Ethics Explainer: WEIRD ethics

If you come from a Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic society, then you’re WEIRD. And if you are, you might think about ethics differently than a majority of people alive today.

We all assume that we’re normal (to at least some degree). And it’s natural to assume everyone else sees the world at least somewhat similarly to the way we do. This is such a pervasive phenomenon that even psychology researchers have fallen into this trap, and it has influenced the way they have conducted their studies and the conclusions they have drawn about human nature. 

Many psychology studies purport to investigate universal features of the human mind using a representative sample of people. However, the problem is that these samples are not typical of humans. The usual test subject in a psychology study is drawn from a very narrow pool, with around 80 percent being undergraduate students attending a university in the United States or another Western country.  

If human psychology really was universal, this selection bias wouldn’t matter. But it turns out our minds don’t all work alike, and culture plays a huge role in shaping how we think. Even features of our minds that were once believed to be universal, such as depth perception, vary from one culture to another. For example, American undergraduate students are far more likely to see the two lines in the classic Muller-Lyer illusion as being significantly different lengths, whereas San forages of the Kalahari in southern Africa are virtually immune to the illusion. 

But it’s not just perception that varies among cultures. It’s also the way we think about right and wrong, which has serious ramifications for how we answer ethical questions. 

WEIRD ethics

Imagine you and a stranger are given $100 to split between you. However, there’s a catch. The stranger gets to decide how much of the $100 to offer you and what proportion they get to keep. They could split it 50:50, or 90:10. It’s all up to them. If you accept their offer, then you both get to keep your respective proportions. But if you reject the offer, you both get nothing. 

Now imagine they offered you $50. Would you accept? It turns out that most people from Western countries would. But what if they offer you $10, so they get to keep $90? Most WEIRDos would reject this offer, even if it means they miss out on a “free” $10. One way to look at this is that WEIRD subjects were willing to incur a $10 cost to “punish” the other for being unfair. 

This is called the Ultimatum Game, and it’s much studied in psychology and economics circles. For quite some time, researchers believed it showed that people are naturally inclined to offering a fair split, and recipients were naturally willing to punish those who offered an unfair amount. 

However, repeated experiments have since shown that this is largely a WEIRD phenomenon, and individuals from non-WEIRD cultures, particularly from small-scale societies, behave very differently. People from these cultures were far more likely to offer a smaller proportion to their partner, and the recipients were far more likely to accept low offers than people from WEIRD cultures.  

So, instead of revealing some universal sense of fairness, what the Ultimatum Game did was reveal how different cultures, and different social norms, shape the way people think about fairness and punishment. Far from being universal, it turns out that much of our thinking about fairness is a product of the culture in which we were raised. 

It’s conventional

Another fascinating discovery that emerged from comparing WEIRD with non-WEIRD populations was that different cultures think about ethics in very different ways.  

Research by Lawrence Kohlberg in the United States in the 1970s uncovered patterns in how children develop their moral reasoning abilities as they age. Most children start off viewing right and wrong in purely self-interested terms – they do the right thing simply to avoid punishment. The next stage sees children come to understand that moral norms keep society functioning smoothly, and do the right thing to maintain social order. The third stage of development goes beyond social conventions and starts to appeal to abstract ethical principles about things like justice and rights. 

While these stages have been observed in most WEIRD populations, cross-cultural studies have found that non-WEIRD people from small-scale societies don’t tend to exhibit the final stage, with them sticking to conventional morality. And this has nothing to do with lack of education, as even university professors in non-WEIRD societies show the same pattern of moral thinking. 

So, rather than showing clear stages of moral development, Kohlberg’s research just revealed something unique about WEIRD people, and their cultural emphasis on autonomy, while many other societies emphasise community or divinity as the basis of ethics. 

Who are you?

The research on WEIRD psychology, has led to a significant shift in the way that psychologists and philosophers think about morality. On the one hand, it has shown that many of our assumptions about human universals in moral thinking are strongly influenced by our own cultural background. And on the other, it has shown that morality is a hugely more diverse landscape than was often assumed by WEIRD philosophers. 

It has also caused many people to reflect on their own cultural influences, and pause to realise that their perspective on many important ethical issues might not be shared by a majority of people alive today. That doesn’t mean that we should lapse into a kind of anything-goes moral relativism, but it does encourage us to exercise humility when it comes to how certain we are in our attitudes, and also seek strong reasons to support our ethical views beyond just appealing to the contingencies of our upbringing. 

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FODI returns: Why we need a sanctuary to explore dangerous ideas

New and challenging ideas are endangered species these days. They are surrounded by predators from all sides.

There are the entrenched interests that want to maintain the status quo. There are trolls who will beat them down just for laughs. Then there is the threat of cancellation by those who deem challenging ideas unworthy of being expressed at all.  

Yet, as their natural habitat is being invaded, we as a society need these ideas to thrive more than ever before. We must continually challenge our assumptions, for history has shown us how often they end up being false. We must be wary of the status quo, and the powers that work to preserve it for their own benefit (and our detriment). We need to have open and honest conversations, lest our minds – and our ideas – become outdated and stale in a fast-moving world. 

What we need is a sanctuary where new and challenging ideas can be nurtured and kept safe from the predators until they’re strong enough to be released into the wilderness and thrive. We need a space where they can be heard with open ears and challenged by open minds. A space where discourse is steered by good faith and reason rather than tribalism and fury. 

FODI Festival Director, Danielle Harvey, says that is what The Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI, to its fans) is all about this year. “In a litany of entrenched ideas, 24-hour news cycles, shallow information and self-censorship, we desperately need a space where we can engage with challenging ideas in good faith.” 

FODI is a “sanctuary”, not just as a refuge to keep us safe from the noise, the trolls and the bad faith speakers found in the wilderness of public discourse, but a space where we’re safe to engage with powerful and provocative ideas.

A lot is said about “safe spaces” these days. But they’re typically talking about only one type: “safe from…” spaces, where people can be protected from things that might be harmful, triggering, discriminatory or distressing. These spaces are important in a world filled with dangers, because we should always respect the inherent dignity and vulnerability of others, and seek to protect them from harm. 

But if we only have “safe from…” spaces, we risk shutting down difficult conversations that we might have to have. We might stifle precisely the kinds of discourse that could make “safe from…” spaces less necessary. We can end up being coddled rather than becoming resilient or testing our own ideas. 

FODI exemplifies another kind of safe space: “safe to…”. This is a space where people are able to express themselves authentically and in good faith without fear of reprisal, where they can engage with difficult and controversial topics that might even be deemed offensive in other contexts. These are the conversations we have to have if we’re to combat the problems that make “safe from…” spaces necessary.  

“FODI is gives us an opportunity to hear powerful and provocative speakers from around the world talk on important and rousing topics,” says Harvey. It’s also a sanctuary. One where audiences can engage with these ideas in a way that we, unfortunately, can’t in the wild. In our sanctuary you are safe from hype and safe to listen and to ask questions.”  

Such a sanctuary needs to be carefully curated to enable open good faith engagement with dangerous ideas. That’s why this year’s FODI will be special. When you come to FODI, you will enter a sacred space, with a shared understanding of our mutual purpose and a will to create a better world. A space to let curiosity guide you, where good faith reigns, where you’re free from intimidation and shame for what you choose to believe and express, a safe place to think deeply about the world.


The Festival of Dangerous Ideas returns 24-25 August 2024 to Carriageworks, Sydney. Subscribe for program updates at

Strange bodies and the other: The horror of difference

Love Lies Bleeding, the new film by director Rose Glass, is a simple girl-meets-girl noir story. At least, for about half of its running time.

Set in a nowhere town populated by gun nuts and ne’er-do-wells, it opens with a chance encounter between Lou (Kristen Stewart) and Jackie (Katy O’Brian). The former’s trapped in this dump because she needs to protect her sister, and the latter has sailed in to try and pursue her dreams of becoming a bodybuilding superstar. They shoot each other up with steroids, make food for each other, and fall in love. 

They are, from the outset, different. They don’t fit into this place, with its villains and deadbeats. Not just because they are queer – but because they want for more, and desire something bigger than the diners and gun ranges on offer.  

Which is the impetus for Love Lies Bleeding’s sudden, mid-film shift. The more Lou and Jackie fall out of step with the town, the more they begin to literally change. Jackie, always strong, starts to become superhumanly so. Her body expands outrageously, until, before the audience has really noticed what is going on, she is a giant, dwarfing the town and its denizens. 

Jackie (Katy O’Brien), Love Lies Bleeding, A24

In this way, Love Lives Bleeding owes more to the cinematic genre of body horror than it does to the noir trappings it initially flirts with. And more than that, it investigates one of body horror’s key themes – the way that difference can manifest not just in our minds, but on our skin. 

The mind and the body, the body and the mind

Body horror as a genre is a continuation of the work of philosopher Baruch Spinoza. For Spinoza, the body and the mind are the same thing – the one substance. They are “numerically identical”, as in, there is no separation whatsoever between them. When you point to the mind, you are also pointing to the body. Indeed, Spinoza was a monist – as in, he believed that all things were made from one singular “entity.” Spinoza called this entity nature; some have called it God. 

Importantly, this monism means that for Spinoza, our emotions, thoughts, and desires are inherently embodied. On Spinoza’s view, we are not just a brain, controlling a fleshy automaton of a body. We are in our own skin. Or, more precisely, we are our own skin. Anything that we think or want expresses itself physically, because our brain is inherently physical. 

This view tells us interesting things about both body horror cinema, and about otherness. Namely, that if we are other – if we step outside the mainstream of sexuality, gender, or ability – then that otherness will manifest ourselves in our body. There is no hiding our difference on this view; no successful way to “pass”, as though we are part of the established norm. Anything that we think and feel will make us physically different, and therefore will be able to be read by others. We will always be a square peg in a round hole, and everybody will always know it. 

Love Lies Bleeding takes the most extreme version of this perspective – Jackie’s gigantism is a physical manifestation of her difference that means she can’t fit through doorways, let alone pass as one of the town’s regular citizens. She is other, which means she doesn’t just occupy mental states that run against the mainstream. Her difference changes how she carries herself in the world – and how she is perceived. 

Love Lies Bleeding, A24

The othered body and its power

Body horror films do more than merely diagnose the physical manifestations of otherness, however. They also pass a sort of moral judgment on it. Many entries into the genre don’t see this otherness as something to be avoided, or stripped away. Indeed, they see it as something to be embraced – a source of considerable power. 

Take, for instance, Carrie, directed by Brian DePalma, in which a young alienated woman discovers that she has telekinetic powers. Carrie is the subject of relentless bullying – in the opening scene, we see her body shamed for its difference, as she has a period in the communal shower, much to the cruel glee of her schoolmates.  

But when she discovers that which makes her different is the same thing which makes her special, she becomes significantly stronger. The film’s bloodbath of an ending, in which Carrie decimates those who have humiliated her, is a strange sort of coronation – Carrie is literally wearing a crown while she murders a roomful of her enemies. She’s stopped trying to fit in. Instead, she has thoroughly, wholeheartedly embraced her otherness. 

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), Carrie, 1976, MGM

This is point of view is also backed up in the literature about Spinoza. As many Spinoza scholars have noted, understanding is the key to Spinoza’s project – he believed in the ethical value of the accumulation of knowledge – and because of his monism, this understanding is one centred in the body. “For Spinoza the critical task is to formulate an ethics of knowing, which begins with an understanding that body and mind are two attributes of the same substance,” write Paul Stenner and Steven D. Brown. “Increasing the capacity of the body to both be affected and affect others is the means by which the knowing subject progresses.” 

In these body horror films, assimilation with the status quo is impossible – how could Carrie, with her telekinesis, ever be like others? How could Lou, the giant, ever pretend to be different? But more than that, however, assimilation is not even desirable. Instead, these films are a rallying cry to those who do not fit into boxes; to the outcasts. They say, “any changes will be noticeable on your skin, so you cannot hide them.” And they say, “any changes will be noticeable on your skin, so you should not hide them.” 

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Why are people stalking the real life humans behind ‘Baby Reindeer’?

Baby Reindeer, the new Netflix miniseries based on a true story, opens with a simple act of kindness — Donny Dunn (Richard Gadd), a wannabe stand-up comedian, gives a customer a free cup of tea.

“I felt sorry for her,” Donny tells us in voiceover, as Martha (Jessica Gunning) wanders into the pub where he works. It is an action he will soon regret.  

The two begin conversing; as they do, Martha becomes increasingly obsessed with the comedian. Simple affection morphs into something obsessive and painful – Martha begins bombarding Donny with texts and emails. Quickly, it becomes clear: Martha is a stalker, and Donny is her victim. 

That’s not exactly a new story to be told onscreen. Fatal Attraction, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and When A Stranger Calls have all dealt with the significant fear and anxiety that being stalked can create – when you’re the victim of a stalker, you live on a constant knife’s edge, forever expecting the next email, the next escalation. These films capture that tension. 

But what Baby Reindeer does additionally is depict – in a surprisingly complex way – the blend of emotions a victim can feel towards their stalker, not all of them strictly negative. And more than that, it explores the difficult histories that can make a stalking victim vulnerable to being harassed in the first place. 

Which is why it is fascinating – and troubling – that such a complicated, nuanced show has led some viewers to begin replicating Martha’s behaviour to find the real people behind the story. 

The complexity of the stalker/victim relationship

Stalking is, as philosopher Elizabeth Brake notes, composed of actions “which would normally be permissible; indeed, many stalking behaviors are protected liberties.” That makes it a complicated form of ethical wrong, one many stalkers take advantage of. There’s nothing bad about sending an email. There’s not even anything wrong with sending many emails – under specific circumstances. What makes stalking terrifying is the amount of communication, and, often, its intent. 

Additionally, some stalkers are themselves dealing with trauma, or have been victims of a serious harm. This is what Baby Reindeer captures – Martha is harming Donny, but she herself has been harmed. More than that, Donny’s traumatic past – he is the victim of sexual assault – makes him open to her affection initially. These are two people who have suffered, and are continuing to suffer. They find each other, amidst the chaos of traumatic flashbacks, and a deep sense of purposelessness.  

Donny Dunn (Richard Gadd) and Martha (Jessica Gunning), Baby Reindeer, Netflix

Perhaps if things were different, they might have become friends. After all, they are not so dissimilar, in some ways: Baby Reindeer ends with Donny finding himself in the exact position Martha was in when he first encountered her, relying on the random kindness of a bartender.  

In this way, Baby Reindeer does not condemn Martha. Nor does it condemn Donny, even though they have both made mistakes. Instead, it sees their actions as deeply tied to past harms, a continuation of the cycle of abuse.  

And a cycle that some viewers of the show are perpetuating. 

Viewer as stalker

Since Baby Reindeer became a smash hit, some viewers have begun attempting to track down the real humans that inspired the show. As The Guardian notes, “online sleuths” (those are the article’s words), believe they’ve found the real-life Martha. But so obsessive and dangerous has been the search, that innocent people have been caught up in the fray – one man was mistakenly believed to be the television writer who assaulted Donny, and received death threats as a result. 

But whether or not the “right” targets have been uncovered and attacked, such a response to the show is deeply unethical. Baby Reindeer itself doesn’t want to demonise Martha – so why are some viewers doing that themselves? Baby Reindeer is a cautionary story about letting passion overcome reason, and trying to track down people who don’t want to be tracked down. That stalking is being perpetuated in its name is a deep ethical wrong. 

It’s also a common ethical issue in our modern age. Increasingly, online vigilantes – better to call them that than “sleuths” – have come to behave in a way that shows they believe under certain circumstances, normal ethical rules are waved away. Think of the targeted harassment that was directed towards the real people that stans assumed Ariana Grande’s or Taylor Swift’s new records were about. Or Beyonce’s ‘Beyhive’ hounding a women off social media. In all of these cases, the abuse was “justified” in the mind of the perpetrators. They believed an ethical crime had been committed, and so gave themselves free rein to punish right back. 

So it goes in the case of Baby Reindeer. Martha wronged Donny; the TV writer assaulted him. In an increasingly punitive, carceral and old-school digital world, viewers are taking it on themselves to dole out their own justice, in order to reset wrongs. 

In actual fact, they are not moral arbiters. They are committing a wrong themselves. And it is a wrong that we must call out.

Baby Reindeer urges us to consider human beings as complex – not deserving of punishment, but of understanding, even if we condemn their actions.

We can want someone to be far away from us, given the harms they have committed. But we must attempt to collectively return to a place where retributive justice – so often confused as “activism” – does not cloud our understanding of complexity. After all, as that final scene of Baby Reindeer shows, we could all find ourselves in Martha’s shoes.  

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Trying to make sense of senseless acts of violence is a natural response – but not always the best one

Shock reverberated throughout Australia at the news of a frenzied knife attack in Sydney at Westfield Bondi Junction on 13 April — an attack that claimed the lives of six people and injured many more.

Naturally, such an event triggers a surge of news reporting and social media posts. But the news and social media conversation quickly pivoted from reporting the facts of the event to seeking answers. How could such a horrifying thing happen? What could drive someone to do something like this? Could it happen again? Could it happen near me? Am I safe?

Our minds naturally recoil from violence. But they recoil just as much from the prospect that violence can be random or senseless. We have a deep and abiding need to make sense of such horrors, to place them within a causal narrative that can help us understand how they fit in to the world around us. But in our search for a narrative, we can easily latch on to something convenient, whether or not it’s true.

Violence in search of a reason

For many people — particularly those on social media — the first narrative they turned to was terrorism. It’s not that they necessarily wanted it to be an act of terrorism. But terrorism is something that we all, sadly, understand only too well. By labelling the attack as “terrorism”, the attack ceases being random and becomes part of a system we can comprehend.

So, many people may have felt a slight sense of unease when the New South Wales police commissioner declared that it was not an act of terrorism. If not terrorism, what was it? What could possibly motivate such a horrific attack?

Then it emerged that the attacker targeted more women than men. So perhaps it was misogyny that motivated him? Perhaps he was one of these “incels” (or involuntary celibates) we sometimes hear about? But again, the details were unclear, so the speculation continued.

When the attacker’s mental health issues were revealed, that offered another way to make sense of the violence. People could draw on a well-known narrative of a broader mental health crisis across the nation. And while that might inspire greater attention and investment in mental health, it can also instil fear and suspicion of those who experience a range of conditions but pose no threat to the public, possibly leading to increased stigma or disadvantage.

And, of course, there’s the fact the attacker used a knife, which will inevitably lead to a conversation about whether we ought to regulate the sale of knives, even if that might hamper legitimate use and have done little to prevent this attack.

How to live with the uncertainty

Yet we must remember that it remains a distinct possibility this was a freak event, one that doesn’t fit into any clear causal narrative, and one that doesn’t tell us anything meaningful about whether such horrific attacks are likely to occur again in the future. It might be the case that there was little or nothing that could have been done to prevent it. Ultimately, it might just be a random and senseless act of violence, no matter how much our minds recoil from such a possibility.

It’s natural for us to seek meaning when we’re faced with apparently senseless violence, even if it can cause us to jump to conclusions or latch on to hasty solutions. What’s less natural is sitting with the uncertainty that comes with not knowing how or why this happened.

So, what to do?

First, we should forgive ourselves (and everybody else) for being human, and desperately wanting to live in a safe and predictable world. But second, we need to acknowledge that safety and predictability are often outside of our control. Even so, it doesn’t mean we are powerless. As the Stoics pointed out, we can still choose how to encounter the world, and likewise, which narratives to adopt to make sense of it.

Instead of focusing on the motivations of the attacker, which might always remain elusive, we can look to other parts of the picture, including those that reinforce our appreciation of our fellow humanity, even in the face of unspeakable tragedy. We can focus on the acts of heroism by individuals to hold back the attacker. Or on the bravery of the police officer who confronted him. Or the workers who hastened to protect the customers in their stores. Or the outpouring of support from the community to the victims and their families.

There is a strong narrative here, one that can boost our empathy for others and buttress us against tragedy, whether deliberate or random. But it might require us to allow some questions to go unanswered.


This article was originally published in ABC Religion and Ethics.

Image by Richard Milnes / Alamy

Big Thinker: Philippa Foot

Philippa Foot (1920-2010) is one of the founders of contemporary virtue ethics, reviving the dominant Aristotelian ethics in the 20th century. She introduced a genre of decision problems in philosophy as part of the analysis in debates around abortion and the doctrine of double effect.

Philippa Foot was born in England in 1920. While receiving no formal education throughout her childhood, she obtained a place at Somerville College, one of the two women’s colleges at Oxford. After receiving a degree in 1942 in politics, philosophy and economics, she briefly worked as an economist for the British Government. Besides this, she spent her life at Oxford as a lecturer, tutor, and fellow, interspersed with visiting professorships to various American colleges, including Cornell, MIT, City University of New York and University of California Los Angeles. 

Virtue ethics

In the philosophical world, Philippa Foot is best known for her work repopularising virtue ethics in the 20th century. Virtue ethics defines good actions as ones that embody virtuous character traits, like courage, loyalty, or wisdom. This is distinct from deontological ethical theories which encourage us to think about the action itself and its consequences or purpose instead of the kind of person who is doing the action. 

“What I believe is that there are a whole set of concepts that apply to living things and only to living things, considered in their own right. These would include, for instance, function, welfare, flourishing, interests, the good of something. And I think that all these concepts are a cluster. They belong together.”

The doctrine of double effect

Imagine you are the driver of a runaway trolley that is barrelling down the tracks. You have the option to do nothing, and let five people die, or the option to switch the tracks and kill one person.

This is Philippa Foot’s famous trolley problem. This thought experiment encourages us to think about the moral differences between actively causing death (e.g. pulling a lever to get the trolley to change tracks) and passively or indirectly causing death (doing nothing, allowing the trolley to kill five people. Utilitarians might argue that five deaths is far less desirable than one death, but many people instinctively feel that actively causing a death has a different moral weight than doing nothing. 

Perhaps Foot’s most influential paper is The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect, published in 1967. Here, she explains what is called the Doctrine of the Double Effect, which explains why some very bad actions (like killing) might be permissible because of their potentially positive outcomes. The trolley problem is one example of the doctrine of double effect, but she also uses various other cases. 

“The words “double effect” refer to the two effects that an action may produce: the one aimed at, and the one foreseen but in no way desired. By “the doctrine of the double effect” I mean the thesis that it is sometimes permissible to bring about by oblique intention what one may not directly intend.”

For example, what if one person needed a large dose of a rare medicine to save their life, but that same amount of medicine could save the lives of five others who each needed less? Would we think that the “oblique intention” of a nurse who administers the medicine to one person instead of the five people is justified?

Foot finds that it would be wise to save the five people by giving them each a one-fifth dose of the medicine. However, she encourages us to interrogate why this feels different from the organ donor case, where we save five people who need organ transplants by sacrificing one person. 

“My conclusion is that the distinction between direct and oblique intention plays only a quite subsidiary role in determining what we say in these cases, while the distinction between avoiding injury and bringing aid is very important indeed.” 

When the trolley problem is taken to its logical conclusion, these fallacies become even more obvious. As John Hacker-Wright writes, the trolley problem “raises the question of why it seems permissible to steer a trolley aimed at five people toward one person while it seems impermissible to do something such as killing one healthy man to use his organs to save five people who will otherwise die.” 

Foot has also contributed to moral philosophy with her writing on determinism and free will, reasons for action, goodness and choice, and discussions of moral beliefs and moral arguments. 

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True crime media: An ethical dilemma

In the realm of media and entertainment, the insatiable public appetite for gripping, real-life narratives has propelled the rise of one particular genre; true crime.

From podcasts and movies to videos on YouTube and TikTok, the last decade has witnessed unparalleled demand for crime stories. However, this surge prompts questions regarding the ethical issues inherent in true crime. By condemning the transgression of principles, the romanticised portrayal of perpetrators, and the dramatisation of suffering perpetuated by content creators, we can advocate for transformative legislation to harness the positive potential of the genre.

A glaring ethical issue present in true crime is the violation of consent and privacy of victims and families. Currently, media companies and influencers don’t require their consent when publishing content. The names, ages, backgrounds, and family details of victims are often laid bare for public consumption. This is overwhelming for victims and families, as their most painful and intimate experiences are shared with the world without their permission.

Additionally, these vulnerable stakeholders are subjected to online scrutiny, where netizens give unsolicited opinions and commentary. This reopens the scars left by the ordeals, as exemplified by Netflix’s recent docuseries Monster – Jeffrey Dahmer (2022). The families of Dahmer’s victims were not even informed of the production. Eric Perry, cousin of victim Errol Lindsey, tweeted, “it’s re-traumatising over and over again, and for what?”.

While some argue that the sympathy generated from productions could help families heal, it is imperative to recognise that individuals process sympathy in different ways. Even if sympathy comes from a well-meaning place, if it is uninvited, it may cause feelings of exposure and stress. Therefore, consent must be mandated to end the unethical violation of principles for monetary gain.

Another pressing ethical concern is the romanticised portrayal of perpetrators for increased viewership. Humans, in having adrenaline-craving brains and an inherent fascination with tragedy, are naturally attracted to crime.

Casting conventionally attractive actors to play serial killers, for example Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in Netflix’s 2019 film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, exacerbates this attraction to a dangerous level. This promotes the toxic fan culture surrounding criminals on media platforms, portraying them as brooding, romantic ‘bad boys’. It gives perpetrators the spotlight and awe, whilst victims are shunned into the shadows.

The real-life consequences of romanticisation were seen in Cameron Herrin’s vehicular homicide case. Due to his physically attractive appearance, netizens on TikTok and Twitter rallied for sentence reduction through the #JusticeForCameron trend. However, this mostly contained irrelevant videos, such as fan edits of his face and highlight reels of his ‘hottest moments in court’, where netizens dubbed him “too cute to go to jail”. A ‘’ petition for sentence reduction was created by fans and signed over 28,000 times, demonstrating how the romanticisation of killers in media has influenced the public to condone the actions of attractive criminals.

This was further confirmed by a 2010 Cornell University study, revealing, “in criminal cases, better-looking defendants receive lower sentences”. Hence, we must hold media producers accountable for romanticised content to stop glorifying the legacies of killers and trivialising their heinous crimes. As consumers, we must remain vigilant and conscious in remembering the monster behind the dazzling smile; a cold-blooded killer.

Furthermore, another ethical dilemma in true crime is the dramatisation of narratives for audience retention. True crime has surged in popularity recently, with a 60% increase in consumption in the US from 2020-2021. This was achieved through insensitive and exaggerated portrayals of people and events to create a ‘juicier’ story, exploiting the victims’ suffering and trauma for entertainment.

As exemplified by the true crime podcast Rotten Mango, content creators often create fictional characterisations of the people involved in the stories for their drama-hungry consumers. They fabricate victims’ thoughts and emotions during the ordeal based on their personal assumptions, which is insensitive to the memory of the victims. In response to Netflix’s Dahmer docuseries, Rita Isbell, sister of a victim, expressed her wish for Netflix to provide tangible benefits such as money to victims’ families. She stated, “if the show benefitted [the victims] in some way, it wouldn’t feel so harsh and careless.” Hence, the dramatisation of crime narratives for entertainment purposes must be restricted, and fictional fabrications of the ordeals banned.

The presently unethical and insensitive genre of true crime demands key changes to harness its positive potential.

We must implement legislation that mandates consent, holds media producers accountable for romanticised content, and restricts dramatisation of narratives.

This will transform the genre into a positive force that empowers those who have endured similar experiences, condemns perpetrators, provides support and closure to victims’ loved ones, and genuinely commemorates victims. By implementing these changes, true crime will evolve into an ethical and empathetic form of media that positively impacts our society.


True crime media: An ethical dilemma‘ by Jessica Liu is one of the Highly Commended essays in our Young Writers’ Competition. Find out more about the competition here.   

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Pleasure without justice: Why we need to reimagine the good life

We’re living through brutal and devastating times.

Apocalyptic scenes of mass bloodshed are being live-streamed to our phones by journalists who have millions of followers. Awareness of colonial brutality and conflict across the globe has permeated the minds of the Western social media generation on an unprecedented scale, as well as our government’s complicity in it. 

Yet life goes on in Australia and across the West. Every week, thousands march through the Sydney CBD to protest genocidal violence in Palestine. We gather in Hyde Park where Palestinians tell us of the destruction of their families and homes, and then we march, passing queues spilling out of high-end shops and chanting ‘while you’re shopping, bombs are dropping’. 

It feels as if I’m seeing the individualism that defines our consumer culture with fresh eyes. It’s always been there in plain sight, but suddenly I marvel at how obvious its function is, how it keeps us busy looking in the wrong direction by selling us an alluring dream. 

The difference between our everyday and theirs is hard to comprehend. Increasingly I find myself consumed by these overwhelming contradictions; grief at the hands of terror states and the need to keep living in our society of supposed positivity.

I’m questioning how much of my time and energy is wrapped up in searching for the dream-like abundance and pleasure that modern capitalism promises me, unpicking everything I thought I knew about what I wanted from life. How can you feel pleasure in the face of horror?

Consumer culture paints a vision of the good life that’s full of pleasure, relaxation and joy. Influencers sell us manicured images of sun, sea and luxury food, showing us what a free and fulfilled life looks like. But unreachable for many, we often end up seeking consolation in smaller consumer pleasures, distracting ourselves with whatever repetitive hits of relief we can find after we finish our days at work. Dreams of abundance keep people sustained in oppressive systems, searching for a sparkling life that never arrives for most of us. 

Dissatisfaction with this cycle of unfulfilling work and empty pleasure seeking has long simmered under the surface. But the lid is now off. The way meaning has been drained from our visions of the good life is brought into focus by brave journalists demanding we confront ugly truths. The daily effort to find pleasure, however small – the morning coffee, the new clothes, the office pizza parties, suddenly pale in significance to the scale and urgency of the problems that face us; the rot at the heart of our system has revealed itself. Discontent has turned to rage. Others feel it too – millions across the globe have been protesting for months on end, refusing to stay silent. 

Philosopher and writer Mark Fisher wrote about the emptiness he observed in how his students experienced pleasure. He thought that despite the abundance of instantly pleasurable activities they engaged in, there was still a widespread sense that something was missing from life. He argued that just because we have an abundance of pleasure accessible instantly, it doesn’t mean that life is actually more pleasurable. In fact, he thought the opposite was true.

Depression is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it is by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure.”

He’s not the only one to observe a widespread emotional decay brought on by the constant consumption of quick fix, disembodied pleasure. Kate Soper, in her book Post Growth Living, argues that we must dissociate pleasure and our vision of the good life from the culture of consumerism that so often promotes mindless and toxic pleasure seeking. Like Fisher, she points out how a seductive vision of comfort and abundance so often results in a sterile search for contentment that never comes. She argues that we urgently need to redefine our idea of the good life, asking us to imagine how collective life could transform if we placed care and ethics at the center of our priorities rather than consumer driven gratification.

What both of these writers pick up on is how meaning has been drained from life under Western capitalism, and how pleasure is so often used to plaster over deeply felt doom for the future. They both remind us that sustaining and rich fulfilment does not come from instant gratification. 

I think many of us intuitively see that the most pleasurable things we can do with our lives are immaterial, found in the substance of considered, caring and meaningful relationships. What’s a much bigger task is to translate this into finding the pleasure in fighting for bigger social causes. To recognise that a good life must be built on an ethics of justice.

It’s about more than just making different consumer choices, about taking a few hours to go to a march instead of shopping. It’s about finding a set of values that you believe in, and acting in accordance with them, holding yourself and others accountable to the best of your ability with the time and resources you have. Acting with political principle is hard in a society that does everything it can to tempt you into hopelessness, but there is a growing appetite for it. In the face of unthinkable violence, so many have been searching for meaning bigger than the endless cycles of work and shopping. 

We first need to recognise that if we want to build any meaningful future for ourselves, we can’t turn away from the dehumanisation of others. The good life isn’t built on collective denial of blistering injustice – burying our heads in the fake comforts of consumerism offers us a bleak future. Our own search for meaning brings us towards our interconnected struggle: Palestine and other occupied nations call for us to fight for justice – our ability to live good lives depends on that justice as well as theirs. 

bell hooks said that there can be no love without justice. I think the same can be said for pleasure. 

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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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Taking the cynicism out of criticism: Why media needs real critique

Increasingly, it appears that constructive criticism and cynical attacks are being conflated. And perhaps it’s nowhere more apparent or more troubling than when it comes to criticism of the news media.

In 1993, Edward Said stunned the world of cultural criticism with his revolutionary critique of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. The literary professor and avowed lover of the Western literary canon reviewed Austen in a way like never before: as a cultural artefact that reflected and embodied the British imperial ethos.  

Austen, he wrote, “synchronises domestic with international authority, making it plain that the values associated with such higher things as ordination, law, and propriety must be grounded in actual rule over and possession of territory.”  

As both a critic and a fan, Said was surprised at accusations he was discrediting Austen. Rather, he was demonstrating that even novels ostensibly about domesticity could not be separated from the politics of the time.  

Said showed that art not only can but must be both enjoyed and critiqued.  

That criticism must, in other words, be constructive. 

Said’s approach to criticism is more needed now than ever. Increasingly, it appears that constructive criticism and cynical attacks are being conflated.  

I find this nowhere more apparent or more troubling than when it comes to criticism of the news media. 

After The New York Times opened an Australian bureau several years ago, some readers and journalists complained its coverage was patronising. Such complaints, journalist and former Times contributor Christine Keneally said, indicated that locals felt it “considered itself superior to the local press”.

As I wrote at the time, grievances included needlessly explaining Australia to Australians, engaging in parachute journalism, and not employing enough local journalists.” The newspaper wasn’t doing anything that Australian journalists don’t do as a matter of routine when covering foreign places. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, English-language media often assume an air of authority as they “explain” the local culture and events to their audience back home, adopting an almost anthropological tone that has been frequently and hilariously satirised. 

The problem, then, was not the Times per se but Western approaches to journalistic “objectivity that equate their own interpretations with fact.

Consequently, the criticism centred on mocking the Times rather than interrogating the broader problem of Western journalistic processes and assumptions. This merely served to make the Times defensive and resistant to the criticism. 

It is futile to simply demand that journalists “do better” on certain issues or to single out specific publications when the problem so often comes down to Western media conventions as a whole.  

How then should we go about it? Robust public constructive criticism of the press is vital. Not least because:  

“There is everywhere a growing disillusionment about the press, a growing sense of being baffled and misled; and wise publishers will not pooh-pooh these omens.”   

This quote could easily have been written last week but comes from legendary American editor Walter Lippmann in his 1919 essay ‘Liberty and the News’. 

Lippmann urged fellow journalists not to reject criticism but use it as a means to improve. “We shall advance when we have learned humility,” he predicted hopefully. “When we have learned to seek truth, to reveal it and publish it; when we care more for that than for the privilege of arguing about ideas in a fog of uncertainty.” 

Some of this antipathy towards critique could perhaps be explained by a lack of consensus of what critique actually is. The job of a critic is often misrepresented as being merely “to criticise, telling us what is good and bad. However, the true role of a critic, explains culture writer Emily St. James, is “to pull apart the work, to delve into the marrow of it, to figure out what it is trying to say about our society and ourselves”.

Social media complicates our understanding further because of the difficulty of in reading people’s tone and intent online. Then there is also the unfortunate fact that social media is so often used deliberately as a platform to launch cynical, shaming attacks, which makes it even more challenging to distinguish criticism from cynicism. 

This can be applied to the news media as easily as it can to novels or films.  

As media scholar James W Carey observed, and as Said demonstrated in his critique of Austen, genuine criticism is not a “mark of failure or irrelevance, it is the sign of vigour and importance”.

Over many decades historians and scholars have agreed on the shape criticism should take. Namely, that criticism is an ongoing process of exchange and debate between the news media and its audience. That it should be grounded in knowledge rather than solely in emotion. That it should not be pedantic, petty, and shaming.

Media researcher Wendy Wyatt defined it simply as “the critical yet noncynical act of judging the merits of the news media”.

And as media scholar James W Carey observed and Said demonstrated with Austengenuine criticism is not a “mark of failure or irrelevance, it is the sign of vigour and importance”.

Lippmann and Wyatt advocated for criticism of the press by the press, such as a public editor or ombudsman hired by the publication solely to address readers’ concerns and complaints.  

Others including Carey argued that true criticism can come only from the outside; from academics or authors that are not on the payroll to ensure fairness, and minimises the possibility of retribution. Many journalists, they warn, have been ostracised by their peers for daring to critique their own. 

Much of the onus, then, falls to editors and publishers to open up the news media to constructive criticism, and to not “pooh-pooh” our concerns. But we, as individuals and as a society, all bear some responsibility for fostering a social climate that encourages such critique.  

If we are to demand that journalists heed our criticism, we must also enter into it in good faith. Like journalism itself, any and all criticism should also be weighed up on its merits. Our ultimate goal should not be merely to shame journalists but to transform the news media in an ongoing process of reform and improvement.

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