Of late, I have been thinking about how to describe the impact of the work done by The Ethics Centre. It’s a surprisingly difficult thing to do because our greatest impact typically lies in our influence on what does NOT happen.

For example, when we assist or inspire a person to step back from making a disastrous decision, there is nothing to measure. We can measure the cost of disasters. We can measure the impact of the response to disasters. However, how do we measure the impact of a disaster averted? 

Let’s consider this in a wider context. My abiding sense of today’s world is that we remain on the cusp of epoch-defining change. The sense of what is before us has led me back to binge-reading vast swathes of science fiction – and the worlds I encounter there are recognisably connected to our own. Yet, the unbounded power of the authors’ imagination invites the reader to be equally bold in contemplating ‘what might be’. Wondering about ‘what might be’ leads us to the realisation that we are each responsible, at least in part, for the future that actually emerges. 

The future does not just happen. It is made. And we are its authors.

And that is why ethics matters. It is humanity’s best tool for the avoidance of disastrously bad decisions – and the nightmare worlds that emerge from them. More optimistically, ethics equips us to make brilliantly good decisions – and the wonderous possibilities that they entail. 

We can see this at work in one topical example; the rise and rise of CHATGPT – the most famous of a growing suite of expert systems that already have the capacity to transform our lives. Predictably, there has been a slew of prophecies about the likelihood of both utopian and dystopian futures. The emergence of new technology is always accompanied by excessively optimistic and pessimistic views about its likely effects. 

Less predictably, some of the architects of this technology have urged caution. Their call for a measure of self-restraint is not grounded in fear. They simply argue that it is irresponsible to unleash a powerful, transformative force without understanding what we do. In essence, we need to set the ethical parameters within which AI should be developed and deployed. If we get this right, then sound ethics will inform policy and practice that averts all manner of mischief. Yet, the impact of ethical restraint will go unmeasured. Despite this, The Ethics Centre remains actively engaged in work to support the development of ‘responsible AI’ – as evidenced by our joining the Responsible AI Network (RAIN) being led by the CSIRO.  

The Centre’s work is aligned to three strategic priorities. First, we seek to exemplify and support good decision making. Second, we work to maintain an open civic space within which the issues facing our society can be discussed – even when there is much room for disagreement. Finally, we seek to strengthen the ‘ethical infrastructure’ of our society – so that they become trustworthy to the extent that the community will rely on its key institutions to exercise good judgement in the public interest. This is especially important to any society that faces major change. For example, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy raises the spectre that some communities (typically linked to older forms of power generation) will bear a disproportionate share of the burdens, while others reap the benefits. If we cannot trust our governments, businesses, regulators, or other institutions to get the balance right, then reform will be slowed or halted – to the detriment of all.  

The economic cost of broken ‘ethical infrastructure’ is immense. As Deloitte Access Economics has estimated, a mere ten percent increase in ethics would, by itself, generate an additional $45 Billion dollars per annum in improved GDP. Even more remarkable is that this economic return could be generated, over time, with a one-off investment of only $30 Million in funds. It’s hard to think of a better return on investment. Yet, it remains elusive. 

What Australia needs is a truly national institution to help the nation lean into the challenges we face. It needs to become a trusted source of advice for governments and other key decision makers. It needs to build the capacity of our nation’s leaders, in the public and private sectors, to make good decisions – across the board. It needs to support our institutions in their efforts to regain public trust. Only then, will the community allow itself to accept the fundamental reforms that will be necessary to make the most of the future. 

The establishment of such an institution will be especially important in its implications for the generations of younger Australians who so readily embrace ethics – in a way that surpasses earlier generations who looked to organised religion for guidance. That is why the Centre is investing in a new youth strategy to engage, at an early stage, with the ethical leaders of the future. 

The immediate effects of a significant investment in ethics will be impossible to see. The increase in prosperity will inevitably be attributed to the wisdom of those in power. What will remain invisible are the many acts of folly that sound ethics will have prevented.  

That is our conundrum. It is also why we are so deeply grateful for the support provided to us by the individuals, foundations and organisations who support our work. The Ethics Centre begins every financial year without a cent of income ‘locked in’. Nobody ‘needs’ ethics … until they do. So, we remain vulnerable. But, perhaps, that might be one of our greatest strengths – because it keeps the Centre attuned to the fundamental needs of society. Irrelevance is not an option. 

So, next time things go better than expected, spare a thought for the possibility that it was the invisible hand of ethics (and not the market) that produced the result. With luck – and the generous support of our donors – we can strengthen that hand for a better future. 


With your support, The Ethics Centre can continue to be the leading, independent advocate for bringing ethics to the centre of everyday life in Australia. Click here to make a tax deductible donation today.