Current Affairs

Historical crimes, historical sentences?

Rolf Harris has been sentenced to five years and nine months in prison for sexual offences he committed at various points in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  There has been public outrage at the supposed leniency of his sentence, which will now be reviewed by the Attorney General to determine whether it will be sent to the Court of Appeal. Continue reading

Quebec legalises assisted-death: should other states follow?

Last month Quebec legalised assisted-death. The new law allows ‘medical aid in dying’ for adults at the end of life who suffer “constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain” as a result of a “serious and incurable illness”. The passage of this law makes Quebec the first jurisdiction in Canada to allow assisted-death or euthanasia.

The Bill follows successful legalisation of assisted-dying just south of Quebec last year in the American state of Vermont. Jurisdictions in which the practice is now legal include the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Washington, Montana and Oregon.

Surprisingly, the arguments for and against assisted-death and euthanasia haven’t been discussed all that frequently on this blog. So this post will consider: would legalising assisted-death (patient administered) or voluntary euthanasia (physician administered) provide a compassionate exit to those facing decline and suffering and the means to live and die by our own lights, or involve a repugnant devaluation of human life that would put the vulnerable at risk?

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What has Facebook (with some psychologists) done?

In my academic and musty corner of the universe, there has been a lot of talk in the past few days about this publication in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers tweaked a Facebook algorithm such that Facebook users would see a higher proportion of posts with negative or positive emotional content in their feed. They wanted to know whether a user seeing a different proportion would influence the emotional content content of that user’s posts in a positive or negative direction. The news: it did (a little bit).

People are less interested in that, however, and more interested in whether the researchers acted unethically. The BBC has a short round-up of some tweets here, and among other things the Guardian quotes Labour MP Jim Sheridan calling for an investigation here. Slate tagged its story on the issue with the headline ‘Facebook’s Unethical Experiment’ – a headline that shifts blame away from researchers and entirely to Facebook. There are many more news stories on this out by now: you get the picture. Continue reading

Taking Rape Allegations Seriously: How Should We Treat the Accused?

Last week, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that it would not pursue further action against Oxford Union president Ben Sullivan, due to insufficient evidence arising from an investigation into the two accusations of rape and attempted rape made against him. In early May, Sullivan was arrested and released on bail, prompting a chaotic six-week period for the Union as the Thames Valley Police investigated the claims made against him. After Sullivan refused to resign, a number of high-profile speakers, including the UK director of Human Rights Watch, the Interpol secretary-general, and a Nobel Peace prize winner, pulled out of their speaking commitments as part of a larger boycott of Union events.

In an open letter (which has since been taken down) calling for the boycott, students Sarah Pine, who is Oxford University Student Union’s Vice President for Women, and Helena Dollimor wrote, “Remaining in his presidency continues to offer prestige and power to someone who is being investigated for rape. This undermines the severe nature of allegations of sexual offences.” In contrast, Oxford professor A.C. Grayling penned a response to the letter refusing to cancel his scheduled talk at the Union, noting, “I simply cannot, in all conscience, allow myself to act only on the basis of allegations and suspicions, or of conviction by the kangaroo court of opinion, or trial by press…” In this post, I look at the spectrum of responses in the wake of Sullivan’s arrest, of which these two examples represent the poles. More broadly, I consider how we ought to respond – both as individuals and a society – when those in positions of power are accused of rape or other sexual offences. Continue reading

Should the NHS fund Weight Watchers schemes?

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recently recommended that the NHS should learn from commercial weight loss programmes such as Weight Watchers, Rosemary Conley and Slimming World. The NICE guidelines suggested that doctors should take a “respectful” and “non-judgemental” tone when helping patients to lose weight. As well as this, GPs were encouraged to continue to identify overweight patients for referral to state-funded commercial weight loss schemes, run by companies such as Weight Watchers, with obese adults being given priority.

The plan is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of pounds, but is also likely to save the NHS vast amounts in the long run, if successful in reducing obesity. Approximately 1 in 4 adults in the UK are obese, a condition that is linked with other ailments such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. The costs to the NHS attributable to people being overweight and obese are projected to reach £9.7 billion by 2050. Figures show that Weight Watchers and similar schemes manage to reduce participant’s body weight by 3 per cent, and NICE believe that even this small amount will help in the long term. Is it right, therefore, that the NHS subsidise the cost of these commercially run weight loss schemes?

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Genetically Modifying Mosquitoes to ‘Bite the Dust’? Ethical Considerations

At some point, most people will have questioned the necessity of the existence of mosquitoes. In the UK at least, the things that might prompt us into such reflection are probably trivial; in my own case, the mild irritation of an itchy and unsightly swelling caused by a mosquito bite will normally lead me to rue the existence of these blood-sucking pests. Elsewhere though, mosquitoes lead to problems that are far from trivial; in Africa the Anopheles gambiae mosquito is the major vector of malaria, a disease that is estimated to kill more than 1 million people each year, most of whom are African children. Continue reading

Public Sinners: Forgive or Forget?

If you haven’t heard anything about the ongoing saga of Donald Sterling, here is a quick run-down. Sterling owns an NBA team – the Los Angeles Clippers. By most accounts, Sterling is not a morally upstanding person (see here and here). But according to (at least) the court of public opinion, Sterling went too far recently when an audio recording emerged in which Sterling said several horribly racist things. Sponsors began withdrawing support, players threatened to boycott Clippers games, and the NBA reacting swiftly by banning Sterling for life from the NBA and fining him $2.5 million.

Since then things have gotten worse (at least in one sense) for Sterling. Consensus emerged that the NBA could, and would, force Sterling to sell his team – something Sterling said he would not do. But things appear to have been taken out of his hands. Before the NBA had to force Sterling to sell, Sterling was given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and was declared mentally unfit to make decisions for his team. At that point his wife decided to sell the team, and is in the process of doing so, for a reported $2 billion.

There are many ‘ethics in the news’ issues here. I’m going to focus on just one. How ought we to think about blame and forgiveness in these kinds of very public cases? What does Sterling owe us (the public), and do we owe Sterling anything? It is easy to find on-line vitriol directed at Sterling, and his largely unapologetic reaction to the whole episode has if anything fanned the flames. Is there a point at which such vitriol is too much? Should the diagnosis – which Sterling challenges – that Sterling is ‘mentally unfit’ influence how we feel about his blameworthiness for this episode? Should his well-documented past behaviour? Continue reading

The Right to Forget the Stock Market’s blemished Past

One of the great pleasures of studying human behaviour is to see that what we find in our experiments, what we theorize in our papers and textbooks – as unlikely and counterintuitive it appears to be – actually predicts what happens in so-called real life. Take, for instance, the current build-up of a stock-market bubble in the UK, happening even more dramatically in the US. In the UK, the FTSE 100 is on its way to surpass the record set during the high times of the dotcom bubble and already surpassed the levels reached during the 2008 financial bubble; in the US the Dow Jones has already reached new record highs. Despite having recently experienced the devastating consequences of a stock market bubble bursting, banks and investors return a few years later to the same hyperbolic forecasts and predictions, and start to build up another bubble. It is as if the past did not exist. Compare this behaviour with the following anecdote, which most business school students probably know.

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Food packaging matters more than informed consent to treatment

Packets of cigarettes carry pictures showing purchasers what their lungs or their arteries will look like if they carry on smoking. Consumers International and the World Obesity Federation are now suggesting that some foods should bear similar images.

Assume for the sake of argument that the practice would be effective in discouraging the purchase of health-truncating foods. If the images work by telling consumers something about what they are buying that they would not otherwise know, surely there can be no coherent objection to them. Knowledge of that sort is always good – assuming that the consumer has a real choice as to whether to buy the bad product or a better one.

If they work by pushing to the forefronts of consumers’ minds information that their grosser appetites conveniently suppress when they are wandering down the mall, there may be an argument against them. This would presumably be on the broad basis that the images manipulate the person away from being what they authentically are (a fructose-guzzling cardiac-cripple-in-waiting) towards something else. This argument would assert that there’s a sort of ethical imperialism at work: that those would stamp pictures of limbless diabetics on junk sweet packs are tyrannously seeking to impose an arbitrary normative idea of the good life.

I have little sympathy with this second view. If anyone says in a normative voice that it’s good to be diabetic, they’re insane. If anyone says in an empirical voice that it’s better to be diabetic than non-diabetic, they’re misinformed. If anyone says in the voice of a hedonistic utilitarian that the overall pleasure gained by the consumption of lard outweighs the detriments, I’d invite them to get thin, do all the Munros, and then revisit their original judgment. If anyone thinks that they’re more authentically themselves by being ill might have a point once their illness is long-standing and has truly become a defining characteristic. But before the illness is triggered, aren’t they more themselves without clogged arteries or the need to inject insulin five times a day?

If the packaging proposal is adopted, some interesting questions arise. Should good foods be branded with pictures of the condition you’ll be in or the advantages you’ll have if you eat them? Aphrodisiac oysters would display the beaming visages of satisfied sexual partners. Green tea would show lean centenarians on trampolines. Or perhaps those good foods should show the things that they’ll spare you: prostate-preserving tinned tomatoes might show an unoccupied midnight toilet.

Perhaps other, wider concerns should feature. Tins of palm oil should show dead orangutans. Milk should show the mournful face of a calf-less cow alongside the pictures of healthy, non-osteoporotic bone-scans.

While it’s easy to multiply absurdities, the proposal is basically a very good thing. It’s a good thing for at least some of the reasons that the notion of informed consent to medical treatment is endorsed. If you’re keen on informed consent to treatment, a fortiori you’ll be keen on food package images. In fact, I suggest, you should be more keen on those images. They’re more important. Continue reading

On Canada’s Proposed Bill C-24: The So-called ‘Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act’

A new bill proposed by the Canadian government’s Citizenship and Immigration Minister, Chris Alexander, has been getting a lot of press recently. (You can find the bill here and the current Act here). Bill C-24, called by its proponents the ‘Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act,’ is meant to do just that: Strengthen Canadian Citizenship. The changes it proposes to the extant Canadian Citizenship Act are legion, and vary in their significance. Certainly, the changes are not all bad. It calls, for example, for modifications that would allow so-called ‘lost Canadians’ a chance to become citizens. People who, for one reason or another, never received citizenship when they should have. It also introduces more consistently gender-neutral language, rather than favouring the masculine pronoun, and acknowledges common-law partnerships, where the current act only recognizes marriage. These are good things. But, the press hasn’t focused on these gains. This is because a series of changes proposed by the bill will also make Canadian citizenship harder to get and easier to lose. Like others, I’m opposed to the latter set of changes being proposed. However, unlike others, my dissent isn’t based on the introduction of what is being called a distinction between first and second-class citizens. Instead, it is based on the assumption, implicit in proposed bill and explicit in the rhetoric of its defense, that citizenship is a privilege and not a right. Continue reading

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