Current Affairs

The arrogance of warmongers: Pacifism for the 21st century

The world has turned mad; we need to sober up. It is 2014, and we have recently marked the First World War Centenary. Commemorating a past filled with suffering and loss should be a time to remember the horrors, and to take a firm stance against wars. Yet, we mark the First World War Centenary, and our increasingly unstable world scares me. A ceasefire has just been reached after yet another outburst of excessive violence in Israel/Gaza. Russian troops have entered Ukraine, and the West has responded not only with economic sanctions, but also with increased military (NATO) presence in Europe, and in many cases by decisions to expand military budgets, because a widespread conviction that Russia is a real military threat also to countries such as Denmark. Some commentators seem to think we should prepare for a full war in Europe. The Syrian Civil War is in its third year, and the death toll surpasses 190,000, the cause for which is doubtlessly partly involvement of other countries. A new state, which in its brutality reminds all of us of the history of man, and of what all human babies are capable of developing into, has been declared, the Islamic State, in areas that were previously part of Iraq and Syria. The United States of America responds by gathering an international coalition with the seeming, medium-term, purpose of waging a war, comparing their intentions to those that led to the “quick victory” in the Gulf war in 1990-1991. Meanwhile, the silent drone war that consists of attempts to systematically assassinate terrorists continues. In all this madness, we need to a make plea for peace. Continue reading

When warning is not informing: Alcohol labels will not be as straightforward as cigarette labels

News outlets have been discussing a call to require health warnings on alcoholic drinks comparable to those placed on cigarette packets. Amongst other recommendations, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Alcohol Misuse has called on political parties to include a health warning on all alcohol labels, and to deliver a government-funded national public awareness campaign on alcohol-related health issues.

If this proposal is to be implemented, it is important to note that there is an important disanalogy with placing health warnings on cigarette packaging. Whilst cigarettes always damage health to some degree, a large body of evidence suggests that moderate drinking is not only non-harmful to health but may in fact promote it. Continue reading

Lord Winston’s warning

Last month, Lord Robert Winston delivered the Physiological Society summer lecture entitled, ‘Shall we be human in the next century?’ You can watch it in full here (the stream starts working around 5”30 onwards). In the lecture, Lord Winston discusses the history and misuse of gene science and eugenics, and points to the potential resurgence of this way of thinking, made possible by advances that would allow us to genetically enhance human beings by modifying their nonpathological traits. Winston would be classified as a ‘bioconservative’ in the contemporary enhancement debate, and below I examine the case for caution that he puts forward in this lecture.

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Principles for the Legalization of Trade in Rhino Horn

Last Wednesday night in Kenya, on a private ranch near Nanyuki, armed gangs killed four rhinoceroses for their horns. According to a representative from the Kenyan Wildlife Service, this could be the worst rhino-poaching incident the country has seen in 25 years. 22 rhinos have been poached in Kenya this year. There are only 1,037 now left in that country, and fewer than 25,000 left in the world. The Western Black Rhino was declared extinct in 2011.

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When Are Objections ‘Religious’ Objections?: Hobby Lobby, Wheaton College, and Contraceptive Coverage

On June 30th, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby. The case required the court to consider whether closely held for-profit companies owned by individuals with sincere religious objections to abortion should receive a special exemption from providing healthcare coverage for contraceptives that may act after fertilisation but before implantation of an egg. Coverage of twenty types of contraceptives – including the four specific types that the owners consider to be abortifacients – is otherwise legally required as part of the employer-sponsored health insurance mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act 2010 (ACA). For a more in depth overview of the facts of the Hobby Lobby case and the key questions before the court, see my previous post on this blog. Continue reading

Sex with corpses might be philosophically cool. But it’s still not a good idea.

It is reported that Jimmy Savile crept at night into the mortuary at Leeds General Infirmary and committed sex acts on corpses.1

So what?

Well, for a start, assuming the acts involved penetration, he had committed a serious criminal offence.2

But shouldn’t we grow up? Shouldn’t we let live, and let the live love the dead? Who was hurt? Isn’t this legislation anachronistic? Doesn’t it stem from superannuated and probably, at root, theological ideas about the sanctity of life – irrationally extended to the sanctity of the dead human body?

If the acts gave Savile pleasure, then what’s the problem? Or, if we grant that the outraged relatives might suffer some distress (because they’ve not read enough philosophy), doesn’t the problem lie only in the fact that the relatives heard about what had happened, rather than in the acts themselves? In which case the real villains are the investigators and the media.

We have strong intuitions about many things. So strong, in fact, that they are often immune to the best arguments of the lawyers and philosophers. Continue reading

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

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