Katrien Devolder

Marie Curie Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

Video Series: Dominic Wilkinson on Conscientious Objection in Healthcare

Associate Professor and Consultant Neonatologist Dominic Wilkinson (Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics) argues that medical doctors should not always listen to their own conscience and that often they should do what the patient requests, even when this conflicts with their own values.

Video Series: Tom Douglas on Asbestos, a Serious Public Health Threat

Asbestos kills more people per year than excessive sun exposure, yet it receives much less attention. Tom Douglas (Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics) explains why asbestos is still a serious public health threat and what steps should be undertaken to reduce this threat. And yes, the snow in The Wizard of Oz was asbestos!

Should Rhodes stay or should he go? On the ethics of removing controversial statues

This is an unedited version of an article originally published by The Conversation.

Picture this: it’s 20 April 2021 and the charming Austrian village of Braunau am Inn – Hitler’s birth place – reveals a new statue of Adolf Hitler on the main square. In his inauguration speech, the mayor stresses that although Hitler obviously did many immoral deeds, he also achieved some good things, such as building motorways and railroads, and advancing rocket science. With the new statue, the village wishes to commemorate Hitler’s valuable contributions to Germany and Austria, contributions from which many still reap benefits.

If this scenario were to occur,[1] it would cause a public outcry. It would be considered offensive and disrespectful towards Hitler’s victims and their families. It would also be seen as conveying implicit approval or tolerance of the atrocities that were committed in his name, perhaps making the village authorities complicit in the continuing stigmatisation of those same groups targeted by Hitler. In no time, the village would succumb to the pressure to take it down.

If there are good reasons not to erect a statue of Hitler, are there also good reasons to remove existing statues that some find problematic, such as that of the controversial British imperialist Cecil Rhodes?

In January, after months of heated debate and Rhodes Must Fall activism, Oxford University’s Oriel College decided to leave a statue of Rhodes on his pedestal at the front of the college. But protests are continuing against Oriel’s decision – mixed in with calls to remove statues of other controversial imperialist figures. Continue reading

New Book: The Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

There is wide agreement that embryonic stem cell research holds unique promise for developing therapies for currently incurable diseases and conditions, and for important biomedical research. However, as it is currently done, the isolation of embryonic stem cells involves a process in which an early embryo is destroyed, which many find highly problematic.

This has resulted in what I refer to in my book as

The Problem. Either one supports embryonic stem cell research and accepts resulting embryo destruction, or one opposes embryonic stem cell research and accepts that the potential benefits of this research will be foregone. Continue reading

Fifty shades: should BDSM become part of general sexual education?

“BDSM [Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism] might be mainstream now, but it has a new PR problem. I blame Christian Grey.” writes ‘sexual submissive’ Sophie Morgan in an article in the Guardian.

I started reading E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey but didn’t get very far. It’s very badly written (guess that’s no longer a secret) and, well, I found it incredibly boring (Pride and Prejudice is more exciting, I think). In any case, the book is just a starting point for something I began thinking about after a recent conversation with a friend who is part of the ‘BDSM  community’.

The legal status of BDSM varies from country to country. In the UK, it is illegal if it results in any injury which is more than “transient or trifling”. Possessing extreme pornography is a criminal offence, which, for obvious reasons, may be problematic for those who are into SM. Moreover, those who engage in any kind of BDSM are not legally protected against discrimination on the basis of their sexual preferences (for example, they can be, and have been, fired for that reason).

I haven’t studied the issue in depth, but it seems to me that BDSM should be legal, the main reason being that it concerns a consensual sexual act by adults that doesn’t cause harm to third parties. (There’s an interesting paper by Nafsika Athanassoulis arguing why SM can be considered a consensual sexual act). But I was thinking about a further question. Should we put more effort into breaking the BDSM taboo? For example, in countries where BDSM is legal, should it be part of general sexual education?

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Why strongly encouraging or legally enforcing bike helmets is not necesserily a good idea

In Australia and New Zealand wearing bike helmets is compulsory. In the United States, bike helmets are strongly promoted. The message in these countries is clear – not wearing a bike helmet is stupid because it can significantly damage your health. The stigma attached to cycling without a helmet may even be comparable to that attached to smoking cigarettes.

If you crash but were wearing a helmet (properly!), you will be less likely to suffer a head injury. Bike helmets may thus prevent disability and even death in this way. I don’t want to question that. (Though it has been questioned -it has been said that bike helmets give both cyclists and drivers a false feeling of protection resulting in more risk-taking behaviour on both sides; given that most helmets are not worn properly, this could overall be more dangerous than not wearing helmets.)

But, is the fact that bike helmets may reduce head injuries a sufficiently weighty reason to strongly encourage or legally enforce wearing bike helmets?

Perhaps I’m biased. I’m from Belgium – a cycling-friendly country where hardly anyone wears helmets. Why? It’s uncool, it messes up your hair, it’s safe enough to bike here (just reciting reasons people give), it’s impractical, it’s uncomfortable, it’s annoying to have to carry your helmet around when you get to your destination, it spoils the ‘freedom-feeling’ on a bike, etc. No doubt, there are costs to wearing a helmet.

So why should cyclists be required or strongly encouraged to wear helmets? Surely there are many other activities where the risk of head injuries is high? For example, playing in a children’s playground is equally, if not more, dangerous in that respect (other examples are hiking, walking or running at swimming pools, and simply getting into your bath). Is there something special about head injuries that result from bike crashes? Surely we wouldn’t argue for strongly encouraging or making ‘playground helmets’ compulsory (or ‘bath helmets’ – imagine that!). It would be terribly impractical, and uncomfortable for children. It would somehow restrain them in their freedom – it would just make playing on a playground less fun. But the best reason for why we don’t make playground helmets compulsory is that there are alternative ways for reducing the risk of head injuries at playgrounds that have fewer disadvantages. One measure that has increasingly been implemented in various countries is to provide playgrounds with a softer ground. This too helps to prevent head injuries, but without any of the disadvantages playground helmets would have.

So why don’t we do the same for bikes? Obviously, there is an alternative to wearing bike helmets too. We can change the environment and make cities safer for bikes such that fewer crashes will happen. It’s not that biking is intrinsically very dangerous. My daily bike ride to work,  at a moderate pace on safe bike paths away from the road is probably not more dangerous than walking on the footpath. (Of course, I’m not implying that it would be unwise to wear a helmet when racing or when going off the road on rocky ground.)

Perhaps one could say that, in bike-friendly cities, cyclists shouldn’t be enforced or strongly encouraged to wear helmets. It’s relatively safe to bike there – like it’s relatively safe to play on a playground with a soft ground. The overall health benefits of biking (better health for the cyclist and less air pollution) outweigh the risk of head injuries. But, one may say, people should surely be legally enforced or strongly encouraged to wear helmets in cities that are currently very bike-unfriendly (like Oxford).

However, I think this is too quick. It may take away incentives to make cities more bike-friendly. It sends the message that it is cyclists that need to adapt, not drivers. We should, however, keep in mind that there is an alternative to enforcing or strongly encouraging bike helmets: it’s making cities bike-friendlier. This may be costly, but it should be seen as a public health and environmental measure. We should  not forget that discouraging people from cycling (by requiring them to wear a helmet) also has significant costs.





Sustainable Fish Week at Ghent University

This week is ‘Sustainable Fish Week’ at Ghent University in Belgium. All fish on the university restaurants’ menus come from sustainable fisheries or fish farms (with practices that can be maintained without reducing the ability of the target fish to maintain its population and without threatening other species within the ecosystem, for example, by removing their food source, accidentally catching and killing them, or damaging their habitat). Tuna sandwiches will be taken off the menu and a sustainable alternative will be provided instead. Those who take their meal at a university restaurant will receive a free ‘fish guide’ with helpful information for making responsible fish choices at home. Those with strong stomachs may also enjoy the opportunity to taste jellyfish at the university restaurants. The message is that, if we continue to eat unsustainable fish, then soon jellyfish will be the only alternative to fish left on the menu.

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Psychiatric drugs to enhance conformity to religious norms, and conscientious objection

An article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports on the (alleged) frequent use of psychiatric drugs within the Haredi community, at the request of the religious leaders, in order to help members conform with religious norms. Haredi Judaism is the most conservative form of Orthodox Judaism. It is sometimes referred to by outsiders as ultra-Orthodox. Haredim typically live in communities that have limited contact with the outside world. Their lives revolve around Torah study, prayer and family.

In December 2011, the Israel Psychiatric Association held a symposium entitled “The Haredi Community as a Consumer of Mental-Health Services”.  One of the speakers was Professor Omer Bonne, director of the psychiatry department at Hadassah University Hospital. Professor Bonne is claimed to have said that sometimes yeshiva students (yeshiva is a religious school) and married men should be given antidepressants even if they do not suffer from depression, because these drugs also suppress sex drive.

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Is it OK to have an affair if your partner is asexual?

I am desperate to start a sexual relationship with an old acquaintance but his wife, who has no interest in sex, would be appalled if she knew. Does that matter?

I read this in the Guardian’s ‘Life & Style’ section. Every week, a reader can present a dilemma she/he is faced with in her/his ‘private’ life and ask other readers for advice.

The full story goes like this:

I recently reconnected with an old classmate from my teens, and we fell in love almost immediately. We are in our early 50s and both in long marriages to good people whom we love. Leaving our spouses is not an option [….] Despite our desire for each other and the fact that his wife and my husband may be asexual, my friend and I have not slept with each other. My husband has given me permission to have a lover, but my friend’s wife would be appalled if he asked for the same set-up. Shouldn’t someone with no interest in sex and minimal romantic attachment to their spouse (they are like roommates) allow that spouse to fulfil her or his needs for stimulation and affection (discreetly) elsewhere without calling it “cheating”? My friend and I are moral people, but life is short.

Some of the readers’ replies are:

Whose word do we have for it that his wife is asexual?…Oh, only his… What a surprise.

Of course it is ok!  Go and fuck with everyone in sight and don’t bother! 🙂

Fortunately, other replies are more sophisticated. Most people seem to acknowledge the dilemma is real. None of the proposed options are ideal. For example, those who suggest asexual married couples should never have extramarital sexual relationships at the same time acknowledge that this solution is not ideal as sexual frustration may build up and may have devastating effects on the marriage. Those who suggest the individuals who are attracted to each other (henceforth ‘sexual’ individuals) should be honest about it to their partners, and that the ‘affair’ (consented to by all parties concerned) may be justified,  realise this will make their ‘asexual’ partners unhappy, with potentially devastating effects for both marriages. Perhaps some will find it obvious that one of these alternatives is better than the other, but surely we must except that whichever option one chooses, there is some harm, or risk of harm.

Could what Savulescu and Sandberg, in their 2008 paper, have called ‘love drugs’  help resolve the dilemma?

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Belgium: where rapists and muffin thieves are treated alike

Some recent prison sentences in Belgium, as reported in several articles in De Standaard, one of the major Flemish newspapers:

Repeated rape of 13-year old stepdaughter: 2,5 years
Repeated rape of 15-year old girl:2 years
Rape of 2 mentally disabled girls: 2,5 years
Repeated rape of 2 girls younger than 15, making one pregnant: 2 years
Violent rape of a student: 3 years
Rape of 3 boys by a bishop: o years (but he lost his job)
Stealing 2 bags of muffins from a supermarket’s rubbish container: 6 months
(Prisoners are often released after doing half of their sentence)

Is it just me, or is something not right here?

What message is Belgium sending? “It is almost equally bad to steal two bags of muffins from a supermarket’s rubbish container, as to rape your 13-year old stepdaughter. Yes, we admit, it is slightly worse to repeatedly rape several girls, or to do it in a particularly violent way. But stealing muffins from a garbage bin is obviously worse than sexually abusing boys as a priest, at least if that happened a while ago. You may get into more trouble if you did it recently. You may even lose your job these days.”

Of course I realize that each case has its particular context, and that this determines the severity of the sentence, but still,  even in an ‘ideal’ context from the perpetrator’s point of view, the sentences seem rather out of proportion. One seems to get away with rape quite easily in Belgium, but not with ‘dumpster diving’ (USA) or ‘skipping’(UK) (“the practice of sifting through commercial or residential trash to find items that have been discarded by their owners, but which may be useful to the dumpster diver”.

What is it that I am missing?

Why is skipping even a crime? Supermarkets throw tons of food out daily.  This is mostly food that has passed the expiry date and that, therefore, can no longer be sold. But most food that is just past the expiry date is perfectly fine to eat. Skippers do not sell the food they find. They take it for their own use. Sometimes they also give it away to poor people. That is what the Belgian muffin thief did.  Instead of being a  bad thing, skipping seems like a very good thing then. It reduces the enormous food waste and it helps the hungry.  Our muffin thief is a Robin Hood.

So why then is skipping illegal? I can think of three reasons:

A first reason is that eating food that is past the expiry date is unsafe. Though many foods are perfectly fine shortly after the expiry date, some foods might not be and this can cause serious health problems.

A second reason is that skippers are stealing, or at least trespassing. The food is still owned by the supermarkets, and these rubbish containers are usually located on private property, so one is actually trespassing and stealing when one accesses the containers and takes food out of them.

A third reason is that if everyone did it, supermarkets would risk serious financial losses. If you’re a skipper, you no longer need to buy food.

But it is one thing to make it illegal, it is another to give the Muffin Thief a 6 month prison sentence.  What is the rationale behind this harsh sentence?

To give such a sentence because of a concern for the skipper’s health seems implausible and overly paternalistic. We warn people against dangerous foods, or cooking methods.  But we generally do not give them a prison sentence if we find out that they eat something dodgy, or cook it in a dodgy way. BBQs cause cancer, but we do not prohibit eating food from a BBQ. The concern for  food safety is unlikely to be an important motivation for giving the harsh sentence. Nor is it merely the fact that it is theft. If  I steal 2 bags of muffins from a shop, I will not get a prison sentence. I’ll just get a fine, or a warning.

Plausibly, the main reason for giving a harsh sentence then has to do with the third reason to make skipping illegal: the potential financial losses for the supermarket if everyone did it. Giving the muffin thief  a 6 month prison sentence is meant as a strong deterrent. The muffin thief is actually used as a scapegoat – as a means to deter others.

But why not give rapists much harsher sentences then? Surely rape is much worse than stealing muffins from a rubbish container and surely we also want to deter rape?

Perhaps the reason for giving the muffin thief this harsh sentence is because it is the most efficient way to deter. Rather than giving small punishments to all caught skippers, it is easier to make one skipper the scapegoat  and threaten the others with a serious sentence. If people who pirate music knew they really risk a one year prison sentence, they might think twice about pirating.

Perhaps sex offenders are not deterred by prison sentences, for example because of the nature of their crimes and what drives them. Skippers are typically driven by ethical reasons or lifestyle preferences, rapists by something more irrational and uncontrollable.

Or perhaps shorter prison sentences result in less re-offending in rapists but not in muffin thieves.

But even if these reasons make sense, I just can’t find a sufficient justification for the harshness of the punishment for the muffin thief and the relatively mild punishments for rapists. It seems way out of proportion. Surely rape is many thousands of times worse than stealing discarded muffins. So even if there are some reasons of the sort I’ve outlined for harshly punishing skippers it is difficult to see why the sentences should be more or less in the same ballpark.

What am I missing here?


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