us of our better selves.

We will never know precisely what happened in those mosques targeted in Christchurch. However, I believe that, in the midst of the terror, there were people who performed acts of bravery, born out of altruism, of a kind that should inspire and ultimately comfort us all.

Most of these stories will be untold — lost to the silence. Of a few, we may hear faint whispers. But believe me, the acts behind those stories are every bit as real as the savagery they confronted and confounded. And even when whispered, they are more powerful.

Evil born of hate can never prevail. It offers nothing and consumes all — eventually eating its own. That is why good born of love must win the ultimate victory. Where hate takes, love gives — ensuring that, in the end, even a morsel of good will tip the balance.

You might say to me that this is not philosophy. Where is the crisp edge of logic? Where is the disinterested and dispassionate voice of reason? Today, that voice is silent. Yet, I hope you can hear the truth all the same.

Dr Simon Longstaff AO is Executive Director of The Ethics Centre.

Join the conversation

Can we overcome hate with love?

Is our current form of democracy failing us?

Democracy is still the least-worst option we have

Is our current form of democracy failing us?

If the last decade of Australian politics has taught us anything it is this: democracy is a deeply flawed system.

Between the leadership spills, minority governments, ministerial scandals, legal corruption, and campaign donations, democracy is leaving more of us disillusioned and distrustful.

And that’s just in Australia.

Overseas, various ‘democratic’ governments have handed us Brexit, Russian election tampering (both domestically and abroad), the near collapse of the Euro, the Chinese Government’s Social Credit scheme, and the potentially soon-to-be-impeached Trump Presidency.

It’s not surprising that many are looking for an alternative system to run the country. Something simpler, more direct. Something efficient and easy.

Something like capitalism.

This may seem absurd on first reading – after all, how can an economic system replace the political governance of an entire nation? But capitalism is more than how we trade goods and services. It spills into a broader socio-economic theory that claims it can better represent people nationally and abroad than democracy ever could. This is known as neoliberalism.

Neoliberals argue that we don’t need to rely on the promises of unaccountable representatives to run the government. We can let competition decide. Just as a free market encourages better products, why don’t we let the free market encourage better governance?

If Bob does a better job fixing your car than Frank, employ Bob and vote for that quality as the standard. Frank either picks up his game or goes out of business. If your neighbouring electorate’s MP does a better job representing you, pay him and vote for his policy. If people value businesses that treat their employees well, those businesses will succeed and others will change their practices to compete.

Where democracy asks you to trust in the honour of your leaders, and only gives you a chance to hold them to account every few years, neoliberalism lets you exercise your choice every single time you spend your money, every single day.

This is far from fantasy thinking. It is this essential idea that drives ideas like ‘small government’, privatisation of state infrastructure, decreasing business taxes, and cutting ‘red tape’ – remove government interference from the system and leave the decisions up to the people themselves.

On paper it is the perfect system of government – a direct democracy where every citizen constantly drives policy based on what they buy and why.

Great, right? Well, only if you’re a fan of feudalism. Because that is what such a system would inevitably produce.

Consider this: within democracy, who is in control? The elected government obviously has the reigns of power during their term (to a frankly frightening degree), but how do they maintain that power?

By being elected, of course. Whether they like it or not, every three to four years they at least have to pretend they care about the needs of the people. In reality it’s hardly as simple as ‘one person, one vote’ – between campaign donationslobby groups, ‘cash for access’, and good old-fashioned connections, some citizens will always have more power than others – but the fact remains that within democracy, the people in power still need to care about the whims of their citizens.



Now consider this: within this ideal capitalist, neoliberal, vote-with-your-dollar system, who is in control? If you express your interests in this system through your purchases, then power is dispersed based on how much you spend, right?

Who does the most spending? The people with the most money.

Here is the critical question and the sting in tail of the neoliberalism: why should the people in control of such a society, where power is determined by wealth alone, give the slightest damn about you?

Whether sincere or not, democracy requires the decision makers to court all citizens at least every election (and a lot more frequently than that, if they know what’s good for them). But in a purely capitalist society, why would the power-players ever need to consult those without significant wealth, power, or influence?

Even in a democratic world a mere 62 people already own more money than half of the entire world’s population, and exert titanic power upon the world’s markets that no normal citizen can ever hope to challenge.

Remove the political franchise that democracy guarantees every citizen by default, and you remove any and all controls of how those ultra-rich exert the power this wealth grants them.

So while we may criticise democracy for its inefficiencies, and fantasise how much better it would all be if government ‘were run like a business’, such idle complaints miss the key value of democracy – that in granting each and every citizen the inalienable right to an equal vote, none of them can safely be ignored by those who would aspire to power.

Perhaps you believe that the neoliberal utopia would be a better system, and the 1 percent would never decide to relegate the masses back to serfdom. But the fact that such a decision would now depend entirely on their whims, should be enough to terrify any sane citizen.

Join the conversation

Is democracy still the least worse option?

Ethics Explainer: Social Contract

Social contract theories see the relationship of power between state and citizen as a consensual exchange. It is legitimate only if given freely to the state by its citizens and explains why the state has duties to its citizens and vice versa.

Although the idea of a social contract goes as far back as Epicurus and Socrates, it gained popularity during The Enlightenment thanks to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Today the most popular example of social contract theory comes from John Rawls.

The social contract begins with the idea of a state of nature – the way human beings would exist in the world if they weren’t part of a society. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that because people are fundamentally selfish, life in the state of nature would be “nasty, brutish and short”. The powerful would impose their will on the weak and nobody could feel certain their natural rights to life and freedom would be respected. 

Hobbes believed no person in the state of nature was so strong they could be free from fear of another person and no person was so weak they could not present a threat. Because of this, he suggested it would make sense for everyone to submit to a common set of rules and surrender some of their rights to create an all-powerful state that could guarantee and protect every person’s right. Hobbes called it the ‘Leviathan’. 

It’s called a contract because it involves an exchange of services. Citizens surrender some of their personal power and liberty. In return the state provides security and the guarantee that civil liberty will be protected. 

Crucially, social contract theorists insist the entire legitimacy of a government is based in the reciprocal social contract. They are legitimate because they are the only ones the people willingly hand power to. Locke called this popular sovereignty. 

Unlike Hobbes, Locke thought the focus on consent and individual rights meant if a group of people didn’t agree with significant decisions of a ruling government then they should be allowed to join together to form a different social contract and create a different government. 

Not every social contract theorist agrees on this point. Philosophers have different ideas on whether the social contract is real, or if it’s a fictional way to describe the relationship between citizens and their government. 

If the social contract is a real contract – just like your employment contract – people could be free not to accept the terms. If a person didn’t agree they should give some of their income to the state they should be able to decline to pay tax and as a result, opt out of state-funded hospitals, education, and all the rest. 

Like other contracts, withdrawing comes with penalties – so citizens who decide to stop paying taxes may still be subject to punishment. 

Other problems arise when the social contract is looked at through a feminist perspective. Historically, social contract theories, like the ones proposed by Hobbes and Locke, say that (legitimate) state authority comes from the consent of free and equal citizens. 

Philosophers like Carole Pateman challenge this idea by noting that it fails to deal with the foundation of male domination that these theories rest on.  

For Pateman the myth of autonomous, free and equal individual citizens is just that: a myth. It obscures the reality of the systemic subordination of women and others.  

In Pateman’s words the social contract is first and foremost a ‘sexual contract’ that keeps women in a subordinate role. The structural subordination of women that props up the classic social contract theory is inherently unjust. 

The inherent injustice of social contract theory is further highlighted by those critics that believe individual citizens are forced to opt in to the social contract. Instead of being given a choice, they are just lumped together in a political system which they, as individuals, have little chance to control.  

Of course, the idea of individuals choosing not to opt in or out is pretty impractical – imagine trying to stop someone from using roads or footpaths because they didn’t pay tax.  

To address the inherent inequity in some forms of social contract theory, John Rawls proposes a hypothetical social contract based on fundamental principles of justice. The principles are designed to provide a clear rationale to guide people in choosing to willingly agree to surrender some individual freedoms in exchange for having some rights protected. Rawls’ answer to this question is a thought experiment he calls the veil of ignorance.

By imagining we are behind a veil of ignorance with no knowledge of our own personal circumstances, we can better judge what is fair for all. If we do so with a principle in place that would strive for liberty for all at no one else’s expense, along with a principle of difference (the difference principle) that guarantees equal opportunity for all, as a society we would have a more just foundation for individuals to agree to a contract that in which some liberties would be willingly foregone.  

Out of Rawls’ focus on fairness within social contract theory comes more feminist approaches, like that of Jean Hampton. In addition to criticising Hobbes’ theory, Hampton offers another feminist perspective that focuses on extending the effects of the social contract to interpersonal relationships. 

In established states, it can be easy to forget the social contract involves the provision of protection in exchange for us surrendering some freedoms. People can grow accustomed to having their rights protected and forget about the liberty they are required to surrender in exchange.  

Whether you think the contract is real or just a useful metaphor, social contract theory offers many unique insights into the way citizens interact with government and each other.

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What do you have a social contract for?