Ethics Explainer: Cancel Culture

When mass outrage is weaponised and encouraged, it can become more of a threat to the powerless than to those it’s intended to hold to account. 

In 2017, comedian Louis C.K. was accused of several instances of sexual misconduct, to which he later admitted in full. This was followed by a few cancelled movies, shows and appearances before he stepped away from public life for a few years.  

In 2022, lecturer Ilya Shapiro was put on leave following a tweet he posted a few days before he was employed. Shapiro contended that the university failed in its commitment to free expression by investigating his actions for four months, before reinstating him under the reason that he was not accountable to the university for actions taken before his employment started. 

These are both instances of what some people would call “cancel culture”, yet they involve very different issues. To unpack them, we first need to define what we mean by cancel culture.  

From around 2015 onwards, the term started gaining mainstream traction, eventually being named Word of the Year by Macquarie Dictionary in 2019:  

“The attitudes within a community which call for or bring about the withdrawal of support from a public figure, such as cancellation of an acting role, a ban on playing an artist’s music, removal from social media, etc., usually in response to an accusation of a socially unacceptable action or comment by the figure.”

The quintessential examples of cancel culture are calls from groups of people online for various public figures to be stripped of support, their work boycotted, or their positions removed following perceived moral transgressions. These transgressions can be anything from a rogue tweet to sexual assault allegations, but the common theme is that they are deemed to be harmful and warrant some kind of reaction. 

A notoriously contentious concept, cancel culture is defined, or at least perceived, differently based on the social, cultural and political influences of whom you ask. Though its roots are in social justice, some believe that it lacks the nuance needed to meet the ends it claims to serve, and it has been politicised to such an extent that it has become almost meaningless. 

Defenders of accountability

The ethical dimensions of this phenomenon become clear when we look at the various ways that cancel culture is understood and perceived by different groups of people. Where some people see accountability, others see punishment. 

Defenders of cancel culture, or even those who argue that it doesn’t exist, say that what this culture really promotes is accountability. While there are examples of celebrities being shamed for what might be conceived as a simple faux pas, they say that the intent of most people who engage in this action is for powerful to be held accountable for words and actions that are deemed seriously harmful.  

This usually involves calls to boycott, like the ongoing attempts to boycott J.K. Rowling’s books, movies and derivative games and shows because of her vocal criticism of transgender politics since 2019, or like the many attempts to discourage people from supporting various comedians because of issues ranging from discriminatory sets to sexual misconduct and harassment. 

Those who view cancel culture practices as modes of justice feel that these are legitimate responses to wrongdoings that help to hold people with power accountable and discourage further abuses of power. 

In the case of Louis C.K., it was widely viewed that his sexual misconduct warranted his shunning and removal from upcoming media productions.  

Public figures are not owed unconditional support.

While it’s not clear that this kind of boycotting does anything significant to remove any power from these people (they all usually go on to profit even further from the controversy), it’s difficult to argue that this sort of action is unethical. Public figures are in their positions because of the support of the public and it could be considered a violation of the autonomy we expect as human beings to say that people should not be allowed to withdraw that support when they choose. 

Where this gets sticky, even for supporters of cancel culture, is when people with relatively little power become the targets of mass social pressure. This can lead to employers distancing themselves from the person, sometimes ending in job loss, to protect the organisation’s reputation. This is disproportionately harmful for disadvantaged people who don’t have the power or resources to ignore, fight, or capitalise on the attention.  

This is an even further problem when we consider how it can cause a sense of fear to creep into our everyday relationships. While people in power might be able to shrug off or shield themselves from mass criticism, it’s more difficult for the average person to ignore the effects of closed or uncharitable social climates.  

When people perceive a threat of being ostracised by friends, family or strangers because of one wrong step they begin to censor themselves, which leads to insular bubbles of thoughts and ideas and resistance to learning through discussion. 

Whether this is a significant active concern is still unclear, though there is some evidence that it is an increasing phenomenon.  

Defenders of free speech

Given this, it’s no surprise that the prevailing opposition to cancel culture is framed as a free speech and censorship issue, viewed by detractors as an affront to liberty, constructive debate, social and even scientific progress

Combined with this is a contention that cancelling someone is often a disproportionate punishment and therefore unjust – with people sometimes arguing that punishment wasn’t warranted at all. As we saw earlier, this is particularly a problem when the punishments are directed at disadvantaged, non-public figures, though this position often overstates the effect the punishments have on celebrities and others in significant power. 

A problem with the claim that cancel culture is inherently anti-free speech is that, especially when applied to celebrities, it relies on a misconception that a right to free speech entails a right to speak uncontested or entitlement to be platformed.  

In fact, similar to boycotting people we disagree with, publicly voicing concerns with the intention of putting pressure on public figures is an exercise in free speech itself. 

Accountable free speech

An important way forward for both sides of issue is the recognition that while free speech is important, the limits of it are equally so.  

One way we can do this is by emphasising the difference between bad faith and good faith discussion. As philosopher Dr Tim Dean has said, not all speech can or should be treated equally. Sometimes it is logical and ethical to be intolerant of intolerance, especially the types of intolerance that use obfuscating and bad faith rhetoric, to ensure that free speech maintains the power to seek truth. 

Focusing on whether a discussion is being had in bad faith or good faith can differentiate public and private discourse in a way that protects the much-needed charitability of conversations between friends and acquaintances. 

While this raises questions, like whether public figures should be held to a higher standard, it does seem intuitive and ethical to at least assume the best of our friends and family when having a discussion. We are in the best place to be charitable with our interpretations of their opinions by virtue of our relationships with them, so if we can’t hold space for understanding, respectful disagreement and learning, then who can? 

Another method for easing the pressures that public censures can have on private discourse is by providing and practicing clear ways to publicly forgive. This provides a blueprint for people to understand that while there will be consequences for consistent or shameless moral transgressions, there is also room for mistakes and learning. 


For a deeper dive on Cancel Culture, David Baddiel, Roxane Gay, Andy Mills, Megan Phelps-Roper and Tim Dean present Uncancelled Culture as part of Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2024. Tickets on sale now. 

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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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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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Ethics Explainer: Moral hazards

When individuals are able to avoid bearing the costs of their decisions, they can be inclined towards more risky and unethical behaviour.

Sailing across the open sea in a tall ship laden with trade goods is a risky business. All manner of misfortune can strike, from foul weather to uncharted shoals to piracy. Shipping businesses in the 19th century knew this only too well, so when the budding insurance industry started offering their services to underwrite the ships and cargo, and cover the costs should they experience misadventure, they jumped at the opportunity. 

But the insurance companies started to notice something peculiar: insured ships were more likely to meet with misfortune than ships that were uninsured. And it didn’t seem to be mere coincidence. Instead, it turned out that shipping companies covered by insurance tended to invest less in safety and were more inclined to make risky decisions, such as sailing into more dangerous waters to save time. After all, they had the safety net of insurance to bail them out should anything go awry. 

Naturally, the insurance companies were not impressed, and they soon coined a term for this phenomenon: “moral hazard”.  

Risky business

Moral hazard is usually defined as the propensity for the insured to take greater risks than they might otherwise take. So the owners of a building insured against fire damage might be less inclined to spend money on smoke alarms and extinguishers. Or an individual who insures their car against theft might be less inclined to invest in a more reliable car alarm. 

But it’s a concept that has applications beyond just insurance. 

Consider the banks that were bailed out following the 2008 collapse of the subprime mortgage market in the United States. Many were considered “too big to fail”, and it seems they knew it. Their belief that the government would bail them out rather than let them collapse gave the banks’ executives a greater incentive to take riskier bets. And when those bets didn’t pay off, it was the public that had to foot much of the bill for their reckless behaviour. 

There is also evidence that the existence of government emergency disaster relief, which helps cover the costs of things like floods or bushfires, might encourage people to build their homes in more risky locations, such as in overgrown bushland or coastal areas prone to cyclone or flood. 

What makes moral hazards “moral” is that they allow people to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. If they had to bear the full cost of their actions, then they would be more likely to act with greater caution. Things like insurance, disaster relief and bank bailouts all serve to shift the costs of a risky decision from the shoulders of the decision-maker onto others – sometimes placing the burden of that individual’s decision on the wider public.  

Perverse incentives

While the term “moral hazard” is typically restricted examples involving insurance, there is a general principle that applies across many domains of life. If we put people into a situation where they are able to offload the costs of their decisions onto others, then they are more inclined to entertain risks that they would otherwise avoid or engage in unethical behaviour. 

Like the salesperson working for a business they know will be closing in the near future might be more inclined to sell an inferior or faulty product to a customer, knowing that they won’t have to worry about dealing with warranty claims.  

This means there’s a double edge to moral hazards. One is born by the individual who has to resist the opportunity to shirk their personal responsibility. The other is born by those who create the circumstances that create the moral hazard in the first place. 

Consider a business that has a policy saying the last security guard to check whether the back door is locked is held responsible if there is a theft. That might give security guards an incentive to not check the back door as often, thus decreasing the chance that they are the last one to check it, but increasing the chance of theft. 

Insurance companies, governments and other decision-makers need to ensure that the policies and systems they put in place don’t create perverse incentives that steer people towards reckless or unethical behaviour. And if they are unable to eliminate moral hazards, they need to put in place other policies that provide oversight and accountability for decision making, and punish those who act unethically. 

Few systems or processes will be perfect, and we always require individuals to exercise their ethical judgement when acting within them. But the more we can avoid creating the conditions for moral hazards, the less incentives we’ll create for people to act unethically. 

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Ethics Explainer: Altruism

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

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

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

Crucially, motivation is what is key in altruism.  

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

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

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

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

How much is enough? 

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

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

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

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

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

Effective Altruism 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ethics explainer: Cultural Pluralism

Imagine a large, cosmopolitan city, where people from uncountable backgrounds and with numerous beliefs all thrive together. People embrace different cultural traditions, speak varying languages, enjoy countless cuisines, and educate their children on diverse histories and practices.

This is the kind of pluralism that most people are familiar with, but a diverse and culturally integrated area like this is specifically an example of cultural pluralism.

Pluralism in a general sense says there can be multiple perspectives or truths that exist simultaneously, even if some of those perspectives are contradictory. It’s contrasted with monism, which says only one kind of thing exists; dualism, which says there are only two kinds of things (for example, mind and body); and nihilism, which says that no things exist.

So, while pluralism more broadly refers to a diversity of views, perspectives or truths, cultural pluralism refers specifically to a diversity of cultures that co-exist – ideally harmoniously and constructively – while maintaining their unique cultural identities.

Sometimes an entire country can be considered culturally pluralistic, and in other places there may be culturally pluralistic hubs (like states or suburbs where there is a thriving multicultural community within a larger more broadly homogenous area).

On the other end of the spectrum is cultural monism, the idea that a certain area or population should have only one culture. Culturally monistic places (for example, Japan or North Korea) rely on an implicit or explicit pressure for others to assimilate. Whereas assimilation involves the homogenisation of culture, pluralism encourages diversity, often embracing people of different ethnic groups, backgrounds, religions, practices and beliefs to come together and share in their differences.

A pluralistic society is more welcoming and supportive of minority cultures because people don’t feel pressured to hide or change their identities. Instead, diverse experiences are recognised as opportunities for learning and celebration. This invites travel and immigration, and translates into better mental health for migrants, the promotion of harmony and acceptance of others, and enhances creativity by exposing people to perspectives and experiences outside of their usual remit.

We also know what the alternative is in many cases. Australia has a dark history of assimilation practices, a symptom of racist, colonial perspectives that saw the decimation of First Nations people and their cultures. Cultural pluralism is one response to this sort of cultural domination that has been damaging throughout history and remains so in many places today.

However, there are plenty of ethical complications that arise in the pursuit of cultural plurality.

For example, sociologist Robert D. Putnam published research in 2007 that spoke about negative short-medium term effects of ethnically diverse neighbourhoods. He found that, on average, trust, altruism and community cooperation was lower in these neighbourhoods, even between those of the same or similar ethnicities.

While Putnam denied that his findings were anti-multicultural, and argues that there are several positive long-term effects of diverse societies, the research does indicate some of the risks associated with cultural pluralism. It can take a large amount of effort and social infrastructure to build and maintain diverse communities, and if this fails or is done poorly it can cause fragmentation of cultural communities.

This also accords with an argument made by journalist David Goodhart, that says people are generally divided into “Anywheres” (people with a mobile identity) and “Somewheres” (people, usually outside of urban areas, who have marginalised, long-term, location-based identities). This incongruity, he says, accounts for things like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, because they speak to the Somewheres who are threatened by changes to their status quo. Pluralism, Goodhart notes, risks overlooking the discomfort these communities face if they are not properly supported and informed.

Other issues with pluralism include the prioritisation of competing cultural values and traditions. What if one person’s culture is fundamentally intolerant of another person’s culture? This is something we see especially with cultures organised around or heavily influenced by religion. For example, Christianity and Islam are often at odds with many different cultures around issues of sexual preference and gendered rights and responsibilities.

If we are to imagine a truly culturally pluralistic society, how do we ethically integrate people who are intolerant of others?

Pluralism as a cultural ideal also has direct implications for things like politics and law, raising the age-old question about the relationship between morality and the law. If we want a pluralistic society generally, how do the variations in beliefs, values and principles translate into law? Is it better to have a centralised legal system or do we want a legal plurality that reflects the diversity of the area?

This does already exist in some capacity – many countries have Islamic courts that enforce Sharia law for their communities in addition to the overarching governmental law. This parallel law-enforcement also exists in some colonised countries, where parts of Indigenous law have been recognised. For example, in Australia, with the Mabo decision.

Another feature of genuine cultural pluralism that has huge ethical implications and considerations is diversity of media. This is the idea that there should be (that is, a media system that is not monopolised) and diverse representation in media (that is, media that presents varying perspectives and analyses).

Firstly, this ensures that media, especially news media, stays accountable through comparison and competition, rather than a select powerful few being able to widely disseminate their opinions unchecked. Secondly, it fosters a greater sense of understanding and acceptance by exposing people to perspectives, experiences and opinions that they might otherwise be ignorant or reflexively wary of. Thirdly, as a result, it reduces the risk that media, as a powerful disseminator of culture, could end up creating or reinforcing a monoculture.

While cultural pluralism is often seen as an obviously good thing in western liberal societies, it isn’t without substantial challenges. In the pursuit of tolerance, acceptance and harmony, we must be wary of fragmenting cultures and ensure that diverse communities have adequate social supports to thrive.

Ethics explainer: Normativity

Have you ever spoken to someone and realised that they’re standing a little too close for comfort?

Personal space isn’t something we tend to actively think about; it’s usually an invisible and subconscious expectation or preference. However, when someone violates our expectations, they suddenly become very clear. If someone stands too close to you while talking, you might become uncomfortable or irritated. If a stranger sits right next to you in a public place when there are plenty of other seats, you might feel annoyed or confused.

That’s because personal space is an example of a norm. Norms are communal expectations that are taken up by various populations, usually serving shared values or principles, that direct us towards certain behaviours. For example, the norm of personal space is an expectation that looks different depending on where you are.

In some countries, the norm is to keep distance when talking to strangers, but very close when talking to close friends, family or partners. In other countries, everyone can be relatively close, and in others still, not even close relationships should invade your personal space. This is an example of a norm that we follow subconsciously.

We don’t tend to notice what our expectation even is until someone breaks it, at which point we might think they’re disrespecting personal or social boundaries.

Norms are an embodiment of a phenomenon called normativity, which refers to the tendency of humans and societies to regulate or evaluate human conduct. Normativity pervades our daily lives, influencing our decisions, behaviors, and societal structures. It encompasses a range of principles, standards, and values that guide human actions and shape our understanding of what’s considered right or wrong, good or bad.

Norms can be explicit or implicit, originating from various sources like cultural traditions, social institutions, religious beliefs, or philosophical frameworks. Often norms are implicit because they are unspoken expectations that people absorb as they experience the world around them.

Take, for example, the norms of handshakes, kisses, hugs, bows, and other forms of greeting. Depending on your country, time period, culture, age, and many other factors, some of these will be more common and expected than others. Regardless, though, each of them has a or function like showing respect, affection or familiarity.

While these might seem like trivial examples, norms have historically played a large role in more significant things, like oppression. Norms are effectively social pressures, so conformity is important to their effect – especially in places or times where the flouting of norms results in some kind of public or social rebuke.

So, norms can sometimes be to the detriment of people who don’t feel their preferences or values reflected in them, especially when conformity itself is a norm. One of the major changes in western liberal society has been the loosening of norms – the ability for people to live more authentically themselves.

Normative Ethics

Normativity is also an important aspect of ethical philosophy. Normative ethics is the philosophical inquiry into the nature of moral judgments and the principles that should govern human actions. It seeks to answer fundamental questions like “What should I do?”, “How should I live? and “Which norms should I follow?”. Normative ethical theories provide frameworks for evaluating the morality of specific actions or ethical dilemmas.

Some normative ethical theories include:

  • Consequentialism, which says we should determine moral valued based on the consequences of actions.
  • Deontology, which says we should determine moral value by looking at someone’s coherence with consistent duties or obligations.
  • Virtue ethics, which focuses on alignment with various virtues (like honesty, courage, compassion, respect, etc.) with an emphasis on developing dispositions that cultivate these virtues.
  • Contractualism, informed by the idea of the social contract, which says we should act in ways and for reasons that would be agreed to by all reasonable people in the same circumstances.
  • Feminist ethics, or the ethics of care, which says that we should challenge the understand and challenge the way that gender has operated to inform historical ethical beliefs and how it still affects our moral practices today.

Normativity extends beyond individual actions and plays a significant role in shaping societal norms, as we saw earlier, but also laws and policies. They influence social expectations, moral codes, and legal frameworks, guiding collective behavior and fostering social cohesion. Sometimes, like in the case of traffic laws, social norms and laws work in a circular way, reinforcing each other.

However, our normative views aren’t static or unchangeable.

Over time, societal norms and values evolve, reflecting shifts in normative perspectives (cultural, social, and philosophical). Often, we see social norms culminating in the changing of outdated laws that accurately reflected the normative views of the time, but no longer do.

While it’s ethically significant that norms shift over time and adapt to their context, it’s important to note that these changes often happen slowly. Eventually, changes in norms influence changes in laws, and this can often happen even more slowly, as we have seen with homosexuality laws around the world.

Ethics explainer: Nihilism

“If nothing matters, then all the pain and guilt you feel for making nothing of your life goes away.” – Jobu Tupaki, Everything Everywhere All At Once 

Do our lives matter? 

Nihilism is a school of philosophical thought proposing that our existence fundamentally lacks inherent meaning. It rejects various aspects of human existence that are generally accepted and considered fundamental, like objective truth, moral truth and the value and purpose of life. Its origin is the Latin word ‘nihil’, which means ‘nothing’.  

The most common branches of nihilism are existential and moral nihilism, though there are many others, including epistemological, political, metaphysical and medical nihilism. 

Existential nihilism  

In popular use, nihilism usually refers to existential nihilism, a precursor to existentialist thought. This is the idea that life has no inherent meaning, value or purpose and it’s also often (because of this) linked with feelings of despair or apathy. Nihilists in media are usually portrayed as moody, brooding or radical types who have decided that we are insignificant specks floating around an infinite universe, and that therefore nothing matters.  

Nihilist ideas date as far back as Buddha; though the beginning of its uprising in western literature appeared in the early 19th century. This shift was largely a response to the diminishing moral authority of the church (and religion at large) and the rise of secularism and rationalism. This rejection led to the view that the universe had no grand design or purpose, that we are all simply cogs in the machine of the existence. 

Though he wasn’t a nihilist himself, Friedrich Nietzsche is the poster-child for much of contemporary nihilism, especially in pop culture and online circles. Nietzsche wrote extensively on it in the late 19th century, speaking of the crisis we find ourselves in when we realise that the world lacks the intrinsic meaning or value that we want or believed it to have. This is ultimately something that he wanted us to overcome.  

He saw humans responding to this crisis in two ways: passive or active nihilism.  

For Nietzsche, passive nihilists are those who resign themselves to the meaninglessness of life, slowly separating themselves from their own will or desires to minimise the suffering they face from the random chaos of the world. 

In media, this kind of pessimistic nihilism is sometimes embodied by characters who then act on it in a destructive way. For example, the antagonist, Jobu Topaki in Everything Everywhere All At Once comes to this realisation through her multi-dimensional awareness, which convinces her that because of the infinite nature of reality, none of her choices matter and so she attempts to destroy herself to escape the insignificance and meaninglessness she feels. 

Jobu Topaki, Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

Active nihilists instead see nihilism as a freeing condition, revealing a world where they are emboldened to create something new on top of the destruction of the old values and ways of thinking.  

Nietzsche’s idea of the active nihilist is the Übermensch (“superman”), a person who overcomes the struggle of nihilism by working to create their own meaning in the face of meaninglessness. They see the absurdity of life as something to be embraced, giving them the ability to live in a way that enforces their own values and “levels the playing field” of past values.  

Moral nihilism

Existential nihilism often gives way to moral nihilism, the idea that morality doesn’t exist, that no moral choices are preferable in comparison to others. Because, if our lives don’t have intrinsic meaning, if objective values don’t exist, then by what standard can we call actions right or wrong? We normally see this kind of nihilism embodied by anarchic characters in media. 

An infamous example is the Joker from the Batman franchise. Especially in renditions like The Dark Knight (2008) and Joker (2019), the Joker is portrayed as someone whose expectations of the world have failed him, whose tortuous existence has led him to believe that nothing matters, the world doesn’t care, and that in the face of that, we shouldn’t care about anything or anyone either. In his words, “everything burns” in the end, so he sees no problem in hastening that destruction and ultimately the destruction of himself. 

The Joker, 2019

“Now comes the part where I relieve you, the little people, of the burden of your useless lives.”

The Joker epitomises the populist understanding of nihilism and one of the primary ethical risks of this philosophical world view. For some people, viewing their lives as lacking inherent meaning or value causes a psychological spiral into apathy.  

This spiral can cause people to become self-destructive, reclusive, suicidal and otherwise hasten towards “nothingness”. In others, it can cause outwardly destructive actions because of their perception that since nothing matters in some kind of objective sense, they can do whatever they want (think American Psycho).  

Nihilism has particularly flourished in many online subcultures, fuelling the apathy of edgelords towards the plights of marginalised populations and often resulting in a tendency towards verbal and physical violence. One of the major challenges of nihilism, historically and today, is that it’s not obviously false. This is where we rely on philosophy to be able to justify why any morality should exist at all. 

Where to go from here

A common thread runs through many of the nihilist and existentialist writers about what we should do in the face of inherent meaninglessness: create it ourselves. 

Existentialists like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre talk about the importance of recognising the freedom that this kind of perspective gives us. And, equally, the importance of making sure that we make meaning for ourselves and for others through our life. 

For some people, that might be a return to religion. But there are plenty of other ways to create meaning in life: focusing on what’s subjectively meaningful to you or those you care about and fully embracing those things. Existence doesn’t need to have intrinsic meaning for us to care. 

Thought experiment: "Chinese room" argument

If a computer responds to questions in an intelligent way, does that mean it is genuinely intelligent?

Since its release to the public in November 2022, ChatGPT has taken the world by storm. Anyone can log in, ask a series of questions, and receive very detailed and reasonable responses.

Given the startling clarity of the responses, the fluidity of the language and the speed of the response, it is easy to assume that ChatGPT “understands” what it’s reporting back. The very language used by ChatGPT, and the way it types out each word individually, reinforces the feeling that we are “chatting” with another intelligent being.

But this raises the question of whether ChatGPT, or any other large language model (LLM) like it, is genuinely capable of “understanding” anything, at least in the way that humans do. This is where a thought experiment concocted in the 1980s becomes especially relevant today.

“The Chinese room”

Imagine you’re a monolingual native English speaker sitting in a small windowless room surrounded by filing cabinets with drawers filled with cards, each featuring one or more Chinese characters. You also have a book of detailed instructions written in English on how to manipulate those cards.

Given you’re a native English speaker with no understanding of Chinese, the only thing that will make sense to you will be the book of instructions.

Now imagine that someone outside the room slips a series of Chinese characters under the door. You look in the book and find instructions telling you what to do if you see that very series of characters. The instructions culminate by having you pick out another series of Chinese characters and slide them back under the door.

You have no idea what the characters mean but they make perfect sense to the native Chinese speaker on the outside. In fact, the series of characters they originally slid under the door formed a question and the characters you returned formed a perfectly reasonable response. To the native Chinese speaker outside, it looks, for all intents and purposes, like the person inside the room understands Chinese. Yet you have no such understanding.

This is the “Chinese room” thought experiment proposed by the philosopher John Searle in 1980 to challenge the idea that a computer that simply follows a program can have a genuine understanding of what it is saying. Because Searle was American, he chose Chinese for his thought experiment. But the experiment would equally apply to a monolingual Chinese speaker being given cards written in English or a Spanish speaker given cards written in Cherokee, and so on.

Functionalism and Strong AI

Philosophers have long debated what it means to have a mind that is capable of having mental states, like thoughts or feelings. One view that was particularly popular in the late 20th century was called “functionalism”.

Functionalism states that a mental state is not defined by how it’s produced, such as requiring that it must be the product of a brain in action. It is also not defined by what it feels like, such as requiring that pain have a particular unpleasant sensation. Instead, functionalism says that a mental state is defined by what it does.

This means that if something produces the same aversive response that pain does in us, even if it is done by a computer rather than a brain, then it is just as much a mental state as it is when a human experiences pain.

Functionalism is related to a view that Searle called “Strong AI”. This view says that if we produce a computer that behaves and responds to stimuli in exactly the same way that a human would, then we should consider that computer to have genuine mental states. “Weak AI”, on the other hand, simply claims that all such a computer is doing is simulating mental states.

Searle offered the Chinese room thought experiment to show that being able to answer a question intelligently is not sufficient to prove Strong AI. It could be that the computer is functionally proficient in speaking Chinese without actually understanding Chinese.

ChatGPT room

While the Chinese room remained a much-debated thought experiment in philosophy for over 40 years, today we can all see the experiment made real whenever we log into Chat GPT. Large language models like ChatGPT are the Chinese room argument made real. They are incredibly sophisticated versions of the filing cabinet, reflecting the corpus of text upon which they’re trained, and the instructions, representing the probabilities used to decide how to pick which character or word to display next.

So even if we feel that ChatGPT – or a future more capable LLM – understands what it’s saying, if we believe that the person in the Chinese room doesn’t understand Chinese, and that LLMs operate in much the same way as the Chinese room, then we must conclude that it doesn’t really understand what it’s saying.

This observation has relevance for ethical considerations as well. If we believe that genuine ethical action requires the actor to have certain mental states, like intentions or beliefs, or that ethics requires the individual to possess certain virtues, like integrity or honesty – then we might conclude that a LLM is incapable of being genuinely ethical if it lacks these things.

A LLM might still be able to express ethical statements and follow prescribed ethical guidelines imposed by its creators – as has been the case in the creators of ChatGPT limiting its responses around sensitive topics such as racism, violence and self-harm – but even if it looks like it has its own ethical beliefs and convictions, that could be an illusion similar to the Chinese room.

Ethics Explainer: Moral injury

Moral injury occurs when we are forced to violate our deepest ethical values and it can have a serious impact on our wellbeing.

In the 1980s, the American psychiatrist Jonathan Shay was helping veterans of the war in Vietnam deal with the traumas they had experienced. He noticed that many of his patients were experiencing high levels of despair accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame, along with a decline of trust in themselves and others. This led to them disengaging from their friends, family and society at large, accompanied by episodes of suicidality and interpersonal violence. 

Shay realised that this was not posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this was something different. Shay saw that these veterans were not just traumatised by what had happened to them, they were ‘wounded’ by what they had done to others. He called this new condition “moral injury,” describing it as a “soul wound inflicted by doing something that violates one’s own ethics, ideals, or attachments”. 

The “injury” is to our very self-conception as ethical beings, which is a core aspect of our identity. As Shay stated about his patients, moral injury “deteriorates their character; their ideals, ambitions, and attachments begin to change and shrink.”  

Moral injury is, at its heart, an ethical issue. It is caused when we are faced with decisions or directives that force us to challenge or violate our most deeply held ethical values, like if a soldier is forced to endanger civilians or a nurse feels they can’t offer each of their patients the care they deserve due to staff shortages.  

Sometimes this ethical compromise can be caused by the circumstances people are placed in, like working in an organisation that is chronically under-resourced. Sometimes it can be caused by management expecting them to do something that goes against their values, like overlooking inappropriate behaviour among colleagues in the workplace in order to protect high performers or revenue generators. 


There are several common symptoms of moral injury. The first is guilt. This manifests as intense discomfort and hyper-sensitivity towards how others regard us, and can lead to irritability, denial or projection of negative feelings, such as anger, onto others. 

Guilt can tip over into shame, which is a form of intense negative self-evaluation or self-disgust. This is why shame sometimes manifests as stomach pains or digestive issues. Shame can be debilitating and demotivating, causing a negative spiral into despondency. 

Excessive guilt and shame can lead to anxiety, which is a feeling of fear that doesn’t have an obvious cause. Anxiety can cause distraction, irritability, fatigue, insomnia as well as body and muscle aches. 

Moral injury also challenges our self-image as ethical beings, sometimes leading to us losing trust in our own ability to do what is right. This can rob us of a sense of agency, causing us to feel powerless, becoming passive, despondent and feeling resigned to the forces that act upon us. It can also erode our own moral compass and cause us to question the moral character of others, which can further shake our feeling that the other people and society at large are guided by ethical principles that we value. 

The negative emotions and self-assessment that accompany moral injury can also cause us to withdraw from social or emotional engagement with others. This can involve a reluctance to interact socially as well as empathy fatigue, where we have difficulty or lack the desire to share in others’ emotions. 


Moral injury is often mistaken for PTSD or burnout, but they are different issues. Burnout is a response to chronic stress due to unreasonable demands, such a relentless workloads, long hours, chronic under resourcing. It can lead to emotional exhaustion and, in extreme cases, depersonalisation, where people feel detached from their lives and just continue on autopilot. But it’s possible to suffer from burnout even if you are not compromising your deepest ethical values; you might feel burnout but still agree that the work you’re doing is worthwhile. 

PTSD is a response to witnessing or experiencing intense trauma or threat, especially mortal danger. It can be amplified if the individual survived the danger while those around them, especially close friends or colleagues, did not survive. This could be experienced following a round of poorly managed redundancies, where those who keep their jobs have survivor guilt. Thus, PTSD is typically a response to something that you have witnessed or experienced, whereas moral injury is related to something that you have done (or not been able to do) to others.  

Moral injury affects a wide range of industries and professions, from the military to healthcare to government and corporate organisations, and its impacts can be easily overlooked or mistaken for other issues. But with a greater awareness of moral injury and its causes, we’ll be better equipped to prevent and treat it. 


If you or someone you know is suffering from moral injury you can contact Ethi-call, a free and independent helpline provided by The Ethics Centre. Trained counsellors will talk you through the ethical dimension of your situation and provide resources to help understand it and to decide on the best course of action. To book a call visit 

The Ethics Centre is a thought leader in assessing organisational cultural health and building leadership capability to make good ethical decisions. We have helped a number of organisations across a number of industries deal with moral injury, burnout and PTSD. To arrange a confidential conversation contact the team at Or visit our consulting page to learn more.