MSt in Practical Ethics

The MSt offers high-quality training in practical ethics, drawing on the internationally recognised expertise of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, the Ethox Centre and the Faculty of Philosophy.

Applications for entry to the MSt in 2022-23 are currently closed. Entry for 2023-24 will open in Autumn this year, and will be available here.

Applications for the modules as standalone courses are still available.

This flexible, part -time course consists of six modules and a dissertation. The MSt in Practical Ethics is a part-time course consisting of six taught modules and a dissertation. Modules may also be taken as standalone courses. Continue reading

Cross Post: Tech firms are making computer chips with human cells – is it ethical?

Written by Julian Savulescu, Chris Gyngell, Tsutomu Sawai
Cross-posted with The Conversation


Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford; Christopher Gyngell, The University of Melbourne, and Tsutomu Sawai, Hiroshima University

The year is 2030 and we are at the world’s largest tech conference, CES in Las Vegas. A crowd is gathered to watch a big tech company unveil its new smartphone. The CEO comes to the stage and announces the Nyooro, containing the most powerful processor ever seen in a phone. The Nyooro can perform an astonishing quintillion operations per second, which is a thousand times faster than smartphone models in 2020. It is also ten times more energy-efficient with a battery that lasts for ten days.

A journalist asks: “What technological advance allowed such huge performance gains?” The chief executive replies: “We created a new biological chip using lab-grown human neurons. These biological chips are better than silicon chips because they can change their internal structure, adapting to a user’s usage pattern and leading to huge gains in efficiency.”

Another journalist asks: “Aren’t there ethical concerns about computers that use human brain matter?”

Although the name and scenario are fictional, this is a question we have to confront now. In December 2021, Melbourne-based Cortical Labs grew groups of neurons (brain cells) that were incorporated into a computer chip. The resulting hybrid chip works because both brains and neurons share a common language: electricity.

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Returning To Personhood: On The Ethical Significance Of Paradoxical Lucidity In Late-Stage Dementia

By David M Lyreskog

About Dementia

Dementia is a class of medical conditions which typically impair our cognitive abilities and significantly alter our emotional and personal lives. The absolute majority of dementia cases – approximately 70% – are caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Other causes include cardiovascular conditions, Lewy body disease, and Parkinson’s disease. In the UK alone, it is estimated that over 1 million people are currently living with dementia, and that care costs amount to approximately £38 billion a year. Globally, it is estimated that over 55 million people live with dementia in some form, with an expected 10 million increase per year, and the cost of care exceeds £1 trillion. As such, dementia is widely regarded as one of the main medical challenges of our time, along with cancer, and infectious diseases. As a response to this, large amounts of money have been put towards finding solutions over decades. The UK government alone spends over £75 million per year on the search for improved diagnostics, effective treatments, and cures. Yet, dementia remains a terrible enigma, and continues to elude our grasp.

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The Right To Tweet

By Doug McConnell

On January 6th, 2021 Trump was locked out his Twitter account for 12 hours after describing the people who stormed the US Capitol as “patriots”. A few days later, his account was permanently suspended after further tweets that Twitter judged to risk “further incitement of violence” given the socio-political context at the time. Elon Musk has recently claimed that, if his deal goes through to take control of Twitter, he would reverse the decision to ban Trump because it was “morally bad and foolish in the extreme”.

Here, I argue that the original suspension of Trump’s account was justified but not its permanence. So I agree with Musk, in part. I suggest a modified system of suspension to deal with rule breakers according to which Trump’s access should be reinstated. Continue reading

Abortion, Democracy, and Erring on the Side of Freedom

by Alberto Giubilini

(crosspost: this article appeared with a different title in iaiNews)

The leaked draft opinion by Supreme Court Justice’ Samuel Alito foreshadows the overturn of the 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling. Roe vs Wade grounded women’s (limited) right to abortion in the US in the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution and its implied right to privacy. Acknowledging the pervasive disagreement over the morality of abortion, the Supreme Court has now decided to “return the power to weigh those arguments to the people and their elected representatives”.

In this way, the Supreme Court is in fact democratizing the legal availability abortion. Which raises the ethical question about whether the legal availability of abortion should be a matter of democratic procedure, as opposed to a constitutional matter around fundamental rights. I side with the latter view. I do not think a decision over women’s right to abortion should be a matter of democratic procedure such as a State election or a referendum. And I am going to provide reasons for why I think people on either side of the abortion debate can share my view, assuming they accept some fundamental tenets of liberal democracy.

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Hang Onto Your Soul

By Charles Foster


I can’t avoid Steven Pinker at the moment. He seems to be on every page I read. I hear him all the time, insisting that I’m cosmically insignificant; that my delusional thoughts, my loves, my aspirations, and the B Minor Mass’s effect on me are merely chemical events. I used to have stuck up above my desk (on the principle that you should know your enemy), his declaration (as stridently irrational as the sermon of a Kentucky Young Earth Creationist): ‘A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution – perhaps its greatest breakthrough – was to refute the intuition that the Universe is saturated with purpose.’ 1

He tells me that everything is getting better. Has been getting better since the first eruption of humans into the world.2 That there’s demonstrable progress (towards what, one might ask, if the universe has no purpose? – but I’ll leave that for the moment). That there’s less violence; there are fewer mutilated bodies per capita. He celebrates his enlightenment by mocking my atavism: he notes that the Enlightenment came after the Upper Palaeolithic, and (for the law of progress admits no exceptions) concludes that that means that our Enlightenment age is better than what went before. Continue reading

Video Interview: Is Vaccine Nationalism Justified?

High income countries have been criticised for hoarding covid-19 vaccines: they have been accused of ‘vaccine nationalism’. But what exactly is vaccine nationalism? Is it really wrong to prioritise one’s own citizens, and, if so, why? How can we do better when the next pandemic strikes? In this Thinking Out Loud interview, philosopher Dr Jonathan Pugh (Oxford) discusses these questions with Dr Katrien Devolder (philosopher, and producer of the Thinking Out Loud interview series).

2022 Uehiro Lectures : Ethics and AI, Peter Railton. In Person and Hybrid

Ethics and Artificial Intelligence
Professor Peter Railton, University of Michigan

May 9, 16, and 23 (In person and hybrid. booking links below)

Abstract: Recent, dramatic advancement in the capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) raise a host of ethical questions about the development and deployment of AI systems.  Some of these are questions long recognized as of fundamental moral concern, and which may occur in particularly acute forms with AI—matters of distributive justice, discrimination, social control, political manipulation, the conduct of warfare, personal privacy, and the concentration of economic power.  Other questions, however, concern issues that are more specific to the distinctive kind of technological change AI represents.  For example, how to contend with the possibility that artificial agents might emerge with capabilities that go beyond human comprehension or control?  But whether or when the threat of such “superintelligence” becomes realistic, we are now facing a situation in which partially-intelligent AI systems are increasingly being deployed in roles that involve relatively autonomous decision-making that carries real risk of harm.  This urgently raises the question of how such partially-intelligent systems could become appropriately sensitive to moral considerations.

In these lectures I will attempt to take some first steps in answering that question, which often is put in terms of “programming ethics into AI”.  However, we don’t have an “ethical algorithm” that could be programmed into AI systems, and that would enable them to respond aptly to an open-ended array of situations where moral issues are stake.  Moreover, the current revolution in AI has provided ample evidence that system designs based upon the learning of complex representational structures and generative capacities have acquired higher levels of competence, situational sensitivity, and creativity in problem-solving than systems based upon pre-programmed expertise.  Might a learning-based approach to AI be extended to the competence needed to identify and respond appropriately to moral dimensions of situations?

I will begin by outlining a framework for understanding what “moral learning” might be, seeking compatibility with a range of conceptions of the normative content of morality.  I then will draw upon research on human cognitive and social development—research that itself is undergoing a “learning revolution”—to suggest how this research enables us to see at work components central to moral learning, and to ask what conditions are favorable to the development and working of these components.  The question then becomes whether artificial systems might be capable of similar cognitive and social development, and what conditions would be favorable to this.  Might the same learning-based approaches that have achieved such success in strategic game-playing, image identification and generation, and language recognition and translation also achieve success in cooperative game-playing, identifying moral issues in situations, and communicating and collaborating effectively on apt responses?  How far might such learning go, and what could this tell us about how we might engage with AI systems to foster their moral development, and perhaps ours as well?

Bio: Peter Railton is the Kavka Distinguished University Professor and Perrin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan.  His research has included ethics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and political philosophy, and recently he has been engaged in joint projects with researchers in psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience.  Among his writings are Facts, Values, and Norms (Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Homo Prospectus (joint with Martin Seligman, Roy Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada, Oxford University Press, 2016).  He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters, has served as President of the American Philosophical Society (Central Division), and has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  He has been a visiting faculty member at Princeton and UC-Berkeley, and in the UK has given the John Locke Lectures while a visiting fellow at All Souls, Oxford.


Lecture 1.

Date: Monday 9 May 2022, 5.00 – 7.00 pm, followed by a drinks reception (for all)
Venue: Mathematical Institute (LT1), Andrew Wiles Building, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6GG.

In person:

Lecture 2.

Date: Monday 16 May 2022, 5.00 – 7.00 pm. Jointly organised with Oxford’s Moral Philosophy Seminars
Venue: Mathematical Institute (LT1), Andrew Wiles Building, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6GG.

In person:

 Lecture 3.

Date: Monday 23 May 2022, 5.00 – 7.00 pm
Venue: Mathematical Institute (LT1), Andrew Wiles Building, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6GG.

In person:

Guest Post: The Ethics of Wimbledon’s Ban on Russian players

Daniel Sokol is a barrister and ethicist in London, UK @DanielSokol9

The decision of the All England Club and the Lawn Tennis Association to ban all Russian and Belarusian players from this year’s Wimbledon and other UK tennis events is unethical, argues Daniel Sokol

Whatever its lawfulness, the decision of the All England Club and LTA to ban players on the sole basis of nationality is morally wrong. In fact, few deny that the decision is unfair to those affected players, whose only fault is to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Chairman of the All England Club himself, Ian Hewitt, acknowledged that the banned players ‘will suffer for the actions of the leaders of the Russian regime.’ They are, therefore, collateral damage in the cultural war against Russia. The same is true of the many Russian and Belarusian athletes, musicians and other artists who have been banned from performing in events around the world, affecting their incomes, reputation and no doubt their dignity.

Aside from the unfairness to the individuals concerned, the decision contributes to the stigmatisation of Russians and Belarusians. These individuals risk becoming tainted by association, like the citizens of Japanese descent after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 who were treated appallingly by the US government. As a society, we must be on the lookout for signs of this unpleasant tendency, particularly in times of war, to demonise others by association. The All England Club and LTA’s decision is one such sign and sets a worrying precedent for other organisations to adopt the same discriminatory stance.

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AI and the Transition Paradox

by Aksel Braanen Sterri

The most important development in human history will take place not too far in the future. Artificial intelligence, or AI for short, will become better (and cheaper) than humans at most tasks. This will generate enormous wealth that can be used to fill human needs.

However, since most humans will not be able to compete with AI, there will be little demand for ordinary people’s labour-power. The immediate effect of a world without work is that people will lose their primary source of income and whatever meaning, mastery, sense of belonging and status they get from their work. Our collective challenge is to find meaning and other ways to reliably get what we need in this new world.

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Rethinking ‘Higher’ and ‘Lower’ Pleasures

by Ben Davies

One of John Stuart Mill’s most well-known claims concerns the distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Higher pleasures—which are, roughly, ‘mental’ pleasures—are, says Mill, always preferable to lower pleasures—the pleasures of the body.

In Mill’s rendering, competent judges—those who have experience of both higher and lower pleasures—will choose a higher pleasure over a lower pleasure “even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent” and “would not resign it for any quantity of the other [lower] pleasure which their nature is capable of”.

There are two ways we might interpret this claim:

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