MSt in Practical Ethics

Applications are now open for September 2020 entry to the MSt in Practical Ethics, taught by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

12:00 midday UK time on:

Friday 24 January 2020
Latest deadline for most Oxford scholarships

Tuesday 3 March 2020
Final application deadline for entry in 2020-21

Applications for the modules as standalone courses are also 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

The Psychology of Existential Risk: Moral Judgments about Human Extinction

Written by Stefan Schubert

This blog post reports on: Schubert, S.**, Caviola, L.**, Faber, N. The Psychology of Existential Risk: Moral Judgments about Human Extinction. Scientific Reports. [Open Access]

Humanity’s ever-increasing technological powers can, if handled well, greatly improve life on Earth. But if they’re not handled well, they may instead cause our ultimate demise: human extinction. Recent years have seen an increased focus on the threat that emerging technologies such as advanced artificial intelligence could pose to humanity’s continued survival (see, e.g., Bostrom, 2014; Ord, forthcoming). A common view among these researchers is that human extinction would be much worse, morally speaking, than almost-as-severe catastrophes from which we could recover. Since humanity’s future could be very long and very good, it’s an imperative that we survive, on this view. Continue reading

Elizabeth Anderson’s Uehiro Lectures: Lecture 3 – Communicating Moral Concern Beyond Blaming and Shaming

In Elizabeth Anderson’s final Uehiro lecture, she tackles what she takes to be the hardest problem facing our current political discourse – How can we overcome obstacles to communicating moral concerns in order to orient policy to important values (such as public health and justice)? This is a particularly difficult and intractable problem because it concerns our moral values; in overcoming this obstacle, there is thus a considerable degree of scope for disagreement, and judgments of the moral character of others based on their moral opinions. Over the course of the lecture, Anderson refines the diagnosis of this problem, and once again expresses optimism about overcoming the obstacles she highlights. This time she outlines how we might disarm the fear, resentment, pride, and contempt that is currently derailing our political discourse, and the virtues that we must develop to do so. You can find a recording of the lecture here.

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Prof. Elizabeth Anderson’s Uehiro Lectures: Lecture 2 Summary – “Improving Political Discourse (1): Re-learning how to talk about facts across group identities”

Prof. Elizabeth Anderson’s second Uehiro lecture focuses on how we can overcome obstacles to fact-based political discourse. In particular, the lecture concerns how we might prevent identity-expressive discourse (a term introduced in the first lecture; see summary of lecture 1 below) from displacing the discussion of facts and evidence in public discourse, and how we might overcome the shameless lying and disinformation campaigns of populist populations. Over the course of the lecture, Anderson illustrates her analysis with illuminating cases studies, and finishes by providing her own solutions to the problem at hand, drawing on Cultural Cognition theory, John Dewey’s cultural conception of democracy, and emerging data from deliberative polling studies. You can find a recording of the lecture here

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Elizabeth Anderson’s Uehiro Lecture Summary: “Can We Talk – Communicating Moral Concern In An Era of Polarized Politics” – Lecture 1: What Has Gone Wrong?

It is something of an understatement to suggest that we are living through turbulent times. Society today is characterised not just by deep divisions about how to address key social challenges of our time, but also on the emphasis that should be placed on evidence-based discussion of these issues, and the moral values that should guide national policies.

In this context, Elizabeth Anderson’s Uehiro lecture series, entitled ““Can We Talk – Communicating Moral Concern In An Era of Polarized Politics” could not be more timely. In the first of this three lecture series, Anderson offers a diagnosis of the problems that currently bedevil political discourse across the world. This first lecture sets the stage for the following two lectures in which she shall offer her own proposed solutions to the problems that she so vividly describes and analyses in this fascinating initial lecture. The remainder of this post shall briefly summarise the key points of the lecture – You can find a recording of the lecture here

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A Sad Victory

I recently watched the documentary AlphaGo, directed by Greg Kohs. The film tells the story of the refinement of AlphaGo—a computer Go program built by DeepMind—and tracks the match between AlphaGo and 18-time world champion in Go Lee Sedol.

Go is an ancient Chinese board game. It was considered one of the four essential arts of aristocratic Chinese scholars. The goal is to end the game having captured more territory than your opponent. What makes Go a particularly interesting game for AI to master is, first, its complexity. Compared to chess, Go has a larger board, and many more alternatives to consider per move. The number of possible moves in a given position is about 20 in chess; in Go, it’s about 200. The number of possible configurations of the board is more than the number of atoms in the universe. Second, Go is a game in which intuition is believed to play a big role. When professionals get asked why they played a particular move, they will often respond something to the effect that ‘it felt right’. It is this intuitive quality why Go is sometimes considered an art, and Go players artists. For a computer program to beat human Go players, then, it would have to mimic human intuition (or, more precisely, mimic the results of human intuition).

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An Ambitious Vision for Bioethics – Some Reflections on Professor Jing-Bao Nie’s St Cross Seminar

Written by Ben Davies

Many readers of the Practical Ethics blog will remember the astounding announcement last November by Chinese researcher He Jiankui that he had used CRISPR-cas9 technology to edit into two healthy embryos a resistance to developing HIV, later resulting in the birth of twins Lulu and Nana. As Professor Julian Savulescu expressed in several posts on this blog, the announcement spurred widespread ethical condemnation.

The first in this year’s series of St Cross Special Ethics seminars saw the University of Otago’s Professor Jing-Bao Nie (who is also currently a 2019/20 Fellow of Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study) get behind the headlines to consider the political and social context of He’s experiment. At the core of Professor Nie’s presentation was that the decision to engage in genetic editing of healthy embryos could neither be written off as the act of a ‘rogue researcher’, nor dismissed as merely the product of a uniquely Chinese disregard for ethics, as some have argued.

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Diet, Changing Desires, and Dementia

Written by Ben Davies

Last week saw the launch of a campaign (run by the group Vegetarian For Life) that seeks to ensure that older people in care who have ethical commitments to a particular diet are not given food that violates those commitments. This is, as the campaign makes clear, a particularly pressing issue for those who have some form of dementia who may not be capable of expressing their commitment.

Those behind the campaign are quite right to note that people’s ethical beliefs should not be ignored simply because they are in care, or have a cognitive impairment (see a Twitter thread where I discuss this with a backer of the campaign). But the idea that one’s dietary ethics must be ‘for life’ got me thinking about a more well-established debate about Advance Directives. (I should stress that what I say here should not be taken to be imputing any particular motivation or philosophical commitments to those behind the campaign itself.)

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Tafida Raqeeb and Charlie’s Law

by Dominic Wilkinson

Disputes between parents and doctors are back in the media. This morning, in the case of Tafida Raqeeb, the court concluded that her parents should be allowed to take her to Italy for continuing intensive care.

In Tafida’s case, the court found in favour of her parents and against the doctors treating her. That might help address concerns in the minds of some that the courts are biased against parents, and in favour of health professionals.

However, some may still be concerned that the UK legal approach to disagreements is the wrong one. Of relevance, in the next couple of weeks, a Labour politician is planning to put forward a law to the Commons – the Children (Access to Treatment) Bill, otherwise known as ‘Charlie’s law’. (See this separate guest post for a press release from Bambos Charalambous, MP). Continue reading

Press Release: Tafida Raqeeb: Right Outcome, Wrong Reasons

Written by Professor Julian Savulescu

Dominic Wilkinson describes well the decision to allow a severely brain damaged girl, Tafida Raqeeb, to travel to Italy to continue to be kept alive with artificial ventilation.

This is the right outcome. It appears as if Tafida is insensate or unconscious. If Tafida is vegetative, continuing treatment won’t cause suffering. So it is not harmful for her to be transferred to Italy at her parent’s request. (It would also be permissible to discontinue medical treatment.)

There is some chance she might experience something, in other words that she is minimally conscious. If she is minimally conscious, doctors would have to show she is unrelievably suffering in order to discontinue treatment in her interests. That has not been demonstrated in this case.

Medicine is provided to patients in their best interests. It is not clear, at least to me, whether it is against Tafida’s interests to continue to be kept alive. Italian experts cite a number of reasons to continue to keep Tafida alive, not least to clarify prognosis and to allow parents to come to terms with the situation.

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Guest Post: Introducing Charlie’s Law, Bambos Charalambous MP (Labour, Enfield Southgate)

Bambos Charalambous MP (Labour, Enfield Southgate)

The tragic case of Charlie Gard, who sadly died in 2017 following a serious and protracted illness, attracted significant global attention because of the harrowing dilemmas that it highlighted.
Charlie’s story, was fraught with high tensions and unfurled very much in the public eye as a result of the constant media coverage, highlighted the inadequacy of current processes to prevent prolonged and distressing legal conflicts between the parents of seriously ill children and those responsible for their medical care.

Since Charlie’s death Charlie’s parents Connie Yates and Chris Gard have campaigned with dignity and determination to improve the situation for everyone involved: parents, healthcare professionals, hospitals, and the NHS more broadly; recognising that everyone wants the same thing: to maximise the life chances and general welfare of children suffering from serious illnesses and to reduce any stress on their parents who may be coming to terms with the potential death of their child. Continue reading


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