About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Science Fiction as a Lens into Future War

(This is the written version of my presentation at a panel on “Science Fiction and Futurism – Philosophy and Ethics for a Global Era”. The panel was part of the Australian Defence College’s Profession of Arms seminar, “Science Fiction as a Lens into Future War”, held in Canberra on 3 October 2019. This written version contains considerably more detail than could be presented in the limited time available for the panel.)

First, thanks to all concerned at the Australian Defence College for organising this event, and for the invitation to take part. The topic that we’ve been assigned for this panel raises numerous issues and could sustain a lifetime program of research. My contribution today is intended as something of a conceptual map that is not meant to be controversial, but I’m sure some of it will be anyway. What isn’t? I hope, nonetheless, that it will be helpful as a starting point for thought.

1. Political leaders, military strategists, members of the armed forces at all levels, commentators on public affairs, and responsible citizens in democratic societies all need to consider:
  • When, if ever, is it ethically justifiable to go to war? (Just war theorists use the Latin term jus ad bellum.)
  • If it is ever ethically justifiable to go to war, how are we justified in fighting? (Just war theorists use the term jus in bello.) Are there limits that should apply, and if so what are they?
2. We would hope that any principles applying here would be consistent with our more general ethical principles. However, the consequences of going to war and waging war are especially serious, sometimes catastrophic. War may sometimes be justified, but it is a tragic option, never to be taken lightly. So, we want to follow principles that are consistent with our ethics more generally, but this is an area where our choices involve an exceptionally high level of responsibility.

3. Generally, three families of theories about the ethics of war have some credibility or prestige within modern liberal democracies. We can question whether the third is technically an ethical theory, but it plays the same role, and I think it does contain at least a residual ethical element:
  • Pacifist theories, which, with limited exceptions and variations, rule out acts of violence.
  • Just war theories.
  • International relations realist (or simply "realist") theories of war. These are basically theories of enlightened self-interest.
4. Before going further, it’s important to note that there are other approaches that now lack credibility among thoughtful people in liberal democracies. These approaches emphasize such things as empire, personal and national glory, spreading religion or ideology, the idea of war as a kind of adventure or grand game, or as character building, and so on. A whole range of such approaches were once popular, but are now commonly viewed with disdain.

Historically, that is a recent development. These approaches to war lost credibility as a result of the horror of trench warfare in World War I, the immense destructiveness of the atomic bombs used in World War II, and the hydrogen bombs developed soon after, and doubtless other historical developments. But at least until World War I, these older ideas had great currency.

Prior to that time, few narratives of future wars included warnings against the horrors of war as such, or against the horrors of a future form of war. Where they expressed warnings, as they often did, it was usually against geopolitical and military vulnerability, as with “The Battle of Dorking”, a novella by G.T. Chesney (1871), and, in the Australian context, The Yellow Wave by Kenneth Mackay (1895). The great exception here is The War in the Air by H.G. Wells (1908), which I’ll return to in more detail.

5. This is not the place to examine the detail of pacifist theories of war and violence, just war theories, and realist theories of war. That would require a course in military ethics – some people in the audience may have completed such a course, or even taught it, but we can’t do that today.

Briefly, however, it seems to me that pacifism is not viable, and at the same time something more than enlightened self-interest is needed here. That is, something like just war theory is needed to guide political leaders, serving military personnel, and other citizens of a democratic society. We all yearn for some guidance as to when going to war is ethically justified – not just prudentially wise – and when our methods of fighting in war, including the tactics that we employ and the weapons that we develop and use, are ethically acceptable.

Furthermore, I don’t see how we can send men and women into military operations without giving them some kind of intellectually respectable ethical basis for what is expected of them, and some kind of reassurance of what they are ethically entitled to do within limits.

6. Rather than trying to develop that basis today, I want to make two general points about all three somewhat credible approaches to the ethics – or whatever fills in for ethics – of war.

7. First point: all these theories face a problem. The traditional theories, and especially just war theories, were developed in very different circumstances from those applying today. Traditional just war theory works well and intuitively when applied to relations between nation states such as those of Europe following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648: i.e. nation states with similar cultures and military technologies, and with relatively little ability to harm each other by our current standards. (The Thirty Years’ War, which raged across Europe prior to the Peace of Westphalia, was immensely destructive. But the opposing sides were not armed with strategic bombers and nuclear missiles; they weren’t dependent on civilian infrastructure that could be destroyed by cyber attacks; they were not thinking about weapons and weapon systems controlled by autonomous Artificial Intelligence.)

Today, we possess immensely destructive weapons. We find ourselves involved in asymmetrical struggles against non-state actors such as revolutionary groups, insurgents, and terrorists. Our motives for going to war have broadened to include humanitarian issues that are often genuinely urgent, but also provide opportunities for cynicism and abuse. We’re now contemplating what amounts to posthuman warfare.

Any ethical basis for fighting wars – or for refusing to fight them – must take account of this altered technological and geopolitical reality.

8. Second point: All credible theories of war now have something in common that is emphasized by thoughtful pacifists, just war theorists, and realists.

The concept here is that you don’t know what you’re in for when you go to war. What looks like a straightforward, “clean”, war, with costs proportionate to its goals, may soon have endless unexpected ramifications, become uglier and dirtier than we ever thought it could, and have terrible costs that did not figure in our calculations.

We need civilian decision-makers and ordinary citizens, as well as the military, to understand this. I like to think that our military personnel, at least, do understand the point, but that can’t be guaranteed. We should worry about any developments that could reduce our vivid understanding of war’s meaning and its unpredictability, and so blunt our democratic engagement with decisions about war.

9. This finally brings me to fictional narratives about future wars and the future of warfare, whether or not those narratives are strictly science fiction. I propose to say something about what those narratives can accomplish, but also something about their limitations.

10. Broadly speaking, these narratives serve three main purposes, which I’ll summarise as follows:
  • Spectacle – i.e. the future – and with it, usually some kind of futuristic technology – is  imagined for entertaining depictions of spectacular battles.
  • Warning – this includes warnings about particular military threats that could arise, perhaps resulting from one country’s geopolitical and military weaknesses, and also warnings about the nature of future warfare
  • Justice – I’ll use this word as shorthand for anxieties about the justification or ethics of war, or the justification or ethics of developments in warfare.
11. For today’s purposes, it’s not necessary to establish a clear line between narratives about future war that should and should not be classified as science fiction. Any such boundary would be blurred. Nonetheless, there are reasons why literary historians at least hesitate to classify nineteenth-century stories of near-future invasions, such as Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking”, as science fiction, and why the military technothrillers of, say, Tom Clancy, are not usually labeled as science fiction.

Perhaps some of these works should be considered science fiction. Marketing labels are often arbitrary from a formal or theoretical point of view. All the same, there is a very long history of stories and prophecies about future wars involving combatants with basically unchanged weaponry, tactics, and so on. By contrast, science fiction, as a literary and cultural phenomenon that arose in the nineteenth century, involves something more, as I describe in my 2017 book, Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination, and as I discussed in a talk that I gave at the Australian Defence College back in June:
  •  In large part, science fiction responds to a new understanding of the future that became possible, at least for most people, only as a result of the Industrial Revolution. That is, it responds to a conception of the future that emphasizes rapid, continual, visible social change driven and shaped by advances in science, and especially technology.
  • To remind us, Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking” was published in 1871. It depicts a successful invasion of England by Germany in the wake of the devastating Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. It’s a warning of British military weakness, but little in Chesney’s novella relates to the effects of science and technology. The Germans use basically the same tactics that they’d already used, historically, in defeating France.
  • To qualify that, the Germans do use the most advanced military methods of the time. They also use certain vaguely described secret weapons against the British fleet. But even these seem to be no more than mines and torpedoes of kinds already being developed in the 1860s and 1870s.
  • By contrast, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1897) and The War in the Air (1908) are clearly science fiction.

12. I'm not interested today in exactly where we draw that line. I think it's more important to make other distinctions, such as between narratives that warn about specific wars that could happen now or very soon (with more-or-less existing methods and equipment) and narratives that imagine, and possibly warn about, new methods of warfare. Even here, there are grey areas, and we might come back to them before this panel concludes. However, “The Battle of Dorking”, which warns of British vulnerability to attack by the newly unified Germany, is one kind of narrative. The War in the Air is very different.

Thematically, “The Battle of Dorking”, like many other such narratives right up to the present day, warns us to prepare for war. By contrast, The War in the Air warns us about what future warfare might be and mean.

13. The War in the Air was first published in serial form in 1908. In his preface to the 1921 edition, Wells states that “war alters its character” when it involves flying machines. These alter not only the methods but also the consequences of war. He predicts that war will become far more destructive, and far less decisive, and consequently, war, as depicted in this novel, “means social destruction instead of victory as the end of war.” (The relevant passage in the 1921 preface reflects a similar passage in the novel itself.)

Thus, The War in the Air belongs to, or even establishes, a tradition of science fictional warnings about the methods of future warfare. It warns about the consequences of emerging military technology. In doing so, it depicts a vast, horrifically destructive war at sea, on land, and in the air.

14. At first, the narrative is rather light and comical in depicting the aptly named Smallways family, and it initially remains light even after Bert Smallways, through a series of misadventures, finds himself aboard a German military airship. Thereafter, however, the tone becomes increasingly serious and tragic.

At one point, Wells describes an attack on New York City by the German air-fleet. The Germans quickly destroy the city’s defences, and New York is forced to surrender. However, this leads to a popular insurrection that the airships can’t control, since they lack the personnel to occupy territory on the ground. As the situation worsens, the German air-fleet bombs the city, destroying it and massacring its inhabitants.

Then the Asian countries unleash their own secret air-fleets, the whole world is soon at war, great cities are bombed to rubble, and the global economic system collapses. The world is rapidly engulfed in anarchy, famine, and pestilence. Before he sees war for himself, we’re told of poor Bert Smallways, “Hitherto he had rather liked the idea of war as being a jolly, smashing, exciting affair, something like a Bank Holiday rag on a large scale, and on the whole agreeable and exhilarating. Now he knew it a little better.”

15. Most narratives of future war published before World War I could have been written by Bert Smallways, i.e. by people with relatively naïve ideas of what modern warfare really meant. Wells stands as the obvious exception, at least among writers in English, though an honorable mention should go to Arthur Conan Doyle for his 1914 novella “Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius”, which predicted unrestricted submarine warfare not long before Britain was actually confronted with it during World War I (and notwithstanding claims at the time that Conan Doyle was engaging in alarmism and fearmongering).

16. In The War in the Air, Bert Smallways has a wake-up call when he observes war at first hand. The nations of the world had their own wake-up calls with the horror of the trenches in World War I; the terror and fury of aerial bombardment, and then the use of atomic bombs, in World War II; and the development of the hydrogen bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles in the early phases of the Cold War. By the 1950s, serious novels about future warfare were more often in the mode of apocalyptic warnings against war, rather than warnings to prepare for war – though of course, many depictions of future warfare, especially those set in the distant future, still treated war primarily as spectacle.

Despite that last point, old ideas of war as adventure, glory, or justified conquest now lack credibility. They lost credibility during much the same period that the thematic balance of future war narratives shifted toward warnings about future warfare itself.

17. As a much more recent example, I’ll mention Lotus Blue (2017) by my fellow panelist Cat Sparks. This is a post-apocalyptic novel set generations after a worldwide conflict controlled and conducted by autonomous Artificial Intelligences. In the novel’s present-day, a dangerous AI general – the Lotus Blue of the title – is waking up, restoring its weapon systems, and planning new conquests. The question is whether it can be stopped.

This novel warns against posthuman warfare much as Wells warned about the potential of militarized flying machines and large-scale aerial bombing.

18. There are limits to what we should expect of these narratives. Generally speaking, they cannot replace ethical and philosophical argument about the traditional questions of jus ad bellum and jus in bello, and that is not their purpose. There are some clearly pacifist science fiction novels, such as Joan Slonczewsk’s A Door into Ocean (1987). Overall, however, it is not the job of novelists to teach ethical theories.

Consider The War in the Air again. If we knew nothing else about Wells, we’d see that he despises naïve ideas of war that make it seem like an adventure, and likewise he has no time for the idea of military glory. But we’d not be able to tell whether he is against these things from, say, a pacifist perspective, a just war perspective, or a perspective based on realism in international relations. All of these schools of thought emphasise the cost and tragedy of war.

Nor can a book like The War in the Air predict the detail of what it warns about. In 1908, Wells portrayed large-scale aerial bombardment, capturing much of its power and terror, but not exactly what it would be like in practice. The same applies to other works by Wells, such as The World Set Free (1914), which memorably describes atomic bombs, although real ones turned out to be rather different. A more recent novel, such as Ghost Fleet, by P.W. Singer and August Cole (2015), depicts what high-tech non-nuclear warfare between great powers – including cyberwarfare, advanced stealth technology, and operations in space – might be like, but the reality would probably look rather different if such a war actually happened.

In short, narratives of future war represent emerging or imagined developments in warfare, rather than describing them in advance with true-to-life accuracy. And again, they are not a substitute for more formal ethical and philosophical thinking about justification in going to war and waging war.

19. Fictional narratives of future war can, of course, provide entertainment and spectacle. They can warn us to prepare for specific threats. But beyond this, they can engage with the ethics of war in their own way. For a start, these narratives can remind us of the gravity of our choices in how we prepare for war, go to war, and wage war. There’s much in contemporary society that can disengage us from the seriousness of what’s at stake – though as I touched on earlier, I’d hope that those sworn to fight on our behalf would need less reminder than most.

Narratives of future war can remind us not only of the grave cost of war but also the unpredictable ramifications of our choices. Sometimes, as with Iain M. Banks’s Culture series of novels, beginning with Consider Phlebas in 1987, they examine the anxieties that surround even seemingly justified interventions, the likelihood that something unforeseen will go wrong, and the seriousness of choices to intervene even in moral catastrophe – and the seriousness of choices not to intervene.

20. Stories of future war are not a substitute or a rival for formal ethical thinking. In their way, though, they can engage with ethical questions about war and warfare, and they nourish our thinking. This is a broad claim, but one that could, I think, be developed and supported in far more detail.

Meanwhile, thank you again for having me here and for listening patiently. I look forward to your questions and observations, and I’m sure I’ll learn from them.

Russell Blackford is a Conjoint Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle, NSW. He is the author of numerous books, including Strange Constellations: A History of Australian Science Fiction (co-authored with Van Ikin and Sean McMullen, 1999) and Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics (2017).

Monday, October 07, 2019

My submission to the current government consultation (in Australia) on religious freedom

[I'm posting this version here, even though it's possible my submission will among those published on the A-G's Department site. This is a better version, in any event, as the form we were required to use deleted some aspects of format, such as bold and italic text, in a way that could cause confusion. Edit: I've also now corrected one very minor typo.]

TO: Human Rights Unit
Integrity Law Branch
Integrity and Security Division
Attorney-General’s Department
3–5 National Circuit
Barton, ACT 2600

FROM: Dr Russell Blackford
30 Birchgrove Drive
Wallsend, NSW 2287

E-mail: russellblackford@bigpond.com

Phone: [redacted]

Consultation regarding Religious Freedom Bills


1. I refer to the current public consultation relating to the government’s proposed “Religious Freedom Bills” – in particular, the exposure draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill 2019 – and thank you for the opportunity to make this submission.

2. I am an academic philosopher with a special interest in philosophy and public policy, including issues relating to secular government, freedom of religion, and other traditional civil and political liberties such as freedom of speech. I have published widely on these topics. In particular, my published books include Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). In short, I am an academic expert on the topic of secular government and religious freedom. I am currently Conjoint Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle, though I do not, of course, purport to represent the views of the university.

3. Although I have long retired from this area of employment, I was for many years a prominent industrial advocate working in the federal jurisdiction. For over four years, from 1994 to 1998, I held the position of Executive Director of the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, for which I have an entry in Who’s Who in Australia. I also worked for a period as a workplace relations lawyer with Phillips Fox Lawyers (as it then was) in Melbourne, with the title “consultant”. I keep abreast of developments in workplace relations and employment law, and in anti-discrimination law, and I retain considerable expertise in these fields.

4. My main reaction to the exposure draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill, and the associated documents, is that this is, in its totality, a very complex legislative package. It reflects a large number of policy and drafting decisions that have had little public airing to date. If enacted, the proposed legislation will interact with existing Commonwealth and State legislation in ways that are not entirely predictable. For this reason, the current timeframe, requiring public responses to the exposure draft by 2 October 2019, is very short for what is required, and I respectfully suggest that it be extended for a significant period to allow for adequate consideration and public discussion.

Religious freedom

5. The proposed legislative package is headed “Religious Freedom Bills”, and it has been said by the government to enhance religious freedom in Australia. However, little of the package relates to religious freedom in the strict sense. That is, the proposed legislation does not (generally) introduce new restrictions on the ability of governments to impose their preferred religious doctrines and practices, or to engage in religious persecutions. To avoid confusion, the term “religious freedom” or “freedom of religion” should be reserved for this area of liberty from the exercise of overweening government power. Australians currently enjoy surprisingly little protection of their religious freedom in this sense, but nor is there any crisis of religious freedom.

6. Although section 116 of the Australian Constitution confers some protection of religious freedom, it is limited and relatively weak when compared to that enjoyed in, for example, the United States of America. In particular, s.116 applies only to actions at the Commonwealth level of government. Furthermore, s.116’s prohibition of legislation “for establishing any religion” has been interpreted narrowly by the High Court (far more narrowly than the similarly-worded Establishment Clause in the US Bill of Rights, as interpreted by the US Supreme Court).

7. I support the idea of an inquiry to identify what might be done to strengthen religious freedom in Australia. However, the proposed package does little to expand or reinforce Australians’ protection from action by governments to impose religious doctrines and practices, or to engage in religious persecutions. One arguable exception is section 41 of the draft Bill, which, among other things, limits the ability of State governments to restrict religious speech or speech that criticises religion. Overall, however, the package consists of a new set of provisions relating to something conceptually different, i.e. discrimination in employment, and in various other specified areas, on the ground of religion. Its centrepiece is an anti-discrimination statute, not a protection against the power of the state.

The legislative package

8. The main effect of the package will be to provide for a set of protections against religious discrimination where equivalent protections do not already exist under State law. To the best of my understanding, no fully equivalent protections currently exist under the laws of New South Wales or South Australia. Taken as a whole, then, the  package fills a gap in providing protections that have no full equivalent under the laws of two states. In itself, this seems like a reasonable initiative. However, the draft legislation is complex, and it would, if enacted, interact in complex ways with existing laws at Commonwealth and State levels. It is clearly intended to override some State legislation, relying on section 109 of the Australian Constitution, which is unusual, if not unprecedented, for Commonwealth anti-discrimination statutes. This may be justified, but it merits public discussion.

9. Section 10 of the exposure draft is a core innovation, and it will undoubtedly be controversial. This section confers on non-commercial religious bodies a sweeping immunity from other provisions of the Bill. The immunity conferred by s.10 appears to be considerably broader than the defence against claims of unlawful termination of employment set out in s.772(2)(a) and s.772(2)(b) of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth). That being so, public discussion is needed to settle whether a provision along the lines of s.772(2)(a) and s.772(2)(b) might be adequate. Such a provision could extend beyond termination of employment to specify certain other actions by a non-commercial religious body, such as a decision not to recruit or promote an individual.

10. For example, the Roman Catholic Church could undoubtedly establish that being male is an inherent requirement of the job of being a Catholic priest, in keeping with the church’s theological doctrines. In other cases, a non-commercial religious body could argue that a discriminatory recruitment decision was conducted in good faith to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of the relevant religion. I question whether even this latter defence is needed in addition to the “inherent requirements” defence. For example, it could probably be established that an individual employed specifically to teach Catholic morality to school students must not openly flout Catholic morality in his or her own life. I.e. an appearance of personal conformity to Catholic morality is arguably an inherent requirement of such a job. That said, I acknowledge that the “religious susceptibilities” defence already exists in s.772 of the Fair Work Act. It is not, in itself, an innovation.

11. Finally, in respect of s.10, it is important and commendable that this does not confer any licence to discriminate upon primarily commercial bodies. It is crucial to hold the line that such bodies ought not be permitted, in the name of religious freedom, to discriminate on grounds such as sex or sexuality.

12. Much of the current drafting is overly complex in ways that will produce, rather than reduce, uncertainty of interpretation and complexity of litigation. For example, the current s.8 is lengthy and complex, and its method of dealing with terminations of employment for expressions of religious belief currently seems very indirect and complicated.

13. One worrying provision in s.8 is the reference to “unjustifiable financial hardship”, in s.8(3). An employer should not be able to complicate and prolong litigation by raising an issue of unjustifiable financial hardship arising from an employee’s lawful statement of religious or anti-religious belief, made outside the workplace. This is a recipe for sponsors, organised lobby groups, and others to apply economic coercion to employers to pressure them to fire employees for making unpopular religious, or anti-religious, statements. If anything, the government should be looking for ways of protecting employees from the effects of such kinds of coercion aimed at their employers. This method of targeting individuals’ jobs and careers has become a significant social mischief: it currently extends far beyond economic coercion in reaction to unpopular religious views.


14. Many of the terms used in the exposure draft are undefined, or otherwise left unclear or open to criticism. There appears, in particular, to be no definition of the central terms “religion” and “religious”. Here, perhaps, it would help to refer to some of the concepts discussed in Church of the New Faith v. Commissioner of Pay-Roll Tax (Vic) (1983) 154 CLR 120.

15. I am concerned about the definition of statement of belief. First, the definition requires that such a statement be made in good faith, but the courts have shown in other areas of the law that “good faith” is now likely to require something more than subjective sincerity, such as some kind of balance, moderation, or due diligence about a statement’s truth and its possible consequences. All that should be required at this point of the legislation, however, is subjective sincerity (which can be presumed until rebutted). A sincere statement of religious (or anti-religious) belief does not become something else merely because it is immoderate, thoughtless, or reckless.

16. Furthermore, there should be no requirement, as per the proposed definition, that a (religious) statement of belief be such as “may reasonably be regarded as being in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of the religion”. Although something like this might be a sufficient condition for a statement to count as a statement of religious belief, it should not be a necessary condition. If a statement is inherently religious (as with statements about supernatural beings, past miracles, prophesied supernatural events, and what sorts of conduct are sinful or count against salvation in the afterlife), and if it is expressed sincerely, that should be sufficient for it to count as a (religious) statement of belief. A court should not enter into any further inquiry as to whether such a statement can or cannot be reasonably regarded as falling within a religion’s teachings. That amounts to an inquiry into religious orthodoxy, something that courts in other jurisdictions have rightly avoided.

17. Part (b) of the definition of statement of belief, relating to non-religious statements of belief, is open to numerous doubts about its meaning, and I am not at all clear what statements would or would not fall within this definition. E.g., it is required that the statement be “about religion”. It is not clear whether this would include (as it should) a sincere, even if immoderate, statement that is critical of a specific religion, such as Christianity, or of a specific religious doctrine, such as the Christian doctrine of sacrificial atonement or the Islamic doctrine that Muhammad was Allah’s final and definitive prophet.

18. I am also concerned about the current references – in sections 8 and 41 – to statements of religious belief not receiving various protections if they are “malicious” or if they “harass, vilify, or incite hatred or violence”. On one hand, individuals should not be able to escape disciplinary action by employers, or actions under anti-discrimination law, for defamatory comments, invasions of others’ privacy such as revenge porn, severe or repeated personal abuse, campaigns of dehumanising and possibly genocidal propaganda, sexually harassing conduct, and so on, which the individuals concerned might then seek to excuse as expressions of religious belief. Religion should not provide a free pass for these kinds of high-impact and harmful speech. On the other hand, the relevant terms used for this purpose in the exposure draft, particularly the word “vilify”, are not defined, and this will inevitably create problems for State and federal courts attempting to interpret the legislation.

19. Unfortunately, some religions sincerely regard other religions as not merely false but actually demonic. Some religions see themselves as engaged in a cosmic struggle of good versus evil against other religions and/or against unbelief. Unfortunately again, some religions sincerely regard essentially harmless activities, such as consensual gay or lesbian sex, as sinful and conducive to eternal damnation. While all these doctrines are socially unfortunate, their expression has not traditionally been unlawful – and this toleration of harsh doctrines is favoured by policy considerations. (Briefly, religions with harsh doctrines are more likely to “soften” over time if they are tolerated than if their adherents experience what they interpret as persecution.)

20. Without a definition of the word “vilify”, each of the doctrines mentioned in paragraph 19 above could be described as, in a sense, vilifying some demographic group. Thus, the word “vilify” could be given a broader meaning than appears to be the government’s purpose. More thought is needed as to exactly what statements of belief are protected, and how the limits of the protection can best be expressed and defined. The courts are entitled to the clearest possible guidance when they are called upon to interpret and apply the legislation.

21. One possible approach would be to abandon much of the current wording and focus on public speech that either (a) explicitly calls for violence against a demographic group or (b) could reasonably be understood as preparing the ground for violence against a demographic group by employing seriously dehumanising language (examples would include referring to members of the group as rats, cockroaches, or vermin). This would not deal with the full range of high-impact speech mentioned in paragraph 19, but most examples of objectionable speech in these categories could not plausibly be justified as statements of belief within the meaning of the draft Bill.

22. Given all these complexities and difficulties, definitional and otherwise, I respectfully submit that it is not possible to assess the draft legislation adequately in the short timeframe provided, i.e. by 2 October 2019. I suggest that the period for public consultation be extended significantly. It appears that there is no great urgency about putting such legislation in place at the Commonwealth level. If there is any urgency arising from recent and current events, it is, rather, in clarifying and strengthening certain employment rights contained in the Fair Work Act. I now turn to that statute, and particularly to the litigation that has been commenced under its provisions by the prominent footballer Mr Israel Folau.

The Folau litigation and its implications

23. Mr Folau was dismissed from the employment of Rugby Australia for a social media statement in which he paraphrased certain verses from Christian scriptures. These verses identify individuals who engage in homosexual acts as sinners, and hence as people who will be condemned to damnation in the afterlife, unless they repent and seek God’s forgiveness. In making such a statement, Mr Folau seemingly breached a provision in his employer’s code of conduct that forbids condemning people for their sexuality. Further, Rugby Australia evidently argues (with some plausibility) that its code of conduct was incorporated into Mr Folau’s contract of employment, and thus it was entitled to fire him for serious breach of a contractual term. At the same time, however, the alleged breach undoubtedly took the form of a public statement of certain of Mr Folau’s sincerely held religious beliefs. It is not possible to tease apart the alleged breach of contract and the expression of religious beliefs; they were one and the same action.

24. Section 772 of the Fair Work Act states:

(1) An employer must not terminate an employee’s employment for one or more of the following reasons, or for reasons including one or more of the following reasons:

             (f) race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin […].

It is likely that termination on the ground of religion includes, as with Mr Folau’s case, termination for an employee’s public expression of his or her religious beliefs. Prima facie, therefore, it follows that Rugby Australia breached s.772 by terminating Mr Folau’s employment for the reason that it did.

25. Rugby Australia may argue that it did not terminate Mr Folau’s employment for his expression of his religious beliefs, but for breaching its disciplinary code. The relevant provision of the disciplinary code, however, had precisely the effect of prohibiting Mr Folau from public expression of certain of his religious beliefs (in this case, beliefs about sin and about what conduct conduces to spiritual damnation). It is likely that an employer cannot rely on its disciplinary code in such circumstances, even if the code was incorporated as a term in the contract of employment. That is, an employer cannot avoid the requirements of s.772 either by unilateral action in imposing a disciplinary code on its employees or by including the code in employment contracts. To put this last point in another way, employers cannot use their bargaining positions to contract out of their statutory obligations under s.772. Nor can employees successfully contract out of their rights under that section.

26. Rugby Australia may also rely on the defence that Mr Folau’s obligation to comply with the relevant provision of the disciplinary code was an inherent requirement of his job. However, this argument should not succeed. While compliance with such a provision might be an inherent requirement of the job of a senior executive, or perhaps a public relations manager, employed by Rugby Australia, it is clearly not an inherent requirement of the job of an individual footballer. The obvious presumption is that individual footballers – much like individual plumbers, individual checkout staff, or individuals in any other corner of the labour market – have widely diverse ideas on matters of sin and damnation, religion in general, and related moral issues, and that when they express these ideas publicly they thereby in no way represent or implicate their employers.

27. It appears, then, that Mr Folau is on strong legal and policy ground in taking action against Rugby Australia under s.772. If he ultimately loses his case, it will likely reveal some technical deficiency in the Fair Work Act as it currently stands, and as interpreted by the courts. If any such deficiency emerges as a result of the legal proceedings, this might, indeed, justify some amendment to the Act. At the moment, however, no such deficiency is apparent. It is more than possible that Mr Folau will win his case and establish a helpful precedent for many other employees who wish to assert their employment rights. That being so, the parliament should await the conclusion of the current Folau litigation, which may eventually go all the way to the High Court, before it considers whether it is necessary to amend the Act in any way.

28. Any deficiencies in, or related to, s.772 of the Fair Work Act might also apply to some other statutory grounds of unlawful termination of employment, in addition to termination on the ground of religion. Most obviously, any such deficiencies are likely to affect the prohibition of termination of employment on the ground of political opinion. Once the Folau litigation has concluded, the parliament might need to review the Act to ensure that it is adequate in protecting employees’ expression of all kinds of religious, political, moral, philosophical, and similar views. In particular, it might become desirable to clarify that employers cannot contract out of an obligation not to fire employees for expression of their views on such matters (unless silence about such matters, or the expression only of very anodyne or cautious opinions about them, is genuinely and objectively an inherent requirement of a particular job). As a general proposition, employers should not be able to fire employees merely for their expression of religious, political, moral, philosophical, and similar opinions, especially if they are expressed outside of the workplace.

29. In this respect, I refer to the termination of employment of Mr Scott McIntyre by the Special Broadcasting Service in 2015, after he expressed certain controversial views regarding Anzac Day, the original Anzacs, and Australia’s record of involvement in war. Mr McIntyre commenced litigation for an alleged breach of s.772 of the Fair Work Act, on the ground that his employment had been terminated because of his expression of political opinion. Because the case was settled, the courts did not have an opportunity to interpret the Act or consider the effect of any disciplinary code that might have applied to Mr McIntyre’s employment. Nonetheless, the case highlights the possibility of employees being fired for public expressions of political and similar opinions, despite what appear to be clear words in the Act.

30. Once more, it is not yet apparent that the Fair Work Act is deficient in any way. Nonetheless, its operation needs to be kept under review to ensure that employers are not able to avoid their obligations by relying on any deficiencies in drafting or on judicial interpretations that limit the effect of s.772’s seemingly clear words. In any event, it would be worth considering a modification of s.772 to give the broadest constitutionally legitimate protection, within the employer/employee relationship, of the full range of religious, political, moral, philosophical, and similar speech. To avoid duplication of effort, however, I again suggest that this await the conclusion of the ongoing Folau litigation.


31. I have given earnest consideration to the draft legislative package, but its drafting has raised numerous concerns in my mind. In many cases, I was not clear what concrete results were envisaged or intended. I am open to modifying my views as set out in this submission, or to developing them further. However, this would have to follow from well-informed discussion of the concepts and approaches in the package.

32. Religion is a very complex phenomenon, and it is extraordinarily difficult to take into account the wide variety of religious belief and practice when drafting legislation that seeks to regulate religious discrimination and (in the case of s.41) to provide a partial codification of free religious expression. Such an exercise needs time and thought. Proposals should be considered by people with varied life experience and academic expertise, and they must be tested against a wide range of possible situations that could arise. Once again, significantly more time is needed for public discussion. Hence, I suggest an additional period of at least six months beyond the current deadline of 2 October.

Yours sincerely,

Russell Blackford
19 September 2019

Sunday, June 30, 2019

New op-ed piece published by Arc Digital - "Philosophy Is Not Ideology"

This op-ed piece"Philosophy Is Not Ideology", was published on 21 June 2019, over on the Arc Digital site. Check it out!

Except in the discipline’s most technical areas, however — areas such as formal logic and the philosophical study of semantics — disputes among philosophers seldom converge on anything like a stable consensus. These disputes run into problems of ambiguous, conflicting, and incomplete evidence, conceptual confusion, and a diversity of bedrock assumptions, intuitions, and values. It is therefore typical, rather than unusual, for philosophers to maintain opposed ideas even after honest and strenuous efforts to find common ground. This is well known within the discipline, and in the past, such considerations have obtained far more consensus from philosophers than any suggested answers to big philosophical questions. Thus, philosophy’s tolerant disciplinary norms reflect the practicalities of philosophical inquiry.
The point of the article is not, however, to claim that all is well within the discipline of philosophy. On the contrary, it expresses concern about internal challenges to philosophy's disciplinary norm of fearless, open inquiry. Having examined a couple of cases of this, including the Tuvel affair, I conclude on a worried note:
In the past, philosophy has survived, and maintained its integrity, in the face of external pressures, including hostility from church and state. It is not clear, however, that philosophy as an academic discipline can survive the tactics of ideologues working from within.

(Edit: Link updated 28 June 2021.) 

Monday, April 29, 2019

A new review of The Tyranny of Opinion - on the "Babbling Books" site

This review of The Tyranny of Opinion on the "Babbling Books" blog is one of the best yet: it's kind, and also very perceptive. The author "gets" where I'm coming from, what I'm arguing about, and what I'm objecting to.

Please read the whole thing, because it really is a thoughtful review with many thoughtful observations. The discussion thread that follows is also surprisingly good, with civil, thoughtful exchanges of views. As a taste, however, the review concludes:

Blackford is extremely balanced and tries to at least understand all sides. He presents the arguments of many people and groups that he criticizes and is often at least partially sympathetic to them. Many other critics of the phenomena described here have become fierce opponents of social justice movements and the left in general. That is not the direction that Blackford takes. In fact, in many ways he is more liberal and sympathetic to social justice causes than I am.

Blackford offers possible solutions. He makes some suggestion as to what social media platforms and even government can do. More importantly, he calls for people of all political and social beliefs to stand together to resist this nastiness and suppression of speech. He provides a list and commentary on other books that discuss this topic as well as a list of worthy books that have been the subject of these suppression campaigns.

I tend to shy away from books such as this that are very tied to very current events. As I have written in other posts, I usually read books that I consider to have universal appeal and that will be relevant far into the future. I made an exception here for various reasons. It is a topic that I am very interested in. It relates in all sorts of ways to other issues that I delve into in this blog. In terms of the book, I found that the first half was a universal examination of various issues, such as free speech, conformity, liberalism, etc. The second part did focus upon current events however.

It seems to me that this is an important book. I think that anyone interested in the general discourse on politics, social issues, art, etc. will find a lot of value here. No matter where one falls on these issues, the future of discussion communication affects us all. Even those who might disagree with Blackford will likely find him a nuanced thinker who makes a real effort to at least understand those who he disagrees with. I highly recommend this work to anyone interested in these topics.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

"Apologies: Your Best Guide on the Internet" (An oldie but a goodie)

This piece was originally published over on The Conversation. Check out the whole thing if you haven't read it before.

Near the end, I write as follows, in a way that goes against much conventional wisdom:


[I]t’s coherent to apologise even when you are guilty of nothing more than ordinary human fallibility - or sometimes even when your conduct was justifiable. An example of the latter is when you have inconvenienced somebody in order to deal with a crisis.

In other cases, you - or I - might be guilty of something more than ever-present human fallibility. Even then, we might have shown no more than a low degree of negligence that is easily excused. In these cases, we might feel concern if we’ve caused anyone serious harm. Usually, however, feelings of deep guilt or shame will not be fitting. (Very often, in fact, it’s debatable whether we really were careless or merely unlucky: the line can be very blurred, and reasonable people can reach different conclusions.)

In all, the practice of apologising is subtle and complex, and we should enjoy a considerable range of discretion in when and how far we engage in it.

When others demand that we apologise against our own initial judgement, it can be a form of abuse or a political weapon. At the level of personal relationships, demands for apologies can be abusive: a method of punishment and control. At the level of political, social, and cultural debate, the purpose is to humiliate and discredit somebody who is viewed as an opponent or a wrongdoer.

If we force a public apology from someone we cast as a villain, we gain a victory over them and we warn others not to behave similarly. This might have some social value if restricted to people who’ve engaged in genuinely outrageous conduct. However, through public shaming and threats to careers, humiliating apologies can be forced from people who have done little - or arguably nothing - wrong.

As we’ve seen, elaborate self-criticism and self-abasement might be appropriate sometimes. They might be called for when apologising in private to a loved one who has been betrayed in some way. But when somebody is forced through this process in public - perhaps because of her honestly stated opinion on a matter of legitimate controversy, or perhaps for the phrasing of an unrehearsed remark - it is a cruel, unnecessary, indecent spectacle.

To be clear, somebody who is pressured to apologise might, indeed, feel concern at having offended others. She might willingly offer some clarification and some mild words of apology. The latter might, for example, be along the lines of, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.” In the circumstances, this response provides clarification of intent, reassurance, and an expression of goodwill. Once a shaming campaign begins, however, it won’t get anyone off the public relations hook.

Whatever mob is pressuring and shaming her will inevitably condemn her (quite reasonable) response as a mere “notpology” and apply further pressure. In this parlance, appropriately limited and contingent apologies are referred to as “notpologies” by zealots who hope to humiliate and discredit their real or imagined enemies.

When demands and complaints are made in this weaponised manner, we have a powerful reason to resist them. Each time someone gives in to a mob of zealots, and offers public self-criticism and a humiliating public apology, it encourages the mob to find new victims. Don’t give such mobs positive feedback.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019


This is a very pleasing review by Helen Dale. She concludes: "[Blackford] writes gorgeously, guiding the reader through a great deal of material with expertise and, sometimes, élan. It is a lesson in how to argue, and how to think. The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism is an exceptional book. Anyone who engages in political debate should read it."

Monday, January 14, 2019

Australian Book Review reviews THE TYRANNY OF OPINION

The Tyranny of Opinion is Australian Book Review's book of the week this week, highlighted in its electronic newsletter. The journal has published the book review, by Ceridwen Spark, online. This is a wonderful review, and I couldn't be more pleased.

The review concludes: "Blackford’s book exemplifies how things might be if only we would all stop shouting at one another and learn to listen."

I'm expecting to see some more reviews soon. I know that there are reviews forthcoming in the immediate future from Quillette and Free Inquiry.