Current Affairs

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

On the Ethics of Tipping

At lunch-time, I will often venture out of the office for lunch to a sandwich shop with a friend. In my sandwich shop of choice, the staff have placed a small jar labelled ‘tips’ on the counter.  Now, in the UK at least, sandwich shop staff seem to fall into something of a ‘grey area’ with regards to tipping convention. Whilst we normally tip waiters and waitresses in restaurants, and bartenders (amongst others), we don’t tend to tip people who serve us in other ways. For example, I don’t feel it incumbent upon me to tip my butcher, who arguably does a lot more work in an individual transaction than someone serving me a sandwich. However, this discrepancy is perhaps not surprising; a great deal of research suggests that tipping decisions are influenced by various social norms;[1] tipping waiters and waitresses is simply ‘the done thing’, whilst tipping butchers is not. Perhaps we just lack a clear social norm in the case of sandwich shops. Continue reading

Does it matter that there’s cocaine in our water supply?

Scientists from the Drinking Water Inspectorate have recently discovered benzoylecgonine in water samples at four test sites, a finding that is thought to be a result of high levels of domestic cocaine consumption. Benzoylecgonine is the metabolised form of cocaine that appears once it has passed through the body, and is the same compound that is tested for in urine-based drug tests for cocaine. It is also an ingredient in a popular muscle-rub, however, so the origins of the compound in our water are somewhat uncertain. Steve Rolles from the drug policy think tank Transform has suggested that the findings are an indication of the scale of the use of cocaine in Britain todayAccording to a 2010 UN report, the United Kingdom is the single largest cocaine market within Europe, followed by Spain.  In contrast to the shrinking cocaine market in North America, the number of cocaine users in European countries has doubled over the last decade, from 2 million in 1998 to 4.1 million in 2007/8. Although the annual cocaine prevalence rate in Europe (1.2%) is lower than North America (2.1%), the UK prevalence rate (3.7% in Scotland and 3.0% in England and Wales) is actually higher than the US (2.6% in 2008). According to the charity DrugScope, cocaine is the second most used illegal substance in the UK after cannabis: there are around 180,000 dependent users of crack cocaine in England, and nearly 700,000 people aged 16-59 are estimated to take cocaine every year. Further, according to the government statistics, in the years 2012-13, cocaine was the only drug to show an increase in use among adults between 16-59. All this does appear to suggest a possible link between the benzoylecgonine found in the water supply and high levels of cocaine use in the UK.

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On the ‘right to be forgotten’

This week, a landmark ruling from the European Court of Justice held that a Directive of the European Parliament entailed that Internet search engines could, in some circumstances, be legally required (on request) to remove links to personal data that have become irrelevant or inadequate. The justification underlying this decision has been dubbed the ‘right to be forgotten’.

The ruling came in response to a case in which a Spanish gentleman (I was about to write his name but then realized that to do so would be against the spirit of the ruling) brought a complaint against Google. He objected to the fact that if people searched for his name in Google Search, the list of results displayed links to information about his house being repossessed in recovery of social security debts that he owed. The man requested that Google Spain or Google Inc. be required to remove or conceal the personal data relating to him so that the data no longer appeared in the search results. His principal argument was that the attachment proceedings concerning him had been fully resolved for a number of years and that reference to them was now entirely irrelevant. Continue reading

Is Home Birth Really As Safe As Hospital Birth? “Woman-centred Care” vs “Baby-centred Care”

Imagine that you and your partner are having a baby in hospital. Tragically something goes wrong unexpectedly during birth and the baby is born blue. He urgently needs resuscitation if there is to be a chance of preventing permanent severe brain damage. How long would it be reasonable for doctors to wait before starting resuscitation? 15 minutes? 5 minutes? 1 minute?

What would be a reasonable excuse for delaying the commencement of resuscitation? They wanted to get a cup of coffee? The mother wanted to hold the baby first? The mother had catastrophic bleeding and this needed urgent attention?

If it were my baby, I would not want any delay in starting resuscitation. And there would be no justification for delaying resuscitation except some more serious, more urgent problem for another patient, such as the mother.

Yet when people choose homebirth, delay is precisely what they choose. It is simply not possible to start advanced resuscitation in the home within minutes. And their reason is not typically some relevant competing health concern that necessitates delivery at home.

Choosing home birth is choosing delay if some serious problem arises which requires immediate resuscitation.

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Do people have a right to be bigots?

 Last month Australia’s Attorney-General said in parliament that “people have the right to be bigots”. The remark came in the context of a debate about the government’s proposed amendments to sections of the country’s Racial Discrimination Act 1975 that deal with racial hate speech.

The relevant provisions of the Act make it unlawful for a person to ‘do an act’, otherwise than in private, if:

(a)    the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and

(b)   the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.

This section was added in 1995 and until recently had largely gone unnoticed by the majority of Australians. But the newly elected government made a commitment prior to its election that it would amend the provision (and a defence provision) on the grounds that it unduly restricts free speech – and so a hearty debate has ensued.

The question is: are hate-speech laws, and in particular the Australian provision, overly restrictive of free speech?

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