Yearly Archives: 2012

Two Unhappy Lives

The Greek statesman and poet Solon, who lived in the sixth century BC, said “count no man happy until he be dead”.  His thought seems to have been that a person’s luck can change at any time.  Aristotle went further.  He believed that things can happen after one’s death to affect whether one is happy.

Initially, that seems an odd idea.  Because the modern conception of happiness is that it is purely a subjective state. 

But compare two lives, recently in the news.  They concern two men – a few years ago both would have been regarded by most people as having lived highly successful, even exemplary lives. Continue reading

Persistent Vegetative State and Futility: Should Communication by fMRI Change the Law?

Earlier this month, I discussed Adrian Owen’s research using fMRI scanners to communicate with patients who appeared to be in a Persistent Vegetative State (PVS) . By interpreting brain activity in Canadian PVS and minimally conscious patients, the researchers claim that patients can not only answer questions, but even lay down new memories.

The question of how this new research will affect patients diagnosed with PVS or minimally conscious patients is already being tested in court. Yesterday, the Vancouver Sun  reported on the case of Kenny Ng, a minimally conscious patient following a major car crash 7 years ago. Mr. Ng’s wife, Lora, wishes to withdraw hydration and nutrition. According to her lawyers, Doctors advised this course of action shortly after his car accident, but, hoping for an improvement, Mrs Ng had initially refused. After 7 years with no outward signs of improvement, Mrs Ng has asked for nutrition and hydration to be removed, ending his life. However, Mr. Ng’s parents and siblings argue that Owen’s research is “exactly what Kenny has been waiting for over the last seven years”, and that he should be kept alive so he can be assessed for inclusion in Owen’s trials.

If the decision is made in favour of the family, as Thaddeus Pope highlights, it will represent a major change to previous US and Canadian case law.

Owen has made a major scientific breakthrough. However, it is not clear that the discovery of consciousness means that the treatment should not be withdrawn. Paradoxically, the discovery of consciousness in very severely brain-damaged patients may provide more reason to let them die. Although functional neuroimaging is likely to play an increasing role in the assessment of patients in a vegetative state, caution is needed in the interpretation of neuroimaging findings.

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“HoboJacket – An Ethical Analysis”

Last week, a website created by MIT student Jin Pan attracted the ire and moral condemnation of media commentators. The website was called ‘Hobojacket’. Its purpose was to give college students a novel way in which to ridicule members of rival colleges; the idea was that people would use the website to pay for jackets bearing a rival college’s logo, jackets which would then be donated to the homeless. This, it was claimed by Pan, would show the “true value” of a degree from the rival college, in (what one must tragically presume) was believed by Pan to be an amusing fashion. Continue reading

Tony Coady on Religion in the Political Sphere: Part 3 – Religious Positives for Liberal Democracies

In debates about the virtues of religion, it is often difficult for scholars to agree on which interpretation of a particular religion’s mandates and precepts is an accurate one.  Do the world’s major religions promote civil discourse, tolerance, and mutual respect, or are do the truth claims embedded in their ideologies promote argument, vitriol, and in the worst cases, untold violence?

The former, argues Professor Tony Coady in his final Leverhulme lecture on November 29th, entitled “Religious Positives for Liberal Democracies.” (Full podcast)  In his lecture, Coady briefly recaps the arguments from his first two lectures, harshly criticizing the notion that “public” or “secular” reasoning is somehow neutral, and vociferously rebutting the notion that religion and religious people are inherently prone to violence.   While in his first two lectures, Coady focused his attention on the theoretical and philosophical questions which undergird debates about the role of religious reasoning in the public square, in his final lecture, he examines the ways in which religion (using Christianity as an example) upholds liberal virtues that are fundamental to flourishing democratic debate and deliberative democracy.

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An Ethics for Maintenance?

Last Sunday, Sasago Tunnel – a major tunnel in Japan – collapsed and caused nine deaths. And, according to the latest report, Central Nippon Expressway (Nexco), the company in charge of the tunnel, might be the party to blame as it is reported that they “had relied on rudimentary visual inspections…, with no reinforcement or repairs since construction [of the tunnel] in 1977”.

This tragic incident has prompted me to (re)consider the ethical dimension of maintenance of technologies and infrastructures. Surprisingly, although philosophers and ethicists have began to explore ethical issues surrounding new and emerging technologies, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, etc., not many of them have written on the normative issues of maintenance. This is curious, because, unless we assume the technologies and infrastructures will last forever without degradation, there is minimally a need for assigning the responsibility for maintaining their functionality. Here, the case of Sasago Tunnel might be relatively easy, as we could point at Nexco, which, in some sense, owns the tunnel; and, the same may be true of many consumer products too. Since they are ours, we are responsible for maintaining them. Perhaps, this is why the questions about maintenance are very much ignored by philosophers and ethicists, as they present no special ethical problem. Continue reading

“Treating” homosexuality in minors: Protected free speech or child abuse?

By Brian D. Earp

See Brian’s most recent previous post by clicking here.

See all of Brian’s previous posts by clicking here.

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“Treating” homosexuality in minors: Protected free speech or child abuse?

Should mental health providers be allowed to try to “cure” minors of their homosexuality?

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Brian Earp on Anti-Love Drugs

In the final Uehiro Seminar of 2012, Brian Earp provides an absorbing analysis of the science and ethics of anti-love biotechnology. You can listen to the seminar here.

While some personal distress as a result of love may be an important means of self-development, certain forms of love may be particularly perilous. Examples given by Earp include an older person’s sexual love for a child, incestuous love, and the love that prevents an abused spouse from leaving their partner. In these cases love can become like an ‘interpersonal heroin’ – an individual may recognise the harm their love is causing them, but be unable to stop feeling it. Continue reading

Janet Radcliffe Richards on the past, present and future of sex: Part 3

On Wednesday last week, Professor Janet Radcliffe Richards gave the last of her three Uehiro lectures on ‘Sex in a Shifting Landscape’. (Here you can find recordings of all three lectures: 1st audio, 1st video, 2nd audio, 2nd video, 3rd audio, 3rd video.)

She emphasised the goal she pursued with these lectures, namely, to demonstrate methods of philosophical reasoning in practice and to show how they can help in coming to useful conclusions. Recapitulating aspects of her first and second lecture, Radcliffe Richards illustrated the methodological approach John Steward Mill used in the dispute about women’s rights in the 19th century to show the weakness of his opponents’ arguments by proving their incoherence.

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Terminator studies and the silliness heuristic

The headlines are invariably illustrated with red-eyed robot heads: “I, Revolution: Scientists To Study Possibility Of Robot Apocalypse“. “Scientists investigate chances of robots taking over“. “‘Terminator’ risk to be investigated by scientists“. “Killer robots? Cambridge brains to assess AI risk“. “‘Terminator centre’ to open at Cambridge University: New faculty to study threat to humans from artificial intelligence“. “Cambridge boffins fear ‘Pandora’s Unboxing’ and RISE of the MACHINES: ‘You’re more likely to die from robots than cancer‘”…

The real story is that the The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk is planning to explore threats to the survival of the human species, including future technological risks. And among them are of course risks from autonomous machinery – risks that some people regard as significant, others as minuscule (see for example here, here and here). Should we spend valuable researcher time and grant money analysing such risks?

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Call for Applications: Academic Visitor Programme for Trinity Term 2013 (Start Date: 21 April)

The Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics hosts scholars and students wishing to engage in research in practical and applied ethics as academic visitors. Applications are invited three times a year and are to be submitted at least one term in advance of the proposed dates of the visit. Applications are open for one month in advance of the deadlines, which are set at the beginning of week 0 of each term.

The application deadline for the next intake of academic visitors is Monday 7 January 2013.

Application Details for the Visiting Scholars Programme and Visiting Student Programme