Charles Foster’s Posts

Drinking at Schiphol with the fount of bioethics

A couple of weeks ago, in an airport bar, I met the foundation of modern bioethics.

I was crawling back to London: he was heading to JFK.

‘I usually fly First’, was his opening, as we sat on those vertiginous stools. ‘So I’m usually in the Lounge. But it’s good to be reminded how the other half live.’ I was glad, for about a minute, to be part of his democratic education.

He’d had quite a start on me, and was several G & Ts down when I arrived. That might have loosened his tongue. Or perhaps, and probably, he was as keen when sober to talk obsessively, self-referentially and self-reverentially about himself.  Continue reading

Why ethicists should read Middlemarch and despise Simon Cowell

There are a few ethicists who are interested in encouraging right behaviour, rather than simply discussing it.

Here is something for them from A.L. Kennedy:

As Vonnegut mentioned, Nazi Germany trained a population to be blind to the dignity and humanity of some others. A diet of soft porn, cheap sentimentality and hate proved effective. Radio Mille Collines pedaled fear, poisonous pop music and a sense of unhinged communal power – it helped to push Rwanda into the abyss.’ 1 Continue reading

A Code of Conduct for Peer Reviewers in the Humanities and Social Sciences

1. The fact that you disagree with the author’s conclusion is not a reason for advising against publication. Quite the contrary, in fact. You have been selected as a peer reviewer because of your eminence, which means (let’s face it), your conservatism. Accordingly if you think the conclusion is wrong, it is far more likely to generate interest and debate than if you agree with it.

2. A very long review will simply indicate to the editors that you’ve got too much time on your hands. And if you have, that probably indicates that you’re not publishing enough yourself. Accordingly excessive length indicates that you’re not appropriately qualified. Continue reading

There is a duty not to be boring

Someone has just said to me: ‘You’re really boring today’. It is, of course, something I commonly hear. And it was undoubtedly true. But it made me wonder if there was any moral significance to my personal boringness. Should I repent of it, or is it morally neutral?

I’ve concluded, I’m afraid, that it’s culpable. There is a duty both to myself and to others to use reasonable – no, extraordinary – endeavours – not to be dull.

There are two reasons why I might be boring in the eyes of another.

Continue reading

Do I have a right to access my father’s genetic account?

 Written By: Roy Gilbar, Netanya Academic College, Israel, and Charles Foster

In the recent case of ABC v St. George’s Healthcare NHS Trust and others,1 [] a High Court judge decided that:

(a) where the defendants (referred to here jointly as ‘X’) knew that Y, a prisoner,  was suffering from Huntingdon’s Disease (‘HD’); and

(b) X knew that Y had refused permission to tell Y’s daughter, Z (the claimant), that he had HD (and accordingly that there was a 50% chance that Z had it (and that if Z had it there was, correspondingly, a 50% chance that the fetus she was then carrying would have HD),

X had no duty to tell Z that Y was suffering from HD. Z said that if she had known of Y’s condition, she would have had an abortion. Continue reading

Lord Janner: Sex, dementia and the public interest

In deciding whether or not to prosecute, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) applies a two-stage test. The first stage is the evidential stage: is there a realistic prospect of conviction? The second stage is the public interest stage: is it in the public interest to prosecute?

In the well-publicised case of the Labour Peer Lord Greville Janner the CPS has decided, in relation to a number of very serious sexual offences, that the evidential test has been passed. However, four expert clinicians, two instructed by the CPS and two instructed on behalf of Lord Janner, are in unanimous agreement that Lord Janner suffers from a degenerative dementia that is rapidly becoming more severe. He could not engage meaningfully with any trial process. There is no prospect of recovery, and no risk of future offending.

The CPS has decided that a prosecution would not be in the public interest. It has published detailed reasons. Continue reading

There are things that even lawyers won’t do

Despite all the jokes there are, in fact, a lot of things that lawyers won’t do. Or at least shouldn’t do. In many jurisdictions qualified lawyers are subject to strict ethical codes which are self-policed, usually effectively, and policed too by alert and draconian regulatory bodies.

Is there any point, then, in law firms having their own ethics committees which would decide:

(a)        how the firm should deal with ethical questions arising in the course of work?; and/or

(b)       whether the firm should accept particular types of work, particular clients or particular cases? Continue reading

Humans are un-made by social media

‘Technology has made life different, but not necessarily more stressful’, says a recent article in the New York Times, summarising the findings of a study by researchers at the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University. It is often thought that frequent internet and social media use increases stress. Digital unplugging, along with losing weight and quitting smoking, is seen as a healthy thing to do. But, said the article, we needn’t worry so much. Frequent internet and social media users don’t have higher stress levels than less frequent users, and indeed women who frequently use Twitter, email and photo-sharing apps (and who use these media for life-event sharing more than men – who tend to be less self-disclosing online) scored 21% lower on the stress scale than women who did not.

I suggest that, far from being reassuring, these results are very sinister indeed. They indicate that internet technology (or at least something that has happened to humans at the same time as internet technology has been happening to them) has effected a tectonic transformation in the human constitution. The outsourcing, digitalization and trivializing of our relationships should make us stressed. If it doesn’t, something seriously bad has happened. The stress response enables us to react appropriately to threats. Switch it off, and we’re in danger. Only a damaged immune response fails to kick off when there are bacteria around. A tiger confined in a tiny concrete pen has lost a lot of its tigerishness if it doesn’t pace frustratedly up and down, its cortisol levels through the roof. Continue reading

Bentham and butterflies

Rampisham Down, in West Dorset, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. But it soon won’t be. In a decision of dazzling stupidity, the local planning committee has said that it can be covered with over 100,000 solar panels. It accepted that renewable energy was a Good Thing and, in effect, that the loss of biodiversity occasioned by the panels was a price worth paying for the sun-farmers’ contribution to the battle against climate change.

Environmentalists, normally on the side of alternative energy, have been loud in their denunciation of the decision. A good example is Miles King in the Guardian: He observes: ‘….stopping biodiversity loss is as important as stopping global warming.’

Well, no it’s not. The crassness of the decision at Rampisham doesn’t alter the stark fact that  if global warming isn’t stopped, we won’t have any biodiversity of any kind to preserve. The planners were crass because there are plenty of other, better places to put the panels. But their view of the big picture is correct. Continue reading

Milk Round success is tragic, culpable failure

Several times this term I’ve staggered out onto Oxford station, cramped and queasy from Cattle Class, and seen packs of sleek suits ooze out of First Class, briefcases in their hands and predatory gleams in their eyes. ‘Let’s go hunting’, one floppy-haired account manager said to his confederates. They climbed into cabs, which they saw as safari Land Rovers heading to the bush, and went off to a panelled room in some college.

To that room, lured by canapés and Mammon, lots of undergraduates will have come. Fizz (far more expensive than the students would ever buy themselves, but not of a standard that would be tolerated in the hunters’ own Esher homes) will have been waiting on silver trays. Vol au vents will have been smilingly circulated by bought-in labour (or possibly by the  hunters’ own menials, in their best suits, slightly creased from travelling with me in Cattle). Continue reading


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