Tony Coady, University of Melbourne

The pill to banish painful memories—forget it!

It is a curious feature of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that the media regales readers and viewers almost daily with exciting details of breakthroughs in medical science: new cures, reversals of previous certainties about old remedies (and then, often enough, later reversals of the reversals), astonishing information about our brains and numerous other organs, apparently dramatic discoveries about free will and ethical thinking. Much of this is indeed attributable to the rapid rate of the expansion of contemporary scientific understanding which we should not want to underestimate, but it is also sometimes the result of the media’s excitability and search for sensation, combined with the impressive self-promotional skills of practitioners of the medical sciences. This latter factor means that reported “breakthroughs” are often no more than confident early steps on a promising but uncertain path, and when they lead nowhere this sad news tends not to see the light of day. And then there are the cases of outright fraud or incompetence, such as the South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk’s initially much-proclaimed breakthroughs in the early 2000s in stem cell research that were shown to be faked.

So a certain reserve about reported breakthroughs is in order, but a recent case is worth philosophical scrutiny even if its claims turn out to be less valid than they seem. This was a report in The Mail Online, Science and Technology section that was headlined “Could Pill wipe out bad memories? Drug used to treat multiple sclerosis found to help us forget experiences that caused us pain.” But it turns out that the drug has only been tested for memory erasure of pain in mice, and then only of a specific type of pain associated with mild electric shock. The Mail article jumps rapidly from this modest beginning to claim that the experiment “offers hope of a drug that could eradicate memories of traumatic events from years ago and help patients overcome phobias, eating disorders and even sexual hang-ups.” For none of this “hope” is there an iota of evidence in the scientific study and one of the scientists involved in the study at the Commonwealth University of Virginia, Dr Sarah Spiegel, showing appropriate modesty, said of the drug concerned: ‘Fingolimod, a Food and Drug Administration approved drug for treatment of multiple sclerosis, has beneficial effects in the central nervous system that are not yet well understood.” More ambitiously she added: “Fingolimod deserves consideration as an adjuvant therapy for post traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.”

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Not cricket? Law, convention, ethics, and that run-out

Sporting contests are philosophically interesting, as well as enjoyable, because sports and games are full of rules and conventions, which inevitably raise issues of interpretation and give rise to passion about ethics and the spirit of the game. The recent run-out of English batsman, Jos Buttler by the Sri Lankan bowler, Sachithra Senanayake in the deciding one-day international match is a case in point. Buttler was run out at the non-striker’s end by the bowler almost in his delivery stride after Buttler had backed up too far The anger, complaint and tutt-tutting in the English media, amounted to a sort of slightly stifled outrage (if that is a possible condition). But there is general agreement that Senanayake did nothing against the laws (rules) of the game, so for those shocked by the run out, there is recourse to such things as violating the spirit of cricket, ungentlemanly behaviour, and the ethics of the matter. (For an interesting discussion of this and other examples of legal but improper behaviour in cricket, such as not “walking” when you know you are “out”, see Samir Chopra and David Coady, “Not Cricket” in Sport in Society: Culture, Commerce, Media, Politics, 2007.)

To be clear on the law, Law 42.11 from the International Cricket Council’s playing regulations for international cricket states that “the bowler is permitted, before releasing the ball and provided he has not completed his usual delivery swing, to attempt to run out the non-striker”.

This could hardly be clearer, so the current debate implicitly or explicitly acknowledges that there is a difference between law and morality, or, less grandly perhaps, the rules and the ethos of an activity. So, it is worth looking more closely at what happened. According to newspaper reports, Buttler had already twice been warned by the bowler when out of his crease as the bowler was about to enter his delivery stride. In spite of this he was well down the pitch when Senanayake broke the bails and appealed. The umpire asked the Sri Lankan captain, Angelo Matthews whether he wanted to withdraw the appeal and he declined to do so. The batsman trudged unhappily from the field, and after the match Alastair Cook, the England captain, when shaking hands with the victorious captain, apparently delivered angry words about the incident.

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Crisis in the Catholic Church

Professor Tony Coady is Professorial Fellow in Applied Philosophy and Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at Melbourne University. He is currently visiting the University of Oxford as Leverhulme Visiting Professor at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Applied Ethics. He is a Catholic.

In the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, the famous Protestant historian Thomas Macaulay wrote admiringly of the Church of Rome and the Papacy commending their ancient lineage and current vitality. He saw no signs of decline and speculated that the Church “may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.” 

Today, Macauley’s assessment seems unduly optimistic. Scandals about clerical sexual abuse of children and the associated official evasion of responsibility as well as inflexible attitudes to so many of the values and dilemmas of the contemporary world have combined to undermine to a large extent the confident self-image and apparent cohesion that helped sustain the durability and vigour that enchanted Macaulay. Following a series of alarming revelations about the extent of clerical sex abuse in Ireland and the gross inadequacy of the hierarchy’s responses to it, coupled with the Irish Prime Ministers strong denunciation of the official Church’s record on the matter, the recent BBC program “The Shame of the Catholic Church” (broadcast 2/5/12) added further fuel to the blaze. Although the broadcast was primarily concerned with the abuse and evasion of church authority it also indicated the depth of the wider crisis in the Church.

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