In a recent issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Thomas Ploug and Søren Holm point out that scientific communities can sometimes get pretty polarized. This happens when two different groups of researchers consistently argue for (more or less) opposite positions on some hot-button empirical issue.
The examples they give are: debates over the merits of breast cancer screening and the advisability of prescribing statins to people at low risk of heart disease. Other examples come easily to mind. The one that pops into my head is the debate over the health benefits vs. risks of male circumcision—which I’ve covered in some detail here, here, here, here, and here.
When I first starting writing about this issue, I was pretty “polarized” myself. But I’ve tried to step back over the years to look for middle ground. Once you realize that your arguments are getting too one-sided, it’s hard to go on producing them without making some adjustments. At least, it is without losing credibility — and no small measure of self-respect.
This point will become important later on.
Nota bene! According to Ploug and Holm, disagreement is not the same as polarization. Instead, polarization only happens when researchers:
(1) Begin to self-identify as proponents of a particular position that needs to be strongly defended beyond what is supported by the data, and
(2) Begin to discount arguments and data that would normally be taken as important in a scientific debate.
But wait a minute. Isn’t there something peculiar about point number (1)?
On the one hand, it’s framed in terms of self-identification, so: “I see myself as a proponent of a particular position that needs to be strongly defended.” Ok, that much makes sense. But then it makes it sound like this position-defending has to go “beyond what is supported by the data.”
But who would self-identify as someone who makes inadequately supported arguments?
We might chalk this up to ambiguous phrasing. Maybe the authors mean that (in order for polarization to be diagnosed) researchers have to self-identify as “proponents of a particular position,” while the part about “beyond the data” is what an objective third-party would say about the researchers (even if that’s not what they would say about themselves). It’s hard to know for sure.
But the issue of self-identification is going to come up again in a minute, because I think it poses a big problem for Ploug and Holm’s ultimate proposal for how to combat polarization. To see why, though, I have to say a little bit more about what their overall suggestion is in the first place.
Could the fact that someone is more scroogelike – less willing to sacrifice for the sake of doing good – entail that morality is less demanding for her? The answer to this question has important implications for a host of issues in practical ethics, including issues surrounding adoption, procreation, charity, consumer choices, and self-defense.
Press Release: The moral imperative to research editing embryos: The need to modify Nature and Science
The first study in which the DNA of human embryos was intentionally modified has been published in the journal Protein & Cell, released on Saturday. This research is significant because it may be an important step toward a world where we are free from genetic disease. However allegations that Nature and Science refused to publish this research on ethical grounds are concerning.
The Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics Professor Julian Savulescu has called on Nature and Science to clearly explain their editorial decisions in relation this study.
“If these studies were rejected for ethical reasons we need to know what these reasons are.” Professor Savulescu said.
“There was absolutely no potential for this research to directly result in the birth of a modified human and it is unclear how the study could have harmed or wronged anyone.
Nature should explain why it deems this research ethically problematic, and yet publishes other controversial research, involving viruses, with the potential to directly kill millions of people.” Continue reading
Chris Gyngell and Julian Savulescu
Human genetic modification has officially progressed from science fiction to science. In a world first, scientists have used the gene editing technique CRISPR to modify human embryos. While the study itself marks an important milestone, the reason it is truly extraordinary is the scientific community’s reaction to it. In refusing to publish this study on ethical grounds, the world’s two leading science journals Nature and Science, appear to be demonstrating a lack of clear and consistent thinking on ethical issues. Continue reading
Practical ethics should be all about really having an impact on the world. This requires, among other things, working on the topic regarding which we are expected to produce the most good. Plausibly, these are topics that have been traditionally neglected or at least that remain under-researched. These are also moral issues that may seriously affect a great number of individuals.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Animal Liberation, in 1975. With it Australian philosopher Peter Singer initiated one of the highest impact careers in philosophy of the last century. It is not surprising that in 2005, Time magazine included him among the list of the 100 most influential people. It is remarkable, though, that the growing respect for Peter Singer has not been accompanied by a similar change of attitude regarding animal ethics —precisely the field in which he is recognised to have made a greater difference.
Animal Liberation boosted the contemporary academic debate on animal ethics and inspired the work of many other philosophers. This book contributed significantly to the growth of the movement for the equal consideration of nonhuman animals. It has influenced countless individuals to adopt veganism and to become activists in defence of animals. Even though the end of speciesist attitudes lies in the far future, very few other moral aims can produce a similar or greater good. Given the importance of the book, it is worth reviewing, on occasion of its anniversary, the position that Singer defended in it as well as some of the controversies it raises and issues it leaves open.
Animal Liberation is a non-academic book targeted at the general public. It is written by a philosopher with a particular moral outlook —utilitarianism— and with particular views about specific moral problems. Its aim is clear: denouncing speciesism and abandoning the consumption of animals, especially for food. Its method is effective: using arguments that most people already accept without having to commit to some of the author’s most controversial views.
The book’s main thesis is that the interests of all those who can suffer and enjoy should be equally considered. This is derived from the combination of two premises many of us find uncontroversial. Firstly, the widely shared and robust intuition about the equal consideration of all human beings and, secondly, the need for consistency in moral reasoning. The acceptance of the first idea is what leads us to reject assigning different weight to the interests of some individuals based, for example, in certain biological attributes such as sex or skin colour. Analogously, inasmuch as species membership does not condition the weight of an individual’s interests, it should also be rejected as a morally relevant attribute. The unequal consideration of similar interests based on the species of individuals should thus, for the sake of consistency, be abandoned as another form of discrimination (speciesism).
Furthermore, the argument from ‘species overlap’ shows us that any attempt to draw a moral line between human and nonhuman animals will ultimately fail. No matter what attribute one may appeal to, some human beings will lack it and/or some nonhumans will possess it. Of course, it is implausible to derive from this that those humans who lack the selected attribute should be denied moral consideration. Instead, Singer claims, equality in the consideration of interests should be extended beyond the human species to cover all sentient individuals. Since suffering has negative value, we have reasons to prevent it or alleviate it whenever we can, no matter the species of the individual who experiences it.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect in Singer’s view has been the one related to the ethics of killing animals. As it is suggested in Animal Liberation, and later clearly stated in Practical Ethics (2011), Singer believed at the time that only those individuals with a capacity to see themselves as extended over time can have an interest in continuing to live and thus be harmed by dying. Singer took this to follow from his version of preference utilitarianism, according to which death can only be bad if it frustrates a desire in being alive. Given that most nonhuman animals lack the necessary psychological capacities to harbour the relevant desire, this would entail that death cannot harm them. Thus, their interests would give us no reasons against killing them. If those reasons exist they will be given by other considerations, such as the maximisation of net positive experiences.
However, recently, Singer changed his view about the badness of death, prompted by his transition from preference utilitarianism to hedonistic utilitarianism. In The Point of View of the Universe (Lazari-Radek & Singer 2014), he acknowledges that all sentient beings with a life worth living (understood in hedonistic terms as containing a surplus of positive experiences) are harmed by death, since they are thereby deprived of the benefits they would have otherwise enjoyed.
Nevertheless, Peter Singer has not yet completely fleshed out his new account of the badness of death and the wrongness of killing animals. In fact, in a recent talk, he identified this topic as one of three most important open questions in animal ethics. The other two are, according to Singer, (a) the problem of performing interspecies comparisons of well-being and (b) whether we have reasons to intervene in nature to prevent or alleviate wild animal suffering.
Even if we disagree with Singer’s general utilitarian approach (e.g., if one believes, as I do, that equality matters as such) we must concede that very few philosophers can be said to have had an equally high impact. Forty years ago, Peter Singer realised that working on animal ethics was one of the most effective ways of doing good. Given the work that needs to be done and the billions that can benefit from it (considering both animals under human control and those living in the wild), that is still true today.
Singer, P. (2004). Animal Liberation, 4th Edition. New York: HarperCollins.
Singer, P. (2011). Practical Ethics, 3rd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lazari-Radek, K. & Singer, P. (2014). The Point of View of the Universe. Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Despite all the jokes there are, in fact, a lot of things that lawyers won’t do. Or at least shouldn’t do. In many jurisdictions qualified lawyers are subject to strict ethical codes which are self-policed, usually effectively, and policed too by alert and draconian regulatory bodies.
Is there any point, then, in law firms having their own ethics committees which would decide:
(a) how the firm should deal with ethical questions arising in the course of work?; and/or
(b) whether the firm should accept particular types of work, particular clients or particular cases? Continue reading
How much of your money should you give to effective charities? Donors are often made considerably happier by giving away substantial portions of their income to charity. But if they continued giving more and more, there’d surely come a point at which they’d be trading off their own well-being for the sake of helping others. This raises a general question: how much of your own well-being are you morally required to sacrifice, for the sake of doing good for others? I’m currently in Australia giving some talks on the ethics of giving (at the ANU and at CAPPE in Melbourne and Canberra), and have been thinking about this topic a bit more than usual.
How should we compare a decrease in average quality of life with a gain in population size? Population ethics is a rigorous investigation of the value of populations, where the populations in question contain different (numbers of) individuals at different levels of quality of life. This abstract and theoretical area of philosophy is relevant to a host of important practical decisions that affect future generations, including decisions about climate change policy, healthcare prioritization, energy consumption, and global catastrophic risks.
Guest Post by Bill Gardner @Bill_Gardner
Many researchers and physicians assert that randomized clinical trials (RCTs) are the “gold standard” for evidence about what works in medicine. But many others have pointed to both strengths and limitations in RCTs (see, for example, Austin Frakt’s comments on Angus Deaton here). Nancy Cartwright is a major philosopher of science. In this Lancet paper she provides insights into why RCTs are so highly valued and also why they are by themselves insufficient to answer the most important questions in medicine.
Imagine a huge pile of unwashed dishes reminds you that you should clean your kitchen. Would you rather take a pill that increases your ability to clean very elaborately or one that helps you get off the couch and actually bring yourself to start cleaning? No hard decision for me…
Certain substances like methylphenidate can not only enhance cognition, but also motivation or, to be more precise, self-regulation. This is not too surprising as treating conditions associated with decreased self-regulation like ADHD often is a main purpose of such medication. Continue reading