Simon Rippon

A Leader Without a Doubt

He never expressed doubt in anything, I think that was his – one of his strengths. He never expressed doubt. Once he’d made his mind up that something was right it was right.

- General Pinochet’s personal driver, commenting on their private conversations about politics and his own admiration for the late dictator.

I was kidding about the source. It was Lady Thatcher’s former driver Denis Oliver, commenting about her when interviewed by the BBC this morning (only gender was changed in the quote). Why do people so often take complete absence of doubt to be a strength in a leader, even when they disagree with that leader’s views? Can they be persuaded otherwise?

Do we want “genetically modified children”? Yes, of course!

The agency that regulates fertility treatment and embryo research in the UK, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), has asked for public views on two possible new forms of fertility treatment that promise to prevent the transmission of mitochondrial diseases to children. These diseases can be extremely severe, leading to (among other things) diabetes, deafness, progressive blindness, seizures, dementia, muscular dystrophy, and death.

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The Philosophy of Bad Badminton: Another Look

Julian Savulescu brings an interesting and characteristically uncompromising philosophical perspective today to the Badminton scandal in which four pairs were disqualified from the Olympics for intending to lose their matches in order to obtain a preferred draw in the next round. The players were ejected for violating parts of the Players’ Code of Conduct that is set by the governing body of the sport: the Badminton World Federation (BWF). In particular, they were found to have violated sections 4.5 and 4.16 of the Code, which respectively prohibit “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”

Savulescu argues that the players should not have been disqualified, and that the rules for the draw should be changed. He is right the rules for the draw should be changed: they should be designed so that winning a match always confers on the players some advantage in the tournament, or at least never a disadvantage. Why not, for example, simply let the most successful teams choose first who they will face in the next round? One questionable feature of this week’s events is that the badly formulated rules for the format of the draw were instituted by the BWF. So the BWF, acting as legislator, judge and jury on the conduct of the players, itself had a vested interest in shifting the blame for the fiasco of non-competitive games onto the players themselves.

Still, it is reasonable to ask whether it would have been right for a properly impartial judging body to disqualify the players in this case. Savulescu’s post suggests, as far as I can see, four arguments against:

A) The players were using a strategy to win the tournament, and logically, a strategy cannot be abusive or detrimental to the sport.
B) The rules are not clear.
C) The rules are absurd.
D) The rules depend on a distinction between intending and foreseeing which is philosophically unsustainable.

So let’s assess these four arguments.

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Should minimally conscious patients be allowed to end their lives?

Two recent articles by neurobiologist and science writer Mo Costandi raise ethical quesions about the treatment of brain-damaged patients in the light of new research. Doctors distinguish between patients in a vegetative state, who are completely unresponsive and assumed to lack conscious awareness, and patients in a minimally conscious state, who some degree of responsiveness and are assumed to have some awareness – although it is unclear what their experiences are like and what mental abilities they have. A third category of patients are those in a “locked-in” state. These people are fully aware and awake, but paralysed and unable to communicate except through eye movements. Patients in a persistent vegetative state are highly unlikely to recover from it, and in most countries the law allows, under certain conditions, passive euthanasia for this group, for example by disconnecting a feeding tube that provides life support. But is this policy ethically defensible, and should we also allow euthanasia for patients with the other diagnoses?
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A Modest Proposal for the Media: The Science Haze

I love the BBC. Almost every day I browse the BBC News web site to catch up on current affairs. I especially love the BBC’s high quality TV and radio documentary output, and I confess that I am an avid Radio 4 listener.

Alas, my love for the BBC has not blinded me to one particularly jarring asymmetry in the Corporation’s (otherwise delightful) visage . It is manifested in a disconnect between its approach to programming on matters of science, and that on matters of ethics, or “Religion and Ethics” as the BBC officially categorizes the latter (in an undifferentiated glob) on iPlayer.

In the hope that some BBC types (preferably at the senior commissioning level) are also readers of Practical Ethics, I present to you a programme proposal that, if taken up, would go some way toward healing this deformity. In fact, if virtually all the BBC’s current science programming were scrapped and replaced with programming of the sort I am about to propose, the woeful gap between the BBC’s science programming and its ethics programming would all but disappear. I hereby present my modest proposal:

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New Study Detects Free Will in the Prefrontal Cortex (UPDATED)

An impressive study to be released in the journal Science on Monday uses new imaging techniques to reveal exercises of free will occurring in the brain. The authors scanned participants in their experiments who were choosing a playing card from a freshly shuffled deck. One group of subjects were asked to: “Pick a card, any card” (using their free choice), whereas a control group were asked to select various specific cards (simply obeying a command). The explanation of how precisely free will was detected is somewhat technical, but it can be roughly understood this way: by subtracting the brain activity of the control group from those in the free will group, the experimenters were able to observe free will in the differences. They found numerous traces of free will occurring in the prefrontal cortex, which has traditionally been thought to be the seat of executive control.

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Arbitrary Execution: Why the Law Needs Help from Neuroscience, Psychology and Philosophy

On February 29th, 2012, Robert Henry Moormann was executed in Arizona for murder. Back in 1984, he was in prison for kidnapping and molesting an eight year old girl, when the state gave him three days of compassionate leave. His elderly adoptive mother took a long bus trip to go and meet him. After an argument in a motel room where she was staying, he beat, stabbed and suffocated her, then dismembered her body. He asked a number of local businesses if he could dispose of “spoiled meat and animal guts” in their refuse containers, before disposing of most of her remains in bins and sewers around town. He also asked a prisoner officer to dispose of a box of what he described as “dog bones”. This behaviour raised suspicion. Moormann claimed not to remember the details of the crime, and at the original trial, Moormann’s lawyers mounted a defence of insanity. The jury rejected it. Since 1985, he had been living on death row while his appeals process was gradually exhausted.

In light of the gruesomeness of his crime, it is easy to think that if anyone ever deserved the death penalty, Moormann did. But the contention of Moormann’s defence lawyers that he was intellectually disabled casts a new light on the case.

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Is Drug Addiction a Lifestyle Choice?

According to BBC News this week, the brains of some people “may be wired for addiction.” A study has come out in the journal Science that presents evidence of abnormal brain structures that were found in drug addicts and their non-addicted siblings. The lead researcher, Dr Karen Ersche, was quoted by the BBC as saying that the study “shows that drug addiction is not a choice of lifestyle, it is a disorder of the brain and we need to recognize this.”

Has the Ersche et al study in fact shown that drug addiction is not a lifestyle choice? Has it proven that drug addicts should be treated as innocent patients with medical problems rather than being subject to moral censure for their failure to exert self-control, and for their irresponsible and often deeply anti-social behaviour? No! In fact, it is likely that no possible neuroscientific evidence could show such a thing.

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Lawmaker Steals Leather Pants: Brain May Be Responsible, Lawyer Says

The title of this post is an edited version of a headline that appeared this week at ABC news. The story behind it is that a Californian politician named Mary was caught shoplifting, and her lawyer says that her impaired judgment may have been caused by a benign brain tumour.

We can accept that in principle, a brain tumour could undermine  Mary’s moral responsibility and excuse  her actions, because we now know that tumours can press on parts of the brain and prevent them functioning properly – causing all kinds of unusual thoughts and behaviours. And Mary could hardly be held responsible for her having a brain tumour. She didn’t choose to have it; it just happened to her.

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Settling the Final Reckoning for Organ Donors

In the news this week, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics suggests that the NHS should test the idea of paying for the funerals of organ donors who have previously signed the organ donor register, in order to try to encourage more of the public to sign up. When I was asked to write about this proposal for the BBC’s web site, I found with surprise that I could think of no plausible ethical objections to it. This despite the fact that I’ve previously written here and elsewhere about the dangers of introducing a cash market for donor organs, and even about the dangers of other kinds of non-cash incentives. If the council’s proposal were found in trials to be both practically effective in increasing donations, and also affordable, then my clear view is  that it should be implemented in the UK.

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