About smiling

George Orwell said ‘At the age of fifty, everyone has the face s/he deserves’.

I first heard that saying decades ago and for some unknown reason remembered it. I was never very confident about exactly what Orwell meant by it, but I have always interpreted it to mean that if you spend your life being cross you will end up looking like a cranky old wo/man. But if you spend your life smiling kindly, you will look like a kind old person. It goes along with that other old saying, that your face will get stuck with whatever expression you are wearing when the wind changes (or does that rule only apply if you are making a face at somebody?).

If it were true, it’s bad luck for those that suffer a lot of pain or grief in their first few decades. They would end up looking permanently in pain or sad.

There’s not much we can do to avoid pain or grief, but we have at least some control over whether we scowl or smile on those around us.

Orwell’s saying came back to me at around the age of forty. I didn’t remember what the cutoff age was but I remembered that you had to watch out if you didn’t want to end up like Mr Wintergarten or any other fictional old person the neighbourhood children avoided in fear.

I started paying occasional attention to my facial expressions, noting when I smiled. I was somewhat relieved to find that I smiled quite often, partly because my children, who were all below ten years old at the time, often made me laugh or smile at their antics. ‘Thank goodness!’ I thought. I would be safe from ogredom and the neighbourhood children would be free from my future reign of terror.

There are two special occasions when I do my best to smile – they are when riding my bicycle on public roads, and when jogging.

The reason for the jogging smile is that I heard that a famous American public intellectual and wit said something like ‘If I ever see a jogger smiling I might try it‘. For a long time I thought Gertrude Stein said that but now the internet tells me it was actually the comedian Joan Rivers in 1982. I don’t know if others would count Joan Rivers as a public intellectual, but I like to think of Public Intellectuality as a broad church. Anyway, I resented the implication that joggers were a miserable bunch that hated jogging and did it either because, like banging your head against a wall, it feels so good when you stop, or because like an Opus Dei monk wearing a cicatrice, they felt that the pain they were suffering was somehow accumulating points for them in their heavenly bank account.

Fie on you Ms Steinem (yes I know, I get Gertrude Stein and Gloria Steinem mixed up – pathetic isn’t it) I admonished her inside my head. I don’t suffer when I jog. I quite enjoy it most of the time, and sometimes I even love it. But I had to admit she had a point about the smiling. Joggers didn’t tend to smile, perhaps because they were too busy trying to breathe.

So I determined to set the world to rights. I became possibly the world’s first ever smiling jogger. I didn’t smile all the time. It is quite tiring on the facial muscles to maintain a smile for minutes at a time, as any games show barrel girl will attest (some people think that catwalk models look so sulky these days because they are perpetually hungry, but I think it may also be because it is more relaxing to maintain a vacant gaze than a beaming smile). But as soon as a passer-by hove into sight, I lit my face up like a Christmas tree, so they could see just how much fun I was having.

This led to some peculiar looks, and mothers shepherding their children anxiously away from me with worried expressions on their faces.

My campaign of smiling on a bicycle was for a different reason, and met with rather more success. There are a bunch of nasty ‘shock jocks’ in my city that anathematise anybody that expresses any concern for the environment as a Luddite, anti-democratic communist. They save their most virulent hatred for refugees and bicycle riders, in both cases, apparently because they clog up the roads and thereby interfere with the God-given right of every right-thinking person to drive their Land Cruiser down any street at 60km/h plus, unimpeded.

While most people, fortunately, are not influenced by this outpouring of bile, it does have some spillover effects and it did tend to generally increase the degree of hostility between cyclists and motor-car drivers. I thought that if I smiled at motorists that I encountered (or, at least, at the ones that hadn’t just nearly killed me by turning in front of me, cutting me off, passing too close and fast or just blaring their horn at me so close as to make me nearly fall off in fright) I would be doing my little bit to rebuild cordial relations.

I am pleased to report that this little strategy, unlike campaign Joggers-Can-Smile-Too, met with unexpected success. I received plenty of return smiles, waves and other gracious, heart-warming gestures. So, take that, Alan Jones!

For some reason it is also easier, and feels more natural, to smile when riding than when jogging. It might be because riding is after all more intrinsically fun than jogging, because of the whizzing. We all love to whizz after all, and not many of us are capable of jogging at whizzing speed. I used to be able to, but have not been able to for a long time now. Plus, every time one’s foot hits the ground (which is about eight-three times a minute, in case you were wondering), one’s facial muscles all get wobbled about by the shock-wave, making it more than usually hard work to maintain a smile. If you don’t believe me, look at a slow-motion replay of the 100m race in the Olympics and watch what the faces do. Ignore that famous sideways smile photo of Usain Bolt at the Rio Olympics. That was in a semi-final, so he wasn’t really running very fast (for him).

There’s also the fact that, because the air is rushing towards you quite fast on a bike, you don’t need to open your mouth into a big fat O shape to get enough air in. A sweet smile leaves more than enough opening for enough of the rearward rushing air to find its way to the lungs.

After a while, it just became a habit to smile when I was riding my bicycle, at least, when I wasn’t climbing a difficult hill or negotiating a particularly dangerous traffic situation.

So, in between the child-induced smile, the jogging smile and the bicycling smile, it seemed that my face was probably doing what was necessary in order to meet Mr Orwell’s challenge.

Now I am well past fifty, so I suppose I am out of danger. My face has, I suppose, become set in whatever configuration it is to maintain from here on in. The only expected future changes are ever-increasing numbers of wrinkles, perhaps sun-spots and scars from removed skin lesions and a gradual loss of teeth and hair. But can I be sure of that? After all, while Mr Orwell’s skill as an author is beyond question, his expertise as a gerontologist is comparatively unknown. Could he have been mistaken? What if it is sixty, seventy, or even eighty? One cannot be too careful. Perhaps it is too early to stop smiling.

Which brings me to the topic of this essay (better late than never): adolescent and young-adult offspring just don’t seem to compel beaming, helpless smiles from adults in the same way that two year olds do. Of the positive emotions that adolescents can generate (we’ll not dwell on the negative ones), there are affection, pride, sympathy and a number of others but “Oh my goodness that’s so adorable!” is not usually one of them. I presume this has something to do with evolution. We are programmed to find almost every utterance and action of a two-year old adorable, because they cannot fend for themselves and, if we didn’t find them adorable, we might not be inclined to fend for them – which wouldn’t do at all, not if we want them to grow up to be Prime Ministers. But above the age of about sixteen, the fending skills of the human species appear to be adequate, so evolution decided to ease off on the adorability spell. That may be all very well – after all, many adolescents prefer to spend time in any company other than that of their parents, and parents are easier to shake off if they are not following you around with adoring grins on their faces. But how are we to meet our smiling quota in the absence of such an influence? I have a feeling that now I may spend less than half the amount of time smiling that I did ten years ago. I can put some of that down to my mid-life crisis, but I think the partial maturation of my children has to bear some of the responsibility.

What, then, is to be done? One has to find other things to make one smile. But what? That will have to be the topic of another essay.

Ian Dury knew though. He made a list, in his song Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3).

Ian Dury
Here’s a picture of Ian Dury showing he had not much to smile about, with his grim environment and the after-effects of his childhood polio on display. And yet…….

Dury smiling







Voldemort Dreams

Last night I dreamed of Voldemort.

There’s nothing so strange about that – he’s a memorable character. What makes this worthy of comment is that I realised this morning, for the first time, that I regularly have dreams about Voldemort. But until recently, I have always forgotten them. This is the first time I realised that they are a recurring phenomenon.

They are fairly dramatic dreams. It’s a classic tale of the good (presumably that’s me, and my companions if I have any) trying to find the courage to face up to evil, to confront it, struggle against it – and the fear it evokes – and, one hopes, to vanquish it. Or at least to banish it until the next time it shows up.

Details are sketchy, and would be boring to relate. But the recurring scenario seems to be that, like Harry Potter, I need to venture into Voldemort’s lair (like Frodo going into Mordor) in order to try to bring his plans undone.

There is no absolute need for me to fight Voldemort – no duel with wands at twelve paces or anything like that. But I need to sneak into his headquarters like a secret agent, perhaps to steal some plans or sabotage some special evil-doing equipment he has constructed. I can’t remember the reasons why I need to go into his headquarters, but I do remember that the mission is essential if evil is not to triumph, and that I am very afraid that he will detect my presence and leap out of a wardrobe or somesuch and fling the full weight of his malevolent powers at me. And he does – every time. No matter how quietly I creep about, Voldemort always detects my presence and suddenly leaps out of a wardrobe to attack me with a splendid and terrifying roar.

What happens next I cannot remember. But something extended happens, because he doesn’t win instantly, killing me stone dead on the spot. Maybe some sort of supernatural scuffle and or flight/pursuit ensues and sooner or later I wake up out of that on account of all the excitement.

I don’t want to get too Freudian, but I can’t help feeling that these dreams tell me something. The idea of confronting one’s fears and deliberately going into danger, because it is the right thing to do, may have a strong emotional pull on me. I am, at heart, a romantic, notwithstanding my obsession with mathematics and the correct use of grammar.

A rather more surprising aspect is that the dream involves imagining a character that is supposed to be pure evil. It surprised me because I believe the idea of ‘pure evil’ is dangerous, hyperbolic nonsense. I don’t believe anybody is purely evili. We all do some good things and some bad things. Some people – serial killers, dictators, rednecked talkback radio hosts – do lots of extremely bad things, but I expect even they are not purely evil. I expect they are sometimes kind – to family, to friends, even to strangers that manage to excite their interest or compassion – in those occasional lulls of peace between slaughtering hitchhikers, invading neutral countries and stoking up hatred in resentful white heterosexuals for Muslims, gays or environmental activists.

I don’t believe that evil can be personified – that people like Sauron, Satan, Voldemort or The Penguin are possible. Although I then ask myself ‘Are we really supposed to see the mythological figure of Satan as pure evil?‘. Satan is actually a very interesting fictional character. Some of his complexity may stem from the delightfully baroque Roman Catholic teaching on evil – first cooked up by St Augustine in the fourth century. It says that evil is not a ‘thing’, ie it is not a substance or spirit or anything like that. It is just an absence of another thing that is a thing, which is the ‘good‘. It’s an interesting position, and quite appeals to me, up until the bit where it suggests that the ‘good‘ is a thing. That’s a bit too ectoplasmic for me – the idea that there’s some sort of invisible, nonphysical substance called ‘good’ that floats about and goes here but not there (one wonders, can it be hoovered up by those ectoplasm suction guns that the Ghostbusters use?). It’s needlessly multiplying entities, I reckon. Much easier to just say that people sometimes do kind things and sometimes do mean things, and some people do more of one than the other. William of Ockham would not approve of ‘goodness as a thing‘ (although, being RC, maybe he pretended to, in order to avoid being burnt).

Back to Satan, then: the interesting thing about him is that he isn’t portrayed even in orthodox Christian texts as being pure evil. His story is just that of an angel that didn’t want to serve as an angel any more and so – in what appears to me to be an admirable display of honesty and integrity – resigned. Some bits of the Bible such as the book of Job portray Satan as pretty nasty (but then Yahweh doesn’t come out of Job looking very nice either) but there seems room to view him as a complex, conflicted, multi-faceted figure. Certainly not the sort of person you’d want your daughter to marry, or that you’d trust to do your tax accounts, but not bad enough to deserve exile to an eternity of torment either. I haven’t read Paradise Lost but, by eavesdropping on more literate people that have, I have gained the impression that maybe what Milton was trying to do there was investigate that complexity: Satan as exile, as rebel, as lonely iconoclast.

I digress. Sorry about that. Yes, well I don’t believe in evil as freestanding substance, and I certainly don’t believe in entities that personify evil. So it’s interesting that I dream regularly about battling a character who was created to represent pure evil. Does it mean that my disbelief in evil is purely intellectual, and that deep down I am as credulous and fearful of evil spirits as a Neolithic cave-dweller? Perhaps. Who knows?

Or perhaps even Voldemort is not pure evil. After all, JK Rowling does give him an unhappy childhood, to hint at the idea that maybe he was not always that way – that he was as much a product of his environment as anybody else.

But then I can’t be 100% sure that the terrifying Dark Lord in my dream is always Voldemort. All I know for sure is that in the most recent dream it was Voldemort, and that the dream series in general is about a stupendously powerful being (much more powerful than me) that wishes harm to all sentient beings in the universe. Perhaps other dreams are about Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West, Darth Vader, or John Le Carré’s Soviet spymaster Karlaii.

Thank goodness my dream self has enough courage to go through with the daring mission each time. It would be mortifying if the last scene of the dream, instead of a big fight-or-flight with a terrifying Dark Lord, saw me skulking about at home in shame and humiliation, having realised that I was too scared to go on the mission that was the free world’s last chance.

I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that I have one of the bravest dream selves in the observable universe. Now there’s a boast to conjure with! Who else can claim as much?

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, March 2016


And No, Tim Minchin, – much as I love most of your work and, like you, detest the power structures and many of the teachings of the RC church – not even George Pell.

ii  Or perhaps the Daleks of course. We mustn’t forget about them!


I am too soft-hearted, it’s getting worse, and it’s a nuisance.

I know what you’re thinking – Andrew’s been stopping to give money to every beggar he passes in the street, so he never has any money left to buy lunch, and he’s always late for work. Well, actually no. I would call that sort of behaviour Compassionate rather than soft-hearted. That’s an altogether more laudable quality and one on which I don’t measure up especially well, although I am working to try to improve it (I give large amounts to carefully selected charities, but not usually to beggars, for non-soft-hearted reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay).

What’s the difference? Well to me, Compassion is the ability to discern the suffering of others and empathise, combined with a disposition to act towards alleviating the suffering. Soft-heartedness on the other hand is a tendency to get very upset about the distress of another, when one discerns it. I’m not very good at discerning the suffering of others, so unfortunately I’m more likely to perceive a beggar as an obstacle and a nuisance than as a suffering person in need of help.

The difference is particularly apparent in situations of conflict. People who are rude or inconsiderate often act thus because they are suffering in some way. Unlike a very compassionate person, I will often resist or even retaliate against unfriendly behaviour without stopping to think about how the antagonist might be feeling. But later, I might pause to wonder how they felt, and feel bad about the conflict – even if they started it. If I were more skilled at compassion, the conflict might never have happened. In such scenarios, the difference between compassion and soft-heartedness is timing, and regret.

My soft-heartedness manifests itself mostly when I am reading or watching fiction. I get very upset when something sad is happening. To see the sadness in fiction, there is no need for the discernment skills of a truly compassionate person, because the suffering is usually presented so starkly that only an emotionally tone-deaf person could miss it.

When I encounter such sad tales, I do the grown-up equivalent of a child hiding behind the sofa when the Daleks appear on Doctor Who shrieking ‘EXTERMINATE!’ I stop reading/watching.

Usually I will close the book, or stop the DVD, and go and do something else, because I just can’t stand wallowing in that misery any further. I might even pick up a different book or DVD and read/watch that for a while.

Often I stop reading before the bad thing even happens, if I know it is just about to happen.

I have found that, if I leave the book for a day or more, I can summon up the ‘courage’ to come back to it and read a little bit more. I can get through the arrest of Edmond Dantes in Le Comte de Monte Cristo if I start right at that point, without having just gone through the lead up of the joyful engagement celebration with his beloved Mercédès, from which he was untimely ripp’d by the officers of the Procureur du Roi.

I think the reason that works is that, by distancing myself from the book for a while, I loosen my emotional ties to Edmond and Mercédès, so I care somewhat less about what happens to them (they are, after all, only fictional!). I see them less as people, so I am more able to stand their misfortunes.

As an aside, this technique of using distance and de-personalisation to block empathy is employed very effectively by the current Australian government to support its program of treating refugees brutally in order to discourage subsequent refugees. It forbids the publication of any personal information about the refugees, including photos that show any faces, and it keeps the refugees in detention camps on distant islands, where hardly any voting Australians, or journalists, will get to see them. That way, voters are less likely to realise that the ‘illegal arrivals’ their government is brutalising in their name are humans, with feelings and parents and children. Thereby, the voters will be less likely to feel empathy, and consequent revulsion at what is being done in their name.

While I am (obviously) strongly opposed to the use of such techniques with real people, I can vouch for them as highly beneficial in the case of fictional ones. I got myself through Edmond’s fourteen years of solitary confinement in a dungeon under the gloomy island fortress the Chateau d’If by taking it a few pages at a time, interspersed with regular breaks in which I reminded myself that Edmond, Mercédès and Edmond’s lonely, destitute father (who died of starvation and a broken heart while Edmond was imprisoned) were not real.

There has to be something to make it worth the effort though. I will only persist with struggling through long, gloomy passages of a book if I think that they are essential to the art, and that there will be at least some redemption later on that makes it worth the pain. If those criteria appear unlikely to be met, I cast the book aside for good. I did that with Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’. There was too much child abuse and misery, with no clear indicator as to why I should subject myself to reading about it. In Monte Cristo, it was worth suffering through though, for what came later. This filtering process rules out most movies with lots of violence, including those involving organised crime or serial killers (that’s about two-thirds of the best-seller shelf gone right there). Stories focusing on emotional cruelty in dysfunctional relationships are similarly excluded, unless the depiction of the cruelty can be justified by egregious artistic merit or the imparting of great wisdom. The TV news is also excluded – I can stay abreast of what I need to know as an engaged citizen by just scanning the headlines and reading important articles on a reputable news site like abc.net.au/news. I don’t need to know about grisly murders, abductions and far-away terrorist attacks. I know that violence and cruelty happen in the world. I will do what I can to prevent it. There is no need for me to submit to ghoulish blow-by-blow accounts of it in order to be persuaded to act where appropriate.

The intermittent approach to reading and watching has become very prevalent with me lately. I will have several movies on the go at once, in some cases watching only 5-10 minutes of each at a time, in order not to get too emotionally involved. I’m intermittently watching one at the moment called “À l’origine”, in which a con man tricks a whole load of construction contractors in an economically depressed town into working for him on the promise of deferred pay – while he demands cash bribes from them for ‘awarding’ them the contracts. I cringe at the thought of the devastation and despair that will ensue when the contractors are not paid, having borrowed heavily to hire machinery and staff. Currently I’m down to watching less than five minutes at a time. It’s touch and go whether I’ll make it through, notwithstanding the plaudits it received at Cannes (why are so many film festival films miserable?).

I think there is an overlap between soft-heartedness and the much-derided trait of Sentimentality, because they can both involve strong feelings of empathy. But they are not the same. Sentimentality is something like a wallowing in tender emotions, which includes sadness but also sweetness, admiration and nostalgia. The most potent criticism of the writing of Charles Dickens (whom I love) is that it is sometimes too sentimental. The worst bits seem ludicrously over-the-top to us, but that’s what Victorian-era Britons loved. Oscar Wilde summed it up so well when he said ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing‘. I didn’t laugh at Little Nell’s demise, but I did cringe. The presentation was too twee, too unrealistic, to invoke my sympathies. I could no more mourn her than I could mourn the coyote in Hanna Barbera’s Road Runner cartoons being blown up (yet again) by his own sticks of dynamite.

I think sentimentality is a particularly unhelpful emotion because it tends to generate sympathy only when the suffering heroine is very lovable. Yet the people most in need of empathy are generally not easy to love. If they were, they might have received more help, and not be in such a desperate situation. So some Victorian sentimentalists saw no contradiction between on the one hand weeping uncontrollably over saintly, pretty Little Nell and on the other going to watch the public execution of some filthy, ugly, foul-mouthed ne’er-do-well that had the misfortune of being born into a social stratum in which the only way to survive was to join a street gang and steal.

Soft-heartedness is not much better than Sentimentality, but maybe it’s one step further from inanity. It at least allows one to feel sympathy for – and hence maybe to help – ratbags, thiefs and murderers, if their suffering is sufficiently apparent.

Another manifestation of my soft-heartedness is a terrible dislike of disappointing people. In bygone days, when I managed a whole bunch of people at work, I hated when, after doing interviews for a new hire, I had to tell the unsuccessful applicants that they were unsuccessful. My imagination would picture them dissolving in tears of despair as soon as they put the phone down, all their hopes and dreams dashed, despair looming. I doubt that ever happened, but in my imagination it happened all the time. Soft!

That’s where being soft-hearted can be a socially unhelpful trait, rather than just a privately irritating one. I decided to no longer manage people at work, partly because I found having to be their boss, or potential boss (in the case of job applicants), too stressful. Based on the performance reviews I received, it seems I was a better than average boss, so by removing myself from the pool of managers I suppose I have slightly degraded the overall quality of the management in the organisations in which I work. A good manager will do the unpleasant managerial tasks, the tickings-off, the firings, the counselling of underperforming employees, the ‘no we don’t want you’ phone calls to job applicants, firmly but as kindly as possible, taking a ‘cruel to be kind’ approach when necessary. I did that, but disliked it because I was too soft-hearted about it, so now I don’t do it any more. It doesn’t really matter though in this particular case, because not doing management frees up my time to do more complicated technical work, where my comparative advantage, and hence my value to the organisation, is stronger than it is in people management.

The main book I’m reading at present is Muriel Barbery’s ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’. The story is told in alternating sections by the misanthropic, impoverished yet highly literate concierge of a Parisian apartment building with wealthy occupants, and the precocious, nihilistic, world-weary, twelve-year old daughter of one family of occupants. There was no great tragedy happening, but it was all rather gloomy, seen through such misanthropic pairs of eyes, which made it hard going. I could only read a few pages at a time. But all of a sudden the mood brightened! In one short chapter the concierge reveals that she actually likes someone – a nineteen-year old daughter of a family in another of the apartments, who is determined to be a rural vet – against the wishes of her family, who don’t think the profession is classy enough. The girl regularly visits the concierge in her ‘lair’ to have long chats over tea about the health of Léon, the concierge’s cat, and the other animals in the building. It’s amazing what a difference a little ray of sunshine like that can make. All of a sudden, I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.


Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, July 2015

When should moral intuitions over-rule moral reasoning?

Every set of moral principles of which I am aware can be made to look ridiculous. All that is needed is to construct a hypothetical scenario – a ‘thought experiment’ – in which the set of principles (I will call the set a ‘framework’) leads, via an unassailable logical argument, to a conclusion that recommends a morally repugnant act.

Utilitarianism can usually be made to look silly via a thought experiment in which cruelty to one innocent individual will save many others from great suffering. Kantian ethics, with its absolute rules such as ‘never lie’ can be made to look silly by hypothesising a mariticidal spouse at the door that wants to know where her fleeing husband is. Divine command ethics is made to look silly by the story of Abraham and Isaac, or any of the Old Testament genocides. Virtue ethics might escape the silliness charge, but only by being so vague that it avoids making any moral recommendation in a case where all alternative actions are unpalatable to our moral intuitions. Such indecisiveness seems to me even sillier, as to not act is itself an act, and often has worse outcomes than taking one of the unpalatable actions.

But we are moral creatures, living in a world beset by moral dilemmas. We must act, so we need some basis for deciding. How can we decide about actions when we feel that every possible moral framework is flawed in some way?

One response is to insist that moral reason over-ride intuitions. Under this approach, we would decide on our fundamental moral principles via a period of intense reflection. Once decided, we would make all moral decisions by reasoning from those principles, and we would stick with the decision even if we found it repugnant to our intuitions.

This approach has the advantage of logical consistency in the sense that all decisions are consistent with the principles, and hence with each other. However there is troubling inconsistency in the fact that the whole system rests on principles whose sole justification is our moral intuition, yet we then reject our moral intuition when it conflicts with the rational application of those principles. If our intuition is good enough to serve as the foundation for our entire framework, why is it not good enough to over-rule that framework when there is a conflict?

At the opposite extreme is a variant of Moral Particularism, in which we reject all moral principles and moral reasoning, and judge every potential action based solely on our intuitive moral feelings about it. I don’t like the sound of that, as it allows very little scope for moral development. If we have an intuitive dislike for certain people or actions, based on some combination of our natural dispositions and our upbringing, we will never find any reason to challenge and reject that dislike. It could be a belief that women should always obey men, or that other races are less worthy of respect and kindness than my own race for instance.

If we wish neither to always let moral reasoning over-rule moral intuitions nor to always let moral intuitions over-rule moral reasoning, we need a basis for deciding which of the two should win when there is a conflict. For a long time this seemed to me an unsolvable problem, leaving us in a state of potential moral confusion. But now I think there may be some hope of a solution. To present it, I will first consider two examples. The examples both relate to utilitarianism, because that is the framework I know most about. But similar examples could be developed for other frameworks.

Example 1. Fred and the Father-son chat

Fred was brought up in a fundamentalist religious family, and one of the moral rules he imbibed from as early as he could understand it was that sexual acts between two men were an abomination – one of the worst possible sins. Coincidentally, Fred also has a genetic disposition to feel a slight aversion towards the idea of sexual acts between two men, in the same way that many animals have a natural aversion towards sexual acts with close blood relatives.

Fred discarded his religious beliefs when at university, has adopted a utilitarian moral framework and is completely persuaded by arguments that consenting, caring sexual relations between two male adults are entirely morally acceptable. Yet, because of his natural inclinations, and the residual effect of his upbringing, from which he will never be able to completely free himself, he still feels intuitively that there is something wrong with male homosexual acts, even though his reason says there isn’t.

Fred is now happily married to a woman and has a ten year old son who is starting to ask questions about sex. Fred wonders whether he should portray all types of mature, consenting, respectful sexual activity as equally acceptable, or whether he should subtly imply that heterosexual sex is preferable. His reason recommends the former, but his intuition recommends the latter.

Example 2. Sheila and the Terrorists

Terrorists have hijacked a commercial plane with fifty passengers on it and are planning to crash it into a nuclear power station on the outskirts of a major city. Engineers have advised the Prime Minister, Sheila, that if the plane crashes into the reactor there will be a radioactive cloud released that will kill millions.

Sheila is told that the air-force jets shadowing the plane can fire missiles to destroy it, but without that there is no way of diverting the plane from its target, and there is no way of averting the disaster if the reactor is struck. The pilots only need Sheila’s command to fire the missile.

Sheila is a utilitarian and her conclusion from her moral framework is that she should order the jets to fire. Yet she finds the idea morally repugnant. How can she order the death of fifty innocent people?


My proposal for resolving conflicts like these is to investigate the moral intuition, to try to understand why we hold it. If we are able to find a convincing reason why we feel that way, then we can decide whether we wish to over-rule the moral intuition, based on whether we like that reason and on whether we would like to feel differently if we could.

In Fred’s case it would be fairly easy for him to trace at least part of the source of his negative feelings about homosexuality. He would be well aware of the permanent effect the inculcation of dispositions in young children can have. He would be able to see that he was trained by his fundamentalist parents to feel negatively about homosexual acts, in the same way that he was trained to fear eternal punishment if he ever ceased to believe the dogmas of his parents’ religion. Chances are he has been unable to completely rid himself of either feeling, notwithstanding all the rational arguments he has for their invalidity.

But when he realises that the source of his feeling is a childhood indoctrination that he deplores, he will feel confident about rejecting the feeling, and allowing his moral reasoning to over-rule the moral intuition it provides.

The other criterion is whether he would wish to feel differently if he could. Because he rejects his moral upbringing, he is likely to wish that he did not feel negatively about homosexuality, and to regard that negative feeling as a cross that he reluctantly has to bear. This realisation again supports a decision to over-rule the moral intuition.

What about the other source of the intuition – Fred’s genetic aversion to the idea of homosexual acts? I have no idea whether such a genetic aversion exists and if so whether it is common or very rare. But it is at least plausible that an aversion to homosexual acts could be a trait that is selected for in some species, in order to focus all of the animals’ efforts and energy on sexual activity that propagates the species. If Fred thinks that he may have such a trait then, unless he is prone to the Naturalistic Fallacy (the belief that whatever is natural is morally right), he is likely to conclude that this natural trait is something he would rather suppress and try to eliminate, in the same way humans try, through the process of civilisation and education, to suppress the natural tendency to kill or injure rivals for mates, food or social status. Just as we might wish to be free of our natural tendency to anger, Fred would wish to be free of his aversion to homosexuality, if he could.

All this considered, I feel confident that when Fred has his father-son chat, he will over-rule any inclination to imply that homosexuality is best avoided, and present a picture entirely consistent with the recommendations of his moral framework.

For Sheila it is not so easy. She knows that whatever she chooses will cause her and others enormous anguish. Her moral reasoning is clear – she must destroy the airliner. Her moral intuition tells her that would be a barbaric act.

Sheila can follow the same process as Fred, to try to identify the source of her moral intuition.

She might conclude that her revulsion against killing stems from the same source as her utilitarian principles – her empathy for fellow sentient beings. If she concludes that’s all it is, her choice is easy. The revulsion against killing is there because killing is usually gratuitously cruel. So in a case like this where the killing is not gratuitously cruel (it is cruel, but it is not gratuitous) the justification for the revulsion disappears and it is reasonable to over-rule the revulsion.

But what if Sheila concludes there is more to the revulsion than the fact that killing is usually gratuitously cruel? What if she feels that there is something more that is wrong with killing, beyond its cruelty? If she can positively identify what that ‘something more’ is, then she has discovered a new moral principle, and she can reflect on whether she wishes to respect it or whether she would like to reject it if she could. If it is something she wishes to respect then that opens up the door to allowing the intuition to over-rule the moral reasoning – in other words to not destroy the airliner. What this discovery does is suggest that Sheila’s moral framework is flawed in some way. It may be fundamentally flawed and need wholesale replacement, or it may need to become more nuanced, more complex – perhaps just by adding the new principle to the existing ones or perhaps by more complex changes. Since in this case Sheila has managed to identify the missing principle, it is likely to be possible for her to deduce what changes are needed to her framework to remove this conflict, without introducing any obvious new conflicts. This process has a weak but interesting similarity to the way that scientific theories are refined when new discoveries are made.

Equally possible though is that Sheila is unable to locate the source of her intuition against killing. She is convinced it’s more than just an aversion to gratuitous cruelty, but she can’t work out what that ‘something more’ is. This is different from Fred’s case, where he identified the source and concluded he wanted to reject it. And it is different from the case where Sheila identified the source and concluded she wanted to respect it. To continue the scientific analogy of the previous paragraph, this is like the conflict between observations of the constancy of the speed of light that was demonstrated by the Michelson-Morley experiment and the equivalence of frames of reference (Galilean Relativity). Physicists in the late nineteenth century knew there was a conflict in their theory. They knew there was ‘something more’ needed, but they didn’t know what it was. It was several years before Einstein resolved the conflict with his theory of relativity. That was in one sense a refinement of the existing Newtonian theory. It had new principles that, in most but not all situations, gave very similar answers to the Newtonian theory.

If Sheila can’t pinpoint the source of her intuition then she may well need a new theory. But she can’t be sure of that until the source is pinpointed and a resolution found. In the meantime she just has to do what humans do all the time, in love and war, in cricket and in business – make a decision in the presence of inadequate information. She will go one way or the other, and either way the decision will cause agony for her and for others. The only consolation is that, whatever decision she makes, at least she did her best to work out the right thing to do.


We haven’t developed a way of always choosing between the dictates of moral reasoning and moral intuitions. That would be too much to expect. If there was any moral framework that was completely free of dilemmas we wouldn’t spend so much time debating and comparing moral issues.

We have however identified a way of proceeding when such a conflict arises. In some cases, maybe even most, that approach can lead to a resolution, either via rejecting the intuition as Fred did, or by respecting it as Sheila did in the first instance, and following that by a revision and update of our moral framework.

In the last case, where the source of the intuition cannot be identified, the dilemma remains. But at least in that case we will have highlighted a flaw in our moral framework, and we can stay on the lookout for insights that may enable us to refine the framework to correct the flaw.

And what do I think? Well I think Fred should reject his moral intuition and give his son the even -handed account. And in Sheila’s case I just don’t know. None of the moral frameworks I can think of have an answer to that dilemma that convinces me. I feel there is indeed ‘something more’ that is wrong with killing the people on the plane in that case, but I am hopelessly unable to identify what that ‘something more’ is. So I don’t know what I would do if I were placed in that situation. I’ll just have to hope I never become Prime Minister.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction

November 2012