Rebecca Roache, Royal Holloway University of London

Philosophy Lecturer, Royal Holloway University of London

Does Madeleine McCann deserve never to be found?

by Rebecca Roache

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Several news sources reported today that Scotland Yard has launched a formal investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, following the emergence of ‘new evidence and new theories’. Madeleine disappeared from her family’s holiday apartment in Portugal in 2007, a few days before her fourth birthday. Her parents had left her and her siblings alone in the apartment one evening while they dined with friends at a restaurant. The years since her disappearance have seen a botched Portuguese police investigation, the arrest and release of Madeleine’s parents, various unconfirmed sightings and false leads, a private investigation commissioned by the McCanns, a Scotland Yard case review, and a massive media campaign driven by the McCanns. The case is controversial: among other things, various people have complained that attention to it eclipses other abducted children, and have suggested that media interest in it is partly due to the fact that Madeleine is from a respectable, educated, white, middle-class family.

Perhaps some of this criticism is warranted—I don’t wish to engage with it here. Personally, I am happy that Madeleine’s disappearance is to be investigated, and I hope that it sends a clear indication that this sort of crime will be taken seriously even when a child disappears outside his or her community, with all the difficulties this raises for any investigation. I wish, instead, to focus on a particular complaint about Madeleine’s case that arises again and again each time the case reappears in the news: the view that the case is undeserving of serious attention because the fact that Madeleine’s parents left her unsupervised means that they are partly to blame for her disappearance. This complaint appears many times in comments on a recent Daily Mail story about Madeleine. Continue reading

Why pet owners know as much as neuroscientists about animal minds

by Rebecca Roache

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There has recently been a spate of news stories about animals grieving. The Huffington Post features a video of a dog burying a dead puppy, New York Daily News reports a dog and a cat mourning the death of a dog, and a video entitled ‘Bella (dog) mourns death of Beavis (beaver)’ recently went viral. There are great contradictions in the way in which we, as a society, view the capacity of animals to experience mental states comparable to those enjoyed by humans. On the one hand, many of us love and share our lives and homes with animals (I am currently battling for space on my keyboard with our black and white cat, Wellie). On the other hand, we humans very often treat animals as nothing more than tools to serve our own ends—and even the UK, a country with relatively strict animal welfare legislation, permits animals to be subjected to conditions akin to a hell on earth in the name of scientific research, intensive farming, and pest control.

Scepticism about the capacity of animals to experience conscious mental states like suffering—let alone more complex ones like grief—is most often associated with the influence of Descartes. Optimists may have reason to hope that scientific evidence about the mental lives of animals will soon extinguish such scepticism: last year a group of eminent neuroscientists published the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which proclaims that humans are not alone in possessing consciousness (for a discussion of the Declaration, see here). Science, it seems, may hold the key to improving the way animals are treated. Continue reading

Why it matters whether you believe in free will

by Rebecca Roache

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Scientific discoveries about how our behaviour is causally influenced often prompt the question of whether we have free will (for a general discussion, see here). This month, for example, the psychologist and criminologist Adrian Raine has been promoting his new book, The Anatomy of Violence, in which he argues that there are neuroscientific explanations of the behaviour of violent criminals. He argues that these explanations might be taken into account during sentencing, since they show that such criminals cannot control their violent behaviour to the same extent that (relatively) non-violent people can, and therefore that these criminals have reduced moral responsibility for their crimes. Our criminal justice system, along with our conceptions of praise and blame, and moral responsibility more generally, all presuppose that we have free will. If science can reveal it to be an illusion, some of the most fundamental features of our society are undermined.

The questions of exactly what free will is, and whether and how it can accommodate scientific discoveries about the causes of our behaviour, are primarily theoretical philosophical questions. Questions of theoretical philosophy—for example, those relating to metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind and language—are rarely viewed as highly relevant to people’s day-to-day lives (unlike questions of practical philosophy, such as those relating to ethics and morality). However, it turns out that the beliefs that people hold about free will are relevant. In the last five years, empirical evidence has linked reduced belief in free will with an increased willingness to cheat,1 increased aggression and reduced helpfulness,2 and reduced job performance.3 Even the way that the brain prepares for action differs depending on whether or not one believes in free will.4 If the results of these studies apply at a societal level, we should be very concerned about promoting the view that we do not have free will. But what can we do about it? Continue reading

Why slaughterhouses should welcome CCTV

by Rebecca Roache

Covertly filming shocking animal abuse in the meat industry (and other industries involving animals) is a common tactic of animal welfare charities such as the Humane Society, Mercy for Animals, Animal Aid, and PETA. The footage is generally obtained by workers for the charities who gain employment at slaughterhouses, farms, laboratories and the like; and it has been instrumental in prosecuting abusers and applying pressure on meat producers to improve welfare standards, as the New York Times reported at the weekend.

The same article also reports a disturbing response to this practice by several US states:

They proposed or enacted bills that would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups. They have also drafted measures to require such videos to be given to the authorities almost immediately, which activists say would thwart any meaningful undercover investigation of large factory farms.

Those who flout this so-called ‘ag-gag’  legislation may, among other things, be placed on a ‘terrorist registry’.

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Why advertising gay conversion therapy is like advertising make-up

by Rebecca Roache

Various news sources—including The Huffington Post, Gay Star News, and the London Evening Standard—are reporting a High Court case in which a campaigner for gay conversion therapy is fighting Transport for London (TfL) over a ban on its bus adverts that suggest that homosexuality can be ‘cured’.

Dr Mike Davidson is head of Core Issues Trust which, according to its website, is ‘a non-profit Christian ministry supporting men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression’. Davidson, who is married with children, insists that his own gay feelings were removed by therapy. He told The Huffington Post that he had homosexual feelings ‘from the moment [he] opened [his] eyes’. Even so, he believes that ‘gay’ is a ‘late twentieth century political construction’ that people can reject. His adverts read, ‘Not gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!’—a response to similar posters by lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall which read, ‘Some people are gay. Get over it!’ Davidson’s adverts have been deemed ‘offensive to gays’ by London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is also head of TfL. Continue reading

Why a painting is as good as a photo on a passport

by Rebecca Roache

Fredrik Saker, a Swedish artist, is in the news this week for having successfully applied for a driving licence using a photograph not of himself, but of a self-portrait painting. It is interesting to consider, in the light of this, what is so special about photographs. Why do agencies that issue documents featuring images of their bearers – like driving licences and passports – require applicants to submit photographs? Is there any good reason not also to permit self-portrait paintings, drawings, or any other sort of artistic creation?  Continue reading

Don’t tax the fat!

by Rebecca Roache

Dr Philip Lee, Conservative MP for Bracknell and a practising GP, today suggested that people whose lifestyle choices lead to medical problems should have to contribute towards their healthcare costs. He apparently highlighted type 2 diabetes – which can be brought on by an unhealthy diet, being overweight, and lack of exercise, although some people are genetically disposed to it – and is quoted in the Huffington Post as saying, ‘If you want to have doughnuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner, fine, but there’s a cost’.

At first glance, the idea that those who lead unhealthy lifestyles should bear the burden of their own resulting health problems seems fair. But there are serious problems with this idea. Let us consider two of them. Continue reading

Want to increase breastfeeding? Then shut up about how it saves money!

by Rebecca Roache

UNICEF today announced research showing that increasing breastfeeding rates in the UK could save the NHS tens of millions of pounds. The report notes that investing more money in encouraging more mothers to breastfeed, and for longer, will pay dividends.

Is this likely to get more mothers breastfeeding? Well, I don’t think we’re off to a very good start. Take a look at some of the headlines used to report this story: Continue reading

Is your mobile phone part of your body?

by Rebecca Roache

The Frontline reports that sensors carried on the body of mobile phone users could soon be used to boost the UK’s mobile phone network coverage.  If only half of the 91% of the UK population who owns a mobile phone carried such sensors, then nearly half of the UK population would become part of a ‘body-to-body’ mobile phone network.

When technology becomes as wearable and ubiquitous as this, it raises some interesting questions about what sort of things people are, and about the division between the body and the surrounding environment.  What, after all, is a body?  At first glance, a person’s body is that mass of flesh, blood, and bone that we point to when we point to him or her: all very simple and straightforward.  Things get more complicated when we consider someone who has received an organ transplant.  Does a transplanted organ become part of the body of the person who receives it?  I would say so.  Assuming that the transplant is successful, it functions just like the organ it replaces; and an injury to the transplanted organ would be considered an injury to the recipient.  What about artificial devices that replace or supplement organs, like cochlear implants: do these count as body parts too?  I would imagine that most of us would be less willing to view such things as body parts.  However, if transplanted organs are to count as parts of the recipients’ bodies, refusal to accept cochlear implants as body parts seems mere prejudice.  Both enable the recipient’s body to perform a familiar and normal bodily function; and whilst a transplanted organ is – unlike a cochlear implant – undeniably a body part, it is pre-transplant no more a part of the recipient’s body than a cochlear implant.  So, perhaps we should consider cochlear implants to be body parts too.  If we accept something like a cochlear implant as a body part, though, what else might we feel bound to include?  What about less permanent replacement body parts, like false teeth and prosthetic limbs?  Tools that are not intended to replace body parts, but which nevertheless enable certain people to perform something like a familiar and normal bodily function, like wheelchairs?  Tools that enable people to perform functions that are not familiar and normal bodily functions, like pencils and screwdrivers?  Where do we draw the line between the body and the surrounding environment?

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Should we force parents to vaccinate their children? No: let’s just scare them instead

by Rebecca Roache

The BBC recently reported that some homeopaths are offering their patients homeopathic remedies designed to replace the MMR vaccine.  Given that the efficacy of homeopathic remedies is notoriously unproven, this points to the worrying conclusion that some parents who have chosen a homeopathic alternative to the MMR vaccine believe that their children are immune to measles, mumps, and rubella, when in fact they are unprotected against these diseases.

This development marks another blow for the ongoing campaign to ensure that children receive the recommended vaccinations.  Sir Sandy Macara, ex-chairman of the British Medical Association, has claimed that the UK has lower immunisation rates than some developing countries in which people have poor access to healthcare.  The percentage of the UK population currently vaccinated against MMR falls well below the level needed to achieve ‘herd immunity’ – where the number of immune individuals in the population prevents the spread of disease, thereby protecting those who are not immune – and recent outbreaks of measles in Wales has led the Welsh Assembly to consider making the MMR vaccine compulsory.  Such a move would be highly controversial, but is this a price worth paying to protect public health?

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