How Could Julian Savulescu Still Be a Utilitarian

Guest post: Professor Valentin Muresan, University of Bucharest

Professor Julian Savulescu writes: “People think I am a utilitarian, but I am not. I, like nearly everybody else, find Utilitarianism to be too demanding” .

Why does he need to confess? He tells us: ethical utilitarianism is in crisis because of several misunderstandings. One is that recent research in moral psychology shows that utilitarian judgments do not reflect so much the old noble “impartial concern for the greater good of all” but are rather correlated with psychopatic and egoistic tendencies . Consequently, he feels that the Utilitarianism used to set up empirical research on moral psychology is not fit for the job, and should be abandoned or improved. Philosophy is important for moral psychology, but this does not mean that we don’t need a better philosophy. Julian Savulescu’s solution was to try to abandon the camp of utilitarianism, looking instead for an external refuge in a weak form of “easy rescue consequentialism”.

What I want to show is that although he currently speaks about Utilitarianism in general, he has in view only a version of Utilitarianism, the most vulnerable one. This type of utilitarianism was already criticised from various perspectives, the main line of attack being that “it is too demanding”. This shortcomming has also a variety of aspects. The solutions resulted from the criticisms addressed by Julian Savulescu to the weak points of the official utilitarian doctrine configure tacitely the draft of an improved utilitarianism which satisfy all the requirements raised by critics and is very similar to Mill’s utilitarianism. Therefore, even if Julian Savulescu criticized Utilitarianism, there is no need to abandon the utilitarian camp.

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Treated like Animals, Guest Post by Christine Korsgaard

Guest Post: Christine Korsgaard, Harvard University

On November 5, 2014, RT reported that Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia claimed that they were being “treated like animals.” On November 14, The Independent reported that the members of Pussy Riot complained that while in prison in Russia they were “treated like animals.” On November 17, the BBC reported that Nepalese migrant workers building the infrastructure for the World Cup meeting in Qatar complained of being “treated like cattle.” On November 25, The Indian Express reported that Indian tennis star Sania Merza complained that women in India are “treated like animals.”

What does it mean to be “treated like an animal”? The Filipino workers gave as an example that their “feet were chained.” Members of Pussy Riot complained that in Russian prisons, the wardens “very casually beat people up. They don’t have a sense that they [inmates] are human.” Earlier they claimed that prison administrations “just treat prisoners as they want with impunity.” By being “treated like cattle” the Nepalese migrant workers meant “working up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, including during Qatar’s hot summer months.” On December 24, Time reported that the Nepalese migrant workers are dying at the rate of one every two days. Sania Merza said that women in India face discrimination and violence. She also said, “I hope one day everyone will say that we are equal and women are not treated as objects.”

Merza’s last remark raises a question. As these examples suggest, people whose rights are violated, people whose interests are ignored or overridden, people who are abused, harmed, neglected, and unjustly imprisoned, standardly protest that they are being treated “like animals.” Why do we so often formulate our protest that way, rather than saying, as Merza also said, and as people sometimes do, that we are being treated “like objects”? After all, it is objects that may, in the words of Pussy Riot, be treated “just as [we] want with impunity,” if indeed anything can. Perhaps it’s because people feel that that fails to completely capture the force of their protest. After all, an object cannot suffer from being beaten up or chained or caged, or die from overwork in harsh working conditions. In the relevant sense, you cannot treat an object badly, even if you do treat it “just as you want with impunity.” But when we treat animals just as we want we can treat them badly. But in that case, the implication of the phrase seems to be that animals are the beings that it is all right to treat badly, and the complainant is insisting that he or she is not one of those.

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Is it worth saving human lives at the cost of mistreating animals?

Guest Post: Emilian Mihailov, Research Centre in Applied Ethics, Univeristy of Bucharest

The most persuasive argument for experimenting on animals is probably the claim that it is only through such research, that we save human lives. This does not imply that we don’t have any moral duties towards animals. Because they are not mere objects we ought to treat them kindly, promote their wellbeing, and even take action to prevent others from applying cruel treatment. However, when human lives are at stake, we have the strong belief that it is morally permissible to experiment on animals even if the experiments in question necessarily involve chronic pain and death. We might get residual moral feelings, such as guilt, from the infliction of pain, but nevertheless, it is believed that saving human lives takes priority. We are sorry, but we matter more.

It is hard to argue the contrary, since the idea of saving human lives seems so appealing. How can we not try to cure cancer, epilepsy, or Alzheimer’s disease? Those who challenge the desirability of this aim will be considered eccentric, if not irrational.

But, sometimes, our strong reactions may stem from the framing of a problem. The way a problem is “framed” often has a powerful influence on how people react. The “framing effect” is observed when the description of consequentially identical decision problems in terms of gains (positive frame) rather than losses (negative frame) elicits systematically different choices (Tversky & Kahneman 1981). Christine Korsgaard recently suggested in the Animal Ethics Workshop, held in Oxford, that the there are “framing effects” with the problem of saving lives through animal experimentation. If the benefits of experimentation are not framed in terms of saving lives, but in terms of extending lives, then our supportive reactions might not be so strong, because the benefit of gaining a few more years to live does not seem extremely attractive. Christine Korsgaard then proposed to imagine two possible worlds: in world A we live 70 years and we have social practices that do not allow animal experimentation; in world B we live 90 years and have social practices which permit experiments on animals. She believes that world A is morally preferable because the benefits we get from extending our lives do not seem that high as to justify failing to treat animals as ends in themselves. More simply, it is not worth having a mere extension of our lives with the moral cost of mistreating animals. If we frame the problem in these terms, then perhaps many would be more sympathetic towards the moral standing of animals in research.

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Bucharest – Oxford Workshop in Applied Ethics: Workshop Summary

Guest Post: Toni Gibea, University of Bucharest. 

The Bucharest-Oxford Workshop in Applied Ethics, which took place in Oxford on the 1st of December, brought together researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Bucharest to discuss new research across a variety of topics in applied ethics.

The workshop consisted of three main sessions: Principles and practice in applied ethics, Enhancement and Neuroethics. In what follows, I will summarize conclusions from the presentations together with responses from the audience, in order to give a quick overview. If you want to hear more about a particular presentation see the podcasts here.

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Helping Friends

Guest post: Valerie Tiberius, University of Minnesota. Read the related paper: How Theories of Well-being Can Help Us Help in the latest issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics.

I have a friend I’ll call Liam who is ruining his life.  Liam is marrying the wrong man:  someone controlling and unappreciative who seems to all the world to be making Liam unhappy and stressed.  What should I do for Liam?  I think it’s very unclear.  If you have ever wanted to help a friend or a family member who is in trouble, you know that helping isn’t as easy as it sounds.  There are lots of ways to go wrong – your “help” may be perceived as insulting, condescending, paternalistic, insensitive, or just plain unhelpful.

Can philosophy help? You might think that theories of well-being would be useful here.  Such theories aim to tell us what makes something good for a person.  So, if we’re aiming to help someone – to do something for their sake, something that’s good for them – a theory of what makes something good for a person is a good place to start.  Unfortunately, theories of well-being aren’t that helpful when it comes to helping.  There are two main types of wellbeing theory. Theories that emphasize the psychological dimensions of well-being would tell us to promote desire satisfaction, life satisfaction, or pleasure.  But sometimes the reason that a person’s life isn’t going well is that she wants (or is satisfied by or gets pleasure from) the wrong things.  The other type of theory emphasizes the importance of achieving objective goods (e.g., friendship, love, knowledge), things that make a like go well whether or not they are desired. However, if we are guided in our attempts to help by objective values that are not connected to a person’s desires, then we risk giving advice that is thought of as condescending, insensitive or the like.

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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Announcement: Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics, open to all students at Oxford University

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. Two undergraduate papers and two graduate papers will be shortlisted from those submitted to go forward to a 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. All four finalist essays will be considered for publication in the Journal of Practical Ethics. Continue reading

The Wrongness of Do Not Resuscitate Orders Being Ignored

Guest Post by Joseph Bowen

Joseph is a BPhil Student studying at Oxford University.

Following a surprise inspection of Colchester General Hospital by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) on Friday 14th November, it was reported that inspectors had found that some patients (“elderly people, some [suffering from] dementia”) had been inappropriately restrained, and/or sedated without consent, and that ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ (DNR) notices were being disregarded. What struck me about this case is that, while all are horrible practices, the DNRs being ignored seemed worse than the inappropriate restraint and sedation without consent. Continue reading

One Million Readers: Thank You

We are pleased to have reached our one millionth reader since our records began. Thank you to all our authors, guest posters, readers and commentators who have supported the blog over a number of years. And thanks to reader one million, whoever you are…

We would like to mark the occasion by taking stock about the future of the blog and would like to invite readers to contribute ideas for blog topics, and suggestions for improving the blog – both format and content via our comments section.

Can Bioethics be done without Theology? Guest Post from Charles Camosy

Guest Post: Charles Camosy, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University, New York City
E-mail: Twitter: @nohiddenmagenta

The discipline of theological bioethics is in trouble.

Especially as theology continues to morph into religious studies in many university departments, “social ethics” now swallows everything in its path—with almost all questions of ethics becoming questions exclusively about history, sociology and/or economics. Furthermore, especially in the Roman Catholic world, academic and ecclesial politics push against academics working on issues like abortion, euthanasia, health care distribution, and artificial reproductive technologies. After all, regardless of the position one takes on these issues, it is bound to run afoul of one of two orthodoxies: that of the Church or that the secular academy. Especially if not yet established in one’s academic career, it can be dangerous to be branded a heretic by one of these power brokers. Unsurprisingly, good universities are struggling even to find marginally viable candidates for excellent bioethics jobs. Most theological ethicists have decided not to write on bioethics.

But there is another reason that theological bioethics is in trouble. Today’s centers of power in academic and clinical bioethics (at least in the developed West) generally don’t take theology seriously. I recently attended the annual meeting of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities and was dismayed—though, I must say, not surprised—to see that a grand total of zero papers had an explicitly theological argument. Those of us who do theological bioethics know that, in order to get a paper accepted by today’s ASBH, one is forced to hide or translate one’s theological commitments. The reason I was able to present this year was because I was invited by the Christian theology interest group—the one place at ASBH (during the evening, apart from the formal sessions) where theologians can actually present and discuss theology.

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Student Bursaries for Travel to Christine M. Korsgaard’s Uehiro Lectures on the Moral and Legal Status of Animals and attend Animal Ethics Workshop

10 bursaries of up to £200 are available for current students of any University to travel to Oxford to attend the 2014 Uehiro Lectures “The Moral and Legal Status of Animals”, given by Professor Christine Korsgaard of Harvard University December 1 – 3, and to participate in a workshop on December 3. The workshop will consist of responses to the lectures from speakers including Jeff McMahan and Cecile Fabre, along with a group discussion of any specific implications this might have for the use of animals in research (Programme copied below, or downloadable.)

Bursaries can cover travel and accommodation expenses of up to £200 to attend the workshop plus one or more of the lectures. Bursaries are open to undergraduate and graduate students, but priority will be given to those undertaking research in a relevant area.

Applications should be sent via email to by November 14 and should consist of your name, contact details, details of your course of study or research focus, the dates of the lectures that you would like to attend, and a brief statement (no more than half a page) on how attendance would assist your studies.

The workshop is also open for anyone to attend but please email to reserve a space.

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