Terminal Illness and The Right Not to Know

The parents of a young woman named Vickie Harvey, who tragically died at the age of 24 from acute myeloid leukaemia, have launched a campaign to give patients the right not to know that they are terminally ill.  Eric and Lyn Harvey claim that their daughter lost the will to live when, after her leukaemia returned following a period of remission, doctors told her ‘in graphic detail’ how she would now succumb to her disease. Eric Harvey told the Daily Mail:

After [Vickie was about her prognosis] she changed – and never really got out of bed again. We knew she was dying, but we feel that, if she hadn’t been told that day, she would have lasted longer’. Continue reading

Crowd homebuying (or: How to own a home with no savings and no mortgage)

by Rebecca Roache

Follow Rebecca on Twitter here

I originally posted this on my own blog. It’s not the usual sort of post I write for Practical Ethics, in that it’s not going to involve any ethical debate. But neither is it an ethically irrelevant topic, since I’m hoping that what I describe could help make life better for many people. I hope you’ll let me know what you think.

 

People rent rather than buy their homes for various reasons. Renting is more convenient and flexible than buying, since it’s easier to become a tenant than an owner, and easier to move on from a rented property than from one that you own. But a major reason that many people rent rather than buy is because they have no choice: they cannot afford to buy.

I want to challenge this view. I will argue that it is only because of the way in which our current system of buying and selling property works that many people cannot easily invest in property. This system is outdated. Overhauling it would make owning property easier for people not currently on the property ladder and more profitable for current homeowners. It would also give homeowners the flexibility and convenience currently enjoyed by renters, and it would give renters the security and investment opportunity currently enjoyed by owners. Further, overhauling the current system need not be complicated at all: it can be done by implementing tried-and-tested practices that are already used for other purposes.

A disclaimer before I start: I am a philosopher, not an expert on the property market. Reading about financial matters sends me to sleep. Whilst, as a reluctant tenant, I have given this matter a great deal of thought, these ideas are going to be half-baked. I know this already, so you don’t need to leave a comment to point it out. If you know more about how this could work than I do, please help educate me and help develop this idea by sharing your expertise in a comment. I may update this post to reflect improvements suggested by commenters.

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The No harm principle, an ethical principle for economic policy advisors?

In a recent article in the New York Times, Harvard economics professor Gregory Mankiw points out that economic policy advice always relies on political-philosophical standpoints and, inspired by medical ethics, suggests that economists that give policy advice should apply the No harm principle rather than promote policy based on uncertain predictions and political-philosophical convictions. By applying his interpretation of this principle, he claims that economists should not endorse either the Affordable care act, or higher minimum wage because these are in fact policies that cause harm.

It is refreshing with an economist who recognises that there is no such thing as purely scientific, value-free economic policy advice, and it is interesting to consider whether ethical principles can be introduced to deal with biases inherent to policy advice and with uncertainties innate to economic predictions. However, Mankiw’s proposal is as biased as the policy advice he addresses, and his proposed version of the No harm principle is at best a poor re-articulation of his own ideological convictions. Continue reading

Being a Good Person by Deceit?

By Nadira Faulmüller & Lucius Caviola

Recently, Peter Singer, Paul Bloom and Dan Ariely were discussing topics surrounding the psychology of morality. Peter was emphasizing the importance of helping people in need by donating money to poverty fighting charities. That’s easier said than done. Humans don’t seem to have a strong innate desire of helping distant strangers. So the question arises of how we can motivate people to donate considerable amounts to charity. Peter suggested that respective social norms could be established: in order to make people more moral their behaviour needs to be observable by others, as Dan pointed out, only then they will be motivated to help strangers on the other side of the world. Is this true? – do people only behave prosocially because they feel socially pressured into doing so?

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Conference: Experiments and Ethics, Oxford

On June 6th and 7th, 2014 the Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme in the Humanities will host “Experiments and Ethics,” an interdisciplinary conference at the University of Oxford. The conference aims to foster dialogue and explore connections among various empirical and theoretical approaches to ethics. Practical Ethics speakers include Guy Kahane, Janet Radcliffe Richards, and Regina Rini. There will also be speakers from Anthropology, Cognitive Science, Economics, Psychology, Neuroscience, and Religion.

Conference Programme

Conference registration

Living near a busy road can kill you

Early April saw some unusually smoggy days across much of Western Europe, resulting in widespread media attention to air pollution.
(See, for example, here, here and here.) On one day, air quality in some parts of London was worse than in Beijing. Further attention has been drawn to the issue by a number of recent official reports, including one from the World Health Organisation, which has declared that air pollution is now the world’s biggest single environmental threat to health.

As has been noted, media coverage can give a misleading picture of the health risks of air pollution. Coverage tends to focus on short-term peaks, such as those seen recently in Western Europe, but the health risks of air pollution are primarily related to long term exposure, and show no ’safe threshold’ effect. Elevated baseline levels of pollution are thus more of a problem than occasional peaks.

There’s another important aspect of air pollution that often goes unnoticed; small geographical differences can have a marked effect on exposure to air pollution and thus on risk of adverse health effects. For example, living near a busy road appears to substantially increase air pollution-related mortality. A study published last year in the Lancet (press summary here) investigated the effects of very local differences in air quality on mortality by pooling 22 European cohort studies. The investigators found that an increase in average annual fine particulate (PM2.5) exposure of 5 µg/m3 was associated with a 7% increase in the risk of dying from all natural causes. This is approximately the difference between living on a busy urban road and living in a traffic-free area. The finding was robust in the face of correction for various possible confounding factors. Continue reading

Academia, philosophy, and ‘race’

It was recently brought to public attention that of the UK’s 18,510 university professors, only 85 are of black origin (Black African/Black Caribbean/Black ‘other’), a soberingly disproportionate figure. Some people may want to explain this incongruence by saying that it is proportionate, or makes sense, when you consider the amount of black people entering and remaining within higher education. However, rather than the problem being solved with this explanation, it re-emerges in questions surrounding the reasons as to why this may be the case. If there are a disproportionately low number of black students entering (and remaining in) higher education, this itself needs to be questioned, with discussions had on financial situations, state education, implicit biases, and other social and economic barriers that may be disproportionately affecting certain sections of the population. In this blog post I will explore these factors, as well as suggesting that discussions on ‘intelligence’ genes within bioethics may serve to perpetuate a hostile and exclusionary environment.

The situation for black academics appears to be more acute in academic philosophy. There are only 5 black philosophers employed in UK universities, with just two of these being employed in philosophy departments (both at UCL), and the other 3 in classics, humanities and ‘theology, philosophy and religious studies’ departments. Philosophy is also notorious for its lack of female representation. Statistics show the number of women gradually reducing at each stage of academia – although 46% of philosophy undergraduates are female, this drops to 31% of philosophy PhD students, and is at its lowest with only 24% of full time staff being women.

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Call for Registration – GOOD DONE RIGHT: a Conference on Effective Altruism

7-9 July 2014, All Souls College, Oxford

Speakers include: Derek Parfit (Oxford), Thomas Pogge (Yale), Rachel Glennerster (MIT Poverty Action Lab), Nick Bostrom (Oxford), Norman Daniels (Harvard), Toby Ord (Oxford), William MacAskill (Cambridge), Jeremy Lauer (WHO), Larissa MacFarquhar (the New Yorker), Nick Beckstead (Oxford), Owen Cotton-Barratt (Oxford).

For further information and registration, please visit www.gooddoneright.com.

Effective altruism is a growing intellectual movement at the intersection of academia and the public world. It seeks to use insights from ethical theory, economics, and related disciplines to identify the best means to secure and promote the most important values, and to advocate for their adoption. To this end, philosophers at Oxford have established the Centre for Effective Altruism, a charitable company with close ties to the University, comprising two organizations, Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours, the first of which focuses on effective giving, the second on ethical careers.

The aim of this conference is to bring together leading thinkers to address issues related to effective altruism in a shared setting. The speakers are drawn primarily from within moral philosophy, but will also include specialists in development and health economics. Key topics include: our obligations as individuals and citizens in a highly unequal world; the moral importance of cost-effectiveness considerations in aid; the measurement, aggregation, and comparison of benefits; the ethics of career choice; population ethics; and existential risk.There will also be a conference dinner on the 8th in the Hall of All Souls; please do consider signing up.

Cricket and mental illness

There is a lively debate in the philosophy of psychiatry over what makes a condition a disease. The debate is particularly heated with regard to addiction: it is a moral failing, a brain disease or something else altogether? People who hold that addiction is a brain disease often claim that their view is more humane, because it removes the stigma from a condition that is not the sufferer’s fault. Unfortunately matters are not so clear cut: there is some evidence that the disease model actually increases stigma, or at least makes mental illness seem more a fixed part of the person’s identity. Continue reading

Trouble Brewing? The Ethical Significance of Synthetic Yeast

Back in 2010, I blogged about Craig Venter’s creation of the first synthetic organism, Synthia, a bacteria.

Now, in 2014, the next step has been made by a team at John Hopkins University, the use of synthetic biology in yeast, which, whilst still a simple organism, has a similar cell structure to humans (and other more complex organisms): a nuclei, chromosomes and organelles. The engineered yeast has been reproduced to over 100 generations, passing on its new DNA.

The pace is breathtaking. Moore’s law describes a phenomenon in computing, where computer capacity (so far) doubles every two years. Kurzweil uses Moore’s law to predict the ‘singularity’: a state where humans no longer control, or even comprehend, the progress that technology continues to make.

It’s difficult to measure scientific progress in the same way as computer power, but it’s clear that leaps in progress are now measured in years, not decades. Yet still we wait until technology is upon us before we act.

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