Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Why I am not in the ALP

"I try to think of the Labor movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective - the light on the hill - which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for."
Chifley, Prime Minister and Australian Labour Party member, 1949

"If we vote for the political equivalent of the crazy warehouse guy ('All the services you want at half the price!! Why pay more?) we shouldn't be surprised when we get policies built to fall apart as soon as the press conference is over."
Davis & Lyons, 2010

"Philosophy in terms of both these party's (Labour and Liberal) died about a decade ago..."
Tony Windsor, Independent 2010

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

When Sorry Isn't Enough

"Suck on that faggots"
Stephanie Rice, Twitter

Rice has apologised for writing the above, announced she is not homophobic and fellow swimmer Matthew Mitcham has also come out backing her on the 'not homophobic' claim. This little incident is not only an interesting study in technology and the dissolution of the public/private domains, but also in the nature of public apologies and homophobia.
Apologies in our personal lives are common place, we all know the expectations; you acknowledge you have hurt someone else, take responsibility for it and then attempt to make amends. The person you apologise to then has the option to accept, and of course more often than not in the context of close-knit social bonds they do. However this is not the script used in Rices case. It seems to me that in fact this is an apology put on its head, as many apologies are when done by public figures.
Look at the dynamic; concern was raised about a homophobic comment; Rice responds by making it all about her. She is 'not homophobic', she mentions how tough it has been for her, and of course she cries. A classic PR exercise, we now feel sorry for her, see her more as a person, subtly shift our psychological disposition towards her and realise she did not really mean to hurt anyone any way. That is fine, if you are a child.
We expect less of children when it comes to saying sorry. Sometimes we even accept proxy apologies through parents if the child is too young to have enough moral sense. But from adults we expect the acknoweldgment, the taking responsibility, the making reparations script. This is for good reason- adults are autonomous moral agents and should be treated as such. That entails good will and trust combined with accountability and responsibility. Rice has turned the gaze of concern from the homophobic comment, to herself- the centre of attention who has had a rough time and now needs some empathy and protecting. Matthew does a fine show of it. Genuine apology? I would expect Rice to take responsibility as an adult for her actions and then make some reparations, given Rice did not offend a particular person but a class I suggest the best way to regain goodwill rather than playing the passive child is for Rice to make a donation to a community group and show she has some insight into her behaviour and a willingness to make amends.
But in the end does it add up that she isn't homophobic and does it even matter? It is possible to say racist, sexist, and homophobic things and not 'be' those things. But the consequences are the same. I cannot know the state of Rices character but that is a separate issue to making public statements that are derogatory. If I accept her gay friend matthews' account of things then Rice becomes someone who isn't homophobic but just says homophobic things on occasion. An interesting mental exercise, but that does not change the impact or change the social context for people of diverse sexualities who bear the brunt of homophobia.
So despite the PR attempt at character resurrection I would have been more convinced of her character if she just went into the press conference and said "suck on that faggots".

Nobel Winner: "Abort Gays"

One of the discoverers of the structure of DNA and Nobel prize winner James Watson (pictured) said a little while ago that if a gene for homosexuality were discovered, a woman should be free to abort a fetus that carried it. There are at least two issues here, if in the future the technology and the knowledge brings us to such a place. Firstly- is it ethical for parents to be able to have complete freedom to choose their child's genetic inheritance (to the extent that technology allows) Secondly- if not, should it be the role of the state to forbid such actions?
To begin I will say that I think genetic enhancement of fetuses is morally defensible. I would argue in a similar fashion to Singer  and say that genetic enhancement is an extension of what we currently consider good parenting; parenting that works to maximise a child’s abilities and opportunities for life in much the same way that good education and nutrition do. Controversial of course, but if one accepts genetic enhancement and selection processes as a valid thing for parents, does that mean Watson is right? Well I would say 'yes' and 'no'.  In the abortion or modification of a homosexual fetus to a heterosexual fetus there is no one who is harmed, unless you think a fetus is a person, which I do not. As such it is not unethical by virtue of harming an individual person. What I believe makes such an act unethical is the denigration of sexualities that are of equal moral worth. Unlike the abortion of disabled fetuses as currently practiced on quality of life considerations (and by extension permits their modification if we had the technology) aborting homosexual fetuses would be based solely on the perceived moral worth of homosexuality, i.e. it is of less moral worth than heterosexuality. 
But where does that leave us? Should the state intervene? This is Watsons' point I suppose; there are many things that we believe are unethical yet the state does not intervene. A liberal point of view. When a person is harmed we can see a strong reason for state intervention. But in this instance it seems that while it is unethical to abort homosexual fetuses, it does not warrant state intervention to prevent it. I base this on considerations of consequences. No one individual is directly harmed. In addition, what if it was illegal? Should the state force people to have gay babies? Would it be in the child's best interests to be brought into the world by a family that held such views of homosexuality? As such it would seem to me that while it is definitely immoral to make moral judgments on the value of people via reference to their sexuality and to abort/genetically modify fetuses on such a basis, the state should not prevent it from happening. And that is where Watson and I agree.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Freedom of Speech as Residual Ethic

I must admit I had reservations about using this image on my blog. Two stereotypical Muslim men, I imagine at a rally about the infamous Prophet Muhammed cartoons, in the background of a regressive demand. I know enough Critical Theory not to want to promulgate images showing 'scary Muslims' which get more than enough airtime. Media images are not truth, so much as an angle on it. I spent many formative years growing up in Islamic States and know that this is not your run of the mill Muslim. I have no interest in participating in fear mongering and I believe the media with its words and images often takes this posture. So why have I put it up? Well I thought it helped illustrate my relationship to freedom of speech (FoS).
I love FoS, I love the fact that I could put that image up, that I can write this blog, that I can express myself. But I did not throw this image up without thinking about what it might say, how it says it, about who, and what response it might create in them. In essence I was reflecting on my behaviour as it effects others, above and beyond my legally sanctioned responsibilities to that sounds suspiciously like ethics! (Surprise!)  While I think FoS is a key consideration, I also want to say that in my eyes it is something of a residual ethic or value. It hedges around or creates the boundaries of what we expect a minimally decent society to be. A brief discussion of what FoS might be could illustrate my point.
When I come upon the claim of a right by someone, I find it useful to consider what responsibility such right claims place on others. Such a test can help gauge whether it is a legitimate rights claim, and what the claim entails. FoS cannot be the right to be listened to when you speak. I would never get anything done in a day if I had to listen to every person who wished to speak. It cannot be that I will not speak against something another says if I do not like it, that would result in an absurdity. In fact I don't think it places any claims upon me directly as a private citizen. As the Philosopher Fish states FoS "is not an independent value but a political prize." I would argue that fundamentally FoS is a moral claim by individuals against state power. FoS is a limitation of state power over individuals, creating the onus on those who wish to limit individual freedom with a high burden of proof as to why it should be limited. This comes in the form of a rights claim. In western democracies this moral claim is translated and expressed in terms of a legal framework. To me this is the only way it could be expressed, because outside of our historical and societal context FoS would have no meaning. FoS is one form of operationalising the core moral value of respecting individuals and their flourishing. In another sort of world, time or place which was not like our post-industrial nation state this operationalisation could be configured differently. That is very briefly why I call FoS a residual ethic.
This understanding of FoS is why I do not think all limitations placed on speech are 'censorship'. It is not censorship to teach age appropriate sex education in schools, and there are certainly guidelines and speech limitations placed around it. It is not censorship if I sign a contract as a public servant not to divulge sensitive information. More controversially perhaps it is also why I do not think it is censorship if a corporation or other business entity fires an employee for speech acts performed while on the job.
And I guess this is my main point;  FoS debates tend to eclipse a swathe of interesting moral dialogue. When events occur that are just as much about how we treat others, fairness, balance, role morality, journalistic integrity, cultural sensitivity and the like we should not let them be trumped or dumbed down to FoS debates. These are times where we can ask questions of and try and hear the feelings of those who are upset. It is where we can have real engagement with other human beings. If someone says your actions are upsetting to me and you reply I have freedom of speech, you're not really hearing them. Focussing endlessly about FoS in a demonstrably open society such as ours is to vacate this potentially rich field of moral attunement and cultivation; a missed opportunity to come closer to being respectful and understanding of one another. Unless of course, you don't actually care about how you treat others.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Images of Dead Children, the Internet & Values Myopia

"In a free society any free person should be able to choose what site they want to visit or not. If they do not like what they see they just close the screen and go on with their life. Who wants a Big Brother to tell them what to see or not to see?"

JohannaXn (screen name) owner of a gore website being interviewed by Channel 9

This week has seen at at least two issues hit the media in Australia regarding privacy, confidentiality and freedom of speech; Google's gathering of personal data with its 'street view' cars and the online publishing of a murdered Australian child by a gore website.
As a social liberal the latter incident concerns me. It concerns me because JohannaXn uses social liberal values to justify what I would regard as unethical. It concerns me because people like JohannaXn seem to use very important values such as free speech as though they can be applied without consideration of context, without respect for the rights of others and as though they are an ultimate good. The internet provides many huge benefits in relation to freedom of speech, especially for those living under oppressive states, but there is a downside and it seems to be a problem similar to the problem created by large organisations and corporations; while they allow us to achieve very positive things, they also have the potential to create an environment where accountability and responsibility can be lost and in turn allow unethical actions to go unchallenged.
My position is this, freedom of speech is not a blank cheque, it is not an ultimate freedom which trumps all other moral considerations and the rights of others. We have to anchor our ethical mores in a societal and cultural context and also consider the purpose of a particular value.
Freedom of speech does not offer carte blanche and moral absolution in all instances; child pornography cannot be tolerated on the basis that it is a freedom of speech issue, you cannot yell 'fire' in a crowded cinema when there is not one, and having freedom of speech does not mean you cannot be held accountable for your actions.
To me some very important moral considerations are being buried by JohannaXn, privacy being one- privacy for both the people whose images she trades in and their families and friends. If one wishes to claim some journalistic intent as JohannaXn has then she also needs to show how the public display of murdered children is in the realm of the public's 'right to know'. I think there needs to be a high standard of proof for this given the nature of the images and given that once they are released it cannot be reversed.
The issue of confidentiality is another moral concern here. JohannaXn claims access to images that may not be in the public domain, which means that someone involved with processing such cases is breaching not only their duties to the public if they hold public office but also to the victims and their families and friends. Respect for the cultural and personal values of those whose image is used does not appear to be a consideration.
And all of this is being done by someone who will not even tell the world her real identity, yet seems to want to claim some moral high ground.
As such I think in all moral deliberation, but particularly in arenas such as organisations and the internet where there is a potential for greater harm and weaker notions of personal accountability and responsibility, we must be wary of having values myopia.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

In Defence of Regrets

"Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh."
Henry Thoreau

This quote by the American Transcendentalist Thoreau may seem an odd post to begin an ethics blog, but there are at least two reasons I think it is pertinent. I am quite fond of his work, that is one reason, but more importantly I want to use it to say that feelings and emotion are integral to thinking about and living ethics.
When thinking philosophically about ethics there is the danger of wanting to bar feelings and emotions from the ethical equation. This may stem from a wariness of Subjectivism or Relativism, especially if one is committed to a Universalist school of ethical thought. But if ethics is to be useful, and if it is a vehicle that can develop us as human beings and guide us in the gritty dynamic realities of existence, then any ethical perspective will be impoverished and in my mind, somewhat hollow without a robust place for, and understanding of, emotion in moral thought. Computers cannot make moral decisions, not just because ethics isn't about simple equations involving empirical facts, but because they cannot feel.
Indeed, when commenting on the classic ethical problem involving two people drowning in a pond, one of them a stranger and one of them your wife, American philosopher Franklin suggests that it would be a strange sort of person that did not go to save his wife in preference to the stranger. With love as the motivator, I want to say he should prioritise his wife, and I also want to say that this is a sound moral action. This might seem to chaf with a commitment to the moral equality of all persons.
Is there some important distinction to be made if in a similar example to the above; the husband is an emergency doctor who has two patients and only one person he can choose to save, one patient being his wife? How can we understand and configure emotion in ethical deliberation? I am not going to suggest anything here, that is something that we all have to think about. What I will do is return to my original starting point, regret. Like all emotions that we engage healthily with it can be a motivator, instigator, catalyst and intuitive guide. To smother it because it is uncomfortable, or to try and live a life without it in my mind is to eviscerate the full experience of being and the opportunities for growth it opens, and that truly is a wrong.