MSt in Practical Ethics: Applications Open

We are delighted to announce that applications are open for the new MSt in Practical Ethics, taught by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. This flexible, part -time course consists of six modules and a dissertation. Modules may be taken as

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

The Disunity of Utilitarian Psychology: Runaway Trolleys vs. Distant Strangers

Guy Kahane**, Jim A.C. Everett**,

Brian D. Earp, Lucius Caviola, Nadira Faber, Molly Crockett,

and Julian Savulescu

Last week, we invited people to find out “How Utilitarian Are You?” by filling out our newly published Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. The scale was widely shared – even by Peter Singer (who scored predictably highly). The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale does a pretty good job of measuring how well people’s views match up with “classical” utilitarians (think Bentham and Singer), which is the form of utilitarianism we used to anchor the scale. But that’s not all it does. It also teases apart two different dimensions of utilitarian thinking, tracking two ways in which utilitarianism departs from common-sense morality. Our new research recently published in Psychological Review links these two factors to distinct components of human psychology.

The first peculiar aspect of utilitarianism is that it places no constraints whatsoever on the maximization of aggregate well-being. If torturing an innocent person would lead to more good overall, then utilitarianism, in contrast to commonsense morality, requires that the person be tortured. This is what we call instrumental harm: the idea that we are permitted (and even required) to instrumentally use, severely harm, or even kill innocent people to promote the greater good.

The second way that utilitarianism diverges from common-sense morality is by requiring us to impartially maximize the well-being of all sentient beings on the planet in such a way that “[e]ach is to count for one and none for more than one” (Bentham, 1789/1983), not privileging compatriots, family members, or ourselves over strangers – or even enemies. This can be called the positive dimension of utilitarianism, or impartial beneficence.

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How Utilitarian Are You? Measure on The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale

Blog Authors: Julian Savulescu, Brian D. Earp, Jim A.C. Everett, Nadira Faber, and Guy Kahane

This blog reports on the paper, Kahane G, Everett J, Earp BD, Caviola L,  Faber N, Crockett MJ, Savulescu J, Beyond Sacrificial Harm: A Two Dimensional Model of Utilitarian Decision-Making, Psychological Review [open access]

How Utilitarian are you? Answer these 9 questions to find out…

Utilitarianism is one of the oldest and most influential theories about what the right thing to do is. It says that the right act is the one which has the best consequences. In the first formulation by Jeremy Bentham, hedonistic utilitarianism, the right act is the one which maximises happiness and minimises suffering. Richard Hare and Peter Singer made preference utilitarianism famous: the right act is the one which maximises satisfaction of preferences.

Utilitarianism was a novel egalitarian theory when it was developed in the 1700s. It was a radical departure from authoritarian, aristocratic or otherwise hierarchical ways of thinking, positing that each person’s happiness and suffering was to count the same. In stark contrast to the social norms of the day, utilitarianism held that the happiness of the pauper is just as important as the happiness of the Prince or the Pope.

Utilitarianism has fallen into disrepute. It is now equated with Machiavellianism: the end justifies the means, whatever those ends may be. It is also seen as coldly calculating, or else simplistically pragmatic. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described it as a morality appropriate for shop keepers. Recently it has even been portrayed a doctrine for psychopaths. Pope Paul II put it succinctly in 1995:

“Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of ‘things’ and not of ‘persons,’ a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used.”

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How Utilitarian Are You? The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale

Answer these 9 questions to see where you fall on the Utilitarian Scale. Scores are for your own interest and will not be used for research purposes. For each question, indicate how much you agree or disagree with the statements below.

The scale is drawn from the paper, Kahane G, Everett J, Earp BD, Caviola L,  Faber N, Crockett MJ,Savulescu J, Beyond Sacrificial Harm: A Two Dimensional Model of Utilitarian Decision-Making, Psychological Review [Open Access]

Partiality, Ethical Theory, and Christmas

                                                                                                                                                                                  Written by Roger Crisp

Over recent decades, a lively debate has arisen in ethical theory over whether so-called ‘impartial’ views, such as utilitarianism, are inconsistent with the view that we have reasons, or even moral obligations, of partiality. Consider someone converted to utilitarianism who decided against a life-saving operation for their own child because the money could do more good if used to help strangers.

The standard utilitarian response has been that relationships involving partiality – relationships of love, friendship, and so on – not only produce a lot of good or well-being for those involved, but also, because of the kind of beings we are, motivate us to help others when otherwise we wouldn’t. This seems a reasonable defence, at least to some extent, though the question remains just how partial we should be.

Consider Christmas. Deloitte estimate that in 2016 US citizens spent $1 trillion during the Christmas period, much of which will have been on gifts and hospitality for family, friends, and colleagues. If we accept Jeffrey Sachs’s  claim that to end extreme world poverty in twenty years would cost around $175 billion p.a. (The End of Poverty: How We Can Make it Happen in our Lifetime (New York: Penguin, 2005)), then it seems that Americans would need to channel less than one fifth of their current spending over Christmas into overseas development to bring to an end the terrible injustice and suffering caused by extreme world poverty. And of course if the rest of us in the developed world did the same, the amount required from each of us would be even smaller.

There is still a difference between utilitarians and those who believe in non-derivative obligations of partiality, of course. Utilitarians think I should look after my children because the world will go better if I do; partialists believe I just should. But, given the current state of the world, relatively little of practical importance hangs on this debate. No plausible version of partialism could allow the huge disparities that exist between the amount spent in the developed world within partial relationships and that spent on alleviating suffering and injustice in the world as a whole. That is something all of us, whether impartialist or partialist, might do well to remember when Christmas comes round again.

Cross Post: Think Twice Before Sending Facebook Your Nude Photos: The Shadow Brokers’ Disclosures Prove Privacy and Security Are Not a Zero-Sum Game

 

Written by Dr Carissa Veliz

This article first appeared in El Pais

 

Time and again, we have been sold the story that we need to give up privacy in exchange for security. According to former NSA security consultant Ed Giorgio, ‘Privacy and security are a zero-sum game’—meaning that for every increase in one, there is a decrease in the other. The go-to argument to justify mass surveillance, then, is that sacrificing our privacy is necessary for government agencies to be able to protect us from the bad guys. Continue reading

New Year’s Reflection

written by Neil Levy

It’s the time of year at which many of us take stock of how our lives are going. It is more or less arbitrary where we mark the end of the year, but because the convention is shared, our lives have a rhythm that is marked by the calendar, and the length of the year makes it a good unit for assessing some aspects of our life. We might ask whether we stuck to the resolutions made 12 months earlier. We might ask more general questions about how our life is going: have we been good parents or partners? Have we pursued worthwhile goals? Have the steps we have taken toward those goals between well-designed?

The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates is famously reputed to have said. More recently, Mill echoed Socrates, arguing that it was better to live a life of self-reflection and be unsatisfied than be a pig who did not reflect but was happy. The idea that we can and should reflect on our lives and their trajectories remains deeply attractive to us and finds expression in psychotherapy and self-help books, as well as the annual ritual of taking stock. Continue reading

Bigotry and the Academic Abortion Debate

By Alberto Giubilini
Oxford Martin School and Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanitites, University of Oxford

Last month I was invited by Oxford’s Students for Life (OSFL), the pro-life student organisation at the University of Oxford, to take part in a public debate where I was asked to argue against their motion that “Conscientious objection in healthcare, concerning beginning and end of life issues, benefits society as a whole.” Having worked on conscientious objection in healthcare (e.g., doctors not being willing to perform abortions for personal moral or religious reasons) in the past, I thought (and still think) I had some very strong arguments against conscientious objection in healthcare in general, and conscientious objection by religious doctors in particular. I was very keen on challenging the pro-life position on this topic. I therefore accepted the invitation, although I was a bit surprised by it, given that OSFL were presumably aware of my positions on topics that for the pro-life are very sensitive, such as the ethics of abortion or of infanticide.

But I was curious to see and test to what extent the pro-life community was really committed to freedom of speech and would allow me to defend my views, so diametrically opposite to theirs. During the event, I therefore tried to push my arguments to their most extreme conclusions and to be as provocative as possible; for example, at some point I suggested that an unwanted pregnancy is comparable to a disease and that therefore doctors have a duty to medically treat it by performing an abortion. I have to say I saw many people in the audience jolt in their chairs, which I did expect. Nonetheless, after my talk there was a very civil and calm discussion: the pro-life defenders debated my arguments, allowed me to reply, and thanked me at the end of the debate for my participation and what they considered challenging views.

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Video Series: Larry S. Temkin on Peter Singer, Effective Altruism and Our Obligations to the Needy

What does Peter Singer’s famous ‘pond example’ tell us about our obligations to the world’s needy? Is rescuing a child drowning in a shallow pond really the same as donating money to effective aid organisations? Is it okay to spend large amounts of money on ‘dramatic rescues’ (e.g. after an earthquake, to find perhaps one more person alive…)? Does donating money to poor countries with corrupt regimes do more harm than good? Is the approach of Effective Altruism too narrow? In this interview with Katrien Devolder, Professor Larry S. Temkin (Rutgers) casts serious doubts on views that have been widely accepted for decades.

Video Series: Is AI Racist? Can We Trust it? Interview with Prof. Colin Gavaghan

Should self-driving cars be programmed in a way that always protects ‘the driver’? Who is responsible if an AI makes a mistake? Will AI used in policing be less racially biased than police officers? Should a human being always take the final decision? Will we become too reliant on AIs and lose important skills? Many interesting questions answered in this video interview with Dr Katrien Devolder.

Guest Post: The Real Problem With Human Head Transplantation

Written by Michael S. Dauber, MA

In 2015, Sergio Canavero announced that he would perform a therapeutic head transplant procedure on a human subject by December 2017. Since then, he has recruited the assistance of surgeon Xiaoping Ren and switched from Valery Spiridonov to an anonymous Chinese patient whose medical condition remains undisclosed. The procedure, which consists of removing the patient’s head and attaching it to a decapitated donor body, is expected to be carried out in China, will cost tens of millions of dollars, and will require dozens of surgeons. The procedure returned to international attention this week when Canavero announced he had successfully performed the procedure on a human cadaver, and said that the announcement of an official procedure date was “immanent.” Continue reading

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