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Guest Post: Why Philosophers Should Write More Accessibly: Towards A New Kind of Epistemic (In)justice

Written by University of Oxford student Brian Wong

Philosophy should, to some extent, be a publicly oriented activity: we hope to make sense of first-order questions concerning how we ought to live, what existence is, what we know, and also deeper questions concerning our methodologies and ways of thinking. Yet philosophical writing has long been panned by some for its inaccessibility to the public.

I’ll take ‘accessibility’ here to mean understandability to the layperson – this metric is by no means uncontroversial, but I take it that at least a healthy number of us write with the public being among the potential beneficiaries of our scholarship. In moving from the claim that the public should benefit from our scholarship to the claim that they should be able to access our scholarship, I aim to establish that academics have a pro tanto (to a certain, limited extent) duty, to make their writing more accessible. Continue reading

Climbing the Pension Mountain: A Review of Michael Otsuka’s 2020 Uehiro Centre Lecture Series

Written by Professor Larry Locke (University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and LCC International University)

On three successive Tuesdays last November, Michael Otsuka of the London School of Economics delivered the annual Uehiro Centre Lecture Series.  The Series, entitled “How to Pool Risk Across Generations”, focused on the ethics of pension reform.  Otsuka attacked the real-world problem of low bond yields producing a crisis of pension funding with three alternative models.  Echoing Derek Parfit’s magisterial work, On What Matters, Otsuka presented his proposals as three alternative means for scaling the dangerous summit of pension obligations.

Otsuka’s proposals are important.  Ethics issues rarely come with this much money at stake.  In 2018, the Office of National Statistics published a study showing that UK pension schemes were underfunded by over £5 trillion .  That is an attention-grabbing number but not extraordinary in the context.  The Trustees of the US Social Security system recently published their 2020 report indicating this scheme alone anticipates a shortfall of US$16.8 trillion over the next 75 years.  Like scientists employing standard form when the numbers they use become too large to comprehend, the US Social Security Administration now refers to its shortfall in terms of percentages of total payroll taxes.

The proposals Otsuka has set forth are not amoral financial models.  Each involves shifting risk and responsibility among parties, and sometimes across generations, with diverse arguments as to the fairness of these shifts.  Any resulting pension system’s impact on lifestyles and liberty for workers, employers, and governments may strain the social contract between these groups and set them up for a potential fall. Continue reading

Guest Post: A Relentless Focus on the Given – Reviewing O. Carter Snead’s What it Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics

Guest Post by Charles Camosy

Professor Carter Snead, at least in my world, is about as important a contemporary voice in bioethics that we have today. A professor on Notre Dame’s law faculty, he is perhaps better known as director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture—one of the most significant positions in the United States for doing public bioethics. He was heavily involved in the topic before coming to Notre Dame, including when serving as general counsel to the President’s Council on Bioethics chaired by Leon Kass. He currently serves on the Pontifical Academy for Life and as an elected fellow of the Hastings Center.

When Professor Snead came out with a book on public bioethics from Harvard University Press this month, that became good reason for many of us to pay close attention—especially when Alasdair MacIntyre gave a back cover endorsement calling it “indispensable reading” whether “you agree or disagree with Snead’s perspective.” Indeed, Snead makes it clear that he’s not merely preaching to the choir in this book, but instead aiming at making his case to folks with  different perspectives in “the spirit of friendship” and “anchored in the firm belief that we can only govern ourselves wisely, humanly, and justly if we become the kind of people who can make each other’s goods our own.” Continue reading

Announcement: 7th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Graduate and undergraduate students currently enrolled at the University of Oxford in any subject are invited to enter the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics by submitting an essay of up to 2000 words on any topic relevant to practical ethics.  Eligibility includes visiting students who are registered as recognized students, and paying fees, but does not include informal visitors.  Two undergraduate papers and two graduate papers will be shortlisted from those submitted to go forward to an online public presentation and discussion, where the winner of each category will be selected.

The winner from each category will receive £300, and the runner up £100. Revised versions of the two winning essays will be considered for publication in the Journal of Practical Ethics, though publication is not guaranteed.

To enter, please submit your written papers by the end of Tuesday 9th February 2021 to rocci.wilkinson@philosophy.ox.ac.uk. Finalists will be notified on Tuesday 23rd February of selection. The online public presentation will take place in 8th Week, Hilary term 2021, on Wednesday 10th March, from 5pm. Please save this presentation date, as you will need to attend if selected as a finalist.  Continue reading

Press Release: UK Approves COVID-19 Challenge Studies

Responses to the UK COVID-19 Challenge Studies: 

“In a pandemic, time is lives.  So far, over a million people have died.

“There is a moral imperative to develop to a safe and effective vaccine – and to do so as quickly as possible.  Challenge studies are one way of accelerating vaccine research.  They are ethical if the risks are fully disclosed and they are reasonable.  The chance of someone aged 20-30 dying of COVID-19 is about the same as the annual risk of dying in a car accident.  That is a reasonable risk to take, especially to save hundreds of thousands of lives.  It is surprising challenge studies were not done sooner.  Given the stakes, it is unethical not to do challenge studies.”

Prof Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics, and Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and Co-Director of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, University of Oxford

“Human challenge studies are an important and powerful research tool to help accelerate our understanding of infectious diseases and vaccine development.  They have been used for many years for a range of different infections.

“The announcement of the UK Human Challenge Program is a vital step forward for the UK and the world in our shared objective of bringing the COVID-19 pandemic to an end.  With cases climbing across Europe, and more than 1.2 million deaths worldwide, there is an urgent ethical imperative to explore and establish COVID-19 challenge trials.

“All research needs ethical safeguards.  Challenge trials need to be carefully designed to ensure that those who take part are fully informed of the risks, and that the risks to volunteers are minimised.  Not everyone could take part in a challenge trial (only young, healthy volunteers are likely to be able to take part).  Not everyone would choose to take part.  But there are hundreds of young people in the UK and elsewhere who have already signed up to take part in COVID challenge studies.  They deserve our admiration, our support and our thanks.”

Prof Dominic Wilkinson, Professor of Medical Ethics, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

Further Research

Read more about the ethics of challenge studies:

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Some Questions for the University of Oxford about their Covid-19 Advice

Written by University of Oxford DPhil Student, Tena Thau

 

Yesterday, Oxford sent out an email to students, informing us that we would be asked to sign this Covid-19 Student Responsibility Agreement, before the start of term in October. The email also linked to some further Covid-19 guidance. Here are some questions that I had, while reading through these materials.

  1. Given that much, if not most, transmission is asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, what is the rationale for only testing those with symptoms, rather than frequently testing everyone (as some universities are doing, and as this recent BMJ editorial advocates)?
  2. Ventilation is important – yet it was not mentioned in the student agreement. What steps is the university taking to increase ventilation in shared indoor spaces?
  3. Given that nearly all ‘superspreader’ incidents have occurred indoors, why not emphasise the importance of moving social activities outdoors?
  4. Given that the risk of transmission via contaminated surfaces is vanishingly low, why do the guidelines emphasise wiping down surfaces? (Promoting ineffective measures, besides not being helpful, can cause net harm, if they deflect our attention from those measures that are actually useful.)
  5. The situation playing out now in the US should be warning sign for UK universities. Some universities in the US have over a thousand cases already – and classes there have only just begun. What is Oxford doing differently to prevent something like that from unfolding here?

Guest Post- Pandemic Ethics: Your Freedom Really Matters. So What?

Written by Farbod Akhlaghi (University of Oxford)

The coronavirus pandemic rages on. To the surprise of many, the enforcement of mask wearing, imposition of lockdowns, and other measures taken to try to halt the pandemic’s march have been met with some heavy and vocal resistance. Such resistance has materialised into protests in various countries against these measures taken by states, companies, and other organisations to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

There are a range of reasons one might object to these measures. One reason that has repeatedly been voiced – sometimes shouted through angry un-masked mouths – is that these measures unjustly affect the freedom of those subject to them. The thought is that, for example, being forced to wear a mask, or denied entry into somewhere without a mask, is an unjust restriction of one’s freedom, presumably either to wear whatever they choose or to be free from the interference of others in going about one’s business.

Whatever good reasons there may be to object to these pandemic mitigating measures, I believe this one is simply a mistake. It is certainly true that our freedom, both to do things and from unjust interference, matter morally – they matter a lot too. But the moral significance of freedom, and the mere fact that measures like enforcing mask wearing, imposing lockdowns, and restricting movement do curtail such freedom, does not show that these measures unjustly restrict the freedom of those subject to them during this pandemic.

Failure to see this may be due to a failure to recognise the distinction, drawn by the moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, between the infringement and the violation of a right.

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Pandemic Ethics: Testing times: An ethical framework and practical recommendations for COVID-19 testing for NHS workers

Dr Alberto Giubilini, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro  Centre for Practical Ethics and Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities was part of an independent rapid-response project to develop an ethical framework for COVID-19 swab testing for NHS workers. Following a stakeholder consultation, the expert group have published a report identifying ethical considerations and providing practical guidance and recommendations to identify good practice and support improvement.

The report is available online. 

Guest Post: Is it Wrong to Lower Your Chances of Doing What You Ought to Do?

Written by Farbod Akhlaghi (University of Oxford)

Suppose you have a moral obligation to take care of your ailing parent tomorrow. If you did something that would lower your chances of fulfilling that moral obligation – like going out partying all night tonight – would you thereby have done something morally wrong?

We do things that affect our chances of fulfilling our moral obligations all the time. They range from the most mundane, like taking a specific route from one place to another where you ought to be doing something at the latter place, to acts like smoking, abusing drugs, or severely neglecting one’s physical and mental well-being. Call actions that affect our chances of fulfilling our moral obligations in the future chance-affecting actions.

Whilst moral obligations are hotly debated in moral philosophy, there has been little to no direct discussion of the moral status of affecting the chances of fulfilling such obligations. This should surprise us. For they are a pervasive feature of our lives: many daily choices we make affect our chances of ultimately doing what we ought to do in the future. And the mere fact that it is, other things being equal, right to do what we are obligated to and wrong not to does not settle whether it is right or wrong to affect our chances of meeting our obligations. So, it seems morally urgent to ask: might we, for example, act wrongly when we make it less likely that we will fulfil an obligation in the future?

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Pandemic Ethics: Moral Reasoning in a Pandemic [Guest Post]

Cross-Posted with The Boston Review

By Professor Frances Kamm, Harvard University

Policy discussions during the pandemic have raised concerns for me, as a moral philosopher, about how policy analysts and policy makers are thinking about deaths from COVID-19 and the right way to combat them. The policy discussions I have in mind have ranged from broad issues about how and when to open the economy to more focused concerns about how Intensive Care Units in hospitals should allocate scarce medical equipment (including ventilators). I will here consider three areas of concern about how people are reasoning about what is morally right in the pandemic.

Interpersonal Aggregation 
How should we weigh the economic costs of keeping the economy shut down versus the lives lost to COVID-19 from opening it up? Speaking on the PBS evening News Hour June 18, economist Nick Bloom calculated that the experience of being shut in and suffering economic trauma could result in the loss of a year of life for a person. I do not want to second guess his estimate, but to ask about the use it might be put to in reasoning about what to do.

Read  the full article

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