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Alexandre Erler

Is it ethical to force-feed prisoners on a hunger strike?

by Alexandre Erler

The question, which generated debate a few years ago in the context of the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, is now arising again in Switzerland, where imprisoned cannabis farmer Bernard Rappaz has been on hunger strike for about three months now, in protest against a prison sentence he considers excessive. Rappaz was sentenced to five years and eight months behind bars for trading in cannabis and various other offenses. The Federal Court, Switzerland’s highest instance, has ruled that Rappaz should be force-fed if necessary, but doctors in charge of him have refused to obey those orders. A criminal law Professor has argued that according to the Swiss Penal Code, these doctors should be prosecuted, as their refusal amounts to civil disobedience. How should we regard such a legal implication? Is it ethically acceptable, perhaps even required, to force feed someone like Bernard Rappaz?

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Are some temperaments “better” than others?

by Alexandre Erler

Jerome Kagan’s latest book, The Temperamental Thread, is – as usual with Kagan – a fascinating read. It draws on the three decades of research done by Kagan on the topic of human temperament. In a famous series of studies, Kagan examined the way infants reacted to unfamiliar or unexpected events. He found that about 20 per cent of these infants were unusually responsive to such events, exhibiting vigorous motor activity and frequent crying. He calls these infants “high reactives”, and found after following their evolution during their subsequent years that they were biased to become timid, subdued toddlers and shy adolescents who become uneasy when they cannot predict or control the future. About 20 per cent of these high reactives proved unable to cope with their temperament and were subsequently diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, depression, or both. By contrast, another other group of infants showed a high threshold of excitability to the same events. Kagan calls them “low reactives”. They tended to become outgoing, relatively fearless children and relaxed adolescents who like risk and challenge [3]. In the wake of Kagan’s earlier work The Long Shadow of Temperament, The Temperamental Thread paints a rich and detailed picture of the differences between these two psychological types.


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Should we rid the world of carnivores if we could?

by Alexandre Erler

In a provocative piece for the New York Times, Jeff McMahan remarks that cruelty pervades the natural world: he stresses the vast amount of suffering and the violent deaths inflicted by predators on their innocent victims. He then invites us to consider a daring way of preventing such suffering and deaths: “Suppose that we could arrange the gradual extinction of carnivorous species, replacing them with new herbivorous ones.  Or suppose that we could intervene genetically, so that currently carnivorous species would gradually evolve into herbivorous ones, thereby fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy.  If we could bring about the end of predation by one or the other of these means at little cost to ourselves, ought we to do it?” McMahan’s conclusion, which he describes himself as “heretical”, is that we do have a moral reason to desire the extinction of carnivorous species, and that it would be good to bring about their extinction if this could be done “without ecological upheaval involving more harm than would be prevented by the end of predation”.

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Is there any point in worrying about the tedium of immortality?

by Alexandre Erler

Technologies meant to help extend the human lifespan, such as cryonics, or the procedures investigated by gerontologist Aubrey de Grey under the name “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”, are increasingly an object of discussion, including in the popular press. A recent example of this is John Walsh’s piece in The Independent earlier this month. He is one of several authors who find it worth telling us that they wouldn’t want to live forever, even if they could. At times his article appears to aim merely at being entertaining and polemical, yet his central idea has been put forward by respected philosophers such as Bernard Williams, in his famous essay The Markopulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality. In short, the idea is that living forever would just be atrociously boring.


Should we draw normative conclusions from such pieces about the development and use of life extension technologies, regarding them as superfluous or even downright undesirable? I want to argue for a negative answer to that question.


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Is “playing God” just a meaningless phrase?

In a
recent piece for
magazine, Philip Ball denounces the “playing God” objection, often made
against some proposed uses of biotechnology, as a “meaningless, dangerous
cliché”. More specifically, Ball mentions the objection in relation to Craig
Venter’s creation – already discussed on this blog – of the first microorganism
with a wholly synthetic genome. Though many people from the press have raised
the “playing God” issue in their coverage of Venter’s achievement, “no one”,
Ball writes, “seems in the least concerned to enquire what this phrase means or
why it is being used”. 

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Morality: what’s disgust got to do with it?

Taylor has got an interesting recent piece in the Guardian
about the importance
of the emotion of disgust for our moral lives. “If you had a dog”, she asks,
“and it died a natural death, how would you feel about roasting and eating it?”
Most of us would be revulsed by such an idea. And yet by hypothesis we
would not be causing the dog any harm whatsoever; suppose also we made sure
that the meat was adequately prepared so that it did not pose a health risk to
us and our children. Why should eating the dog raise any moral issue at all?


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Should parents be allowed to pick their children’s sex for non-medical reasons?

Once upon
a time, there were a queen and a king who had three children, all of them boys.
They both loved their children dearly and made sure they had everything they
might need to flourish. Nevertheless, the queen and her husband still felt that
their family was incomplete without a daughter. They had hoped to have one
after the birth of their first son, but both of the queen’s subsequent
pregnancies had produced boys. As she was now getting close to the age when she
could no longer reasonably hope to have more children, she and her husband were
worried that their wish for a daughter would never be fulfilled. Finally,
deciding not to leave what might be their last attempt to chance, they traveled through the
kingdom to solicit the assistance of an eminent enchanter. He was a wise man
renowned to have produced many miracles. Feeling sympathy for the royal couple,
the enchanter granted their request and prepared a special brew for them to
drink. Nine months later, the queen gave birth to a
beautiful daughter.

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Eugenics or ‘reprogenetics’? Call it what you will, but let’s do it

As The


“British couples are to be offered a groundbreaking genetic test that
would virtually eliminate their chances of having a baby with one of more than
100 inherited diseases. The simple saliva test, which identifies whether
prospective parents carry genetic mutations that could cause life-threatening
disorders such as cystic fibrosis, spinal muscular atrophy or sickle-cell
anaemia in their children, is to be launched within weeks in Britain… If the
procedure, which will cost about £400 per person or £700 for a couple, is
widely adopted, it could dramatically reduce the incidence of 109 serious
inherited conditions that collectively affect one in every 280 births


Surely we should be delighted at such great news?
Surprisingly, not everyone agrees. Some experts object that the test, devised
by the Californian company
could lead to “back door eugenics”.
They also argue that the
diseases it detects are too rare for most people to need screening, and that it
will cause needless alarm. Finally, they fear that it will raise demand for
embryo screening and abortion.


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Killing is killing – or is it?

In the
headlines this week is
the tragic story of Frances Inglis, whom a jury at the Old Bailey found guilty of murdering her disabled son Tom
and sentenced to nine years in jail. Tom Inglis had been left severely
braindamaged after falling from a moving ambulance in 2007, throwing his mother
in a state of deep distress. She refused to believe an (apparently isolated)
encouraging prognosis from one of the doctors at the hospital, and concluded
that it was her duty to release her son from the
“living hell” in which he found himself. Horrified on learning that the only legal way of
allowing her son to die was an application to the High Court for Tom’s food and
water to be withdrawn, Frances Inglis decided to take action on her own. After
a first unsuccessful attempt 14 months earlier, she took her son’s life by
injecting him with a lethal dose of heroin in November 2008.


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Why the minaret ban?

I would
like to try and throw additional light on the motives that led a majority of
Swiss voters to a surprise acceptance, on November 29, of an initiative
forbidding the construction of future minarets – already commented on by
Russell Powell in his entry on this very blog yesterday. Some supporters of the
initiative, such as far-right politician Ulrich Schlüer, who co-launched it
(and was already notorious for his questionable campaign in 2004 against simplified
naturalisation procedures), might simply want to prevent any minority with a
cultural and religious background different from their own from expanding and
expressing itself. Others might have been misled into thinking that all Muslims
are extremists, supporting terrorist attacks. Yet I also suspect that a
significant proportion of those who endorsed the minaret ban, while not being
fundamentally hostile to Islam, might have been motivated by the worry that the
further expansion of the Muslim community in Switzerland (and Europe in
general) poses a threat to certain core values of Western liberal democracies,
such as gender equality, freedom of speech, and the separation between church
and state.


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