Should the dead roll over to make room for real estate?

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

As a general rule, one place you really don’t want to find yourself is in-between a Melburnian and a piece of real estate.

But one group of long-term city residents has been getting in the way of developers and planners for a very long time now. This is even more impressive when you consider these residents have been dead for well over a century.

The Queen Victoria Market’s carpark sits atop the city’s original cemetery, founded in the 1830s. Despite exhumations in the 1920s there are still thousands of bodies buried there, some at depth, others barely a foot beneath the surface.

Surveyor Robert Hoddle’s understandable lack of foresight in siting the cemetery so close to the CBD grid that bears his name has meant that the use of this land has long been a sensitive and difficult matter. Works over the years have had to negotiate the competing needs of the market (in more sense than one) and the non-economic needs of human remembrance, trying to combine mercantile and sacred space in a delicate balancing act.

jurek d.

Recently, City of Melbourne has proposed turning most of the existing carpark into a park as a sign of respect for those buried there – a far cry from the attitude of the 1930s, when a steam shovel was used to tear through the old cemetery to build the Franklin Street stores.

And yet questions have still been raised about whether the new plans show sufficient forbearance. The proposed extension of Franklin Street and commercial development at the southern end of the market precinct would potentially sit atop burial sites.

This clash between the call of the future and the depth of the past poses important questions for us here in the present: should the dead impede the activities of the living in this way? What, if anything, do we owe the dead?

It’s too easy to say “nothing”, that the dead simply don’t exist any more and any responsibilities we have regarding the dead are actually duties to the living. Even the unsentimental Aristotle thought it “heartless” to claim the dead couldn’t be harmed by events after their death, such as the fortunes of their descendants.

patrick wilken

There is a real question as to how we can harm or benefit a person who no longer exists, and philosophers have tried to answer this question in a number of ways. An influential answer, first offered by Thomas Nagel, is that just as we can harm someone at a great spatial distance, say by betraying them, we can also harm them at a temporal distance as well.

So when, for instance, Colin Campbell Ross was pardoned for Melbourne’s Gun Alley Murder, 86 years after he was wrongfully convicted and hanged, this was justice for Ross, not for the living.

I’ve argued previously that the dead persist phenomenally in our recollection – not as conscious selves, but nonetheless as the objects of loving attention they were for us while they lived – and that this gives us a responsibility to maintain that memory.

Martijn Witlox

Sartre said the dead are “prey” to the living, but they are also our dependants: without our maintenance they slip away into oblivion, into what Goethe called the “second death” of being forgotten.

Yet those buried beneath the Queen Vic are beyond memory. There are no direct personal bonds between the living and the dead in this case, no personal promises left to honour or break. Whatever connections of blood or allegiance we might have to these people are lost in their anonymity. Each is, for us, simply a distinct token of humanity, and whatever we owe them, we owe them simply as human beings.

Kierkegaard declared that remembering the dead was the purest act of love, because the dead can neither repay us for our trouble nor force us to remember them. This work of love is harder when the dead are beyond human memory, stripped of their identity and decomposed into a body that can only be reconstructed, not recognised, and described only through general categories – age, height, sex.

But the sense remains that even these remains are those of distinctive persons, objects of someone’s loving regard even if they remain unknowable to us.

Known Unto God, Acroma Knightsbridge Cemetery near Tobruk, Libya.

The inscription “Known Unto God” on the gravestones of unknown soldiers picks out something like this: to us these are perhaps just bones, but someone – God, at least, for the epitaph-writers of the Great War – knew this person in their distinctive fullness. They lived. And that they lived deserves to be respected.

The reason we’re horrified by the thought of a steam shovel tearing up the old cemetery is not that we’re superstitious or have taken metaphors about the “resting place” of the dead too literally. It’s that the dead continue to demand a respect that extends to how we treat their remains, however far removed these might be from the full, living person they once were.

The dead, in a way, have a right to be awkward. They should be an obstruction, something the living need to work around, because in doing so we refuse to quarantine them from the realm of what is.

The rights of those buried beneath the market carpark are of course no more absolute than those of any other Melburnians. It would be silly to deny that the living have a far greater claim on us, and the demands of the dead are easily outweighed by other considerations. But that doesn’t mean the dead have no claim on us at all.

The continued sensitive management of this site isn’t simply a piece of good urban planning or canny politics. It’s a work of love.

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The Biennale, Transfield, and the value of boycott

Unfinished Napoleonic War memorial, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, July 2011

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

In July 1846, the American writer Henry David Thoreau went to prison for refusing to pay his poll tax. He couldn’t abide the thought that his money would be used, however indirectly, to perpetuate the Mexican-American war and the institution of slavery. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” Thoreau reasoned, and so that’s where he was.

Like many things in Thoreau’s life, his stint in jail was somewhat less impressive than he made it sound. He’d simply run into the tax collector by chance, who demanded six years’ worth of unpaid taxes. Thoreau refused, spent one night in a freshly-whitewashed cell, drank a pint of hot chocolate for breakfast, and was released against his will later that day when someone (probably his aunt) paid the tax for him.

Nothing changed. Both the war and slavery went on, unperturbed. The most significant outcome was Thoreau’s deeply influential essay Civil Disobedience, an ongoing source of inspiration to anti-statist activists from the anarchist left to the libertarian right.

Four decades later, the people of Lough Mask in Ireland began a campaign of ostracisation against Lord Erne’s local land agent – a certain Captain Charles Boycott. The British ultimately used troops to guard the Orangemen brought down to harvest Erne’s crops (at 20 times the cost of what the crops were worth). But in the process the English language acquired a useful new verb.

But is the practice of boycotting as useful as the word? Are withdrawals of support such as Thoreau’s morally valuable acts of defiance or mere self-indulgent theatre?

The news that the Sydney Biennale has severed all links with Transfield Holdings, including accepting the resignation of its chairman Luca Belgiorno-Nettis (who remains Transfield’s director), throws all these issues into relief.

Like Transfield itself, the Biennale was founded by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis’ father Franco (who had earlier established the Transfield Art Prize). No-one disputes, therefore, that Transfield has been a deeply valuable benefactor of the arts. As recently as late February, the Biennale board was insisting it could not survive without Transfield.

But Transfield’s subsidiary, Transfield Services, operates the Australian government’s immigration detention facility in Nauru, and has just signed a A$1.22 billion contract to run the Manus Island facility in PNG as well. Protests against Transfield’s involvement with the Biennale had been gathering steam for weeks. Nine artists had withdrawn from the event altogether.

In the statement announcing his resignation, Belgiorno-Nettis complained:

There would appear to be little room for sensible dialogue, let alone deliberation. Yesterday I learnt that some international government agencies are beginning to question the decision of the Biennale’s board to stand by Transfield.

Biennale staff have been verbally abused with taunts of “blood on your hands”. I have been personally vilified with insults, which I regard as naïve and offensive. This situation is entirely unfair – especially when directed towards our dedicated Biennale team who give so much of themselves.

As the reference to Biennale staff reminds us, ethical decisions are never made in a vacuum. We moral philosophers like our thought-experiments artificially clean and simple: strip out all the messy, extraneous stuff and display the moral problem in its clarity and purity. Real-life moral dilemmas aren’t like that: the truth, as Wilde quipped, is rarely pure and never simple. It would be silly to ignore the fact there are livelihoods and careers involved here, and real costs to each if the event folds.

Villains are rarely as pure as we’d like them to be either. Writing on The Conversation, Joanna Mendelssohn notes that Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is:

by any measure a major patron of the arts on a personal level and one of the great subtle thinkers in modern Australia.

And yet, he profits from what can only be called systematic cruelty.

As an act of protest, the decision to boycott an arts festival may seem decidedly sub-Thoreavian. There are certainly real costs involved to the protesters, but no-one’s going to prison. Moreover, it’s no doubt impossible for even the most well-meaning boycotter to achieve complete disentanglement here either.

Other sources of funding are also likely to be ethically tainted too – is taking part in the Sydney Festival, which has a casino as its principal sponsor, an endorsement of the gambling industry, for instance?

Presumably the local artists who threatened to boycott the Biennale still pay their taxes too. We’re still paying for Manus whoever gets the contract. (Even Thoreau continued to pay the Highway Tax, because “I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject.”)

And of course, none of this will move the needle one bit on asylum seeker detention policy, any more than Thoreau’s theatrics stopped the war against Mexico.

His belief that even a minority “is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight” sounds wildly optimistic, then as now. Australia seems determined to punish asylum seekers for the unforgivable crime of disturbing our three-big-tellies-and-two-cars-in-the-driveway complacency.

As Waleed Aly put it in a grimly eloquent piece recently, “The political truth is that there is almost nothing any government could do that the electorate would deem too brutal” when it comes to detainees. A few artists pulling out of a festival is unlikely to get much traction in the suburbs of Western Sydney (which, as we learned during the last election campaign, is apparently the entirety of Australia).

And yet.

And yet, a group of individuals stood up, at some cost to themselves, to withdraw their implicit support of a company that makes money from our brutalisation of the most vulnerable. And they won.

The board’s statement suggest it’s reacting to pressure rather than acting from genuine ethical concern, and Belgiorno-Nettis’ comments aren’t exactly a study in contrition. When the sun came up Saturday he was still director of Transfield Holdings, and Transfield Services was still running detention camps for profit.

But even so, the Biennale board has chosen a course of action that, on its own admission, puts its survival in doubt. I’ve said here before that we need more turkeys prepared to vote for Christmas. Perhaps we’ve found some. Perhaps.

Whatever the complexities, and however limited the impact, there was, at least, a moment, here in 2014, where the idea that misery outweighs money won some sort of victory.

It won’t change much. It won’t change anything at all for those suffering on Manus and Nauru right now. Some will call it merely symbolic, an empty gesture. But gestures matter. Symbols matter.

Thoreau died of TB at the age of 44, too soon to see the Emancipation Proclamation – by just eight months. History can be quicker than you think.


Further reading:

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis should just buy a yacht
We should value the Biennale protest, not threaten arts funding
Is there any clean money left to fund the arts?
Artists’ victory over Transfield misses the bigger picture
Should artists boycott the Sydney Biennale over Transfield links?

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Margaret, David, Wolf Creek 2 and, oh … torture porn

The Nobbies, Phillip Island, November 2012

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Well, I’m outraged, I tells ya. Outraged!

This is such a shameful snub. Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, beloved hosts of ABC’s At the Movies, have apparently refused to review a major new Aussie movie. OK, maybe this particular movie is not everyone’s cup of tea. But is it really too much to expect they – and the public broadcaster they work for – should get behind Australian cinema and cover high-profile, locally-made movies?

After all, Horny Marsupial Wrangler Babes in Trouble 2 is the sequel to the highest-grossing Australian porn film in years. This is a pretty big deal.

Why the silence about such a major Aussie success story, Margaret and David? I can only conclude it’s sheer snobbery on your part. Curse these stuck-up arthouse types. Just where do they get off? (So to speak.)

Admittedly, I haven’t actually seen Horny Marsupial Wrangler Babes in Trouble 2, mostly because I just made it up. (Please, nobody invoke Rule 34: “If it exists, there is porn of it on the internet”). But imagine if there really was such a film, and David and Margaret refused to review it. Would you think that’s unreasonable?

Margaret and David.

I’d imagine most people would think that’s fair enough. Why on earth would a serious movie show review a porno? To the extent that anyone has ever come up with a serious definition of porn, one key feature is that porn exists primarily to produce sexual arousal; artistic merit, even if it’s a consideration, must be subordinate to that aim. Debbie Does Dallas (1978) may have a certain kitsch charm (ah, so I’m told), but Citizen Kane it ain’t.

And yet, apparently At the Movies’ refusal to review Wolf Creek 2 (Stratton separately gave it a negative review for The Australian) is seen as a serious lapse in some quarters. National film editor at Fairfax Media Karl Quinn accuses them of having “abnegated their responsibility as Australia’s most-watched movie critics,” insisting that whatever they think of it, Wolf Creek 2 “is an artefact and it demands inspection” – apparently just because it’s popular.

Wolf Creek 2’s writer and director, Greg McLean, was also understandably peeved:

what on earth are they thinking? Simply not reviewing an independent Aussie movie that beat its US studio competitor Lone Survivor … is worth paying some attention.

Take a look at the comments attached to that article, and it becomes clear a certain number of people out there view this as a dereliction of the ABC’s duty to give taxpayers what they want to see, and to support the Australian film industry. Another example of the public broadcaster failing to show “basic affection for the home team” it would seem.

To be clear, I’m not arguing against the existence or availability of horror films, or porn films for that matter. If people want to watch these things, fine – though as consumers of these products we also need to be aware that there are arguments against both these things that deserve to be considered seriously rather than simply dismissed out of hand. “But I like it!” or “Ewww, gross” aren’t much chop as arguments either way.

What’s more interesting here is the unsettling double-standard. Despite all the hand-wringing about the “mainstreaming” of porn in the internet era, cultural artefacts such as Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), The Human Centipede (2009) and Wolf Creek (2005), with their gratuitous depictions of gore and violence, are somehow considered more socially acceptable than pornography. Why is “torture porn” somehow more valid than, well, porn-porn? Why does at least a section of the public expect At the Movies to review one but not the other?

No doubt there are some important differences. A second defining feature of porn that’s been noted, for example, is that porn invites you not merely to enjoy what’s being done on screen, but to approve of it too, at least implicitly. There’s a certain “pro-attitude” involved in arousal.

You could argue there’s no direct analogue to that in torture porn: presumably even the most ardent fan of Wolf Creek doesn’t actually think Mick Taylor’s tortures, rapes, mutilations and murders are a good way to behave.

Wolf Creek 2.
Courtesy of Roadshow Films

Even so, you could say that both torture-porn and porn-porn invite the viewer to somehow revel in what’s going on, even if they don’t approve of it. (We’re not invited to think “Oh that poor innocent traveller, I do hope the killer doesn’t follow through with that hacksaw”).

And they do this in a specific way: they both reduce the living body to a vulnerable object, pitifully and hopelessly subject to violation. They are, you might say, both “obscene” in part of the sense Jean-Paul Sartre gives the term: the body revealed in “the inertia of its flesh”, as pure matter to be acted upon.

Indeed in that sense, porn comes out looking considerably better than Hostel-style gore-fests. An erection or a jiggling breast, attached to an apparently eager participant, is surely much less obscene in this technical sense than a severed head or hacked-off fingers. Both genres objectify, but as Martha Nussbaum argued, not all objectification is equally bad.

DH Lawrence’s Constance Chatterley and Mellors objectify each other by focussing on each other’s genitals, for instance, but they do so in a way that doesn’t deny or diminish the fundamental humanity of the person attached. They don’t reduce each other to their bodies.

I’m not sure we can say that about all torture-porn flicks. Setting aside the details – and admittedly the degradation is often in the details – what’s the greater affront to basic human dignity: a depiction of consenting adults having sex, or a depiction of non-consenting mutilation and murder?

Of course, such dignity-based arguments go out the window if you reject the idea there’s any such dignity there to begin with. Alan Soble, a leading American philosopher of sex, makes this case in quite arresting terms:

To complain that pornography presents women as “fuck objects” is to presuppose that women, as humans or persons, are something substantially more than fuck objects. Whence this piece of illusory optimism? […] Pornography gives to no one, male or female, the respect that no-one, male or female, deserves anyway. It demolishes human pretensions. It objectifies that which does not deserve not to be objectified. It thereby repudiates norms that Christian, Western culture holds dear, that people are not to be used or treated as objects or objectified or dehumanized or degraded.

Extending this thought to the torture porn genre: can we seriously say that human beings are no more than mere “slash objects”? If not, shouldn’t we find something troubling in depicting them as such?

Now, there’s an important liberal argument that’s often raised in discussions of porn that also seems to apply to torture-porn: if everyone involved – performers, producers, purchasers – is a willing participant, and so no-one gets hurt, then we simply have no right to interfere. Fair enough. But if we accept that argument, we also have to accept that Stratton and Pomeranz also have a right to review whatever they like.

If, on the other hand, we expect them to support local content producers, then it seems we have to accept the possibility of Margaret and David squabbling over the merits of Adelaide Sex Adventures 4: Rundle Mall Rumps.

Which, I think we can all agree, would make for awesome television.

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The spying game: what a 15th-century Irish warlord can teach today’s politicians

[Originally published at The Conversation; please feel free to join in the discussion]

Irish philosopher Richard Kearney visited Melbourne last year and, being the fine raconteur he is, told a great tale from his nation’s past. In 1492, Black James, nephew of the Earl of Ormond, and a group of heavily armed retainers sought sanctuary in the chapter house of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

Outside stood Gerard Mór FitzGerald, the powerful Earl of Kildare, and his men. A bloody feud between two dynastic families, the Butlers and the FitzGeralds, had culminated in this desperate moment.

From the other side of the door, FitzGerald pleaded with Black James to come out and negotiate a truce. Fearing that he and his men would be slaughtered the moment they stepped outside, James refused.

Then FitzGerald did something quite remarkable. He had his men cut a hole in the door – and thrust his arm through it. James could easily have hacked off FitzGerald’s arm. Instead, he shook it. The feud was over.

That’s the story that’s come down to us; maybe the reality was far less inspiring. FitzGerald, after all, was a man so charismatic he somehow used his own treason trial to convince Henry VII to send him back to Ireland as Lord Deputy:

All Ireland cannot govern this Earl; then let this Earl govern all Ireland.

And the claim that this event gave us the expression “to chance one’s arm”, though charming, seems improbable.

But FitzGerald’s gesture tells us something important about trust, vulnerability and the ways in which political self-interest can ensnare us in webs that can only be cut through by an ethical regard for the other.

The Westphalian world order of sovereign nations is often understood as a sort of anarchy. While nation-states apply the rule of law internally, the geopolitical realm is a lawless frontier of powerful national actors competing in the name of self-interest.

Diplomatic language may smooth this over with talk of “friends” and “special relationships” but scratch the surface and it’s basically just Game of Thrones with APEC shirts. And nowhere is that more evident than in how nations spy on each other.

Two spying scandals are currently swirling around Australian politics. Both involve Australian agencies listening to the conversations of our near neighbours in an attempt to further our “national interest”. Both involve electronic eavesdropping of a sort that would cause outrage if done to Australian politicians and their spouses. And in the discussion of both cases, the moral issues this activity raises have been mostly swept to one side.

Whenever a foreign intelligence story breaks in the media, the commentary tends to be built around catchy little chunks of realpolitik: everybody spies on everyone, and everyone knows it; nations have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, only permanent interests; and so on. Commentators have smugly invoked the “prissy moralising” of US president Herbet Hoover’s Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, who in 1929 closed the State Department’s cryptographic “Black Chamber” because:

Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.

Stimson, we’re told, just wasn’t in touch with the “reality” of global affairs. After all, on one popular estimate, the cracking of the German Enigma code shortened World War Two by up to two years and saved untold lives – and that success wouldn’t have been possible if not for secret work done by the Polish military well before the outbreak of war.

The subtext of all this seems to be “of course we spy on our neighbours – we have to, as it is in our national interest to do so”. Everything, it seems, must be subordinated to the national interest. The Prime Minister tells parliament his first duty is to advance the national interest, without telling us why acting in our own interests is always right or even permissible. Even the ABC has been accused of betraying “the national interest” by breaking the Indonesian spying story with The Guardian.

The responses in Indonesia and Timor Leste are likewise being interpreted through the prism of those countries’ domestic political and economic issues. There’s plenty of self-interest to go around.

But that shouldn’t alter our evaluation of whether it was right to eavesdrop on the wife of the Indonesian president or the East Timorese cabinet. Such an evaluation must get past the bizarre notion that ethical regard stops the moment we’re dealing with foreign nationals.

Morality doesn’t stop at the border. The fact that the Australian Signals Directorate operates under extra restrictions when dealing with “Australian persons”, for instance, doesn’t change what it is to spy on someone.

None of this amounts to an argument that covert foreign intelligence collection is never necessary or permissible. But we can accept that such activity might be crucial for saving lives and preventing crime without accepting that national interest is always a good enough reason to spy on someone. A standing desire to advance the nation’s geopolitical or economic interests does not, on the face of it, rise to the necessary level of moral urgency.

So, what does the Irish tale we started with have to teach us here? And how might it help the Abbott and Yudhoyono governments in finding a way forward?

There are two ways (at least) of looking at what FitzGerald did that day in 1492. One is that he took a calculated risk, based on his assessments of the probabilities of how Black James would react. He weighed up the risks and benefits and decided it was in his self-interest to take the gamble.

The other is that he took a leap of trust: that by placing himself in a position of vulnerability, he could open the situation up and allow new possibilities to emerge. Self-interest had led to hopeless deadlock, but surrendering to trust, giving up a degree of control, might just spring it open again.

Perhaps the second interpretation is just a piece of naïve romanticising, or simply overlaying a particular modern ethical view (one that bears a heavy imprint of 20th-century thinkers like Levinas and Buber) into a very alien, archaic context.

But perhaps it also suggests a way forward. Breaking through the calculus of competing national interests might involve setting self-interest aside, at least in a limited way. It might involve accepting vulnerability – and thereby taking a leap of trust, however small.

That may mean giving up the edge in international negotiations, or accepting that certain kinds of information just won’t be available under certain circumstances, for moral rather than practical or technical reasons. That may be frustrating and, yes, potentially dangerous.

A line between legitimate security interests and simply trying to feather our nest will constantly have to be walked. But some such distinction – and the willingness to live with the costs of doing the right thing – is essential.

The quarantining of geopolitics from ethics is looking more and more unsustainable. What might replace it, however, is unclear. If we want a truly ethical international order, not simply an anarchic competition of national interests in which might rather than right carries the day, the first step might be putting trust ahead of self-interest.

We might have to be the ones to chance our arm.

Free range ‘debate’ puts the egg before the chicken

[Originally published at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there]

Today’s announcement that Woolworths will phase out the selling of cage eggs seems like pretty good news.

But let’s not get carried away.

The “free range” label on a carton of eggs can mean densities of anywhere up to 20,000 birds per hectare (as opposed to the recommended 1,500), and it’ll be five years before the phase-out is complete. Cage eggs have reportedly declined from 70% to 50% of egg sales since 2009, so the financial grenade Woolworths is selflessly throwing itself onto doesn’t look like it was all that explosive anyway.

Even so, on the face of it it’s a pleasing example of a company acting ethically. Not everyone is likely to be impressed though.

Just a few days earlier, Tom Joyner, writing for Fairfax, suggested that those who buy cage eggs have been unfairly stigmatised:

Seriously, though, apart from the obvious reasons of animal cruelty (unaided by confusing industry regulation), why is there so much stigma around buying cage eggs? They are a lot cheaper and I honestly find they taste little different to their free-range counterparts.

Sure, they’re cruel and all, but they’re so cheap! And just as tasty!

As I’ve pointed out here before, ethics simply doesn’t work like that: you can’t outweigh moral disvalue with any amount of nonmoral value. You don’t get to do something horrible just because it’s convenient, or fun.

Of course, consequentialists, such as utilitarians, might reply that the pleasure of saving money is itself a morally relevant factor. For a utilitarian (and I’m oversimplifying horribly here), we’re morally required to take the course of action that would produce the highest possible net pleasure.

But I’d be amazed if there’s a utilitarian argument that shows the pleasure of saving about 50 cents per 100g outweighs the suffering of cage hens.

The cost of eggs for lower-income earners might be a legitimate issue, but that doesn’t mean we face a stark either/or between protein-starved kids and hens who spend their whole lives wedged into a cage with the floorspace of an A4 sheet of paper.

Joyner goes on to ask:

Why should we so selectively expend moral capital championing a triviality of the poultry industry, when about 1100 deaths in a factory collapse in Dhaka (a disaster like others just waiting to happen) changes little in public discourse on our complicity in the exploitative measures employed by clothing manufacturers in developing countries – do we really care more about chickens than we do Bangladeshis? […] Australians would sooner bicker over the ethical implications of their omelet than they would demand greater transparency from major retailers.

The suffering of battery hens is certainly no “triviality”, but there’s a reasonable concern here. We do often direct our moral attention selectively and inconsistently. Perspective is important, and for beings like us with finite time and resources there may be a case for a sort of “outrage triage.”

But surely as consumers we can care about two things at once here? Conditions on poultry farms and in foreign clothing factories seems like a case where we can walk and chew gum at the same time (actually “fart and chew gum” in LBJ’s original phrase, but the bowlderised version seems to be the one that’s stuck).

It’s true, no doubt, that in our consumer behavior we consistently fail to do that – that our actions suggest we care more about where our eggs come from than where our clothes do – but doesn’t mean we get a free pass on caring about the hens too.

Joyner is hardly the only pundit to indulge in sloppy moral reasoning about nonhuman animals. At the height of the live export controversy last year, another Fairfax columnist, Nicole Flint, complained that in the ABC’s reporting, “Animals are segregated from their true purpose […] animals are food.”

There’s no further argument offered in support of that claim, so it seems Flint is doing one of two things. Either she takes it that it’s simply self-evident that animals exist for the purpose of us eating them, or she’s trying to answer a normative question (“Should we eat animals?”) with a descriptive fact (“We do eat animals!”). Replace “eating animals” with, say, “enslaving orphans” and you’ll see pretty quickly why that argument doesn’t work.

You might think this sort of philosophical analysis is overkill when we’re talking about ephemeral newspaper opinion pieces, piled atop the internet’s remorselessly growing mountain of content (Hey, I can see my house from up here!).

But as Plato has Socrates say in the Republic, “These are no small matters we are discussing, but how we are to live.” Moral reasoning matters, if anything does – and we’ve been doing it for long enough that we’ve gotten pretty good at it.

The problem with articles like Joyner’s and Flint’s isn’t that the positions they defend are wrong, necessarily. It’s that they treat moral reasoning as if we can simply make it up as we go along. They smuggle in controversial assumptions without argument, or reduce questions of ethical value to matters of personal taste. It might make for good clickbait, but it’s poor moral philosophy.

That doesn’t mean every columnist has to memorise Kant’s Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals before we let them near a keyboard. But as writers, as citizens, and simply as human beings concerned to live well, we need at least some basic familiarity with the concepts and methods of this vital form of philosophy. These are no small matters.

Fuming with outrage: Nazis, nannies and smoking

[Originally posted at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there]

A few years ago I saw a poster stuck to the wall of a train station in Copenhagen. The poster was a protest paid for by a prominent Danish musician against new regulations against smoking in public. At the top was a sarcastic “Congratulations on the smoking ban” followed by the German phrase “Gesundheit Macht Frei” (good health makes you free).

You might think invoking “Arbeit Macht Frei,” the slogan above the gates at Auschwitz, to complain about not being able to smoke in bars is pretty tasteless. More likely than not, it’ll also distract from the message you’re trying to send.

So, lesson learnt, defenders of smoking: no more comparing smoking ban proponents to Nazis, okay?

Enter The Australian’s Adam Creighton, comparing the Rudd government’s increase on tobacco excise to the anti-smoking campaigns of Nazi Germany. This should end well.

Now, to his credit, Creighton isn’t just running a lazy “argumentum ad Hitlerum” i.e. “You know who else hated smoking?” Rather, he’s claiming that Australia’s attempts to discourage smoking are “being sold with the same flawed economic and moral arguments that underpinned Nazi Germany’s policies.” Which arguments are these?

Individuals and the State

What the Nazis and the Italian Fascists believed, roughly, is that individuals only have significance and purpose through and in the State. This sort of totalitarianism is indeed repugnant, not just because of the suffering it causes, but because of the distorting and reductive view of the moral value of human beings it presents.

Against this, Creighton appeals to the liberal harm principle, as championed by figures like John Stuart Mill. Again, very roughly, this principle states that we’re only entitled to interfere in the actions of others where those actions cause harm to other people. You are morally permitted to do whatever you like so long as you’re not harming anyone else in the process.

So according to defenders of smoking, coercive attempts to reduce smoking infringe on an area that, so long as no-one else is affected, is properly a matter of free individual choice. Creighton accepts that restrictions on smoking in public are legitimate given the dangers of second-hand smoke, but punitive measures designed to stop people smoking are not:

government should butt out of individuals’ decision to smoke privately, or to engage in any other behaviour that might entail personal costs without harm to others.

Part of the reason Mill’s harm principle is intuitively satisfying is that individual liberty does matter. Both classical liberalism and its more radical libertarian offshoot respond to genuine and important features of the moral landscape: all else being equal it’s better if we let people do what they want. At its best, strident liberalism is a healthy bulwark against excessive paternalism and coercion.

But these positions also rely on a hopelessly atomistic picture of what human beings are. They see each of us as a free, rational, self-contained, self-directed agent, an independent, sovereign individual living alongside other sovereign individuals, entering into free contracts for mutual benefit.

Where does harm end?

Philosophers have spent a lot of time taking that view of human nature apart: we are far less free, transparent-to-ourselves and rational than liberalism (and the economic theories it underpins) assumes. We’re also far more radically interconnected and dependent upon others. Our borders are considerably more porous than the sovereign individual model would suggest.

But even within his own liberal worldview, Creighton’s argument runs into serious problems. For one thing even Mill had to allow that there are some harms you’re not permitted to inflict even upon yourself, such as selling yourself into slavery or committing suicide.

If you wrestle a gun away from a would-be suicide, we don’t take you to be committing assault – but surely killing yourself is an essentially “private” matter if anything is? If we’re allowed to stop people throwing themselves off bridges, why aren’t we entitled to at least make it harder (if not impossible) for them to kill themselves with tobacco?

And is smoking only a harm to the individual? The harm principle notoriously runs into problems with questions like this. Creighton insists that things like the “psychological costs of premature death” are “purely personal costs” and so none of the state’s business.

But of course death does not only affect the person who dies; deaths ramify through families, friendship circles, workplaces, social networks – just where does the private end and the public begin?

There’s more

And then there’s this:

Amazingly – given smokers choose to smoke – popular estimates of “net costs” ignore any personal benefit smokers might derive from smoking. And they disregard the offsetting savings from substantially lower health and age-pension costs as a result of smoking-induced premature deaths.

You read that right: we should factor in the money we save from smokers dying early as a benefit.

And therein lies the problem: casting this wholly as a private, personal freedom issue is basically a refusal to take the moral gravity of premature death seriously. That, in turn, involves denying that persons have an intrinsic worth, beyond whatever economic or social value they might happen to have – to understand the value of persons you have to understand what is lost to the world when they die, and vice versa.

Those who complain about a “nanny state” trying to stop people from getting themselves killed are ignoring the significance of death and the responsibilities that generates. And an outlook that thinks we should weigh that human tragedy against the money it saves us has long since lost any right to call itself morally serious.

None of this should be read as a plea to ban smoking: prohibition doesn’t exactly have a glittering history of success anyway. To reiterate, personal freedom matters, and we often need to leave people alone to make their own objectively dreadful choices.

But that right of non-interference may not be absolute, as the suicide and slavery examples show; and there is plenty of scope for policy moves designed to discourage people from harming themselves.

Of course, ideally we wouldn’t need to interfere in people’s lives at all. If you don’t want a nanny telling you what to do, maybe it’s time to grow up.

Drowning Mercy: Why We Fear The Boats

[Originally posted at The Conversation; I’d invite you to join the discussion there but they shut it down. Things got a bit heated, I think.]

There’s a Latin word: misericordia.

It’s usually translated “mercy” or “pity”. Thomas Aquinas took misericordia to be a kind of grief at the suffering of others as if that suffering were our own. Alasdair MacIntyre, the leading modern exponent of Thomist virtue ethics, sees misericordia as a responsiveness to the distress of others that offers the same concern we would normally show to those in our own family, community or country to total strangers.

Misericordia in this sense is the virtue of the Good Samaritan; it’s the virtue the ancient Chinese sage Mencius describes in the way we would rush to help a child who has fallen down a well, not through hope of reward, but simply through concern for the child – any child.

You might say this particular virtue went missing at sea the day the Special Air Service was ordered to board the MV Tampa. We have been doing our best to keep it from surfacing ever since.

And so it has come to this. Not only are we denying asylum seekers arriving by boat any prospect of resettlement in Australia, we are publishing pictures of their anguish at being told so. Whether this is genuinely meant to deter people from risking death on the high seas, or whether, as Melbourne philosopher Damon Young put it, it’s “immigration torture porn for xenophobes”, it seems we now see the suffering of others as an opportunity to exploit rather than a call to action.

The consensus among the commentariat has been that all this will go over beautifully in an electorate that has long seen boat arrivals as a standing existential threat. As journalist David Marr points out, Rudd is merely the latest prime minister to play on our disproportionate fear of “boat people”. The moves are new but the game itself is decades old.

It’s a bizarre national obsession and it begs for answers: why are we so scared of the boats?

No doubt straightforward racism is a very big part of it. But that can’t be the whole story: if it were, why has the government not been pilloried for talking about raising the overall humanitarian intake? Why is there no comparable outrage over the considerably larger number of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by air? If it’s about respect for Australian law, where’s the outrage over visa overstayers, a much larger cohort than asylum seekers? If it’s driven by opposition to population growth, where were all those “F—– Off, We’re Full” stickers when the Baby Bonus was introduced?

So what is it that boat arrivals symbolise that other forms of arrival don’t? Well, here’s a stab at an answer: they remind Australians that we haven’t earned what we’ve got.

Consider John Howard’s “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” line. That same message has been built into all our rhetoric on boat arrivals ever since: we don’t have to take you, and unless you come here entirely on our terms, we won’t. Form an orderly line, jump through this set of hoops, and maybe we’ll let you in. You’re welcome.

This emphasis on sovereignty over mercy serves to bolster the idea that “our way of life” is somehow ours by right, and so within our gift to bestow or withhold however we see fit. A gift, by its nature, must be freely given and gratuitous; it cannot be demanded of us. And it must be ours to give; we can only share what we ourselves are entitled to.

Except, of course, we haven’t earned such an entitlement at all.

Consider what Howard’s former chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos told a Q&A audience this week:

…our obligation…is to give people protection. It is not to guarantee them a first world lifestyle in every case when they come to Australia.

But then, by what right are we guaranteed such a lifestyle? What law of nature or reason determines that we get to live in luxury simply by virtue of the accident of birth?

Consider the slogan bandied about during the Cronulla riots: “I grew here, you flew here” – as if it was a personal achievement to be born on this part of the earth’s surface at this point in history. It’s not. It’s sheer dumb luck. It’s nice to be lucky, but it’s no merit.

I suspect on some level that’s what boat arrivals remind us of: the radical contingency of everything we have. It’s not just that we’re repulsed by undeserved misfortune – “there but for the grace of God go I”; “really makes you think, doesn’t it?” – we’re deeply unsettled by undeserved good fortune too.

As a species we always have been. That’s why we invented doctrines like karma, so we could insist that those born into abased misery or obscene privilege must, somehow, be getting their just deserts. In the modern West we have a similar myth: that “anyone can make it” if they just work hard enough, and so the poor must simply be lazy, undeserving – as if talent and even the capacity for hard work itself aren’t themselves dealt out by random chance.

Acknowledging such radical contingency knocks the ground from under out feet. It suggests our claim to our prosperity ultimately rests on happy accident rather than cosmic justice. No amount of “Cronulla capes” and bumper stickers and half-remembered tales of Bradman riding Phar Lap to victory at Gallipoli can change that.

K.E. Løgstrup, a 20th century Danish moral philosopher who deserves to be much better known outside Scandinavia than he is, argued that once we see the gratuitousness of what we have, we can no longer stand on our own rights in order to begrudge others our help. Our individual sovereignty is shattered by the realisation that everything we have is, ultimately, a gift we’ve received, not an entitlement we’ve earned.

Perhaps that’s why the boats scare us: they remind us of a far more demanding ethics lurking behind our comfortable norms of reciprocity and exchange. Perhaps that’s at least part of why we go to such lengths to dehumanise, to demonise, to refuse to see asylum seekers in their full humanity.

None of what I’ve just written fixes the problem or even offers any policy suggestions whatsoever. Understanding our motives won’t stop people dying at sea – as I write this, yet more lives have just been lost.

But the moral demand to respond with misericordia hasn’t gone away. And we cannot act morally, or even see others properly, if we’re more concerned about justifying our own privilege.

Ethics is a jealous God: self-regulation vs self-sacrifice

St Olaf College, June 2013
St Olaf College, June 2013

[Originally posted at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there]

Late one night recently I got a very frustrated email from a close friend. He’d just spent the evening arguing with investors about whether they needed to take ethics into account in their investment decisions.

Oh no, his colleagues had said: after all, we’re in the business of making money, not value judgements. Besides, no-one can agree on what’s morally acceptable anyway, so such decisions should be left to individuals.

This is something I’ve been noticing a lot lately, both in class and online: the assumption that because there is disagreement over the content of ethics, then ethics itself must be a wholly subjective matter, a matter of individual choice – personal taste with a self-righteous sheen.

So, I pounded out a quick response to the email: ask these investors what they’d think about someone taking all their money off them. Would they merely feel annoyed at the inconvenience, or actually wronged, as if someone had unjustly violated their rights?

Moral relativists, at least of a certain stripe, tend to retreat pretty quickly at that point. More often than not they tacitly subscribe to, and indeed rely upon, a liberal framework according to which everyone should be allowed to pursue their own conception of the good, so long as they don’t hurt anyone else. That liberal framework is explicitly put together to accommodate disagreement about right and wrong, but it is nonetheless at least minimally moral.

This liberal principle of non-interference is precisely what makes the idea of self-regulation so attractive. We want industries, companies and individuals to minimise the harm their activities cause while pursuing their rational self-interest. If they can do this without coercion from government, then so much the better, no?

The obvious rejoinder when a given industry or sector claims authority to regulate itself is that they don’t always do a particularly good job of it. There’s an obvious tension between self-interest and self-regulation that’s only partially dealt with by saying it’s in a business’ interest to play nice, if only to avoid reputational risk.

Immanuel Kant famously gave us the image of a shopkeeper who never over-charges his customers simply because doing so might give him a bad name and hurt his trade. Kant insists such a merchant is not, in fact, acting morally at all. Still, you might say, surely a person or business acting honestly from selfish motives is better than their not acting honestly at all?

But the problem goes deeper than this. The irritating thing about ethics is that its demands are categorical in a way that other kinds of norm aren’t. No amount of beauty, convenience or benefit can outweigh a moral claim. You can’t make enough profit out of doing something morally impermissible to make it okay again, unless, perhaps, the profit itself provides a better moral outcome for some other reason.

This would be fine if what is in our interests and what is morally right always coincided, but they don’t. Ethics often requires us to act against our overall self-interest, not just defer short-term rewards (immediate profit) in order to secure greater long-term goods (reputation). Indeed, ethics can even require us to sacrifice everything up to and including our very existence. The right and the good are jealous gods, and they can demand self-sacrifice in a way wholly incompatible with an “enlightened self-interest” model of self-regulation.

Being prepared to set aside self-interest in this categorical way may simply be expecting too much of any company. A public company’s legal duty, indeed its very reason for being, is to generate profit for its shareholders. It will of course operate within legal parameters, but what’s legal and what’s right frequently don’t map onto each other perfectly.

“We should stop doing x because x-ing will make us unpopular and reduce profits” may be good business, but it’s a prudential rather than an ethical norm. “We should stop doing x just because x-ing is wrong” however clearly is an ethical norm – and just for that reason can’t be fit into a framework that takes self-interest as its overriding value.

And acting ethically might involve more than just saying that some practices are unacceptable. It might involve acknowledging that some companies, organisations and industries simply should no longer exist.

Recently the farming lobby managed to shut down a major component of an anti-factory farming campaign by Animals Australia. The various farmers groups have sought, both in their public statements and in a social media campaign, to claim the ethical mantle of “animal welfare”:

Let’s be very clear: Australian farmers are committed to animal welfare. Our farmers raise, care for and nurture their stock and care deeply about what happens to them. We understand that improvements need to be made, but farmers, working with respected animal welfare groups, the community and governments, will be the ones who make them.

The claim here is that farmers are already acting ethically – indeed are motivated by concern and a desire to nurture – and should be trusted to regulate and improve their own practices.

The statement goes on to say that Animals Australia’s “real agenda” is “to end animal agriculture in this country”. No further comment is added; the subtext seems to be that, to the NFF, such an outcome is simply unthinkable. The very suggestion is, in their mind, self-refuting.

To use a metaphor that I’m quite sure will never be used this appropriately ever again: turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

What ethics may demand (and I stress may here, as I’m not actually arguing one way or the other about the legitimacy of animal farming, or any other industry or practice for that matter) is not just upping standards, but shutting down. There’s an argument to be had there, justifications that need to be offered, objections to be countered. But by insisting on self-regulation, the NFF is effectively calling the outcome of that argument ahead of time. Its own survival as an industry – precisely what ethics might ask it to give up – is non-negotiable.

Can self-regulation ever work? Quite possibly. But only if the parties are prepared to put ethics in its rightful place as the highest demand, instead of making it, at best, one priority among others. Morality cannot be a mere marketing tool or cultural ethos, respected and lauded but ultimately subordinate to self-interest and indeed to survival.

Self-regulation demands turkeys that can vote for Christmas. That’s one species we don’t seem to be raising many of these days.

A Horse is a Horse: Sexism vs. Speciesism

‘Year-in-review’ articles are meant to get people talking. Or, fill out column inches during a quiet time of year. Either way, I doubt the Daily Telegraph’s Phil Rothfield and Darren Hadland were expecting the backlash they received just before Christmas, when they declared racehorse Black Caviar the Tele’s ‘Sportswoman of the Year.’

Not surprisingly, Twitter rounded on Rothfield almost immediately, with media figures such as Wendy Harmer and Tara Moss weighing in on what clearly looks to be, at best, obliviously sexist. Rothfield telling Harmer to ‘pull her head in’ on the basis that ‘Caviar is a girl’ didn’t help.

The astute observer may have noticed that whatever else she is, Black Caviar is not a woman. She is female, but she is not a woman (or a girl for that matter). To horribly oversimplify, ‘female’ refers to the biological category of sex, while ‘woman’ refers to the social category of gender. A horse has a sex, but it does not have a gender. ‘Woman’ is a specifically human category, one that involves situation in a network of meanings that simply aren’t available or applicable to nonhuman animals.

And this is why awarding the title of ‘Sportswoman of the Year’ to Black Caviar is so galling: it reduces women to their female bodies. The decision suggests there were no actual women worthy of the title, so we’ll just pick the nearest deserving female as if that’s the same thing. That, in turn, collapses ‘woman’ into ‘female’ and thus essentialises gender. This is the old trick of sexism: women come to be defined by their biology, men do not. As Simone de Beauvoir noted, both men and women secrete hormones, but men are never accused of thinking ‘hormonally’ no matter how much testosterone is involved.

In the context of the position of women in sport, the Tele’s decision looks tin-eared at best and sinister at worst. Harmer took to her blog to point out how insulting this decision looks given “the utter bullshit [sportswomen] have to cope with – year in and year out.” I’ve no doubt she’s right. The effect of the article is clearly belittling, playing to the idea that women’s sport is necessarily boring, secondary, less legitimate. In sport as in other aspects of life, women are, as de Beauvoir put it, made into the ‘other.’ The defaults of the species are implicitly set to ‘male.’

What was interesting though was the sheer incredulity displayed by many at the very idea that a horse could even be considered as competing with humans. ABC journo Jeremy Fernandez, for instance, tweeted that Australia II also ‘stopped a nation’ as Black Caviar had done, but that didn’t make it a sportswoman. No-one, as best I can tell, pulled Fernandez up for comparing a sentient nonhuman animal to a yacht, equating a horse with a mere object.

Given the perfectly valid focus on gender, no-one, it seemed, stop to ask: why shouldn’t a horse be in the running (sorry) for recognition alongside human sportspeople? If we’re going to laud extraordinary feats of strength and endurance, why must the only animals to be so rewarded be homo sapiens? Perhaps there are valid answers to that question, but what struck me was that no-one even thought to raise it.

We find ourselves caught here between sexism and speciesism. We’ve finally come to a point where we can recognize the former, though clearly we still have a very long way to go. Speciesism, however, barely even registers.

The moral progress of humanity has been largely a process of coming to see the wrongness of discrimination on the basis of morally irrelevant differences – gender, race, sexuality, and so on. With regard to how we treat nonhuman animals, the question is basically this: which features that distinguish humans from animals are morally relevant and therefore justify differential regard? What is it that humans have that animals don’t that justifies putting our interests ahead of those of nonhuman animals, in what ways and to what extents?

As the last few decades of animal ethics has shown, these turn out to be deeply complex questions, to which there have been no shortage of answers put forward. I’m not denying there are such relevant features, by the way, as if human and nonhuman animals are morally equal. The capacity for rationality and self-reflection, for instance, seem to make a vast difference morally. But is it an absolute difference? And does it matter in the same way in all contexts?

Let’s stick to what we’re rewarding here: sporting performance. We’re not talking about ‘best and fairest.’ We’re simply talking about who can run the fastest or score the highest. Of course most sports involve a degree of conceptualisation that is not available to nonhuman animals – but if we’re going to laud individuals for doing physical things that almost no other individuals of their species can do, doesn’t Black Caviar fall into that category? Why is a human running really fast around a track qualitatively different, in a morally relevant way, from a horse doing the same thing (with ‘really fast’ relative to species-average in each case)?

Perhaps the simplest, most elegant solution for the Telegraph would have been to declare Black Caviar “Athlete of the Year.”

That would have done the Tele’s Sportsman of the Year out of his award too. But if Black Caviar trumped every human sportswoman in 2012, I dare say a good argument could also be made for her beating Rothfield and Hadland’s pick, Michael Clarke.

Mind you, I’m not much of a cricket fan. Though if Clarke had to play with someone sitting on his back, whipping him every time it looked like he was about to be run out, I’d probably watch. And I quite like the idea that Ricky Ponting is now living out his days in a nice paddock somewhere, with all the apples and sugar cubes he could wish for.

So this solution would have avoided the obnoxious sexism of the Tele’s conflation of ‘female horse’ with ‘woman’ whilst simultaneously taking Black Caviar seriously as an athlete, regardless of her species. Win-win, no?

Of course, maybe we’re not prepared to take nonhuman animals seriously as athletes. If that’s the case, perhaps we should stop forcing them to perform athletic feats for our entertainment? Just a thought.

Love Thy Neighbour: religious groups should not be exempt from discrimination laws.

[Originally posted at The Conversation – feel free to join in the discussion there]

A little over a century ago, our first prime minister told our first parliament that “the doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman”. Barton had the abstract principle right, but he couldn’t see non-Europeans as the sort of people to whom it could apply. He could not see their inner lives, their concerns, passions and beliefs, as being as morally significant as his own.

In his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker points out that for all our talk of moral decline, we are actually living in the least violent, least cruel and most peaceful era in human history.

Much of this progress, I’d suggest, is due not to better moral reasoning or principles, but to our improving moral vision.

We have come a long way since that first parliament, and we’re learning – gradually, fitfully, and painfully – to see what Barton could not see, to view others as no less worthy of our regard on the basis of irrelevant differences such as race, religion, or sexuality.

But what happens when the competing demands of religious and sexual identities collide in the public sphere?

The Gillard government has announced it will preserve existing exemptions in anti-discrimination legislation, allowing religious organisations to refuse to employ LGBT individuals – and indeed anyone else whose very presence might cause “injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of that religion”. The Australian Christian Lobby has hailed this as a win for “religious freedom”.

This is disingenuous at best. The issue really has nothing to do with the free exercise of one’s religion and everything to do with denying the moral depth of gay and lesbian lives.

To be clear, we are not simply talking about issues of job performance. It’s hard to see how being gay would be an impediment to doing many, if any, of the diverse jobs available in the various faith-based charities, schools, hospitals and universities around Australia.

Rather, groups such as ACL are defending the “right” to refuse to hire someone, not because their actions might be contrary to the mission or ethos of a religious employer, but because who they are might offend against someone’s “religious sensitivities”. It is a rejection of who the employee is, not what they do.

This fact is sometimes obscured by calling homosexuality a “lifestyle” – a deliberately shallow, superficial word designed to deny the profundity of someone’s core relationships. It implies that homosexuality is some sort of inessential add-on rather than a defining feature of the person. My relationship is a central, non-negotiable part of who I am; your relationship is just some stylistic choice, like installing marble benchtops or wearing Crocs.

Sometimes, instead, discrimination is justified by claiming that what’s hated is the sin, not the sinner. This may be a sincerely held view, but it too ignores just how deeply integral romantic and sexual love is to our practical identities. It denies the same depth to same-sex and heterosexual relationships, and so implicitly refuses to acknowledge the significance of what it claims to be offended by.

The question here isn’t whether (some) religious believers are right or wrong to be offended by homosexuality in this way. Nor is it whether we should respect the deep religious convictions of believers.

Rather, it’s whether society is obliged to respect this sort of offence enough to override other moral considerations. And this takes us to the clash between private faith and public moral reasons.

Religious faith, however it finds expression, is an essentially inward, private state of profound certainty. It may involve reasons, but these are not the sort of reasons that can be shared with non-believers. I doubt anyone has ever been moved from atheism into genuine religious faith (as opposed to mere lip service) by force of rational argument alone. Trying to argue someone into religious belief is like trying to make someone fall in love with you by telling them all the reasons why they should: it won’t work, and even if it did, it wouldn’t be because of your arguments themselves but because of something else.

For some believers, then, there may be an unshakable inner certainty that homosexuality is immoral. It would be wrong for those of us who disagree to simply trivialise that view, as it may be linked to fundamental beliefs that are central to the believer’s conception of him or herself and what a good life comprises. I’ve heard Christians say how torn they are between their love for gay friends and family and their belief in the authority of scripture. I don’t doubt their sincerity, nor the difficulty it presents them.

But when it comes to matters of public ethics, beliefs that are grounded in religious faith simply don’t cut it on their own. Believers and non-believers have to share a society, and that means our moral discourse has to be based on premises it’s at least possible for us to agree upon. “I find working with gay people offensive because God says homosexuality is wrong” is simply not such a premise.

It may be an important fact about the lives of some believers, but it doesn’t justify employment discrimination. Surely we’ve come at least far enough to see that.