Alexandre Erler

Switzerland gets tough on suicide clinics

The Swiss
government (the Federal Council)
has recently announced its intention to crack
down on “suicide tourism”
 and to severely restrict the activities of suicide clinics like Dignitas and
Exit, which have regularly made the headlines outside Switzerland in the last
few years (particularly Dignitas), as foreigners make up a large proportion of
the hundreds of people they help to die every year. The government is proposing two draft Bills for public deliberation until March. The first option is an outright ban on suicide clinics; were it to become law, clinics like Dignitas and Exit would simply have to close down. Such an extreme measure, however, doesn’t have the favors of most members of the Federal Council, and probably won’t have those of the Parliament either. The second option is more likely to prove popular, and I will thus focus on it: it would involve much stricter regulations – rather than a ban – being imposed on the activities of these clinics. Violations of those regulations would involve
sanctions of up to five years in prison.

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Should we be afraid of virtual reality?

Prominent
authors like
Susan Greenfield and Roger Scruton have raised worries about the rise of virtual worlds such as Second Life, which
they fear might have a negative impact on human relationships, as people
increasingly spend their lives hidden behind an “avatar”. The movie Surrogates
, recently released, precisely pictures a future humanity that lives
as it were by proxy: the story takes place in a world where people stay at home
and send remote-controlled “surrogates” – androids that are typically younger
and better-looking versions of themselves – out in the world to do things for
them. In the same vein, American futurologist Ray Kurzweil
predicts that within a quarter of a century, virtual reality (VR) will rival the real
world: “If we want to go into virtual-reality mode”, he says, “nanobots will
shut down brain signals and take us wherever we want to go. Virtual sex will
become commonplace”. However, far from sharing the worries of people like
Greenfield and Scruton, Kurzweil believes this is a prospect we should look
forward to.*

 

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Should we forget about organic food?

A recent
report by the Food Standards Agency
argues that organic food doesn’t bring any
substantial nutritional benefits compared to conventionally produced food.
This contradicts the conclusions of previous studies suggesting organic food to
be nutritionally superior. As one might have expected, supporters of organic
farming have been critical of the report, yet it is unfortunate that the media
coverage on this issue often gives the impression that organic food has been
shown to be a sham (some consumer groups thus expect shoppers to now
“think
twice before buying organic”
)
and that its advocates are now reduced to using any bad argument they can think
of to prove the contrary. This impression is understandable but misleading.

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Does self-help make you feel worse?

A study
by Canadian researchers published in the latest issue of the journal Psychological
Science
(20:7, July
2009, 860-66),
as recently reported by BBC news,
discovered that people with low self-esteem paradoxically happened to feel
worse after repeating a series of positive statements about themselves. The
conclusions of this study are interesting, yet one might regret that the BBC
News headline, “Self-help ‘makes you feel worse’”, though certainly
attention-grabbing, is also rather misleading.

 

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More on drugs…

In a recent
entry on this weblog
, Roger Crisp discusses the recent and controversial
“Release” advertising campaign on drugs
(and its slogan “Nice People Take
Drugs”
),
and rightly highlights the need for serious and widespread debate on drug
legislation. My home country, Switzerland, precisely had a debate on this issue
a few months ago, when we were called to vote on a popular initiative
purporting to decriminalize the use, purchase, consumption and possession of
cannabis (not of other drugs) – which would have meant placing the consumption
of this drug on a similar plane with that of tobacco or alcohol. This measure
was supposed to be accompanied by others, notably destined to protect young
people. On the 30th of November 2008, however, the Swiss people
rejected the initiative by quite a large majority.

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Self-control matters – but to what extent can it be taught?

Recently in
the news, a report published by the independent think-tank Demos reminds us of
the importance of the capacity for self-control (it also mentions empathy, to
which most of the following remarks apply) in determining life outcomes. It
argues that self-control lessons should be taught at school if children,
particularly from deprived backgrounds, are to be given the tools they need to
succeed in life – low-self-control has for instance been shown to positively
correlate with length of unemployment or criminal behaviour, and negatively
with academic achievement. The report echoes renewed interest in the United
States in a now famous experiment by Walter Mischel on deferred gratification,
dating back to the late 1960s. Mischel tested the capacity of a group of
four-year olds to resist the temptation to eat straightaway a marshmallow he
had given them. The children who were able to refrain turned out to be better
adjusted, more dependable and to do better academically on the whole later in
life.

 

The report
by Demos makes important points and its proposals deserve to be supported.
Nevertheless, even if they are put into practice, we might still feel concerned
about how effective we can expect them to be. There is indeed a body of
evidence suggesting that the capacity for self-control is to a large extent
genetically determined (Wright & Beaver, 2005; Beaver & al., 2009).

 

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Just lose it?

A recent
study by researchers from the Harvard Medical School concludes that getting
angry at work, contrary to common opinion, may not be a bad thing, but may
actually be beneficial to your career and your overall happiness (as reported by 
BBC News and the Guardian among others). The researchers nevertheless issue a few caveats: in order for anger to be
beneficial, one ought to remain in control when expressing it and be able to
“positively channel” it. On the other hand, they advise against outright fury,
which they describe as “destructive”. There is indeed an important lesson contained in these statements; one might have wished, however, that the researchers had been a little more specific in the provisos they add to their main idea.

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Educating children on matters of food

As evidenced by recent declarations by the Children’s Secretary (see here and here),
the British government is determined to fight childhood obesity and to initiate
nothing less than a “lifestyle revolution”, resulting in more children leading
a healthy and active life. With this aim in view, a free cookbook was recently distributed to 11
year-olds by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
In
addition to that, from 2011
cookery lessons will be compulsory in England's secondary schools for children
aged 11 to 14, and
£3.3 million will be invested in order to
recruit and train people capable of teaching cooking skills to children.
Parents are also urged to teach their children how to prepare meals from
scratch.

These are certainly sensible steps to take. With nine out of 10 British adults
and two-thirds of children expected to be overweight or obese by the year 2050
unless action is taken (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/jul/30/obesity),
we are clearly dealing with an important public health issue. And given the
significance of the link between excess weight and an unhealthy diet (lack of
exercise being another major contributing factor), it seems clear that we should
teach children what a healthy diet consists in and equip them not to be dependent on
the local fast-food chain when the time of the next meal comes. We can hope
that the government’s scheme will help to achieve this, and that parents will
follow the lead – though it is also necessary that the meals provided in school
canteens be in keeping with those aims. However, I would like to suggest that
these steps should form part of a wider project meant to educate children on
matters of food. We want our children to be healthy, but we should also want
them to become autonomous and ethically responsible eaters (and, more
generally, consumers).

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Statutes of limitations for serious offences: why Europe needs a reform

Last Sunday, 30th of November, Switzerland, by a
narrow majority, approved a constitutional modification doing away with any
statute of limitations for paedophile crimes. The initiative proposing that
modification had been opposed by the government and by most of the country’s
political parties, who supported instead the idea of maintaining the existing
statute of limitations of 15 years but making it start later than had so far
been the case (thus giving more time to the victims to decide whether or not to
take legal action). The surprise acceptance of the initiative in the popular
vote was criticized by much of the Swiss press as marking a triumph of
“emotion” over “reason” (see for instance here and here; in French). But leaving aside the question of what actually led most Swiss voters to
endorse the initiative, does the very idea of opposing a statute of limitations
for paedophile (and other equally serious) crimes necessarily lend itself to
such criticism? I want to suggest that this is not so.

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Re-creating mammoths and the family dog: two different cases

The idea of reproductive cloning can easily be perceived as offensive, as a practice that constitutes the dark side of cloning and should be prohibited under all circumstances, by contrast with therapeutic cloning, the benefits of which are increasingly acknowledged. However, such reactions typically assume that it is human cloning we are talking about. Regardless of how we should assess this latter practice, it seems difficult to make a plausible case for a complete ban on reproductive cloning of nonhuman animals. On the contrary, such a technique appears to open up exciting prospects. A group of Japanese scientists, as recently reported in the press (by the BBC and the Guardian, among other sources) have thus managed to produce clones from dead mice that had been frozen for 16 years. According to the aforesaid scientists, this achievement raises the possibility of re-creating extinct species such as mammoths from their frozen remains – a bit like what happens in Steven Spielberg’s movie Jurassic Park.

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