Question your assumptions and don’t presume your opponents are stupid: zoo chief Jenny Gray on ethical leadership


Testing the logic behind your arguments can only strengthen them, argues the head of Zoos Victoria.

For some, ‘ethics’ may invoke memories of integrity training, or perhaps ancient philosophical texts.

But it can also serve as a very practical tool for leaders to ask themselves whether they’re making the right decisions.

“People who disagree with you are seldom stupid or uneducated,” says Zoos Victoria CEO Dr Jenny Gray.

“They just have different information, they have different premises, and they’re coming at this from a different angle. Sometimes when we break it down we can find a third way that has something much better in it.”

While morality asks “how should I treat others?”, ethics asks “how do I live a good life?”, she argues.

“Ethics for me is not just about beliefs. It’s about logical, rational or deductive arguments. It’s about laying out what are the facts and assumptions you’re using to get to the end.”

Arguments around animal welfare and zoos are a case in point, Gray recently told an IPAA Victoria Integrity and Ethical Leadership Program alumni event.

Jenny Gray
Jenny Gray

Gray is particularly well-placed to consider these questions — not only is she in charge of the state’s zoos, but wrote her PhD as an ethical defence of the modern zoo.

It’s commonly argued zoos are unethical because they keep animals in captivity, which invokes suffering.

But a case can be made that the experience of captivity in a modern zoo, free from predation and disease, is more pleasant than life in the wild, she argues.

Breaking down these arguments shows they are built on a couple of separate factors: the premise (that animals should not be made to suffer) and the facts (whether zoos invoke suffering). Determining which aspect is under debate helps clarify what issues need to be addressed.

In this case, determining whether zoos are ethical includes the empirical question of whether they create suffering. Gray’s PhD research thus involved estimating how much time animals in captivity experienced suffering versus pleasure. She found pleasure  outweighed suffering and pain by about 13 times, and that negative experiences were mostly to do with boredom, rather than anything more sinister.

But of course science and evidence can’t tell you everything.

“Ethics is where we’re often trying to answer big questions that sometimes you can’t prove with data. You need to be able to go back and break it down to be able to get there.”

It’s important to be aware of, and interrogate, the assumptions underlying your own positions.

Gray uses the example of what to do if you find a rat in your house — should it be killed, relocated, or left to its own devices? Is it different if the rat is a mother searching for food for its young? What if the animal in question is a kitten, or a tiger? What makes those animals different?

Asking these questions strengthens the conclusion, she argues.

“What are the premises I’m drawing on in making this decision? And are those premises actually defendable? Because if they’re not, I don’t have a good conclusion.

“I would suggest this is what we all need to get better at if we want to be ethical leaders. We need to get better at using good ethical arguments instead of emotional reactions.”

Gray offered four tips for those practicing ethical leadership:

  1. Clarify the basis for your arguments — consider the issue from more than one perspective.
  2. Build your own argument and test it over and over again.
  3. Secure evidence to support your premises.
  4. Understand the counter-arguments to your position.

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