Critical thinking in the digital age

It’s a usual Friday night; you’re at a friend’s place. A hush falls over the group as one of the boys pipes up: “Yeah nah but Andrew Tate has some good ideas too”.  

Hopefully, you’ve never found yourself in this position, but you might know someone who has. Figures like Andrew Tate, known for his proud advocacy of misogyny among young men, aren’t uncommon on social media and their followings are microcosms of a much larger issue: a deficit of critical thinking in online education and spaces. 

Unfortunately, social media platforms aren’t adequately removing hate speech or radicalising figures, nor can we expect filters and rules to ever be enough. With this in mind, we need ways of educating (often young) viewers on how to decide what and who to trust. 

I recently attended a live recording of the Principle of Charity podcast at Sydney Writers’ Festival where this idea was raised with comparisons between non-fiction books and videos. Philosopher A.C. Grayling and art historian and content creator Mary McGillivray spoke at length about the various limitations of each medium. While both were reluctant to take polarising positions, eventually a sticking point did arise. 

Grayling argued that the relative accessibility and ease of creating social media content makes it more dangerous, given its ability to platform those with little-to-no credibility or expertise. This echoes an interesting evolutionary theory called “costly signalling”, which says the more someone invests in sending a message – i.e. the more “costly” it is for them – the more likely it is to be trustworthy. On the other hand, the less someone invests in sending a message – the “cheaper” it is – the more likely it is to be untrustworthy or noisy. This is one reason why handwritten letters tend to be more thoughtful than fleeting social media posts. McGillivray’s response was two-fold.  

Firstly, she noted that there are plenty of questionable published books out there by charlatans and the like – books that prey on insecurities to make sales, or simply peddle well-disguised misinformation. So, this isn’t a problem unique to social media. 

Secondly, to which Grayling conceded, traditional avenues of information dissemination are often gatekept behind propriety, things like formal educational status or money. This is the flip side to costly signalling when applied to humans: only those who can “afford” to make costly communications will be heard and believed, so the wealthy and powerful will often dominate public discourse.  

There are significant benefits, then, to having a medium that’s accessible to those who have never been afforded the circumstances to engage in these systems. There is still a trade-off: low-cost communication means potential for an oversaturation of inaccurate or useless information, but that is something we must contend with if we want to avoid restricting these things to the already-rich-and-powerful.  

McGillivray herself is in the middle of a PhD, not yet an expert in the eyes of academia, yet she has amassed a huge following for her historical art analysis and edutainment (educational entertainment). Using her MPhil in History of Art and Architecture, she is able to produce well-researched and engaging videos that educate an audience that might not otherwise have been introduced to the topic at all. 

Unfortunately, it’s especially easy for poor video information to also garner audiences because of its reliance on charisma above all else. We can be easily swayed by charisma as we passively consume it, because passive consumption leaves us more open to suggestion.  

We can be prone to dismissing legitimate information and being overly charitable towards frauds based almost entirely on aesthetics.  

 

Whom should we listen to? 

Who qualifies as an expert, and when is being an expert relevant? 

To figure this out, we have to talk about the combination of trust and critical thinking. Regardless of whether we’re picking up a book or scrolling on our phones, we need to know whether we can trust what we’re consuming and who we’re consuming it from, else we become yet another cog in machines of misinformation.  

Unfortunately, there are many forces in the world that try to deceive us every day, from advertisers to influencers to corporations to politicians. To gain a good sense for what to trust, we need to know what to distrust by developing our critical thinking skills. This process isn’t simple, yet anyone can do it.  

The first step is acknowledging that we are sometimes gullible and generally easy to convince with rhetoric. Speaking quickly, using jargon, seeming confident, having a high production quality are all things we intuitively associate with intelligence or expertise and yet they can often act as a distraction from the incoherence of the information being presented to us. This isn’t our fault – they’re designed and used specifically to lower our intellectual guards – but it is something we can learn to recognise and counter.  

On top of this, even when we are capable of being critical of what we consume, we’re often bombarded with so much information that it makes it almost impossible anyway. In these situations, we rely on heuristics and biases to varying degrees of success. These mental shortcuts let us make faster decisions, but that speed often comes at a cost of accuracy.  

 

Being discerning of sources 

One clear thing to look for is the source of the information.  

Check if the information comes from a generally trusted source, like a government website, a university, a peer-reviewed study or a reputable news outlet. While it’s dangerous to be overly sceptical, it is important to note that critical thinking should also extend to sources you trust. Just like anything else, governments, universities or other sources can be biased in certain ways, and being aware of those biases can help you understand the motivations behind different ways of presenting otherwise accurate information. 

For example, news with a repeated focus on or omittance of a certain group of people can imply to viewers a false sense of significance. Without context, even accurate information can be used to misrepresent a wider picture. 

There are many organisations dedicated to fact-checking and bias-checking news and politics, so using them alongside your broader consumption of information can give you a more comprehensive perspective on different issues. For fact-checking of global news trends, there is the International Fact Checking Network, or in Australia there is the Australian Associated Press Fact Check. These resources can help us identify common misinformation trends.

However, there are other ways to train ourselves to be aware of our own biases when we consume media and especially news. For example, Ground News is an organisation that collates news stories from thousands of sources and demonstrates how the same stories are presented differently depending on the general political slant of the publication. This is an effective way of learning about how even subtle differences in language can have a drastic impact on our interpretation of news. Using resources like this is a good way to develop media literacy by training yourself to recognise patterns in media coverage. 

 

Critical reflection 

Many people aren’t going to get their information straight from the source, though. Let’s say you have found an author or a creator that you like. Maybe your friend even told you about it. How do you know if you should trust them? 

Again, the first thing to check is where they’re getting their information from. If they’re presenting evidence, then check that that evidence is coming from a place that you know to be trustworthy. This isn’t a check that you need to do all the time but putting this effort in at least at the beginning will give you a foundation for trusting this person in the future.  

If they aren’t presenting empirical evidence, you can check their credentials and history. Do they have reputable qualifications in a relevant field? Do they have a relevant lived experience to speak from? Do they have a history of presenting accurate information? Is what they’re saying consistent with their own points and with what you know from trusted sources? 

While not all necessary, these are all different ways of making sure that you critically reflect on the news and media you consume.  

Other useful ways to engage critically with media are to challenge yourself to identify different aspects of it. The intended audience can tell you a lot about a publication, like what their motivations or affiliations might be. You can identify this by looking at the language used and asking yourself how it reflects who it is trying to speak to. You can also find potential bias by imagining how the information might sound different if it was written with another kind of audience in mind. 

Another method of testing your understanding of a piece of news is to try to identify what the intended message is by summarising it in 1-2 sentences. Doing this is a good way to practice understanding the implications of lots of bits of information as a whole. It will also help you to ascertain underlying assumptions that are made without the viewer’s comprehension. Identifying these assumptions will help prevent you from being misled.  

For example, there is a general implicit assumption that if something is in the news, then it is important. But you might not agree with that. Sometimes things are reported on or spoken about to cause them to seem important, so by questioning that foundational assumption we can begin to critique the content and motivations behind certain information.  

Identifying these can help you determine how to process the information being presented to you and whether you need to scrutinise it further. Developing critical thinking skills to increase your media literacy is an important part of ethical consumption because it helps us navigate systems of power and slowly prevents the spread of harmful information and ideas. 

 

The Principle of Charity is a podcast that injects curiosity and generosity back into difficult conversations, bringing together two expert guests with opposing views on big social issues.

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In defence of platonic romance

When I was young and like many little girls, I was bewitched by all things magical and had a keen sense of romantic sensitivity.

I would regularly claim to spot mermaids in the froth of breaking waves and would meticulously construct fairy circles in my grandmother’s garden. These tendencies would lead me to weave fanciful and elaborate dreams about my future, mainly about love. In all the rituals, potions and stories I concocted as a young girl, there’s one that sticks out in my mind. 

One particular holiday in the Blue Mountains, my cousin and I were around twelve – the age when many children start to fully understand what awaits them in teenagerhood – namely, romance. One night, under a full moon, I proposed a plan – we would cast a spell to summon our future partners and design our prince charmings. Petals were gathered from the flowering bushes that surrounded our accommodation and a large plastic salad bowl was stolen from the kitchenette and filled with water. With great reverence and solemnity, we sat on the deck and threw petals into the bowl. As each one hit the surface, we would say aloud a quality that we wanted in a future partner. 

“Tall!”  

“Nice!” 

“Dark hair!” 

When the ritual was over and the bushes were bare of their flowers, we threw the contents of the bowl out onto the lawn quite matter-of-factly. Completed with confidence, we did not doubt that what had transpired between us that night had set us up very nicely for when we were grown women. Now, as a young woman with aspirations for a career as a writer and a bachelor’s degree under my belt, I look back and question, with the opportunity of a full moon and a ritual, why did I only wish for a romantic relationship with a man? 

In my developing mind, I had an understanding that women found their identity in being the object of romantic love. To be loved by a man was equated to being accomplished – one day when I was clever enough and pretty enough, I would be chosen. However, there’s little personal autonomy as an object.  

Many pioneers of third-wave feminism have fought against the objectification of women and for their greater value in society. Much of their activism has focused on the role of women in social and political spaces. At twenty-two years old I’m still learning how to navigate my position in the world as a young woman. My sense of accomplishment with my career and my education has not always been constant. Upon reflection, there’s a source of value and abundance in my life that is disconnected from any metric measure of success – my friendships. Throughout the dawn of my adult years, my most impactful, and intimate relationships have been with my close female friends. If our platonic relationships were treated as reverently as our romantic ones, what would be possible? 

Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir described the desire to love and be loved as part of the structure of human existence. Her 1949 work The Second Sex explores women as the ‘other’ in society and how men and women often develop asymmetrical expectations of love.  De Beauvoir discusses heterosexual love as being either ‘authentic’ or ‘inauthentic’. Within her framework, to achieve authentic love, both lovers need to maintain their individuality. But in the context of heterosexual monogamy and the biological family unit, is this even possible for women?  

Many women are often first and foremost identified as wives and mothers, essentially, they have relational autonomy. Relational autonomy proposes that as the ‘Self’ is related to those around us in various ways, the way we identify ourselves cannot be a practice that is achieved alone. While an explanation such as this may relate positively to ideas of community and comradery, many women experience a loss of self as wives and mothers. 

Many women in heterosexual relationships must, to some degree, be experiencing inauthentic love – described by De Beauvoir as being based on inequality between the sexes: 

“[Men] never abandon themselves completely […] they remain sovereign subjects; the woman they love is merely one value among others; they want to integrate her into their existence, not submerge their entire existence in her. By contrast, love for the woman is a total abdication for the benefit of a master.” 

If our support systems and our identity are entangled with relationships that have an inherent power imbalance, is there space for authentic love? While De Beauvoir’s outlook may appear characteristically existential, there is a faint yet unmistakable silver lining. If heterosexual relationships leave women devoid of true identity and autonomy, what is left? Our female friendships. 

Within my female friendships, I’ve rediscovered something from my childhood that’s been lacking in my romantic relationships with men – magic. There’s something about friendships between women that makes pagan behaviour seem reasonable. I can understand why medieval witches were often accused of dancing naked around bonfires; I would do that too for my best friends.   

To be clear, I’m not saying that people don’t need romance or romantic relationships, nor am I saying that all heterosexual relationships cause harm to the women in them. Romantic relationships can be a source of unique joy and adventure. Where they become problematic is when they are the centre of our personal universes. As for romance, there’s space and, arguably, a necessity for it in our platonic relationships too. I implore you to buy a bouquet of flowers for your dearest female friend and see what good it does.  

With platonic relationships at the centre of our worlds, there’s a web of support and intimacy without the power imbalance inherent in some heterosexual relationships.

By decentralising the role of romantic love in our lives and valuing other relationships just as equally, there’s an opportunity for community building, deep understanding, and cultivation of our own personal identity.

If, at twelve years old, under that Blue Mountains moon, I had wished for an ideal best friend – when, as an adult, my romantic relationships fell short of the mark again and again, it wouldn’t have felt like I had as far to fall. Rather than the sun dropping out of my personal solar system, I’d lose a moon or two. Still a knock to the system, just not an earth-shattering one. Perhaps, feminism and gender equality can be aided and progressed by revolutionary love for our friends. 

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Ethics Explainer: Shame

Flushed cheeks, lowered gaze and an interminable voice in your head criticising your very being. 

Imagine you’re invited to two different events by different friends. You decide to go to one over the other, but instead of telling your friend the truth, you pretend you’re sick. At first, you might be struck with a bit of guilt for lying to your friend. Then, afterwards, they see photos of you from the other event and confront you about it.  

In situations like this, something other than guilt might creep in. You might start to think it’s more than just a mistake; that this lie is a symptom of a larger problem: that you’re a bad, disrespectful person who doesn’t deserve to be invited to these things in the first place. This is the moral emotion of shame. 

Guilt says, “I did something bad”, while shame whispers, “I am bad”.

Shame is a complicated emotion. It’s most often characterised by feelings of inadequacy, humiliation and self-consciousness in relation to ourselves, others or social and cultural standards, sometimes resulting in a sense of exposure or vulnerability, although many philosophers disagree about which of these are necessary aspects of shame. 

One approach to understanding shame is through the lens of self-evaluation, which says that shame arises from a discrepancy between self-perception and societal norms or personal standards. According to this view, shame emerges when we perceive ourselves as falling short of our own expectations or the expectations of others – though it’s unclear to what extent internal expectations can be separated from social expectations or the process of socialisation. 

Other approaches lean more heavily on our appraisal of social expectations and our perception of how we are viewed by others, even imaginary others. These approaches focus on the arguably unavoidably interpersonal nature of shame, viewing it as a response to social rejection or disapproval.  

This social aspect is such a strong part of shame that it can persist even when we’re alone. One way to exemplify this is to draw similarity between shame and embarrassment. Imagine you’re on an empty street and you trip over, sprawling onto the path. If you’re not immediately overcome with annoyance or rage, you’ll probably be embarrassed. 

But there’s no one around to see you, so why? 

Similarly, taking the example we began with, imagine instead that no one ever found out that you lied about being sick. It’s possible you might still feel ashamed. 

In both of these cases, you’re usually reacting to an imagined audience – you might be momentarily imagining what it would feel like if someone had witnessed what you did, or you might have a moment of viewing yourself from the outside, a second of heightened self-awareness. 

Many philosophers who take this social position also see shame as a means of social control – notably among them is Martha Nussbaum, known for her academic career highlighting the importance of emotions in philosophy and life.  

Nussbaum argues that shame is very often ‘normatively distorted’, in that because shame is reactive to social norms, we often end up internalising societal prejudices or unjust beliefs, leading to a sense of shame about ourselves that should not be a source of shame. For example, people often feel ashamed of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability due to societal stigma and discrimination. 

 

Where shame can go wrong

The idea of shame as a prohibitive and often unjust feeling is a sentiment shared by many who work with domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, who note that this distortive nature of shame is what prevents many women from coming forward with a report.   

Even in cases where shame seems to be an appropriate response, it often still causes damage. At the Festival of Dangerous Ideas session in 2022, World Without Rape, panellist and journalist Jess Hill described an advertisement she once saw: 

“…a group of male friends call out their mate who was talking to his wife aggressively on the phone. The way in which they called him out came from a place of shame, and then the men went back to having their beers like nothing happened.” Hill encourages us to think: where will the man in the ad take his shame with him at the end of the night? It will likely go home with him, perpetuating a cycle of violence. 

Likewise, co-panellist and historian Joanna Bourke noted something similar: “rapists have extremely high levels of abuse and drug addictions because they actually do feel shame”. Neither of these situations seem ‘normatively distorted’ in Nussbaum’s sense, and yet they still seem to go wrong. Bourke and other panellists suggested that what is happening here is not necessarily a failing of shame, but a failing of the social processes surrounding it.  

Shame opens us to vulnerability, but to sit with vulnerability and reflect requires us to be open to very difficult conversations.

If the social framework for these conversations isn’t set up, we end up with unjust shame or just shame that, unsupported, still manifests itself ultimately in further destruction. 

However, this nuance is far from intuitive. While people are saddened by the idea of victims feeling shame, they often feel righteous in their assertions that perpetrators of crimes or transgressors of socials norms should feel shame, and that their lack of shame is something that causes the shameful behaviour in the first place. 

Shame certainly has potential to be a force for good if it reminds us of moral standards, or in trying to avoid it we are motivated to abide by moral standards, but it’s important to retain a level of awareness that shame alone is often not enough to define and maintain the ethical playing field. 

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Losing the thread: How social media shapes us

“I feel like I invited two friend groups to the same party.” 

The slowly spiralling mess that is Twitter received another beating last year in the form of a rival platform announcement: Threads. And although this was a potentially exciting development for all the scorned tweeters out there, amid the hype, noise and hubbub of this new platform I noticed something interesting. 

Some people weren’t sure how to act. 

Twitter has long been associated with performative behaviour of many kinds (as well as genuine activism and journalism of many kinds). Influencers, comedians, politicians and every aspiring Joe Schmoe adopt personas that often amount to some combination of sarcastic, cynical, snarky and bluntly relatable. 

Now, you would think that people migrating to a rival app with ostensibly the same function would just port these personas over. And you would be right, except for the hiccup of Threads being tied directly to Instagram accounts.  

Why does this matter? As many users have pointed out, the kinds of things people say and do on Twitter and Instagram are markedly different, partially because of the different audiences and partially because of the different medium focus (visual versus textual). As a result, some people are struggling with the concept of having family and friends viewing their Twitter-selves, so to speak. 

These posts can of course be taken with a grain of salt. Most people aren’t truly uncomfortable with recreating their Twitter identities on Threads. In fact, somewhat ironically, reinforcing their group identity as “(ex-)Twitter users” is the underlying function of these posts – signalling to other tweeters that “Hey, I’m one of you”.  

The incongruity between Instagram and Twitter personas or expression has been pointed out by some others in varying depth and is something you might have noticed yourself if you spend much of your free time on either platform. In short, Instagram is mostly a polished, curated, image-first representation of ourselves, whereas Twitter is mostly a stream-of-consciousness conversation mill (which lends itself to more polarising debate). There are plenty of overlapping users, but the way they appear on each platform is often vastly different. 

With this in mind, I’ve been thinking: How do our online identities reflect on us? How do these identities shape how we use other platforms? Do social media personas reflect a type of code-switching or self-monitoring, or are they just another way of pandering to the masses? 

What does it say about us when we don’t share certain aspects of ourselves with certain people?

This apparent segmentation of our personality isn’t new or unique to social media. I’m sure you can recall a moment of hesitation or confusion when introducing family to friends, or childhood friends to hobby friends, or work friends to close friends. It’s a feeling that normally stems from having to confront the (sometimes subtle) ways that we change the way we speak and act and are around different groups of people.  

Maybe you’re a bit more reserved around colleagues, or more comical around acquaintances, or riskier with old friends. Whatever it is, having these worlds collide can get you questioning which “you” is really you. 

There isn’t usually an easy answer to that, either. Identity is a slippery thing that philosophers and psychologists and sociologists have been wrangling for a long time. One basic idea is that humans are complex, and we can’t be expected to be able to communicate or display all the elements of our psyche to every person in our lives in the same ways. While that’s a tempting narrative, it’s important to be aware of the difference between adapting and pandering. 

Adapting is something we all do to various degrees.

In psychology, it’s called self-monitoring – modifying our behaviours in response to our environment or company. This can be as simple as not swearing in front of family or speaking more formally at work. Sometimes adapting can even feel like a necessity. People on the autism spectrum often “mask” their symptoms and behaviours by supressing them and/or mimicking neurotypical behaviours to fit in or avoid confrontation. 

In lots of ways, social media has enhanced our ability to adapt. The way we appear online can be something highly crafted, but this is where we can sometimes run into the issue of pandering. In this context, by pandering I mean inauthentically expressing ourselves for some kind of personal gain. The key issue here is authenticity. 

As Dr Tim Dean said in an earlier article in this series, “you can’t truly understand who someone is without also understanding all the groups to which they belong”. In many ways, social media platforms constitute (and indicate further) groups to which we belong, each with their own styles, tones, audiences, expectations and subcultures. But it is this very scaffolding that can cause people to pander to their in-groups, whether it simply be to fit in, or in search of power, fame or money. 

I want to stress that even pandering in and of itself isn’t necessarily unethical. Sometimes pandering is something we need to do; sometimes it’s meaningless or harmless. However, sometimes it amounts to a violation of our own values. Do we really want to be the kinds of people who go against our principles for the sake of fitting in?  

That’s what struck me when I read all of the confused messaging on the release of Threads. It’s one thing to not value authenticity very highly; it’s another to disvalue it completely by acting in ways that oppose our core values and principles. Sometimes social media can blur these lines. When we engage in things like mindless dogpiling or reposting uncited/unchecked information, we’re often acting in ways we wouldn’t act elsewhere without realising it, and that’s worth reflecting on. 

It’s certainly something that I’ve noticed myself reflecting on since then. For some, our online personas can be an outlet for aspects of our personality that we don’t feel welcome expressing elsewhere. But for others, the ease with which social media allows us to craft the way we present poses a challenge to our sense of identity.  

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Blindness and seeing

Anyone who says that life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his hands an animal fighting for its life’. Elizabeth Costello, from J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals

Don’t think, but look!’ – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 

Philosophical debates about animal welfare can appear abstruse. Much scholarly ink has been spilt over whether animals possess the requisite features—an interest in the future, an ability to suffer, a mind—that would ground our duties towards them. I wonder, however, if theoretical arguments of this sort really do justice to the issue at hand, which seems not so much a matter of moral disagreement as a radical difference in ways of seeing. What for the animal rights activist is a mechanised holocaust of unconscionable scale is for the meat-eater an institution that betters their well-being. The most pressing issue, as I see it, is not whether animals have rights, but whether we are able to see them at all as fellow creatures inhabiting the same world and sharing our vulnerabilities.  

In J.M. Coetzee’s novella, The Lives of Animals, the elderly novelist Elizabeth Costello is invited to give an address at Appleton College. Her chosen theme being on our treatment of animals, she prefaces her lecture by exhibiting what she calls a ‘wound’: a scar from being exposed to the haunting nature of our treatment of animals, of being surrounded by well-meaning human beings who remain bewildering blind to the atrocities she alone perceives.  

Throughout the novella, Costello discusses and answers arguments but never as the theorising philosopher. When an opponent suggests that life and death cannot be to animals, who lack a sense of identity, what it is to us, she responds by the line quoted in the epigraph of this piece, that whoever would say so has not held in their hands an animal fighting for its life, a line which I find stunning. Never mind our favoured theory of the mind, can’t you see it is suffering?  

Here is an affirmation of our exposure to the suffering of animals, an involuntary confrontation, before which what is called upon is not our reason but an anguished response that is a testament to our humanity. Costello is not a vegetarian out of moral convictions; instead, she insists ‘“it comes out of a desire to save my soul”’– out of a vivid awareness of her exposure. There is a sense in which any attempt at philosophising inevitably ends up deflecting us away from that immediate reality, the animals in our hands. 

Costello provocatively compares the meat industry to the Holocaust. Her point, I take it, is linked to what Stanley Cavell has called ‘soul blindness’: a failure to see another human as human. Primo Levi, in his Survival in Auschwitz, vividly recalls the look from a Nazi examiner, which ‘came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds’. What we find so accursed about the examiner, I think, is not his false moral beliefs – rather, there seems to us a critical defect in their sensibility, a blindness to humanity which stings.  

We find another illustration of ‘soul blindness’ in the film Blade Runner, which imagines a world where human-like ‘replicants’ are mass-produced and enslaved, and those who escape are tracked down.  

At first pass, we might see Blade Runner as a film noir exploring the boundary between humans and intelligent replicants; yet when we realise that the replicants, who can think, feel, and interact exactly like humans, are perhaps denied moral status only by the technical stipulation that ‘humans’ are those with a specific biology, the film takes on a more sinister meaning. In particular, it might shock us with how easily we become blinded to the living humanity of another, when some abstract, in hindsight irrelevant pieces of information are introduced – ‘They do not have DNA’; or ‘They are a Jew’.     

Animal rights activists often point to the difference in our treatment of pets and those whom we eat for meat; but rather than dismissing it as a sign of our irrationality, if not hypocrisy, the datum ought to be probed further. What is different is a way of seeing: the pets are companions, family members, whom we acknowledge as fellow creatures, while the pigs are just food.

Many times I have felt deeply perturbed, flipping through an illustrated children’s book, when I saw the image of a smiling pig with just the right amount of anthropomorphism that it looks uncanny. Those are eyes which I do not dare meet. The knowledge inside those images, that a pig is also a being capable of feelings and suffering, is knowledge too terrible to bear – we have been raised to suppress it. If he could explain the examiner’s look, Levi tells us, he would also have explained the insanity of the Third Reich. We might make a parallel statement about animals: if one could explain the way we look upon animals as mere food and not living creatures like us, then one would also have explained our treatment of animals.   

Here is what I think the three cases – our treatment of animals, the Holocaust, and the enslavement of replicants – have in common: drawing on an idea of Simone Weil, they are issues on a separate moral plane from those to be afforded intellectualised debate. We could argue about why slavery is wrong, but we should not argue over if it is wrong. I am not saying that we should give up persuasion and begin accusing each other of the monstrosity of eating meat; rather, what I claim is that abstract disputes over rights and permissions seriously misrepresent the moral terrain.  

Levi remarks that one of the things the camp taught him was ‘how vain is the myth of original equality among men’. What use is there of a theory of human rights if the abuser does not see you as a human at all? This is why Costello appeals not to philosophy, but to imagination and poetry: a chasm of sensibility can only be bridged by changes in the way of seeing. And why should our response to animals be out of a sense of duty? Often, the more humane response may well be one out of kindness and a sense of fellowship.  

In today’s world, our blindness to each other’s humanity is unfortunately still all too prevalent – the images that emerge from recent conflicts confirm it. One could say, however, that our blindness to the suffering of animals is just as distressing. What is most frightening is perhaps not that we come up with the wrong moral beliefs, but that we lose the ability to see animals, and other humans, as fellow beings who are like us 

 

Blindness and seeing‘ by David He is one of the Highly Commended essays in our Young Writers’ Competition. Find out more about the competition here.       

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What we owe our friends

Friendships are confusing. I’ve often found myself feeling that something is missing in my friendships — a sentiment that seems to be shared, yet rarely addressed. One that’s echoed in the paradoxical 21st century correlation between our ever growing hyper-connectivity and reports declaring a loneliness epidemic. One that’s felt in parties full of friends that you can’t wait to leave.

Like many of us, I have learnt that this is partly down to the culturally accepted life cycle of friendships. I never felt lacking when I was younger: I had deep bonds with childhood friends, who I did the wild adventures of youth with, but also spent infinite hours in pyjamas with, drinking tea and learning how to build loving relationships. But as plans with friends became plans reserved for partners, and time became stretched by work and adulting, I slowly processed the idea that their importance will silently decline as you age.  

But I’ve also had a nagging sense that something more unspeakable affects the quality of our friendships. Something resigning friendships to the trivial and fun, and shaming a desire for deeper bonds.  

It wasn’t until I read The End of Love by Eva Illouz that I felt able to articulate what this is, and why it is so hard to talk about feeling disappointed by friends. Through an extensive analysis of social relations under consumer capitalism, she makes a simple central point: freedom, the value that trumps all for western society, requires the dissolving of expectations in human relationships.  

In an age of abundance, the defining feature of 21st century liberal social relations is the practice of non-commitment. Personal autonomy is the main cultural story that guides our lives. We’re driven by the search for personal success and pleasure. To realise this, we must be free to choose our own relations at will, and therefore also leave them at will. We make responsible choices to avoid things that might impinge on our personal growth, including that relationship stopping you from moving, or that friend whose chaotic period has gone on a bit too long. 

So we have relaxed our mutual expectations on each other — almost to the point of having none at all. 

The value of freedom has transcended left and right politics, and is accepted as an untouchable pillar of morality. Self empowerment has been the prerogative of many left wing progressives as much as neoliberal free-marketers. It’s found in the language of capitalist growth and competition, but also in the language of pop-psychology that tells us to set boundaries and cut people out of our life who don’t ‘serve’ us or bring us pleasure.  

But Illouz reopens this debate that has been closed since liberal philosophy claimed hegemony over morality, asking us ‘does freedom jeopardize the possibility of forming meaningful and binding bonds?’ 

I think about the hollowed expectations we have of our friends. Flaking is normal. We tend to leave maximum space to opt out of plans whenever and minimum pressure to commit, generally resigning ourselves to polite understanding if people cancel even when it hurts, knowing that we often do the same. Asking for support is also done cautiously to avoid overstepping, burdening or offloading, even in our greatest moments of need.  

And then there are the ways in which many friendships silently end. When I was 22, after an ongoing period of difficulty where we both hurt each other, one of my closest friends sent me a facebook message telling me she never wanted to speak again. Despite my ongoing attempts in the coming years to reconcile, she stuck to this conviction, and I have only seen her in passing at parties since then. A long term friendship was suddenly gone with minimal discussion, and the invisible rulebook of friendship said that this was fine.  

Friendships which diverge from the comfortable space of convenience, ease, and fun can quickly become threats to our personal growth. Consumers at our core, we are well practiced in disposing of things that don’t benefit us anymore and less well practiced at fixing broken things. Systems make their way into our bodies and minds, and the system we live in is one built on endless desire and access to the new. In such a society we owe our friends nothing. We might choose to owe them, but we don’t have to.  

We sense this fragility. We know on some level that if friends can exit at any moment without consequence, we must persuade them to stay. Friendship mimics a market in which you must compete to survive, and we are all painfully aware of the limits of what our commodified selves can offer. In this knowledge, socialising often becomes fraught as we feel this pressure to bring something positive to the room that wins us a good review after. Those who lack status built by resource, health, and charisma struggle more, their exclusion a reality made invisible by the language of choice. 

The psychologist Sanah Ashan tells us that falling apart is a birthright. For us to feel connected, our relationships must embrace discomfort. Friendships shouldn’t be intolerant of prolonged messiness. We must instead embrace the misery and the insanity; coming together in these times not running away. Intimate bonds are difficult.

We live in an age where traditional sites of belonging have been diminished — religion, community, even family and romantic relationships are more uncertain than they have ever been. Public care structures have been decimated to the point of dysfunction. More and more of us find that we have to make our own communities of care and belonging, found in the friends we make ourselves. 

Yet conversation about building these communities is often superficial when we don’t know how to be close to each other. We long for community, but often turn to therapists in our times of need. 

Re-envisioning how we build strong and enduring bonds requires us to open a conversation that asks bigger questions than how we balance time between work, relationships, and friends. It requires us to question the promises of fulfillment from personal freedom alone. Wendy Brown reminds us that achieving, and even envisioning personal freedom is far from straightforward: 

‘historically, semiotically, and culturally protean, as well as politically elusive, freedom has shown itself to be easily appropriated in liberal regimes for the most cynical and unemancipatory political ends.’ 

The left has been good at unpicking how the appeals to freedom have created unjust markets and vast inequalities, but we haven’t openly discussed the effects of this in the world of emotions and relationships. The practice of non-commitment in our relationship building mimics the rise of the gig economy, precarious work, and the breakdown of worker solidarity. Free market economics sacrificed security and equality in the name of unfettered growth. We must ask whether the same might be happening in our social relations. 

We all yearn for connection, yet our disdain for responsibility in the name of freedom keeps us apart. But we owe our friends something different to the transactional relationships of the capitalist workplace; we owe them love and time regardless of the value they offer us.

 

What we owe our friends‘ by Zoe Timimi is the winning essay in our Young Writers’ Competition (18-30 age category). Find out more about the competition here.       

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Our desire for reality: What OnlyFans says about sexual fantasy

Despite being a generation overwhelmed with technological means to fulfil their fantasies, today’s youth desire sexual reality. The rapid uptake of OnlyFans embodies a paradoxical desire to escape an increasingly grim sexual reality through indulging in consumption of ‘reality’ pornography. But how realcan pornography ever be, and does it represent an entrenchment of the patriarchal sexualisation of women?

Pornhub’s 2022 annual report demonstrated that the fastest growing trend for 2022 was ‘reality’ – increasing viewership by a total of 169%. Simultaneously, viewership of the ‘amateur’ category declined roughly 20%, leading the researchers to note ‘visitors are still seeking a real homemade porn experience’ – the guise of amateur is not enough. In Australia specifically, the two top trending searches for 2023 were ‘sharing a bed’ (+%600) and ‘therapy’ (+%540), a far cry from what would typically be associated with pornographic content.  

Society’s previous relationship with pornography was one of explicit fantasy; a consumption of unrealistic bodies in improbable scenarios conducting inconceivable acts. Aiding this was explicit acceptance of the disconnect present, lusting for the physical specifically because it was not also attempting to be a fill-in for true connection. In other words, the fantasy being indulged in was the removal of emotional or social connections from sex – it was sex for the sake of sex. 

A national survey recently highlighted that those aged 18-24 age were most likely to experience loneliness, with 22% of this bracket stating they are either constantly or often lonely. Such trends are replicated globally in the general decrease of sexual activity experienced by young people, particularly in Western countries. But it is feasible to broach this deficiency through faux realities? 

OnlyFans is fast becoming a behemoth of pornographic facilitation with users paying more than $5 billion to creators in 2022. Not only is spending up, but content creators have grown by nearly 50% in the past year. OnlyFans’s explosive growth comes from linking creators to consumers in a way porn never did. Individuals are no longer the perverts behind a screen, instead they have become ‘fans’ that are afforded technological involvement with the objects of their sexual desire.   

Here the pornographic trope of ‘the girl next door’, previously relegated to a fantasy, has now become a form of sexualised reality and should be taken literally – the girl next door might exist. This merging of sexual fantasy into the real world suggests that today’s youth want more realistic sexual content, and greater interpersonal connection, due to a lack in real life. Porn actors are no longer 2D figures who appear only as sexualised objects for my fantasy to manipulate, the rise of technology and social media means we connect with adult content creators as holistic beings who can perceive us as a human (or a fan) – not simply as an anonymous click or view.  

Fantasy for sale

While traditional porn inserted fantasy into reality by imagining all the ways certain sexual desires were unattainable, OnlyFans is seeing a reversal by injecting reality into fantasy by imagining all the ways in which sexual desires may be attainable.  

What should be obvious is that escape toward this ‘reality’ is anything but – reality, as a pornographic concept, has now become a commodity. Platforms such as Meta pioneered the sale of ‘reality’ as a commodity, initially through social media which promised global connection and more recently with openly ‘virtual’ realities as places of escape (for a price). 

Just as it was once assumed constant connection through Facebook would alleviate loneliness, which it is now proven to increase, society needs to be careful of establishing a feedback loop in sexual consumption. Here the phenomena of ‘parasocial relationships’, where effort and interaction is one-sided, operates in full effect; while a user can ‘interact’ with their favourite explicit content creator. The purpose of this interaction is only as a profit mechanism, there is no symbiotic social relationship taking place.  

OnlyFans in essence offers a new commodity of sexual ‘reality’ which, just as social media has, proports to sell us connection to reality, while simply creating a new grey space of pseudo-connection.

In turn, the more reliant society is on technology to fulfil our needs, the less-equipped we are to find such things organically – an increasing trend of abstinence being evidence to the point.  

Political-economy of sexual reality

This sexualisation of reality brings with it a major challenge to the sex-positive view of feminism. We should take seriously that the liberalisation of sex and sexuality in the 21st century has positively influenced the lives of women by offering space and safety for progressive practices. Yet, it cannot be ignored that the financial prosperity that OnlyFans affords (largely female) creators comes at the cost of internalising a core patriarchal notion; the sexual objectification of women’s bodies.  

The sex positive view typically argues that patriarchy was a limiting factor on sexuality and is instead in favour of removing societal stigma and shame surrounding pornography. Here the trend of reality-centric porn would be supported to further liberate both men and women from sexual restriction – even if the establishment of unhealthy norms which propagate the sexualisation of patriarchal interests through porn continues. Here issues of subjugation, domination and sexualisation must necessarily be supported, providing an indication as to why younger generations are turning away from the positivist view.  

In OnlyFans’s case, it may establish a sexual panopticon where women perceive self-sexualisation as liberating, not realising that the patriarchal logic of objectifying bodies has now become self-imposed and self-regulating as women free men of this task. The danger being that, if the trend of sexualising reality continues, what was previously relegated to closed-door fantasies is brought into the real world. Tangibly this could mean that women now find themselves more sexualised as pornographic content increasingly blurs lines between public and private thoughts or actions.  

A springboard

As sexual lives become further digitally enmeshed (what will the Metaverse mean for sexting?) there is need to reflect on how our desires are impacted. Desire for reality should reflect an underlying lack thereof as well as the pseudo-reality technology such as OnlyFans sells us as a replacement. In a world of fast fashion, fast food, and fast internet it should be pause for thought that today’s youth don’t want fast sex – they want real sex but will settle for less.    

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Stoicism on Tiktok promises happiness – but the ancient philosophers who came up with it had something very different in mind

I don’t know about you, but my TikTok is full of influencers telling me I should be a Stoic. You might know the term “stoic” as a person who goes through hardship while maintaining a steely and calm disposition, and never complains. However, a stoic is also someone who prescribes to the philosophical school of Stoicism.

Stoicism became popular in ancient Rome. Stoic TikTok exclusively draws on Roman Stoicism, mainly Epictetus (a formerly enslaved person), Seneca (a fabulously wealthy and self-aggrandizing advisor to the emperor Nero), and Marcus Aurelius (who was himself a Roman emperor).

But the school goes back much further to ancient Athens, where Stoicism was founded around 300BCE by Zeno of Citium. After Zeno, Stoicism flourished in Athens, especially under Chrysippus, known as the second founder of Stoicism.

On TikTok, you’ll see people saying that Stoicism is a great way to lead a happy and productive life. I’m a professional philosopher who specialises in ancient Greek philosophy – and it’s great, if somewhat surprising, to see how popular Stoicism has become over the last ten years. But as a philosopher, I’m not a Stoic – and Stoic TikTok gets quite a lot wrong about this way of thinking.

Despite what you see on TikTok, Stoicism was a dry, technical, ivory tower philosophy. Its ideas around happiness and productivity diverge quite a bit from what modern people consider these to be. Traditionally, it was divided into three branches: ethics, physics, and logic – much of which TikTok’s Stoic preachers don’t get quite right.

Logic

Distinctively, the Stoics emphasised logic, comparing it to the shell of an egg or the bones and sinews of a body, because logic protects (like a shell), supports (like bones) and connects (like sinews) our beliefs and knowledge. In fact, the Stoics developed a systematic logical theory which, through various historical twists and turns, inspired 20th-century logic and hence theoretical computer science.

The Stoics took logic seriously because it was needed for knowledge. For the Stoics, to know something – including how to live well – was to understand it so totally that you could defend your view against any degree of argumentative scrutiny, against any opponent. In other words, they used logic to win a sort of philosophical Hunger Games.

But Stoic TikTok isn’t really interested in a deep, rich and logically defensible knowledge of the world and our place in it. In so far as Stoic TikTok is interested in knowledge, it implies that you can get knowledge by simply reading quotations of famous Stoics or practising certain mental exercises, such as meditating on death.

Physics

Stoic TikTok also ignores Stoic physics – the principles that Stoics used to explain the natural processes in the universe. For the Stoics, everything that exists, including your soul and God, is a body. God, in fact, is “mixed with matter, pervading all of it and so shaping it, structuring it and making it into the world”, as the critic Alexander of Aphrodisias told us in the early third century.

The Stoics argued that, since God is rational and active, this makes everything that exists in the world rational and organised for the best. You are part of this rational universe so, if bad things happen to you, it would be irrational to complain – as if your foot complained about getting muddy.

This idea of a rational universe is popular with Stoic TikTok, and can be seen in posts telling followers to “love their fate”. They suggest that true happiness comes from accepting anything that happens.

But does loving your fate in a truly Stoic sense achieve the sort of productivity and happiness most people want? I think not.

Ethics

Which brings us to Stoic ethics. While Stoic TikTok promises productivity and happiness, it’s unlikely you’ll achieve the levels of productivity and happiness you actually desire if you go by what Stoics believed these to be.

Happiness, for a Stoic, was a matter of having virtues and lacking vices. Everything else – including health, wealth and status – were “indifferents”, because they made no difference to your virtue, and so to your happiness.

So, even if the self-helpy advice of Stoic TikTok could make you more productive, being more productive won’t make you be happier, according to Stoic philosophy. At best, you’ll acquire health, wealth or status, but those things are indifferent to your happiness.

There is, of course, something hypocritical about Seneca arguing that wealth is indifferent while being one of the richest men in Rome; or Marcus Aurelius saying that power is indifferent while being emperor.

It is rational to prefer to be healthy rather than ill, rich rather than poor, powerful rather than oppressed. In fact, there was nuanced ancient debate in which the Stoics tried to find a middle way between a view where health, money and power are simply good, and a view where they are totally irrelevant to living a good life.

Chrysippus tried to steer this course by saying that while health, wealth and power are indifferent, how you use them is not. If I use power intemperately or wealth to indulge my most disgusting appetites, I will not be virtuous or happy. Personally, I don’t think the Stoic philosophy will ultimately solve this problem of whether health, wealth and power are totally indifferent to happiness, but it is an open question.

I’ve not touched here on the more sinister aspects of Stoicism on the internet, discussed in Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men. Rather, I’ve tried to point out what Stoic TikTok misses, because I hope people dive deeper into Stoic philosophy. A great place to start is Tad Brennan’s The Stoic Life.

Stoicism is a rich, fascinating and sophisticated philosophical tradition. But, if you’re looking for happiness and productivity in more modern terms, the Stoics might not have the answer.

 

This article was originally published by The Conversation. Image by Bradley Weber.

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What does love look like? The genocidal “romance” of Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon, the newest film by Martin Scorsese, starts with a terrible, distorted version of the romantic “meet-cute.”

Ernest Burkhart (played with leery relish by Leonardo DiCaprio) romances Molly Kyle (Lily Gladstone). He’s a driver; she needs to get around the place. Throwing knowing looks over his shoulder as he spins his wheel, he flirts with her, and though she is initially suspicious, eventually she succumbs to his interests. A romance is born. 

It is the classic “boy meets girl” story – or at least, it would be, if we didn’t already know the real reason driving Ernest’s romantic designs. He has been put up to this meeting by “King” Hale (Robert DeNiro), his calculating and murderous Uncle, who is seeking to redirect the fortunes of the Osage tribe of which Molly is a member. Though he projects an image as a pillar of the community, King is the centre of a string of murders – and Ernest is recruited as his budding killer-to-be, with Molly as a target. 

The tension at the heart of Killers of the Flower Moon lies in Ernest’s dual role as Molly’s wife and her poisoner. Though Ernest is the film’s main character, we are given little in the way of his interior life. Instead, we understand the man through his actions, which are, increasingly, in direct conflict. Ernest acts like he loves Molly, and the children they have together; he weeps when one dies. He also injects her daily with a poison. When, in the film’s climax, the pair are reunited, he almost collapses into her arms. Nobody outright asks Ernest if he loves Molly, but they ask similar questions, and he responds in the full-throated affirmative. She is his wife, and at least some of the time, he treats her as such. 

So, do we want to accept this kind of attachment – murderous, openly destructive – as a form of love? Or would doing so fundamentally taint the concept? 

Love as a blinding force

The ethical value of love has long been debated by philosophers. Plato and Socrates both saw love as a fundamentally morally valuable emotion – one which expands our sense of the world’s beauty and possibility, and motivates us to do better. Indeed, according to this view of love, romance is the foundation of ethical action.

It’s a way of teaching us of the importance of other people, an escape from selfish solipsism that draws out into the world.

But love – as the mere existence of the term “crime of passion” proves – does not always lead us down virtuous paths. Any romance also has the capability of reducing ethical scope, not expanding it. Arthur Schopenhauer, the notorious pessimist, saw love as an essential “illusion” that consumes people utterly. He described it as little more than the desire to procreate, over which the fiction of romance gets written. On this view, love creates a lopsided sense of ethical value, transforming the world down to a single point – the love object. This in turn breeds jealousy; possession; and, Schopenhauer said, frequently madness. 

What makes Ernest’s “love” distinct, however, is that he doesn’t seem to experience the usual ethical pitfalls of romance. He’s not jealous of Molly. He doesn’t act as though he wants to possess her – at least not in the normal sense. Nor does he, in the traditional sense, go mad. Instead he acts to destroy her, an essentially self-negating series of actions where the one he prizes the most is also the one he seeks to snuff out. 

Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Molly Kyle (Lily Gladstone), Killers of the Flower Moon, Paramount Pictures

Love in and of itself

Perhaps ironically, given his reputation as a cold, difficult and abstract philosopher, it is Immanuel Kant who provides the solution to the puzzle of Ernest’s love. Taken as a whole, Kant is paradoxical on the nature of love – he once dismissed it as a “feeling”, and wrote that “a duty to love is an absurdity.”  

But, importantly, Kant did believe we should love one another. And more than that, this was a duty to love another “in and of itself.” One of Kant’s key ethical positions is the idea that using another – treating them like a mere “means” – is wrong. Instead, he believed that we should view other people as an “ends”. Kant believed that value did not exist outside human beings – that we create value – and that we should view all others, including those we love, as the source of value in the world. We respect and love others, he thought, because we see them not for what they can do for us, but for what they are; what they value and what they care about. 

Ernest does not do this. Both of the ways that he treats Molly – doting on her and poisoning her – are for his own benefit. He has turned her into a mere object, a machine for love and money. She gives him children, and her death will give him riches and success. When he falls into her arms and embraces her, he is embracing not the whole Molly – the full, rich person, a source of value in the world – but only the parts of her that help him. 

In this way, Ernest’s broken form of love serves as a warning to the rest of us.

When we say we love someone, we should direct that emotion to all who they are. Not choosing the parts we like, or the parts that service us. But the difficult parts; the awkward parts; the fears and the pains as well as the highs.

A lover’s eyes should always be open, after all. 

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Ethics Explainer: Altruism

Amelia notices her elderly neighbour struggling with their shopping and lends them a hand. Mo decides to start volunteering for a local animal shelter after seeing a ‘help wanted’ ad. Alexis has been donating blood twice a year since they heard it was in such short supply.  

These are all examples, of behaviours that put the well-being of others first – otherwise known as altruism.  

Altruism is a principle and practice that concerns the motivation and desire to positively affect another being for their own sake. Amelia’s act is altruistic because she wishes to alleviate some suffering from her neighbour, Mo’s because he wishes to do the same for the animals and shelter workers, and Alexis’ because they wish to do the same to dozens of strangers. 

Crucially, motivation is what is key in altruism.  

If Alexis only donates blood because they really want the free food, then they’re not acting altruistically. Even though the blood is still being donated, even though lives are still being saved, even though the act itself is still good. If their motivation comes from self-interest alone, then the act lacks the other-directedness or selflessness of altruism. Likewise, if Mo’s motivation actually comes from wanting to look good to his partner, or if Amelia’s motivation comes from wanting to be put in her neighbour’s will, their actions are no longer altruistic. 

This is because altruism is characterised as the opposite of selfishness. Rather than prioritising themself, the altruist will be concerned with the well-being of others. However, actions do remain altruistic even if there are mixed motives.  

Consider Amelia again. She might truly care for her elderly neighbour. Maybe it’s even a relative or a good family friend. Nevertheless, part of her motivation for helping might also be the potential to gain an inheritance. While this self-interest seems at odds with altruism, so long as her altruistic motive (genuine care and compassion) also remains then the act can still be considered altruistic, though it is sometimes referred to as “weak” altruism. 

Altruism can (and should) also be understood separately from self-sacrifice. Altruism needn’t be self-sacrificial, though it is often thought of in that way. Altruistic behaviours can often involve little or no effort and still benefit others, like someone giving away their concert ticket because they can no longer attend.  

How much is enough? 

There is a general idea that everyone should be altruistic in some ways at some times; though it’s unclear to what extent this is a moral responsibility. 

Aristotle, in his discussions of eudaimonia, speaks of loving others for their own sake. So, it could be argued that in pursuit of eudaimonia, we have a responsibility to be altruistic at least to the extent that we embody the virtues of care and compassion.  

Another more common idea is the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. Although this maxim, or variations of it, is often related to Christianity, it actually dates at least as far back as Ancient Egypt and has arisen in countless different societies and cultures throughout history. While there is a hint of self-interest in the reciprocity, the Golden Rule ultimately encourages us to be altruistic by appealing to empathy. 

We can find this kind of reasoning in other everyday examples as well. If someone gives up their seat for a pregnant person on a train, it’s likely that they’re being altruistic. Part of their reasoning might be similar to the Golden Rule: if they were pregnant, they’d want someone to give up a seat for them to rest.  

Common altruistic acts often occur because, consciously or unconsciously, we empathise with the position of others. 

Effective Altruism 

So far, we have been describing altruism and some other concepts that steer us toward it. However, here is an ethical theory that has many strong things to say about our altruistic obligations and that is consequentialism (concern for the outcomes of our actions).  

Given that, consequentialism can lead us to arguments that altruism is a moral obligation in many circumstances, especially when the actions are of no or little cost to us, since the outcomes are inherently positive.  

For example, Australian philosopher Peter Singer has written extensively on our ethical obligations to donate to charity. He argues that most people should help others because most people are in a position where they can do a lot for significantly less fortunate people with relatively little effort. This might look different for different people – it could be donating clothes, giving to charity, volunteering, signing petitions. Whatever it is, the type of help isn’t necessarily demanding (donating clothes) and can be proportional (donating relative to your income).  

One philosophical and social movement that heavily emphasises this consequentialist outlook is effective altruism, co-founded by Singer, and philosophers Toby Ord and Will MacAskill. 

The effective altruist’s argument is that it’s not good enough just to be altruistic; we must also make efforts to ensure that our good deeds are as impactful as possible through evidence-based research and reasoning. 

Stemming from the empirical foundation, this movement takes a seemingly radical stance on impartiality and the extent of our ethical obligations to help others. Much of this reasoning mirrors a principle outlined by Singer in his 1972 article, “Famine, Affluence and Morality”:  

“If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.” 

This seems like a reasonable statement to many people, but effective altruists argue that what follows from it is much more than our day-to-day incidental kindness. What is morally required of us is much stronger, given most people’s relative position to the world’s worst-off. For example, Toby Ord uses this kind of reasoning to encourage people to commit to donating at least 10% of their income to charity through his organisation “Giving What We Can”.  

Effective altruists generally also encourage prioritising the interests of future generations and other sentient beings, like non-human animals, as well as emphasising the need to prioritise charity in efficient ways, which often means donating to causes that seem distant or removed from the individual’s own life. 

While reasons for and extent of altruistic behaviour can vary, ethics tells us that it’s something we should be concerned with. Whether you’re a Platonist who values kindness, or a consequentialist who cares about the greater good, ethics encourages us to think about the role of altruism in our lives and consider when and how we can help others.  

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