The devil is real, and we all know him

It is Halloween, the day when the dead walk and the devil rides.

We’re plagued by children who are risking diabetes, if not their immortal souls, by demanding the sort of sweets you only give to kids you hate. The Christians down the road, not realizing, as Luther did, that the devil can’t bear to be mocked, are holding a ‘light party’ in protest against the trick-and- treaters.

And, between door-bell rings and dispensings of deadly substances to skeletons, I’m reflecting on a talk I recently heard by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. It was on her wonderful book, Plato in the Googleplex. In the book, Plato wanders through modern America, watching, talking, bemused, amused, dismayed, misunderstood. It’s an audit of Platonism. How has it weathered? Continue reading

Book review: ‘Moral Tribes’ by Joshua Greene

The dictator Joseph Stalin reputedly once said that “The death of one person is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.” Behind this chilling remark lies an important insight into human moral psychology. Our moral intuitions are myopic. For instance, we are repelled by the idea of causing others direct physical harm, while it is psychologically much easier to inflict the same, or greater, amounts of harm in non-direct ways. (Think of controlling a drone, as opposed to stabbing someone at close range.) Continue reading

Private Lives, Dying Wishes, and Technological Development

Recently in Portsmouth, a statue of Charles Dickens has been unveiled. While not terribly notable in itself this event is of some interest as it ignores the last wishes of the author it is meant to honour [1].

The problem, in my view, is that this is just one of many cases in which a public figure—authors appear especially vulnerable—has been denied the fulfilment of his or her express wishes regarding post-mortem handling of his or her estate or image. Continue reading

Get your nasty Platonic hands off my kids, Mr. Gove

My book of the year, by a very wide margin, is Jay Griffiths’ splendid ‘Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape’ (Hamish Hamilton, 2013). Amongst her many virtues is a loathing of Plato’s Republic. Here she is, in typically swashbuckling style:

Excessive laughter is banned and so is the liquid superfluity of metaphor. Plato would rid his ideal state of anything that could arouse emotion, mischief, wildness or fun….so ghastly is his Republic that it could be interpreted as satire. But, generally, its ambition has been taken with deadly seriousness as a founding text on the education of boys. The purpose of The Republic is to school its youth to be good soldiers engaged in unending war to take the resources of neighbouring lands. It is a handbook for the education of imperialists.

Brick by brick, Plato builds the walls of his citadel of control, hierarchy and obedience. His ideal republic is obsessed with rule – not only the rule of command, but the rule of measurement… the heart of his vision [is] that Apollo, god of measure, metre, civilisation and, surely, god of metronomes, should keep Dionysus, god of the Romantic movement, god of wildness and nature, firmly under his thumb.’ 1

Familiar? It should be – at least to UK readers. It’s the policy of Michael Gove and his rightly vilified Department. They want to produce a generation of nerdish measurers – people who wield rulers rather than wands, and who write in Excel rather than blank verse.

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Breaking the mould: genetics and education

Tonight I participated in BBC’s “The Moral Maze”, discussing the recent reactions to a report by Dominic Cummings, an advisor to the education secretary, that mentioned that genetic factors have a big impact on educational outcomes. This ties in with the recent book G is for Genes by Kathryn Asbury (also on the program) and Robert Plomin where they argue that children are not blank slates and that genetic information might enable personalized education. Ah, children, genetics, IQ, schools – the perfect mixture for debate!

Unfortunately for me the panel tore into my transhumanist views rather than ask me about the main topic for the evening, so I ended up debating something different. This is what I would have argued if there had been time:

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Things look really good…if all you care about is money

Are things really getting better? Well, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ if you’re a monetary consequentialist (i.e., think all that matters is maximizing the amount of monetary resources in the world).  A group of 21 economists plus one Bjørn Lomborg have a new book coming out soon that will survey 10 pressing global problems such as health, air pollution and gender equality in the world from 1900 to 2050.  According to Lomborg’s précis, they have found that on most of the dimensions, things are improving (only biodiversity is identified as having gotten worse), and the positive trends are expected to largely continue.  This will come as some relief to those bemoaning recent political, environmental and humanitarian crises.  But don’t break out the champagne just yet – their analysis evidently relies on a crude GDP-centric measurement tool that obscures a number of crucial issues.  Continue reading

What to do with the Redundant Churches After the Demise of Religion?

Some weeks ago I attended a lecture by Daniel Dennett at the Oxford Union on religion. As expected, it was a lively presentation that predicted the demise of religion. However, one matter that started me thinking was how Dennett concluded his lecture: he ended by pondering what we might do with all the redundant places of worship once his prophecy was fulfilled. His suggestion was that they might satisfy a secular purpose, as places where the community might come together to address the novel challenges of the modern world. I started me thinking as I wondered whether a belief in religion might be better than atheism for attaining this, or any other, goal. Some, such as Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind (2012)) have suggested that religion is a particularly effective force for bringing people together. Continue reading

“The Best Interests of the Family”: Parents v Baby?

There is much that is good to be said about Dominic Wilkinson’s new book Death or Disability? The ‘Carmentis Machine’ and decision-­making for critically ill children.

My favourite part of the book is how Dominic confronts head on the issue of the best interests of the family in relation to care, and withdrawal of medical treatment, in newborns.

This is one of the most neglected areas of bioethics.

On the one hand, there is a rhetoric that goes we are all social beings, we are socially connected, not atomistic individuals, the community matters, etc etc The usual communitarian mantra.

Then there is the alleged overriding legal and medical ethical principle of the best interests of the patient, which is the newborn infant in the case of neonatal medicine. The sole basis of the provision of medical treatment is meant to be to promote the best interests of the patient, and medicine should never be used to harm the patient, etc etc. The usual medical ethics and law mantra.

And then there is real life. The interests of the parents, siblings, other relatives, friends, society etc can all diverge from the interests of the patient, even a newborn infant. How are these to be weighed? The hard edged reality is that the interests of families and especially parents do play a role in clinical decision making, and even in cases to withdraw life-prolonging medical treatment. (For example, in one survey 90% of American intensivists believed that family interests should be included in decisions for incompetent patients. )

In ‘Death or Disability?’, Dominic reaches several striking conclusions. We should certainly give some weight to the interests of the family for decisions about children. This is most likely to sway our decisions in relatively borderline cases, where the net benefit or harm to the child is small. But he also argues that the amount of weight will vary depending on the age of the child, and on the availability of resources. We should give greater weight to the wishes of parents for newborn infants than for an older child. And we should give greater weight again in societies with few resources, where the burden of caregiving is going to fall heavily on families, and where health resources are seriously limited.

It is time for an honest, open and rational approach to these kinds of dilemmas. Dominic does just that.

The Best Practical Ethics Books of the Year…

By the editors of the Practical Ethics blog.

What is the best practical ethics book you read this year, and what is so good about it (in 1-3 sentences)?

We asked this question to our colleagues at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. To our surprise, not a single title received multiple votes. This perhaps indicates that so many good books in the field appeared in the last couple of years, or perhaps a different explanation is due. Either way, below is the list of the recent titles we found excellent:

The Ends of Harm: The Moral Foundations of Criminal Law by Victor Tadros

‘In this book, Tadros provides a highly engaging non-consequentialist account of the permissible harming of others. It is an important and illuminating work containing a number of original insights’. – David Birks


The Ethics of Transplants: Why Careless Thought Costs Lives by Janet Radcliffe Richards

‘I give this out to people as a paradigm example of how to do good practical philosophy, especially in medical ethics. Janet dismembers bad arguments, like a pathologist dissecting a corpse riddled with metastatic cancer, and reveals the diagnosis, chapter after chapter. It is a fine example in the now neglected method of giving sound arguments, and exposing invalid ones. It is unabashedly pre-postmodernist and, as such, is intelligible and useful to any thoughtful person, specialist or non-specialist.– Julian Savulescu


Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things by Peter-Paul Verbeek

‘A thought-provoking account of human-technology relation that calls for a new understanding of and method for ethics in our technological age. This book will surely give you some food for thought. Perhaps, it will even change the way you understand the technologies around you’. – Pak-Hang Wong


Philosophy and the Environment ed. by Anthony O’Hear

Philosophy and the Environment contains several excellent papers, including an outstanding piece by David Wiggins, which is both ethical and practical’. – Roger Crisp


The Prison Officer by Alison Liebling, David Price, and Guy Shefer

‘Most of us never face extreme violence, aggression, corruption and despair, let alone need to make good, daily decisions about how to manage it effectively and with moral decency. Prison officers do. This book explores the psychology of prison officers and their relationships with prisoners, revealing what it is to do this demanding job well and carve morality out of the chaos often found within prisons’. – Hannah Pickard


The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind synthesises Haidt’s influential work on different aspects of moral psychology, to create a unified vision of the field, and it is having significant influence accross a variety of academic disciplines’. – Stephen Clark


Skepticism and Freedom: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism by Richard A. Epstein

‘An interesting consequentialist defence of classical liberalism, limited government and free markets by an eminent academic lawyer. Philosophers may think some of the philosophical arguments go by rather quickly, but this is to miss the peculiar virtue of the book. His knowlege of the way law has worked in practice and the commonalities of law across culture and history fills out the defence with the kind of important and illuminating facts that philosophers rarely know’. – Nicholas Shackel


The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson

The Spirit of Compromise skilfully combines normative reasoning with empirical analysis to provide concrete suggestions to correct some of the most serious deficiencies in contemporary democratic politics. It brilliantly shows how the “policy implications” of normative theory can be more than a polite gesture towards funding bodies’. – Kei Hiruta


Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

A nice summary of the evidence he’s compiled during the course of his brilliant career into the scary levels of human irrationality’. – David Edmonds


Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets by Debra Satz

‘It draws on philosophy, economics, and anthropology to present a sophisticated and nuanced appraisal of the moral consequences of markets in human organs, sex and other actual or potential commodities. In doing so, it moves the debate about markets beyond the standard trite claims about efficiency, equality, or human dignity’. – Simon Rippon


1493: How Europe’s Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth by Charles C. Mann

1493 is a beautifully written and deeply insightful exploration of how hard it is (and has always been) to anticipate the human consequences of globalization’. – Regina Rini


Is your favourite recent title listed above, or do you have other suggestions? Please reply below to share with us the practical ethics book you found most interesting this year!

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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