Philosophy Hurts Your Head

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

Archive for the ‘philosophy & politics’ 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 »

ISP Filtering – A lesson in History.

Posted by Sam D on December 12, 2008

There have been some very good articles coming out of the Australian Blogsphere regarding the IPS filtering plan. My favorite for this week has been Liberal tyranny on the World Wide Web at Spiked Online by Kerry Miller, (who blogs at Strange Times ) which describes the role that Clive Hamilton has played in the development of this policy. I note that his new employer CAPPE ( Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics)  has minimised reference to his pro-filter position or articles.

It is worth noting that across a political spectrum (not that it is the best way to categorise political views) the more coherent and critical reactions have come from the libertarian right. That said the Greens have come out strongly against this, and in some ways they are libertarian left-ish. However you cut it though, the response from much of the left has been pretty weak. I was surprised by this. Is it because left leaning ideologies have a weaker sense of individual rihgs or liberties? I don’t know. What I do know is that at least one of my friends is going to say “I told you so” (or something along those lines, but more eloquent) when I see him next.

Posted in Censorship, philosophy & politics, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Australian Bill of Rights

Posted by Sam D on December 4, 2008

The Sydney Morning Herald reported yesterday that the federal Government was considering the creation of an Australian Bill of Rights. The SMH article quoted Australian National University’s Professor Hilary Charlesworth as saying that “the bill of rights would probably include civil and political rights such as the right to free speech and protection from discrimination.” In the context of the current discussion over internet censorship here, I think it is somewhat ironic for a government to propose the formation of something to enshrine our rights at the same time as it is trialling technologies designed to curtail them. It did occur to me (rather cynically) that the Bill of Rights will be primarily a political tool to lull people into a false sense of security – “Your liberties can’t be under threat, the Bill of Rights will keep them safe”. I admit though that despite it’s sense of righteous outrage, the ALP may see the pro-liberty, anti-filtering brigade as a small enough minority to ignore and therefore to attribute the Bill of Rights idea as a reaction to their efforts may be an error of proportionality. Either way, the formation of this document should be an interesting process and I’m looking forward to participating as much as I can.

In other news:

  • It seems that the Australian Young labor Party has broken ranks with its parent organisation to pass a motion against the mandatory filtering regime . This of course has no actual effect on anything that the grown-up politicians are doing, and while I like to think it could indicate dissent within the greater party, I know that it probably doesn’t. (Thanks to BanThisUrl)
  • The GetUp! campaign against internet filtering has collected 76,157 signatures on it’s electronic petition.

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

Slippery Slopes and the Conroy Plan

Posted by Sam D on November 2, 2008

There is a lot of shouting about Slippery Slopes in the debate aout Stephen Conroys plan to enforce mandatory ISP level filtering on the internest in Australia. Now some choppers of logic out there might want to respond by saying that slippery slope arguments are invalid. And if you fail to indepednantly justify the connections between the premises, they are indeed invalid. Likewise if the agument forms a ‘conjuntion fallacy’. However, Eugene Volokh, who recently gave his considered opinion on the situation at The Volokh Conspiracy, details at length the different kinds of slippery slopes that exist and the mechaisms by which they operate. He does ot say that Slippery Slope arguments are valid (just the opposite I think), but he does argue that they do in fact occur in real life, and explores how they work

For our slippery slope today, I will define our ‘top of the slope’ as follows: The imposition of mandatory IPS filters blocking access to ‘illegal content’. By Illegal content I mean anything that would currently be ‘Refused Classification’ under ACMA guidlines eg, child pornography, fetish and BDSM, anything that advocates terrorist acts, anything that is instructional in the commission of a crime (note that ‘illegal content’ is currently ill defined, so I am kind of guessing here) . For the sake of brevity I’d call this  simply ‘censorship’ (but don’t be mistaken, I disagree with even this amount of censorship). 

The bottom of the slope could be something like this: Isp filters cause extensive content to be blocked including all X18+ material, sites about Euthanasia, as well as any other sites that offend federal politicians, their wives or their lobbyists – Severe Censorship

Based roughly on categories in Mechanisims of the Slippery Slope

  1. Cost-lowering: Once  ISP level filtering (enabling censorship) is in place, the government will have to only alter the secret blacklist to ban additional sites.
  2. Legal rule combination: I can’t think of how this category is to be applied in this case – any ideas would be greatly appreciated.
  3. Attitude altering: People may begin to think of access to websites as a privilege rather than a right, and thus regard restricted access less seriously.
  4. Small change tolerance: People may tolerate Censorship because it constitutes just a small change, but when combined with other small changes, it could lead to the equivalent of Severe Censorship.
  5. Political Power: The hassle of getting around the Moderate Censorship may reduce the number of people wanting unrestricted internet access, and thus the political power of the anti-censorship bloc decreases.
  6. Political momentum: Once the government has passed this ISP filtering law it becomes easier to pass other censorship laws, including laws that entail Severe censorship.

Off the top of my head, I’d say that No 1 is quite likely, though it isn’t clear that it will definetly lead to the bottom of the slope, I’d argue that it certainly could. No 3 could happen, but would take years to come about. No 4 seems quite likely to me. No 5 seem quite unlikely to me, for the time being. No 6 is arguably what is happeing right now, with this current situation being the result of earlier Brian Harradine inspired legislation. 

Anyway, I think there is food for thougt here. If there are good reasons to think that the ISP filtering can lead to an unacceptable situation in the future we need to do one of two things. A) Not enact the filtering or B) Set up structures or mechanisms that ensure we don’t slide down the slope. Given that unlike the U.S. our constitution is little help in the regard, I’m not sure what form this would take. 


Posted in Philosophy, philosophy & politics, Politics | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

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 »

Open Minded Bloggers – My (Top) Five.

Posted by Sam D on June 21, 2007

Yesterday I was honoured by Hells Handmaiden with an Open Minded Blogger Award.

According to the awards homepage: “This award is given to Blogs that demonstrate respect towards others, research and consideration of opposing views, free-flowing conversation with commenters, and an overall spirit of civility and openness. It is time we recognize such commendable behavior on the internet.

I’m sure people who know me through my work and study would find the Maiden’s observation that I have an ability ” to respond nicely to pretentious lunacy” deeply amusing.

The creator of this award has asked that each winner pass the award along to five new winners.

  1. Feel free to put the Award badge on your website side menu or wherever works best.
  2. Link to this (I assume they mean the awards homepage) page so that people can easily find the origin of the Award.
  3. Write a post on your blog linking to five blogs that you believe blog with an open mind.

There are a lot of people I know who possibly deserve this, but this is the best I could come up with. In my opinion all of the blogs below have contributors who are willing to examine not only other people’s beliefs, but their own as well.

  • The Space of Reasons : Avery Archer has to be one of the most intellectually rigorous, thorough, patient and polite bloggers around. I can’t think of anyone who deserves this award more.
  • The Prosblogion For possibly the most civilized and detailed discussion of serious philosophy and religion on the web.
  • Common Sense Philosophy Whose author has the rare ability to respond to arguments he disagrees with, without getting personal (an ability that I have in the past lacked somewhat).
  • Is that Legal? This author should be commended for maintaining remarkable composure whilst discussing legal and ethical issues of politics and war, some of which upset me to the point of incoherence. Good research as well. (Not really surprising if you know who they are).

I also would have given an award to Dialectic but as I’m both a contributor and co-editor there, it wouldn’t be appropriate really. Better luck next time guys.

Posted in Philosophy, philosophy & politics, Philosophy & Religion | 2 Comments »

Emma Goldman on Marriage and Love

Posted by Sam D on November 8, 2006

Love, the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful moulder of human destiny; how can such an all-compelling force be synonymous with that poor little State and Church-begotten weed, marriage?

Free love? As if love is anything but free! Man has bought brains, but all the millions in the world have failed to buy love. Man has subdued bodies, but all the power on earth has been unable to subdue love. Man has conquered whole nations, but all his armies could not conquer love. Man has chained and fettered the spirit, but he has been utterly helpless before love. High on a throne, with all the splendor and pomp his gold can command, man is yet poor and desolate, if love passes him by. And if it stays, the poorest hovel is radiant with warmth, with life and color. Thus love has the magic power to make of a beggar a king. Yes, love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere.

* Emma Goldman – “Marriage and Love” in Anarchism and Other Essays (1911).
(Thanks to Wikiquote)

Posted in philosophy & politics, Quotes | 2 Comments »

Do secular societies breed enough to survive?

Posted by Sam D on January 16, 2006

I read this on the New Criterion a while back. It is interesting, if somewhat caustic and overexcited in places, but does raise a valid question: Will the demographics and more specifically the reproductive habits, of western secular culture be its downfall?

Posted in philosophy & politics, Politics, Religion | 3 Comments »

A setback for Intelligent Design

Posted by Sam D on December 21, 2005

A loss in the courts (in the U.S.) for the drive to teach Intelligent Design as science in public schools. Maybe it is still metaphyics after all.

“Dover Area School Board members violated the Constitution when they ordered that its biology curriculum must include the notion that life on Earth was produced by an unidentified intelligent cause, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III said.”

Read the full story Here

(Thanks to Xavier for sending me this one).

Posted in Intelligent Design, philosophy & politics, Philosophy & Religion | Leave a Comment »