Ben Davies

An Ambitious Vision for Bioethics – Some Reflections on Professor Jing-Bao Nie’s St Cross Seminar

Written by Ben Davies

Many readers of the Practical Ethics blog will remember the astounding announcement last November by Chinese researcher He Jiankui that he had used CRISPR-cas9 technology to edit into two healthy embryos a resistance to developing HIV, later resulting in the birth of twins Lulu and Nana. As Professor Julian Savulescu expressed in several posts on this blog, the announcement spurred widespread ethical condemnation.

The first in this year’s series of St Cross Special Ethics seminars saw the University of Otago’s Professor Jing-Bao Nie (who is also currently a 2019/20 Fellow of Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study) get behind the headlines to consider the political and social context of He’s experiment. At the core of Professor Nie’s presentation was that the decision to engage in genetic editing of healthy embryos could neither be written off as the act of a ‘rogue researcher’, nor dismissed as merely the product of a uniquely Chinese disregard for ethics, as some have argued.

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Diet, Changing Desires, and Dementia

Written by Ben Davies

Last week saw the launch of a campaign (run by the group Vegetarian For Life) that seeks to ensure that older people in care who have ethical commitments to a particular diet are not given food that violates those commitments. This is, as the campaign makes clear, a particularly pressing issue for those who have some form of dementia who may not be capable of expressing their commitment.

Those behind the campaign are quite right to note that people’s ethical beliefs should not be ignored simply because they are in care, or have a cognitive impairment (see a Twitter thread where I discuss this with a backer of the campaign). But the idea that one’s dietary ethics must be ‘for life’ got me thinking about a more well-established debate about Advance Directives. (I should stress that what I say here should not be taken to be imputing any particular motivation or philosophical commitments to those behind the campaign itself.)

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What the People Really Want: Narrow Mandates in Politics

Written by Ben Davies

Last week’s by-election in the Welsh constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire saw a reduction of Boris Johnson’s government majority to just one, as Liberal Democrat Jane Dodds won the seat. The result was an interesting one: more voters went for No Deal-friendly parties (mainly Johnson’s Conservatives and the Brexit Party) than for the out-and-out Remainer Lib Dems. Dodds won not because a majority of voters supported her, but arguably because the pro-Brexit vote was split, and the Lib Dem vote was boosted by Plaid Cymru and the Greens declining to field candidates (it can’t have helped that the Conservatives also simply reselected their candidate whose unseating for expenses fraud triggered the election).

The result generated two sets of comments by Conservative Chair James Cleverly. Cleverly’s first claim was that the Liberal Democrats had engineered a “back room deal” with other Remain-friendly parties – Plaid and the Greens – in a way that was, he implied, undemocratic. Continue reading

Arbitrariness as an Ethical Criticism

Written by Ben Davies

We recently saw a legal challenge to the current UK law that compels fertility clinics to destroy frozen eggs after a decade. According to campaigners, the ten-year limit may have had a rationale when it was instituted, but advances in freezing technology have rendered the limit “arbitrary”. Appeals to arbitrariness often form the basis of moral and political criticisms of policy. Still, we need to be careful in relying on appeals to arbitrariness; it is not clear that arbitrariness is always a moral ‘deal-breaker’.

On the face of it, it seems clear why arbitrary policies are ethically unacceptable. To be arbitrary is to lack basis in good reasons. An appeal against arbitrariness is an appeal to consistency, to the principle that like cases should be treated alike. Arbitrariness may therefore seem to cut against the very root of fairness.

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Take Back Control? Doctors as Appointed Fiduciaries

Written by Ben Davies

There’s a story that’s often told about the evolution of the doctor-patient relationship. Here’s how it goes: back in the bad old days, doctors were paternalists. They knew what was best, and the job of the patient was simply to do as they were told and hopefully get better. Then, in part because of abuses of power, and in part because of cultural changes, a new model emerged. This model cast patients not as passive recipients of instruction, but as active, autonomous agents, put in charge of their own medical decisions. The doctor-patient relationship was remodelled, from a paternalistic relationship (doctor looks after patient’s health) to a service relationship (doctor does what patient wants, within limits).

That story is almost certainly too simple to be true. But even histories that aren’t wholly accurate can come to influence our culture and expectations. And the dominant assumption between both patients and medical professionals seems to be that our relationship will be cast on what is sometimes called the “informative model” (Emmanuel and Emmanuel, 1992), where the medical role is simply to provide the patient with empirical information, such as information about likely risks and outcomes.

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