At The Ethics Centre, we firmly believe ethics is a joint effort. It’s a conversation about how we should act, live, treat others and be treated in return. 

That means we need a range of people participating in the conversation. That’s why we’re excited to share that we have recently appointed Joshua Pearl as a Fellow. CFA-accredited, and with a Master of Science in Economics and Philosophy from the London School of Economics, Josh is currently a director at Pembroke Advisory. He also has extensive experience as a banking analyst, commercial advisor and political advisor – diverse perspectives that inform his writing.  

To welcome him on board and introduce him to you, our community, we sat down for a brief get-to-know-you chat.

You have a background in finance, economics and government, and also completed a Master of Science in Economics and Philosophy – what attracted you to the field of philosophy?

I had always read a lot of political philosophy but when I first worked as a political advisor, it really dawned on me how little I actually knew. I figured what better way to learn more than by studying philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Tell us a little bit about your background in finance, and how that shapes your approach to philosophy.

My undergraduate degree was in economics and finance and my first job out of university was with an investment bank. Later on, I worked for an infrastructure development and investment firm. I’ve really enjoyed my professional experience, especially later in my career, though there were times early on when I questioned whether I was sufficiently contributing to society. And in truth, I probably wasn’t. 

One way working in finance has helped the way I think about philosophy is that finance is practical. It’s a vocation. So when I think about philosophy I try to answer the “so what” questions. Why should we care about a certain issue? What are the practical implications? 

In the context of finance, there are so many practical philosophical questions worth asking. What harm am I responsible for as an investor in a company that manufactures or owns poker machines? Should shareholders be advocating for corporate and regulatory change to help combat climate change? What are the implications of a misalignment between my investments and my personal values? And in the context of economics, philosophical questions are everywhere. What does a fair taxation system look like? How are markets equitable? Is it a problem that central bank policies increase social inequality? 

These are super interesting issues (or at least I think so!) that have practical implications. 

You mentioned you worked in government as a political advisor – what did you take out of that experience?

It was an amazing experience in so many ways. It was fantastic to work with really interesting people from a variety of backgrounds and have the opportunity to meet so many different members of the community, whom I wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to meet. I also felt very lucky to work for a woman whom I have a lot of respect for. Someone from a non-traditional background who has not only been very successful in her political career but has also contributed to society in a really positive way. 

One of my biggest learnings from the experience was how important it is to try and consider issues from a range of multiple perspectives, with the hope of getting closer to some objective view. As part of this process, you realise the legitimate plurality of views that exist and the intellectual and moral uncertainty associated with your own views.   

Do you have a favourite philosopher or thinker?

Thomas Nagel is a rockstar. He is in his eighties now and is still teaching at New York University. He is a really clear thinker whose writing is accessible and entertaining, and he isn’t afraid to challenge the orthodox views of society, including in areas such as science, religion and economics. 

Nagel is a prolific writer who has undertaken philosophical inquiries across a range of fields such as taxation (the Myth of Ownership), evolution (Mind and Cosmos), and epistemology and ethics (The View from Nowhere). His most famous piece is probably What is it like to be a bat?, a journal article that is a must read for anyone interested in human consciousness. 

If I could add a reasonably close second it would be Toby Ord. Ord is a young Australian whose work has already had huge real-world impacts in effective altruism (how can philanthropy be most effective) and the way society thinks about existential human risks. His recent book, The Precipice, was published in 2019 and analysed risks such as comet collisions with Earth, unaligned artificial intelligence and pandemics… 

Covid restrictions have of course played havoc on the economy and our personal lives in the past 18 months – how have you been coping personally with lockdowns?

I arrived back in Australia on the very day mandatory hotel quarantine was introduced, so in some sense, everything since then has been a breeze! But to be honest, lockdown hasn’t affected me that much and I’m lucky to live with a really amazing partner. Over the course of lockdown, I’ve read a little more, written a little more, played tennis a little more… and spent way too much time trying to do cryptic crosswords. 

Do you see any fundamental changes to our economic systems coming about as a result of the pandemic?

I don’t know that there will be fundamental changes, but I do hope there will be positive incremental changes. One is central bank policy. It seems inevitable that at some stage there will be a review of the RBA and with luck we follow the Kiwis’ lead and ask the RBA to consider how their policies inflate financial asset and house prices – the results of which add substantial risk to the financial system and increase social inequality. The second is what happens if (or perhaps when) Australia considers how to reduce the COVID fiscal debt. I am hopeful that we will consider land and inheritance taxes for reasons of fairness, rather than simply taxing people more for doing productive things like going to work. 

As a consultant and Fellow of The Ethics Centre, what does a normal day look like for you?

My days are pretty structured, but the work is really variable.   

My consulting focus is on issues at the intersection of finance, economics and government, such as sustainable and ethical business and investment. That might be working on an infrastructure project with an investment bank or government; undertaking a taxation system review for a not-for-profit; or working on ethical and sustainable investing frameworks and opportunities with various institutions, including with The Ethics Centre, which has been fantastic.  

As a Fellow of The Ethics Centre, my primary involvement is through writing articles on public policy issues, with the aim of teasing out the relevant philosophical components. Questioning purpose, meaning and morality is part of being human. And it is also something we all do, all of the time. Yet there are very few forums to engage on these topics in a constructive and meaningful way. The Ethics Centre provides a forum to have these conversations and debates, and does so outside of any particular political, corporate or media lens. I think this is a huge contribution that really strengthens the Australian social fabric, so I feel really lucky to be involved with The Ethics Centre community. 

Lastly, the big one – what does ethics mean to you?

That certainly is the big one! I tend to think about ethics on both a personal and social basis. 

On a personal basis, to me, ethics is about determining how best to live your life, informed by such things as your family’s values, social norms, logic and religion. Determining your “ideal life” so to speak. It is then about the decisions made in trying to achieve that ideal, failing to achieve that ideal, and then trying again. 

On a social basis, to me, a large part of ethics is the fairness of our social institutions. Our political institutions, legal frameworks, economic systems and corporate structures, as examples. Pretty cool areas, I think.