The Homeric Power of Advance Directives

By Charles Foster

[Image: Ulysses and the Sirens: John William Waterhouse, 1891: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne]

We shouldn’t underestimate Homer’s hold on us. Whether or not we’ve ever read him, he created many of our ruling memes.

I don’t think it’s fanciful (though it might be ambitious) to suggest that he, and the whole heroic ethos, are partly responsible for our uncritical adoption of a model of autonomy which doesn’t do justice to the sort of creatures we really are. That’s a big claim. I can’t justify it here. But one manifestation of that adoption is our exaggerated respect for advance directives – declarations made when one is capacitous about how one would like to be treated if incapacitous, and which are binding if incapacity supervenes if (in English law) the declaration is ‘valid and applicable.’ 1.

I suspect that some of this respect comes from the earliest and most colourful advance directive story ever: Odysseus and the Sirens. Continue reading

Cross Post: Tech firms are making computer chips with human cells – is it ethical?

Written by Julian Savulescu, Chris Gyngell, Tsutomu Sawai
Cross-posted with The Conversation

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Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford; Christopher Gyngell, The University of Melbourne, and Tsutomu Sawai, Hiroshima University

The year is 2030 and we are at the world’s largest tech conference, CES in Las Vegas. A crowd is gathered to watch a big tech company unveil its new smartphone. The CEO comes to the stage and announces the Nyooro, containing the most powerful processor ever seen in a phone. The Nyooro can perform an astonishing quintillion operations per second, which is a thousand times faster than smartphone models in 2020. It is also ten times more energy-efficient with a battery that lasts for ten days.

A journalist asks: “What technological advance allowed such huge performance gains?” The chief executive replies: “We created a new biological chip using lab-grown human neurons. These biological chips are better than silicon chips because they can change their internal structure, adapting to a user’s usage pattern and leading to huge gains in efficiency.”

Another journalist asks: “Aren’t there ethical concerns about computers that use human brain matter?”

Although the name and scenario are fictional, this is a question we have to confront now. In December 2021, Melbourne-based Cortical Labs grew groups of neurons (brain cells) that were incorporated into a computer chip. The resulting hybrid chip works because both brains and neurons share a common language: electricity.

Continue reading

Parliament Psychedelic

Written by Doug McConnell

Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, and Liz Truss are on psychedelics at the Palace of Westminster. This isn’t the work of Russian spies who have dusted off the KGB playbook or yet another Downing Street party but, rather, a near-future professional development program for politicians.

The path to this near-future scenario has two steps. First, let us suppose that psychedelics make good on their early promise as moral bioenhancers. Second, once effective moral enhancements exist, then people whose jobs entail making morally momentous decisions, such as politicians, would be morally required to take those enhancements. Continue reading

Cognitive snobbery: The Unacceptable Bias in Favour of the Conscious

There are many corrosive forms of discrimination. But one of the most dangerous is the bias in favour of consciousness, and the consequent denigration of the unconscious.

We see it everywhere. It’s not surprising. For when we’re unreflective – which is most of the time – we tend to suppose that we are our conscious selves, and that the unconscious is a lower, cruder part of us; a seething atavistic sea full of monsters, from which we have mercifully crawled, making our way ultimately to the sunlit uplands of the neocortex, there to gaze gratefully and dismissively back at what we once were.  It’s a picture encoded in our self-congratulatory language: ‘Higher cognitive function’; ‘She’s not to be blamed: she wasn’t fully conscious of the consequences.’: ‘In the Enlightenment we struck off the shackles of superstition and freed our minds to roam.’ Continue reading

Might Going to Space Morally Enhance Billionaires?

By Hazem Zohny.

 

Billionaire Richard Branson blasted off to the edge of space this month on his Virgin Galactic rocket plane, and Jeff Bezoz just followed suit in his own Blue Origin rocket ship – Elon Musk may well venture into space as well.

The billionaire space race is certainly on, and while there are at least half a dozen ways to scoff at it, it’s interesting to wonder what the impact on billionaires’ moral outlook might be once they go to space and look back at the planet. Might they experience the overview effect?

Continue reading

Is Life-Sustaining Treatment Being Lawfully Withdrawn From Patients In Prolonged Disorders Of Consciousness? Nobody Seems To Know

By Charles Foster

From the time of the decision of the House of Lords in Airedale NHS Trust v Bland (1993) until the decision of the Supreme Court in An NHS Trust v Y (2018) (which I will refer to here as ‘Y”) it had been understood that the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment (typically clinically assisted nutrition and hydration – ‘CANH’) from patients in a vegetative state should be endorsed by the court. Over the years, this practice had been extended to cover such withdrawals in Minimally Conscious States too.

In Y, the Supreme Court held that there was no requirement for court review or endorsement. Why? Continue reading

Nonconsensual Neurointerventions and Expressed Disrespect: a Dilemma

Written by Gabriel De Marco and Tom Douglas

This essay is based on a co-authored paper recently published in Criminal Law and Philosophy

Neurointerventions—interventions that modify brain states—are sometimes imposed on criminal offenders for the purposes of diminishing the risk that they will re-offend or, more generally, of facilitating their rehabilitation. A commonly discussed example is the use of hormonal agents to reduce the sex drive of certain sexual offenders. Some suggest that in the future, we will have a wider range of such interventions at our disposal, possibly including, for instance, treatments to reduce aggression or impulsivity, or treatment to enhance capacities for empathy or sympathy.

In a recent paper, we consider an objection to the imposition of such neurointerventions without the offender’s prior agreement. Some object to these ‘nonconsensual neurointerventions’ (or ‘NNs’) by claiming that they express disrespect for the offender. This, according to the objection, gives us reason not to implement them. On a strong version of the objection, NNs are invariably wrong because they always express disrespect. Continue reading

The Neuroscience of a Life Well-lived: New St Cross Ethics Seminar

Professor Morten Kringelbach (Aarhus and Oxford) recently gave a fascinating New St Cross Ethics Seminar on ‘The Neuroscience of a Life Well-Lived’ (YouTube; mp3). Continue reading

Who You Really Are And Why It Matters

By Charles Foster

 [This is a review of The Flip: Who you really are, and why it matters, by  Jeffrey J. Kripal. Penguin, 2020]

A few years ago I dislocated my shoulder. I went off to hospital, and breathed nitrous oxide while they tried to put it back. Something very strange yet very common happened. ‘I’ rose out of ‘my’ body, and looked down at it. I could see the nurse’s centre parting and the top of my own bald head. ‘I’ was aware of the pain in the shoulder, and regretted it, but it wasn’t really my business.

My mind was hovering over the skull that encased my brain, and so it seemed ludicrous to say that mind and brain were identical. The experience ousted my residual materialism. Out went Aristotle: in came Plato. This change was a ‘flip’, as Kripal describes such events in this exhilarating, bold, timely, and profoundly important book.

Personal experience of this kind often produces tectonic philosophical conversions in professional philosophers and scientists. Mere reflection rarely does. This observation itself is likely to elicit howls of derision from the materialists. For them, to intrude oneself into an inquiry is necessarily to invalidate it. And of course the humanities are supremely to be mocked, for they are all to do with subjectivity. Continue reading

Mandatory Morality: When Should Moral Enhancement Be Mandatory?

By Julian Savulescu

Together with Tom Douglas and Ingmar Persson, I launched the field of moral bioenhancement. I have often been asked ‘When should moral bioenhancement be mandatory?’ I have often been told that it won’t be effective if it is not mandatory.

I have defended the possibility that it could be mandatory. In that paper with Ingmar Persson, I discussed the conditions under which mandatory moral bioenhancement that removed “the freedom to fall” might be justified: a grave threat to humanity (existential threat) with a very circumscribed limitation of freedom (namely the freedom to kill large numbers of innocent people), but with freedom retained in all other spheres. That is, large benefit for a small cost.

Elsewhere I have described this as an “easy rescue”, and have argued that some level of coercion can be used to enforce a duty of easy rescue in both individual and collective action problems. Continue reading

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