To fix the problem of deepfakes we must treat the cause, not the symptoms

This article was written for, and first published by The Guardian. Republished with permission.

Once technology is released, it’s like herding cats. Why do we continue to let the tech sector manage its own mess?

We haven’t yet seen a clear frontrunner emerge as the Democratic candidate for the 2020 US election. But I’ve been interested in another race – the race to see which buzzword is going to be a pivotal issue in political reporting, hot takes and the general political introspection that elections bring. In 2016 it was “fake news”. “Deepfake” is shoring up as one of the leading candidates for 2020.

This week the US House of Representatives intelligence committee asked Facebook, Twitter and Google what they were planning to do to combat deepfakes in the 2020 election. And it’s a fair question. With a bit of work, deepfakes could be convincing and misleading enough to make fake news look like child’s play.

Deepfake, a portmanteau of “deep learning” and “fake”, refers to AI software that can superimpose a digital composite face on to an existing video (and sometimes audio) of a person.

The term first rose to prominence when Motherboard reported on a Reddit user who was using AI to superimpose the faces of film stars on to existing porn videos, creating (with varying degrees of realness) porn starring Emma Watson, Gal Gadot, Scarlett Johansson and an array of other female celebrities.

However, there are also a range of political possibilities. Filmmaker Jordan Peele highlighted some of the harmful potential in an eerie video produced with Buzzfeed, in which he literally puts his words in Barack Obama’s mouth. Satisfying or not, hearing Obama call US president Trump a “total and complete dipshit” is concerning, given he never said it.

Just as concerning as the potential for deepfakes to be abused is that tech platforms are struggling to deal with them. For one thing, their content moderation issues are well documented. Most recently, a doctored video of Nancy Pelosi, slowed and pitch-edited to make her appear drunk, was tweeted by Trump. Twitter did not remove the video, YouTube did, and Facebook de-ranked it in the news feed.

For another, they have already tried, and failed, to moderate deepfakes. In a laudably fast response to the non-consensual pornographic deepfakes, Twitter, Gfycat, Pornhub and other platforms quickly acted to remove them and develop technology to help them do it.

However, once technology is released it’s like herding cats. Deepfakes are a moving feast and as soon as moderators find a way of detecting them, people will find a workaround.

But while there are important questions about how to deal with deepfakes, we’re making a mistake by siloing it off from broader questions and looking for exclusively technological solutions. We made the same mistake with fake news, where the prime offender was seen to be tech platforms rather than the politicians and journalists who had created an environment where lies could flourish.

The furore over deepfakes is a microcosm for the larger social discussion about the ethics of technology. It’s pretty clear the software shouldn’t have been developed and has led – and will continue to lead – to disproportionately more harm than good. And the lesson wasn’t learned. Recently the creator of an app called “DeepNude”, designed to give a realistic approximation of how a woman would look naked based on a clothed image, cancelled the launch fearing “the probability that people will misuse it is too high”.

What the legitimate use for this app is, I don’t know, but the response is revealing in how predictable it is. Reporting triggers some level of public outcry, at which suddenly tech developers realise the error of their ways. Theirs is the conscience of hindsight: feeling bad after the fact rather than proactively looking for ways to advance the common good, treat people fairly and minimise potential harm. By now we should know better and expect more.

“Technology is a way of seeing the world. It’s a kind of promise – that we can bring the world under our control and bend it to our will.”

Why then do we continue to let the tech sector manage its own mess? Partly it’s because it is difficult, but it’s also because we’re still addicted to the promise of technology even as we come to criticise it. Technology is a way of seeing the world. It’s a kind of promise – that we can bring the world under our control and bend it to our will. Deepfakes afford us the ability to manipulate a person’s image. We can make them speak and move as we please, with a ready-made, if weak, moral defence: “No people were harmed in the making of this deepfake.”

But in asking for a technological fix to deepfakes, we’re fuelling the same logic that brought us here. Want to solve Silicon Valley? There’s an app for that! Eventually, maybe, that app will work. But we’re still treating the symptoms, not the cause.

The discussion around ethics and regulation in technology needs to expand to include more existential questions. How should we respond to the promises of technology? Do we really want the world to be completely under our control? What are the moral costs of doing this? What does it mean to see every unfulfilled desire as something that can be solved with an app?

Yes, we need to think about the bad actors who are going to use technology to manipulate, harm and abuse. We need to consider the now obvious fact that if a technology exists, someone is going to use it to optimise their orgasms. But we also need to consider what it means when the only place we can turn to solve the problems of technology is itself technological.

Big tech firms have an enormous set of moral and political responsibilities and it’s good they’re being asked to live up to them. An industry-wide commitment to basic legal standards, significant regulation and technological ethics will go a long way to solving the immediate harms of bad tech design. But it won’t get us out of the technological paradigm we seem to be stuck in. For that we don’t just need tech developers to read some moral philosophy. We need our politicians and citizens to do the same.

“At the moment we’re dancing around the edges of the issue, playing whack-a-mole as new technologies arise.”

At the moment we’re dancing around the edges of the issue, playing whack-a-mole as new technologies arise. We treat tech design and development like it’s inevitable. As a result, we aim to minimise risks rather than look more deeply at the values, goals and moral commitments built into the technology. As well as asking how we stop deepfakes, we need to ask why someone thought they’d be a good idea to begin with. There’s no app for that.

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Does the truth matter?

Beyond the headlines of the Westpac breaches

As I look back on the week of turmoil that has engulfed Westpac, my overwhelming feeling is one of sadness.

I am sad for the children whose lives may have been savaged by sexual predators using the bank’s faulty systems. I am sad for the tens of thousands of Westpac employees who may feel tainted by association with the bank’s failings. I am sad for individuals, like Brian Hartzer and Lindsay Maxsted, whom I believe will be remembered more for the manner of their parting from the bank than for all the good that they did along the way. All of them deserve better.

None of this lessens my judgement about the seriousness of the faults identified by Austrac. Nor is sadness a reason for limiting the adverse consequences borne by individuals and the company.

Rather, in the pell-mell of the moment – super-charged by media and politicians enjoying a ‘gotcha’ moment – it is easy to forget the human dimension of what has occurred – whether it be the impact on the victims of sexual exploitation or the person whose pride in their employer has been dented.

Behind the headlines, beyond the outrage, there are people whose lives are in turmoil. Some are very powerful. Some are amongst the most vulnerable in the world. They are united by the fact that they are all hurt by failures of this magnitude.

For Westpac’s part, the company has not sought to downplay the seriousness of what has occurred. There has not been any deflection of blame. There has been no attempt to bury the truth. If anything, the bank’s commitment to a thorough investigation of underlying causes has worked to its disadvantage – especially in a world that demands that the acceptance of responsibility be immediate and consequential.

The issue of responsibility has two dimensions in this particular case: one particular to Westpac and the other more general. First, there are some people who are revelling in Westpac’s fall from grace. Many in this group oppose Westpac’s consistently progressive position on issues like sustainability, Indigenous affairs, etc. Some take particular delight in seeing the virtuous stumble. However, this relatively small group is dwarfed by the vast number of people who engage with the second dimension – the sense that we have passed beyond the days of responsible leadership of any kind.

I suspect that Westpac and its leadership are part of the ‘collateral damage’ caused by the destruction of public trust in institutions and leadership more generally.

When was the last time a government minister, of any party in any Australian government, resigned because of a failure in their department? Why are business leaders responsible for everything good done by a company – but never any of its failures?

Some people think that the general public doesn’t notice this … or that they do not care. They’re wrong on both counts. I suspect that the general public has had a gut-full of the hypocrisy. They want to know why the powerless constantly being held to account while the powerful escape all sanction?

I think that this is the fuel that fed the searing heat applied to Westpac and its leadership earlier this week. The issues in Westpac were always going to invite criticism but this was amplified by a certain schadenfreude amongst Westpac’s critics and the general public’s anger at leaders who refuse to accept responsibility.

So, what are we to make of this?

One of the lessons that people should keep in mind when they volunteer for a leadership role is that strategic leaders are always responsible; even when they are not personally culpable for what goes wrong on their watch. This is not fair. It’s not fair that a government minister be presumed to know of everything that is going on in their department. It’s not fair to expect company directors or executives to know all that is done in their name. It is not fair.

However, it is necessary that this completely unrealistic expectation, this ‘fiction’, be maintained and that leaders act as if it were true. Otherwise, the governance of complex organisations and institutions will collapse. Then things that are far worse than our necessary fictions will emerge to fill the void; the grim alternatives of anarchy or autocracy.

It’s sad that we have come to a point where this even needs to be said.

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Scapegoating or solutions?

10 ways to support better decisions

Across every project and conversation we engage in, one theme is abundantly clear: ethics is about making good decisions.

Helping people and organisations to make their way through complex decisions is at the core of what we do at The Ethics Centre. Our Executive Director, Dr Simon Longstaff, who joined the Centre 30 years ago as our very first employee, says this has always been at the core of our work.

“A lot of people, when they hear the word ‘ethics’, think it’s about codes or compliance or being holier than thou.” Simon explains.

“But I have never thought of ethics like that. Instead, ethics is about everyday decision making, with the knowledge that each of these choices shapes the world in some way.”

We’re living in an age of unprecedented change and increasing complexity. In times like these, those who lead and guide us, and the institutions we rely on, need ethics more than ever before – as do our children.

The activities outlined in the 2018-19 Annual Review showcase our work and attest to our ongoing capacity to generate impact in the world – advocating for ethics, and guiding quality decision making and choices that are good and right.

We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to our supporters for believing in us and sharing in our passion for a better world. We are proud to share the highlights of another busy, fruitful year with you:

We returned a new and powerful Festival of Dangerous Ideas, bigger and better than ever to a sold-out crowd of 14,000+ seats. FODI explored big realities and sharp new ideas across 28 sessions, with 41 speakers and performers, along with an art program that offered new ways of exploring the hard truths that lie ahead. Watch the recap here.

We advocated for eight key principles for ethical technology, by developing a guide for industry to inform design. With technology shaping us as much as we shape it, ethical consideration is imperative from the outset – and we’ve seen many examples of the fallout when we don’t. We’ve shared our research with major tech players including Atlassian, start-ups, individuals and the NSW and federal governments, to inform their work across the year. You can download the guide here.

We explored the multifaceted issues we face as part the human experience, in our event programs throughout the year. Over 8,000 people joined us to delve deeper and work through the often divisive issues we face such as free speech, our reliance on fossil fuels, immigration, messing up, telling lies, and hedonism. View our past programs here.

We informed powerful cultural change at Cricket Australia, in a major review into the national governing body for the game in Australia.In the wake of the famous ball-tampering incident in South Africa, we were commissioned to review their culture and subsequently made 41 recommendations for change. The review has informed large-scale positive transformation for the organisation and cricket in Australia, and inspired an international conversation around sporting ethics and governance.

We guided ethical thought and action, by publishing over 100 articles on current ethical issues, tools and resources, which were absorbed by over 600,000 readers. They examined everyday life, and addressed the topics and concerns of the moment such as Israel Folau, the Christchurch mosque shootings and genetic modification, in the hope of guiding and informing better choices.

We advocated for change at a policy level, through submissions to the Aged Care Commission, The Royal Commission into Financial Services, and Operation Eclipse, the NSW Independent Committee Against Corruption (ICAC) for ethical policies, laws and practises.

We delivered education, training, workshops and speaking engagements to 45 organisations across Australia and the Pacific. Over 4,500 people expanded their ethical leadership capabilities and ethical literacy in 65 training programs across the year.

We brought leaders together to find solutions, through The Ethics Alliance, our corporate membership program. This year saw the program deliver the first ever business ethics magazine, collaborate with members and industry to solve the ethical tensions in supply chains, and brought together leading minds to find solutions to the challenges members were facing.

We pivoted our structure to launch a new innovation department, engaged in building new products and tools to support better decision making. The team have already realised a major goal with the launch of an interactive online decision making platform called FieldKit which was released to all members of The Ethics Alliance.

We had over 350 conversations that shaped the public dialogue, speaking with a host of media from broadcast, through to print, community radio and podcasts about ethics, its importance and its role in the issues we face as a society.

Like you, we care passionately about the world we leave behind for future generations. As we approach our 30th anniversary in 2020, we look to build on 30 years of impact, to extend our reach and amplify ethics within society now and into the future.

To find out more about our work you can read our Annual Review here.

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Do your decisions matter?

The power of community to bring change

On Thursday night, a group of impassioned supporters and philanthropists gathered for a raw look at the work required to get an Ethics Centre program off the ground.

It was our very first Pitch & Pledge event – a unique crowdfunding concept by The Funding Network where charities pitch their funding needs live to a room of curious minds.

The format required three of our program leaders – Alex Hirst, Sally Murphy and Matt Beard – to take to the stage to make a six minute appeal for support for their work. Alex shared why she believes the Festival of Dangerous Ideas is critical to a tolerant society, Sally argued why more people need access to our free counselling helpline, Ethi-call, and Matt canvassed the idea of a budding young philosopher to further our work.

Following their pitches and a barrage of interesting questions from the floor, our leaders were asked to leave the room for a nail-biting window of time while guests pledged their support for their favourite program.

In an electric, emotionally charged and heartwarming hour we raised over $80,000 across the three causes, as well as further pro-bono support. We are incredibly grateful for the generosity of those who attended, and invite you to take a look at the pitches below and consider if there’s one worthy of your backing as well.

1. Support a truly independent Festival of Dangerous Ideas

Alex compelled us to realise that 10 years on from the first Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) in 2010, it’s no longer just a world of dangerous ideas we are considering – it’s the dangerous realities we need to be afraid of. Our modern world of opinion echo chambers and media algorithms that serve to confirm our biases, has lead to an inability across society to have informed and hard conversations about opposing views.

FODI is about challenging our ways of thinking, not confirming them. Sharing personal anecdotes and stories from FODI followers, Alex captured, to a rapt crowd, the sheer necessity of expansive thinking and contested ideas.

“Unchallenged ideas are after all some of the most dangerous, and they are reaching us in more ways than ever before. Reaching right into the heart of the home, and into our everyday lives.”

“If we are unable to have hard conversations, if we are untrained at listening to the ideas that we just don’t want to hear, then our ability as a society to face these dangerous realities together doesn’t exist”.

Ticket sales from the annual festival cover just 50% of festival running costs. Alex, and FODI, need support to bring critical thinking back to challenge dangerous realities in 2020.

Donate here:


2.    Help Ethi-call guide people through life’s tough decisions

Sally knows challenging situations. As a volunteer Ethi-call counsellor and manager of the service, she’s heard first-hand the difficult and often crippling dilemmas people face, and the impact a call with a trained expert can have.

In a landscape where communities are lacking connection, where neighbours don’t drop in for tea, families don’t spend quality time and friendships take place in text messages, more people feel they don’t have anyone to talk to about the challenging and tricky issues that they are facing.

Ethi-call is a free and independent service. It allows callers to share their troubles, explore their options and think about a path where perhaps there was none before.

Delicately sharing the challenges of two callers to the service, Sally showed the breadth of issues the service can help shine a light on. Whether it’s a young Australian choosing between duty and desire, the very hard choice many of us face around aged care for our ageing parents or a rural farmer forced into making the most heartbreaking choices due to drought, choice is a shared human experience and one that we don’t have to face alone.

Ethi-call only works if people use it. And to use it, they need to know it exists. Sally’s hope was to raise enough funding to let more people in need know that this vital service exists and to upgrade call technology to support additional privacy, a barrier to calling for potential users in the past.

Donate here:


3.    Plant the seed for a better ideas and fund a Young Philosopher 

Dr Matt Beard is a philosopher who knows the value of a curious mind. It’s that itch that makes you wonder why the world is the way it is, that drives you to question what you’ve learnt to find a better way. He’s spent his working life scratching that itch.

Philosophy, Matt believes, is curiosity in motion. The history of philosophy is littered with world-changers. And the history of world-changers is littered with philosophy like Martin Luther King, and the foundations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s not just that they changed the world. It’s they were fuelled by the work of philosophy and philosophers.   

At The Ethics Centre, we’ve spent thirty years developing new ideas and better worlds. We haven’t always gotten it right, and we’ve never done it alone, but there’s been one constant throughout the process – philosophy. From Primary Ethics in schools teaching children how to think critically, to Short & Curly downloaded over one million times, to Ethical by Design, a research paper that introduces much needed principles for designing ethical technology.

As one of just two philosophers on our staff, Matt says there are less philosophers, and less diversity of ideas than we need to address all the issues rising up out of the cracks in Australia. He says the ideas and possibilities for creating powerful positive change are endless, such as teaching ethics classes prisons, lowering recidivism rates, rethinking media ethics and the limits of free speech or understanding and addressing hate speech and political division in Australia. 

But what we don’t have is the capital to support growing our staff. With more funding we can recruit, mentor and house the next generation of budding young philosophers at The Ethics Centre.

Donate here:

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Do we have to choose between being a good parent and good at our job?

I’m half writing this, half thinking about whether it is the best use of a few precious, toddler-free moments.

“Framing the issue of work-life balance – as if the two were dramatically opposed – practically ensures work will lose out. Who would ever choose work over life?” writes work-life guru Sheryl Sandberg.

Who indeed?

Well, for one, those who can’t afford to walk away from a job. Unless you’re living very comfortably, you’ll usually be forced to choose work over life. But even setting aside the many people who find themselves in that situation, it’s not clear we live in a world that enables people to choose life over work. Take me, for example.

Today is Friday. It’s the beginning of my three-day weekend. Thanks to flexible working arrangements, Friday is my father-son day. We go to the park, get errands done, pop out to the zoo – it’s brilliant, and I wouldn’t swap it for anything. You’d think I’m the perfect demonstration of Sandberg’s argument, but I’ve got itchy feet. So here I am, writing an op-ed.

Or rather, I’m half writing, half thinking about whether this is the best use of a few precious, toddler-free moments. Would I rather get things done around the house and revel in the simple, domestic bliss of a clean kitchen or a floor free of stickers, marbles and other paraphernalia?

I feel this back-and-forth all the time. It’s a war of identities: the professional version of me is ambitious, busy, focused and demanding; domestic me is patient, spontaneous and calm (for the most part). To be honest, it’s exhausting, and it’s beginning to make me think we haven’t fully figured out what work-life balance really means.

At the moment, we think about work-life balance in terms of the way we allocate our time. A well-balanced life is one in which you can leave work at a reasonable hour, spend enough time on parental or annual leave with loved ones, and where parents can balance care obligations to enable both people to have flourishing lives and careers.

“A well-balanced life is one in which you can leave work at a reasonable hour, spend enough time on parental or annual leave with loved ones, and where parents can balance care obligations to enable both people to have flourishing lives and careers.”

A look at recent proposals in the work-life balance seems to support this: the four-day working weekgender-balanced leave policiesemail restrictions and unlimited annual leave all march to the beat of the time-maximisation drum.

This is where I think Sandberg is right – there is something wrong with painting work and life as diametrically opposed, but it’s not what she thinks. It’s because it permits a world in which “work” and “life” are kept totally separate and are permitted to operate according to different norms and values.

My favourite example of this is the unintended viral sensation Robert Kelly, his kids Marion and James and his wife Jung-a Kim, who together conspired to make the best couple of minutes of television in BBC history. After the incident, Kelly copped criticism from some circles for failing to be a good father because he didn’t scoop his daughter up and pop her on his knee during an international broadcast interview. By contrast, the BBC praised Kelly for his professionalism.

Whether Kelly did the right thing or not depends on how you define him in that precise moment. Was he a father or a professor? For Kelly, in the midst of that moment, the dilemma is the same: who should he choose to be, right now?

Unfortunately, based on our current norms around professionalism, he can’t be both at the same time. According to the scripts he seems to have been judged by, Kelly needed to be detached, rational and stoic and simultaneously warm, unconditionally affectionate and responsive. And this is why I think the work-life balance discussion needs to go beyond time and begin to think about identity. We need to permit people to express their domestic identities in the workplace – to redefine what it means to be professional so that it’s not unrecognisable to the people who know us in our personal lives.

These are all good things, but I’m not sure they can do the job on their own. Australian men often don’t take all the parental leave they’re entitled to. There’s little point giving people all this time if those people don’t know what to do with it, or aren’t equipped to use it as they should.

“As we continue to deconstruct unhelpful, gendered divisions of labour that force women to take on domestic and emotional labour and leave men to seek paid employment, there’s a good chance more people are going to start facing these choices – between professional and domestic life.”

“As we continue to deconstruct unhelpful, gendered divisions of labour that force women to take on domestic and emotional labour and leave men to seek paid employment, there’s a good chance more people are going to start facing these choices – between professional and domestic life.”

This isn’t just important for wellbeing. Bringing “domestic virtues” of emotional expressiveness, vulnerability and the like into the workforce helps shape people’s character. Our environments shape who we are. The more we’re encouraged to be competitive, ambitious or whatever else in the workplace, the harder it will be to switch gears and express patience, humility or generosity at home.

The purpose of work-life balance is to help people to flourish, live happy lives outside of work and develop into well-rounded human beings. If we’re going to do that, we need to let people be well-rounded at work too.

This article was written for, and first published by  The Guardian. Republished with permission.

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Is work-life balance possible?

We are pitching for your pledge

In celebration of our 30th anniversary which kicks off in November this year, we are preparing our very first live-crowdfunding ‘Pitch + Pledge’ night on Thursday 14 November.

Meet and hear directly from leaders of three of our flagship programs: The Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Ethi-call and our Young Philosopher initiative. Each speaker will pitch live on stage for six minutes each, and then answer the audiences questions. What follows is an unforgettable live-pledging experience, based on The Funding Network’s popular format.


1. Support a Truly Independent Festival of Dangerous Ideas

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas is Australia’s original big thinking festival – bringing leading minds from around the world to explore life’s most problematic and divisive issues.

Delivered in partnership with Sydney Opera House for almost a decade, last year marked the start of an exciting new phase for FODI as we branched out on our own. The 2018 festival was a triumphant sell-out, and audiences told us they walked away with a feast of new ideas and perspectives.

While FODI is well-attended and widely loved, it’s also a hugely risky and expensive event to stage. Our insistence on finding the best international storytellers, and keeping ticket prices affordable for broad audiences, pushes us into uncomfortable financial territory.

Your support will help us stage FODI as a break-even event, and allow us to keep doing it, year after year.


2.    Help Us Reach More People in Need with Ethi-call  

We’re enormously proud of Ethi-call. It’s our free, independent, national helpline available to all. The service provides expert and impartial guidance to help people make their way through life’s toughest challenges, when there’s nowhere else to turn.

Calls can be about almost anything – from professional issues (fraud, corruption, conflicts of interests) through to the deeply personal (birth, death, relationships, families).

There’s no other service like Ethi-call, so we receive calls from all over Australia, and all over the world. Your assistance will allow us to train more counsellors and ensure more people in need know the service exists.


3.    Fund a Young Philosopher  

Thirty years ago, a young philosopher with a keen interest in ethics and democracy, Dr Simon Longstaff, was appointed as The Ethics Centre’s first employee and Executive Director – a position he continues to hold today.

We’ve engaged a number of budding minds over the years to bring fresh thinking to our work, most recently Dr Matthew Beard, who plays an increasingly vital role in what we do.

We’re seeking funding to secure another bright young philosopher into our team – to apply their learnings to deliver insights and tools to help people build the skills and capacity to live according to their values and principles.


An opportunity to create a ripple effect of change 

It will be a highly engaging and memorable evening for everyone involved and is an opportunity for you to get involved in some very exciting, critical projects here at The Ethics Centre.

We are putting our hearts and work on the line for your support. Pitch and Pledge will kick off at 5.30pm Thursday 14 November, at Clayton Utz offices, 1 Bligh St Sydney. Pledging starts from $100.

Please RSVP to with your details and your guests’ names to book your place to join us.


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Ethics Explainer: Peter Singer on charitable giving

Most people believe it is a good idea to help out others in need, if and when we can. If someone falls over in front of us, we usually stop to see if they need a hand or to check if they are OK.

Donating to charity is also considered to be helping others in need, but we may not always see the person we are helping in this case. Even so, charitable donations are viewed as praiseworthy in our society. We receive a sticker for placing spare change into a coin collection tin, and our donations are tax deductible.

Yet most people see donating to charity as a ‘nice thing to do’, but perhaps not a ‘duty’, obligation or requirement. In Kantian terms, it is ‘supererogatory’, meaning that it is praiseworthy, but above and beyond the call of duty.

However, Peter Singer defends a stronger stance. He argues that we should help others – however we can. All of us. This may look different for different people. It could involve donating money, time, signing petitions, or passing along old clothes to those who need them, for example.

If we can help, then we should, Singer argues, because it results in the greatest overall good. The small efforts of those who can do something greatly reduce the pain and suffering of those who need welfare.

In order to illustrate this argument, Singer provides us with a compelling thought experiment.


The ‘drowning child’ thought experiment

From his 1972 article, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, Singer starts with a basic principle:

“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 reasonable. He backs this claim up with the following concrete example:

“An application of this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing”.

Obviously, we agree, we should save the child from drowning, even if it comes with the inconvenience and cost of ruining some of our favourite, expensive clothes and shoes. The moral ‘weight’ of saving a life far outweighs the cost in this scenario.

Yet, Singer extends this claim even further.

He notes that if we agree with this principle, then what follows from it is quite radical. If we act on the idea that we should always prevent very bad things from happening, provided we are not sacrificing anything too costly to ourselves, this makes a moral demand upon us.

The biggest implication is that, for Singer, it does not matter whether the drowning child is right in front of us, or in another country on the other side of the world. The principle is one of impartiality, universalizability and equality.

I can easily donate the cost of a new pair of shoes to a respected charitable organisation and save a life with the funds from that donation. In the same way as a moral agent would wade into the pond to rescue the drowning child, we can make some relatively small effort that prevents a very bad thing from occurring.

The ‘very bad thing’ may be that a child in a developing country starves to death or dies because their family cannot afford the treatment for a simple disease.


The expanding moral circle

Now, even for those in favour of charitable giving, some may argue that our duty to help does not extend beyond national borders. It is easier to help the child ‘right in front of us’, they may say. Our moral circle of concern includes our family and friends, and perhaps our fellow Australians.

But I am convinced by Singer’s argument that we ought to expand our moral circle of consideration to those in other countries, to those who live on planet Earth with us. The moral obligation to alleviate suffering has no borders.

And we are now most certainly ‘global citizens’. Thanks to our technology and growing awareness of what occurs around the globe, we have outgrown a nationalistic model and clearly inhabit an international world.


Global Citizens

In his 2002 book, One World: the ethics of globalisation, Singer supports the notion of the global citizen which views all human beings as members of a single, global community. The global citizen is someone who recognises others as more similar to rather than different from oneself, even while taking seriously individual, social, cultural and political differences between people.

In a pragmatic sense, global citizens will support policies that extend aid beyond national borders and cultivate respectful and reciprocal relationships with others regardless of geographical distance or other differences (such as those related to race, religion, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, or gender identification).

For a long time now, Singer has also been pointing out that we are all responsible for important issues that are affecting each and every one of us. Back in 1972, he claimed, “unfortunately, most of the major evils – poverty, overpopulation, pollution – are problems in which everyone is almost equally involved.”

And, with our technology, media and the 24 hour news cycle, we are now confronted with the pain and suffering of those distant others in ways that ensure they are immediately present to us. We can no longer claim ignorance of the help required by others, as social media brings their images and pleas directly to our handheld devices.

So, do we have an obligation to alleviate suffering wherever it is found? Does this obligation extend beyond national borders? Should we do what we can to prevent very bad things from happening, provided in doing so we do not have to sacrifice anything too drastic or comparable? (for instance, we need not reduce ourselves to the levels of poverty of those we seek to assist in doing so).

If you answered yes, then you may already think of yourself as a global citizen.

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Are you morally obliged to help a person in need?

Ethics Explainer: Agape

How many people do you think we can love? Can we love everyone? Can we love everyone equallyThe answers to these questions obviously depend on what the nature of this kind of love is, and what it looks like or demands of us in practice.  

 “Love is all you need”  

Agape is a form of love that is commonly referred to as ‘neighbourly love, the love ethic, or sometimes ‘universal love’. It rests on the idea that all people are our ‘brothers and sisters’ who deserve our care and respect. Agape invites us to actively consider and act upon the interests of other people, in more-or-less the same proportion as you consider (and usually act upon) your own interests.  

We can trace the concept back to Ancient Greece, a time in which they had more than one word to describe various kinds of love. Commonly, useful distinctions can be made between eros, philia, and agape. 

Eros is the kind of love we most often associate with romantic partners, particularly in the early stages of a love affair. It’s the source of English words like ‘erotic’ and ‘erotica’.  

Philia generally refers to the affection felt between friends or family members. It is non-sexual in nature and usually reciprocal. It is characterised by a mutual good will that manifests in friendship.  

Although both eros and philia have others as their focus, they can both entail a kind of self-interest or self-gratification (after allin an ideal world our friends and lovers both give us pleasure).  

Agape is often contrasted to these kinds of love because it lacks self-interest, self-gratification or self-preservation. It is motivated by the interest and welfare of all others. It is global and compassionate, rather than focussed on a single individual or a few people. 

Another significant difference between agape and other forms of love is that we choose and cultivate agape. It’s not something that ‘happens’ to us like becoming a friend or falling romantically in love, it’s something we work toward. It is often considered praiseworthy and holds the lover to a high moral standard.  

Agape is a form of love that values each person regardless of their individual characteristics or behaviour. In this way it is usually contrasted to eros or philia, where we usually value and like a person because of their characteristics.  


Agape in traditional texts  

 The concept of agape we now have has been strongly influenced by the Christian tradition. It symbolises the love God has for people, and the love we (should) have for God in return. By extension, if we love our ‘neighbours’ (others) as we do God, then we should also love everyone else in a universal and unconditional manner, simply because they are created in the likeness of God. 

The Jesus narrative asks followers to act with love (agape) regardless of how they feel. This early Christian ethical tradition encourages us to “love thy neighbour as thyself”. In the Buddhist tradition K’ung Fu-tzu (Confucius) similarly says, “Work for the good of others as you would work for your own good.”  

Another great exponent of this ethic of love is Mahatma Gandhi who lived, worked, and died to keep this transcendent idea of universal love alive. Gandhi was known for saying, “Hate the sin, love the sinner”.  

Advocates for non-violent resistance and pacifism that include Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon and Yoko Ono also refer to the power of love as a unifying force that can overcome hate and remind us of our common humanity, regardless of our individual differences.   

Such ideology rests on principles that are resonant with agape, urging us to love all people and forgive them for whatever wrongs we believe they have committed. In this way, agape sets a very high moral standard for us to follow.  

However, this idea of generalised, unconditional love leaves us with an important and challenging question: it is possible for human beings to achieve? And if so, how far may it extend? Can we really love the whole of humanity? 

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Can we love everyone, equally?

Look at this: the power of women taking nude selfies

The continuing moral panic over women’s naked selfies is fundamentally misframed. By emphasising the potential for women to be made victims, we ignore the ways a woman’s body can be an expression of power.

According to the prevailing moral panic of the day, young women take naked selfies in order to please others and not themselves. This, we’re told, leaves them vulnerable to exploitation because women must always be vulnerable.

It’s as though the only mystery afforded to women is not their thoughts or talents but what lies underneath their clothes. Go no deeper than the skin.  Deny any complexity that might present her as a human with needs separate from what men may want.

This seems to be a narrative we teach teenagers. My daughter was taught that not only was there no legal recourse for photos shared without consent (untrue) but that the effects on women were so catastrophic that they should never send a naked photo (also, untrue). This happened on International Women’s Day, as if to remind us of our to-do list.

Inevitably, they learn what we teach. When I worked with teens on a short film, they told me how boys pestered every girl in their class for naked selfies. The girls didn’t even think it was sexual; more of a competitive collection like Pokemon Go but for undeveloped breasts. The requests were thought of as frustrating but normal, because “that’s just how they are”. Yet despite the mundanity of such a frequent request, the same teens sincerely believed leaked selfies would hound a woman to her grave.

Naked selfies carry many gendered clashes. I’ve always gasped at the difference between gendered aesthetics: I’ll rush to clean my room, groom and put on makeup before getting into an appropriate outfit of sorts before painstakingly composing shots; men just send a close-up photo of their cock jutting from a thicket of pubes.

It’s an effective example of the differences between the male and female gaze. A woman prepares because she is conditioned to know what men find attractive and that she is expected to deliver that. Men, conditioned to expect immediate access regardless of merit, put almost zero thought into their selfies. In the rare case they do, they project an image of themselves they want to see, rather than women who mirror what men want to see.

This positioning reinforces the power dynamic in heterosexual sexting. Men expect entertainment and women entertain at threat of exposure (also expected).


But why does the power lie with men?

On image sharing site Imgur, men enthusiastically share photos of naked women, even creating themed days for certain ‘types’ of women. But the images presented reflect the male gaze – photos taken of women, not by women.

Generally, whenever women posted selfies on Imgur, sexualised or not, she was immediately inundated with caustic remarks to stop being an exhibitionist (a polite euphemism for attention whore). That these are the same men who think nothing of going into a woman’s DMs to ask for naked photos is just another layer to it all. There is a clear mode of production, where women are the object and men remain in control of when and how they are seen. This is where the phrase “tits or get the fuck out” shows its intent: give us the body parts, not the entire body.

Perhaps this is because it is easier to sexually appreciate an object that has not been humanised or seen as an individual. When things are anonymised or presented in such a volume that they lose all semblance of individuality, they become an object that can be appreciated or abused without shame

The power balance still rests with men – naked women are objects men readily expect, and demand to be presented in anticipated service of them. In this position of power, men expect women to arouse them, yet rarely consider whether women are aroused. Amazingly, we rarely discuss whether women find joy or pleasure in taking naked selfies, whether for themselves or others because we can’t move past women’s seemingly inevitable victimhood.

I’ve taken naked selfies for well over a decade. I first worried if photos might leak but, somewhat ironically, this concern has disappeared as I do more work in public. In Doing It: Women Tell the Truth About Great Sex, an anthology about sex, I wrote of how selfies can become graphic storytelling that not only builds intimacy but also an understanding of my sexuality and my sexual aesthetic pleasure. It is a power I never want to give up, so the book also contains a naked photo of me I had taken for a lover. It is a deliberate attempt to interrupt the means of production and also claim space within my sexuality, one that is defined by myself, not others.

A cropped version of the selfie published in Doing It (Image: author provided)

When the photo was republished (with consent) by SBS, I wrote that “this is not some wishy-washy Stockholm syndrome masquerading as empowerment – there is ferocity in my choice”. It remains true today. By claiming my agency as an individual who feels pleasure and expression, I realise that confidence is not only crucial for my personal survival under patriarchy framed solely for men, but it is also a political act I can define as I choose. It makes me aware that my body, choices and actions are decided by me without reference to others’ expectations and that I contain greater complexity the roles of servant or victim that society allows.

Around this time, Mia Freedman wrote an article entitled ‘The conversation we have to have: Stop taking nude selfies’. Promoting the article on Twitter, Freedman wrote “taking nude selfies is your absolute right. So is smoking. Both come with massive risks.” In response, I took another naked selfie, but this time with a cigarette draped from my mouth and ‘fuck off’ written on my chest in black lipstick. I posted it everywhere without care because – again – my body, choices and actions are decided by me. I made the choice that and every day is that I will not have victims presented as complicit in their abuse. Because the fault will always be with the abuser, not the abused.

The nude selfie as a political act (Image: author provided)

An act of power

Despite their conflicting emotions, publishing naked selfies taken in either arousal or anger are fearsome in their power. They are as much a rejection of victimhood as they are an opportunity for retribution. People can try to weaponise my body against me, but I will do it first and use it against them because I know its power.

This is why patriarchal structures and men condition women into submissive disempowerment. Women’s bodies are defined narrowly as vessels for pleasures and service for others, not ourselves. Such narrow and compliant definitions intentionally belie the power and complexity we contain.

Stories abound throughout history of the malevolent power of women’s bodies, so profound was male unease surrounding bloods and births. Women were told their vaginas ruined ship rope or their menstruation damned success. This was an admission women’s bodies were terrifying in their otherness but was also an excuse to contain them to the home rather than out in the community where they might gain power or control.

But history tells us many women believed in the power of their bodies. Balkan women would stand out in the fields, flashing their vaginas to the sky to quell thunderstorms. The Finnish believed in the magic of harakointi, using their exposed bodies to bless or curse on whim. Sheela-na-gigs (carvings of women often found in European architecture) embraced their power by spreading their labia, not to please or welcome men, but scare off evil. Women would lift their skirts to make others laugh in feasts for Roman gods and goddesses or lure lovers. More recently, women have exposed their bodies to protest petroleum in Nigeria or civil war in Liberia in acts of political, angry anasyrma.


Anasyrma – hitching up the skirt to reveal what’s beneath – has been a practice of female power around the world. (Image: Jean de la Fontaine, Nouveaux Contes)

Reframing the dialogue

The continuing moral panic over women’s naked selfies is fundamentally misframed. Women are presented as passively-defensive vessels in a state of perpetual victimhood. We are tasked with hiding our shameful-yet-coveted nakedness from people who expect to see us but only under their strict conditions.

A truer representation is that power exerts in all manners of life, including how we sexually communicate as equal, consenting partners. The moral panic should focus on when power corrupts that balance and how to correct it, not how to maintain the same corruption.

Join us as on 18 September for an an intimate conversation with Sexologist, Nikki Goldstein and art curator Jackie Dunn to unwrap the ethical dimensions of being nude. Get your ticket to The Ethics of Nudity here

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Is their power in the naked form?

We live in an opinion economy, and it’s exhausting

This is the moment when I’m finally going to get my Advanced Level Irony Badge. I’m going to write an opinion piece on why we shouldn’t have so many opinions.

I’ve spent all morning bashing my head against the wall, trying to figure out my ‘take’ on the issue of the day. This time, it’s the Sydney stabbings. What’s the right angle? Is it about extremism, masculinity and misogyny, the media’s erasure of Michaela Dunn’s personhood in favour of her chosen profession? I’ve read though article after article, followed the conversations on Twitter and tried to find something new and valuable to offer. I don’t have anything to say – and I think that’s a good thing.

Partly, that’s because the facts of the matter are still unrolling (In case you weren’t sure of that, just look for the countless awkward uses of the word “allegedly” in articles discussing the incident). We have a bad habit of explaining events before we’ve fully understood them and I don’t think that helps anybody.

But I think it goes deeper than this. The expectation that we don’t just know what is happening in the world but have a view on whether that thing is good or bad is bad for us. It makes us miserable and morally immature. It creates a culture in which we’re not encouraged to hold opinions for their value as ways of explaining the world. Instead, their job is to be exchanged – a way of identifying us as a particular kind of person: a thinker.

If you’re someone who spends a lot of time reading media, you’ve probably done this – and seen other people do this. In conversations about an issue of the day, people exchange views on the subject – but most of them aren’t their views. They are the views of someone else. Some columnist, a Twitter account they follow, what they heard on Waleed Aly’s latest monologue on The Project. And they then trade these views like grown-up Pokémon cards, fighting battles they have no stake in, whose outcome doesn’t matter to them.

This is one of many things the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had in mind when he wrote about the problems with the mass media almost two centuries ago. Kierkegaard, borrowing the phrase “renters of opinion” from fellow philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, wrote that journalism:

“makes people doubly ridiculous. First, by making them believe it is necessary to have an opinion – and this is perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of the matter: one of those unhappy, inoffensive citizens who could have such an easy life, and then the journalist makes him believe it is necessary to have an opinion. And then to rent them an opinion which, despite its inconsistent quality, is nevertheless put on and carried around as an article of necessity.”

What Kierkegaard spotted then is just as true today – the mass media wants us to have opinions. It wants us to be emotional, outraged, moved by what happens. Moreover, the uneasy relationship between social media platforms and media companies makes this worse. Social media platforms also want us to have strong opinions. They want us to keep sharing content, returning to their site, following moment-by-moment for updates.

Part of the problem, of course, is that so many of these opinions are just bad. For every straight-to-camera monologue, must-read op-ed or ground-breaking 7:30 report, there is a myriad of stuff that doesn’t add anything to our understanding. Not only that, it gets in the way. It exhausts us, overwhelms us and obstructs real understanding, which takes time, information and (usually) expert analysis.

Again, Kierkegaard sees this problem unrolling in his own time. “Everyone today can write a fairly decent article about all and everything; but no one can or will bear the strenuous work of following through a single solitary thought into the most tenuous logical ramifications.” We just don’t have the patience today to sit with an issue for long enough to resolve it. Before we’ve gotten a proper answer to one issue, the media, the public and everyone else chasing eyes, ears, hearts and minds has moved on to whatever’s next on the List of Things to Care About.

So, if you’re reading the news today and wondering what you should make of it, I release you. You don’t have to have the answers. You can be an excellent citizen and person without needing something interesting to say about everything. If you find yourself in a conversation with your colleagues, mates or even your kids, you don’t need to have the answers. Sometimes, a good question will do more to help you both work out what you do and don’t know.

This is not an argument to stop caring about the world around us. Instead, it’s an argument to suggest that we need to rethink the way we’ve connected caring about something with having an opinion about something.

Caring about a person, or a community, means entering into a relationship with them that enables them to flourish. When we look at the way our fast-paced media engages with people – reducing a woman, daughter, friend and victim of a crime to her profession, for instance – it’s not obvious this is making us care. It’s selling us a watered-down version of care that frees us of the responsibility to do anything other than feel.

Of course, this is possible. Journalistic interventions, powerful opinion-driven content and social media movements can – and have – made meaningful change in society. They have made people care. I wonder if those moments are striking precisely because they are infrequent. By making opinions part of our social and economic capital, we’ve increased the frequency with which we’re told to have them, but alongside everything else, it might have diluted their power to do anything significant.

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Are we all too opinionated?