On saying “sorry” most readily, when we least need to


One of the first things I learned when travelling in Europe, knowing only English, was to prioritise learning the word “sorry” when preparing to enter a new country.  

There’s nothing wrong with learning “hello”, “thank you” and “please”, “I am…” and “where’s the nearest…”, but if you’re going to learn one word by heart, that’s the one I’d recommend. If you get yourself in trouble, it will likely be the word you need the most. 

I speak from experience. Picture a nineteen-year-old washing her hands in the fountain at the foot of The Spanish Steps. Unbeknownst to her, the police have just rebuked some fellow tourists for cooling their sweaty feet in the waters of this national treasure—and told the watching crowd to heed their warning, show respect. 

When their whistles blew at me and I was asked to show my passport, I didn’t have the words to explain that I’d just been to the loo and had been unable to find a handle for the tap. This was before sensors became commonplace; perhaps there was a pedal, but I hadn’t thought to look. Instead, I’d opened the door (with difficulty—I’d already covered my hands in pink slimy soap) and headed for the next available water source. 

I had my reasons, but I didn’t have the words to explain why I’d done what I’d done, and until some friends explained later, I couldn’t fully understand why what I’d done had been so very wrong. 

I could say Lo siento, and did, repeatedly. 

I was reminded of this incident when reflecting on the ways in which we use the word “sorry” in daily life. 

Sometimes we’re not apologising at all—we’re expressing sympathy to a bereaved friend, or being polite to a stranger. The bereavement “sorry” might translate to: “I wish you didn’t have to go through this”, or “I really feel for you”. The polite “sorry” to a stranger might translate to “excuse me”, or “I excuse you”. It might not be “performative” at all; we use it as a statement, nothing more. Or we’ll say “sorry I’m late” when we’re not sorry, but are late. If we really are sorry we’re late; our eyes, our tone, must do the work. 

At other times, we apologise when we needn’t; we say “sorry” if we burst into tears when we are “supposed” to be keeping it together, or if we’ve had to ask for help when we’d hoped to solve a problem on our own. 

In the workplace, if we’ve been asked to do something we haven’t been trained to do, and need to take up a manager’s time to find out how, we might apologise when really, we’re just doing our job, and asking them to do theirs. 

In the context of close friendship, pouring out our worries, or asking for help, or advice, or both, isn’t something to apologise for, it’s (in part) what friendship is for. I know this, yet I find myself behaving otherwise. Just the other day I said “sorry” to a friend while crying on the phone, even though when friends do this to me I tell them off. Being trusted in this way honours a person more than it puts them out. When you love someone, you want to help; real “sorry” territory is more likely to be shutting a loved one out, than letting them in. 

This is because “real sorry territory” is using the word in the deepest sense of the word; it’s apologising for hurting someone. It’s not using the word to escape consequence, it’s using the word to express heartfelt regret for causing real harm and, rather than making excuses, choosing to take responsibility.

It can be easy to say “sorry” when we don’t really mean it—when we’re being polite, when we’re going through a motion, avoiding punishment. It’s easy to say it, even mean it, when we see we’ve made a dumb mistake: Lo siento! Lo siento! It can roll right off the tongue. 

In the case of the Fontana della Barcaccia, I’m pretty sure my excuses would have only caused further offence. Looking back, I’m glad I couldn’t say another word. But that sorry didn’t cost me, it helped me. 

It’s using the word to admit—to ourselves as much as to somebody else—that we’ve not only caused offence, but ongoing hurt, and to ask for undeserved forgiveness, that’s hard. Even if we haven’t done wrong technically, we might have had a chance to help, and turned away. Using “sorry” to express true regret—to “repent”—could be the rarest use of “sorry” there is. 

The rarest and, when it’s sincere, when it changes how we think and act, the most powerful. A word that can mean little can mean much; can be the difference between making excuses, or facing the truth; between a wound that keeps on causing pain, and one that, finally, begins to heal. 

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Whose fantasy is it? Diversity, The Little Mermaid and beyond

The original The Little Mermaid, an animated fable about a young woman searching – literally – for her voice, has what may seem like only a loose relationship with reality.

Sure, the film is filled with themes of yearning, the desire for autonomy, and a struggle for independence, all of which still resonate deeply with the lived experience of its target audience of young women. But it’s also populated with a singing fish, a cursed sea witch, and a range of colourful, deeply fantastical supporting characters. 

But in our increasingly divided age, fantasy is not a simple proposition anymore. Just look at the culture war that the CGI-saturated remake of The Little Mermaid has been dragged into, with the film facing “backlash” from those who have argued that the casting of a black Ariel (Halle Bailey) represents a break from “reality”. Their argument – that this new Ariel is not the one they grew up with, a premise that rests on the idea that there is a “real” Ariel to be deviated from.

Ariel (Halle Bailey), The Little Mermaid, Walt Disney Studios

These arguments are, in essence, arguments about the nature of fantasy – about how fantastical these stories are allowed to be. Fantasy authors can do anything. So what should they do? 

How much fantasy is allowed? 

The Little Mermaid is not the only modern fantasy story that has been plunged into debates around diversity and representation. The characters of Rey and Rose Tico from Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy faced significant backlash for being female, while the series’ black Stormtrooper, Finn, was criticised as breaking the canon. Stormtroopers were clones, went the argument – so how could one of them be black? Indeed, racist backlashes against casting in fantasy have become so commonplace that Moses Ingram, who played the villainous Reva Sevander in the Obi-Wan Kenobi miniseries, started sharing some of the vile messages that she received.

Reva Sevander (Moses Ingram), Obi-Wan Kenobi, LucasFilm

Those responsible for these backlashes tend to argue that the casting of diverse actors “breaks canon”, and disrupts storytelling rules. Some fans will argue that as Stormtroopers are always white in the world of the Star Wars story, they always must be. This was the explanation for the backlash that met the casting of diverse actors in the new Lord of the Rings series, The Rings of Power – Tolkien’s world was white, went the argument, so any story told in that world should be too. Of course, these “fans” do not acknowledge the possibility that the canon of these stories could be racist, and that breaking the canon might be morally necessary. They merely hold to the story as it was written. 

This is an argument about fantasy: about how “real” these stories should be. Fantasy authors can do anything, tell any story, infuse their characters with magical explanations that fly in the face of reality. But they do still have to abide but certain rules. No-one would enjoy the world of Hogwarts if J.K. Rowling constantly threw up magical explanations that defied one another to advance the plot. There needs to be some consistency; some “reality”. 

Those who cry foul when diverse actors are cast in fantasy do so because they have smuggled a bad ethical argument into one about consistency.

They are making an ethical claim – they do not want to see diverse communities in their art – and pretending it is an aesthetic claim – that they are talking about stories, not about ethics. 

In at least some cases, we can assume that this is just a bad faith argument: that these people know in our modern age that they cannot make an openly racist remark, and so scratch around in the world of aesthetics to disguise their bigotry. But even if these people really think that they’re talking about aesthetics, the mistake is to assume that ethics and aesthetics easily pull apart. 

Your dreams aren’t divorced from the real world

In her landmark essay The Right To Sex, the philosopher Amia Srinivasan explores the moral weight of aesthetic choices. In her case, she was exploring those who express sexual preference – cis men who desire a certain kind of woman, for instance, with a certain body. But her conclusions are helpful for us here too. 

In essence, Srinivasan wants to balance the freedom to choose –  people should be able to desire whom they want to desire, and not be forced to change their desires by others – with the idea that some choices are bigoted or small-minded in some way – say, the person who only desires Asian women, or the person who doesn’t desire any Asian women at all.  

What Srinivasan encourages is an interest in one’s own desires. She suggests people explore and understand why they want what they want, and to be aware that sometimes those wants can come from bad, unethical places. In essence, Srinivasan made it clear that purely aesthetic choices are actually ethical choices – that things that seem “merely a matter of taste” can actually come from bigotry.  

So it goes with fantasy. The fantasy genre is one of dreams; of pure imagination. But that imagination is born from the real-world. And our real-world contains bigotry and hate.  

Fantasy writers dream, but they dream in a way that is influenced by morals, preferences, and real-world concerns.

This isn’t just imaginative play. This is play that is responsive to the real world. And as such, ethics should remain a concern. There are people out there who say that they genuinely desire a white Ariel – that seeing a Caucasian mermaid is of tantamount importance to them. What Srinivisan teaches us, is that we do not need to see this desire as emerging from a vacuum. It’s not “just” taste. It’s taste formed from a society that for too long has prioritised white bodies. 

It’s like the philosopher Regina Swanson writes.: “[Fantasy] writers bring form to formlessness, creating a narrative that arises from the deep inner places of the mind,” she has put it. “As such, fantasy can reveal our collective hopes, dreams, and nightmares.” Those hopes, dreams, and nightmares aren’t “just” fantasies. They’re meaningfully real 

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How to find moral clarity in Gaza

Confronted by the horrors of war between Israel and Hamas, one is naturally drawn to those who offer moral certainty.

After all, it is repugnant to the soul to think that there is no sure ground for the revulsion we feel when confronted by the carnage unleashed on October 7th. Yet, to reject the dead hand of moral relativism does not mean that we must uncritically embrace one side or the other as being either wholly vicious or wholly virtuous. 

Here, distinctions matter. For example, there is a vital difference between the Jewish people and the Government of Israel. Likewise, the Palestinian people are not defined by Hamas. When free to do so, many Jews and Palestinians are as one in criticising and condemning the actions of those, in power, who claim to be acting in their name. So, in our search for ethical clarity, we need tools to produce certainty while allowing us to discern relevant distinctions. 

By way of background, I should mention that I have been teaching military ethics, both at home and abroad, for more than three decades. In that time, I have typically dealt with what occurs at the ‘pointy end’ of warfighting – with people of all ranks and many cultures. This has included sitting with generals, most of them active operational commanders, from twenty-five nations, as we have discussed some of the most challenging issues ever to be encountered by those who serve in the profession of arms. In the course of my work in this area, we have naturally focused on the requirements of Humanitarian Law and Just War Theory. Those requirements are routinely quoted at times such as these. However, I think that there are even more fundamental principles that can serve us well – whether military or civilian – as we seek to establish firm ground on which to stand. 

The first and most fundamental of these principles is that of ‘respect for persons’. This principle requires us to recognise the intrinsic dignity of every person – irrespective of their culture, gender, sex, religion, etc. As such, no person or group can be used merely as a means to some other end. Thus, the prohibition against slavery. No person or group can be deemed ‘less than fully human’ – even those who engage in unspeakably wicked deeds. The torturer or genocidal murderer might forfeit their lives under some systems of justice – but never their intrinsic dignity. That is why we insist on minimum standards of care for prisoners of war – and even war criminals awaiting their fate. Those who deny others intrinsic dignity open the gates to the hells of torture, genocide and the like. 

The second principle is captured in an aphorism derived from the Canadian philosopher, Michael Ignatieff. Ignatieff argues that the difference between a ‘warrior’ and a ‘barbarian’ is ‘ethical restraint’. The idea is reflected in principles like those of ‘proportionality’ (minimum force required) and ‘discrimination’ (only legitimate targets) that are a core part of military ethics. However, I think that Ignatieff takes us somewhat deeper. His concept of ethical restraint – as the basis for distinguishing between ‘warriors’ and ‘barbarians’ – asks us not only to consider actions but also intent.  

For example, to mount an attack of the kind launched by Hamas on October 7th – with the clear intention of massacring and mutilating innocent civilians – is to be distinguished from military action that tries, with utmost sincerity, to limit the harm caused to non-combatants. Hamas knows that Israel will always prevail in a direct contest of arms. However, following the logic of ‘asymmetric warfare’ it also knows that if it can goad Israel into fighting a ground war in areas heavily populated by civilians then the latter’s strategic strength can be broken in line with a loss of moral authority at home and abroad.  

But how do you retain the status of a ‘warrior’ against an opponent who is deliberate in their use of the tactics of the ‘barbarian’ – and whose success absolutely depends on the wounding and death of the innocent? 

This brings me to a third principle – familiar the world over. Expressed by the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, in the form, “Do not do to others what you would not have done to yourself”, the same principle (or a version of it) can be found in Jewish writings: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow-man. This is the entire Law, all the rest is commentary” (Talmud, Shabbat 3id – 16th Century BCE). The same sentiment can be found expressed in the Hadith – the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad who is recorded as having said, “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others that which you wish for yourself.” In a further formulation of the same basic principle, the Prophet is also recorded as having said, “Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourself.” Such precepts reflect the essence of the ‘Golden Rule’. 

What then might be the implications for the current conflict if this widely recognised principle was given practical effect? Even the most savage Hamas terrorist, with an abiding hatred of the Jewish people, will refuse to countenance that a child of his be raped and murdered in pursuit of his cause. Nor would the most zealous defender of Israel allow the bombing of a Jewish hospital – even if a Hamas command centre is located beneath the structure. One hopes that both would refuse to do to others what they would not have done to their own. In short, the exercise of moral imagination (in which you stand in the others’ shoes) as required by the application of the Golden Rule, should produce just the kind of ethical restraint that Ignatieff calls for. 

So, why the carnage? 

One explanation lies in the violation of the first principle outlined above. Antisemitism of the kind written into the core ideology of Hamas is fueled by an ancient denial of the full and equal humanity of the Jewish people. It is the same denial that made the Holocaust possible – with Nazi propaganda deliberately dehumanising the Jews by comparing them to vermin. Extermination was the logical next step once the vicious premise had taken root. And that is why it chills one to the bone to hear the Israeli Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, say that in the latest conflict, “We are fighting against human animals”. Israel is the one nation on earth where we might have hoped such words never to be uttered. 

If one seeks moral clarity, it will not be found in a flag around which one can rally. It will not be found in ties of blood or history alone. It lies in the conscious application of principle – without fear or favour, beyond the ties of kinship.

This is not to say that one must set aside emotion. It is proper to grieve for family and friends and those closest to you in belief and culture. But sympathy, grief, anger and a lust for revenge are not the ground on which judgement must rest. 

An edited version of this article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Image: Justin Lane / AAP Photo

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The ethics of exploration: We cannot discover what we cannot see

For many years, I took it for granted that I knew how to see. As a youth, I had excellent eyesight and would have been flabbergasted by any suggestion that I was deficient in how I saw the world.

Yet, sometime after my seventeenth birthday, I was forced to accept that this was not true, when, at the end of the ship-loading wharf near the town of Alyangula on Groote Eylandt, I was given a powerful lesson on seeing the world. Set in the northwestern corner of Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria, Groote Eylandt is the home of the Anindilyakwa people. Made up of fourteen clans from the island and archipelago and connected to the mainland through songlines, these First Nations people had welcomed me into their community. They offered me care and kinship, connecting me not only to a particular totem, but to everything that exists, seen and unseen, in a world that is split between two moieties. The problem was that this was a world that I could not see with my balanda (or white person’s) eyes.  

To correct the worst part of my vision, I was taken out to the end of the wharf to be taught how to see dolphins. The lesson began with a simple question: “Can you see the dolphins?” I could not. No matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t see anything other than the surface of the waves and the occasional fish darting in and out of the pylons below the wharf. “Ah,” said my friends, “the problem is that you’re looking for dolphins!” “Of course, I’m looking for dolphins,” I said. “You just told me to look for dolphins!” Then came the knockdown response. “But, bungie, you can’t see dolphins by looking for dolphins. That’s not how to see. What you see is the pattern made by a dolphin in the sea.”

That had been my mistake. I had been looking for something in isolation from its context. It’s common to see the book on the table, or the ship at sea, where each object is separate from the thing to which it is related in space and time. The Anindilyakwa mob were teaching me to see things as a whole. I needed to learn that there is a distinctive pattern made by the sea where there are no dolphins present, and another where they are. For me, at least, this is a completely different way of seeing the world and it has shaped everything that I have done in the years since.  

This leads me to wonder about what else we might not see due to being habituated to a particular perspective on the world.  

There are nine or so ethical lenses through which an explorer might view the world. Each explorer will have a dominant lens and can be certain that others they encounter will not necessarily see the world in the same way. Just as I was unable to see dolphins, explorers may not be able to see vital aspects of the world around them—especially those embedded in the cultures they encounter through their exploration.

Ethical blindness is a recipe for disaster at any time. It is especially dangerous when human exploration turns to worlds beyond our own. I would love to live long enough to see humans visiting other planets in our solar system. Yet, I question whether we have the ethical maturity to do this with the degree of care required. After all, we have a parlous record on our own planet. Our ethical blindness has led us to explore in a manner that has been indifferent to the legitimate rights and interests of Indigenous peoples, whose vast store of knowledge and experience has often either been ignored or exploited.

Western explorers have assumed that our individualistic outlook is the standard for judgment. Even when we seek to do what is right, we end up tripping over our own prejudice. We have often explored with a heavy footprint or with disregard for what iniquities might be made possible by our discoveries.

There is also the question of whether there are some places that we ought not explore. The fact that we can do something does not mean that it should be done. Inverting Kant’s famous maxim that “ought implies can,” we should understand that can does not imply ought! I remember debating this question with one of Australia’s most famous physicists, Sir Mark Oliphant. He had been one of those who had helped make possible the development of the atomic bomb. He defended the basic science that made this possible while simultaneously believing that nuclear weapons are an abomination. He put it to me that science should explore every nook and cranny of the universe, as we can only control what is known and understood. Yet, when I asked him about human cloning, Oliphant argued that our exploration should stop at the frontier. He could not explain the contradiction in his position. I am not sure anyone has yet clearly defined where the boundary should lie. However, this does not mean that there is no line to be drawn.

So how should the ethical landscape be mapped for (and by) explorers? For example, what of those working on the de-extinction of animals like the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger)? Apart from satisfying human curiosity and the lust to do what has not been done before, should we bring this creature back into a world that has already adapted to its disappearance? Is there still a home for it? Will developments in artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, gene editing, nanotechnology, and robotics bring us to a point where we need to redefine what it means to be human and expand our concept of personhood? What other questions should we anticipate and try to answer before we traverse undiscovered country?

This is not to argue that we should be overly timid and restrictive. Rather, it is to make the case for thinking deeply before striking out, for preparing our ethics with as much care as responsible explorers used to give to their equipment and stores.

The future of exploration can and should be ethical exploration, in which every decision is informed by a core set of values and principles. In this future, explorers can be reflective practitioners who examine life as much as they do the worlds they encounter. This kind of exploration will be fully human in its character and quality. Eyes open. Curious and courageous. Stepping beyond the pale. Humble in learning to see—to really see—what is otherwise obscured within the shadows of unthinking custom and practice.


This is an edited extract from The Future of Exploration: Discovering the Uncharted Frontiers of Science, Technology and Human Potential. Available to order now. 

Care is a relationship: Exploring climate distress and what it means for place, self and community

As part of their 2023 Ethics Centre residency, researchers Dr Chloe Watfern and Dr Priya Vaughan collaborated with researchers, artists and service providers to explore creative approaches to climate distress, and the ethics of care for place, self, and community in the context of ecological crisis.

Why is it that we are touched most by the things closest to us? Touched, as in, made to feel something strongly, to care in its meanings as both a verb and a noun – to feel concern for and to want to protect or nurture a child, a parent, a special place, a garden, or the bird out the window. It’s a question with an obvious answer. Because they are close. Because they can be felt, sometimes even touched.  

Traditional moral theories require us to be unemotional, rational, and logical. For example, we are thought (or urged) to objectively calculate the extent to which our actions will lead to a good outcome for the greatest number of people. However, in the context of our daily lives, an ethics of care highlights the pull of relationships and feelings, like love and compassion, in our moral decision-making.

Tentacle, n.
Zoology: A slender flexible process in animals, esp. invertebrates, serving as an organ of touch or feeling. (Oxford English Dictionary) 

The first recorded use of the word “tentacle” in the English language was in 1764, when A. P. Du Pont wrote that “the fingers, or tentacles, end in a deep blue.”  

At about this time, the industrial revolution was just beginning in Great Britain, continental Europe, and the United States. Humans in these places gradually, and then very rapidly, moved away from producing things by hand. Coal, iron and water were the core elements of this rapid transformation in societies, extraction and exploitation its drivers. Today, we are at the coal face of its legacy.  

Where will all this lead? To a deep blue? To a burning world? To unaddressable environmental collapse? To rubble, ash, and mud?  

Care in an era of climate distress

Certainly, we know and feel that the living systems of the earth have been deeply compromised by human activities. This knowledge is a source of intense distress for many of us. At the same time, the collapse of systems creates new and ancient forms of distress, as homes and lives are destroyed or radically altered.  

More and more of us care as more and more of us are touched by the effects of our collective actions: biodiversity loss, pollution, global boiling. What might we do with our bare hands, our sentient bodies, to make up for all the loss on our horizon? And where is the horizon anyway?  

Tentacular detail
Tentacular detail, collage, drawing and found objects

Professor Timothy Morton refers to global warming, like evolution, or relativity, as a “hyperobject”: something that is very difficult to comprehend using the cognitive tools that we humans have evolved to possess. Climate is everywhere and nowhere, in Antarctic ice sheets and cow belches, in bees and babies, in the cloud and the web, in bushfire smoke and too much (or not enough) rain on a tin roof.  

Does Earth’s climate care that it is boiling? We don’t know, because we don’t know how to ask. We can only guess. 

Stories of care

During our residency at the Ethics Centre in May 2023, we asked humans to share their stories of care. Colleagues, friends, family members, clinicians, artists, researchers, elders, and knowledge keepers each brought an object that connected to community, self, or planetary care in the climate crisis. These objects – a clay pot, a biodegradable bin bag, leaves collected on country, a handful of seeds – held and evoked memories of grief and loss, but above all, connection with humans, more-than-humans, and places. Close encounters filled with care. 

Seeking a way to capture and share these memories, we asked these humans to help us create a tentacular creature: part cephalopod, part bird, part plant, part insect, part fungi, part human, part bacteria, part virus, part landscape.

For us, this tentacular creation was the perfect creature to hold stories of care, responsibility, hope, and fear in the context of our precarious and precious world.

Neither and both human and animal, nature and artifice, Tentacular collapses fictious binaries that have, historically, enabled the climate crisis to be seen as a problem with ‘nature’, rather than the total phenomenon it is.   

Tentacular participants at The Ethics Centre

Each tentacle of this collective artwork reaches outwards, seeking connection and offering stories that speak to the ways we might care, in responsible and responsive ways, for ourselves, each other, and the wounded world. Here, we share some evocative snippets from the stories of care that each person offered:  

Gadigal, Bidjigal and Yuin elder Aunty Rhonda DixonGrovenor grew up being taught to respect and care for country. She tells people “If we are in nature and enjoy it and care for it, then it nourishes us… Care is a relationship, it’s a two-way, it’s not just one person dominating.”  

“Care is a relationship, it’s a two-way, it’s not just one person dominating.” – Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor

Dr Priya Vaughan and Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor

Academic Dr Barbara Doran reflects on the tuition of a beehive: “The bees connected me to a more nuanced relationship with nature… Now, I’m more aware of rain, of flowering patterns, of birds: the ecosystem is amplified in my eyes. But after the fires, I’ve noticed an echo-effect. They have been splitting more than they usually do. This year is the first season with no honey. I’m noticing these resonant patterns in a climate changed world. The hive is my teacher, healer and sharpener of antennas.”  

Psychotherapist and Group Facilitator at We Al-li, Georgie Igoe asks us to consider threshold experiences: “For me, care means sitting with discomfort and uncertainty, opening ourselves up to the unknown – in the muck, in the grief, not sidestepping it but acknowledging its power.”  

Installation artist and theatre-maker Brownyn Vaughan shares the wisdom of her favourite writers and of her favourite swimming place: “The Mahon pool brought me up, it’s my go-to-place… Professor Astrida Neimanis tells us we must stop trying to ascend and transform. Instead, we must submerge, become part of the water.” 

Artist-survivor, and lived experience advocate, Lea Richards, mourns and advocates for the mountains: “Snow melt is mountain’s blood. I weep for the glaciers, so far from arid Australia, yet not separate. I imagine connections to those vanishing snows– a flow of water between us. If I conserve this precious blood, can I tend those far places, postpone the melting?”  

Tentacular, Care is a Relationship, UNSW Library

Embedded in many, perhaps all, of these stories is a conviction that we need to, as Bronwyn said, submerge, to acknowledge our place in the meshwork of the world, and in so doing, to learn with and from the environment. This means burying ego, rejecting a hierarchy where humans are at the apex, and attending in quotidian ways to what is happening to us and around us. Let’s become like tentacles, feeling our way into a better relationship with the world we care so much about. 


Tentacular, as part of the exhibition: Care is a Relationship is on display at UNSW Library until 17 November.

Applications for 2024 Residencies are now open until 30 November. Find out more about The Ethics Centre Residency Program.

Israel or Palestine: Do you have to pick a side?

We are inclined to pick a side in complex conflicts, but doing so can diminish our ethical point of view.

In the early hours of 7 October 2023, Hamas launched a barrage of rockets from Gaza into Israel while armed terrorists crossed the border and began a rampage of death and destruction targeting civilians, including children. In the days that followed, Israeli forces retaliated by blockading Gaza, cutting off food, electricity and water supplies, and began bombarding the densely populated city, killing thousands of Palestinian civilians, including children. 

When our news screens are filled with footage of such horrors, our moral minds cry out for justice. But justice for whom?  

One of the quirks of our moral minds is that we tend to see the world in terms of black and white or good and evil. If we hear about a heinous or unjust act, our sympathies go out to the victims while outrage inspires us to want the perpetrators to be punished. This sorts the world into two categories: the wronged, who deserve sympathy and protection, and the wrongdoers, who are morally diminished or even dehumanised.  

Another quirk of our moral minds is that we struggle with ambivalence, which is the ability to see something as being both good and bad at the same time. Once someone – or a group – are painted as the wronged, it’s difficult to also perceive them simultaneously as being wrongdoers in some other capacity. Attempting to do so creates an uncomfortable state of dissonance, and the easiest way to resolve it is to dismiss the troubling thought and collapse things back into black and white. 

On top of this we have our personal connections and affiliations, or a sense of shared identity that can cause us to feel solidarity with one side rather than the other. This in-group solidarity is then reinforced through shared expressions of grief and outrage. It is also policed, with any signs of sympathy for the “other side” drawing stiff rebuke. 

This is all natural. It’s how our moral minds are wired. So, it’s no surprise that in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict, many people have already picked a side. But just because it’s a natural inclination doesn’t mean it’s always a healthy one. 

Picking a side can shrink our view, making us see the world through that side’s ethical lens and dismissing other possibly valid perspectives.

This is particularly apparent when we’re faced with gaps in the information we receive – as we often are during times of conflict. We tend to fill ambiguity with our own biases, and we seek out information to reinforce our view while discounting evidence to the contrary.  

Picking sides can also prevent us from seeing the bigger ethical picture. And in the case of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the bigger picture is a long history laced with ethical complexities. 

However, there is another way. It requires us to acknowledge, but not necessarily follow, our moral intuitions, and instead step back to take a more universal ethical point of view. This is not the same as a neutrality that is indifferent to the claims of either side or to questions of right and wrong. It is taking the side of principle, which is a basis by which we can judge all parties.  

Justice for all

Most ethical frameworks offered by philosophers are universalist, in the sense that they apply equally to all morally worthwhile individuals in similar situations. So, if you believe that it’s wrong to kill a particular individual because they’re an innocent civilian, then you should also believe that it’s wrong to kill any individual who is an innocent civilian. 

You might justify that in consequentialist terms, such as by arguing that killing innocent civilians causes undue and irrevocable harm, and that the world is a better place when civilians are protected from such harm. You could equally justify it using a rights-based ethics, such as by arguing that all people have a fundamental right to life and safety.  

While philosophers have a variety of views on which specific ethical framework or universal principles we ought to adopt, there are some principles that are widely accepted, with many being coded into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These include things like a right to life, liberty and security of person, a right to freedom of movement within the borders of one’s state, and that people shall not be arbitrarily deprived of property, as well as a right to the free expression of one’s religion.  

The virtue of taking such a principled approach is that is gives us a bedrock upon which we can base our judgements of any action, agent or government. It promotes a sympathetic stance towards all suffering, and aims us towards justice for all, without shying away from condemning that which is harmful or unjust.

It might challenge our partisan feelings that favour the interests of one side over the other, but it urges us to condemn wrongdoing on any side, such attacks targeting civilians or waging war without ethical constraint. 

A principled perspective also enables us to navigate complex ethical issues, such as saying that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land might be unjust, but that it shouldn’t justify Hamas attacking civilians. Or that Hamas’s attacking civilians is clearly morally repugnant, but that shouldn’t justify the collective punishment of Gazans by Israel. And it can allow us to assert that Israel might have a right to defend its territory and citizens from attack, but it – indeed, all parties – must adhere to just war principles, such as proportionality and distinguishing between enemy combatants and civilians. And it ought to reinforce our commitment to seeing a lasting peace in the region, which will inevitably require some compromises on both sides.  

Of course, even if everyone agreed on the same set of principles, there will still be substantial differences in interpretation or points of view. A principled stance must also acknowledge that there are fundamental incompatibilities between the interests and demands of both sides that no single ethical framework will be able to resolve without some kind of compromise. For example, when both sides claim certain sites as sacred, and demand exclusivity, there is no way to resolve that without compromise that will be deemed unacceptable to at least one side. However, such uncertainties and complexities don’t undermine the fact that the same universal principles ought to apply to all people involved. 

Choosing to side with ethical principle rather than one side or the other is not without its challenges. It forces us to push back on some of our deep moral intuitions and sit with ambivalence and ambiguity. We might be admonished by both sides in the conflict for not backing all their claims, or called a traitor for criticising them. However, the strength is that we can respond to each of these challenges by resorting to the universal principles, compassion and desire for justice that underpins our views on both sides of the conflict. 

While the internet and media landscape seem to urge us to take sides in any conflict, it is entirely possible – and often wise – to step back and apply a broader set of principles rather than fall in with a particular partisan perspective. Adopting such a principled stance doesn’t require that you have all the solutions to the conflict, it is sufficient that you have good reason to wish for a just and peaceful solution for all involved. 


Image: AAP Photo / Erik S. Lesser

Who are corporations willing to sacrifice in order to retain their reputation?

In an era where mud sticks like glue, corporate tolerance has waned to such a degree that the need to keep hard-fought reputations is outweighing respect for human fallibility. 

Careers and hard-won professional reputations built over many decades can come tumbling down overnight after off-the cuff-comments or even private messages sent to a colleague are made public, overshadowing years of hard work.  

And the corporations they work for often seek to condemn, seek a resignation and shuffle talent out the door than chalk it up as an error of judgment, forgive and move on.   

Tasmanian Attorney-General Elise Archer was forced to resign after one leaked message to the media appeared to be an exasperated reference to victim-survivors of child sexual abuse. Archer was not given the opportunity to challenge the claims made against her and is adamant that the messages were taken out of context.  

Another study found 312 news articles about people who had been fired due to a social media post. These included teachers fired after coming out as bisexual on Instagram, and a retail employee let go over a racist post on Facebook.  

While racism was the most common reason workers were fired in these news stories, other forms of discriminatory behaviour included posts about workplace conflict, bad jokes, insensitive posts, acts of violence and even political content. Of course, there’s no doubt of dozens more cases that aren’t even made public.  

Are companies too quick to condemn?

The blurred lines between knowingly behaving unethically at work and comments shared without our permission raises the question of whether corporations are too quick to condemn indiscretions in favour of their reputation. While public trust in elected officials is critical, it’s also important to remember that these officials are also human beings. 

As workplaces are prioritising accountability and ethical standards to ensure safe and productive environments, too often we are seeing errors of judgement costing hard-working professionals their reputation, not to mention their future earning potential after they are ousted from their job.  

It begs the question: What ever happened to an individuals’ right to make a mistake and for the rest of society not to leave them out in the cold forever? Have we come to a point where our inner thoughts and feelings shared in private are indicative of our ability to do our job?  

Where we draw the line

Despite private messages being made public costing people their jobs and reputations, career coach Renata Bernarde believes that private messages should remain private and usually aren’t a true reflection of our ability to do our job.  

“When leaked, we can see that private messages can offer glimpses into someone’s personal thoughts and feelings, which might be expressed without the filter they would use in a professional setting. That said, if private messages reveal behaviours or beliefs that directly contradict the values and responsibilities of their public role, it’s a valid concern. For instance, a diversity and inclusion leader advocating for equality should not have private messages showcasing prejudice.”  

However, Bernarde urges corporations to avoid blanket penalties, saying we need to be cautious about using isolated messages out of context to vilify individuals. “It’s essential to consider the entirety of the person’s character and contributions,” she says.  

The art of corporate forgiveness

There are occasional cases of corporate forgiveness. Western Australian man Cameron Waugh was charged with six counts of insider trading and was released on bail. He has since appointed the interim CEO of a company that’s obviously deemed his skills more valuable.   

While forgiveness and the opportunity to secure a new job after misconduct is complex and multifaceted, human resources and emotional resilience expert Shane Warren says that it’s important that workplaces acknowledge that making a mistake pertains to the psychological and emotional harm caused by actions that violate one’s deeply held moral beliefs. 

“Any doctrine of faith reminds us that human fallibility is an inherent part of our nature, and the capacity to make mistakes is universal. The idea that an individual who has ‘stuffed up’ should not be punished indefinitely for errors resonates with our core principles of fairness and modern desire to embrace personal growth.”    

However, Warren admits that balancing the need for accountability with the recognition of our humanity can be challenging. Nevertheless, fostering a culture of learning, growth and restorative justice can help strike a more equitable balance between accountability and compassion in any workplace, he says. 

The process of forgiveness and reintegration into the workforce should ideally involve steps such as acknowledging wrongdoing, seeking rehabilitation or counselling, demonstrating genuine remorse and showing a sustained commitment to personal growth and ethical behaviour. The timing for a new job may vary depending on individual circumstances and the severity of the misconduct, he says.  

“Perhaps instead, society needs to bear in mind that everyone is fallible. If indiscretions or mistakes happen, when addressed and an apology is allowed to be given, it can lead to greater resilience, better understanding and personal and professional development.”  

But how do you know? Hijack and the ethics of risk

Hijack, the new Idris Elba-starring miniseries, opens with every airline passenger’s nightmare – a bullet, found in the bathroom of a plane. Within moments, things go from bad to worse.

The ragtag group of heroes, a collection of passengers led by Sam Nelson (Elba), a corporate business negotiator, find themselves in the middle of a hijacking plot, surrounded by criminals, and unable to get help from those down on the ground who, we quickly learn, are ensnared in the plot themselves. 

Such a format is not necessarily new – television and film have been littered with stories of hostile airline takeovers, from the big brash action of Air Force One, to the real-world horror of United 93, a tragic retelling of the 9/11 attacks. But what sets Hijack apart is its rapidly escalating sense of dread. Time and time again, Sam and his fellow passengers are faced with impossible decisions, and time and time again, they are foiled. That opening nightmarish feel only deepens – you know those dreams where everything goes wrong; where you are powerless; where the adversaries keep mounting? That’s key to Hijack’s tone, a story of ever-escalating horrors, through which Sam must try to keep himself – and his ethical code – alive. 

Indeed, this mounting sense of risk means that Hijack poses an interesting question about ethical deliberation under fire. Sam, who is well-versed in negotiation, but not well-versed in negotiation where the stakes are so high, must repeatedly make rapid-fire decisions. Does he send a text to his wife? Does Sam continue his attempted revolt after he discovers that the hijackers know who his family are, and will kill them if anything goes wrong? Does Sam rush the cockpit? And how responsible will he ethically be if he fails? How much blood is on his hands?  

Decision making turned up to 11

The problem of ethical decision-making under fire is essentially the problem of the difference between theory and practice. Sit people down and ask them what the right thing to do is, give them time, don’t hurry them, and psychological studies show that they’ll have a better chance of choosing the ethical answer.  

In a famous experiment known as The Good Samaritan, a group of priests-in-training were told to head across a university campus to deliver a speech on the importance of helping others. Some of these priests were given ample time to make it across the campus; others were told they had to rush. Along their trip, the experimenters planted a person in need – an actor, who feigned being sick, and asked for help. The majority of those priests who had been told they weren’t in a rush stopped to help. But the priests who had to move fast, and were stressed and distracted, largely ignored the actor – even though they were literally on their way to give a speech on how to care for their fellow human beings. 

The experiment shows that the more that pressure increases – particularly time pressure – the less likely we are to do the right thing. Which poses a significant problem for ethical training. How can you fight against the forces of a chaotic world?

Philosopher Iris Murdoch was aware of the everyday pressures that we meet constantly. For that reason, she considered ethical training a process which prepares us to act unthinkingly. The more we make the right decisions when we do have time, the more likely we are to shape our instincts to be more ethical, and therefore act virtuously when we don’t have time. In this way, Murdoch collapses theory into practice, treating them not as divorced from one another, but with theory informing practice. 

Which is a view that Hijack supports. Sam’s cushy day job has given him an unusual set of skills that he himself didn’t even realise that he had. All that work he conducted for years? It was training for this moment. 

Sam (Idris Elbra) in Hijack, Apple TV

The ethics of risk

A related issue pertaining to theory and practice is the unknowability of the future. Thought experiments and ethical dilemmas conducted theoretically can have clear right or wrong answers, based on outcomes. But when we’re actually moving through the world, we’re blind to these outcomes. More often than not, we’re stumbling through the ethical world, making decisions based on the hope that things will work out, but never actually knowing if they will. 

This is the ethics of risk, extensively covered by the philosopher Sven Ove Hansson. According to Hansson, “risk and uncertainty are such pervasive features of practical decision-making that it is difficult to find a decision in real life from which they are absent.”  

Hansson’s solution to this problem is to consider “fair exchanges of risk.” He forgoes the idea that we will never be perfect moral creatures. Because the world is uncertain, we can only ever move towards good ethical actors. There’s no way that we can ever always do the right thing, and nor should we expect ourselves to. Instead, we must try. That is the important part. 

So it goes in Hijack. Sam is a flawed main character, who frequently makes errors while trying to save those around him. But we, as audience members, forgive him for this. We don’t judge him for the plans that fail. We see his movement towards good behaviour, and that’s what matters. 

In that way, we can also see theory and practice moved out of contention with each other. Theory is the goal; practice is the action. We’ll never live in a fully theoretic state. But what Hijack tells us, is in the face of that impossibility, we should not throw up our hands. We should instead keep moving towards theory – a spot on the horizon that is forever escaping us, but that we never stop chasing. 

Now is the time to talk about the Voice

The Yes campaign is failing. If nothing changes soon, then October 14 will see constitutional reform fail, setting back recognition and reconciliation by years, if not decades.

And no amount of impassioned speeches by politicians, mass rallies by the Yes faithful, uplifting advertisements or – dare I say – editorial columns are likely to shift the needle towards Yes.

This is because voters who are currently unsure or leaning towards No have tuned out the “official” platforms. Their trust in mainstream media outlets has collapsed to single digit figures. It’s not even that they’ve switched to social media. It turns out that the only ones who have their ear are friends, family and colleagues. In this age of mass cynicism and social media schisms, it’s good old-fashioned relationships that still matter.

So, if you believe in the Voice, as I do, if you believe it represents an opportunity for Australia to take meaningful steps towards reconciliation with First Nations peoples, and if you believe it could be a stepping stone to a more unified Australia that each of us can be proud of, then your time to act is now.

But how? The key is to leverage the power of relationships and dive into conversations with your friends and relatives, especially people over the age of 55, who are currently the most likely to vote No. That’s your parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, or if you’re in that age group yourself, your childhood friends or neighbours.

If the prospect of starting a “political” conversation with family members fills you with dread, that’s understandable. These conversations often succumb to pitfalls that only increase animosity and polarisation. But get them right and they can be transformational. If you’re brave enough to strike up a conversation over the dinner table, here’s how to do so constructively. In fact, these tips can help you have better conversations regardless of how you intend to vote.

First: show respect. It’s all too easy (and, in some circles, encouraged) to believe that those who disagree with us must be either stupid or malicious. Sometimes they are. But signalling disrespect is a surefire way to kill any possibility of persuasion. Even the faintest whiff of disrespect triggers defensiveness, and when that happens, constructive conversation is over.

One way to show respect is to hold your tongue and listen – really listen. Often, people get belligerent because they don’t feel heard. That means two of the biggest tools in your arsenal are your ears. Just listening carefully, asking a few questions and repeating back a summary of what they have said can be transformative. It makes them feel heard and it gives you a fighting chance of understanding where they’re coming from.

Do this before you’ve shared your views. Our natural tendency when we hear someone say something we don’t agree with is to immediately open our mouths and tell them that we think differently. But this sets you at loggerheads from the outset. Instead, hold back. Hear them out and show you’re interested into getting to the bottom of the matter. That way it’s not a tug of war between the two of you but one where you’re on the same side pulling against ignorance.

While listening, you’re likely to hear them offer reasons to support their view. Some will be authentic, but many will be post-hoc rationalisations of deeper unstated motivations. You can spot a post-hoc rationalisation because when you show that it’s false, it doesn’t change their mind. That means it was never the real motivation for their beliefs, just a distraction.

The trick is not to challenge or fact check post-hoc rationalisations head-on but to change the way they perceive the issue in the first place. Once you’ve generated enough goodwill, offer an alternative perspective on the issue. You don’t need to encourage, let alone demand, they adopt your perspective, just offer it as your reason for voting the way you intend to.

You’re nearly done. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve done just about all anyone can do in a single conversation. Thank them and move on to something else. Let them mull over your perspective, and perhaps in the next conversation you might be able to go deeper. Minds rarely change in a single sitting.

Of course, there will be times when the conversation goes off the rails. Maybe your discipline cracks and you scoff at one of their remarks. Perhaps they refuse to engage in good faith. Maybe they just want to troll you to get a reaction. If any of these happen, back out. Focus instead on reinforcing the relationship based on other shared values – family, sport, food, whatever it is that brings you together – so perhaps in the next conversation they won’t feel the need to get defensive, or offensive.

Good conversations, particularly persuasive ones, take work. But it is possible to avoid the worst pitfalls and have a constructive discussion. If even a few unsure voters are swayed, it could shift the tide of the referendum. And given the Voice is about being heard, it’s rather fitting each of our voices could help make the difference.


An edited version of this article appears in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Image: AAP Image/Jono Searle

For everything you need to know about the Voice to Parliament visit here.

Would you kill one to save five? How ethical dilemmas strengthen our moral muscle

Ethical dilemmas are, by their nature, uncomfortable or difficult to tackle, but they can also teach us a lot about our own values and principles and prepare us for an ethically complex world.

You’re about to take a major exam that will determine whether you get accepted into a potentially life-changing course. But you hear that there’s a leaked copy of the exam paper doing the rounds, and other students are studying it carefully. There are only a precious few spots available in your desired course, and if you don’t also sneak a peek at the leaked exam paper, you are likely to miss out. Should you cheat by looking at the leaked exam paper, given you know other students are doing the same? 

How about if you found out that the company you work for was partnering with an overseas contractor known for running sweatshops and flouting labour laws, meanwhile your company’s branding is all about how ethical and sustainable it is. Would you speak out to management, or on social media, even if doing so might cost you your job and income? 

If these scenarios give you pause, you’re not alone. Each represents a different kind of ethical dilemma we might come across, and by their nature they can be highly unsettling and difficult – if not impossible – to resolve in a way that satisfies everyone involved.  

But what makes something an ethical dilemma? It’s important to note that an ethical dilemma is not a simple question of doing the right thing or the wrong thing, like whether you should lie to cover up for something bad that you did.

A genuine ethical dilemma arises when there is a clash between two values (i.e., what you think is good) or principles (i.e., the rules you follow). Or it can be a choice between two bad outcomes, like knowing that whatever you do, someone will get hurt.

That’s what makes them so uncomfortable; we feel like whatever choice we make will involve some kind of compromise.

All in the mind

One way to prepare yourself to face real-world ethical dilemmas is to strengthen your moral muscle by practicing on hypothetical scenarios – a staple of philosophy classes. 

Consider this: you’re the captain of a sinking ship, and the lifeboat only has room for five passengers. Yet there are seven people aboard the ship, including yourself. Whom do you choose to board the lifeboat? The pregnant woman? The ageing brain surgeon? The fit young fisherman? The teenage twins? The reformed criminal who is now a priest? Yourself? 

Or how about this: you’ve just started your shift as the only surgeon in a small but high-tech hospital. As you walk into your ward, you’re presented with five dying patients. You know nothing else about their personal details except that each is suffering from a different organ failure. Without assistance, all will die within 24 hours. However, at that moment, a healthy patient is wheeled in for an unrelated minor procedure. You also know nothing about their personal circumstances, but you do know they have five perfectly healthy organs. Were you to allow that patient to die (as they will without treatment) you know you could save the lives of the other five dying patients. Would you allow one to die to save five? 

Each of these scenarios is carefully constructed to put pressure on your ethical intuitions and force you to make difficult decisions.

Tackling a hypothetical dilemma gives you an opportunity to reflect on your own values and principles, and search for good reasons to justify your choices.

Even if the hypothetical situation is absurdly unreal, you can still learn a lot about yourself and your ethical stance by considering how you would act in these cases.  

Your first impulse might be to try and change the circumstances to eliminate or minimise the dilemma. We might speculate that we could squeeze another person on the lifeboat, or that the organ transplants may not succeed, and that might make our decisions easier. This is entirely natural – and sensible – especially because dilemmas in the real world are rarely as clear cut. But dodging the dilemma misses the point of the exercise. 

You might decide that a consequentialist approach is the best one for the lifeboat scenario, causing you to pick the people who might end up leading the richest lives or having the most positive impact on others. But you might decide that a deontological approach is most appropriate for the surgeon’s dilemma, arguing that it’s inherently wrong to withhold treatment from an innocent patient, even if it ends up saving lives.  

It’s important to remember that hypothetical dilemmas like this are designed so that there’s likely no simple answer that will satisfy everybody. Even reasonable people can disagree about what course of action to take. That’s fine. The important bit is not really the answer you come to but the reasons you give to support it. That’s what ethics is all about: finding good reasons to act the way we do. 

Most of us are likely to go through life without ever having to put people in lifeboats or contemplate the death of one to save five, but by testing ourselves with these dilemmas we can build our ethical muscles and be more ready to face other dilemmas that world could throw at us at any time. 


If you’re struggling with a real-life ethical dilemma, it can be tough finding the best path forward. Ethi-call is a free independent helpline offering decision-making support from trained ethics counsellors. Book a call today.