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Join Australia’s leading thinkers, opinion makers and experts for provocative conversations about the issues that matter to Australia and Australians right now.

How ethical is Australia?

Peter Singer

Recorded 15 July, National Museum of Australia

audio_w15 Listen to the audio or download the transcript


Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Courtesy Denise Applewhite/Princeton University

Peter Singer is Australia’s best-known thinker, a professional philosopher. Once labelled the most dangerous man on the planet, he examined how well Australia is performing as a global citizen in his lecture: How ethical is Australia?

The lecture, part of the Platform Conversations series, is an opportunity for Singer to revisit and update assessments in his 2004 book (published with Tom Gregg) How Ethical is Australia? An Examination of Australia’s Record as a Global Citizen.

The book examined five areas of policy with a global impact – foreign aid, the United Nations, overseas trade, the environment and refugees. Australia’s record in four of these areas, the authors said, was not one ‘of which any nation would be proud’.

How Ethical is Australia argued in 2004 that Australia should do more than pursue narrow short-term interests. Government policy should be informed by an enlightened realism that marries national self interest with purposeful action to reduce poverty and protect the global environment. Such enlightened realism is not only essential for the achievement of a better world, but is also in Australia’s long-term interest.

  • How much, if anything, has changed in 2011?

The event included a 30-minute lecture from Singer followed by questions and answers (some of the questions were submitted online before the event.

Questions submitted online before the program


I'm interested to hear your views on:

  • the breadth and quality of ethics education in primary and secondary schools in Australia
  • simple things Australians could do to contribute to a more ethical society

Also, can one be an ethical capitalist?


The Internet lets us grant micro-loans to farmers in Bangladesh and helps us share the benefit of life wisdom with complete strangers, but it has also given us the anonymity to act with impunity, has given new dimensions to the term "stranger danger", and would seem (according to the news) to be the medium of choice for child sex predators/pornographers the world over.

What role do you see the Internet playing in the shaping (or re-shaping) of "ethical behaviour" in decades to come?

Phillip Ironfield

Given the behaviour of people at the helm of Australian power elites, such as Government, Academia and Senior Corporate Roles, have ethics in Australia become just the embodiment of a Panglossian code of behaviour to be applied by the empowered to promote their self interests over the people whose interests they are supposed to be protecting?


Could you please comment on a thread in recent public debate that goes something like "either we show concern for the suffering of animals or concern for the suffering of refugees", not both. I am concerned about both: wouldn't it be more useful to consider these issues in terms of "and" rather than "or".


You have written about the ethical challenges posed by both climate change and by poverty. Yet, as China has demonstrated, the best chance to eliminate poverty may be carbon-intensive economic growth. Similarly, the Prime Minister has just released a plan to price carbon, the effectiveness of which may be compromised by the generous compensation to low income households.

If we can't both save the poor and save the planet, which should we choose?


Peter Singer,

Do you think Australians are too intellectually lazy to be ethical?

Many Australians seem well intentioned but unwilling to think and talk about principles and philosophy for more than a minute or two. For example, the reactions to the proposed carbon emissions policy are often hysterical and vitriolic and reflect denial of the majority scientific and economic opinion. This is also true of the debate on refugees - as someone born in a country where it would be dangerous to queue, I would like to see a more generous/ethical approach.(I don't exclude myself from the charge of laziness - seeing the merits of being vegetarian but a lazy cook!)


As humans increase in numbers they continue to endanger the existence of certain (non-human) animal species. Is there a conflict between:

  1. supporting humanitarian aid, which increases the number of humans at the expense of animals; and
  2. treating non-human animals and human animals as equals?



Is ethics an important global governance issue? With the rise and influence of developing nations onto the World stage, what role will ethics play in this new Order? If things are likely to change, what do you see this as looking like and how can adaptation take place?


Professor Singer,

Like you I am a vegetarian for ethical reasons, based on a utilitarian consideration. However, one issue I struggle with is where to draw the line in terms of how far out of my way I should go to avoid causing suffering to other beings (ie how to effectively compare utility and suffering). For example, by not driving my car a certain distance I could probably save the lives of several bugs that my car would have otherwise killed. Keeping animals in unnatural habitats as pets is another example.

In making decisions about the food I consume it is relatively easy to make, what I consider, ethical choices, but in other circumstances such as the examples above, I find it more difficult to weigh up utility and suffering in a utilitarian manner. How do suggest navigating these ethical problems in relation to human and animal interactions?

Jim Dunn

Professor Singer

Given the symbiotic relationship of everything within nature, why is it acceptable to eat vegetables and not animals? Where do we strike the balance?

Peter Dunn

Professor Singer

Please comment on the following statement:

If we are to be truly ethical human beings surely we must start with a thorough critique of capitalism and a renewed enthusiasm for Marxian analysis.


Today Australia is a democratic pluralistic society that has been formed by many different cultures and people over time. Each of these cultures and people has their own belief systems with specific ethical standards, often what is ethically right for one section of society can be ethically wrong for another section of society. These disagreements can be very hard to settle and in some cases leads to violence, i.e. the issue of abortion. How, as a society, can we come to a single ethical judgement on an issue and place that into law without excluding many of these different belief systems? Furthermore, does public policy always need to be made in a secular manner that excludes citizen's spiritual beliefs?


Dear Mr Singer,

Is it reasonable to say that one's values are defined by the application of energy?

If the above is accepted, is conscience a measure of the extent to which values have achieved the ideals?

Who decides on Australia's ideals and who acts as the conscience?


Dear Mr Singer,

Do you have a perspective on why Australians remain so ill informed and unempathetic about the circumstances and political situations in other countries which cause so many people to flee to seek safety as asylum seekers. Many Australians have very strong views and suspicions regarding the intent of asylum seekers, believing them to be seeking only improved economic circumstances, and seem oblivious to the fact they actually flee gross human rights abuses and persecution so intolerable that their very survival is in jeopardy. Are Australians so accustomed to a lifestyle which affords human rights, democracy, education, prosperity that we have become willing to ignore the plights of others and suspend our compassion for those who do not?


Dear Dr Singer,

In the last few weeks ABC's 4 Corners has shown two programs on horrific brutality - against cattle and against Tamils. From the public outcry, Australians seem to be far more concerned about the cattle. What's your understanding of the ethics at work behind this stark difference? It's very disturbing.

James Bond

Dear Peter,

I was hoping you could talk about how you see the nation-state developing over the coming years and centuries. In an increasingly globalised world it seems nationalism is as strong as ever. Can humanity effectively deal with environmental problems within a nation-state dynamic or is the future of politics a stateless world?


Hi Peter and the panel,

I'm interested that it seemed to be safer for commentators to show strong public concern for the welfare of livestock sent to Indonesia and than for the welfare of boat-people proposed to be sent to Malaysia. I'm wondering what your thoughts are about this.


Dear Mr Singer,

The global population debate, and indeed the population of Australia debate is highly contentious. Looking at this issue from a realist perspective, where should our ethical duty in Australia lay: with the environment, climate and fauna which are straining under the pressure of the growing population; with refugees and migrants escaping population-related pressures in other countries; or with future economic growth and development which could maintain a level of prosperity for Australians and therefore national stability?


As Australians, what are our obligations towards non-Australians? It can be argued, for example, that our treatment of asylum-seekers is unconscionable: but do we have an obligation to reduce the quality of life of present and future Australians in order to increase the quality of life for outsiders? Or are the concepts of "inside" and "outside" the nation-state themselves unsupportable?

Captain Ethical

How ethical is Australia's treatment of farm animals - specifically dairy and beef cows, chickens and pigs? How do we compare in this regard with other countries (in, for example, the European Union)? Are things improving?

Find out about our other Platform Conversations event:
Constitutional recognition – so what?