It is a curious feature of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that the media regales readers and viewers almost daily with exciting details of breakthroughs in medical science: new cures, reversals of previous certainties about old remedies (and then, often enough, later reversals of the reversals), astonishing information about our brains and numerous other organs, apparently dramatic discoveries about free will and ethical thinking. Much of this is indeed attributable to the rapid rate of the expansion of contemporary scientific understanding which we should not want to underestimate, but it is also sometimes the result of the media’s excitability and search for sensation, combined with the impressive self-promotional skills of practitioners of the medical sciences. This latter factor means that reported “breakthroughs” are often no more than confident early steps on a promising but uncertain path, and when they lead nowhere this sad news tends not to see the light of day. And then there are the cases of outright fraud or incompetence, such as the South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk’s initially much-proclaimed breakthroughs in the early 2000s in stem cell research that were shown to be faked.
So a certain reserve about reported breakthroughs is in order, but a recent case is worth philosophical scrutiny even if its claims turn out to be less valid than they seem. This was a report in The Mail Online, Science and Technology section that was headlined “Could Pill wipe out bad memories? Drug used to treat multiple sclerosis found to help us forget experiences that caused us pain.” But it turns out that the drug has only been tested for memory erasure of pain in mice, and then only of a specific type of pain associated with mild electric shock. The Mail article jumps rapidly from this modest beginning to claim that the experiment “offers hope of a drug that could eradicate memories of traumatic events from years ago and help patients overcome phobias, eating disorders and even sexual hang-ups.” For none of this “hope” is there an iota of evidence in the scientific study and one of the scientists involved in the study at the Commonwealth University of Virginia, Dr Sarah Spiegel, showing appropriate modesty, said of the drug concerned: ‘Fingolimod, a Food and Drug Administration approved drug for treatment of multiple sclerosis, has beneficial effects in the central nervous system that are not yet well understood.” More ambitiously she added: “Fingolimod deserves consideration as an adjuvant therapy for post traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.”
It is reported that Jimmy Savile crept at night into the mortuary at Leeds General Infirmary and committed sex acts on corpses.1
Well, for a start, assuming the acts involved penetration, he had committed a serious criminal offence.2
But shouldn’t we grow up? Shouldn’t we let live, and let the live love the dead? Who was hurt? Isn’t this legislation anachronistic? Doesn’t it stem from superannuated and probably, at root, theological ideas about the sanctity of life – irrationally extended to the sanctity of the dead human body?
If the acts gave Savile pleasure, then what’s the problem? Or, if we grant that the outraged relatives might suffer some distress (because they’ve not read enough philosophy), doesn’t the problem lie only in the fact that the relatives heard about what had happened, rather than in the acts themselves? In which case the real villains are the investigators and the media.
We have strong intuitions about many things. So strong, in fact, that they are often immune to the best arguments of the lawyers and philosophers. Continue reading
Rolf Harris has been sentenced to five years and nine months in prison for sexual offences he committed at various points in the 60s, 70s and 80s. There has been public outrage at the supposed leniency of his sentence, which will now be reviewed by the Attorney General to determine whether it will be sent to the Court of Appeal. Continue reading
In his recent seminar (a recording of which can be found here), Australian philosopher Tony Coady seeks to criticize the entrenched dichotomy of ‘emotion’ and ‘reason’. He argues that this rigid division is outdated and unsophisticated, and that its persistence is limiting the quality of both philosophical debate and wider scientific investigation.
Coady opens his talk by noting the derogatory accusations of ‘appealing to emotion’ that have been levied at opponents in the enhancement debate. He contends that this simply follows in a long philosophical tradition of separating and placing reason above emotion, from Plato’s allegory of the Charioteer (reason) harnessing his Horses (the passions), to the Christian concept of conflict between the higher desires of the Spirit and the desires of the Flesh that must be tamed. Coady claims that this view of reason, which he terms rationalism, has been the dominant paradigm in Western philosophical thought. Continue reading
The purpose of this blog is, as you know, to comment on ethics in the news. It is written here just above: “Practical Ethics – Ethics in the News”. In this post, I am going to diverge from this purpose, and address a somewhat different topic. Numerous recent events that have been reported in the news raise the following question: what is the ethics of news? What should they be? Below, I outline what I perceive to be a very problematic tension that currently exists between the reality that journalists work in, and the ethical ideals that they subscribe to, and that we as consumers expect of them. I finish with speculating in what we can do about this, on the ethical side of things. Continue reading
European Guidelines: How much cinnamon can go in our buns, and what kind of dignity do we want at the end of life?
Over on the Ethox blog Angeliki Kerasidou and Ruth Horn discuss the European Union and the need for cultural understanding between member states, with a focus on the concept of dignity at the end of life.
The results of the recent European elections revealed the disconnection between member states and the European Union. Populist anti-European parties won more seats than ever before challenging the dream for a united continent. One of the main criticisms expressed by anti-European parties was that Brussels imposes a plethora of regulations and directives, from trade regulations and agricultural subsidies to the “amount of cinnamon in buns”, challenging individual member-states’ traditions and cultural particularities.
Perhaps one way of interpreting 2014 European elections results is that achieving harmonization of policies is very difficult in a continent comprised of countries with different cultures and histories. And, yet, if the European Union is to continue and prosper, issuing policies and guidelines that could be accepted by all member-states is paramount.
See the Ethox blog to read the rest of Angeliki and Ruth’s post.
Last month Quebec legalised assisted-death. The new law allows ‘medical aid in dying’ for adults at the end of life who suffer “constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain” as a result of a “serious and incurable illness”. The passage of this law makes Quebec the first jurisdiction in Canada to allow assisted-death or euthanasia.
The Bill follows successful legalisation of assisted-dying just south of Quebec last year in the American state of Vermont. Jurisdictions in which the practice is now legal include the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Washington, Montana and Oregon.
Surprisingly, the arguments for and against assisted-death and euthanasia haven’t been discussed all that frequently on this blog. So this post will consider: would legalising assisted-death (patient administered) or voluntary euthanasia (physician administered) provide a compassionate exit to those facing decline and suffering and the means to live and die by our own lights, or involve a repugnant devaluation of human life that would put the vulnerable at risk?
In my academic and musty corner of the universe, there has been a lot of talk in the past few days about this publication in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers tweaked a Facebook algorithm such that Facebook users would see a higher proportion of posts with negative or positive emotional content in their feed. They wanted to know whether a user seeing a different proportion would influence the emotional content content of that user’s posts in a positive or negative direction. The news: it did (a little bit).
People are less interested in that, however, and more interested in whether the researchers acted unethically. The BBC has a short round-up of some tweets here, and among other things the Guardian quotes Labour MP Jim Sheridan calling for an investigation here. Slate tagged its story on the issue with the headline ‘Facebook’s Unethical Experiment’ – a headline that shifts blame away from researchers and entirely to Facebook. There are many more news stories on this out by now: you get the picture. Continue reading
So claims renowned Oxford philosopher and feminist Janet Radcliffe Richards. Professor Radcliffe Richards is the author of The Sceptical Feminist, Human Nature After Darwin and Careless Thought Costs Lives: the ethics of transplants. She was also listed recently as one of the world’s 50 most important thinkers by Prospect magazine.
Writing in the Journal of Practical Ethics, Radcliffe Richards criticises a common view about sexual equality.
Women hold only 11% of executive positions in top companies in Europe. There are public campaigns to achieve gender balance in public office and top positions in corporations. Political parties are criticised for having low numbers of women in parliament or cabinet.
But Radcliffe Richards argues that society should not be aiming for equal representation of men and women in these ways.
Sex equality sounds self-evident as a requirement of justice, but we need to be clear about exactly what kind of equality is required.
There is much confusion between two quite different kinds of equality, and only one of them is relevant to justice between women and men.
Justice does not require equality of status, wealth, or any other outcome between the sexes. What matters from a moral point of view is equal consideration of interests, which is quite different.
Radcliffe Richards agrees that policies to increase the representation of women in influential areas are of great importance. But she argues that they need a different kind of justification. Recognizing this should make a significant difference to the politics of sex.
See here for the free full text article in the latest issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics.
The Journal of Practical Ethics is a new open access philosophy journal, published by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. The journal aims to make philosophy relevant to public debate and practical questions. It publishes works by leading academic moral and political philosophers that are accessible to a broader public audience.