Environmental Bioethics

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: May the state limit the free speech of individuals who advocate against vaccines intended to combat infectious disease? by Miles Unterreiner

This essay, by Oxford graduate student Miles Unterreiner, is one of the two finalists in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Miles will be presenting this paper, along with three other finalists, at the 12th March final.

May the state limit the free speech of individuals who advocate against vaccines intended to combat infectious disease?

Freedom is the most contagious virus known to man.

-Hubert H. Humphrey


Philosophical arguments concerning freedom of speech have traditionally focused upon which types of expression the state apparatus may justly limit, and under which circumstances it may do so. The state has therefore been the locus of history’s most celebrated works on the subject, including John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), chapter 20 of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), and perhaps most famously J.S. Mill’s On Liberty (1859). Mill’s argument in favor of the free exchange of ideas remains today the most lasting and the most relevant, and his formulation of the “harm principle” – that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” – continues to undergird significant components of law and policy in industrialized democracies today.[1] 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

Destroying one ecosystem and constructing another: biodiversity offsetting and particular value

Suppose that the government is proposing a new policy regarding buildings of historical significance. Rather than simply banning the destruction of ‘listed’ buildings, the new policy would allow their destruction, provided that whoever destroys the building agrees to construct, somewhere nearby, a new building of a similar size, in a similar style, exhibiting a similar range of architectural innovations, and of a similar level of beauty. Blenheim Palace could be flattened and built over with a shopping mall and carpark, provided that mall developers agreed to construct a replica of the palace somewhere nearby.

Most would be disturbed by such a policy. Part of the reason that they would be disturbed, I presume, is that it seems to manifest a failure to recognise the true value of historical buildings. Not all of the value of historical buildings consists in their possession of generic properties like ‘being beautiful’, ‘being in the baroque style’ or ‘using space to dramatic effect’. Some of their value is value that they have as particular objects, and that could thus not be realised in any other object. Part of the value of Blenheim Palace derives from it’s being the birthplace of Winston Churchill. This value could not be realised in a replica of the palace built 5 miles down the road.

Of course, no-one is proposing a policy of sort I’ve just outlined. I bring it up because I think reflecting on this kind of case may throw some light on recent discussion regarding biodiversity offsetting (see, for example, here, here  and here). Continue reading

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

Living near a busy road can kill you

Early April saw some unusually smoggy days across much of Western Europe, resulting in widespread media attention to air pollution.
(See, for example, here, here and here.) On one day, air quality in some parts of London was worse than in Beijing. Further attention has been drawn to the issue by a number of recent official reports, including one from the World Health Organisation, which has declared that air pollution is now the world’s biggest single environmental threat to health.

As has been noted, media coverage can give a misleading picture of the health risks of air pollution. Coverage tends to focus on short-term peaks, such as those seen recently in Western Europe, but the health risks of air pollution are primarily related to long term exposure, and show no ’safe threshold’ effect. Elevated baseline levels of pollution are thus more of a problem than occasional peaks.

There’s another important aspect of air pollution that often goes unnoticed; small geographical differences can have a marked effect on exposure to air pollution and thus on risk of adverse health effects. For example, living near a busy road appears to substantially increase air pollution-related mortality. A study published last year in the Lancet (press summary here) investigated the effects of very local differences in air quality on mortality by pooling 22 European cohort studies. The investigators found that an increase in average annual fine particulate (PM2.5) exposure of 5 µg/m3 was associated with a 7% increase in the risk of dying from all natural causes. This is approximately the difference between living on a busy urban road and living in a traffic-free area. The finding was robust in the face of correction for various possible confounding factors. Continue reading

Is smoking morally wrong?

This week, I’ve been thinking about smoking. Full disclosure: My name is Jim and I am a smoker. I have smoked for nearly a decade now – since around 2005 – and I only smoke menthol cigarettes. I am addicted to the sweet menthol smoke, where that touch of red fire at the end of a white stick seems so perfectly suited to almost any occasion from celebration to commiseration. I give up on average for a month or two a year, every year. I always come back, though. The reason I say this is to highlight that I am by no means one of these dour-faced moralizers, condemning smokers for their ‘filthy habit’. Like a snot-nosed child, it may be filthy, but it’s my filthy habit. Most efforts to encourage people against smoking focus on the idea that smoking is personally damaging: it causes illness and death, it costs a lot of money, it harms others, it litters the environment, and so on. This week, however, I’ve been thinking about whether the real concern is that smoking might be morally wrong. (NB: I’m discussing where whether it is morally wrong, not whether it should be legally banned or whether people should have the ‘right’ to smoke – these are distinct questions). Continue reading

Should you take ecstasy to improve your marriage? Not so fast …

Love drugs and science reporting in the media: Setting the record straight 

By Brian D. Earp, Julian Savulescu, and Anders Sandberg

Love. It makes the world go round. It is the reason we have survived as a species. It is the subject of our art, literature, and music—and it is largely the product of chemical reactions within the brain.

No wonder science is starting to unravel the ways in which we can influence it, and perhaps even control it.

Just as Darwin’s finding that we are descended from apes shocked people in the nineteenth century, so people will be shocked to find that our most lofty social ideal is something we share with our mammalian cousins and which is the subject of scientific scrutiny and even chemistry-book manipulation.

In 2008, two of us (Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg) published an article in the journal Neuroethics on the topic of “love drugs” – a term we use to refer to pharmacological interventions based on existing and future bio-technologies that could work to strengthen the bond between romantic partners. All three of us have an article just published in the journal Philosophy & Technology in which we build upon that earlier work. Interested readers will take the time to study those papers in full, but we have a feeling that much of the population will stop at a handful of media reports that have recently summarized our ideas, including at least one article that we think has the potential to mislead. Let us set the record straight.

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Sustainable Fish Week at Ghent University

This week is ‘Sustainable Fish Week’ at Ghent University in Belgium. All fish on the university restaurants’ menus come from sustainable fisheries or fish farms (with practices that can be maintained without reducing the ability of the target fish to maintain its population and without threatening other species within the ecosystem, for example, by removing their food source, accidentally catching and killing them, or damaging their habitat). Tuna sandwiches will be taken off the menu and a sustainable alternative will be provided instead. Those who take their meal at a university restaurant will receive a free ‘fish guide’ with helpful information for making responsible fish choices at home. Those with strong stomachs may also enjoy the opportunity to taste jellyfish at the university restaurants. The message is that, if we continue to eat unsustainable fish, then soon jellyfish will be the only alternative to fish left on the menu.

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Vegetarians Have Moral Obligation to Eat “Frankenmeat”

The Daily Telegraph reports:

Prof Mark Post, of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, yesterday announced the world’s first test tube hamburger would be served up in October. Heston Blumenthal, the experimental chef, will cook the patty grown in a lab from a cow’s stem cells. Each portion will cost £220,000, but Prof Post hopes if the burger is a success he can develop the technology on an industrial scale.

“This is meat produced without the cruelty, carbon footprint or waste of resources,” said Alistair Currie, a spokesman for the vegan campaign group.
“It’s a hugely beneficial development for animals. We welcome this development, which shows this is a viable idea.”

He added the charity had no ethical objections to the fact that the test-tube patty will technically be a meat product.
He said: “Peta [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] has no objection to the eating of meat. Peta objects to the killing of animals and their exploitation. I personally don’t fancy eating this, but if other people do that’s fine.”

Even though Mr Currie doesn’t fancy eating Frankenmeat, he has a moral obligation to do so. It is not just other people who should eat this meat, vegans also have a moral obligation to eat it. Here is why.

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Death Aquatic

Can science tell us how chefs should treat lobsters? The Independent this week implies it can. It seems that this is important to diners who want reassurance that their dinner has not been killed in a “barbaric” manner.

Science may of course discover the quickest or easiest method of killing. Norwegian researchers in particular have dedicated significant time to this research. Of methods including ice, nitrogen gas, freezing, gradual or rapid heating, piercing of ganglia, salt baths and carbon dioxide gas, apparently electricity is best. A commercial product, “Crustastun” offers the ability to replicate this in the kitchen. However, the retail cost of £2,500, puts this out of the reach of all but the richest, most gadget obsessed or humanitarian seafood lovers. But there is a more basic question: do lobsters really feel pain?

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