Yearly Archives: 2012

Sin Taxes and Biomarkers

            For years, ‘sin taxes’ – taxes on socially undesirable and/or addictive substances/activities like smoking, alcohol and gambling – have been a source of controversy.  On the one hand, they have been seen as an effective means to raise revenue and reduce consumption of addictive (and generally unhealthy) substances.  On the other hand, sin taxes are generally regressive and are rather paternalistic.  But beyond these typical disputes, recent research has found a new and important dimension to the sin tax debate: genetics.  A study by Jason Fletcher has found that whether or not taxes reduce cigarette consumption depends on the presence of a particular genotype.  This suggests an interesting and novel policy: only apply the cigarette tax to those whose genotype indicates they will respond to the tax.  But is this a sound policy, or should we be keeping biomarkers out of policy debates over sin taxes?  Continue reading

The Best Practical Ethics Books of the Year…

By the editors of the Practical Ethics blog.

What is the best practical ethics book you read this year, and what is so good about it (in 1-3 sentences)?

We asked this question to our colleagues at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. To our surprise, not a single title received multiple votes. This perhaps indicates that so many good books in the field appeared in the last couple of years, or perhaps a different explanation is due. Either way, below is the list of the recent titles we found excellent:

The Ends of Harm: The Moral Foundations of Criminal Law by Victor Tadros

‘In this book, Tadros provides a highly engaging non-consequentialist account of the permissible harming of others. It is an important and illuminating work containing a number of original insights’. – David Birks


The Ethics of Transplants: Why Careless Thought Costs Lives by Janet Radcliffe Richards

‘I give this out to people as a paradigm example of how to do good practical philosophy, especially in medical ethics. Janet dismembers bad arguments, like a pathologist dissecting a corpse riddled with metastatic cancer, and reveals the diagnosis, chapter after chapter. It is a fine example in the now neglected method of giving sound arguments, and exposing invalid ones. It is unabashedly pre-postmodernist and, as such, is intelligible and useful to any thoughtful person, specialist or non-specialist.– Julian Savulescu


Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things by Peter-Paul Verbeek

‘A thought-provoking account of human-technology relation that calls for a new understanding of and method for ethics in our technological age. This book will surely give you some food for thought. Perhaps, it will even change the way you understand the technologies around you’. – Pak-Hang Wong


Philosophy and the Environment ed. by Anthony O’Hear

Philosophy and the Environment contains several excellent papers, including an outstanding piece by David Wiggins, which is both ethical and practical’. – Roger Crisp


The Prison Officer by Alison Liebling, David Price, and Guy Shefer

‘Most of us never face extreme violence, aggression, corruption and despair, let alone need to make good, daily decisions about how to manage it effectively and with moral decency. Prison officers do. This book explores the psychology of prison officers and their relationships with prisoners, revealing what it is to do this demanding job well and carve morality out of the chaos often found within prisons’. – Hannah Pickard


The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind synthesises Haidt’s influential work on different aspects of moral psychology, to create a unified vision of the field, and it is having significant influence accross a variety of academic disciplines’. – Stephen Clark


Skepticism and Freedom: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism by Richard A. Epstein

‘An interesting consequentialist defence of classical liberalism, limited government and free markets by an eminent academic lawyer. Philosophers may think some of the philosophical arguments go by rather quickly, but this is to miss the peculiar virtue of the book. His knowlege of the way law has worked in practice and the commonalities of law across culture and history fills out the defence with the kind of important and illuminating facts that philosophers rarely know’. – Nicholas Shackel


The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson

The Spirit of Compromise skilfully combines normative reasoning with empirical analysis to provide concrete suggestions to correct some of the most serious deficiencies in contemporary democratic politics. It brilliantly shows how the “policy implications” of normative theory can be more than a polite gesture towards funding bodies’. – Kei Hiruta


Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

A nice summary of the evidence he’s compiled during the course of his brilliant career into the scary levels of human irrationality’. – David Edmonds


Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets by Debra Satz

‘It draws on philosophy, economics, and anthropology to present a sophisticated and nuanced appraisal of the moral consequences of markets in human organs, sex and other actual or potential commodities. In doing so, it moves the debate about markets beyond the standard trite claims about efficiency, equality, or human dignity’. – Simon Rippon


1493: How Europe’s Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth by Charles C. Mann

1493 is a beautifully written and deeply insightful exploration of how hard it is (and has always been) to anticipate the human consequences of globalization’. – Regina Rini


Is your favourite recent title listed above, or do you have other suggestions? Please reply below to share with us the practical ethics book you found most interesting this year!

When to eat the marshmallow: new perspectives on impulse control

In light of the fact that many readers will have an assortment of Christmas treats tempting them, I thought a post on impulse control would be timely.

In the now paradigmatic Stanford marshmallow experiment, children were given an option – one marshmallow which they could have immediately, or two marshmallows, provided they could wait 15 minutes. This option presents a problem of sorts. Is it better to have a small reward immediately, or a larger one after some delay? Common sense says that waiting is the better option. Doubling your reward whilst only paying a marginal cost of your time seems like the rational thing to do. Children who fail to wait are, therefore, seen as succumbing to temptation. A deficiency in self control leads them to make a poor decision. Continue reading

Turning the Camera Around: What Newtown Tells Us About Ourselves

On the morning of December 14th, 20-year old Adam Lanza opened fire within the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 children and six adult staff members before turning his gun on himself. In the hours that followed, journalists from every major news station in the nation inundated the tiny town, and in the days that followed, the country as a whole started down a familiar path characterized best by the plethora of ‘if only-isms’.

It began in the immediate hours following the shooting: if only we had stricter gun control laws, this wouldn’t have happened. This is perhaps an unsurprising first response in a country that represents 4.5% of the world’s population and 40% of the world’s civilian firearms.[1] Over the next few days, as a portrait of the shooter began to emerge and friends and family revealed that he was an avid gamer, a second theory surfaced in the headlines: if only our children weren’t exposed to such violent video games, this tragedy never would have occurred.[2] [3] And just in the past few days, public discourse has converged on the gunman’s mental health, the general conclusion being that if only we had better mental health services in place, this wouldn’t have happened.[4][5] (The National Rifle Association [NRA] even tried to jump on board, suggesting that “26 innocent lives might have been spared” if only we had an armed police guard in every school in America.[6] They seem to be the only ones taking themselves seriously.[7]) Continue reading

Stalking Cat, tiger body modification, and the limits of consent

The American man who held the Guinness World Record for the most permanent transformations to look like an animal was recently found dead in his Nevada home. The man, known by his Native American name Stalking Cat (SC), had since the age of 23, when he had his first tiger stripe tattooed onto his body, undergone a series of body modification procedures aimed at altering his physical appearance to resemble that of a female tiger. In addition to tattooed tiger stripes across his body and numerous piercings, body modification procedures that SC underwent included having his upper lip surgically split, his ears pointed and earlobes elongated, subdermal silicone implants (to change the shape of his face and to facilitate the wearing of whiskers), and flattening of the nose via septum relocation.

A BBC profile on SC from ten years ago states that SC “travels to Phoenix, Arizona to have his surgery carried out by body modification artist Steve Hayward. Cat cannot go under the surgeon’s knife because it is illegal in the United States for a medical professional to alter someone’s appearance beyond what society deems normal.”

What would happen if a person (who, we stipulate, has capacity to make medical treatment decisions under the Mental Capacity Act 2005) wanted to have a similar range of procedures carried out in this jurisdiction?

Continue reading

Mind-controlled limbs and redefining the self

This week there were reports of the amazing advances being made in brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. Following just weeks of training, a 52-year old woman, paralysed from the neck down, was able to use her mind to control a robotic hand to pick up objects on a table, including cones, blocks and small balls, and put them down at another location. She was even able to use the hand to feed herself chocolate.

Having had two arrays of microelectrodes surgically implanted into her left motor cortex, Jan is wired up to a computer that has been programmed to interpret the signals her neurons emit. This computer then passes on the interpreted signals to the robotic arm, which moves in accordance with the signals in real time.

Aside from the awesomeness of the technology, the use of neuroprostheses such as this raises a whole host of interesting philosophical and ethical questions. Particularly as the technology gets more sophisticated and more integrated, the distinction between the machinery being used and the person using it will become increasingly blurred. In the video, Jan already describes how she went from having to ‘think’ the commands (‘clockwise, up, down, forward, back…’) to merely having to ‘look at the target’ to effect accurate movement of the arm. This phenomenon is sometimes labeled ‘transparency of use’, where a tool serves a person’s goals without itself being an object of effortful control. Continue reading

Informed consent deserves a little less respect

The conclusions of a ‘citizens’ jury’, reported recently in the British Medical Journal [1] shed light on some important weaknesses in the doctrine of ‘informed consent’. The doctrine is commonly thought of as canonical. Be careful about questioning its exalted status: you’ll be branded paternalistic at best, and the indictment may well involve unflattering comparisons with Dr. Mengele.

The ‘jury’, composed of 25 women,  commented on how a leaflet on breast cancer screening should be re-drafted. The jury preferred:

– the term ‘overtreatment’ to ‘over-diagnosis’

-to express benefits in the language of lives saved rather than deaths avoided

– to talk about ‘benefits’ and ‘risks’ rather than ‘pros’ and ‘cons’

– to begin the leaflet by an up-beat reference to the numbers of lives saved by screening, followed by the caveat that a small number of women would be over-treated.

What was the priority: reassurance or accuracy? The majority (15), wanted both; 3 thought that reassurance was most important; 7 thought that accuracy was the priority.

How should one list the benefits and harms? Four thought they should be listed together in the same sentence, 8 that they should be listed separately, and 12 for mentioning them first separately and then together.

The point of all this  is that there are innumerable different ways, all of which would be smiled on by Bolam [2], in which entirely accurate information can be conveyed. And yet tiny nuances are seen by the receivers of the information as significant. Continue reading

Prank Calls and Moral Luck

An outburst of blame, vituperation, and indignation, including death threats from all over the world, has followed the sad suicide of a nurse who fell for a ‘prank call’ from two Australian DJs and unwittingly released confidential information about a member of the British royal family.

Some criticism might well be made of any person who engages in such deception for the purposes of entertainment, and the fact that the DJs’ actions were therefore not entirely ‘innocent’ has perhaps fuelled the flames of protest. But there is little doubt that they are being subjected to significantly more blame than many others who engage in similar stunts. Continue reading

Sui generis, or generic gay? Pardoning Alan Turing

There is a new call for a pardon of Alan Turing, who in1952 was convicted of homosexuality. An earlier petition for a pardon was declined by the UK government (he got an apology instead 2009). Lord McNally stated in the House of Lords that:

“A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted.

It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd – particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times”.

However, the eminent signatories of the new call counter by arguing:

“To those who seek to block attempts to secure a pardon with the argument that this would set a precedent, we would answer that Turing’s achievements are sui generis.”

Does that make moral sense?

Continue reading

Why a painting is as good as a photo on a passport

by Rebecca Roache

Fredrik Saker, a Swedish artist, is in the news this week for having successfully applied for a driving licence using a photograph not of himself, but of a self-portrait painting. It is interesting to consider, in the light of this, what is so special about photographs. Why do agencies that issue documents featuring images of their bearers – like driving licences and passports – require applicants to submit photographs? Is there any good reason not also to permit self-portrait paintings, drawings, or any other sort of artistic creation?  Continue reading

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