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

Legally Competent, But Too Young To Choose To Be Sterilized?

In the UK, female sterilisation is available on the NHS. However, as the NHS choices website points out:

Surgeons are more willing to perform sterilisation when women are over 30 years old and have had children.

Recent media reports about the experience of Holly Brockwell have detailed one woman’s anecdotal experience of this attitude amongst medics. Ms. Brockwell, 29, explains that she has been requesting sterilization every year since she was 26. However, despite professing a firmly held belief that she does not, has not, and never will want children, her requests have so far been refused, with doctors often telling her that she is ‘far too young to make such a drastic decision’. In this post, I shall consider whether there is an ethical justification for this sort of implicit age limit on consenting to sterilization. Continue reading

Speculating about technology in ethics

Many important discussions in practical ethics necessarily involve a degree of speculation about technology: the identification and analysis of ethical, social and legal issues is most usefully done in advance, to make sure that ethically-informed policy decisions do not lag behind technological development. Correspondingly, a move towards so-called ‘anticipatory ethics’ is often lauded as commendably vigilant, and to a certain extent this is justified. But, obviously, there are limits to how much ethicists – and even scientists, engineers and other innovators – can know about the actual characteristics of a freshly emerging or potential technology – precisely what mechanisms it will employ, what benefits it will confer and what risks it will pose, amongst other things. Quite simply, the less known about the technology, the more speculation has to occur.

In practical ethics discussions, we often find phrases such as ‘In the future there could be a technology that…’ or ‘We can imagine an extension of this technology so that…’, and ethical analysis is then carried out in relation to such prognoses. Sometimes these discussions are conducted with a slight discomfort at the extent to which features of the technological examples are imagined or extrapolated beyond current development – discomfort relating to the ability of ethicists to predict correctly the precise way technology will develop, and corresponding reservation about the value of any conclusions that emerge from discussion of, as yet, merely hypothetical innovation. A degree of hesitation in relation to very far-reaching speculation indeed seems justified. Continue reading

Was the Draw Muhammad Competition an Incitement to Violence?

by Nigel Warburton, @philosophybites

On May 3rd two men opened fire on a security guard near the ‘Muhhamad Art Exhibit & Contest’ an event in Garland, Texas, that advertised a $10,000 prize for the best cartoon drawing of the prophet. The assailants were shot dead by the police. Pamela Geller, the organiser of the event, is a political blogger, who, enflamed by 9/11 has mounted a well-funded campaign against what she sees as an Islamization of America and the ‘mosque-ing’ of the workplace (see this Washington Post article). The immediate catalyst for her draw Muhammad stunt was the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.  She was within her US First Amendment rights to organise this event, and explicitly defended it on free speech grounds. She told the Washington Post: ‘We decided to have a cartoon contest to show we would not kowtow to violent intimidation and allow the freedom of speech to be overwhelmed by thugs and bullies.’

This justification is very similar to that behind the decision of Charlie Hebdo’s surviving editors to publish the Muhammad cartoon on the front cover of the first issue of the magazine after the murders. It also echoes a more nuanced version of this stance given by Timothy Garton Ash in an article in ‘Defying the Assassin’s Veto’ in the New York Review of Books, in which he argued for reproducing a wide range of Charlie Hebdo’s covers, not just those which satirised Muhammad. Where violence is threatened, and there is a risk of self-censorship through fear, one of the best ways of standing up to the assassin’s veto is to produce more of the very thing that offends the would-be assassin in reaction and solidarity.

Continue reading

How can journal editors fight bias in polarized scientific communities?

By Brian D. Earp

In a recent issue of the Journal of Medical EthicsThomas 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 herehereherehere, 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.

Continue reading

How morality might ask less of scrooges (and more of kinder folks)

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.

Continue reading

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

The moral imperative to research editing embryos: The need to modify Nature and Science

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

Turning 40: Animal Liberation in perspective

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.