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What the Present Debate About Autonomous Weapons is Getting Wrong

Author: Michael Robillard

Many people are deeply worried about the prospect of autonomous weapons systems (AWS). Many of these worries are merely contingent, having to do with issues like unchecked proliferation or potential state abuse. Several philosophers, however, have advanced a stronger claim, arguing that there is, in principle, something morally wrong with the use of AWS independent of these more pragmatic concerns. Some have argued, explicitly or tacitly, that the use of AWS is inherently morally problematic in virtue of a so-called ‘responsibility gap’ that their use necessarily entails.

We can summarise this thesis as follows:

  1. In order to wage war ethically, we must be able to justly hold someone morally responsible for the harms caused in war.
  2. Neither the programmers of an AWS nor its military implementers could justly be held morally responsible for the battlefield harms caused by AWS.
  3. We could not, as a matter of conceptual possibility, hold an AWS itself morally responsible for its actions, including its actions that cause harms in war.
  4. Hence, a morally problematic ‘gap’ in moral responsibility is created, thereby making it impermissible to wage war through the use of AWS.

This thesis is mistaken. This is so for the simple reason that, at the end of the day, the AWS is an agent in the morally relevant sense or it isn’t.

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We are Hiring: Research Fellow in Bioethics & Research Fellow in Neuroethics

We are delighted to announce two new vacancies at the new Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities and the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. Follow the links below for information including how to apply:

Research Fellow in Bioethics

Research Fellow in Neuroethics

 

Why vegetarians should be prepared to bend their own rules

Alberto Giubilini
Republished from Aeon Magazine

It’s a common enough scenario. A vegetarian has been invited to a friend’s place for dinner. The host forgets that the guest is a vegetarian, and places a pork chop in front of her. What is she to do? Probably her initial feelings will be disgust and repulsion. Vegetarians often develop these sorts of attitudes towards meat-based food, making it easier for them to be absolutists about shunning meat.

Suppose, though, that the vegetarian overcomes her feelings of distaste, and decides to eat the chop, perhaps out of politeness to her host. Has she done something morally reprehensible? Chances are that what she has been served won’t be the kind of humanely raised meat that some (but not all) ethical vegetarians find permissible to consume. More likely, it would be the product of cruel, intensive factory farming. Eating the meat under these circumstances couldn’t then be an act of what the philosopher Jeff McMahan calls ‘benign carnivorism’. Would the vegetarian guest have done something wrong by breaking her own moral code?

Most vegetarians are concerned about animal suffering caused by meat consumption, or about the impact of factory farming on the environment. For simplicity’s sake, I will consider only the case of animal suffering, but the same argument could be applied to the other bad consequences of today’s practices of factory farming, including, for example, greenhouse gas emissions, inefficient use of land, and use of pesticides, fertiliser, fuel, feed and water, as well as the use of antibiotics causing antibiotic resistance in livestock’s bacteria which is then passed on to humans.

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Cross Post: Re: Nudges in a Post-truth World 

Guest Post: Nathan Hodson

This article originally appeared on the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog 

In a recent article in the Journal of Medical EthicsNeil Levy has developed a concept of “nudges to reason,” offering a new tool for those trying to reconcile medical ethics with the application of behavioural psychological research – a practice known as nudging. Very roughly, nudging means adjusting the way choices are presented to the public in order to promote certain decisions.

As Levy notes, some people are concerned that nudges present a threat to autonomy. Attempts at reconciling nudges with ethics, then, are important because nudging in healthcare is here to stay but we need to ensure it is used in ways that respect autonomy (and other moral principles). Continue reading

Cross Post: Speaking with: Julian Savulescu on the ethics of genetic modification in humans

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Could genetic engineering one day allow parents to have designer babies?
Tatiana Vdb/flickr, CC BY

William Isdale, University of Melbourne

What if humans are genetically unfit to overcome challenges like climate change and the growing inequality that looks set to define our future?

Julian Savulescu, visiting professor at Monash University and Uehiro professor of Practical Ethics at Oxford University, argues that modifying the biological traits of humans should be part of the solution to secure a safe and desirable future.

The University of Melbourne’s William Isdale spoke to Julian Savulescu about what aspects of humanity could be altered by genetic modifications and why it might one day actually be considered unethical to withhold genetic enhancements that could have an overwhelmingly positive effect on a child’s life. Continue reading

Targeted Killing and Black Boxes

Written By Mitt Regan and Michael Robillard

            Various aspects of the US targeted killing program have attracted considerable attention and some criticism in philosophy and international law. One important aspect of the program that deserves more attention is how targeted killing reflects how the growing number of conflicts involving non-state actors are eroding conventions regarding the use of violence.  Those conventions are based on the paradigm of conflict between states waged by uniformed armed forces on segregated battlefields.  In such conflicts, an individual’s status as a member of the armed forces makes him/her liable to lethal force without examining his/her specific conduct.  Non-state actors, however, do not wear uniforms and seek to be indistinguishable from civilians.  What, then, should be the basis for their liability? Continue reading

Announcement: James Williams wins Innovative Thinking prize

OUC affiliated student, James Williams, has been awarded the inaugural $100,000 Nine Dots Prize.

Williams, a doctoral candidate researching design ethics, beat 700 other entrants from around the world with his 3,000-word answer to the set question ‘Are digital technologies making politics impossible?’ His entry Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Persuasion in the Attention Economy argues that digital technologies are making all forms of politics worth having impossible as they privilege our impulses over our intentions and are ‘designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities in order to direct us toward goals that may or may not align with our own.

Read more, including extracts, at Nine Dots website here: https://ninedotsprize.org/winners/james-williams/

Guest Post: Crispr Craze and Crispr Cares

Written by Robert Ranisch, Institute for Ethics and History of Medicine, University of Tuebingen

@RobRanisch

Newly discovered tools for the targeted editing of the genome have been generating talk of a revolution in gene technology for the last five years. The CRISPR/Cas9-method draws most of the attention by enabling a more simple and precise, cheaper and quicker modification of genes in a hitherto unknown measure. Since these so-called molecular scissors can be set to work in just about all organisms, hardly a week goes by without headlines regarding the latest scientific research: Genome editing could keep vegetables looking fresh, eliminate malaria from disease-carrying mosquitoes, replace antibiotics or bring mammoths back to life.

Naturally, the greatest hopes are put into its potential for various medical applications. Despite the media hype, there are no ready-to-use CRISPR gene therapies. However, the first clinical studies are under way in China and have been approved in the USA. Future therapy methods might allow eradicating hereditary illnesses, conquering cancer, or even cure HIV/AIDS. Just this May, results from experiments on mice gave reason to hope for this. In a similar vein, germline intervention is being reconsidered as a realistic option now, although it had long been considered taboo because of how its (side)effects are passed down the generations. Continue reading

Article Announcement:Which lives matter most? Thinking about children who are not yet born confronts us with the question of our ethical obligations to future people.

Professor Dominic Wilkinson and Keyur Doolabh have recently published a provocative essay at Aeon online magazine:

Imagine that a 14-year-old girl, Kate, decides that she wants to become pregnant. Kate’s parents are generally broadminded, and are supportive of her long-term relationship with a boy of the same age. They are aware that Kate is sexually active, like 5 per cent of 14-year-old girls in the United States and 9 per cent in the United Kingdom. They have provided her with access to birth control and advice about using it. However, they are horrified by their daughter’s decision to have a child, and they try to persuade her to change her mind. Nevertheless, Kate decides not to use birth control; she becomes pregnant, and gives birth to her child, Annabel.

Many people might think that Kate’s choice was morally wrong. Setting aside views about teenage sexual behaviour, they might argue that this was a bad decision for Kate – it will limit her access to education and employment. But let’s imagine that Kate wasn’t academically inclined, and was going to drop out of school anyway. Beyond those concerns, people might worry about the child Annabel. Surely Kate should have waited until she was older, to give her child a better start to life? Hasn’t she harmed her child by becoming pregnant now?

This issue is more complicated than it first seems. If Kate had delayed her pregnancy until, say, age 20, her child would have been conceived from a different egg and sperm. Because of this, Kate would have a genetically different child, and Annabel would not have existed.

See here for the full article and to join in the conversation.

Cross Post: Italy has introduced mandatory vaccinations – other countries should follow its lead

Written by Alberto Giubilini

This article was originally published on The Conversation 

In the first four months of this year, around 1,500 cases of measles were reported in Italy. As a response to the outbreak, the Italian government introduced a law making 12 vaccinations mandatory for preschool and school-age children.

Parents will have to provide proof of vaccination when they enroll their children in nursery or preschool. In this respect, the Italian policy follows the example of vaccination policies in the US. But there’s one crucial difference: the Italian law doesn’t allow parents to opt out on the grounds of “conscientious objection”. Continue reading

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