MSt in Practical Ethics

Applications are open for October 2019 entry to the MSt in Practical Ethics, taught by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

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

Should Religious Homophobia be a Firing Offence?

By Doug McConnell

It looks as if Isreal Folau will lose his job as a professional rugby player for expressing his apparently genuine religious belief that drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, and idolators are all going to hell. Morgan Begg, a research fellow at the Australian conservative think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, has recently argued that this is the result of a “totalitarian” and “authoritarian desire to impose ideological orthodoxy on Australians.” I respond that it is, in fact, Begg’s ideological position that is more amenable to totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Continue reading

Should Meat Be Excluded From the UK’s Value Added Tax?

The idea of using a meat tax to improve human health and protect the environment has been getting a fair amount of attention from prominent scientists in the media. Professor Mike Rayner was quoted last year as saying, “I would like to see a tax on red meat and meat products. We need incentives to cut down on meat and dairy consumption.” Marco Springmann told the Guardian, “Current levels of meat consumption are not healthy or sustainable. The costs associated with each of those impacts could approach the trillions in the future. Taxing meat could be a first and important step.” And Joseph Poore suggested that taxing meat will likely be necessary to avoid serious environmental problems.

Taxing food products to promote human health is controversial. It has been suggested that introducing taxes to limit particular food consumption behaviors is a troubling shift towards a “nanny state,” involves paternalistically imposing “alien values” on people, and interferes with the free market by picking and choosing winners and losers among different products. A decision to impose a dedicated tax specifically targeting meat would need to adequately address all of these concerns.

For this post, however, I’m going to sidestep those difficult questions to instead focus on a question with an answer that seems to me a bit more straightforward: given that the UK already has a Value Added Tax that applies to some food products but not others, should it continue to exclude meat products from this tax?

The UK’s Value Added Tax, or VAT, is meant to target luxury goods while withholding taxes on “staples.” But the definition of what exactly counts as a luxury is a bit mysterious. Currently beef, lamb, pork, chicken are all excluded from the VAT. But shelled nuts are considered to be “luxury goods” and have the 20% VAT imposed on them.

Treating meat products as “staples” likely hearkens back to earlier beliefs that meat was a required part of a healthy diet and an essential source of protein. However, it is now well-established that diets with low amounts of meat, and indeed fully vegan and vegetarian diets, can be perfectly healthy and can meet nutritional needs for the overwhelming majority of the population. Moreover, this can all be done relatively inexpensively…low meat diets do not require buying the latest luxury food items at Whole Foods.

But the problem is not just that there are equally nutritious alternatives to meat…it’s that meat is demonstrably worse than many of them on a number of measures. The World Health Organization currently classifies processed meat as “carcinogenic” and red meat as “probably carcinogenic.” Moreover, high levels of meat consumption are bad for the environment in a number of ways. Rearing livestock is the biggest contributor to methane (a greenhouse gas that plays a significant role in climate change), utilizes a large portion of the world’s fresh water supply, and is a significant source of nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants (for a useful and accessible summary, see: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6399/eaam5324 ).

These are reasons that directly affect humans, and so could be thought of as both self-interested concerns and altruistic concerns (since future generations will be more seriously influenced by our impact on the environment). But one of the most common arguments against meat consumption is focused on animal welfare. Many vegetarians and vegans believe it is always wrong to kill an animal for human consumption, provided that alternatives are available. Practicing vegetarians currently make up a relatively small proportion of the population, but presumably a majority of people would agree that animals shouldn’t be mistreated or made to suffer needlessly, and there’s good reason to think that many of the animal welfare problems in current animal rearing practices (from housing to transporting to slaughtering animals) are a result of the pressure to produce vast amounts of meat as cheaply as possible to meet the current high demand for meat. So there are also strong reasons related to animal welfare to dramatically reduce per capita meat consumption that are based on values presumably shared by most people, though this is rarely directly mentioned in public policy discussions about taxing food.

Given all of the above, it seems as though there are strong reasons to include meat products in the VAT. But what about the objections mentioned above? The problem with these objections in the present context is that they seem as though they already apply to the current system. The current VAT system already favors certain foods over others and incentivizes goods according to particular values. In fact, the current system arguably provides perverse incentives that encourage people to choose at least some products, such as meat, that are less healthy, worse for the environment, and worse for animal welfare than other products that are taxed.

In other words, given that we already have a VAT tax that incentivizes some food products over others, it seems clear that meat products (and particularly red meat and processed meat) should be included. These products should no longer be regarded as necessary “staples” in healthy diets, and continuing to do so could have devastating consequences for the planet.

Medical Nihilism: When A Dose Of Scepticism Can Be Healthy

In his 2018 book, the philosopher of science, Jacob Stegenga defends the view “that we should have little confidence in the effectiveness of medical interventions.” (Stegenga 2018) On the face of it, he acknowledges, this position seems unreasonable: most of us can think of myriad ways in which modern medicine has improved – perhaps saved – our own lives and the lives of those close to us. The asthma attack I had as a baby, effectively treated at the time and subsequently managed through the use of seemingly magical medications which relax the muscles around the airways, opening them up and allowing air to pass freely again. Or the schoolfriend whose ruptured appendix could have resulted in a fatal infection, but for emergency surgery and the administration of antibiotics. Or the countless lives made less painful by the availability of cheap and safe painkillers. 

Medical sceptics tend to get a bad rep – anti-vaxxers who risk the lives of children by regurgitating debunked myths about the links between vaccines and autism, leading to dips in herd immunity and disease outbreaks; credulous folk who believe in the mystical powers of homeopathy and eschew conventional therapies in favour of potions that contain little more than water. This is not the sort of company one wishes to associate with. Continue reading

Irresponsible Parents, Religious Beliefs, and Coercion. What the Rockland County Measles Outbreak Response Teaches Us About Vaccination Policies

Written by Alberto Giubilini

Oxford Martin School, Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, University of Oxford

 

Following a measles outbreak, Rockland County in New York has enforced a 30 day emergency measure that involves barring unvaccinated children and teenagers from any public place (not just schools, but also restaurants, shopping centres, places of worship, and so on). Parents face up to 6 months in jail and/or a $500 fine if they are found to have allowed their unvaccinated children in public spaces. In fact, this measure resembles quite closely a form of quarantine. Some might think this kind of policy is too extreme. However, I think the problem is that the measure is not extreme enough. It is necessary and justified given the state of emergency, but it is not sufficient as a vaccination policy. Parents can still decide not to vaccinate their children and keep them at home for the 30 days the order will last. Thus, the policy still gives some freedom to parents, who are responsible for the situation, and this freedom comes at the cost of penalizing the children, who are not responsible. We need to contain and to prevent measles cases and measles outbreaks by forcing parents to vaccinate their children, not simply by preventing children from leaving their homes when emergencies arise. Continue reading

The Re-Greening of Abraham

By Charles Foster

Some odd alliances are being forged in this strange new world,

I well remember, a few years ago, the open hostility shown by dreadlocked, shamanic, eco-warriors towards the Abrahamic monotheisms. They’d spit when they passed a church.

The rhetoric of their distaste was predictable. The very notion of a creed was anathema to a free spirit. ‘No one’s going to tell me what to think’, said one (we’ll call him Jack), the marks on his wrists still visible from where he’d been chained to a road-builder’s bulldozer. And the content of the creeds, and the promulgators-in-chief, didn’t help. ‘I’m certainly taking no lessons’, Jack went on, ‘from some patriarchal sky-god represented by a paedophilic priest.’

But it’s changed. Jack still heaves bricks through bank windows (he says), and still copulates inside stone circles, but now he’s mightily impressed with Jesus, has a Greek Orthodox icon of the resurrection next to his bong, and pictures of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on his dartboard. He’s not alone. He’s part of a widespread movement that is reclaiming and recruiting the intrinsic radicalism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the fight against Neo-Liberalism and the destruction of the planet. Continue reading

‘Now Is Not The Time’: Is It Wrong To Engage In Political Debate Following A Tragedy?

Written by Alexandra Couto and Guy Kahane

In the days following the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February 2018, many of the surviving students and staff gathered to demand immediate change to the gun laws that allowed Nicholas Cruz to kill so many of their friends and pupils. Many students held banners on which it was written: “We don’t want your thoughts and condolences, we want policy & change!” Speaking at the rally, teacher Melissa Falkowski said “They say ‘it’s not the time’ — Now is the time! There is no other time!”

Was Melissa Falkowski right? Or is it wrong to engage in political and moral debate so soon after such a tragedy? Should we instead just offer our “thoughts and prayers”, postponing public debate to a later time? Continue reading

The Gulf Between Japanese and English Google Image Search

By Anri Asagumo, Oxford Uehiro/St Cross Scholar, (with input from Dr Tom Douglas and Dr Carissa Veliz)

 

Trigger Warning: This article deals with sexual violence, which could be potentially upsetting for some people.

Although Google claims in its policy that it restricts promotion of adult-oriented content, there is a district in the online world where their policy implementation seems loose: Google image search in the Japanese language. If one looks up ‘reipu’, a Japanese word for rape on Google, the screen fills up with a heap of explicit thumbnails of porn movies, manga, and pictures of women being raped by men. The short descriptions of the thumbnails are repugnant: ‘Raping a girl at my first workplace’, ‘Raping a junior high-school girl’, ’Raping cute girls’, ‘Raping a female lawyer’, ‘Raping a girl in a toilet’. As if rape in itself were not repulsive enough, many descriptions go even further, implying child rape. Similar results show up with ‘reipu sareta; I was raped’. It is strikingly different from the world of English Google image search, in which the top images usually send strong messages of support for victims and zero-tolerance for sexual offenders. Another example of how the Japanese Google world is different from that of English is ‘Roshia-jin; Russian people’. Searching in Japanese yields 17 pictures of young, beautiful Russian women, while searching in English returns pictures of people of different age and sex. Continue reading

Entitlement

Written by Stephen Rainey

It is often claimed, especially in heated Twitter debates, that one or other participant is entitled to their opinion. Sometimes, if someone encounters a challenge to their picture of the world, they will retort that they are entitled to their opinion. Or, maybe in an attempt to avoid confrontation, disagreement is sometimes brushed over by stating that whatever else may be going on, everyone is entitled to their opinion. This use of the phrase is highlighted in a recent piece in The Conversation. There, Patrick Stokes writes,

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful.

I think this is right, and a problem well identified. Nevertheless, it’s not like no one, ever, is entitled to an opinion. So when are you, am I, are we, entitled to our opinion? What does it take to be entitled to an opinion?

Continue reading

The Ethics of Gently Electrifying Prisoners’ Brains

By Hazem Zohny and Tom Douglas

Scientists who want to study the effects of passing electric currents through prisoners’ brains have a PR problem: it sounds shady. Even if that electric current is so small as to go largely unnoticed by its recipient – as in the case of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) – for some, such experiments evoke historical abuses of neuroscience in criminal justice, not to mention bringing to mind some of the more haunting scenes in films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Clockwork Orange.

And so, last week the Spanish Interior Ministry put on hold an impending experiment in two Spanish prisons investigating the impact of brain stimulation on prisoners’ aggression. At the time of writing, it remains unclear what the ministry’s reasoning for the halt is, though the optics of the experiment might be part of the story.

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Harmful Choices and Vaccine Refusal

By Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

 

Last week, medical specialists in the US reported a case of severe tetanus in an unvaccinated 6 year old child, (who I will call ‘C’). The boy had had a minor cut, but six days later he developed intense painful muscle spasms and was rushed to hospital. (Tetanus used to be called, for obvious reasons, “lockjaw”). C was critically unwell, required a tracheostomy and a prolonged stay in intensive care. Patients with this illness develop excruciating muscle spasms in response to noise or disturbance. C had to be heavily sedated and treated in a darkened room with ear plugs for days. The boy was finally discharged from hospital to a rehabilitation facility after 57 days (and an $811,000 hospital bill).

In a disturbing post-script to the case report, the specialists noted that despite being extensively counselled by the hospital staff that this illness could recur, his parents refused for C to be vaccinated with the tetanus (or any other) vaccine.

C has been seriously harmed by his parents’ decision to decline vaccinations. Should he now be vaccinated against his parents’ wishes? Or could a more radical response be justified?

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