Tom Douglas

Animal antibiotics

Suppose that a despotic political regime is keeping its citizens in cramped and unhygenic labour camps. The survival and and economic productivity of the incarcerated individuals is sustained only through the widespread administration of antibiotics which helps to prevent epidemics. It is difficult for international organisations to do anything about these work camps, but one thing they could do is cut off the supply of antibiotics. This would risk the lives of thousands of inmates in the short term, but can also be expected to put an end to the work-camp system in the longer term, since it would render the camps uneconomic.

Should the international organisations cut-off the supply of antibiotics? It is doubtful whether they should.

But now suppose we replace the work-camps with chicken houses and sow stalls, and the citzens with farm animals. Many farm animals held under cramped and unhygenic conditions are kept alive, and economically productive, only through the widespread administration of antibiotics. Restricting access to these antibiotics would force the agricultural industry to reform these practices. In this case it seems more plausible that antibiotic use should be restricted. At least, this is what Robert S. Lawrence writes in The Atlantic.

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Which is least unethical—buying a Mac, or buying a PC?

Recent news stories have brought to public attention the fact that many Apple products, including iPhones, iPads, and Macs, are produced in part in factories with a record of using child labour, failing to provide safe work conditions, and requiring employees to work long shifts for low wages (see, for example, here, here, here and here). This raises the question: should we all stop buying these products?

Suppose you need a new laptop, or at least, are going to buy one. Leaving aside ethical considerations, you are indifferent between getting a Mac and buying a PC laptop from one of Apple’s competitors. Which should you buy?

To answer this, we need to say something more about the situation at factories run by Apple’s Chinese suppliers. Much of the attention has focused on Foxconn, which assembles the iPad and iPhone. It’s alleged that Foxconn negligence was responsible for a blast which killed two people and injured more than a dozen; that it exposes workers to toxic chemicals without adequate protection; that it requires illegal levels of overtime (often more than double the legal limit of 36 hours per month) for which it frequently does not pay in full; that it deceives potential recruits regarding pay rates; that workers are humiliated by supervisors; that workers often have to stand almost uninterrupted for a 12 hour shift; and that poor work conditions contributed to a spate of suicides at the company’s Shenzen plant in 2010. In addition, Mike Daisey, a New York performer who visited the Foxconn plant in Shenzen, reports that he met children in the age range 12-14 who were working in the plant. They told him that it was not difficult for children of their age to find employment there.

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Taking drugs to help others

Primaquine is an anti-malarial drug. When taken as a single dose by someone infected with the falciparum malaria parasite, it reduces the risk of transmission to mosquitoes and so to other people. However it confers no direct benefit on the individual who takes the drug. Indeed it poses a net risk, since it has side-effects, including the potential for a severe haemolytic reaction (breakdown of red blood cells) in a certain class of individuals (those with genetic G6PD deficiency).  Nevertheless, primaquine is taken as a single dose by millions of people annually.

Cyproterone acetate (CPA) is a testosterone-blocking drug that has been used to ‘chemically castrate’ certain sexual offenders, including paedophiles. It can’t redirect misplaced sexual desires. But it can attenuate them, thereby reducing recidivism. Again, though, it can have serious side effects for the user, including liver damage and possibly depressive mood changes. Still, more than twenty countries allow the use of CPA in sex-offenders, and several US states have authorised the use of a related agent (MPA).

Primaquine and CPA might appear to have little in common. But ethically, there are some interesting parallels. Continue reading

How to feed people dioxin and get away with it

Earlier this month German authorities closed around 4,700 farms following the discovery that pigs and poultry had been given feed contaminated with dioxins, which are thought to be among the most carcinogenic environmental pollutants. Yesterday Russia banned the import of untested pork products produced in Germany after 1 November 2010. This follows earlier import bans on some German food products in Slovakia, China, Belarus and South Korea.

Evidently the North German firm Harles und Jentzsch added a contaminated oil, possibly intended for industrial paper production, to an ingredient for animal feed that was then sold to 25 different feed manufacturers. Tests showed that the oil contained dioxin at 77 times the permitted level. Around 150,000 tons of feed incorporating this oil was reportedly fed to poultry and pigs across Germany, and affected eggs were sold in Germany, The Netherlands and the UK.

Internal tests at the Harles und Jentzsch plant revealed elevated dioxin levels in feed ingredients as early as March last year, suggesting the possibility that the human food supply may have been contaminated for months. And of course, this is nothing new. There were similar dioxin scandals in Ireland and Italy in 2008, Belgium in 1999 and 2006, and Germany in 2003.

How can such practices go unnoticed so often and for so long?

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Benefit cuts for large, workless families

The UK's culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has suggested that the state should limit the provision of social security benefits to large, unemployed families. Hunt said last week that

The number of children that you have is a choice and what we're saying is that if people are living on benefits, then they make choices but they also have to have responsibility for those choices . . . It's not going to be the role of the state to finance those choices.

Two quite different arguments might be offered in support of such a move.

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Whether to die, or when to die? The distinction between assisted suicide and ‘aid in dying’

Assisted suicide is illegal in the state of Connecticut. But two doctors have sought to circumvent the law by requesting that the administration of lethal agents to terminally ill patients be classed as “aid in dying” rather than assisted suicide. The doctors’ lawyers reportedly drew the distinction as follows:

"Suicide is a choice of whether to die or not. Aid in dying involves not whether a person will die, but when, and how much pain and suffering the patient must endure first."

The judge, Julia Aurigemma, rejected the request, arguing that the cases in question are precisely the sort of case to which the assisted suicide prohibition was intended to apply. But the question remains whether there is a meaningful distinction between assisted suicide and aid in dying, and if so, whether it is morally significant.

The distinction, as formulated by the lawyers, does seem clearly bogus. No-one yet faces choices about whether to die. All actions that might plausibly be classed as suicide are really decisions about the timing of death. But there does seem to be a genuine distinction lurking here somewhere.

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Venter creates bacterium controlled by a synthetic genome

Craig Venter’s team have succeeded in producing a synthetic bacterium capable of self-replication. The group synthesised from scratch a variant of the Mycoplasma mycoides genome, which they then transplanted into a different Mycoplasma species to produce a bacterium controlled by the synthetic genome. The resulting bacterium could be regarded as the first truly synthetic organism. Earlier forms of genetic engineering have involved modifying the genome of an existing organism; Venter’s group have produced an organism whose genome was instead pieced together from chemical building blocks.

The prospects created by this kind of work are huge. Synthetic organisms could in theory be programmed to perform a range of useful functions: to produce drugs, biofuels or other useful chemicals, to act as ‘bioremediators’, breaking down environmental toxins, or perhaps to act as anti-cancer ‘search and destroy’ agents.

However this research also raises some ethical concerns.

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Should bio-scientists think about bio-weapons?

Following the September 11 attacks and subsequent Anthrax attacks, the US began introducing new biosecurity regulations as a counter to bioterrorism. The centrepiece of the new regulatory framework has been a list of 'select agents' – pathogens with particular potential for use in weapons of mass destruction. Agents on the list are subject to special regulatory measures limiting how the agents can be stored, transported and used.

Last week, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published an analysis of the effects of the new regulations. The authors estimate that there has been a two to five fold decrease in the ratio of scientific progress to amount of funding for research on select agents over the relevant period. Picking up the story, an article in The Scientist magazine claims that the apparent loss of efficiency is due to the chilling effect of the new regulations on research (though see the comments for some alternative explanations). It quotes scientists bemoaning the huge amount of paperwork imposed by the regulations and noting the difficulties that they create for international collaboration and, given the need for extensive background checks and psychological testing, staff recruitment.

It's interesting to consider the extent to which the Scientist's complaints (and scientists' worries more generally) are are an objection to the way that biosecurity is being done, or to the very idea of biosecurity.

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Is your fingerprint part of you?

In a report expressing concern about the increasing use of
biometric information to protect security and privacy, the Irish Council for
Bioethics (ICB) claimed earlier this month that “an individual’s biometric
information is an intrinsic element of that person”. Such claims are quite
commonly made in relation to genetic information, though the ICB’s extension of
the concept to other forms of biological information, such as that acquired from
fingerprinting, voice recognition software, and gait analysis, may be novel.

The claim that biometric information is an ‘intrinsic element of
the person’ seems designed to invoke powerful intuitions about our ownership of
our own body parts: we own our biological information just like we own our
kidneys. Indeed, the ICB go on to say that “the right to bodily integrity…. should
apply not only to an individual’s body, but also to any information derived
from the body, including his/her biometric information”. But both the
metaphysical claim that biometric information is an intrinsic element of the
person,and the moral claim that it is covered by rights to bodily integrity
are highly problematic.

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Wealth versus Happiness

Economists have long used Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita as a proxy measure for the average level of wellbeing within a country. GDP is a measure of the goods and services produced in a country and is a fairly good proxy for material wealth. However, it fails to capture many other factors that are clearly important for wellbeing: for example, amount of leisure time, health, quality of one's environment, wealth distribution, employment rates, and changes in wealth over a lifetime. Some negative influences on wellbeing – such as crime – may even contribute positively to GDP since the costly government responses to them are included in a country's GDP. The gap between GDP and wellbeing obviously has important practical implications since policies correlated with higher (lower) GDP are likely to be adopted (rejected) for that reason.

On 14 September an expert group commissioned by French president Nicolas Sarkozy and and including no less than five Nobel prize laureates released a report recommending that official statisticians should move to a wider measure of wellbeing that takes into account some of the factors that GDP leaves out. This move away from 'GDP fetishism' has long been championed by the commission's chair, Joseph Stiglitz.

Everyone seems to acknowledge the problems with GDP, but the commission's report gets a cool response from some of the business press, with the adjective 'Orwellian' cropping up here and there. The Economist admits that 'broadening official statistics is a good idea in its own right', but emphasises that 'these are early days' and remains sceptical about the practicalities of moving away from GDP. The primary concern is about potential abuse of a less well defined measure by governments or interest groups and a resulting lack of public trust. The message seems to be that it's fine to research broader measures and to start collecting figures, but until something robust is found, GDP per capita should remain the gold standard. Policymakers shouldn't put any credence in the broader measures yet.

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