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.

Twitter made me do it!

In a recent panel discussion, academic and former journalist Emma Jane described what happened when she first included her email address at the end of her newspaper column in the late nineties.

Previously, she’d received ‘hate mail’ in the form of relatively polite and well-written letters but once her email address was public, there was a dramatic escalation in its frequency and severity. Jane coined the term ‘Rapeglish’ to describe the visceral rhetoric of threats, misogyny and sexual violence that characterises much of the online communication directed at women and girls.

Online misogyny and abuse has emerged as a major threat to the free and equal public participation of women in public debate – not just online, but in the media generally. Amanda Collinge, producer of the influential ABC panel show Q&A, revealed earlier this year that high profile women have declined to appear in the program due to “the well-founded fear that the online abuse and harassment they already suffer will increase”.

Twitter’s mechanics mean users have no control over who replies to their tweets and cannot remove abusive or defamatory responses.

Most explanations for online misogyny and prejudice tend to be cultural. We are told that the internet gives expression to or amplifies existing prejudice – showing us the way we always were. But this doesn’t explain why some online platforms have a greater problem with online abuse than others. If the internet were simply a mirror for the woes of society, we could expect to see similar levels of abuse across all online platforms.

The ‘honeypot for assholes’

This isn’t the case.  Though it isn’t perfect, Facebook has a relatively low rate of online abuse compared to Twitter, which was recently described as a “honeypot for assholes”. One study found 88 percent of all discriminatory or hateful social media content originates on Twitter.

Twitter’s abuse problem illustrates how culture and technology are inextricably linked. In 2012, Tony Wang, then UK general manager of Twitter, described the organisation as “the free speech wing of the free speech party”. This reflects a libertarian commitment to uncensored information and rampant individualism, which has been a long-standing feature of computing and engineering culture – as revealed in the design and administration of Twitter.

Twitter’s mechanics mean users have no control over who replies to their tweets and cannot remove abusive or defamatory responses, which makes it an inherently combative medium. Users complaining of abuse have found that Twitter’s safety team does not view explicit threats of rape, death or blackmail as a violation of their terms of service.

The naïve notion that Twitter users should battle one another within a ‘marketplace of ideas’ . . . ignores the way sexism, racism and other forms of prejudice force diverse users to withdraw from the public sphere.

Twitter’s design and administration all reinforce the ‘if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen’ machismo of Silicon Valley culture. Social media platforms were designed within a male dominated industry and replicate the assumptions and attitudes typical of men in the industry. Twitter provides users with few options to protect themselves from abuse and there are no effective bystander mechanisms to enable users to protect each other.

Over the years, the now banned Milo Yiannopoulos and now imprisoned ‘revenge porn king’ Hunter Moore have accumulated hundreds of thousands of admiring Twitter followers by orchestrating abuse and hate campaigns. The number of followers, likes and retweets can act like a scoreboard in the ‘game’ of abuse.

Suggesting Twitter should be a land of free speech where users should battle one another within a ‘marketplace of ideas’ might make sense to the white, male, heterosexual tech bro, but it ignores the way sexism, racism and other forms of prejudice force diverse users to withdraw from the public sphere.

Dealing with online abuse

Over the last few years, Twitter has acknowledged its problem with harassment and sought to implement a range of strategies. As Twitter CEO Dick Costolo stated to employees in a leaked internal memo, ‘We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years’. However, steps have been incremental at best and are yet to make any noticeable difference to users.

How do we challenge the most toxic aspects of internet culture when its norms and values are built into online platforms themselves?

Researchers and academics are calling for the enforcement of existing laws and the enactment of new laws in order to deter online abuse and sanction offenders. ‘Respectful relationships’ education programs are incorporating messages on online abuse in the hope of reducing and preventing it.

These necessary steps to combat sexism, racism and other forms of prejudice in offline society might struggle to reduce online abuse though. The internet is host to specific cultures and sub-cultured in which harassment is normal or even encouraged.

Libertarian machismo was entrenched online by the 1990s when the internet was dominated by young, white, tech-savvy men – some of whom disseminated an often deliberately vulgar and sexist communicative style that discouraged female participation. While social media has bought an influx of women and other users online it has not displaced these older, male-dominated subcultures.

The fact that harassment is so easy on social media is no coincidence. The various dot-com start-ups that produced social media have emerged out of computing cultures that have normalised online abuse for a long time. Indeed, it seems incitements to abuse have been technologically encoded into some platforms.

Designing a more equitable internet

So how do we challenge the most toxic aspects of internet culture when its norms and values are built into online platforms themselves? How can a fairer and more prosocial ethos be built into online infrastructure?

Changing the norms and values common online will require a cultural shift in computing industries and companies.

Earlier this year, software developer and commentator Randi Lee Harper drew up an influential list of design suggestions to ‘put out the Twitter trashfire’ and reduce the prevalence of abuse on the platform. Her list emphasises the need to give users greater control over their content and Twitter experience.

One solution might appear in the form of social media app Yik Yak – basically a local, anonymous version of Twitter but with a number of important built-in safety features. When users post content to Yik Yak, other users can ‘upvote’ or ‘downvote’ the content depending on how they feel about it. Comments that receive more than five ‘down’ votes are automatically deleted, enabling a swift bystander response to abusive content. Yik Yak also employs automatic filters and algorithms as a barrier against the posting of full names and other potentially inappropriate content.

Yik Yak’s platform design is underpinned by a social understanding of online communication. It recognises the potential for harm and attempts to foster healthy bystander practices and cultures. This is a far cry from the unfettered pursuit of individual free speech at all costs, which has allowed abuse and harassment to go unaddressed in the past.

It seems like it will require more than a behavioural shift from users. Changing the norms and values common online will require a cultural shift in computing industries and companies so the development of technology is underpinned by a more diverse and inclusive understanding of communication and users.

5 dangerous ideas: Talking dirty politics, disruptive behaviour and death

The Ethics Centre was the founding partner of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas back in 2009. We’re thrilled that the festival continues with a program full of world-leading thinkers.

Here are five ideas that were pondered, dissected and debated over the big weekend in 2016. We talked dirty politics, disruptive behaviour, disappearing countries and death.

  1. Dirty politics

In 2016, the festival put dirty old politics in the spotlight. Australia’s federal parliament had just resumed session with a bunch of independent and minority party representatives, the United States was still trying to make sense of Donald Trump and across the globe nations were trying to unpack exactly what ‘extremism’ was and how to deal with it.

“If our goal is to seek a deeper understanding of the world, our lack of moral diversity is going to make it harder.”

American psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk explores the moral values underpinning liberals and conservatives. Instead of looking at politics as a battleground of ‘right vs wrong’, Haidt encourages us to see political differences as being based in different moral values.

  1. Disruptive behaviour

You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, right? For the disruptors of the world, improvement comes at a price – we need to break eggs, challenge convention, and occasionally hurt people’s feelings.

On the other side of the Pacific, the #BlackLivesMatter movement was upsetting middle-class, white Americans in 2016 by calling attention to continued racial disparities in the US.

Check out philosopher George Yancy’s open letter, ‘Dear White America’ to learn about the intellectual basis for the movement. In the letter, Yancy makes a simple but confronting point to his white American fellows – if you’re white, no matter how well intentioned you are, you’re probably racist. He wrote:

“If you are white, and you are reading this letter, I ask that you don’t run to seek shelter from your own racism. Don’t hide from your responsibility. Rather, begin, right now, to practice being vulnerable. Being neither a ‘good’ white person nor a liberal white person will get you off the proverbial hook.”

Yancy’s essay prompted exactly the response he expected – anger. So much so the American Philosophical Association issued a letter of support. You can read Yancy’s thoughts on the backlash he copped here.

Australians reading or hearing about the Black Lives Matter movement might also want to read into the history of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

  1. Disappearing conflicts

Conflict, politics and geography drive some nations and communities to the brink while others flourish. What are the unseen consequences of major global trends?

The Right to be Cold asks whether the world’s failure to address climate change is a human rights violation against Inuit peoples whose way of life is being eradicated along with the melting ice.

To get a sense of what’s going on for these remote communities, check out photographer Ciril Jazbec’s series documenting climate change and its impact on Greenlanders.

“It was April and the ice was starting to melt, which was highly unusual. Usually the ice would stay out until June.”

  1. Dealing in death

If evolution hardwires in us the drive to survive, how is it humans are able to overcome their biological imperative and take their own lives? There’s still a stigma that suicide is a ‘selfish choice’, but evolutionary biologist Jesse Bering explores the science behind suicide.

“Human suicide is an adaptive behavioural strategy that becomes increasingly likely to occur whenever there is a perfect storm of social, ecological, developmental and biological variables factoring into the evolutionary equation.”

For the scientifically minded, Bering’s essay in Scientific American is a must-read. If you’ve never donned a white lab coat, you might be more inclined to listen to the Freakonomics podcast ‘The Suicide Paradox’.

  1. Dangerous ideas

While every Festival of Dangerous Ideas has specific themes, the main goal has always been to create a safe space for open discussion of ideas some people would consider dangerous.

It’s a skill that seems to be in growing demand, so before you listen, read, think or tweet, check out what festival co-founder Simon Longstaff writes on why conversations matter.

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.

The undeserved doubt of the anti-vaxxer

For the last three years or so I’ve been arguing with anti-vaccination activists. In the process I’ve learnt a great deal – about science denial, the motivations of alternative belief systems and the sheer resilience of falsehood.

Since October 2012 I’ve also been actively involved in Stop the AVN (SAVN). SAVN was founded to counter the nonsense spread by the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network. According to anti-vaxxers SAVN is a Big Pharma-funded “hate group” populated by professional trolls who stamp on their right to free speech.

I’m afraid the facts are far more prosaic. There’s no Big Pharma involvement – in fact there’s no funding at all. We’re just an informal group of passionate people from all walks of life (including several research scientists and medical professionals) who got fed up with people spreading dangerous untruths and decided to speak out.

When SAVN started in 2009, antivax activists were regularly appearing in the media for the sake of “balance”. This fostered the impression of scientific controversy where none existed. Nowadays, the media understand the harm of false balance and the antivaxxers are usually told to stay home.

There’s a greater understanding that scientists are best placed to say whether or not something is scientifically controversial. (Sadly we can’t yet say the same for the discussion around climate change.) And there’s much greater awareness of how wrong – and how harmful – antivax beliefs really are.



No Jab, No Pay

This shift in attitudes has been followed by significant legislative change. Last year NSW introduced ‘No Jab, No Play’ rules. These gave childcare centres the power to refuse to enrol non-vaccinated children. Queensland and Victoria are planning to follow suit.

In April, the Abbott government introduced ‘No Jab, No Pay‘ legislation. Conscientious objectors to vaccination could no longer access the Supplement to the Family Tax Benefit Part A payment.

The payment has been conditional on children being vaccinated since 2012, as was the payment it replaced. But until now vaccination refusers could still access the supplement by having a “conscientious objection” form signed by a GP or claiming a religious belief exemption. The new legislation removes all but medical exemptions.

The change closes loopholes that should never have been there in the first place. Claiming a vaccination supplement without vaccinating is rather like a childless person insisting on being paid the Baby Bonus despite being morally opposed to parenthood.

The new rules also make the Child Care Benefit (CCB) and Child Care Rebate (CCR) conditional on vaccinating children. That’s not a trivial impost – estimates at the time of the announcement suggested some families could lose around $15,000 over four years.

What should we make of this? A necessary response to an entrenched problem or a punitive overreaction?

Much of the academic criticism of the policy has been framed in terms of whether it will in fact improve vaccination rates. Conscientious objector numbers do now seem to be falling, although it remains to be seen whether this is due to the new policies.

Embedded in this line of criticism are three premises:

  • Improvements in the overall vaccination rate will come through targeting the merely “vaccine-hesitant” population.
  • Targeting the smaller group of hard core vaccine refusers, accounting for around 2% of families, would be counterproductive.
  • The hard core is beyond the reach of rational persuasion even via benefit cuts.

These are of course empirical questions and open to testing. I suspect the third assumption is true. It’s hard to see how someone who believes the entire medical profession and research sector is either corrupt, inept, or both, or that government and media deliberately hide “the Truth”, would ever be persuaded by evidence from just those sources.

A few antivaxxers even believe the germ theory of disease itself is false. In such cases no amount of time spent with a GP explaining the facts is going to help.

They base their “choices” on beliefs ranging from the ridiculous to the repugnant, but their fundamental objection is that the new policies are coercive.

In recent years, antivax activists have tended to frame their objections to legislation like No Jab, No Pay in terms of individual rights and freedom of choice.

Yes, they base their “choices” on beliefs ranging from the ridiculous to the repugnant (including the claim that Shaken Baby Syndrome is really the result of vaccination not child abuse), but their fundamental objection is that the new policies are coercive. They make the medical procedure of vaccination compulsory, which they regard as a violation of basic human rights.

Part of this isn’t in dispute – these measures are indeed coercive. Whether they amount to compulsory vaccination is a more complex question. In my view they do not, because they withhold payments rather than issuing fines or other sanctions, although that can still be a serious form of coercive pressure. Such moves also have a disproportionate impact on families who are less well-off, revealing a broader problem with using welfare to influence behaviour.

Nonetheless, it’s not particularly controversial that the state can use some coercive power in pursuit of public health goals. It does so in a range of cases – from taxing cigarettes to fining people for not wearing seatbelts. Of course there is plenty of room for disagreement about how much coercion is acceptable. Recent discussion in Canberra about so-called “nanny state” laws reflects such debate.

But vaccination doesn’t fall into the nanny state category because vaccination decisions aren’t just made by and for individuals. Several different groups rely on herd immunity to protect them. Herd immunity can only be maintained if vaccination rates within the community are kept at high levels. By refusing to contribute to a collective good they enjoy, vaccine refusers provide a classic example of the Free Rider Problem.

No Jab, No Pay legislation is not about people making vaccination decisions for themselves, but on behalf of their children. The suggestion that parents have some sort of absolute right to make health decisions for their children just doesn’t hold water. Children aren’t property, nor are our rights to parent our children how we see fit absolute. No-one thinks the choice to abuse or starve one’s child should be protected, for example.

And that gives lie to the “pro-choice” argument against these laws – not all choices deserve respect.

The suggestion that parents have some sort of absolute right to make health decisions for their children just doesn’t hold water. Children aren’t property, nor are our rights to parent our children how we see fit absolute.

Thinking in a vacuum

The pro-choice argument depends on the unspoken assumption there is room for legitimate disagreement about the harms and benefits of vaccination. That gets us to the heart of what motivates a great deal of anti-vaccination activism – the issue of who gets to decide what is empirically true.

Antivax belief may play on the basic human fears of hesitant parents but the specific contents of those beliefs don’t come out of nowhere. Much of it emerges from what sociologists have called the “cultic milieu” – a cultural space that trades in “forbidden” or “suppressed” knowledge. This milieu is held together by a common rejection of orthodoxy for the sake of rejecting orthodoxy. Believe whatever you want – so long as it’s not what the “mainstream” believes.

This sort of epistemic contrarianism might make you feel superior to the “sheeple”, the unawake masses too gullible, thick or corrupted to see what’s really going on. It might also introduce you to a network of like-minded people who can act as a buffer from criticism. But it’s also a betrayal of the social basis of knowledge – our radical epistemic interdependency.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment bid us sapere aude, to “dare to know” for ourselves. Knowledge was no longer going to be determined by religious or political authority, but by capital-r Reason. But that liberation kicked off a process of knowledge creation that became so enormous specialisation was inevitable. There is simply too much information now for any one of us to know it all.

Talk to antivaxxers and it becomes clear they’re stuck on page one of the Enlightenment project. As Emma Jane and Chris Fleming have recently argued, adherence to an Enlightenment conception of the individual autonomous knower drives much conspiracy theorising. It’s what happens when the Enlightenment conception of the individual as sovereign reasoner and sole source of epistemic authority confronts a world too complex for any individual to understand everything.

As a result of this complexity we are reliant on the knowledge of others to understand the world. Even suspicion of individual claims, persons, or institutions only makes sense against massive background trust in what others tell us.

Accepting the benefits of science requires us to do something difficult – it requires us to accept the word of people we’ve never met who make claims we can never fully assess.

Accepting the benefits of science requires us to do something difficult – something nothing in our evolutionary heritage prepares us to do. It requires us to accept that the testimony of our direct senses no longer has primary authority. And it requires us to accept the word of people we’ve never met who make claims we can never fully assess.

Anti-vaxxers don’t like that loss of authority. They want to think for themselves, but they don’t accept we can’t think in a vacuum. We do our thinking against the background of shared standards and processes of reasoning, argument and testimony. Rejecting those standards by making claims that go against the findings of science without using science isn’t “critical thinking”. No more than picking up the ball and throwing it is “better soccer”.

This point about authority tells us something ethically important too. Targeting the vaccine-hesitant rather than the hard core refusers makes a certain kind of empirical sense.

But it’s important to remember the hard core are the source of the misinformation that misleads the hesitant. In the end, the harm caused by antivax beliefs is due to people who abuse the responsibility that comes with free speech. Namely, the responsibility to only say things you’re entitled to believe are true.

Most antivaxxers are sincere in their beliefs. They honestly do think they’re doing the right thing by their children. That these beliefs are sincere, however, doesn’t entitle them to respect and forbearance. William Kingdon Clifford begins his classic 1877 essay The Ethics of Belief with a particularly striking thought experiment.

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not well built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections.

He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors.

In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

Note that the ship owner isn’t lying. He honestly comes to believe his vessel is seaworthy. Yet Clifford argues, “the sincerity of his conviction can in no way help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him.”

In the 21st century nobody has the right to believe scientists are wrong about science without having earned that right through actually doing science. Real science, mind you, not untrained armchair speculation and frenetic googling. That applies as much to vaccination as it does to climate change, GMOs and everything else.

We can disagree about the policy responses to the science in these cases. We can also disagree about what financial consequences should flow from removing non-medical exemptions for vaccination refusers. But removing such exemptions sends a powerful signal.

We are not obliged to respect harmful decisions grounded in unearned beliefs, particularly not when this harms children and the wider community.

Parent planning – we should be allowed to choose our children’s sex

In 2015, The National Health and Medical Research Council was accepting public submissions regarding sex selection in IVF procedures. It has previously prohibited non-medical sex selection.

This is one of two responses we’ve published on our website. Don’t agree with Julian? Check out Tamara Kayali Browne‘s piece, which argues that IVF sex selection is unethical.

Current NHMRC guidelines prohibit non-medical sex selection by any means. Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia have specifically legislated to ban sex selection using assisted reproduction.

The guidelines are now under review, providing the Australian public, the NHMRC and professionals an opportunity to re-examine their opposition to sex selection.

Opposition to the legalisation of non-medical sex selection illustrates a misunderstanding of the role of law in civil society. If A wants to do X, and B wants to assist A to do X for a price, the sole ground for interfering in their freedom is they will harm someone. Moral disapproval is not a ground for a legal ban.

Who would be harmed by allowing sex selection?

The most obvious candidate is the child. Call him John. The basis of most legislation in assisted reproduction is that the best interests of the child must be paramount. However, it is not against the interests of John to be conceived by sex selection. Indeed, if IVF and sex selection were not performed, John would not exist. John owes his very existence to the act of sex selection.

There is another kind of harm often invoked in these kinds of debates – a moral harm. John is being used as a means to his parents’ ends of having a child whom they have stereotyped goals for. John is being used as an instrument.

People intuitively believe that children should be “gifts”, not valued for particular characteristics, such as sex, intelligence or athletic ability. We ought to give them their own opportunity to make their own life. That is, they should have a right to an open future.

Enter Immanuel Kant

Such objections are best expressed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said people should always be treated as an end, and never a means.

But what Kant actually said is never treat people merely or solely as a means. We treat people as a means all the time – shopkeepers, salesmen, repair people and doctors. We respect adults by obtaining their consent to treat them as a means.

It is not possible to obtain consent from children – particularly not regarding their creation. What then does it mean to treat a child merely as a means?

People have children for all sorts of reasons – to be a sibling, to hold a marriage together, to care for parents, to be a companion, to realise the parent’s dreams, to take over the family business or to be king of England. Ethically, these reasons aren’t important. What matters is how well they treat their child once it is born, whether male, female, disabled, tall, short, come what may.

Something like this kind of “instrumentalisation” objection might be behind the NHMRC’s policy:

A conditional life

The Australian Health Ethics Committee believes that admission to life should not be conditional upon a child being a particular sex.
Equality of all people should not be conditional upon any characteristic, such as their sex. But there is a distinction between continued existence and coming into existence. Continued existence should not be conditional on sex.

It might be thought the same follows for admission to life. But the NHMRC does allow medically motivated sex selection to guard against certain diseases and disabilities. This suggests admission to existence can be “conditional” upon being healthy and non-disabled.

What “conditional” means here is “based on reasons”. One can have children for reasons, such as being of certain sex, having certain abilities, being healthy or not disabled. As long as one loves the child, gives the child an open future and good life, having reasons to have that child is perfectly ethically acceptable.

For example, a father wants to have a son to take to football matches. He therefore moulds the child to his needs by sex selecting. He can still treat the child, once born, as an end by respecting the child’s own decision to pursue an interest in music instead.

Harmful sexist stereotypes

The final alleged harm is to society, either by reinforcing sexist stereotypes or disturbing the sex ratio. In some parts of India and China, there are six males to five females.

Such harms could be real and might be a legitimate basis for interfering in liberty. But another basic principle is that the least liberty-restricting (least coercive) means should be adopted to prevent harm.

The present ban on non-medical sex selection is very wide-ranging and coercive. Are there less coercive means that would allow some sex selection but not reinforce sexist stereotypes and disturb the sex ratio? There are at least three better policies:

  1. Sex selection only in favour of girls.
  2. Sex selection for family balancing. That is, sex selection for the second or third child, when the existing children are all of one sex and the preference is for the opposite sex. In Australia, this is the most common reason for sex selection and a little more than 50 percent select girls.
  3. Incidental sex selection. A couple having IVF and genetic diagnosis for infertility and screening of disorders, could be allowed to express a preference over the healthy embryos, at the discretion of their doctors.

Each of these strategies is less liberty-restricting and would protect the public interest.

There are no good grounds for the blanket ban on sex selection. Sex selection does not harm the child and any collateral harm (due to discrimination) can be controlled in better ways. A blanket ban is unethical, excessively restricting procreative liberty. 

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 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.