Conference: Experiments and Ethics, Oxford

On June 6th and 7th, 2014 the Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme in the Humanities will host “Experiments and Ethics,” an interdisciplinary conference at the University of Oxford. The conference aims to foster dialogue and explore connections among various empirical and theoretical approaches to ethics. Practical Ethics speakers include Guy Kahane, Janet Radcliffe Richards, and Regina Rini. There will also be speakers from Anthropology, Cognitive Science, Economics, Psychology, Neuroscience, and Religion.

Conference Programme

Conference registration

Do we have a moral obligation protect the climate?

On 6 December, Prof. Dr. Bernward Gesang, Chair of Philosophy and Ethics of Economy at the University of Mannheim, presented an interesting talk on “Do individuals have duties to protect the climate?” exploring if individuals have moral obligation to change their behaviours to mitigate climate change from an Act Utilitarian perspective, i.e. the view that an act is permissible if and only if no other acts bring higher overall utility. Continue reading

Professor Tim Scanlon: When Does Equality Matter?

2013 Uehiro Lectures by Professor Tim Scanlon (Department of Philosophy, Harvard University)

We are very grateful to Professor Tim Scanlon (Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, Harvard University) for delivering the 10th Annual Uehiro Lectures in December 2013, entitled “When Does Equality Matter?”

Lecture 1: “Equal Treatment”  AUDIO 

Lecture 2:”Equal Status”  AUDIO 

Lecture 3: “Equal Opportunity”  AUDIO  (includes discussion with Professors John Broome, Janet Radcliffe Richards and David Miller).

Video files will shortly be available here.

Uehiro Lectures and Book Series: The annual public Uehiro Lecture Series captures the ethos of the Uehiro Centre, which is to bring the best scholarship in analytic philosophy to bear on the most significant problems of our time, and to make progress in the analysis and resolution of these issues to the highest academic standard, in a manner that is also accessible to the general public. Philosophy should not only create knowledge, it should make people’s lives better. In keeping with this, the Annual Uehiro Lectures are published as a book series by Oxford University Press.  See Uehiro Series in Practical Ethics on the OUP website for further details

Speaker bio: Professor Scanlon received his B.A. from Princeton and his Ph.D. from Harvard. In between, he studied for a year at Oxford as a Fulbright Fellow. He taught for many years at Princeton before taking up a position at Harvard in 1984. His dissertation and some of his first papers were in mathematical logic, where his main concern was in proof theory, but he soon made his name in ethics and political philosophy, where he developed a version of contractualism in the line of John Rawls, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Professor Scanlon has also published important work on freedom of speech, equality, tolerance, foundations of contract law, human rights, conceptions of welfare, theories of justice, as well as on foundational questions in moral theory. His books include What We Owe to Each Other (Harvard University Press, 1998) and The Difficulty of Tolerance (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Other recent publications include Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame, published by Harvard University Press in September 2008

Podcast: Is Networking Immoral?

Guest Post: Ned Dobos, University of New South Wales

This post is a summary of a talk presented by Dr. Dobos at the University of Oxford. Listen to the Podcast

Despite being ubiquitous in both the public and private sectors, “networking” has largely escaped ethical scrutiny. But is it the perfectly innocuous business and career-advancement strategy it is presumed to be? Let us concentrate on a specific kind of career networking: networking aimed at increasing one’s prospects of prevailing in a formal competitive selection process for a job or university placement. That is the end, so what is the means? How exactly is networking supposed to deliver this advantage? Experts tend to answer with at least one of the following responses: 1) networking is about building relationships with people that are (or might be) in a position to benefit your career; 2) networking is about demonstrating your worth to these people.

On either account, networking arguably involves seeking unfair advantage.

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Is Two -Thirds of What We Say Immoral?

Allegations that Nigella Lawson, professional domestic goddess, was an inveterate drug taker caused a media, twitter, blog and water-cooler storm. Even after the initial shock subsided, column inches have been devoted to her relationship with her ex-husband, her future career prospects, the running of her household and the other fall out of a criminal trial into alleged credit card fraud by two of her former assistants. Gossip, according to Robin Dunbar accounts for around two thirds of human conversation. And that statistic dates to 1995, 5 years before Big Brother kick started a tidal wave of reality TV and 4 years before the titles such as Heat Magazine formed part of a wave of celebrity magazines and other spin offs devoted to ‘celebrity’ gossip.

An inevitable part of this kind of gossip is “judging” those that we hear about. David Oderberg, in the latest issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics discusses the morality of judging others. He makes the fascinating argument that not only is defamation wrong, but ‘detraction’, that is truthful gossiping or judgment –forming is wrong also. A reputation he argues, has similarities with property rights. Though a reputation cannot be bought or sold, he argues it is akin to a ‘currency’, something we need to live a good life, and whilst it is visible to others, it is not for others to destroy or damage it.

Beyond this, he argues that judging others may even be harmful to the gossiper- it detracts from our ability to judge ourselves- and therefore to improve ourselves. So instead of judging Nigella Lawson for whatever she did or did not do, perhaps we should all be in our own metaphorical “kitchen”, perfecting our inner domestic gods and goddesses.

But in answer to the title question, it is estimated that only about 5% of gossip is “malicious or disparaging”- so no need to avoid the water cooler entirely.

Podcast interview with David S.  Oderberg discussing his article “The Morality of Reputation and the Judgment of Others”
Open access article: The Morality of Reputation and the Judgment of Others”, David S. Oderberg
December’s Journal of Practical Ethics

Event Announcement: Serotonin influences the use of social norms in resource dilemmas” by Prof Robert Rogers and “Prosociality and trust” by Prof Paul A.M. Van Lange

“Serotonin influences the use of social norms in resource dilemmas” and “Prosociality and trust”

Professor Robert Rogers asks how do people sustain resources for the benefit of individuals and communities and avoid the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ in which shared resources become exhausted? And Prof Paul Van Lange will discuss psychological and neuroscientific evidence showing that for prosocials, it is essential that they count on reciprocity. In contrast, for individualists, they may switch to cooperation  if they come to be convinced that they can count on reciprocity

Time and Date: Friday15 November, 5pm – 7pm

Venue: Oxford Martin School, Corner of Catte and Holywell Street, Oxford

All welcome. Please register online

Full abstracts:
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Podcast: Ethics and Expectations, Seth Lazar

Imagine you have been set the following trolley problem by a villain. There is a central track, called CONTINUE. If you do nothing, the trolley will continue down this track, and kill whomever is at the end of it, then stop.

Part way along the line, there is a junction, with a lever. If you pull that lever, then the trolley will go down one of two tracks—STOP and LOOP. If it goes down STOP, then it stops, killing whoever is at the end of the line (if anyone).

If it goes down LOOP, it returns to the start of the track, killing whoever is on LOOP, and leading to the trolley returning to the junction. The lever determining which way the trolley will go is probabilistic, and the villain controls the probabilities.

The villain also controls how many people are tied to the tracks, and which tracks they are tied to. Importantly, if the trolley goes down LOOP, killing whoever is on there, then the villain will replace those victims with fresh ones (for the moment we’ll assume that he does so with the same number).

This lecture animated by a concern that deontological theorists have trouble accommodating ignorance and uncertainty into our theories, developed a broadly deontological approach to iterated, probabilistic decision problems like this one.

Audio file


Podcast: The Ethics of Infant Male Circumcision

In this talk (audio- MP3 and video -youtube)  , Brian D. Earp argues that the non-therapeutic circumcision of infant males is unethical, whether it is performed for reasons of obtaining possible future health benefits, for reasons of cultural transmission, or for reasons of perceived religious obligation. He begins with the premise that it should be considered morally impermissible to sever healthy, functional genital tissue from another person’s body without first asking for, and then actually receiving, that person’s informed consent—otherwise, this action would qualify as a criminal assault. He then raises a number of possible exceptions to this rule, to see whether they could reasonably serve to justify the practice of infant male circumcision in certain cases.

First, what if it could be established that the risk of contracting certain diseases might be diminished by removing a person’s foreskin in infancy, as is often suggested in the United States? Second, what if circumcision could be shown to reduce the spread of AIDS in African populations with high transmission rates of HIV? Third, what if the infant’s parents believed that they had a cultural or a religious obligation to remove the foreskin from his penis before he was old enough to give his consent?

After discussing the merits of these considerations as possible “exceptions” to the ethical premise with which he began, he concludes that they do not present compelling justifications for circumcision before the boy is old enough to understand what is at stake in such a surgery and to decide for himself whether he would like to part with his own foreskin. He concludes with a discussion of the similarities and differences between male and female forms of genital cutting, andsrgues that anyone who is committed to the view that infant male circumcision is morally permissible must also accept the moral permissibility of some (though not all) forms of female genital cutting. However, as he argues, neither type of cutting should be allowed absent clear consent of the individual and/or strict medical necessity.

Podcast: David Nutt, ‘The current laws on drugs and alcohol – ineffective, dishonest and unethical?’

Professor David Nutt argues in this podcast of his lecture, that whilst the use of the law to control drug use is long established, it remains unproven in efficacy. Although seemingly obvious that legal interdictions should work there is little evidence to support this assertion. So for example cannabis though illegal is at some time used by nearly half of the population. Similarly drugs like ecstasy and amfetamine are widely used by up to a million young people each weekend. This use is underpinned by a demand for the pleasurable experiences that the drugs produce, and also by a paradoxical desire by some people to break the law.

As well as being ineffective for many users prohibition of drugs often leads to perverse magnification of harms and drug use. When the “English” approach to heroin use i.e. prescription to addicts was abolished in the 1970s on moral grounds heroin use increased tenfold in a few years as addicts were forced to become dealers so getting more people addicted to fuel their income. The banning of alcohol in the 1920s in the USA lead to huge criminal expansion of alcohol sales the perpetrators of which turned to other drugs once prohibition was repealed: a legacy that we still experience today.

Moreover the un-scientific and arbitrary distinct between legal drugs particularly alcohol and tobacco and “illegal” drugs also has perverse negative consequences. As well as bringing the scientific foundation of the drug laws into disrepute it also precludes the use of possibly life-changing drugs for those who might benefit from them as treatments: examples of these include cannabis for Multiple sclerosis, MDMA [ecstasy] for PTSD and psilocybin for cluster headaches.

For these reasons Nutt argues that there are serious ethical implications for a simplistic prohibitionist approach to drugs and suggest alternative strategies that might be used.

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Podcast: Folk Psychology, the Reactive Attitudes and Responsibility

In this podcast of her recent lecture, Professor Jeanette Kennett explores the connections between the folk psychological project of interpretation, the reactive attitudes and responsibility, (podcast ). The first section argues that the reactive attitudes originate in very fast and to a significant extent, non-voluntary processes involving constant facial feedback. These processes allow for smooth interaction between participants and are important to the interpretive practices that ground intimate relationships as well as to a great many less intense interactions. She then examines cases of facial paralysis (Moebius Syndrome and Botox studies) to support the argument that when these processes are interrupted or impaired, the interpretive project breaks down and social relationships suffer.

But do failures of interpretation lead, as Strawson suggests, to the suspension of the reactive attitudes relevant to responsibility assessments? Prof Kennett suggests that in many important instances they do not, considering the cases of children who murder, alien cultures, and psychopaths. In the second part she examines the supposed constitutive relation between the reactive attitudes and responsibility.

Jeanette Kennett is Professor of Moral Psychology and Deputy Director of the Centre for Agency Values and Ethics at Macquarie University. She has published widely on moral cognition, moral and criminal responsibility, and impairments of agency. She is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council funded project on Addiction and Moral Identity and is also a chief investigator on an ARC project examining implicit persuasion in direct to consumer pharmaceutical advertising.

This seminar was co-hosted by The Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and the International Neuroethics Society