Access to ethical advice is crucial

Better ethical approaches for individuals, businesses and organisations doesn’t just make moral sense. The financial benefits are massive, too.

It might seem a little ironic to take ethics advice from an intelligence agency that consciously deploys deception, yet it shows why access to ethical advice is vitally important. Indeed, we argue that the example of an ethics counsellor within ASIS demonstrates why every organisation should have (access to) an ethical adviser.

Ethics is often considered to be a personal or private activity, in which an individual makes decisions guided by an ethical code, compass or frame of reference. However, emerging technologies necessitate consideration of how ethics apply “at scale”.

Whether we are conscious of this (or not), ethical decisions are being made at the “back end” – or programming phase – but may not be visible until an outcome or decision, or user action, is reached at the other end of the process.

Miah Hammond-Errey describes in her book, Big Data, Emerging Technologies and Intelligence: National Security Disrupted, how “ethics at scale” is being driven by algorithms that seek to replicate human decision-making processes.

This includes unavoidable ethical dimensions, at increasing levels of speed, scope and depth – often in real time.

The concept of ethics at scale means that the context and culture of the companies and countries that created each algorithm, and the data they were trained on, increasingly shapes decisions at an individual, organisation and nation-state level.

Emerging technologies are likely to be integrated into work practices in response to the world itself becoming more complex. Yet, those same technologies may themselves make the ethical landscape even more complex and uncertain.

The three co-authors recently discussed the nexus of ethics, technology and intelligence, concluding there are three essential elements that must be acknowledged.

First, ethics matter. They are not an optional extra. They are not something to be “bolted on” to existing decision-making processes. Ethics matter: for our own personal sense of peace, to maximise the utility of new technologies, for social cohesion and its contribution to national security and as an expression of the values and principles we seek to uphold as a liberal democracy.

Second, there is a strong economic case for investing in the ethical infrastructure that underpins trust in and the legitimacy of our public and private national intuitions. A 10 per cent improvement in ethics in Australia is estimated to lead to an increase in the nation’s GDP of $45 billion per annum. This research also shows improving the ethical reputation of a business can lead to a 7 per cent increase in return on investment. A 10 per cent improvement in ethical behaviour is linked with a 2.7 to 6.6 per cent increase in wages.

Third, ethical challenges are only going to increase in depth, frequency and complexity as we integrate emerging technologies into our existing social, business and government structures. Examples of areas already presenting ethical risk include: using AI to summarise submissions to government, using algorithms to vary pricing for access to services for different customer segments or perhaps using new technologies to identify indicators of terrorist activity. That’s before we even get to novel applications employing neurotechnology such as brain computer interfaces.

Ethical challenges are, of course, not new. Current examples driven by new and emerging technologies include privacy intrusion, data access, ownership and use, increasing inequality and the impact of cyber physical systems.

However, an extant need for ethical rumination is, for now at least, a human endeavour.

As a senior leader of ASIS, with a background in the military, Major General Paul Symon (retd) strongly supported resourcing a (part-time) ethics counsellor. He was aware the act of cultivating agents, and the tradecraft involved, would inevitably demand moral enquiry by the most accomplished ASIS officers.

His belief was without a solid understanding of ethics, there was no standard against which the actions of the profession, or the choices of individuals, could be measured.

So, a relationship emerged with the Ethics Centre. A compact of sorts. Any officer facing an ethical dilemma was encouraged to speak confidentially to the ethics counsellor. The conversation and the moral reasoning were important.

General Symon guaranteed no career detriment to anyone who “opted out” of an activity so long as they had fleshed out their concerns with the ethics counsellor. Often, an officer’s concerns were allayed following discussion, and they proceeded with an activity knowing there was a justification both legally and ethically.

Perhaps if we’d had ethical advisers available across other institutions, we might have prevented some of the greatest moral failures of recent times, such as the pink batts deaths and robodebt.

If we had ethical advisers accessible to industry, then perhaps we’d have avoided the kind of misconduct revealed in multiple royal commissions looking into everything from banking and finance to the treatment of veterans to aged care.

We believe our work over years, including examples in defence and intelligence, demonstrates practical examples and the requirement to build our national capacity for ethical decision-making supported by sound, disinterested advice. That is one reason we support the establishment of an Australian Institute for Applied Ethics with the independence and reach needed to work with others in lifting our national capacity in this area.


Pledge your support for an Australian Institute of Applied Ethics. Sign your name at:

This article was originally published in The Canberra Times.

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I changed my mind about prisons

Every time the face of a criminal flashed up on the screen of our flatscreen TV, my parents would never hesitate to condemn the perpetrator, and demand the prolonged imprisonment of the thief or shoplifter.

For violent crimes, the death penalty would often come into conversation. 

My siblings and I, perched on the leather couch, would listen open-mouthed, our young minds unable to comprehend how anyone would even consider such an act. I thought to myself: anyone who went to jail was inherently evil, different to normal people. 

Yet, as I grew older and started to reach beyond the sheltered confines of our upper-middle-class home, that perspective gradually fell apart. 

I have come to realise that our prison system is dysfunctional, a warped interpretation of right and wrong. A system designed for retribution, that essentially calls an end to a person’s potential in life, is both ethically and practically malfunctioning. Intended to benefit society through rightful punishment and restorative justice, it is instead one of the largest perpetrators of discrimination and often even worsens a prisoner’s life after release. 

For instance, consider the story of Wesley Ford: a gay Whadjuk/Ballardong man, who battled with a drug addiction that fuelled 13 prison stints over two decades. He was just one of the 60% of Australian prison detainees who have been previously incarcerated. We have one of the highest recidivism rates in the world and, in a world where over half of prisoners expect to be homeless after release, and it is nearly impossible to secure employment, is that really such a surprise? 

Our sentences do not tend to be harsh enough to fully realise the power of deterrence, nor are the quality or quantity of support services anywhere near sufficient to rehabilitate offenders.

In the words of Ford, ‘There were services there, but it is such a farce, because … they are so few and far between hardly anyone can get onto them.’ 

This also promotes a cycle of crime, further disadvantaging minority groups. Despite making up only 2% of the overall population, Indigenous Australians constitute nearly 30% of prisoners. They are twice as likely to have been refused bail by police before their first court appearance. 

As for a solution, the harsher approach, employed by regimes such as Russia, is evidently unethical. Criminal behaviour must be punished, but the unnecessary imposition of prolonged sentences or even death penalties for minor offenders is closer to a violation of basic human rights, rather than the intended enforcement of justice. This is supported by various ethical frameworks, be it a utilitarian goal to preserve life, or the Christian belief in grace. Instead, especially for those who are low-risk offenders, restorative justice measures should be utilised to punish behaviour whilst also incentivising criminals to make better decisions. This approach has been proven to work, as evidenced by the Norwegian system. 

With a system of small, community facilities that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society, Norway’s prison system ensures that prisoners do not lose their humanity and dignity whilst incarcerated. The facilities are typically located close to the inmates’ homes, ensuring that they can maintain relationships, and the cells resemble dormitories rather than jails. Norwegian prisoners have the right to vote, receive an education, and see family. 

This approach may seem radical, but it has been incredibly successful in Norway. The Scandinavian nation has one of the lowest recidivism rates (20% within 2 years), a dramatic decrease since the 1990s (70-80%, like modern-day USA) when it had a more traditional system. Furthermore, ensuring that prisoners can live normal lives after release benefits the economy. Fewer people in prison means more capable adults available for employment, and many prisoners even leave with additional skills, leading to a 40% increase in employment rates after prison for previously unemployed inmates. 

Yet, one drawback is the higher expenses of this system. Norway spends an average of 93,000 USD per year per prisoner, which is potentially unviable for countries with larger prison populations. Such a proposal would also likely be controversial amongst voters, unhappy with their taxpayer dollars being spent on criminals. 

And might it be unethical to divert taxpayer funds to lawbreakers? To what extent does one deserve forgiveness? When does an act become unforgivable? 

The issue is extremely complex, and realistically, a slightly different setup might be necessary for each unique society. Yet, the approach is undeniably more ethical, and benefits of rehabilitation are well-documented. In Australia, a country with a low population and high recidivism rates, success is highly likely.

Through the recognition that lawbreaking does not definitively indicate moral character and that factors such as socioeconomic status, bias, and even racism can impact the likelihood of incarceration, we can begin to see prisoners as human, too.

Forgiveness is a moral imperative and this is something that our prison system should reflect. 


I changed my mind about prisons‘ by Sophie Yu is one of the Highly Commended essays in our Young Writers’ Competition. Find out more about the competition here.       

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The Ethics Institute: Helping Australia realise its full potential

It has been some three years since we posed a simple question: to what extent (if any) does ethics affect the economy?

The team we asked to answer that question was led by the economist, John O’Mahony of Deloitte Access Economics. After a year spent analysing the data, the answer was in. The quality of a nation’s ethical infrastructure has a massive impact on the economy. For Australia, a mere 10% improvement in ethics – across the nation – would produce an uplift on GDP of $45 billion per annum. Yes, that’s right, a decade later the accrued benefit would be $450 billion – and growing!

Some things are too good to be true. This is not one of them.

The massive economic impact is a product of a very simple formula: increased ethics=increased trust=lower costs and higher productivity. Increasing trust is the key. Not least because without it, every case for reform will either fall short or fail … no matter how compelling. Ordinary Australians going about their lives simply will not allow reform when they believe that the benefits and especially the burdens of change will be unfairly distributed. So it is that the incredible potential of our nation is held hostage to factors that are entirely within our control.

We invest billions in physical and technical infrastructure in the hope that it will lead to improvement in our lives. We invest almost nothing in the one form of infrastructure that determines how well these other investments will perform. That is, we invest precious little in our ethical infrastructure.

My first reaction to receiving the Deloitte Access Economics report was to try to engage with the Federal Government of the day. I thought that whatever one might think about ‘ethics’ as a concept, there could be no ignoring the economics. I was wrong. The message came back that the government was “positively not interested” in discussing the findings or their implications. I have met with rejection and (more often) indifference on many occasions over the past thirty years. This ranks at the top of my list of negative responses.

The Ethics Centre has always been resolutely apolitical. So, we cast around to find someone in the then Federal Opposition who might engage with the findings. And that is where the current Treasurer, Dr Jim Chalmers, comes in. He took the findings very seriously – so much so that he issued a further challenge to identify what specific measures would increase ethics by 10% and thus, produce the estimated economic uplift. That led to a second piece of work by Deloitte Access Economics – and nine months later, we received the second report. It is that report that has brought forth the current proposal to establish the world-first Australian Institute for Applied Ethics.

The proposed Institute will have two core functions: first, it will be a source of independent advice. Legal issues are referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission. Economic issues are sent to the Productivity Commission. As things stand, there is nowhere to refer the major ethical issues of our times. Second, the Institute will work with existing initiatives and institutions to improve the quality of decision making in all sectors of life and work in Australia. It is important to note here that the Institute will neither replace or displace what is already working well. The task will be to ‘amplify’ existing efforts. And where there is a gap, the Institute will stimulate the development of missing or broken ethical infrastructure.

Above all, such an Institute needs to be independent. That is why we are seeking to replicate the funding model that led to the establishment of the Grattan Institute – by establishing a capital base with a mixture of funds from the private sector and a one-off grant of $33.3 million from the Federal Government.

The economic case for making such an investment is undeniable. The research shows that better ethics will support higher wages and improved performance for companies. Better ethics also helps to alleviate cost of living pressures by challenging predatory pricing practices – and other conduct that is not controlled in a market dominated by oligopolies and consumers who find it hard to ‘shop around’.

But what most excites The Ethics Centre, and our founding partners at the University of NSW and the University of Sydney, is the chance for Australia to realise its potential to become one of the most just and prosperous democracies that the world has ever known. With our natural resources, vast reserves of clean energy and remarkable, diverse population – we have everything to gain … and nothing to lose by aspiring to be just a little bit better tomorrow than we have been today.

And that is why something truly remarkable has happened. ACOSS, the ACTU, BCA and AICD have all come together in a rare moment of accord. Support is growing across the Federal Parliament. Australians from all walks of life – are adding their names in support of an idea whose time has come.

All we need now is our national government to make an investment in a better Australia.


Pledge your support for an Australian Institute of Applied Ethics. Sign your name at:

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Read me once, shame on you: 10 books, films and podcasts about shame

Shame is something we have all experienced at some point. Of all the moral emotions, it can be the most destructive to a healthy sense of self. But do we ever deserve to feel it?

In order to unpack it’s complexities, we’ve compiled 10 books, films, series and podcasts which tackle the ethics of shame.

Jon Ronson – Shame Culture, Festival of Dangerous Ideas

Welsh journalist, Jon Ronson in his FODI 2015 talk examines the emergence of public shaming as an internet phenomenon, and how we can combat this culture. Based on his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson highlights several individuals behind high profile shaming, who after careless actions have been subject to a relentless lynch mob.

Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee

Fictional novel by South African author, J.M. Coetzee tells the story of a middle-aged Cape Town professor’s fall from grace following his forced resignation from a university after pursuing an inappropriate affair. The professor struggles to come to terms with his own behaviour, sense of self as well as his relationships around him.

The Whale 

American film directed by Darren Aronofsky where a reclusive and unhealthy English teacher, hides out in his flat and eats his way to death. He is desperate to reconnect with his teenage daughter for a last chance at redemption.

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini  

Fictional novel by Afghan-American author, Khaled Hosseini which tells the story of Amir, a young boy from the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul, and how shame can be a destructive force in an individual’s life.

World Without Rape, Festival of Dangerous Ideas

This panel discussion with Joanna Bourke, Jess Hill, Saxon Mullins, Bronwyn Penrith and Sisonke Msimang from FODI 2022 examines rape and its use in war, the home and society as an enduring part of history and modern life. The panel examines the role of shame from both a victim’s and perpetrator’s point of view and whether it is key to tackling the issue.


Muriel’s Wedding 

The Australian beloved classic from P.J. Hogan portrays a young social outcast who embezzles money and attempts to fake a new life for herself.

The List – Yomi Adegoke 

British fictional novel by Yomi Adegoke about a high-profile female journalist’s world that is upended when her fiancé’s name turns up in a viral social media post. The story is a timely exploration of the real-world impact of online life.



British psychological drama directed by Steve McQueen, exploring the uncompromising nature of sex addiction.


Reputation Rehab

Australian documentary series that believes we shouldn’t be consigned to a cultural scrapheap, and that most people are more than a punchline and deserve a second chance. Hosted by Zoe Norton Lodge and Kirsten Drysdale, guests include Nick Kyrigos, Abbie Chatfield and Osher Gunsberg.


It’s a Sin 

British TV series depicting the lives of a group of gay men and their friends during the 1980-1990s HIV/AIDS crisis in the UK. The series unpacks the mechanics of shame and how it was built into queer lives, potentially affecting their own behaviour. 


For a deeper dive, join us for The Ethics of Shame on Wednesday 27 March, 2024 at 6:30pm. Tickets available here.

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Losing the thread: How social media shapes us

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

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

Some people weren’t sure how to act. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapting is something we all do to various degrees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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AI might pose a risk to humanity, but it could also transform it

It’s no secret that the world’s largest and most powerful tech companies, including Google, Amazon, Meta and OpenAI, have a single-minded focus on creating Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). Yet we currently know as little about what AGI might look like as we do about the risks that it might pose to humanity.

It is essential that debates around existential risk proceed with an urgency that tries to match or eclipse the speed of developments in the technology (and that is a tall order). However, we cannot afford to ignore other questions – such as the economic and political implications of AI and robotics for the world of work.

We have seen a glimmer of what is to come in the recent actors’ industrial action in Hollywood. While their ‘log of claims’ touched on a broad range of issues, a central concern related to the use of Generative AI. Part of that central concern focused on the need to receive equitable remuneration for the ongoing use of digital representations of real, analogue (flesh and blood) people. Yet, their deepest fear is that human actors will become entirely redundant – replaced by realistic avatars so well-crafted as to be indistinguishable from a living person.

Examples such as this easily polarise opinion about the general trajectory of change. At one end of the spectrum are the optimists who believe that technological innovation always leads to an overall increase in employment opportunities (just different ones). At the other end are the pessimists who think that, this time, the power of the technology is so great as to displace millions of people from paid employment.

I think that the consequences will be far more profound than the optimists believe. Driven by the inexorable logic of capitalism, I cannot conceive of any business choosing to forgo the efficiency gains that will be available to those who deploy machines instead of employing humans. When the cost of labour exceeds the cost of capital the lower cost option will always win in a competitive environment.

For the most part, past technical innovation has tended to displace the jobs of the working class – labourers, artisans, etc. This time around, the middle class will bear at least as much of the burden. Even if the optimists are correct, the ‘friction’ associated with change will be an abrasive social and political factor. And as any student of history knows, few political environments are more explosive than when the middle class is angry and resentful. And that is just part of the story. What happens to Australia’s tax base when our traditional reliance on taxing labour yields decreasing dividends? How will we fund the provision of essential government services? Will there be a move to taxing the means of production (automated systems), an increase in corporate taxes, a broadening of the consumption tax? Will any of this be possible when so many members of the community are feeling vulnerable? Will Australia introduce a Universal Basic Income – funded by a large chunk of the economic and financial dividends driven by automation?

None of this is far-fetched. Advanced technologies could lead to a resurgence of manufacturing in Australia – where our natural advantages in access to raw materials, cheap renewable energy and proximity to major population areas could see this nation become one of the most prosperous the world has ever known.

Can we imagine such a future in which the economy is driven by the most efficient deployment of capital and machines – rather than by productive humans? Can we imagine a society in which our meaning and worth is not related to having a job?

I do not mean to suggest that there will be a decline in the opportunity to spend time undertaking meaningful work. One can work without having ‘a job’; without being an employee. For as long as we value objects and experiences that bear the mark of a human maker, there will be opportunities to create such things (we already see the popularity of artisanal baking, brewing, distilling, etc.). There is likely to be a premium placed on those who care for others – bringing a uniquely human touch to the provision of such services. But it is also possible that much of this work will be unpaid or supported through barter of locally grown and made products (such as food, art, etc.).

Can we imagine such a society? Well, perhaps we do not need to. Societies of this kind have existed in the past. The Indigenous peoples of Australia did not have ‘jobs’, yet they lived rich and meaningful lives without being employed by anyone. The citizens of Ancient Athens experienced deep satisfaction in the quality of their civic engagement – freed to take on this work due to the labour of others bound by the pernicious bonds of slavery. Replace enslaved people with machines and might we then aspire to create a society just as extraordinary in its achievements?

We assume that our current estimation of what makes for ‘a good life’ cannot be surpassed. But what if we are stuck with a model that owes more to the demands of the industrial revolution than to any conception of what human flourishing might encompass?

Yes, we should worry about the existential threat that might be presented by AI. However, worrying about what might destroy us is only part of the story. The other part concerns what kind of new society we might need to build. This second part of the story is missing. It cannot be found anywhere in our political discourse. It cannot be found in the media. It cannot be found anywhere. The time has come to awaken our imaginations and for our leaders to draw us into a conversation about whom we might become.


Want to increase our ethical capacity to face the challenges of tomorrow? Pledge your support for an Australian Institute of Applied Ethics. Sign your name here.

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'The Zone of Interest' and the lengths we'll go to ignore evil

The Zone of Interest is not really a Holocaust film. At least not in the traditional sense.

Unlike Schindler’s List, there are no scenes set in a concentration camp – no footage of gas chambers, or slaughter. And unlike The Pianist, the focus is not on suffering victims. Indeed, the victims are entirely offscreen, only present as a sort of ambient, sometimes audible, force. Our cast of characters here are a German family, living an ordinary life – or as ordinary as a life can be, when the patriarch, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) is the commandant of Auschwitz, which lies just over the family’s garden wall.  

The film features no literal violence whatsoever. Occasionally, we glimpse smoke from Auschwitz’s chimneys, cutting through the air; tiny touches, and the only clues that we are literally next door to the camp.  

Instead, the genre that The Zone of Interest falls into – and cunningly undermines – is the domestic drama. Strip the Holocaust context out of the film, and you have a fairly humdrum story of a man trying to keep his family and his career together; working to raise his children, and rise up the ranks of his job. Insert that context back in, and the humdrum becomes terrifying.  

Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller), The Zone of Interest, A24

The result is a film that tackles the question, “How did the Holocaust happen?”. It is interested in the mechanics of the slaughter – how it was enacted, and by whom. The answer lies in Höss. He has, it seems, emptied his work of all emotional context. It’s just a job to him. There are only very rare points where we see him express something like remorse – and even then, such outbursts feel uncontrolled; unconscious. In that way, The Zone of Interest has much to tell us not just about the Holocaust, but about moral responsibility, and the lengths people can go to avoid it. 

Empathy and obligation

Höss has become so inured to his work – so horrifyingly, disturbingly used to it – that he acts like it has no moral quality at all. He seems to have no feelings, no empathy, and more than that, no knowledge that he even should have empathy.  

This dispassionate quality is a common basis of those who avoid moral responsibility. When we do not emotionally feel the pain of others, through empathy, we will not have any motivation to avoid inflicting that pain. This is the heart of moral sentimentalism. If we are emotionally blind to suffering – even if we are aware that it is happening – we will not be compelled to act to stop it. Simply put, without emotions and empathy, our moral obligations lose their force. 

Indeed, Höss’s lack of moral emotions makes him the successful endpoint of the Nazi propaganda machine. This machine worked hard to try and target the emotions of Nazi guards, and in the process neuter natural sympathetic responses. Most notably, Nazi propaganda dehumanised the Jewish population, painting Jews as fundamentally different from human beings. The comics writer Art Spiegelman attributes the following quote to Hitler, which sums up the position: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” 

In this way, Nazi propaganda worked on “perceived similarity.” See, psychological studies suggest that empathy fires when we witness something that feels similar to our own experiences. We have to recognise the pain of others as meaningfully like our own in order to be sympathetic to it. This is why we don’t like seeing animals like dogs in pain – we anthropomorphise them, and see their suffering as “human”. It is also while most of us will not flinch at the torment of a bug. We think of dogs as like us, and bugs as not. The outward signs of a daddy longlegs in distress seem alien enough to us – different enough from our own – that our natural empathy is not triggered. 

For Nazis like Höss, Jewish people were perceived as so alien – so dissimilar from other human beings – that the suffering of Jewish people came with no associated moral obligation. This is what we see in The Zone of Interest. Höss knows he is sending Jewish people to their deaths – how could he not? It is happening right next door – but he feels nothing about this murder. Höss is not maintaining a literal distance from the horror he is enacting, but he is maintaining an emotional distance, and this is what allows him to do what he does. 

Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), The Zone of Interest, A24

A reminder of what we share

This focus on emotional distance is what makes The Zone of Interest so timely – what expands its reach beyond the Holocaust.

We are all occasionally guilty of seeing those who suffer as being “different from us”; their pain as alien, or foreign. Those in warzones; refugees; victims of famine in the Third World – we can all see these people as being divorced from our regular life, emotionally different from us, and as a result, we can unconsciously discharge our obligation to them.

The antidote to this disaffection – to the emotional coolness that can stop us from helping when we need to – is reminding ourselves of what we share with others. It is about tapping into our essential humanity. The philosopher David Hume put this essential humanity simply – he believed as human beings, we all have an aversion to pain, and an attraction to pleasure. If we remember that, and keep in mind that all human beings want to live pain-free lives, then we will see the suffering of others as a great transgression, and will work harder to help when we can.  

Indeed, this is the strange optimism buried at the heart of The Zone of Interest. The film suggests, very subtly, that we have a natural connection to those around us; that this shared wellspring of humanity can never be entirely vanquished.  

Even Höss, who has worked so hard to completely distance himself from the suffering he is directly inflicting, is unable to escape his natural sense of empathy – in a key moment of the film, he has a kind of physical breakdown, suddenly overcome by all that he has tried not to see. There, in that scene, is buried a form of hope: even against all odds, sometimes, human connection survives. Because human feeling survives. And that is where our moral responsibility lives. 

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Why sometimes the right thing to do is nothing at all

How a 1990s science-fiction show reminds us that just because we can do something, it doesn’t always mean we should.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard commands the USS Enterprise-D, a 600-metre-long starship that runs on antimatter, giving it virtually unlimited energy, and wielding weapons of devastating power.  

In its journeys across the stars, depicted in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew of the Enterprise-D is often forced to draw on all its resources to overcome tremendous challenges. But that’s not what the show is really about.  

Star Trek: The Next Generation

If there’s one theme that pervades this iteration of Star Trek, it’s not how Picard and his crew use their prodigious power to get their way, it’s how their actions are more often defined by what they choose not to do. Countless times across the 176 episodes of the show, they’re faced with an opportunity to exert their power in a way that benefits them or their allies, but they choose to forgo that opportunity for principled reasons. Star Trek: The Next Generation is a rare and vivid depiction of the principle of ethical restraint.  

Consider the episode, ‘Measure of a Man’, which sees Picard defy his superiors’ order to dismantle his unique – and uniquely powerful – android second officer, Data. Picard argues that Data deserves full personhood, despite his being a machine. This is even though dismantling Data could lead to the production of countless more androids, dramatically amplifying the power of the Federation.  

Data, Star Trek: The Next Generation

One of the paradigmatic features of The Next Generation is its principle called the Prime Directive, which forbids the Federation from interfering with the cultural development of other planets. While the Prime Directive is often used as a plot device to introduce complications and moral quandaries – and is frequently bent or broken – its very existence speaks to the importance of ethical restraint. Instead of assuming the Federation’s wisdom and technology are fit for all, or using its influence to curry favour or extract resources from other worlds, it refuses to be the arbiter of what is right across the galaxy.  

This is an even deeper form of ethical restraint that speaks to the liberalism of Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator. The Federation not only guides its hand according to its own principles, but it also refuses to impose its principles on other societies, sometimes holding back from doing what it thinks is right out of respect for difference.  

The 1990s was another world

There’s a reason that restraint emerged as a theme of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was the product of 1990s America, which turned out to be a unique moment in that country’s history. The United States was a nation at the zenith of its power in a world that was newly unipolar since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

It was an optimistic time, one that looked forward to an increasingly interconnected globalised world, where cultures could intermix in the “global village,” with its peace guarded by a benevolent superpower and its liberal vision. At least, that was the narrative cultivated within the US. 

In a time where the US was unchallenged, moral imagination turned to what limits it ought to impose on itself. And Star Trek did what science fiction does best: it explored the moral themes of the day by putting them to the test in the fantasy of the future. 

Today’s world is different. It’s now multipolar, with the rise of China and belligerence of Russia coinciding with the erosion of America’s power, political integrity and moral authority. The global outlook is more pessimistic, with the shadow of climate change and the persistence of inequality causing many to give up hope for a better future. Meanwhile, globalisation and liberalism have retreated in the face of parochialism and authoritarianism. 

When we see the future as bleak and feel surrounded by threats, ethical restraint seems like a luxury we cannot afford. Instead, the moral question becomes about how far we can go in order to guard what is precious to us and to keep our heads above literally rising waters. 

The power not to act

Yet ethical restraint remains an important virtue. It’s time for us to bring it back into our ethical vocabulary.  

For a start, we can change the narrative that frames how we see the world. Sure, the world is not as it was in the 1990s, but it’s not as bleak as many of us might feel. We can be prone to focusing on the negatives and filling uncertainties with our greatest fears. But that can distort our sense of reality. Instead, we should focus on those domains where we actually have power, as do many people living in wealthy developed countries like Australia. 

And we should use our power to help lift others out of despair, so they’re not in a position where ethical restraint is too expensive a luxury. Material and social wealth ultimately make ethics more affordable.

Just as importantly, restraint needs to become part of the vocabulary of those in positions of power, whether that be in business, community or politics.

Leaders need to implicitly understand the crucial distinction between ought and can: just because they can do something, it doesn’t mean they should.

This is not just a matter of greater regulation. For a start, laws are written by those in power, so they need to exercise restraint in their creation. Secondly, regulation often sets a minimum floor of acceptable behaviour rather than setting bar for what the community really deserves. It also requires ethical literacy and conviction to act responsibly within the bounds of what is legally permitted, not just a tick from a compliance team.  

If you have power, whether you lead a starship, a business or a nation, then the greater the power you wield, the greater the responsibility to have to wield it ethically, and sometimes that means choosing not to wield it at all. 

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Lisa Frank and the ethics of copyright

Have you heard the song Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing by MACINTOSH PLUS? Even if you haven’t listened to it – you’ve probably heard it.

A buffering YouTube video, the visual glitches of a struggling graphics card, screen burn, unintelligible corrupted files – personified in vocals slowed to wordlessness, drums overlapping at conflicting time signatures and song structure only foundationally laid to be pulled out from underneath you – this is the spirit of Lisa Frank.

The YouTube upload of Lisa Frank has 23 million views. However, this upload is unofficial – there is no place you can purchase Lisa Frank, and uploading it anywhere on the internet is technically illegal. This is because Lisa Frank uses an unlicensed sample of It’s Your Move by Diana Ross. Any upload of the tracks is targeted with DMCA takedowns, or requests from the owners of the masters (record labels) that 100% of the revenue be diverted to them. 

This isn’t ethical. Although copyright conceptually is generally uncontested in mainstream society, in this essay I will make the radical assertion that it foundationally enables the worst tendencies of capitalist societies and limits artistic expression.  

There are two common angles in favour of copyright protection – 

     1. Copyright protects artistic intent and originality

This position argues that an artist has an inherent right to control their work. However, this is not the case and is only sensible when you individualise artworks to singular figures. Although useful in discussing commonalities between works, it is quickly outmoded in any other context. 

When an artist releases a work, is it necessarily theirs? Do they have the right to control and change the work’s context and reaction? 

The original version of Star Wars has been altered over years of reduxes and remasters and is no longer available to legally buy or stream – which is ostensibly an obscuration of the original film’s groundbreaking advancements that make it important to film history. 

The changes to the film were essentially Lucas’s testing ground for his new special effects technology – although he insists on his changes simply because they are his, never mind the fact that the film is only special because of the audience’s appreciation of it, and it has no value independent of that appreciation. 

Also, said appreciation it is not due to some quality inherent to the director, but rather due to the collaborative effort of hundreds of individuals: cinematographers, actors, set and costume designers, editors, VFX artists, folie / sound design artists and composers – don’t they all deserve some degree of control over these alterations? 

Further, this mindset fails to take into account the transformative nature of art. Going back to our Lisa Frank example – the song is unrecognisable from the original sample, very clearly showing original thought, execution, and effort exerted in transforming the song into its own entity. Lisa Frank is far and away different from Diana Ross’s original recording, and yet according to copyright law, it is wholly the sum of its parts and thus at their behest.

There is no denying that plagiarism is a real phenomenon, but in copyright law it is conflated with what is merely derivative, leaving no room for nuance.

This flies in the face of the very nature of art – to eternally question and transform the structures around it (including other pieces). This suppression is very directly bad for art and artists. 

Let’s examine the next common justification for copyright.  

     2. Copyright ensures that artists are correctly monetarily compensated. 

This claim is partially true – monetarily compensated, yes. Correctly, no. The royalties/residuals system copyright operates on creates vast injustices in the compensation of artists.   

Actors such as Emma Myles received residual checks as low as $20 for a role on Orange is the New Black – an immensely successful show that essentially made Netflix popular. Her work is managed by the conglomerate, and they control her earnings – and they can give her as little as they like. 

Did you know that Diana Ross, the singer of the original recording of It’s Your Move, doesn’t actually own the masters to her recordings? She receives similar residuals, and granted, they’re probably much more than Emma Myles’. However, she is not actually in control of who uses her music – that right is reserved by Sony Music Entertainment. Diana Ross – at 79 years of age – likely doesn’t use the internet extensively enough to know anything about Lisa Frank or how her music has been used. 

Obviously, these corporations don’t have a complete monopoly – another artist famous for not owning her masters, Taylor Swift, got hers back through a few legal battles and a lengthy re-recording process. However, she is uniquely privileged in this situation being a literal billionaire with essentially infinite legal power. Many other artists, even with a very clear cut case, don’t have the resources to fight back for control of their work. 

This is because copyright, as a product of a capitalist system, is merely a symptom of the unjust society that produced it, inherently advantaging those with accumulated wealth.

In many ways its illegal status is an integral part of Lisa Frank. She is an internet vampire, signalling the decaying underbelly of our world, she beckons us away — it’s her move now… 


Lisa Frank and the ethics of copyright‘ by Kieran Cashin is the winning essay in our Young Writers’ Competition (13-18 age category). Find out more about the competition here.

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On truth, controversy and the profession of journalism

The recent dispute between Antoinette Lattouf and the ABC has brought into focus the need to address some fundamental questions about the role of journalism, in general, and professional journalists, in particular.

In my opinion, journalism is (or at least should be) practiced as a profession. This is not to ignore the fact that journalists work within an intensely commercial environment. But so do those lawyers, accountants, engineers, doctors and others who are employed by the private sector. For members of these professions, the fact that they work for, say, ‘industry’ in no way reduces the scope or depth of their professional obligations.

What marks out a profession is first, that its members are obliged to subordinate self-interest in the service of a public good. For example, as Officers of the Court, lawyers are bound by a paramount duty to assist in the administration of justice. This obligation comes before any duty to the client, to the profession or to oneself. Second, each profession exists in relation to its own ‘defining good’. Doctors and nurses work to secure the public good of ‘health’. Members of the profession of arms are supposed to secure the defining good of ‘peace’. Engineers aim for safety, etc. Two professions are oriented towards the good of ‘truth’ – accounting and journalism.

In both cases, the value of ‘truth’ is not in any sense vague or abstract. The preparation of accounts that are ‘true and fair’ is essential to the operation of free markets in which participants make informed decisions. As Adam Smith understood so well, markets can never be ‘free’ if participants lie, cheat, or use power oppressively. Yet, Smith also knew that merchants were always liable to employ such tactics in pursuit of self-interest. Thus, the need for the profession of accounting – made up of people who freely choose to abandon the pursuit of self-interest in service of the public interest and a higher ‘good’.

The role that accountants play in markets is mirrored by the role that journalists play in politics – and especially in democracies. The legitimacy of liberal democracies rests entirely on the consent of the governed. The only consent that counts is that which is free, prior and informed. And consent can never be informed if it is based on lies. That is why those politicians who resort to falsehood in the pursuit of power do so much damage to our democracy.

Unfortunately, just as some merchants can be relied upon to resort to deception in the pursuit of profits, so can some politicians be relied upon to do the same in the pursuit of victory. Professional journalists are supposed to help protect society from that risk – which is why they are so often lauded as the ‘fourth estate’.

I realise that there are some people who claim the title of ‘journalist’ while playing their own part in publishing or broadcasting falsehood, or who lack the ‘disinterested gaze’ that should be demanded of members of this profession. Yet, the fact that some (or even many) fail to uphold professional standards does not mean that the standard is either wrong or pointless.

Now, one might hope that those in charge of the ABC would champion the ideal of professional journalism as outlined above. If so, then you might also hope that they understood what is entailed by commitment to such an ideal. Finally, one might hope that the ABC would have discerned that a core commitment to the truth is fundamentally incompatible with the avoidance of controversy. Put simply, the truth is often controversial – especially when it challenges conventional belief or confronts power (which can reside in ‘settled’ ideas and prejudice as much as in the hands of individuals and institutions).

The truth is often controversial – especially when it challenges conventional belief or confronts power.

That is where I think the ABC ran off the rails. The moment it elevated the ‘avoidance of controversy’ as an end in itself, it set a standard that it is simply impossible for any professional journalist to uphold.

The noted German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, argued that “ought implies can”. That is, one is not morally obliged to do that which is impossible. This clearly applies in cases of actual impossibility (e.g. flying to Mars on the back of a bandicoot). However, I think the maxim also extends to cases where something is ‘impossible’ to do without violating the dictates of a well-informed (and well-formed) conscience. It is in this sense that professional journalists are placed in an impossible position if required to seek and publish the truth without ever courting controversy.

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