Cross Post: Want to be popular? You’d better follow some simple moral rules

Imagine that an out of control trolley is speeding towards a group of five people. You are standing on a footbridge above, next to a large man. If you push him off the bridge onto the track below, his body will stop the trolley before it hits the five people. He will die, but the five others will be saved. Should you push the man off the bridge?

Before you make your decision, you should know that your popularity could depend on it. According to a new study of more than 2,400 participants, which we carried out with David Pizarro from Cornell University, the way you answer the “trolley problem” can have a big impact on how much people trust you. So let’s have a look at your options.

You might say yes; saving five lives outweighs the harm of killing one person. And you wouldn’t be alone: you’d be making a moral decision in line with “consequentialist” theories of morality. Consequentialists believe that we should aim to maximise the greatest good for the greatest number of people, even if this means causing some harm – for example, by killing one person to save five.

On the other hand, you might say no; killing someone is just wrong, regardless of any positive consequences there might be. Here, you’d be making a moral decision in line with “deontological” moral theories, which focus on moral rules, rights and duties. Maxims such as “thou shalt not kill” and “treat others as you would like to be treated” (otherwise known asthe golden rule) fit into this category.
Continue reading

Guest Post: Abortion, punishment and moral consistency

Written by: Rajiv Shah, PhD Candidate, Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge

Donald Trump suggested that women who have abortions should face punishment. For that he was criticised by both the pro-choice side and the pro-life side. The latter claimed that their view is that women should not face punishment for having abortions but that only providers should. This raises the interesting question of whether the pro-life position is coherent. It would seem that it is not. If the foetus has the right to life then having an abortion is like murder and so those who abort should be treated as such. This post argues that the pro-lifer can coherently reject this implication whilst still holding that the foetus has the right to life. Since it considers the responses a pro-lifer could make this post will assume for the sake of argument that the foetus does have a right to life. Continue reading

Guest Post: Scientists aren’t always the best people to evaluate the risks of scientific research

Written by Simon Beard, Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge

How can we study the pathogens that will be responsible for future global pandemics before they have happened? One way is to find likely candidates currently in the wild and genetically engineer them so that they gain the traits that will be necessary for them to cause a global pandemic.

Such ‘Gain of Function’ research that produces ‘Potential Pandemic Pathogens’ (GOF-PPP for short) is highly controversial. Following some initial trails looking at what kinds of mutations were needed to make avian influenza transmissible in ferrets, a moratorium has been imposed on further research whilst the risks and benefits associated with it are investigated. Continue reading

Announcement: New Publication: Philosophers Take On the World

Philosophers Take on the World book cover

Philosophers Take On the World is based on this blog, ‘Practical Ethics in the News’, and edited by David Edmonds. It is published by OUP and is due out in September 2016.

Every day the news shows us provoking stories about what’s going on in the world, about events which raise moral questions and problems. In Philosophers Take On the World a team of philosophers get to grips with a variety of these controversial issues, from the amusing to the shocking, in short, engaging, often controversial pieces. Covering topics from guns to abortion, the morality of drinking alone, hating a sports team, and being rude to cold callers, the essays will make you think again about the judgments we make on a daily basis and the ways in which we choose to conduct our lives.

This item is not yet published, but may be pre-ordered now for delivery when available.

Published: 01 September 2016 (Estimated)

ISBN: 9780198753728

Cross Post: Ideas for Australia: Rethinking funding and priorities in IVF – should the state pay for people to have babies?

Written by Professor Julian Savulescu and Professor Kelton Tremellen

This is a cross posting of an article which was originally published at The Conversation

How much should the state spend on helping people to have children? At present, government support for infertility treatment is approximately A$240 million a year. The success of fertility treatments such as IVF is good if you are under 35 years of age, but once a woman hits 40 it plummets, falling to an almost futile one-in-80 chance of producing a baby for women 45 years and older. This raises the question – is IVF a cost-effective use of taxpayers’ money? And what about for older women?

Decisions about funding are usually made on grounds of cost-effectiveness. In Australia, the cost-effectiveness threshold is about A$40,000 per “QALY”. A QALY is a quality adjusted life year. Thus the government will spend, for example, A$40,000 to add a year of full health, or improve the quality of life by 10% for 10 years.

Is IVF cost-effective? It depends on how we measure it. Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Are offensive jokes more permissible if they’re funny? Written by Raphael Hogarth

This essay received an Honourable Mention in the Undergraduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize of Practical Ethics

Written by New College Oxford student Raphael Hogarth

Three moral agents walk into a bar. They get to joking and, with each round, their banter becomes more risqué. After the second pint, Agent A ventures a humourless and offensive joke about Jews and big noses: Agents B and C scowl and move on. After the third pint, Agent A has another crack with a joke about the holocaust – a more insensitive joke, but also apparently one with more potential to amuse. Agent B can’t help but giggle; Agent C is incandescent with outrage. Agents A and B retort in chorus: “But it’s funny!”[1] Continue reading

Guest Post: Should you give to beggars? Yes, you should.

Written by Richard Christian.


In a stimulating and controversial post on this blog, and later in a paper published in Think, Ole Martin Moen has argued that you should not give to beggars. His argument is simple and familiar. It is that the beggar one encounters in the rich world is, in the scheme of things, doing very well for herself. The London beggar is hungry, ragged, addicted, and schizophrenic; but she is like unto a king in comparison to the starving Ethiopian. If she receives only a few pounds a day and falls asleep in a doorway, she is still much better off than the millions of people in the world now dying for lack of food or clean water. It follows that a pound put in the hand of that beggar is a pound wasted: it should have gone to the person whose need is most urgent. Moen counsels you to ignore the beggar as you pass her on the street, and to give all your spare pounds instead to charities that assist the world’s most needy. In general, in your action, you should aim to do the most good you can. I wish to say here a word in favour of the beggar, and to show what I think is wrong with this currently fashionable line of reasoning in applied ethics. Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: “What justifies parents’ influence on their children?” written by Yutang Jin

This essay was a finalist in the Graduate Category of the 2nd Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by University of Oxford Student, Yutang Jin

In a family, parents can exert enormous influence on their children. Parents tend to implant in their children’s mind, for good or ill, values and ideas which go on to guide their whole lives. This essay focuses on this relationship and discusses what justification we can have for parental influence over their children.

The dominant discourse in addressing the parent-child relationship is that of moral rights. I argue, however, that the liberal discourse of rights, sound as it may be, has lots of drawbacks that disqualify it from being a cogent account of family relationships. I then go on to craft a Confucian framework whereby to discuss how parents and children should behave to each other. My main argument is that parents’ influence is justifiable insofar as parents comply with moral rules that regulate their relationship with children, and these rules are subject to public justification and rectification. Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: “Should You Switch to an Altruistic Career?” Written by Benjamin Lange

This essay was awarded second place in the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics graduate category.

Written by University of Oxford student, Benjamin Lange



Important Decision: Imagine that you are about to finish your philosophy PhD and are faced with the following two choices: You can either accept a postdoctoral position at a prestigious university or you can take up a job that will enable you to positively impact the lives of other people who are very badly off. Suppose further that you would strongly prefer to become a philosopher. However, you are having second thoughts. It’s also clear to you that you could spend your time and energy in a more beneficial way by helping others. And you recognise that you have strong moral reason to do so.

With this in mind, and standing at this important juncture in your life and career you now ask yourself:

“Given that there is some moral leeway, am I justified in pursing a philosophical (minimally helpful) career even though I could also choose a (more helpful) altruistic career?”

How would you answer? Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: “How should vegetarians actually live? A reply to Xavier Cohen.” Written by Thomas Sittler

This essay is a joint winner in the Undergraduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by University of Oxford student, Thomas Sittler

“How should vegetarians actually live? A reply to Xavier Cohen.”

Ethical vegetarians abstain from eating animal flesh because they care about the harm done to farmed animals. More precisely, they believe that farmed animals have lives so bad they are not worth living, so that it is better for them not to come into existence. Vegetarians reduce the demand for meat, so that farmers will breed fewer animals, preventing the existence of additional animals. If ethical vegetarians believed animals have lives that are unpleasant but still better than non-existence, they would focus on reducing harm to these animals without reducing their numbers, for instance by supporting humane slaughter or buying meat from free-range cows.

I will argue that if vegetarians were to apply this principle consistently, wild animal suffering would dominate their concerns, and may lead them to be stringent anti-environmentalists. Continue reading