Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Arguing About Guns by C’zar Bernstein

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.[1] 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?


1           Introduction

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 equality.

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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[1] (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

On holding ethicists to higher moral standards and the value of moral inconsistency

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?

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Does religion deserve a place in secular medicine?

By Brian D. Earp

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?

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Humans are un-made by social media

‘Technology has made life different, but not necessarily more stressful’, says a recent article in the New York Times, summarising the findings of a study by researchers at the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University. It is often thought that frequent internet and social media use increases stress. Digital unplugging, along with losing weight and quitting smoking, is seen as a healthy thing to do. But, said the article, we needn’t worry so much. Frequent internet and social media users don’t have higher stress levels than less frequent users, and indeed women who frequently use Twitter, email and photo-sharing apps (and who use these media for life-event sharing more than men – who tend to be less self-disclosing online) scored 21% lower on the stress scale than women who did not.

I suggest that, far from being reassuring, these results are very sinister indeed. They indicate that internet technology (or at least something that has happened to humans at the same time as internet technology has been happening to them) has effected a tectonic transformation in the human constitution. The outsourcing, digitalization and trivializing of our relationships should make us stressed. If it doesn’t, something seriously bad has happened. The stress response enables us to react appropriately to threats. Switch it off, and we’re in danger. Only a damaged immune response fails to kick off when there are bacteria around. A tiger confined in a tiny concrete pen has lost a lot of its tigerishness if it doesn’t pace frustratedly up and down, its cortisol levels through the roof. Continue reading

Where there’s a will there’s a way: Enhancing motivation

by Hannah Maslen, Julian Savulescu and Carin Hunt

A study examining pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement found that participants’ subjective enjoyment of various memory and problem-solving tasks was significantly greater when they had taken modafinil (a drug originally developed for narcolepsy) compared with placebo, but that mood ratings overall were not affected (Muller at al 2013). The authors of the paper therefore concluded that, in addition to the various performance effects, ‘an important finding of this study is that there was a striking increase in task motivation’. Whilst a lot of attention has been paid to the ethical implications of enhancing cognitive performance, much less has been paid to the striking task-motivation finding. We suggest, however, that motivation enhancement might be the more contentious effect, from an ethical point of view. Continue reading

How polite must I be to cold callers?


At 7pm, as you’re eating your dinner, you get a call from an unknown number. You pick it up, half out of curiosity (perhaps your numbers have finally come up on the premium bonds), half out of worry (was a family member likely to have been driving at this time?), but wholly anticipating the interaction that in fact transpires:

‘Good evening, I was wondering whether I could talk to [Your Name]?’

‘Can I ask who’s calling?’ you deflect.

Enthusiastically: ‘My name’s Charlie and I’m calling from Well Known Phone Company Ltd. I wanted to check whether you had thought about updating your tariff? You’re due an upgrade.’

You have, in fact, been wondering about updating your tariff, but you’re not in the mood to do it now and dinner is getting cold. You think about explaining this to chirpy Charlie, but even the thought of engaging in an exchange about whether and when you might be free to discuss it feels like too much effort.

‘We’d be able to save you about…’

‘Sorry’, you interject with a shade of sincerity, ‘I’m not in the mood for being polite.’

‘Ok, well, I…’

You hang up, feeling a twinge of guilt and tremendous wonderment at how Charlie of Well Known Phone Company Ltd remains so chirpy in the face of such rejection.


Ordinarily, we tend to think there is a presumption towards being polite to other people. By ‘being polite’ I mean acting courteously – considering and acknowledging the needs and feelings of others with whom we interact, even when those interactions are very brief. If someone follows close behind you through a door, you should pause to keep it open rather than letting it shut in their face. If someone asks you the time, you should at least acknowledge their question. If someone lets you into the traffic, you should indicate your thanks. This presumption towards minimally respectful behavior arises partly from social convention and partly from our duty to acknowledge the moral reality of other people.

Given the presumption towards politeness, how polite must you be to Charlie the Salesman? Were you justified in hanging up mid-sentence or did your twinge of guilt inform you that you had behaved unfairly? Or, given a less tolerant day, would you in fact have been justified in expressing anger and contempt to Charlie? Continue reading

“Fifty Shades of Grey” – A Philosophical Review

Fifty Shades of Grey has sparked a lot of debate. Some like the fact that a popular movie now breaks the taboo on BDSM and seeks to challenge common stereotypes. Others condemn the movie for romanticizing violence.

So far, however, no philosophers seem to have joined the debate. That’s unfortunate, for how we should assess Fifty Shades and its BDSM theme depends on a range of philosophical issues such as consent, harm, voluntariness, respect, dignity, and the role of fiction.

BDSM is a somewhat radical topic, and for philosophical purposes, that is often an advantage. Radical topics – like thought experiments – put our principles to the test. (If you think Fifty Shades is grotesque, you should be warned that it is a walk in the park compared to many of the standard thought experiments in ethics).

For philosophical reasons – and philosophical reasons only, of course – I recently went to watch Fifty Shades of Grey. Continue reading

An infant-sized ethics: St Cross Ethics Seminar – Dr Richard Hain

by Dominic Wilkinson @NeonatalEthics

On the 29th of January, Paediatric Palliative Care Specialist Dr Richard Hain gave the first St Cross Special Ethics Seminar for Hilary Term.

Dr Hain’s talk was titled “Mere Practicality?  Infants, interests and the value of life”. The talk abstract and a link to a podcast of his talk can be found below.

The main focus of the talk was on contemporary accounts of medical ethics and in particular on the challenge of finding an adequate account that addresses the needs of human infants. Hain drew an analogy with a blood pressure cuff or “sphygmomanometer”. Blood pressure cuffs wrap around the upper arm, and air is pumped in to them until blood flow stops through the arm (this gives a reading of the pressure in the patient’s arteries). Adult-sized blood pressure cuffs don’t work well for children or infants. A too large cuff will usually give a reading that is too low because it doesn’t take as much air to cut off the blood flow. It underestimates a child’s true blood pressure.

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