Are Schools Failing Students? Over-testing and job-readiness

There was an article in the newspaper today entitled schools fail students. The charge was that schools focus too much on tests and results, that they’re too distracted with NAPLAN and ATARs to successfully prepare students for the job market.

As a past year 12 teacher, I have been frustrated by the education sector’s excessive focus on test results. There is so little time to prepare students for their exam that their education is set to one side. Deep learning simply takes too much time. There will be time for that once they’ve graduated. Once they have the score that will get them into university.

I’m not anti-testing. Testing can support and enhance learning, but it does this best when it is used as a tool to measure understanding and identify areas for development. Schools fail students when testing is used as a mere means of ranking and ordering students. Schools fail students when testing is pressurised to secure school funding and enrolments. Schools fail when the sole focus of a student’s final year is a high-stakes high-pressure test. Or rather, schools aren’t able to succeed.

What it is that schools ought to be securing for students isn’t a rank at the end of their schooling. But is the role of schools just to prepare students for the job market?

If you imagine a graduate who has no job-readiness at all, you would likely agree that their education was insufficient. Equally, if all a student has is job-readiness, this ought to be considered a failure on the part of schools. So a balance needs to be struck. This seems obvious. What is not so obvious, is the importance of job-readiness compared to other goods schools are tasked with securing. Nor is it clear which skills schools ought to hone to ensure students will be economically productive.

Some questions that need to be answered then are:

Should schools focus on preparing students for their dream jobs?

What if the students dreams or the job market changes? What if their dreams are unrealistic?

Should schools focus on preparing students for general job preparedness?

Should schools focus on minimum, entry level preparedness or on maximising students work and earning potential?

Answers to many of these questions will be informed by a broader philosophy of education. A greater emphasis will be on a student’s interests and general preparedness if the education system favours more individualistic goals such as student flourishing and autonomy over collective goods, .

If the focus of schools is on economic security and producing an effective labour force, there will be a greater emphasis on maximising students’ work and earning potential.

Schools Fail Students doesn’t capture the complexity of the role of schools and what they owe to students. Yes, one responsibility of schools ought to be promoting economic productivity. As a society, we will want schools to put some emphasis on securing a strong labour force. As individuals, we will likely want students’ interests and happiness to be taken into account (doing so produces a stronger labour force anyway!). 

Unfortunately it is often easier said than done to say “well let’s do both!” Some goals will conflict. Because of this, we need a clear over-arching philosophy of education. This will allow us to determine whether individual or collective, short or long term, and public or private goods should be prioritised in areas of conflict.

The claim that ‘schools fail students by not preparing students for the job market’ might be true. But is too simple and too easy to say.

Questions for next time: If success in work requires compliance with particular norms (dressing and behaving ‘professionally’) should schools teach students to comply with these norms? Should schools teach compliance with ‘professional norms’ even if some of these norms are unjust?


Integration and the Duties of Schools (Part 3)

This is the final section of a draft talk I gave at the Victorian Postgraduate Philosophy Conference and the Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference in Wellington (you can find part one here and two here). 

In my previous post I discussed the moral justification for seperate schools for students with disabilities. This justification was contingent on the failure of mainstream schools to successfully secure both integration and educational justice for students with disabilities. This failure, in part, arises where teachers hold negative attitudes (consciously or otherwise) towards integration and teaching students with disabilities.

Negative attitudes can arise for understandable reasons; teachers who lack support and training will lack self-efficacy in regard to teaching in diverse classrooms. Without confidence and support in teaching diverse learners, teachers may become hostile towards teaching students with disabilities.  These attitudes then become entrenched as attitudes and expectations are key determinants of student success. This means both that; where a teacher holds a negative attitude towards integration, students with disabilities within that classroom are less likely to succeed (socially, emotionally, or academically) and as a result, the negative attitudes that teacher holds becomes ‘justified’ and reinforced. 

The below argues briefly for the professional moral duties of teachers in integrated classrooms and supplies some measures for overcoming negative attitudes in the teaching profession. 

Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference, Wellington, 12th of July 2018.

Professional moral duties

As I argued in the previous post, states owe certain goods to their citizens. States may provide access to these specific goods via specially tasked institutions. Schools are one such institutions charged with securing specific goods for the citizenry, namely educational goods.

Due to the division of labor that is struck within society, schools ought to priorities educational goods over and above other types of goods. This means that schools should not be tasked with securing goods that would conflict with securing educational goods. However, if conflict can be minimised or burdens can be shifted to less vulnerable groups in such a way that schools can attend to both educational justice and integration, then integration (or other desired goods) ought to be pursued in this way.

Securing educational justice for students with disabilities is hindered by the negative attitudes they may encounter in an integrated classroom. As such, securing educational justice for the disabled ought to be prioritised over integration. This does justify separated schooling for students with disabilities. Importantly, however, it also highlights the specific professional duties teachers hold in integrated classrooms. Attending to these duties can minimise conflict between integration and educational justice.

Conflict between integration and educational justice may be minimised by challenging negative attitudes in the teaching profession. Progress here may be made through teacher preservice training and ongoing support, enabling teachers to acquire sufficient knowledge and understanding of the diversity they are likely to encounter in a classroom. Through increased teacher efficacy and empathy, teachers’ desire to attend to the educational needs of all students may also be increased. In addition, where teacher education and subsequent employment is founded on the expectation of integration rather than the risk of integration then those who, even with appropriate training and support, would remain hostile to diversity may be less inclined to enter or remain in the profession.

This is important as teachers are facilitators of educational justice and school- based integration. Negative attitudes regarding the latter impede their successful facilitation of the former. Teachers then are morally required to overcome negative attitudes to disability and integration. Without so doing, teachers would be unable to attend to their professional moral duty of securing educational justice for their students. This moral requirement arises from the reality that integration is already a common feature of schools. As integration conflicts with educational justice, where teachers fail to successfully facilitate integration and because teachers have a professional moral duty to attend to educational justice requirements, teachers by extension have a professional moral duty to successfully facilitate integration where schools are integrated.

Failure to attend to one’s negative attitudes towards disability (or towards any stigmatised group!) ought to be treated like any other dereliction of professional duty. As teacher expectations are critical to student success, wantonly holding negative attitudes should lead to the same professional probation as any other professional failing. Those who actively retain negative attitudes towards students with disabilities should not remain in the profession. Equally, entry into the teacher training courses should not simply be granted where applicants have met a certain grade. Rather, (just as we do for the police) teachers ought to be vetted for negative attitudes towards stigmatised minorities. (I will discuss in a future post the idea of entry into teaching degrees that is informed by virtues rather than grades alone)

Integration can be better facilitated through teacher preservice training, practicums and collaborative opportunities. Thus, teachers must be provided with such opportunities. This does not leave integration an imperative for schools. Instead, where integration already exists within schools, schools become morally required to ensure its success. To not do so would undermine the imperative schools are tasked with; to secure educational goods within the population.



Integration and the Duties of Schools (Part 2)

Last week I stumbled across a recent comment left by one of the students on a TEDx talk I gave a few years ago. The comment was deeply moving, largely because of the kindness of the student’s words, but also because this student* was one of the inspirations for my research project on the impact of teacher attitudes on student outcomes. 

While the concern I feel for all my students stays with me after they leave my class or I have moved on to new schools, the concern I felt for this particular young man was keenly felt. The student was highly capable but I felt they were rarely given the respect they (and all students) deserve, nor the opportunity to fully flourish within that school. While, at least from their comment, this student seems to have retained their compassionate nature, the flaws in our education system remain.

What we owe to students is complex. Education is not a singular good that can be easily transferred from teacher to pupil. Rather, education is a cluster of goods and certain goods will inevitably conflict. The goals of education must then be clearly defined, striking an ideal balance between the varying goods owed to students and desired by society. Here I take a view of educational justice that is informed by Colin MacLeod and Elizabeth Anderson. I believe educational justice should not simply be focused on private goods such as academic results or job preparedness (although these are of course important). Nor should we be striving solely for democratic competency and economic productivity within our graduates. While harder to measure, educational justice must also incorporate positive and fulfilling experiences during one’s schooling (involving, for example, healthy personal relationships, treating others as equals, and/or personal fulfilment through education).

I do not know for certain whether, since my departure from this particular school, this student was provided a just education. I do know that students continue to exit schools without the goods they are owed and that we can and ought to better. 

This is the second part of a draft version of a talk given at the Victorian Postgraduate Philosophy Conference and that I am giving this week at the Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference in Wellington, New Zealand. Part one can be found here. 


The imperative of integration can be seen to conflict with disabled students’ attainment of educational goods. The term ‘disability’ picks out a highly diverse group of students. This creates significant variation in regards to the impact integration may or may not have on individuals.

Many of the risks regarding the extension of integration as an imperative for special education provision result from the scale and diversity of those picked out by this term. Specifically, integration into general education may result in students being isolated from other like-members of their minority group. The limiting of scope for homophilic relations could have a negative impact on both self-respect and civic virtue, especially where disabled students face stigmatisation from their fellow students or teachers.

Limited homophilic relations could lead to isolation within the integrated community, diminishing students’ self-determination, dignity, or community connectedness. Where this occurs, stigmatised disabled students will have lost some of the goods they are owed by education. Specifically, goods connected to flourishing such as positive and fulfilling experiences during one’s schooling and positive peer relationships. Importantly, these goods often determine access to other educational goods, as students’ academic outcomes are negatively affected where they feel unsafe or disconnected from others within schools. The resultant learning environment is unlikely to fully attend to the student’s social, emotional, or educational needs, rendering the generalist classroom non-conducive for the attainment of educational goods. This is exacerbated where segregated background conditions, combined with difficult in-classroom experiences, creates hostility towards integration within the teaching profession.

Within already integrated classrooms, segregated background conditions influence the scale and burden of conflict between integration and educational justice. Successful integrated conditions are unlikely to result where integrating processes are informed by negative attitudes. Thus, integration will be unsuccessful where teachers hold either conscious or unconscious negative attitudes towards disability. Teachers in such classrooms fail to model inclusive behaviour to students, while entrenching stigma and impeding the social, emotional, and educational success of students. Importantly, educational goods will not be successfully attained where poor facilitatory processes are in play.

States owe certain goods to their citizens. States may provide access to these specific goods via specially tasked institutions. For example, such states provide access to adequate healthcare for their citizens via the healthcare industry. Within these societies schools are institutions charged with securing educational goods for the citizenry. Due to the role of education providers in these societies, in the case of a conflict between integration and educational justice, integration may not take precedence over goods for which education is given the special task of securing.

Within this context, the distribution of ethical work is such that schools’ primary duty is to educational justice. Other imperatives ought not then be extended to the education context where so doing would undermine the ability of schools to attain educational justice for students.

Inclusion places disproportionate harms on vulnerable groups, limits said groups attainment of educational justice, and can reinforce negative attitudes towards disability. Within schools, integration currently entails undesirable processes and fails to bring about the state of affairs schools are tasked with; that is, securing educational goods within the population. Integration within the context of special education may then be left impermissible. If integration is an imperative of justice, as a process or a condition, integration by nature ought to be just. If integration requires morally impermissible actions or if it results in a worse state of affairs than not-integrating, then integration is not a moral imperative for schools.

This leaves voluntary separation justified for disabled students. For Michael Merry, voluntary separation is justified in its ability to enhance the conditions necessary for equality and citizenship. I would further contend that within the educational context, voluntary separation is justified for stigmatized groups where integration undermines their access to educational goods. Voluntary separation may become the just and rational choice for families where special education providers not only better attend to the educational justice requirements owed to students, but also better foster students’ self-respect and civic virtue.

While voluntary separation may indeed be justified under present integrated condition, integration is not inherently impermissible within the classroom context…

Cont. next week with an argument for the professional moral duties of teachers and how we can (and ought to ) shift integration’s burdens off students with disabilities. 


*while an inspiration for this project my comments in no way ought to be read as identifying this student as disabled or neuroatypical. The project of properly conceptualising integration as an imperative of justice is of course much broader than disability,  inclusion, and the duties of schools.

Integration and the Duties of Schools (Part 1)

This is a draft version of a talk given at the Victorian Postgraduate Philosophy Conference and will be given again at the Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference in Wellington next week. The argument is a (very!) condensed extract from the final chapter of my master’s thesis and this condensed draft is something I intend to revise into an article.

The below was inspired by the differing approaches to ‘inclusion’ I witnessed in the schools I have taught. In particular the isolation, bulling, and reduced learning opportunities that arose from negative attitudes towards diversity and students with disabilities in particular. I have taught in schools that celebrated diversity and I have taught in schools where teachers celebrated when an autistic student didn’t come to class. I’m sure it is no surprise that the social, emotional, and academic outcomes of students were far greater in schools that embraced diversity. 

If inclusion is not inclusive then the ideal outcomes of integration are impeded and, importantly, so too are the ideal outcomes of education itself. The following 3 blog posts consider what morally ought to be done where integration’s success is impeded by teachers’ attitudes. I consider the case for and against the imperative of integration in schools, voluntary separation of students with disabilities into special education providers, and the moral duties of schools and teachers. 

A discussion of integration as an ideal is ineffective without a full understanding of the processes required to attain integrated conditions. Where the costs imposed by such processes outweigh the condition of integration, integration ought not be considered an imperative. In the case of integrating schools, while I believe integration’s associated costs are too high and unjustly distributed, I also hold that these costs are contingent upon institutional design and, as such, they can be minimised or distributed more justly. The nature of these costs, however, will demonstrate my second claim; that integration as a moral ideal ought not override the primary moral duties of institutions such as schools.

The idea of integration distinguishes the outcomes and processes that arise in response to group difference as integrating or segregating in nature. In the latter case, segregation may refer to either a process by which one group closes its network to another, or the outcome of such a process. Group differences here support obstructed or distorted interaction, leading to and reinforcing segregation. This in turn creates antagonistic and hierarchical relations making segregation a self- reinforcing cause of group inequality. Integration will also see some level of group difference preserved. These differences, however, do not lay the foundations for inequality but are instead recognised on equal terms.

Elizabeth Anderson emphasises the importance of using schools to expose students to other students from different groups. In so doing, social hierarchies and stereotyping can be dismantled. This argument can be expanded to consider not only the benefits to students, but also the potential benefit educators themselves can gain from diverse classrooms. Rather than focusing on the good education ought to provide individuals, thus, Anderson considers the good education provides to everyone.

There is good reason to consider the task of educational integration separately from other integrationist initiatives. Education offers unique concerns and benefits for the imperative of integration. Unlike housing for example, education is not a single good. Rather, education is a large cluster of goods. The hard question of exactly which goods ought to be part of this cluster must then be considered. This is an important question to answer, as certain goods will inevitably conflict. This is not true of housing. Extending integration as an imperative in educational contexts is problematic as it will involve trade-offs with other goods. Where integration conflicts with other goods in the cluster of educational goods, it will need to be determined which goods ought to take priority. If integration is to be considered an imperative, it seems prima facie that integration ought to take priority over other goods within the cluster.

Education is further distinguished from other integrationist initiatives as its success is not pursued at point of access. Again, unlike housing, we must avoid the trap of thinking that a school is successfully integrated when a certain quota of diversity within the student population has been met. While this may be enough for a neighborhood to count as integrated, schools differ in that their integration is a facilitated process. Success in educational integration is not simply a matter of placing diverse students in the same classroom. Physical proximity of students, even with curriculum or environmental accommodations, does not ensure that students will interact in meaningful ways, nor that they will access the goods education ought to provide. Rather, teachers have a special role of facilitating the process of securing educational goods for students, with integration being one such good that requires teacher facilitation to secure.

Successfully securing educational goods can be more closely likened to the medical context. Patients require the facilitatory role of a doctor to secure medical goods. How and whether these goods will be secured will be informed by certain stigmatising background conditions. These background conditions inform doctors’ attitudes and beliefs (held consciously or otherwise) regarding their patients’ race or class, for example, which may then influence their treatment plan. This can be seen in the increased rate of opioid addiction found in White populations in the United States. Doctors, influenced by stigmatising beliefs regarding pain tolerance and race, have been found to be less inclined to prescribe pain medication to Black patients as compared to White patients. In education too, background conditions will inform teachers’ attitudes regarding the students within their class. As teachers’ attitudes are one of the strongest determinants of students successfully securing educational goods, overcoming stigmatising background conditions will be essential in successfully securing integration.

Thus, while school segregation typically follows neighbourhood segregation the latter is a point of access concern and a singular good, education offers a unique set of challenges requiring separate analysis. While segregated neighbourhoods function as a practical barrier to school integration, it would be a mistake to think that neighbourhood integration would have a significant impact on the success of school integration. The successful integration of schools, on the other-hand, can assist in securing the success of integration in other contexts as education is one of the only compulsory social institutions, education typically occurs during the foundational years of one’s life and extends over many years -as such it is able to capture almost all members of a given society and ensure ongoing meaningful interactions.

Cont. next week

Disability, Inclusion, and Choice: Conditions for Just educational practice

Schools are uniquely positioned to undermine or reinforce group inequalities.  Integrated diverse schools can play a significant role ‘in promoting norms of respectful discourse and undermining prejudice’ or alternatively, in enabling the reproduction of oppressive practices.

This process and condition of integration has been heralded as an imperative of justice within political philosophy. Elizabeth Anderson argues that the segregation of social groups ‘is a principal cause of group inequality.’ Segregation creates and sustains stigmatisation, oppression, and discrimination, and prevents subordinate groups from gaining fair access to resources and opportunities.

If segregation is a fundamental cause of inequality, then integration promotes greater equality. Integration involves ‘the free interaction of citizens from all walks of life in terms of equality and mutual regard.’ Establishing integrated conditions may involve some limiting of individual freedom and comfort but, to be deemed just, this process must not disproportionately burden vulnerable groups.

Applications of integrationist ideals to educational policy already exist, but have been centred on overcoming racial and economic segregation. Integration as a moral ideal, however, is yet to be fully tested with respect to the situation of students with disability, a small group with complex and diverse educational needs.  While many governments over the last twenty years have adopted integrationist processes through inclusion policy, the conflicting justice concerns require a more detailed analysis.

Integration can be seen to exist in conflict with school choice. If segregated schooling and school choice conflict with integration, it seems that the choice to send a child to a special education provider undermines integrations success. As such, the moral imperative to integrate may hold regardless of whether a special school is the ‘best choice’ for meeting a child’s educational and behavioural needs.

Conflict arises here as families have a right (or perhaps even a duty) to do what is best for their child. For many students, special education providers are their best educational and social choice. Within diverse schools, students with disabilities face stigmatised attitudes and their specific educational and behavioural needs may not be attended to fully. Further, as teacher perceptions are one of the key determinants of student social and academic success, attitudes become a significant factor in the success or failure of integration. To integrate into such a system may result in diminished self-respect and limited social and educational outcomes for students with disabilities.

To not attend a diverse school, however, limits the prospect of attaining the collective social goods that arise from integration. Importantly, it becomes harder for empathy, understanding and equality between disabled and non-disabled groups to be reached where these groups have never interacted in a meaningful and positive way.

In non-ideal circumstances, voluntary separation into special education may be just. However, voluntary separation may not be able to attain the just societal ends of integration. Further, it becomes unclear whether the stigma and inequalities that justify voluntary separation can be overcome where integrated process is morally untenable. Resolving the conflict between voluntary separation and integration of disabled students will involve striking a balance between collective goods and a just distribution of burdens. How the problem ought to be resolved is an important theoretical and practical question for governments to attend to, as it appears that we cannot realise both ends under current optional inclusion practices.


Anderson, Elizabeth. (2007). Fair Opportunity in Education: A Democratic Equality Perspective. Ethics 117 (July 2007): 595–622.

Anderson, Elizabeth. (2010). The Imperative of Integration. Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford.

Avramidis, E., P. Bayliss and R. Burden (2000). “Student teachers’ attitudes towards the inclusion of children with special educational needs in the ordinary school.” Teaching and Teacher Education 16(3): 277-293.

Cochran, H. Keith. (1998)”Differences in Teachers’ Attitudes toward Inclusive Education as Measured by the Scale of Teachers’ Attitudes toward Inclusive Classrooms (STATIC).”

Hattie, John. Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge, 2008.

McMenamin, P. R. A puzzling matter: special schools, justice, and inclusion. (2015).

Smith, Mary K., and Kenneth E. Smith. (2000). ““I believe in inclusion, but…”: Regular education early childhood teachers’ perceptions of successful inclusion.” Journal of Research in Childhood Education 14.2: 161-180.

Soodak, Leslie C., David M. Podell, and Laurie R. Lehman. (1998). “Teacher, student, and school attributes as predictors of teachers’ responses to inclusion.” The Journal of Special Education 31.4: 480-497.

Trump, Gordon C., and Jane E. Hange. (1996). “Teacher Perceptions of and Strategies for Inclusion: A Regional Summary of Focus Group Interview Findings.”

Us and Them: Why are we Intolerant?

Scrolling through your newsfeed it might feel like Australia is becoming a more intolerant and hostile place. More and more we see stories about people being racially vilified or threatened with racist violence. Flyers condemning homosexuality have been left in letterboxes. Far-right wing extremist groups have taken to the streets protesting against Islam and the building of mosques. Individuals have been ‘no-platformed’, banned from publically speaking about their beliefs at events or even entering our country. How do we make sense of these actions? Is our country becoming less tolerant? If it is, is there anything that can or should be done?

Before the 1970s psychologists offered two main explanations for the causes of intolerance and prejudice; competition or personality. Prejudice, many thought, was linked to authoritarian personality traits. That is, those who were more prone to servile or dominant relationships with others were more likely to see some groups as being lower or higher in status than themselves. This led to negative perceptions and behaviours towards those they deemed to be of a different social status. Alternatively, psychologists thought that empathy diminished where groups were forced to compete for scarce resources, such as land, food, employment, even first place in a football match. This led to an ‘us versus them’ attitude and prejudice ensued.

Social psychologist Henri Tajfel proved something scary in the 1970s; you don’t need competition or a certain personality to be prejudiced. All you need it to be part of a group. Any group. In fact, he showed two abstract paintings to a group of boys and then pretended to split the boys into those who preferred the art of Paul Klee and those who preferred Wassily Kadinsky. Now the boys were actually just divided into the two groups randomly but regardless, when they were then asked to redistribute money they displayed significant bias towards those who had been sorted into their own group. There was no competition between the groups, no winners, no rules or regulations. All they had to do was distribute money and still they were biased to those they were in their own group. The experiment has been replicated numerous times with an invariable result; all that is needed for bias to flourish is for groups to exist.

So there we have it! Problem solved; we’ll just get rid of groups. Ok, philosophers can often come up with some solutions that sound ridiculous in practice but we’re not that bad. Even if it were possible to get rid of groups, we know there are benefits from being in a group and from the differences that led to these groupings. Just think of how boring the world would be if everyone was exactly the same. We wouldn’t just be bored; we would no longer function. We need diversity as a species and as a society. So is there a way of becoming more tolerant of difference, and is tolerance the best we can or should hope for if we want to maintain group difference?

Contemporary philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues that it is specifically the segregation of groups that should be of concern. Segregation leads to stigmatisation and stereotypes between groups. This creates discrimination, bias and prejudice. Our intolerance and bias can be seen in the inequalities that then arise between groups. When goods and resources are being shared, just like in Tajfel’s experiment, we’re going to favour our own group members. Additionally, we will be more responsive to and accountable for the needs of those in our group because of the increased interaction and understanding that we share.

Anderson goes on to argue that when our leaders and decision-makers are drawn only from a privileged subset of society’s segregated groups, justice and democracy are undermined. Our leaders end up less responsive to the needs of those they don’t understand or interact with. As a result, our leaders become less accountable for the decisions. In reverse then, integration promotes equality, justice, democracy and even trust and tolerance. To have a just, equal and democratic society: we must integrate.

Anderson’s arguments are again supported by findings in psychology. Gordon W. Allport also believed that prejudice flowed from ignorance. People make generalisations about others when they lacked information and understanding. So again, segregation will lead to stereotyping which can in turn lead to fear and hostility. Allport’s “contact hypothesis”, like Andersons arguments for integration, predicted that through contact with diverse others we will correct our mistaken perceptions, improve empathy and diminish prejudice. Both our philosopher’s arguments and our psychologists’ studies led to a similar conclusion; integration is the key to reducing intolerance.

For integration to really be successful, it needs to be sustained. Negative consequences can result where there is diversity but not trust. Studies have found such diversity can decrease community attachment, reduce civic participation and increase withdrawal from the collective life of a community. Further, it can lead to increased negative attitudes towards out-group members and a decreased willingness to offer forms of assistance to minority groups. This is because simple contact is not enough to overcome prejudice. Integration involves interaction with diverse others in ongoing and meaningful ways. We need to actually do things together, to work toward common goals in order to change our attitudes. This means we can’t just aim to tolerate difference; we might need to learn to trust each other if we want to overcome prejudice and avoid the negative consequences of diversity.

Meaningful and ongoing integration seems to be the answer. But we need to be careful. If we have complete integration, we might start to lose something. Think of your closest relationship for a moment. How much do you have in common with this person? For most people the answer is going to be ‘a lot.’ This is because most people find similarity and familiarity more comfortable. Through this similarity we develop our social bonds. Findings by Pamela Popielarz and JM McPherson found that the more different you are from the other members of your group, the more likely you are to leave that group. So similarity doesn’t just initiate connection, it maintains connections.

We can see the balance that needs to be struck to reduce prejudice when looking at another psychology experiment. The experiment involved the integration of racial groups in college dorms. White and black students were assigned roommates of a different race when they entered the residential college. And just as Anderson and Allport would predict; students reported more positive racial attitudes at the end of the year. However, just as Popielarz and McPherson argued, the students also reported that they were less likely to be good friends with their roommate, or continue living together the following year.

So while integration may not lead to the strongest or most lasting of connections, it can promote trust and decrease prejudice and intolerance. We may then return to our more segregated familiar groups but, as Thomas Paine stated ‘the mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.’ It may then be fine that not all bonds formed between diverse groups last. There remain difficult philosophical questions about precisely what is meant by integration, and how to justly distribute the costs of transitioning to a more integrated society. What matters in overcoming prejudice and becoming more trusting of others, is to step outside our comfort zone and get to know people we may never otherwise interact with. While doing so might be difficult, evading the challenge is no solution.


The above post was originally published as a part of the ABC and Snodger Media’s Ethics Matters TV Series which can be found here. 

What is the point of punishment?

You’re sitting in detention. Again. It’s always the same students every week too. Sure, maybe you did the wrong thing – but teachers always seem to notice when you misbehave while other students get away with way more than you ever do. Why is that? What is the purpose of punishment and why are some people more likely to be punished than others?

Punishment, in order to be justified at all, is often explained as fulfilling a certain function, one that advances some morally desirable goal. That function some claim to be about preventing future wrong actions, seeking restitution, or even retribution for a wrong that has been done. It might perhaps be a combination of these functions. Punishment (in theory) achieves its desired end, according to many philosophers, through its expressive dimension. This is to say; when we punish a wrong action we are communicating something. That communication allows punishment to fulfil its function in the classroom and in society more generally. So while there might be easier ways to ensure that you won’t reoffend, it is essential that punishment meets certain conditions in order to be justified.

Under this view, punishment needs to express something to even count as punishment, and it needs to express the right thing to the right people for that punishment to be justified. This is necessary as most of the ways we punish individuals are with actions that would usually be considered wrong; imprisonment, physical harm, even killing someone. This idea originates with American political and legal philosopher Joel Feinberg. He argued that to conceptually distinguish punishment from “mere penalties” or deterrents, like library fines, we need to know what punishment is meant to express. This expression determines whether something counts as punishment and whether that punishment is justified.

Advocates of expressivist theories have different views about what and to whom punishment is attempting to communicate. These can generally be divided into ‘communicative’ and ‘denunciatory’ accounts. Communicative accounts, put simply, argue that punishment ought to communicate something to the wrong-doer. This may be saying to the wrong-doer that their society disapproves of their actions and what that society’s behavioural standards are. It may then hope to enable the criminal to change their behaviour, to feel remorse or to recognise and accept society’s standards. The criminal may never fulfil this hope, but this is not what is important; it is the communication to the wrong-doer and the potential of them receiving the message that justified the punishment.

‘Denunciatory’ accounts argue that punishment may not simply be to communicate standards to wrong-doers. For philosophers Igor Primoratz and Jean Hampton, ‘punishment is not like a private letter; it is like a billboard put up on a busy street…it is also meant for the victim of crime and for the public at large’. Here the punishment of the wrong-doer serves to communicate to others that such behaviour is not acceptable. This might serve to frighten or deter other members of society from committing crimes. To an extent, this communication could express just what the moral and behavioural standards of that community are. Where these standards are clearly communicated, punishment may even influence the moral and social development of citizens.

So the question is whether punishment is saying something to the person being punished or to everyone. Think about if you were to see one of your classmates getting into trouble for misbehaving. Do you think the teacher is expressing to that student her disapproval and attempting to dissuade them from behaving in that same way again? Would you be more or less likely to copy that student’s behaviour? Your answer to these questions might depend on just what the action was, who the classmate was and how consistent, severe or public the punishment was.

Whichever account we might accept, punishment is meant to communicate standards for behaviour. Communication is a tricky thing though; it’s very easy for messages to come out wrong or for these messages to carry with them additional and unintended communication. What is being communicated, for example, when we disproportionately punish one group for actions that others more easily get away with?

Indigenous Australians are one such group who are statistically more likely to be punished than other groups. In fact they make up 27 per cent of the nation’s prison population despite being roughly 3 per cent of the overall population. This means they are 13 per cent more likely to go to prison than non-indigenous Australians. Understanding what is accompanying the intended messages of punishment might allow us to understand why our indigenous populations seem to be punished more often or more harshly than others. For the proponents of expressivist theories too, understanding this might allow us to determine if our system of punishment is just.

There are many factors that are involved in deciding to punish an individual. Some of these may be explicit, such as the standards of behavior we are intending to communicate, and many are implicit. These implicit communications may not be known to those determining whether or not to punish. Instead, these factors are unconsciously influencing the decision-making. These implicit communications unintentionally express ideas not simply about the sorts of actions that get punished; they also express ideas about the sorts of people who are punished.

These implicit judgements and communications may arise out of cognitive biases. These biases are activated involuntarily and exist outside of the decision-makers awareness. Examples of just some of these cognitive distortions which may influence the decision to punish are implicit bias, confirmation bias, and attribution bias, each of these can impede accuracy in what we perceive and how we interpret these perceptions. Think about the last time someone tried to start conversation with you in a public place, like a train station. How were they dressed? This probably influenced how you felt about being approached, even if you don’t really endorse this way of judging people.

Confirmation bias is the natural tendency to interpret new information in ways that confirm our pre-existing beliefs. This means that the way we learn and remember is directed by what we already accept about the world; discounting, downplaying or discarding information that challenges those beliefs. While confirmation bias might allow for consistency in our beliefs –it can be dangerous when deciding if someone has committed a wrong action. If we already suspect the individual is guilty (even if this suspicion is purely subconscious) our mind is naturally going to search for information that confirms these suspicions and downplays evidence to the contrary.

Implicit bias is a broader cognitive distortion than confirmation bias. It refers to the ‘attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.’  These stereotypes and attitudes can be positive or negative and lead to feelings and beliefs about others which are based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance.  Combining this with confirmation bias, if an individual is part of a group who is stereotypically associated with punishable actions we may be subconsciously primed to interpret their actions as conforming to that stereotype.

Finally, a fundamental error occurs when we interpret or explain or own or others behavior in a way that overemphasis dispositional factors while downplaying situational factors. This may mean that we attribute the person’s action to their character instead of any potentially contributing circumstances. Psychologists call this ‘attribution bias.’ This kind of bias affects how we explain or predict a person’s behaviour based on what are ultimately irrelevant factors. It often leads us to unconsciously think that the actions of the accused are reflective of their character- that they are essentially a good person who has made a mistake or they are a bad person and they ought to be punished. If we have already unconsciously been influenced by stereotypes and confirmation bias these three factors may explain why certain groups are disproportionately represented in our justice system.

Punishment then may not be intentionally communicating anything other than the standards of the community. It may however be unintentionally communicating an adherence to certain stereotyped assumptions and cognitive biases when certain individuals or groups are disproportionately punished. Similarly, when certain individuals or groups continually avoid punishment or face less severe punishment than others an implicit communication is expressed. This isn’t what punishment is meant to be communicating, so when this message is slipping through a concern arises; is our justice system working as it should? A philosophical proponent of an expressivist theory, faced with the Australian situation, may well conclude that the system is broken, and therefore unjust.


The above post was originally published as a part of the ABC and Snodger Media’s Ethics Matters TV Series which can be found here.