Big Thinker: Bill Mollison

Bill Mollison (1928-2016) was an Australian ecologist and the ‘father of permaculture’, a type of agricultural design and practice he created, named and taught.

Having co-wrote Permaculture One with his student and colleague David Holmgrem, Mollison later founded the Permaculture Institute of Tasmania and taught his Permaculture Design Course and Certificate (PDCC) all around the world.

Today, his philosophy has reached millions. His commitment to ethics brings philosophy back into the marketplace and onto the farm – down to its earthworms and well-tilled soil.

What is permaculture?

Permaculture is an ethical design framework for sustainable farming. It combines traditional farming methods of Indigenous and Aboriginal communities with renewable technologies and low-energy materials. Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer and creator of “Do-nothing Farming”, is cited as another influence on Mollison’s farming philosophy.

Mollison believed that farming monocultures, like corn, or wheat, was unsustainable. Instead, he called for ‘food forests’ – a varied collection of plant and tree species that support equally as diverse animal life.

Like a delicate structure of checks and balances, the little relationships formed in such an ecosystem would keep it self-sufficient. According to Mollison, once complete, a successful permaculture design wouldn’t need any human touch at all.

What’s wrong with what we’ve got now?

Because monocultures are more efficient, fast and easy to harvest, they’ve been the go-to for industrial farming. But, according to Mollison, their future is limited, with no means to reproduce the same healthy ecosystem it profits from. In fact, it’s often expected to meet the surplus demand of nations that already have enough food.

Mollison considered this form of agriculture as unethical, self-destructive and “temporary”. Rather than people being relied on to provide yields, he wanted to make us another part of the agricultural web. No more, no less.

This, along with permaculture’s three core ethics (earth care, people care and fair share), would transform how plants, animals and humans all interact with each other. People – not just farmers – would turn into active stewards of the earth. The social and economic needs of interdependent communities would be satisfied and looked after, with global surplus distributed to those most in need.

You might consider his views to be noble but unrealistic. Indeed, his repositioning of farming as political might be unfamiliar. But his aim of applying ethics to basic needs of food and shelter still applies, and is nicely addressed in Mollison’s own words:

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us can do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

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When should the planet go before people?

rise of Artificial Intelligence and its impact on our future

The rise of Artificial Intelligence and its impact on our future

rise of Artificial Intelligence and its impact on our future

It’s all fun and games until robots actually take over our jobs. AI is in our future and is fast approaching. Simon Longstaff considers how we make that tomorrow good.

Way back in 1950, the great computer scientist, Alan Turing, published in Mind a paper that set a test for determining whether or not a machine possesses ‘artificial intelligence’.

In essence, the Turing Test is passed if a human communicating with others by text cannot tell the difference between a human response and one produced by the machine. The important thing to note about Turing’s test is that he does not try to prove whether or not machines can ‘think’ as humans do – just whether or not they can successfully imitate the outcomes of human thinking.



Although the makers of a chat-bot called Eugene Goostman claimed it passed the test (by masquerading as a 13 year old boy) general opinion is the bot was designed to ‘game’ the system by using the boy’s apparent young age as a plausible excuse for the mistakes it made in the course of the test. Even so, the development of computers continues apace – with ‘expert systems’ and robots predicted to displace humans in a variety of occupations ranging from the legal profession to taxi drivers and miners.

All of this is causing considerable anxiety – not unlike that felt by people whose lives were upended by the development of steam power and mass production during the first Industrial Revolution. Back then people could more or less understand what was going on. The machines (and how they worked) were fairly obvious.

These days the inner workings of our advanced machines are far more mysterious. Coal or timber burning in a furnace is tactile and observable. But what exactly is an electron? How do you see it? And a Q-bit?

Add to this the extraordinary power of modern machines and it is not surprising that some people (including the likes of Stephen Hawking) are expressing caution about the potential threat our own technologies present, not only to our lifestyles, but to human existence. Of course, not everybody is so pessimistic.

However, the key thing to note here is we have choices to make about how we develop our technology. The future is not inevitable – we make it. And that is where ethics comes in.

This is one small example of how our choices matter. At first glance, let’s imagine how wonderful it would be if we could build batteries that never need recharging. That might seem to solve a raft of problems.

However, as Raja Jurdak and Brano Kusy observe in The Conversation, there may be ‘downsides’ to consider, “creating indefinitely powered devices that can sense, think, and act moves us closer to creating artificial life forms.

Couple that with an ability to reproduce through 3D printing, for example, and to learn their own program code, and you get most of the essential components for creating a self-sustaining species of machines.” Dystopian images of the Terminator come to mind.

However, back to Turing and his test. As noted above, computers that pass his test will not necessarily be thinking. Instead, they will be imitating what it means to be a thinking human being. This may be a crucial difference.

What will we make of a medi-bot that tells us we have cancer and tries to comfort us – but that we know can have no authentic sense of its (or our) mortality? No matter how good it is at imitating sympathy, won’t the machine’s lack of genuine understanding and compassion lead us to discount the worth of its ‘support’?

Then there is the fundamental problem at the heart of the ethical life lived by human beings. Our form of being is endowed with the capacity to make conscious, ethical choices in conditions of fundamental uncertainty. It is our lot to be faced with genuine ethical dilemmas in which there is, in principle, no ‘right’ answer.

This is because values like truth and compassion can be held with equal ‘weight’ and yet pull us in opposite directions. As humans we know what it means to make a responsible decision – even in the face of such radical uncertainty. And we do it all the time.

What will a machine do when there is no right answer? Will it do the equivalent to flipping a coin? Will it be indifferent to the answer it gets and act on the results of chance alone? Will that ever be good enough for us and the world we inhabit?

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Can we code values like truth and compassion?

Ethics Explainer: The Panopticon

The panopticon is a disciplinary concept brought to life in the form of a central observation tower placed within a circle of prison cells.

From the tower, a guard can see every cell and inmate but the inmates can’t see into the tower. Prisoners will never know whether or not they are being watched.

This was introduced by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It was a manifestation of his belief that power should be visible and unverifiable. Through this seemingly constant surveillance, Bentham believed all groups of society could be altered. Morals would be reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, and so on – they were all subject to observation.

Think of the last time you were at work and your boss walked in the room. Did you straighten up and work harder in their presence? Now imagine they were always in the room. They wouldn’t be watching you all the time, but you’d know they were there. This is the power of constant surveillance – and the power of the panopticon.



Foucault on the panopticon

French philosopher, Michel Foucault, was an outspoken critic of the panopticon.  He argued the panopticon’s ultimate goal is to induce in the inmates a state of conscious visibility. This assures the automatic functioning of power. To him, this form of incarceration is a “cruel, ingenious cage”.

Foucault also compares this disciplinary observation to a medieval village under quarantine. In order to stamp out the plague, officials must strictly separate everyone and patrol the streets to ensure villagers don’t leave their homes and become sick. If villagers are caught outside, the punishment is death.

In Foucault’s village, constant surveillance – or the idea of constant surveillance – creates regulation in even the smallest details of everyday life. Foucault calls this a “discipline blockade”. Similar to a dungeon where each inmate is sequestered, administered discipline can be absolute in matters of life or death.

On the other hand, Bentham highlights the panopticon’s power as being a “new mode of obtaining mind over mind”. By discarding this isolation within a blockade, the discipline becomes a self-propagating mental mechanism through visibility.

The panopticon today: data

Today, we are more likely to identify panopticism in new technologies than in prison towers. Philosopher and psychologist Shoshanna Zuboff highlights what she calls “surveillance capitalism”. Foucault argued the “ingenious” panoptic method of surveillance can be used for disciplinary methods, and Zuboff suggests it can also be used for marketing.

Concerns over this sort of monitoring date back to the beginning of the rise of personal computers in the late 80s. Zuboff outlined the PC’s role as an “information panopticon” which can monitor the amount of work being completed by an individual.

Today this seems more applicable. Employers can get programs to covertly track keystrokes of staff working from home to make sure they really are putting in their hours. Parents can get software to monitor their children’s mobile phone use. Governments around the world are passing laws so they can collect internet data on people suspected of planning terror attacks. Even public transport cards can be used to monitor physical movements of citizens.

This sort of monitoring and data collection is particularly analogous with the panopticon because it’s a one-way information avenue. When you’re sitting in front of your computer, browsing the web, scrolling down your newsfeed and watching videos, information is being compiled and sent off to your ISP.

In this scenario, the computer is Bentham’s panopticon tower. And you are the subject of which information is being extracted. On the other end of the line, nothing is being communicated, no information divulged. Your online behaviour and actions can always be seen but you never see the observer.

The European Union has responded to this with a new regulation, known as “the right to an explanation”. It states users are entitled to ask for an explanation about how algorithms make decisions. This way, they can challenge the decision made or make an informed choice to opt out.

In these new ways, Bentham’s panopticon continues to operate and influence our society. Lack of transparency and one-way communication is often disconcerting, especially when thought about through a lens of control.

Then again, you might also argue to ensure a society functions, it’s useful to monitor and influence people to do what is deemed good and right.

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Is it okay to monitor your children’s phones?

The complex ethics of online memes

Online jokes and play aren’t the same as the kinds you’d enjoy in your living room.

Despite the widespread assumption that what happens online is somehow less serious or real than “IRL” experiences, online humour can actually be more ethically fraught than offline playfulness – which unfortunately, might spoil some of the fun of internet memes.

Although the behaviours themselves might be similar on and offline, internet memes (believe it or not, there are offline memes as well) and other digital content can travel further, be decontextualised more quickly, and accessed instantaneously by millions of people, with the click of a link – without the original creator’s consent or even awareness. Each of these people, even further removed from the story, are then able to continue tinkering with the content in a number of ways and for a number of ends. This kind of play can be every bit as creative, social, and unifying for some as it is destructive, antagonistic, and alienating for the others.

The Harambe case demonstrates two of the most pressing ethical concerns in internet culture: amplification and fetishisation.

Take the Harambe meme, for example. Harambe was a Western lowland gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo and was shot and killed by a zookeeper in May after a child fell into his enclosure. In response, countless online participants began creating and sharing Harambe content, ranging from photoshopped pictures to catchphrases to satirical hashtags. Just like that, the Harambe meme was born.

Some of these iterations were absurdist and silly, showing Harambe as a lumbering angel in heaven. Some focused on the injustice of Harambe’s killing, since the gorilla hadn’t actually harmed the child.
And some veered into harassing, explicitly racist territory – for instance, when images of the gorilla were used to taunt and harass black American actress Leslie Jones. Journalistic coverage of Jones’ harassment and its connection to the Harambe meme imbued the broader story with an indelible tinge of ugliness.

As well as demonstrating a meme’s ability to communicate a range of messages, the Harambe case demonstrates two of the most pressing ethical concerns in internet culture: amplification and fetishisation.

Do potential benefits like calling attention to injustice, for example, or naming and shaming antagonists outweigh the risks, for instance further circulating racist discourse or giving antagonists a larger platform?

Amplification occurs when the intended message is spread due to sharing, reporting, or commenting on a particular meme. It’s straightforwardly unethical when an individual wilfully and maliciously spreads damaging content in an effort to harass, intimidate, or denigrate. For those actively antagonising others – like Jones’ harassers – sharing is a weapon that clearly and deliberately amplifies harm.

But even individuals who amplify a meme for good reasons, such as to critique its underlying sentiment, can inadvertently prolong that meme’s life. In these kinds of cases it is critical to consider what impact reblogging, retweeting or commenting might have. Do potential benefits like calling attention to injustice, for example, or naming and shaming antagonists outweigh the risks, for instance further circulating racist discourse or giving antagonists a larger platform?

Amplification also impacts a second ethical issue: fetishisation, when part of something – like an image, statement, or joke – is treated as the whole story. In the Harambe case, a sentient creature’s death was in some cases completely disregarded and in other cases reframed as nothing more than the punchline to a joke.

We can also see fetishisation at work in participants’ apparent obliviousness to or disregard for the employees monitoring the Cincinnati Zoo Facebook and Twitter accounts. In the months following Harambe’s death, employees were so overwhelmed with the flood of Harambe content they decided to delete their account.

Behind every screen sits a person with feelings, family, interests and worries, whose online and offline experiences are fundamentally intertwined.

Fetishism also flattened the racist undercurrent of many participants’ initial responses to the gorilla’s death. The boy who fell into Harambe’s enclosure was black, and after his death his parents were attacked by citizens and journalists alike with a variety of racist stereotypes attempting to link the boy’s fall with the color of his parents’ skin. The racist premise lurking underneath many early “justice for Harambe” protestations was “this gorilla is more valuable than that black boy”, and furthermore, “I’m angry this gorilla died because of his bad black parents.”

Of course, not all Harambe protestors harboured racist sentiment. Many participants, maybe even the majority of participants, may not have even been aware of the racial dimensions of the story. But as in many cases of viral meme sharing (for example Bed IntruderStar Wars Kid, and any number of “online vigilantism” cases), the fetishised image of Harambe obscured the story’s full political context. This prevented participants from assessing what it was exactly they were turning into a joke.

The internet is not an ethics-free zone. Responsible online participation requires thinking about the experiences and feelings of others.

Even those with the best intentions can bring about outcomes which are misleading or even destructive. Just as participants might not mean to perpetuate racist ideology by sharing a meme, they might not mean to ignore critical contextualising details. But when people remix and play with stories and images online, critical contextualising details are often the first things to go. What’s left instead are the amusing or interesting pieces of the puzzle. It becomes easy to forget about the bigger picture and especially easy to forget about the people or groups who might be impacted as a result.

This is not to discourage participation in meme culture or to suggest online play is necessarily harmful. But it does serve as a reminder that all online actions have consequences: good, bad or somewhere in between, that transcend purely digital spaces. After all, behind every screen sits a person with feelings, family, interests and worries, whose online and offline experiences are fundamentally intertwined.

All memes have a context, even in cases where that context has been obscured. These cases in particular warrant careful consideration, since what might appear to be a harmless joke from one angle may in fact have devastating consequences for the target, whether that target is a single individual or a broader social group.

The internet is not an ethics-free zone. Responsible online participation requires thinking about the experiences and feelings of others and watching where, when, and how you step. And most importantly, before you amplify a message, always remember: There But For The Grace Of The Internet Go You.

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Do memes give antagonists a bigger platform?

The “good enough” ethical setting for self-driving cars

Plenty of electronic ink has been spilled over the benefits self-driving cars offer. We have good reason to believe they could greatly reduce the number of fatalities from car accidents – studies suggest upwards of 90 percent of road accidents are caused by driver error.

Avoiding a crash altogether is clearly the best option, but even in crash scenarios some believe autonomous cars might be preferable. Facing a “no win” situation, a driverless car may have the opportunity to “optimise” the crash by minimising harm to those involved. However, choices about how to direct or distribute harm in these cases (for example, hit that person instead of the other) are ethically fraught and demand extraordinary scrutiny of a number of distinctly philosophical issues.

Can we be punished for inaction?

It would be unfair to expect car manufacturers to program their products to ‘crash ethically’ when the outcomes might get them in legal trouble. The law typically errs on the side of not directly committing harm. This means there might be difficulties in developing algorithms that simply minimise harm.

Given this, the law might condemn an autonomous car that steered away from five people and into one person in order to minimise the harm resulting from an accident. A judge might argue that the car steered into someone and so it did harm. The alternative, merely running over five people, results in more harm, but at least the car did not aim at any one of them.

But is inaction in this case morally justified if it leads to more harm? Philosophers have long disputed this distinction between doing harm and merely allowing harm to occur. It is the basis for perhaps the most famous philosophical thought experiment – the trolley problem.

Some philosophers argue that we can still be held responsible for inaction because not doing something still involves making a decision. For example, a doctor may kill her patient by withholding treatment, or a diplomat may offend a foreign dignitary by not shaking her hand. If algorithms that minimise harm are problematic because of a legal preference for inaction over the active causing of harm, there might be reason to ask the law to change.

Should we always try to minimise harm?

Even if we were to assume autonomous cars should minimise the total amount of harm that comes about from an accident, there are complex issues to resolve. Should cars try to minimise the total number of people harmed? Or minimise the kinds of harms that come about?

For example, if a car must choose between hitting one person head-on (a high risk accident) and steering off the road, endangering several others to a less serious injury, which is preferable? Moral philosophers will disagree about which of these options is better.

Another complication arises when we consider that harm minimisation might require an autonomous car to allow its own passengers to be injured or even killed in cases where inaction wouldn’t have brought them to harm. Few consumers would buy a car they expected to behave this way, even if they would prefer everyone else’s car did.

Are people breaking the law more deserving of harm?

Minimising overall harm might in some cases lead to consequences many would find absurd. Imagine a driver who decided to play ‘chicken’ with an autonomous car – driving on the wrong side of the road and threatening to plough head-long into it. Should the passengers in the autonomous car be put at risk to try to avoid a crash that is only occurring because the other driving is breaking the law?

Perhaps self-driving cars need something like ‘legality-adjusted aggregate harm minimisation’ algorithms. Given the widely-held beliefs that people breaking the law are liable to greater harm, deserve a greater share of any harm and that it would be unjust to require law-abiding citizens to share in the harm equally, self-driving cars will need to reflect these values if they are to be commercially viable.

But this approach also faces problems. Engineers would need a reliable way to predict crash trajectories in a way that provided information about the severity of harms, which they aren’t yet able to do. Philosophers would also need a reliable way to assign weighted values to harms, for example, by assigning values to minor versus major injuries. And as a society we would need to determine how liable to harm someone becomes by breaking the law. For example, someone exceeding the speed limit by a small amount may not be as liable to harm as someone playing ‘chicken’.

None of these issues are easy and seeking sure-fire answers every stakeholder agrees to is likely impossible. Instead, perhaps we should seek overlapping consensus – narrowing down the domain of possible algorithms to those that are technically feasible, morally justified and legally defensible. Every proposal for autonomous car ethics is likely to generate some counterintuitive verdicts but ongoing engagement between various parties should continue in the hopes of finding a set of all-around acceptable algorithms.

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If the “one best” algorithm for driverless cars doesn’t exist, is “good enough”, good enough?

You can’t save the planet. But Dr. Seuss and your kids can.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax explores the consequences of deforestation and the environmental costs of development. It concludes with the Once-ler, the narrator of the story who is principally responsible for deforestation of the decimated Truffula tree, entrusting its final seed to a young boy. He implores the child, “Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends might come back.”

The Once-ler, wracked by guilt for his complicity in this environmental disaster, passes along responsibility for reversing damage done by his generation to a child. The Lorax suggests the young take on duties of planetary stewardship where adults have failed.

Is this fair? Perhaps the generation responsible for mucking up the planet has lost its moral authority to try and save it. So the task of conservation is inherited by those with a longer-term stake in its future.

That adults might vest hope for a better planet in our children is both edifying and deeply troubling.  Edifying because the environmental record of the world’s children bests that of adults by default. The young have not yet begun to reproduce the patterns of behavior that implicate their parents – resource depletion, biodiversity loss, climate change…

Troubling because they may reproduce them in future. We cannot realistically expect young people socialised into a world of willful environmental neglect to behave much differently than their parents have. Adults cannot so easily absolve themselves of the responsibility of addressing environmental harm they have caused.

Rather than saving the planet, a more modest objective might be to refrain from making it much worse for our children. Even this is a daunting prospect. Patterns of energy use dependent on fossil fuels all but guarantee that global temperatures will continue to rise. For most, climate change is no longer a debate about “if” but “how severe?”

We may still hope to make the planet better for our children in other ways. For instance, by adding to the richness of human culture and the stock of beneficial technologies. When it comes to climate though, a more appropriate aim might be to refrain from chopping that last Truffula tree. To preserve our remaining forests so our children might be able to see the proverbial Brown Bar-ba-loots, Swomee-Swans or Humming Fish in their native habitats rather than natural history museums.

Doing this will be challenging. It will require an often uncomfortable reflection on what drives global environmental degradation. In Seuss’ tale the insatiable demand for thneeds – the ultimate commodity – drives the Truffula deforestation. This implicates our heedless consumerism in the causal chain of degradation alongside the Once-ler.

When we consume things we don’t need, and when the industry around these commodities is obviously unsustainable despite our obliviousness to this fact, we contribute to resource depletion. What’s more, we add to the attitudes and norms that suggest this is a private matter, answerable only to private consumer preferences and not larger public concerns for equity or sustainability.

Worst of all, we teach our children to do the same.

The first step in reducing our negative impact upon the planet must be to understand how and where we make the impact we do. We need to understand alternatives that yield comparable value to us with a lighter toll upon the planet. Consuming more conscientiously will leave our children a better planet and make them better citizens of it. Though it requires us to consume differently and less.

Thinking about the long-term consequences of our choices will also help. We cannot plausibly claim to value our children’s future while discounting the future value of current investments in sustainable infrastructure or future costs of unsustainable current practices.

To help make better children for our planet we must teach them that out of sight is not out of mind.

Our deeds announce our concern for the welfare of future generations more accurately than our words or thoughts. Thinking about such choices must be accompanied by some changes in course. Citizens must demand better public choices be made rather than acquiescing to worse ones as unavoidable products of political inertia or inviolable market forces.

The tendency to shift problems across borders is no less insidious than passing them to our children or grandchildren. To help make better children for our planet we must teach them that out of sight is not out of mind.

As role models for our children our success in stopping environmental harm will matter less than our sincerity in the efforts we make. If we honestly try to maintain the planet, our example will help make them into the kind of people our planet needs.

For as the Once-ler interprets the Lorax’s cryptic final word, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not.”

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Can we save the environment for our children?

Parental planning

Parent planning – we shouldn't be allowed to choose our children’s sex

Parental planning

The National Health and Medical Research Council was accepting public submissions regarding sex selection in IVF procedures in 2015.

It has previously prohibited non-medical sex selection. We asked two bioethicists for their thoughts on the matter.

Bioethicist Tamara Kayali Browne says we need to ask why parents might want non-medical sex selection to see why it is wrong. This is one of two responses we’ve published. Don’t agree with Tamara? Check out Julian Savulescu’s argument that that IVF sex selection should be allowed.

Using sex selection to prevent medical complications associated with a particular sex is already permitted. Given this, why might parents seek non-medical sex selection? It seems clear to me the primary reason is not to select the child’s sex, but his or her gender.

According to the World Health Organisation, sex is defined by biological and physiological characteristics such as genitalia and chromosomal makeup. Gender, on the other hand, refers to “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women”.

A complex issue

Most parents will not desire a male or female child in the sense of their genitalia. Rather, they will want a child who fulfils socio-cultural definitions of ‘boyhood’ or ‘girlhood’. This is problematic because it assumes our sex determines our adherence to gender-based social norms and behaviours.
At best, acting on assumptions which are not evidence-based is bad science. Yet in this case, gender assumptions also have very serious repercussions within society. Assumptions and stereotypes regarding how each gender should be, act, excel at and strive for, underlie the sexism that pervades our societies.

As such, sex selection is a product of, and perpetuates, false assumptions about gender that keep men and women “in their places”. This prevents progress towards equality and freedom from restrictive gender roles and bias.

Generational impact

For children, it means a narrower rather than a more open future. It also tacitly sanctions the sort of bullying that “tomboys” or “sissies” experience when children dare to transgress gender norms. For adults, it means a step backwards to perpetuating bias and discrimination.

With this in mind, we can see why some of the frequent arguments in favour of non-medical sex selection are unpersuasive.

Consider family balancing. Prospective parents who seek to undergo sex selection for “family balancing” don’t seek to have a variety of sex chromosome or genitalia in the household. Rather, they seek to have a child who espouses the attributes, behaviours, activities and roles typically associated with the opposite gender of the children they already have.

“Family balancing” thus relies on the same gender stereotypes and assumptions as any other form of non-medical sex selection. For this reason, sex-selection for family balancing is unethical and not assuredly successful. By perpetuating stereotypical notions of gender it validates unwarranted expectations in parents, which children will then have undue pressure to fulfil.

A similar case arises if parents were to tragically lose daughter (for example) and seek to replace her with a child of the same sex. Presumably, the parents did not enjoy parenting a daughter because she had female sex organs. Rather, they likely enjoyed parenting her because of her attributes and behaviours, the activities she took part in or enjoyed, or even the clothes they felt they could dress her in.

All of these factors have the potential to be present in a son and they are not guaranteed in a daughter. The only barrier to realising this is social bias. If the parents truly understand that each child is different, it becomes hard to explain why the parents seek to undergo the trouble and expense of sex selection.


The right to choose?

Parental autonomy is often said to justify sex selective procedures. The idea being if parents prefer, or believe they will be better parents to one sex over the other, they should have the right to choose.

In cases where a family has children of both sexes, this belief will affect parents’ relationships with children of the non-preferred sex. If a mother believes only a daughter can facilitate a particular kind of relationship, her prejudice will sever the possibility of having such a relationship with her sons.

In this light, one can see that the gender assumptions which drive sex selection can actually make parents feel deprived of certain parenting experiences. Yet as there is in fact no reason to feel this way, these assumptions about gender curtail the autonomy of both parents and children.

Free of unfounded assumptions, parents may be freer than they realise to form the relationships they desire with children of either sex. This knowledge is freeing for both children and parents.

The wishes of intending parents should not override the need to respect the child who will be born. This is even more the case when those wishes are based on gender stereotypes and assumptions which have no scientific basis.

Opportunity for all

All children have a right to a maximally open future and this right is curtailed when parents expect their children to act according to a narrow set of gender norms. The stronger the parental preferences to have or avoid a child of a particular gender, the more likely those expectations will harm the child.

Only parents with particularly strong prejudice are likely to undertake such an invasive, risky and expensive procedure. As such, the risk to the child’s right to self-realisation and self-determination is even greater. As a result, the need to uphold their rights is even stronger.

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Should we be allowed to choose our children's sex?

The problem with Australian identity

Any Australian who has lived abroad for a time would have been confronted with the need to answer questions about the kind of society that exists in the antipodes.

It is usually easy enough to trot out a few clichés about the wonderful land of Oz or alternatively, to dispel a few myths about stereotypical Australian behaviour. Either way, the images (and counter-images) converge on icons such as Bondi Beach, the Outback, the MCG, kangaroos and crocodiles, meat pies, militant trade unions, and so on.

However, now and again, one is confronted by a questioner who wants to probe a little deeper in order to uncover something of the identity of Australia and its people. There may have been a time when it was relatively easy to give the sort of answer that would have commanded the assent of the vast majority of Australians. The content of such a description is now beside the point. Of far more significance is the fact that the question of Australian identity has now become one of the central problems facing the nation. Economic problems may seem to be intractable but they are as nothing when compared to the deeper questions relating to who we are as Australians and where it is that we think we are heading.

The problem with defining Australian identity is that there are so many different sources contributing to the country’s social amalgam. This in itself does not cause an insuperable problem. It is possible for different understandings, representing different starting points, to be grafted onto a common stock of images and beliefs.

The evolution of the United States of America provides the classic example of a process in which immigrant communities have given allegiance to the ‘American Dream’ – that potent admixture of myth, legend and genuine achievement that has helped to shape the American psyche (especially as expressed abroad).

The situation in Australia is patently different. Perhaps this is because of the relatively ignoble cause of European settlement in this country. No tales of Pilgrim Fathers escaping from religious persecution for us. Instead there is the ball and chain and the ignominy of a convict settlement consciously designed to house what were considered to be the dregs of another society. Or perhaps the difference lies in the fact of the ease of our attaining self government and independence. Having been denied the pain of revolution we have also been denied part of the substrate of national identity that comes with the warm glow associated with having thrown off the yoke of what is seen, inevitably with the benefit of hindsight, as being an oppressive regime. Or perhaps the matter is more simply explained as an absence of time since settlement coupled with such rapid change that there has been no opportunity to generate an Australian identity that can be consciously articulated and shared by all.

A rigid sense of what it means to be Australian may be inimical to the development of a tolerant society.

All of this is speculation and the truth about the matter is probably a mixture of these factors as well as a good many more. What is more, it may not necessarily be a bad thing that there is no absolute sense of identity at work in Australia. For example, a rigid sense of what it means to be Australian may be inimical to the development of a tolerant society in which a lack of absolute privilege for any one point of view acts as a social lubricant.

One needs to remember that riots in countries such as the US may have something to do with the fact that so many people feel excluded from the American Dream. Such an exclusion can go beyond there being resentment at the lack of opportunity to a deeper complaint that the dream is, for such individuals, a completely remote and foreign ideal.

In a similar vein, it may be that a lack of national identity precludes Australians from adopting too chauvinist an attitude in their dealings with people from other countries and cultures. Whilst uncertainty can be unsettling for some, it may also be evidence of an openness to new ideas, experiences and relationships. Could our acknowledged success as a nation of immigrants have something to do with the fact that each new citizen has reason to feel that he or she can make a contribution to the nation by subtly affecting the way in which it sees itself?

Yet, despite all of this, one senses that there is a yearning for some peg on which Australians can hang their hats. So, where are we to look for clues to an identity that will carry Australia forward into the next century? And of equal importance, how are we to maintain some of the benefits that may have flowed from the current uncertain position?

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Is there a problem with Australian Identity?