Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: What, if Anything, is Wrong About Algorithmic Administration?

This essay received an honourable mention in the undergraduate category.

Written by University of Oxford student, Angelo Ryu.



 The scope of modern administration is vast. We expect the state to perform an ever-increasing number of tasks, including the provision of services and the regulation of economic activity. This requires the state to make a large number of decisions in a wide array of areas. Inevitably, the scale and complexity of such decisions stretch the capacity of good governance.

In response, policymakers have begun to implement systems capable of automated decision making. For example, certain jurisdictions within the United States use an automated system to advise on criminal sentences. Australia uses an automated system for parts of its welfare program.

Such systems, it is said, will help address the costs of modern administration. It is plausibly argued that automation will lead to quicker, efficient, and more consistent decisions – that it will ward off a return to the days of Dickens’ Bleak House. Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: If Doctors Could Administer a Treatment That Would Move a Patient From a Vegetative State to a Minimally Conscious One, Should They Do So?

This essay was the runner up in the graduate category of the 6th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Written by University of Oxford student Matthew Minehan.

Sally is a healthy young woman who suffers catastrophic brain trauma. Over many months, her doctors subject her to functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining (fMRI) scans and other assessments that leave them in no doubt that she is in a vegetative state. While she shows sleeping and waking activity patterns, her body is operating on ‘automatic’ and she has no consciousness. She is “incognizant, incapacitated and insensate” (Fenwick 1998, p.86).

Sally’s doctors are aware of a new treatment that, if administered, would move her from the vegetative state to a minimally conscious one. This new state would involve fractured consciousness, a lack of awareness of her condition, an inability to direct her own life and an incapacity for complex thought. Because Sally has no known next of kin and issued no advance directive, the decision on her treatment is left to her medical team.

Should the doctors in this hypothetical scenario administer the treatment to Sally? Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Can it be Wrong For Victims to Report Crimes?

This essay was the winning entry in the graduate category of the 6th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Written by University of Oxford student, Maya Krishnan.



Late one night in Managua, Nicaragua, a man punched Leslie Jamison in the face and then ran away with her camera. Jamison called the police. Forty minutes later, a police truck pulled up with a man in the back. A sense of discomfort informs Jamison’s subsequent narration of the incident in her essay collection, The Empathy Exams (2014). Jamison found herself occupying a morally fraught role: that of a white American in Nicaragua who got the police to try to hunt down a likely significantly poorer man. Had she done something wrong by calling the police? Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Can Science Ethically Make Use Of Data Which Was Gathered By Unethical Means?

This essay was the runner up in the undergraduate category of the 6th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by University of Oxford student Toby Lowther

In this paper, I discuss the question of whether science can ethically make use of data which has been gathered by unethical means in seeking scientific and medical advances to alleviate future suffering. This is an ever-controversial issue of practical ethics, and although the American Medical Assosciation provides firm guidelines on the matter (AMA, 1995), the ethical question remains complex. I will begin by laying out the core issue: the conflict between the desire to censure unethical practices used in gathering such data and the desire to use all data available to bring about the greatest good for society. I will present arguments either side, leading to an ethical stalemate, before presenting how issues of practical consideration for scientific methodology resolve the conflict. I conclude that science cannot make use of data gathered by unethical means, because such data cannot ethically be replicated, and reproducibility is necessary for the validity of the scientific method. I leave open the question of whether it is ethical for the findings of such unethical experiments to guide future, ethical research. Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Why Is Virtual Wrongdoing Morally Disquieting, Insofar As It Is?

This essay was the winning entry in the undergraduate category of the 6th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Written by University of Oxford student, Eric Sheng.

In the computer game Red Dead Redemption 2 (henceforward, RDR2), players control a character in a virtual world. Among the characters represented by computer graphics but not controlled by a real-world player are suffragettes. Controversy arose when it became known that some players used their characters to torture or kill suffragettes. (One player’s character, for example, feeds a suffragette to an alligator.) In this essay, I seek to explain the moral disquiet ­– the intuition that things are awry from the moral perspective – that the players’ actions (call them, for short, ‘assaulting suffragettes’) provoke. The explanation will be an exercise in ‘moral psychology, philosophical not psychological’:[1] I seek not to causally explain our disquiet through the science of human nature, but to explain why things are indeed awry, and thus justify our disquiet.

My intention in posing the question in this way is to leave open the possibilities that our disquiet is justified although the players’ actions are not wrong, or that it’s justified but not principally by the wrongness of the players’ actions. These possibilities are neglected by previous discussions of virtual wrongdoing that ask: is this or that kind of virtual wrongdoing wrong? Indeed, I argue that some common arguments for the wrongness of virtual wrongdoing do not succeed in explaining our disquiet, and sketch a more plausible account of why virtual wrongdoing is morally disquieting insofar as it is, which invokes not the wrongness of the players’ actions but what these actions reveal about the players. By ‘virtual wrongdoing’ I mean an action by a player in the real world that intentionally brings about an action φV by a character in a virtual world V such that φV is wrong-in-V; and the criteria for evaluating an action’s wrongness-in-V are the same as those for evaluating an action’s wrongness in the real world.[2] Continue reading

Congratulations to our Winners and Runners up in the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics 2020

ouc prize logo

Please join us in congratulating all of the finalists in this unique final for the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics, and in particular our winners, Eric Sheng and Maya Krishnan.

In an Oxford Uehiro Centre first the 6th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics was held as a Zoom webinar event. The Finalists in each category presented their ideas to an online audience and responded to a short Q&A as the final round in the competition. Over the coming weeks a selection of the winning essays will be published on this blog.

When: Mar 19, 2020 05:30 PM London

Topic: 6th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Undergraduate Category

Winner: Eric Sheng: Why is virtual wrongdoing morally disquieting, insofar as it is?

Runner UpToby S. Lowther: Can science ethically make use of data which was gathered by unethical means?

Graduate Category

Winner: Maya Krishnan: Can it be wrong for victims to report crimes?

Runner Up: Matthew John Minehan: Post-Sally and the minimally conscious mollusc

Honourable Mentions:

Angelo Ryu: What, if anything, is wrong about algorithmic administration? (Undergraduate)

Brian Wong: An account of attitudinal duties towards injustice (Graduate)

Tess Johnson: Enhancing the Critique: What’s wrong with the collectivist critique and what can the relational approach contribute? (Graduate)

Tena Thau: Effective Altruism and Intersectional Feminism (Graduate)

Announcement: Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Graduate and undergraduate students currently enrolled at the University of Oxford in any subject are invited to enter the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics by submitting an essay of up to 2000 words on any topic relevant to practical ethics.  Eligibility includes visiting students who are registered as recognized students, and paying fees, but does not include informal visitors.  Two undergraduate papers and two graduate papers will be shortlisted from those submitted to go forward to a public presentation and discussion, where the winner of each category will be selected.

The winner from each category will receive £300, and the runner up £100. Revised versions of the two winning essays will be considered for publication in the Journal of Practical Ethics, though publication is not guaranteed.

Finalists may also have the opportunity to present their papers at the Festival of arguments: ethics fit for the 21st century on the 24th March.

To enter, please submit your written papers by the end of Monday 10th February 2020 to rocci.wilkinson@philosophy.ox.ac.uk. Finalists will be notified in mid February of selection. The public presentation will take place in 8th Week, Hilary term 2020, on Tuesday 10th March. Please save this presentation date, as you will need to attend if selected as a finalist.  Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Do Jurors Have a Moral Obligation to Avoid Deadlock?

This essay was the runner up in the undergraduate category of the 5th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by University of Oxford student Angelo Ryu

1. Introduction

Many legal systems have juries decide cases of an especially grave nature. Because a jury consists of a group of individual jurors, they need a decision-making procedure before it may act. One such procedure is a voting rule: most require either unanimity or supermajority to deliver a verdict. An inability to do so results in a mistrial.

Mistrials are often treated as a sort of failure which ought to be avoided. To that end judges sometimes intervene if deadlock seems likely. In England there is the Watson direction, which refers to a collective obligation to return a verdict. The United States has the Allen charge, which informs jurors of a duty to agree upon a verdict, if possible.

These instructions are often criticised as an impermissible judicial intervention infringing on jury autonomy. At best they are treated as a sort of necessary evil, which must only be used in extraordinary cases. But I argue there is nothing objectionable about such instructions because they simply track the obligations already held by jurors. They serve an important function in informing jurors of their moral position. There may indeed be an imperative for legal systems without such recourse to implement one, as jurors may not always know the duties incumbent upon them in the exercise of their authority. But all this presumes that jurors face an obligation which mirrors these jury instructions. The aim of this essay is to defend that claim. Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Question:  Can soldiers justify killing some as a means to influence the decisions of others?       

This essay received an honourable mention in the 5th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics, Graduate Category.

Written by University of Oxford DPhil student, Robert Underwood.


Lt. Col. Bob Underwood is a U.S. Army officer and a Fellow in its Advanced Strategic Plans and Policy Program. He is pursuing a DPhil in Philosophy at the University of Oxford and will assume command of 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry in the summer of 2019. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Killing in war eliminates threats but also plays a part in influencing the decisions of other persons beyond those we might kill.  This suggests that killing in war has a communicative function, and that the message is an important consideration that can feature in the balance of reasons to kill some but not others in war.  This is true provided combatants can permissibly kill some as means to communicate to others.  I argue that just combatants, those that fight for just aims, can permissibly kill to communicate and that unjust combatants cannot.  This is a new reason to revise our intuition that combatants on both sides hold equal rights to kill, the so-called moral equality of combatants (MEC). Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Should We Contact Uncontacted Peoples?: A Case for a Samaritan Rescue Principle

This essay was a joint runner up in the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics Graduate Category

Written by University of Oxford student Brian Wong

Uncontacted peoples refer to individuals who live (by choice or by circumstance) without coming into contact with broader, greater civilisation.[1] I make the idealised[2] assumption that our act of contacting seeks to provide these peoples with goods, opportunities, and access to advantages. I outline a tentative argument as to why it can be obligatory to contact[3] uncontacted peoples, basing my claim on a Samaritan modification to Singer’s Rescue Principle[4]. I will then raise several limiting conditions to the above Samaritan considerations. Noting that the key difference between contacting uncontacted peoples and more ‘uncontroversial’ Samaritan acts lies in the heightened epistemic indeterminacy in the former, I conclude by presenting a principle of epistemic prudence that has wider implications for broader instances of paternalistic intervention.[5]

Consider first the relevant facts: in 2013, it was estimated that there were over 100 uncontacted tribes around the world, residing in densely forested areas of South America, Central Africa, and the Indian Ocean. These tribes generally live without access to modern medical or communicative technology, and are more vulnerable to natural threats (e.g. predators, disasters etc.).[6] Continue reading