Hannah Maslen

Virtually reality? The value of virtual activities and remote interaction

By Hannah Maslen    

The Oxford Martin School recently held a two-day symposium on virtual reality and immersive technologies. The aim was to examine a range of technologies, from online games to telepresence via a robot avatar, to consider the ways in which such technologies might affect our personal lives and our interactions with others.

These sorts of technologies reignite traditional philosophical debates concerning the value of different experiences – could a virtual trip to Rome ever be as valuable (objectively or subjectively) as a real trip to Rome? – and conceptual questions about whether certain virtual activities, say, ‘having a party’ or ‘attending a concert’, can ever really be the activity that the virtual environment is designed to simulate. The prospect of robotic telepresence presents particular ethical challenges pertaining to moral responsibility for action at a distance and ethical norms governing virtual acts.

In what follows, I introduce and discuss the concern that virtual experiences and activities are to some extent deficient in value, especially where this relates to the formation and maintenance of close personal relationships. Continue reading

In defence of drinking alone

By Rebecca Roache and Hannah Maslen



Yes they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it’s better than drinking alone

– Billy Joel, Piano Man


Drinking alone is often frowned upon. Those who do it can be quite defensive about it—as illustrated by a Reddit thread entitled ‘Why do people think drinking alone is sad?’, a recent Wall Street Journal article by Lettie Teague called ‘Drinking alone: a bad idea or a toast to oneself?’, and a monologue on drinking alone by the American comedian Peter Holmes. Enjoying several glasses of wine at a dinner party, sharing a case of beers with a friend while watching the football, or toasting an achievement with a round of cocktails, are all considered acceptable. Less socially acceptable, however, is to do any of these things in solitude. Even holding the amount of alcohol consumed constant between settings, drinking alone rather than with friends is often seen as a more troubling activity. Continue reading

ASMR and Absurdity

by Hannah Maslen and Rebecca Roache

In the past five years or so, a new phenomenon has emerged on the internet. ASMR videos allow you to spend around 40 minutes watching someone carefully unpack and repack a box, or listen to a detailed demonstration of ten different notebooks, or observe the careful folding of several napkins. If you think this is something that almost nobody would want to do, think again: a search on the term ‘ASMR’ on YouTube returns over 1.4 million videos, the most popular of which has been viewed 11.7 million times.

What is ASMR?

Autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, is the pseudo-scientific name of a phenomenon that, according to thousands of anecdotal reports, various news reports, and a recently published academic survey, loads of people experience. ASMR refers to a pleasant tingling sensation in response to certain visual and/or auditory stimuli. Common triggers include the kind of close personal attention you get when someone cuts your hair, certain sounds like tapping or brushing, and perhaps most bizarrely of all, observing someone doing something trivial very carefully and diligently.

Continue reading

Anorexia Nervosa and Deep Brain Stimulation: Philosophical Analysis of Potential Mechanisms

By Hannah Maslen, Jonathan Pugh and Julian Savulescu


According to the NHS, the number of hospital admissions across the UK for teenagers with eating disorders has nearly doubled in the last three years. In a previous post, we discussed some ethical issues relating to the use of deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat anorexia nervosa (AN). Although the trials of this potential treatment are still in very early, investigational stages (and may not necessarily become an approved treatment), the invasive nature of the intervention and the vulnerability of the potential patients are such that anticipatory ethical analysis is warranted. In this post, we show how different possible mechanisms of intervention raise different questions for philosophers to address. The prospect of intervening directly in the brain prompts exploration of the relationships between a patient’s various mental phenomena, autonomy and identity. Continue reading

Speculating about technology in ethics

Many important discussions in practical ethics necessarily involve a degree of speculation about technology: the identification and analysis of ethical, social and legal issues is most usefully done in advance, to make sure that ethically-informed policy decisions do not lag behind technological development. Correspondingly, a move towards so-called ‘anticipatory ethics’ is often lauded as commendably vigilant, and to a certain extent this is justified. But, obviously, there are limits to how much ethicists – and even scientists, engineers and other innovators – can know about the actual characteristics of a freshly emerging or potential technology – precisely what mechanisms it will employ, what benefits it will confer and what risks it will pose, amongst other things. Quite simply, the less known about the technology, the more speculation has to occur.

In practical ethics discussions, we often find phrases such as ‘In the future there could be a technology that…’ or ‘We can imagine an extension of this technology so that…’, and ethical analysis is then carried out in relation to such prognoses. Sometimes these discussions are conducted with a slight discomfort at the extent to which features of the technological examples are imagined or extrapolated beyond current development – discomfort relating to the ability of ethicists to predict correctly the precise way technology will develop, and corresponding reservation about the value of any conclusions that emerge from discussion of, as yet, merely hypothetical innovation. A degree of hesitation in relation to very far-reaching speculation indeed seems justified. Continue reading

Science and Ethics: Deep brain stimulation for the treatment of anorexia

Hannah Maslen and Julian Savulescu

In a pioneering new procedure, deep brain stimulation is being trialed as a treatment for the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. Neurosurgeons at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford implanted electrodes into the nucleus accumbens of a woman suffering with anorexia to stimulate the part of the brain involved in finding food rewarding. Whilst reports emphasize that this treatment is ‘highly experimental’ and would ‘only be for those who have failed all other treatments for anorexia’, there appeared to be tentative optimism surrounding the potential efficacy of the procedure: the woman who had undergone the surgery was reportedly ‘doing well’ and had shown ‘a response to the treatment’.

It goes without saying that successful treatments for otherwise intractable conditions are a good thing and are to be welcomed. Indeed, a woman who had undergone similar treatment at a hospital in Canada is quoted as saying ‘it has turned my life around. I am now at a healthy weight.’ However, the invasive nature of the procedure and the complexity of the psychological, biological and social dimensions of anorexia should prompt us to carefully consider the ethical issues involved in offering, encouraging and performing such interventions. We here outline relevant considerations pertaining to obtaining valid consent from patients, and underscore the cautious approach that should be taken when directly modifying food-related desires in a complex disorder involving interrelated social, psychological and biological factors. Continue reading

Should remorseful offenders be punished less harshly?

New Book: ‘Remorse, Penal Theory and Sentencing’ (Oxford: Hart Publishing)

If an offender is genuinely remorseful about the crime she committed, should she receive some small-but-non-trivial mitigation of her sentence? – i.e. should she be punished a little bit less than she would have been had she not been remorseful? In many jurisdictions, including England and Wales, this practice is written into the sentencing guidelines that judges have to follow. However, it is difficult to see how this practice can be justified, and intuitions about the relevance of remorse to criminal sentencing seem to vary wildly.

One first obvious concern is that it can be difficult to know whether an offender’s remorse is genuine: is she just pretending in the hope that her sentence will consequently be somewhat lighter than it would otherwise have been? Whilst the possibility of simulation indeed presents a practical challenge, the prior question is whether an offender’s genuine remorse should matter at all. Should judges try to determine whether an offender is remorseful and, if so, with what consequences? Continue reading

Where there’s a will there’s a way: Enhancing motivation

by Hannah Maslen, Julian Savulescu and Carin Hunt

A study examining pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement found that participants’ subjective enjoyment of various memory and problem-solving tasks was significantly greater when they had taken modafinil (a drug originally developed for narcolepsy) compared with placebo, but that mood ratings overall were not affected (Muller at al 2013). The authors of the paper therefore concluded that, in addition to the various performance effects, ‘an important finding of this study is that there was a striking increase in task motivation’. Whilst a lot of attention has been paid to the ethical implications of enhancing cognitive performance, much less has been paid to the striking task-motivation finding. We suggest, however, that motivation enhancement might be the more contentious effect, from an ethical point of view. Continue reading

How polite must I be to cold callers?


At 7pm, as you’re eating your dinner, you get a call from an unknown number. You pick it up, half out of curiosity (perhaps your numbers have finally come up on the premium bonds), half out of worry (was a family member likely to have been driving at this time?), but wholly anticipating the interaction that in fact transpires:

‘Good evening, I was wondering whether I could talk to [Your Name]?’

‘Can I ask who’s calling?’ you deflect.

Enthusiastically: ‘My name’s Charlie and I’m calling from Well Known Phone Company Ltd. I wanted to check whether you had thought about updating your tariff? You’re due an upgrade.’

You have, in fact, been wondering about updating your tariff, but you’re not in the mood to do it now and dinner is getting cold. You think about explaining this to chirpy Charlie, but even the thought of engaging in an exchange about whether and when you might be free to discuss it feels like too much effort.

‘We’d be able to save you about…’

‘Sorry’, you interject with a shade of sincerity, ‘I’m not in the mood for being polite.’

‘Ok, well, I…’

You hang up, feeling a twinge of guilt and tremendous wonderment at how Charlie of Well Known Phone Company Ltd remains so chirpy in the face of such rejection.


Ordinarily, we tend to think there is a presumption towards being polite to other people. By ‘being polite’ I mean acting courteously – considering and acknowledging the needs and feelings of others with whom we interact, even when those interactions are very brief. If someone follows close behind you through a door, you should pause to keep it open rather than letting it shut in their face. If someone asks you the time, you should at least acknowledge their question. If someone lets you into the traffic, you should indicate your thanks. This presumption towards minimally respectful behavior arises partly from social convention and partly from our duty to acknowledge the moral reality of other people.

Given the presumption towards politeness, how polite must you be to Charlie the Salesman? Were you justified in hanging up mid-sentence or did your twinge of guilt inform you that you had behaved unfairly? Or, given a less tolerant day, would you in fact have been justified in expressing anger and contempt to Charlie? Continue reading

‘He was looking at me funny’: The (limited) rationality of the hostile attribution bias

Last week, an article in the Pacific Standard discussed the evolutionary origins and present-day disutility of the Hostile Attribution Bias (HAB). The HAB is exhibited when an individual automatically attributes malicious intentions to another, often in cases where that person’s behavior is ambiguous.  For example, when someone uses the colloquial phrase ‘he was looking at me funny’ as a justification for their own hostility, this is meant to imply that the utterer interpreted another person’s gaze as judgmental or even threatening; in fact, though, it may have been neither. Given that those with a propensity towards exhibiting this bias are also more likely to engage in aggressive behavior on its basis, the bias is widely seen not only to be irrational, but also detrimental. Indeed, the author of the aforementioned article says: ‘The trouble is, the more we sense hostility in others, the more aggressive we tend to be in return. And in many social contexts, hostile attribution bias is, as psychologists put it, highly “maladaptive.”’

In what way is the bias ‘highly maladaptive’? Is it wholly irrational? Continue reading