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Epistemic Ethics

Expertise and Autonomy in Medical Decision Making

Written by Rebecca Brown.

This is the fourth in a series of blogposts by the members of the Expanding Autonomy project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

This blog is based on a paper forthcoming in Episteme. The full text is available here.

Imagine you are sick with severe headaches, dizziness and a nasty cough. You go to see a doctor. She tells you you have a disease called maladitis and it is treatable with a drug called anti-mal. If you take anti-mal every day for a week the symptoms of maladitis should resolve completely. If you don’t treat the maladitis, you will continue to experience your symptoms for a number of weeks, though it should resolve eventually. In a small number of cases, maladitis can become chronic. She also tells you about some side-effects of anti-mal: it can cause nausea, fatigue and an itchy rash. But since these are generally mild and temporary, your doctor suggests that they are worth risking in order to treat your maladitis. You have no medical training and have never heard of maladitis or anti-mal before. What should you do?

One option is that you a) form the belief that you have maladitis and b) take the anti-mal to treat it. Your doctor, after all, has relevant training and expertise in this area, and she believes that you have maladitis and should take anti-mal.Read More »Expertise and Autonomy in Medical Decision Making

Honesty and Public Health Communication: Part 2

Written by Rebecca Brown

This post is based on two recently accepted articles: Brown and de Barra ‘A Taxonomy of Non-Honesty in Public Health Communication’, and de Barra and Brown ‘Public Health Communication Should be More Transparent’.

In a previous post, I discussed some of the requirements for public health institutions to count as ‘honest’. I now want to follow that up to discuss some of the ways in which public health communication seems to fall short of honesty.Read More »Honesty and Public Health Communication: Part 2

In Defense of Obfuscation

Written by Mette Leonard Høeg

At the What’s the Point of Moral Philosophy congress held at the University of Oxford this summer, there was near-consensus among the gathered philosophers that clarity in moral philosophy and practical ethics is per definition good and obscurity necessarily bad. Michael J.  Zimmerman explicitly praised clarity and accessibility in philosophical writings and criticised the lack of those qualities in especially continental philosophy, using some of Sartre’s more recalcitrant writing as a cautionary example (although also conceding that a similar lack of coherence can occasionally be found in analytical philosophy too). This seemed to be broadly and whole-heartedly supported by the rest of the participants.

Read More »In Defense of Obfuscation

Epistemic Diligence and Honesty

Written by Rebecca Brown

All else being equal, it is morally good for agents to be honest. That is, agents shouldn’t, without good reason, engage in non-honest behaviours such as lying, cheating or stealing. What counts as a ‘good reason’ will vary depending on your preferred ethical theory. For instance, Kant (in)famously insisted that even if a murderer is at the door seeking out their victim you mustn’t lie to them in order to protect the victim’s life. A rule utilitarian, in contrast, might endorse lies that can generally be expected to maximise expected utility (including, presumably, lying to murderers about the whereabouts of their intended victims).

What will actually count as being dishonest will vary depending on your preferred conception of honesty. If honesty has very extensive requirements, failure to volunteer relevant information when you know someone would find it useful might be a failure of honesty. On a narrower account, perhaps even ‘paltering’ – misleading by telling the truth – might not count as dishonest so long as what the agent says is technically true.Read More »Epistemic Diligence and Honesty

Hang Onto Your Soul

By Charles Foster


I can’t avoid Steven Pinker at the moment. He seems to be on every page I read. I hear him all the time, insisting that I’m cosmically insignificant; that my delusional thoughts, my loves, my aspirations, and the B Minor Mass’s effect on me are merely chemical events. I used to have stuck up above my desk (on the principle that you should know your enemy), his declaration (as stridently irrational as the sermon of a Kentucky Young Earth Creationist): ‘A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution – perhaps its greatest breakthrough – was to refute the intuition that the Universe is saturated with purpose.’ 1

He tells me that everything is getting better. Has been getting better since the first eruption of humans into the world.2 That there’s demonstrable progress (towards what, one might ask, if the universe has no purpose? – but I’ll leave that for the moment). That there’s less violence; there are fewer mutilated bodies per capita. He celebrates his enlightenment by mocking my atavism: he notes that the Enlightenment came after the Upper Palaeolithic, and (for the law of progress admits no exceptions) concludes that that means that our Enlightenment age is better than what went before.Read More »Hang Onto Your Soul

The Aliens Are Coming

UFO against the sky. Free public domain CC0 photo

By Charles Foster

It’s said that 2022 is going to be a bumper year for UFO revelations. Secret archives are going to be opened and the skies are going to be probed as never before for signs of extraterrestrial life.

This afternoon we might be presented with irrefutable evidence not just of life beyond the Earth, but of intelligences comparable in power and subtlety to our own. What then? Would it change our view of ourselves and the universe we inhabit? If so, how? Would it change our behaviour? If so how?

Much would depend, no doubt, on what we knew or supposed about the nature and intentions of the alien intelligences. If they seemed hostile, intent on colonising Planet Earth and enslaving us, our reactions would be fairly predictable. But what if the reports simply disclosed the existence of other intelligences, together with the fact that those intelligences knew about and were interested in us?Read More »The Aliens Are Coming

Social Media and the Loss of Knowledge

written by Neil Levy

Here’s the common view of social media and its epistemic effects. Social media leads to people sequestering themselves in echo chambers, and echo chambers cause extreme and/or unjustified beliefs. When we don’t exchange opinions with a variety of people, we don’t have access to the full range of evidence and argument. Instead, because echo chambers form around already likeminded people, they lead to the entrenchment of initial views, no matter how good or bad they might have been to begin with.Read More »Social Media and the Loss of Knowledge

Decoupling, Contextualising and Rationality

Written by Rebecca Brown

In February 2020, just before science journalists had to start writing about covid full time, Tom Chivers wrote an article for Unherd, ‘‘Eugenics is possible’ is not the same as ‘eugenics is good’’. In it he describes a Twitter outcry provoked by Richard Dawkins who tweeted: 

It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.

Chivers analyses the fallout in terms of a distinction between ‘high decouplers’ and ‘low decouplers’, a distinction described by the blogger John Nerst, here and also here. Chivers (and Nerst) describe decoupling as a ‘magic ritual’ that a speaker can perform in order to disassociate the thing they are about to say from all of the baggage that might ordinarily attach to it. So, one might say “I don’t think we should kill healthy people and harvest their organs, but it is plausible that a survival lottery, where random people are killed and their organs redistributed, could effectively promote longevity and well-being.”

Read More »Decoupling, Contextualising and Rationality

Cognitive snobbery: The Unacceptable Bias in Favour of the Conscious

There are many corrosive forms of discrimination. But one of the most dangerous is the bias in favour of consciousness, and the consequent denigration of the unconscious.

We see it everywhere. It’s not surprising. For when we’re unreflective – which is most of the time – we tend to suppose that we are our conscious selves, and that the unconscious is a lower, cruder part of us; a seething atavistic sea full of monsters, from which we have mercifully crawled, making our way ultimately to the sunlit uplands of the neocortex, there to gaze gratefully and dismissively back at what we once were.  It’s a picture encoded in our self-congratulatory language: ‘Higher cognitive function’; ‘She’s not to be blamed: she wasn’t fully conscious of the consequences.’: ‘In the Enlightenment we struck off the shackles of superstition and freed our minds to roam.’Read More »Cognitive snobbery: The Unacceptable Bias in Favour of the Conscious

How we got into this mess, and the way out

By Charles Foster

This week I went to the launch of the latest book by Iain McGilchrist, currently best known for his account of the cultural effects of brain lateralisation, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western WorldThe new book, The Matter with Things: Our brains, our delusions, and the unmaking of the world is, whatever, you think of the argument, an extraordinary phenomenon. It is enormously long – over 600,000 words packed into two substantial volumes. To publish such a thing denotes colossal confidence: to write it denotes great ambition.

It was commissioned by mainstream publishers who took fright when they saw its size. There is eloquent irony in the rejection on the ground of its length and depth of a book whose main thesis is that reductionism is killing us. It was picked up by Perspectiva press. That was brave. But I’m predicting that Perspectiva’s nerve will be vindicated. It was suggested at the launch that the book might rival or outshine Kant or Hegel. That sounds hysterical. It is a huge claim, but this is a huge book, and the claim might just be right.

Nobody can doubt that we’re in a terrible mess. The planet is on fire; we’re racked with neuroses and governed by charlatans, and we have no idea what sort of creatures we are. We tend to intuit that we are significant animals, but have no language in which to articulate that significance, and the main output of the Academy is to scoff at the intuition.Read More »How we got into this mess, and the way out