The Ethics of Giving:  How Demanding?

How much of your money should you give to effective charities?  Donors are often made considerably happier by giving away substantial portions of their income to charity.  But if they continued giving more and more, there’d surely come a point at which they’d be trading off their own well-being for the sake of helping others.  This raises a general question:  how much of your own well-being are you morally required to sacrifice, for the sake of doing good for others?  I’m currently in Australia giving some talks on the ethics of giving (at the ANU and at CAPPE in Melbourne and Canberra), and have been thinking about this topic a bit more than usual.

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The discussion that the scientists in Nature and Science called for should remain in realism, not go on to superhumans

Just over a week ago, prominent scientists in Nature and Science called for a ban for DNA modification in human embryos. This is because the scientists presume that now it actually would be possible to alter the genome in a human embryo in order to treat genetic diseases. Consequently, this would result in modified DNA in germ cells that would be inherited to future generations. The scientists wish to have a full ethical, legal, and public discussion before any germ-line modifications will be made. Furthermore, issues of safety are of importance.

The scientists’ statement is of utmost importance and hopefully this ethical, legal, and public discussion will emerge. However, the discussion on germ-line DNA modification is at danger if the debate will be taken to the level of science fictional superhumans, as already has happen. Not only can such discussion cause unnecessary public worry, it also leads the deliberation away from the actual and urgent questions.

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Success, Self-esteem, and Human Enhancement

The philosopher turned theologian Jean Vanier was recently awarded the Templeton Prize for his work on behalf of the mentally disabled, and he spoke eloquently of the damage done to that group in particular by our culture of individual success.

Vanier’s point — that we judge people by what they do — is well taken, and it has some broad and important implications. Even those usually thought mentally and physically able may be unable to achieve enough to win the esteem of others, or to gain self-esteem. Of course, success has its benefits for those who succeed and often for others. But because of the close relation in our culture between self-esteem and accomplishment, many are left unsatisfied or even depresseed because of their ‘failure’.

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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Can the Concept of Species Specific Animal Dignity Refute the Argument From Marginal Cases?   by Henry Phipps

This essay, by Oxford graduate student Henry Phipps,  is one of the six shortlisted essays in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Can the Concept of Species Specific Animal Dignity Refute the Argument From Marginal Cases?    

The argument from marginal cases notes that certain severely disabled humans have cognitive capabilities comparable to certain animals. These humans are not thought to have the status of rational persons, yet we believe that they possess significant moral status and rights. But simultaneously most people believe that animals with comparable cognitive capabilities are not possessed of the same moral status; for instance we regularly kill them for food and in medical experiments. The argument from marginal cases claims that these humans do not differ in any morally relevant respect from certain animals and that therefore we ought to treat these like cases alike. We are then faced with a choice of two options, either extend the moral status and rights that severely mentally disabled humans have to like cases of animals or deny that such humans have significant moral status and rights. Since the latter option seems repugnant, proponents of the argument then claim we have no choice but to adopt the former position that many animals have moral status and rights comparable to those attributed to severely mentally disabled humans. Continue reading

Mind wars: do we want the enhanced military?

Jonathan Moreno presented a special lecture the 18th about “Mind Wars”, the military applications of neurotechnology. Here are some of my notes and comments inspired by this stimulating lecture. Continue reading

Population Ethics and Indeterminacy

How should we compare a decrease in average quality of life with a gain in population size?  Population ethics is a rigorous investigation of the value of populations, where the populations in question contain different (numbers of) individuals at different levels of quality of life.  This abstract and theoretical area of philosophy is relevant to a host of important practical decisions that affect future generations, including decisions about climate change policy, healthcare prioritization, energy consumption, and global catastrophic risks.

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Nancy Cartwright on the Limits of RCTs

Guest Post by Bill Gardner @Bill_Gardner

Many researchers and physicians assert that randomized clinical trials (RCTs) are the “gold standard” for evidence about what works in medicine. But many others have pointed to both strengths and limitations in RCTs (see, for example, Austin Frakt’s comments on Angus Deaton here). Nancy Cartwright is a major philosopher of science. In this Lancet paper she provides insights into why RCTs are so highly valued and also why they are by themselves insufficient to answer the most important questions in medicine.

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Shouldering the burden of risk

By Dominic Wilkinson @NeonatalEthics


The UK supreme court last week awarded a woman £5 million in compensation after her obstetrician failed to warn her of a risk that she would have difficulty delivering her baby. Over on the JME Blog Kirsty Keywood discusses some interesting and important legal elements of this judgment for the practice of informed consent and how this will be evaluated in negligence claims.

However, the case raises one important ethical issue. Several expert witnesses in the Montgomery case testified that informing women of even very low risks of complications of vaginal birth would likely lead to a significant increase in the number of women choosing elective caesarean section.

If that is true, would it be justified for doctors to deliberately not discuss such risks? Continue reading

Global surveillance is not about privacy

putin-merkel-obama-caricatureIt has now been almost two years since Snowden. It’s time for us to admit this has little to do with privacy. Global surveillance is not global only because it targets people all over the world. Global surveillance is done for and against global interests. Privacy, by contrast, is an individual right. It’s simply the wrong description level. This is not about your internet history or private phone calls, even if the media and Snowden wish it were.

Privacy is rarely seen as a fundamental right. Privacy is relevant insofar as it enables control, harming freedom, or insofar as it causes the violation of a fundamental right. But the capabilities of intelligence agencies to carry out surveillance over their own citizens are far lower than their capability to monitor foreigners. Any control this monitoring might entail will never be at the individual level; governments can’t exert direct control over individual citizens of foreign countries.


Framing this as an issue of individual privacy is a strategic move done against the interests of individuals. Continue reading

Should remorseful offenders be punished less harshly?

New Book: ‘Remorse, Penal Theory and Sentencing’ (Oxford: Hart Publishing)

If an offender is genuinely remorseful about the crime she committed, should she receive some small-but-non-trivial mitigation of her sentence? – i.e. should she be punished a little bit less than she would have been had she not been remorseful? In many jurisdictions, including England and Wales, this practice is written into the sentencing guidelines that judges have to follow. However, it is difficult to see how this practice can be justified, and intuitions about the relevance of remorse to criminal sentencing seem to vary wildly.

One first obvious concern is that it can be difficult to know whether an offender’s remorse is genuine: is she just pretending in the hope that her sentence will consequently be somewhat lighter than it would otherwise have been? Whilst the possibility of simulation indeed presents a practical challenge, the prior question is whether an offender’s genuine remorse should matter at all. Should judges try to determine whether an offender is remorseful and, if so, with what consequences? Continue reading