Guest Post: Impractical ethics

Written by Constantin Vica

Postdoctoral Fellow, Romanian Academy Iasi Branch

Research Center in Applied Ethics, University of Bucharest

This post is not, as one might expect, about that part of ethics which is not concerned about practical issues, e.g. meta-ethics. Neither is it about moral philosophical endeavors which are incomprehensible, highly conceptual and without any adherence to real people’s lives. And, more than that, it is not about how impractical a philosophy/ethics diploma is for finding a job.

One month ago Peter Singer, the leading ethicist and philosopher, was ‘disinvited’ from a philosophy festival in Cologne. It wasn’t the first time such a thing happened and perhaps Peter Singer wasn’t too impressed by the incident. Despite all of these things, the fact has a not-so-nice implication: “you, the practical ethicist, are not welcome to our city!” Of course, Peter Singer is not the first philosopher ‘disinvited’ (horribile dictu) by an ‘honorable’ audience; the history of philosophy and free thinking has an extensive collection of undesirable individuals expelled, exiled, and even killed by furious or ignorant citizens and stubborn elites. But, one might wonder, what is different this time? Continue reading

Adding Happy People

Almost every week there’s a headline about our planet’s population explosion.  For instance Indian officials confirmed recently that India is projected to overtake China in just over a decade – to become the most populous country on Earth.  Many are worried that the planet is becoming increasingly overpopulated.  Whether it is overpopulated, underpopulated, or appropriately populated is a challenging ethical question.

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Written by Darlei Dall’Agnol[1]

Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina

As we humans find ways of enhancing our physical, intellectual, emotional and other capabilities and, as a result, our lifespan expands, caring for the elderly becomes more challenging and complex too. We may postpone aging, but perhaps not forever and serious care will be needed at some point. Now, recent figures show that the number of carers aged 85 and over has risen in England by 128% in the last decade and is around 87.000.[2] Half of these carers work for 50 hours or more each week. Most are compromising their own well-being showing that we must deal with the problem in a different way to avoid aggravating it. These individuals should be cared for and not be the ones caring. An aging population brings greater burdens for the health care system raising many issues about fairness and justice in distributing resources. In countries like Japan, with 25% of the population over 65,[3] caring is even becoming a social problem and some companies are turning to robots.

Pepper “a robot with a heart” will be sold to care for the elderly and children. Other examples include: Wakamaru a “companion robot” designed to co-inhabit with humans (see figure below); Paro a fur-covered robotic seal developed by AIST that responds to petting; Sony’s AIBO robotic dog and NeCORO robotic cat covered in synthetic fur used for therapeutic purposes; Secom My Spoon an automatic feeding robot; Sanyo robot for monitoring, delivering messages, and reminding about medicine and other devices to help on the problem of caring for the elderly. In continental Europe, there are a few robots in experimental tests as caregivers too. But are robots the best solution for caring for the elderly? Continue reading

Race, Gender, and Authenticity: Reflections on Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner

The concept of authenticity has been receiving a lot of attention in the past few weeks due to two high profile cases. First, Caitlyn Jenner, a former Olympic gold medallist and TV personality who was until recently known as “Bruce”, debuted her new name and identity in an interview with the magazine Vanity Fair. Second, it was reported that Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane NAACP president, was allegedly born a white woman, and has been deceptively representing herself as a black woman.

The latter case has sparked a great deal of controversy that I do not intend to fully address here. Furthermore, although some commentators have drawn all things considered likewise comparisons between the two cases, it seems clear that Dolezal’s case involves a range of separate issues, which make an all things considered likewise comparison inappropriate; again, I do not intend to make such a comparison here. Rather, in this post, I shall explore one particular theme that has emerged in many discussions of these cases, namely the language of authenticity. Continue reading

Anorexia Nervosa and Deep Brain Stimulation: Philosophical Analysis of Potential Mechanisms

By Hannah Maslen, Jonathan Pugh and Julian Savulescu


According to the NHS, the number of hospital admissions across the UK for teenagers with eating disorders has nearly doubled in the last three years. In a previous post, we discussed some ethical issues relating to the use of deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat anorexia nervosa (AN). Although the trials of this potential treatment are still in very early, investigational stages (and may not necessarily become an approved treatment), the invasive nature of the intervention and the vulnerability of the potential patients are such that anticipatory ethical analysis is warranted. In this post, we show how different possible mechanisms of intervention raise different questions for philosophers to address. The prospect of intervening directly in the brain prompts exploration of the relationships between a patient’s various mental phenomena, autonomy and identity. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Millennium Development Goals and Peter Singer’s new book on Effective Altruism

Written by William Isdale,

of The University of Queensland

 As many readers will be aware, this year will mark the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals. For some of these goals, expectations have been exceeded; for instance, the goal of halving global poverty (defined as living on less then US$1.25 a day) was achieved back in 2010.

There are good grounds for believing that extreme poverty can be almost entirely eradicated within our lifetimes. But, for now, a lot of work remains to be done; the average life expectancy among the ‘bottom billion’ remains a miserable fifty years, and the most recent UNICEF estimate of poverty-related deaths among children is 6.3 million each year. Continue reading

It’s tough to make predictions*

by Dominic Wilkinson, @Neonatalethics

The Court of Protection is due to review very soon the case of a teenager with a relapsed brain tumour. The young man had been diagnosed with the tumour as a baby, but it has apparently come back and spread so that according to his neurosurgeon he has been “going in and out of a coma”. In February, the court heard from medical specialists that he was expected to die within two weeks, and authorized doctors to withhold chemotherapy, neurosurgery and other invasive treatments, against the wishes of the boy’s parents.

However, three months after that ruling, the teenager is still alive, and so the court has been asked to review its decision. What should we make of this case? Were doctors and the court wrong?

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Moral Agreement on Saving the World

There appears to be lot of disagreement in moral philosophy.  Whether these many apparent disagreements are deep and irresolvable, I believe there is at least one thing it is reasonable to agree on right now, whatever general moral view we adopt:  that it is very important to reduce the risk that all intelligent beings on this planet are eliminated by an enormous catastrophe, such as a nuclear war.  How we might in fact try to reduce such existential risks is discussed elsewhere.  My claim here is only that we – whether we’re consequentialists, deontologists, or virtue ethicists – should all agree that we should try to save the world.

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The Conservatives’ Legacies: What should we do with Inheritance Tax?

A majority in the House of Commons has provided David Cameron with the freedom to do over the next five years some of the things that he’s found difficult over the last five.  One of the things that is set for reform is the law on inheritance tax, with the Tory manifesto having pledged to

take the family home out of tax by increasing the effective Inheritance Tax threshold for married couples and civil partners to £1 million – so you can keep more of your income and pass it on to future generations. (p 3)

(UKIP upped the ante on this, promising to get rid of inheritance tax altogether.)

How big an impact the Conservative policy would make is hard to tell: most people don’t pay inheritance tax anyway, and so raising the threshold would affect only a portion of the residuum that would pay it.  But, still: we might ask whether such a policy is just.  For sure, there will be some people for whom it’s attractive – archetypally, the sort of person who bought a property in a then down-at-heel part of London or Manchester a generation ago who finds that it is now something of a golden egg.  But attractiveness in a policy will only take us so far.  To answer the justice question, we need to look at the principles behind it.  And once we do that, I’m not so sure that the policy is just.  Indeed, it’s not clear that there’d be anything unjust about having a much higher rate of inheritance tax.

The reason for the claim that reducing the inheritance tax burden is unjust is straightforward: it means that those who were fortunate with their parents get a helping hand not available to everyone.  The children of dentists will, at some point, receive a capital benefit that would not be matched by the children of dustmen.  Since this difference is arbitrary – noone deserves rich or poor, thrifty or feckless parents – there is a case to be made that the just society would seek to smooth it out to as great a degree as possible.  At least on paper, we might be tempted to think that a 100% inheritance tax would be a way to do this: it would ensure that noone benefitted at all from ancestral good fortune.  In practice, there’d doubtless be all kinds of workaround that’d make such a high rate unenforceable – but the case might stand in principle.

Is the moral case, then, that easily made? Continue reading

Should we punish crimes from the distant past?

Former Auschwitz SS officer Oskar Gröning is currently being tried as an accessory to murder for his role as an administrator in the extermination camp, and the trial has stirred up a lot of debate. One strand of the debate addresses the question whether Gröning was complicit in the extermination of prisoners, and whether he was culpable for this complicity. (Roger Crisp wrote a fascinating post on this a couple of weeks back.) But another strand – and the strand that I want to look at here – has addressed the question whether former Nazi war criminals should be tried and punished for deeds in their distant past. Eva Mozes Kor, an Auschwitz survivor and witness in Gröning’s trial has claimed that he shouldn’t be tried, though he should use his knowledge to help fight holocaust denial.

Let’s suppose that Gröning was indeed a culpable accomplice to murder. Should he then be punished? More generally, should serious crimes from decades go be punished? My intuition is that they should, but reflecting on why I have found it is not straightforward to defend this view. Continue reading