Philosophy Hurts Your Head

The blog of a cranky Philosophy PhD Student from Newcastle, Australia.

Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Who’s afraid of Peer Review?

Posted by Sam D on February 20, 2009

Websinthe reports that Clive Hamilton has accused him of trying to silence him because he asked Charles Sturt University to peer review his public commentary.

I don’t have time to comment at as much length as I’d like, but here is my take on it: Anyone, academic or not, can state their opinion in public – it’s a right I strongly support. But strong claims have to be put to the test. And for academics, one of the most recognisable and strongest tests is peer-review.

Clive does not have to have his public comments peer-reviewed, that would excessively infringe upon his right to express opinions publicly. But without the application of academic rigour, including peer-review, they are only opinions, nothing more.

Posted in Censorship, Ethics, philosophy & politics, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Mandatory Internet Censorship and our Right to Choose

Posted by Sam D on October 31, 2008

In recent weeks I’ve become aware of the plan to enact filtering of content on all Australian ISPs. At a recent Senate Estimates committee sitting, Senator Conroy let slip that as well as the previously mentioned voluntary filter, there will be a mandatory level of filtering installed in all ISPs. (I apologise for the lack of references, I’ve only got 30 min till my next tutorial, so I’ll have to find them later). The optional filter will block content that isn’t child-friendly. The mandatory filter will block anything that the government censor deems ‘illegal’. While there are the obvious candidates, such as child pornography, extreme violence and advocating terrorist acts, the minister is not being drawn on what else might be included in this category. Senator Fielding from Family First, has advocated the mandatory blocking of any material that would be considered above R18+. For those who are not aware, that would mean no actual depictions of actual sex (see the link to the ACMA rules for Prohibited Content). To say that debate is fierce in the Australian internet community would be an understatement.

There is (of course) a further angle to all of this. An employee of an ISP publically spoke out against such measures, and there is evidence to suggest that pressure was applied by one of Senator Conroys staff with the intention of silencing him. My gut feeling is that this attempt at limiting free speech demonstrates at best an ignorance of democratic values. At worst it shows a conscious disregard for the right to political communication implied in the constitution. John Stuart Mill would not approve.
This a complex issue, not made any easier to untangle by Senator Conroys unwillingness to articulate in detail what will be on the ‘blacklist’. An ABC interviewer recently asked the senator repeatedly, and the answer (if there was one) was the same each time: “Illegal content” is what will be blocked. But it isn’t clear what is meant as in many sates of Australia what is illegal to sell, illegal to possess, and illegal to view can be different things. An example is X18+ video/dvd material . In NSW it’s not illegal to possess or view (in private for adults obviously), but it is illegal to sell it (even to adults). I add also that the blacklist will be secret, and exempt from Freedom of information requests.

I would suspect that the content likely to be targeted would be a reflection of current ACMA Prohibited Content as outlined on their Service Provider Responsibilities page as detailed below.

Under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, the following categories of online content are prohibited:

* Classifications are based on criteria outlined in the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, National Classification Code and the Guidelines for the Classification of Films and Computer Games 2005.

* Any online content that is classified RC* or X 18+* by the Classification Board (formerly the Office of Film and Literature Classification). This includes real depictions of actual sexual activity, child pornography, depictions of bestiality, material containing excessive violence or sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use, and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act.

* Content which is classified R 18+* and not subject to a restricted access system that prevents access by children. This includes depictions of simulated sexual activity, material containing strong, realistic violence and other material dealing with intense adult themes.

* Content which is classified MA 15+*, provided by a mobile premium service or a service that provides audio or video content upon payment of a fee and that is not subject to a restricted access system. This includes material containing strong depictions of nudity, implied sexual activity, drug use or violence, very frequent or very strong coarse language, and other material that is strong in impact.

This does include a lot of content that Australian adults take for granted, and don’t think of as illegal. I sincerely hope that it does not come to this, but what is the point of such guidlines if a mandatory filter does not restrict access to what is deemed ‘prohibited’? I would be very happy for anyone who knows the law to enlighten me in this regard.

Regardless of what the government intends to restrict, this is about censorship. At least I think it is and here is why. The claim is that this filtering is about blocking child pornography. However, it has been claimed that the majority of these materials are distributed by means other than HTTP (which is all that wil be filtered). So the filter may not stop thee distribution and production of of this undoubtedly illegal and unethical material, but it may help keep it out of the public eye. On top of this (and this is where I push the limit of my technical expertise) it will be quite possible to circumvent the ISP filtering. I am arguably ‘net-savvy’, but really know very little of such things. And yet it took me only 30 min to find five programs that are capable of braking through the Great Firewall of China. Given that one of these is based on VPN (Virtual Private Network) technology, I’m willing to bet that at least one of these programs would be effective. So I suspect a determined user could still access child pornography. The minister in charge of the filtering efforts should know this – if he doesn’t he is not qualified for his portfolio. And if he does he must have another agenda. Whether this is about broad censorship, or simply fear-mongering and vote buying remains to be seen. But we are no where near a federal election, so I suspect the former rather than the latter.

What will be restricted remains to be seen. However, for the sake of argument, assume that in addition to child pornography other material will also be restricted. I assume that initially this extra material would at least include things like:

  • Fetish and BDSM (even with consenting participants this is categorised as ‘Refused Classification’ at a federal level in Australia).
  • Material that could be deemed instructional in the undertaking of a criminal act. This could include instructions for manufacturing illicit drugs, breaking copyright, euthanasia.
  • Political (or indeed any) material that would be interpreted by the censor as inciting violence.

In the first instance I’m not sure that even restricting this above material is ethical. Please note, I agree that child pornography should be blocked, as there is clear justification due to the harm to the victims involved, and I have similar feelings about showing gratuitous act of violence. But the further we stray from these more clear-cut cases, the less ability we have to uncontroversially appeal to the harm principle (or something like that). In my opinion, the further away from there being a clear case of harm involved in the production or consumption of so-called prohibited material, the higher the likelihood of an abuse of governmental power resulting in harm to society. If we stick with cases where it isn’t obvious that there is harm to the participant (or author), we need to show that there is going to be harm to the consumer or that they will be influenced to harm others. On top of this we need to be sure that the harm is so likely and so great in nature as to override other considerations. This is what already happens – the censor does not ban all violent movies, presumably because the chances of most of them leading to viewers committing violence is seen as small enough.

If the list is more restrictive, and material depicting consenting adults having sex is withheld from consenting adults, we find ourselves squarely in the middle of a debate over the censorship of pornography. And perhaps it is a debate that Australia has to have. Of course, Senator Conroy is less enthusiastic about this, in the last few days he has tried to emphasize that at this stage it is all about “technical feasibility”. Actual feasibility aside (see my comments above), it is a diversionary tactic. Is mind -control technically feasible? Many people might be more concerned with the question of whether it’s morally or ethically allowable even at the stage of testing technical feasibility. And if the government is indeed at this stage, we can see that at least some of those involved have decided in favour of censorship. The debate over pornography deserves a post of it’s own, and I’ll try to follow up on this. For the moment my point is this: We should have the debate over whether or not mandatory internet filtering is a good or bad thing before we start working on deciding if it is possible or not.

Leaving porn aside for the moment, it is important to consider the possible future implications for free speech and freedom of expression. Given the absolute nature of the government blacklist, there has been no detail on how this is to be administered to prevent abuse by minority lobby groups and politicians. In a hostile Senate, the government is prone to make allowances to the likes of Family First. And our constitution implies freedom of political communications, but arguably, not a great deal more. So I would not expect too much protection from that quarter. The ability to order and enforce by law that all ISPs in a country must block access to a particular site is an extremely powerful tool. Without significant oversight the temptation for government to use this tool to suit its (or its lobbyists and political donors) interests will be too great to resist. The horse-trading that occurs when independent senators are blocking legislation should never include back room deals to block certain websites or categories of content, and unless the process is completely transparent, this is exactly what could happen. Nick Xenophon and Steve Fielding have already stated what they they would demand be blocked (in return for their votes of course). Blocking gambling sites for Nick, and all X18+ rated content for Steve is what our freedom to be treated like adults online may end up being worth.

So to sum up: Mandatory ISP Internet Filtering will probably block content that many Australians have no objection to. It probably isn’t technically feasible. It places restrictions on the choices of adult Australian citizens that do not appear to have firm ethical foundations. It won’t achieve its stated aim of combating child pornography – in fact it might create a false sense of security. If it even half-works it will be a very, very powerful tool for controlling what the population is exposed to, and this is too powerful a tool for any government to have and not abuse.

To take action I recommend visiting

A wiki of media coverage can be found here Also has a wealth of information (and opinion) on this issue. Key players in this debate can be found there!

Posted in Ethics, News, philosophy & politics | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

The Ethics of “If we don’t then someone else will”

Posted by Sam D on September 7, 2007

While everyone has been distracted by the sound and fury of APEC the the New South Wales state government approved a new major coal mine for the Hunter region. Without getting into the technical details the bare facts are that this mine will involve a lot of coal (10 million tonnes per year for up to 21 years) being dug out of the ground, sold, and then burnt. Presumably this will involve a lot of Carbon Dioxide ending up in the atmosphere. The Greens say the mine, near Mudgee, will increase Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 5.3 per cent per year. It’s plausible that this could contribute to climate change. For what it’s worth, I’m not a climate change sceptic, but I wanted to talk about something different here.

In response to criticism from green groups, NSW Planning Minister, Frank Sartor is reported to have argued that if the coal did not come from this mine it would come from a mine somewhere, and hence the development was ethically and morally acceptable. This claim is what I’m really interested in.

There might be other factors, but the “if we don’t then someone else will” argument, by itself, does not seem to provide much in the way of ethical justification. Assuming that burning coal is a bad thing, we can easily draw a parallel with the provision of other products that seem morally challenged.


If we don’t provide the market with anti-personel land mines, then someone else will….

If that crack cocaine isn’t produced here it will be produced somewhere else….

Demand for hardcore child pornography is so high that if we don’t sell it to developing countries then some else will…..

etc, so it is morally and ethically justified for us to do so.

This seems to me to be a questionable inference. The only circumstances that anyone would use such a justification for action would be when they do not hold a strong moral belief that such an action was wrong, or that they believe that other factors outweigh the negative effects. In this case it seems that either Frank Sartor is a climate change sceptic, or he does not believe that it is wrong to contribute to Global Warming or that he believes that the positives ( in this case 320 jobs and coal exports worth $7.5 billion) outweigh the possible harm that burning the coal could cause.

Posted in Environment, Ethics, philosophy & politics | 1 Comment »

Uni of Newcastle history re-written?

Posted by Sam D on August 24, 2007

I recently had been looking at the University of Newcastle page on Wikipedia – after the release of WikiScanner, I though a look at the edit history might be interesting. And sure enough there are 903 edits by anonymous users coming from IP’s on Callaghan campus. I’ve no proof that they are by staff, but how many students want to extol the virtues of the new branding strategy, faculty structure, or the infamous Student Hubs?

It’s all very nice, but I can’t help but feel that it sanitises our history.

Many of the changes to the university structure mentioned above were made in response to significant staff cuts, caused by financial mismanagement and made worse by poor enrollment, itself possibly caused by a plagiarism scandal (similar to UNE’s current mishap but not nearly as bad). None of this is mentioned.

The section on Autonomy Day was deleted for being “trivia, unencyclopedic, and unsourced” by user Radiant! with whom I’ll be corresponding so as to find a way of including interesting and funny events in a way that does not violate this users sense of what should be on the page.

I was struck by a comment from a user that the entry was not an advertisement (implying that it should not be treated like one), but at the moment, due to the actions of staff (someone in Marketing – I’m sure you know who you are) and Radiant!, it may as well be. If we want a reputation for having no personality we are going about it the right way.

This sort of editing, which picks and chooses the truth, might suit marketing. But it seems contrary to the notions of academic rigor and integrity that the senior management are so fond of mentioning.

Posted in Education, Ethics | 1 Comment »

The Ethics of Mercenary Academia

Posted by Sam D on May 17, 2007

Given something I heard recently I’m beginning to wonder how much actual integrity there is in some institutions, and if I’m somehow missing the point.

Decisions are made in the administrations of universities that have a profound effect on the experience and education of students, so careful consideration in these matters is essential.

But should not the first consideration in the decision making process be those of academic and educational integrity?

An example is credit, otherwise known as ‘exemptions’ or ‘advanced standing’, e.g. when a student comes into a certain Bachelors degree program having previously completed an Advanced Diploma in a similar field, they are exempt from having to complete certain subjects in the degree program.

Now of the following options which seems like the best basis for determining if a qualification entitles a student to these exemptions?

A: Marketing considerations. If we can offer more credit that our competitors then the students will come to us rather than go to them because they want the shortest possible route to a high paying job.

B: Academic considerations. Can the student achieve the outcomes of the subjects they are potentially exempt from or do they already have the information that we are trying to impart?

In some cases exemptions are given for subjects for reason ‘A’ when the previous study has not included any similar material or learning objectives or anything vaguely resembling reason ‘B’. Worse still this is deployed in the context of professional ethics components in some very expensive and prestigious technology degrees. Academics will argue that they can give certain exemptions because the students will never need to do certain things again. But the practice of professional ethics is not one of these things! I can’t guarantee that ethics can be taught. But for certain degrees, universities are legally obliged to at least try. Giving unfounded exemptions for professional ethics subjects in order to attract more (usually overseas full-fee paying) students is not only ethically and morally questionable, but it totally lacks academic integrity and devalues the degree in question.

It leads me to wonder: Under what circumstances can one justify not teaching ethics when one can also be sure that the student in question has not yet had these lessons?

The answer is of course: When you don’t really believe that even trying to teach ethics has any value.

I hope that this turns out to be nothing more than spiteful rumor and idle speculation. I’d be very disappointed to encounter this when I eventually become an academic.

Posted in Education, Ethics | Leave a Comment »

Rhythm method and embryonic death

Posted by Sam D on November 8, 2006

I just found this article by Luc BovensThe rhythm method and embryonic death” via “the shipwright returns” , published in the Journal of Medical Ethics (2006; 32: 355-6).

Not the most spectacularly watertight argument I have ever read, on account of the assumptions that it has to make. On the other hand, most of these assumptions seem pretty hard to argue against. Worth a quick read.

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy | Leave a Comment »

Where is responsibility?

Posted by Sam D on April 26, 2006

Responsibility: Liberal society is predicated on the existence of responsibility. A few weeks ago on Today Tonight, I saw a youth in trouble because he had racked up massive debt. His mother complained that there should be restrictions on how much people can spend if they don’t earn much (he was on about $18,000 AUD per year). If we really thought he was responsible, we would not have this conversation. This is why metaphysics and the philosophies surrounding Mind, Free Will and the like are so important, much more so than some ethicists would have us believe. Because the metaphysics that allowed us to believe in personal responsibility has evaporated, our ethical systems have foundered. We have only a few choices.

1. Craft a new system of ethics that does not rely on responsibility. This has turned out to be a little harder than we thought. It might resemble physics, or it might not. However some might argue that an Ethics that resembles what we understand Physics to be is no Ethics at all.

2. Find a way to get responsibility back into the picture. (This seems very, very hard.)

Overall it is option 2. that I would like to see acted upon. I am very suspicious of treating ethics like physics, as this could lead to people being viewed as particles, devoid of personal responsibility. This might not be a bad thing in some ways but I worry that it might lead to a situation that is untenable. Treating people as if they are not responsible seems to make them unhappy. It involves choices that are enjoyable, legitimate or both being taken away from people. More specifically this involves only certain kinds of changes being made. For example: too much, or even any X is damaging. Do we change the situation so that X can be used without as many negative effects, or provide alternatives that are less damaging? No, we restrict the availability of X and produce a new disciplinary discourse in the process. This general pattern is my concern. This “responsibility doesn’t exist/determinist” strategy is not deployed in a way that actually helps either the meta-ethical problem at hand, or the quality of life of the people involved. It is deployed in order to achieve and consolidate certain socio-political agendas, almost always conservative in flavour. In the current political environment in Australia (small ‘l’) liberalism is used to justify free market economics, but not freedom to marry a person of the same sex. Similarly, the denial of responsibility will be used to justify the restriction of liberties, but not the fact that we can’t help but strive for these same ends.

Posted in Ethics, Politics | Leave a Comment »

More Gore for Porn Madness.

Posted by Sam D on September 29, 2005

It appears that the investigation has been and gone. The NY times really needs to try harder to keep up. Too slow. Not good enough.

The Register reports that the probe has been launched but there will be no felony charges laid.

Reuters is reporting, via Reuters Alert Net , that the U.S. Army has “failed to determine whether U.S. soldiers provided grisly photos of people killed in the Iraq war to a porn Web site”, and has (wait for it) ENDED THEIR PROBE!

( Is That Legal? was right, that was quick.)

They apparently couldn’t prove that “U.S. soldiers were responsible for the photos and whether they showed actual war dead”. I’m not satisfied with this response, and I think a lot of people are going to share that sentiment. People are not going to accept this, and they are not going to let it go away.

I want to know how long the U.S. government has known about this, and I want to know if the Australian government knew what was happening. I want assurances that no Australian personnel were involved, which they can’t give because they don’t seem to know who is responsible.

I’ve just found out that has reported on this. Read the article here
(Now the shit will really hit the fan.) It is not a much stronger article than the NY Times report, but it will be enough to get people started.

If you are concerned with the lack of coverage on this story, do something about it. Publish on your blog. Link to someone who has. Start asking your elected representatives what they think of this, and what they may have known. Last of all, contact the media, at any level. Don’t let them ignore this.

Posted in Ethics, News, Politics | 2 Comments »

Gore for Porn Update.

Posted by Sam D on September 29, 2005

The New York Times has finally reported on this.

Army Investigates Photos of Iraqi War Dead on Web

Published: September 28, 2005

“WASHINGTON, Sept. 27 – The Army has opened an investigation into whether American troops have sent gruesome photographs of Iraqi war dead to an Internet site where the soldiers were given free access to online pornography, Army officials said Tuesday.”

Read the full article here.

So the army has launched an investigation eh? They took their time. If I’d been a day or two quicker I’d have beaten them to it. That’s not right. At least they admit that this could constitute a breach of the Geneva Convention.
The article states that the authenticity of the photos has not been confirmed. Authenticity of what!? If nothing else I think we can depend on the authenticity of the bodies in the pictures. I appreciate that people in the US don’t want to jump to conclusions, but I would find it very, very hard to believe that any of this material was fake. On the other hand, because of the way that the pictures are being supplied and published, the only person who knows if a given picture is of what, where and when they say it is, is the person who originally sent it.

That is if they can find who sent it. The article indicates that the Army has been having trouble tracking down service personnel in some of the photos as their unit and name markings are unclear. I hope that is not the only option that they have at their disposal in this investigation.

There is no good way that this can be taken. If the Army was aware of this, but did nothing till it became public then it is complicit in this grossly unethical and possibly illegal affair.

If the Army was really un-aware of this, then the implications are disturbing. If soldiers could get away with sending these pictures unnoticed, what other information and material has been passing through these channels unnoticed? Incompetence in monitoring this web traffic to could constitute a major security weakness and a ridiculous naivete of what is actually happening with personnel on their bases.

The third possibility, implied by the Times’ assertion that the authenticity of the photos was unconfirmed, is that it isn’t US personnel who are sending the pictures. I would find this hard to believe, but have to admit that it is a possibility for at least some of the material in question. If the pictures are at all what they appear to be, then someone in Iraq and Afghanistan is sending them. For all the conservatives who are thinking of crying ‘conspiracy’, take note: People are going to find it hard to believe that this whole thing has been orchestrated by Islamic extremists or peace activists. While the ‘proof’ may mysteriously elude army investigators, people will still know which group is responsible for this, the marks of military culture are all over it, and not amount of handwaving and misdirection will change that.

I’m glad that the NY time ran the story. But I was disappointed at how cautious in their language they were. While I have no proof, it seems that they are treading very carefully. There’s your conspiracy.

As far as I can tell, despite the growing momentum in the blogsphere and finally now in print media, CNN has not touched this.

Posted in Ethics, News | Leave a Comment »

US Soldiers swap gore for porn

Posted by Sam D on September 28, 2005

In searching for confirmation of a rumor that US soldiers were setting up porn sites from Iraq I discovered a far more disturbing situation. A website, , containing ‘amateur’ porn is now, and has for some time, been offering free site membership to military stationed in Iraq if they send pictures or video of deceased insurgents, the more graphic and gory the better. I first found the story here.

To label this as ‘disturbing’ is a spectacular understatement. I recommend that if people want to look at this site they had better not be eating at the time. One example that many will find disturbing and offensive on many levels is the post titled: “Nice puss / bad foot”, which shows an Iraqi woman who has (alledgedly) stepped on a land mine. Her leg is enough to turn most stomachs. Her genitalia is clearly visible below the edge of her skirt. (I won’t dignify this with a direct link, but if you don’t believe me and want to see for yourself it is not hard to find on the site.) The ensuing discussion concerning the personal hygiene habits of women from certain cultures and the treatment of this woman as a sex object by the participants in the discussion are enough to make the blood of anyone even vaguely feminist boil.

Other material includes photo’s showing dead bodies in extreme detail, some surrounded by grinning Coalition soldiers.

As I said, all of this is disturbing enough. A more chilling implication is that this is not an unknown activity. A comment on the recent Is That Legal ? post on this issue indicates that the story was broken on Nur al-Cubicle around a month ago. While it may have made the news in Italy in particular, it does not seem to have made the news in the US or here. The bulk of the ‘western’ blogsphere seems only to have picked this up in the last week or so. This is a story that people need to hear. It appears to be accurate. It is therefore, part of the reality of this ‘war’. Anyone with any media contacts in Australia should encourage them to run this story.

If you thought the irony was over, you were wrong. The site at the center of this bizarre issue,, says it does not want pictures of wounded Coalition soldiers.

That this is happening at the same time as the US government is talking up its ‘war on porn’ is outrageous. If the current administration is aware of this activity, the implication that consenting adults tying each other up, having sex, and selling the picures online is somehow worse than the swap deal that is occurring. Such a twisting of values is implied, it beggars belief.

I find it hard to believe that this photo-trade is in line with Geneva conventions. But as Is that Legal? observes, no one seem to care.

Posted in Ethics, News, Politics | 1 Comment »