It’s a beautiful warm sunny day, and you have decided to take your children to join a group of friends for a barbecue at the local public park. The wine is flowing (orange juice for the kids), you have managed not to burn the sausages (vegetarian or otherwise), and there is even an ice-cream van parked a conveniently short walk away.
An idyllic scenario for many of us, I’m sure you will agree; one might even go so far as to suggest that this is exactly the sort of thing that public parks are there for; they represent a carefree environment in which we can enjoy the sunshine and engage in recreational communal activities with others. Continue reading
This essay, by Oxford undergraduate student Dillon Bowen, is one of the two finalists in the undergraduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Dillon will be presenting this paper, along with three other finalists, on the 12th March at the final.
The Economics of Morality: By Dillon Bowen
People perform acts of altruism every day. When I talk about ‘altruism’, I’m not talking about acts of kindness towards family, friends, or community members. The sort of altruism I’m interested in involves some personal sacrifice for the sake of people you will probably never meet or know. This could be anything from holding the door for a stranger to donating a substantial portion of your personal wealth to charity. The problem is that, while altruism is aimed at increasing the well-being of others, it is not aimed at maximizing the well-being of others. This lack of direction turns us into ineffective altruists, whose generosity is at the whim of our moral biases, and whose kindness ends up giving less help to fewer people. I propose that we need to learn to think of altruism economically – as an investment in human well-being. Adopting this mentality will turn us into effective altruists, whose kindness does not merely increase human happiness, but increases human happiness as much as possible.
For the first section, I explain one morally unimportant factor which profoundly influences our altruistic behavior, both in the lab and in the real world. In the next section, I look at decision-making processes related to economics. Like altruistic decision-making, economic decision-making is also burdened by biases. Yet unlike altruistic decision-making, we have largely learned to overcome our biases when it comes to resource management. Continuing this analogy in section three, I express hope that we can overcome our moral myopia by thinking about altruism much the same way we think about economics. Continue reading
This essay, by Oxford undergraduate student Xavier Cohen, is one of the two finalists in the undergraduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Xavier will be presenting this paper, along with three other finalists, on the 12th March at the final.
How should vegans live? By Xavier Cohen
Ethical vegans make a concerted lifestyle choice based on ethical – rather than, say, dietary – concerns. But what are the ethical concerns that lead them to practise veganism? In this essay, I focus exclusively on that significant portion of vegans who believe consuming foods that contain animal products to be wrong because they care about harm to animals, perhaps insofar as they have rights, perhaps because they are sentient beings who can suffer, or perhaps because of a combination thereof. Throughout the essay, I take this conviction as a given, that is, I do not evaluate it, but instead investigate what lifestyle is in fact consistent with caring about harm to animals, which I will begin by calling consistent veganism. I argue that the lifestyle that consistently follows from this underlying conviction behind many people’s veganism is in fact distinct from a vegan lifestyle. Continue reading
In New South Wales, Australia, classes on secular ethics have been offered to some students as an alternative to religious studies since 2010. A programme called ‘Primary Ethics’ is now taught to around 20,000 students in more than 300 schools. It introduces discussion of moral issues in a systematic way and provides an educational experience for students who were previously not provided with a taught alternative.
Should schools, particularly government schools, teach ethics? Or does doing so violate an important principle of government neutrality on matters moral and spiritual?
This essay, by Oxford graduate student Callum Hackett, is one of the six shortlisted essays in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.
‘Giving Ourselves Away: online communication alters the self and society’
Invention is a fertile source of new ethical problems because creating new tools creates questions about how they might be used for better or worse. However, while every invention has its unique uses, the questions we must ask of them are often the same. For example, the harnessing of water and steam in the Industrial Revolution raised the same concern as robotics in contemporary manufacturing for how mechanization affects the economic empowerment of the working class. Naturally, there are fewer underlying ethical problems than there are inventions that cluster around them, but here I wish to explore the possibility that the mass adoption of the internet has brought with it a new problem with which we are just starting to engage. Specifically, while the internet poses a series of difficult questions, I will consider the implications of certain characteristics of online communication for the self, society and politics. Continue reading
This essay, by Oxford graduate student C’zar Bernstein, is one of the six shortlisted essays in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.
Arguing About Guns
In this paper, I’ll argue, first, that people have a prima facie right to own guns. Second, that it is far more controversial than people usually suppose that gun ownership does more harm than good, given the extant criminological evidence.
Rights are trumps that are supposed to hold in the face of negative consequences. Prima facie rights are rights that admit to being outweighed by countervailing considerations. However, because rights are supposed to trump negative consequences, one cannot merely point out that there are negative consequences as a reason to suppose that the right is overridden. She must establish that the negative consequences outweigh the trump-value of the right. Thus, if there is a prima facie right to own guns, anti-gun philosophers must show (i) that gun ownership does more harm than good, and (ii) that the negative consequences are sufficient to override the right to own guns. I’ll argue that there is a lot of good evidence to doubt that (i) is true. I shan’t, however, argue that (i) is probably false, which would require a much more extensive examination of the evidence. Continue reading
Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Is prohibition of breast implants a good way to undermine harmful and unequal social norms? by Jessica Laimann
This essay, by Oxford graduate student Jessica Laimann, is one of the two finalists in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Jessica will be presenting this paper, along with three other finalists, at the 12th March final.
Is prohibition of breast implants a good way to undermine harmful and unequal social norms?
Some individuals decide to inflict harm on themselves. Examples range from smoking or fasting, up to self-mutilation or suicide. In liberal moral theory, paternalistic interventions, that is, interventions with an individual’s choices for the individual’s own good, are considered prima facie morally wrong. Clare Chambers agrees with the liberal presumption against paternalism. However, she argues that some self-harming choices do permit interference due to the circumstances in which they occur. These are choices made in the context of unequal and harmful social norms, which fulfil the following three conditions (see Chambers 2008, 265):
- The practice is significantly harmful to the individuals who engage in it.
- Individuals engage in the practice in order to attain benefits which are norm-dependent – the benefits are linked to engagement in the practice only in virtue of social conventions.
- The social norm that links the practice to the benefits undermines social or political
Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Can a Contractarian Rationally Donate to Charity? by Benedict Hardwick.
This essay, by Oxford undergraduate student Benedict Hardwick, is one of the four shortlisted essays in the undergraduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.
Can a Contractarian Rationally Donate to Charity?
Charities Act 2011:
1.1 For the purposes of the law of England and Wales, “charity” means an institution which is established for charitable purposes only.
2.1 For the purposes of the law of England and Wales, a charitable purpose is a purpose which…is for the public benefit.
Although a moral theory, contract theory is concerned with rational decisions rather than “good” or “right” decisions. ‘Rational actions’ are here conceived, following Gauthier (rather than, say, Scanlon) as maximising one’s own personal utility and so the theory already assumes that there are no rational justifications for purely altruistic/non-utility-maximising behaviour (“purely” because it is possible to maximise one’s utility by maximising that of someone else’s – but this is not what we would call “purely” altruistic). This is no bad thing since I believe such justifications are at best unnecessary complications and at worst demonstrably false, but that debate will not be had here. Instead I shall here show that charity, the supposed epitome of good moral action, is not good at all. Continue reading
A few weeks ago, Adela Cortina, one of the most important moral philosophers in Spain, was interviewed on the journal El País. “This should be the easiest interview in the world,” said the journalist by way of introduction. Adela Cortina asked why. “Because of your profession. Professors of Ethics never lie, right?” “People assume we are faultless, and when they talk to me they are always justifying themselves. What I work on is something academic, and then, when it comes to life, I try to be consistent with my convictions, but nobody is incorruptible,” she said.
Suppose I tell you that a professor from your local university did something morally reprehensible—cheated on his spouse, failed to pay taxes, or stole money from his department. Suppose that I then tell you this professor is a moral philosopher. Does this further fact make his actions all the more disappointing? I suspect most people think it does. Why is it that ethicists are commonly held to higher moral standards than the rest of the population? Should they be?
The latest issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics is out, and in it, Professor Nigel Biggar—an Oxford theologian—argues that “religion” should have a place in secular medicine (click here for a link to the article).
Some people will feel a shiver go down their spines—and not only the non-religious. After all, different religions require different things, and sometimes they come to opposite conclusions. So whose religion, exactly, does Professor Biggar have in mind, and what kind of “place” is he trying to make a case for?