On the nature of defiance

When a thug or a bully or a terrorist is threatening you to stop you doing something they don’t like, not doing it is not defying them, it is submitting to them. Even if you otherwise would not, to defy them you must do the very thing they are forbidding. You must do it just because they threatened you. If you don’t, they will not be fooled by your high falutin’ excuses. They will know that you did not dare. And so will you.

Publishing worthy articles about free speech, tweeting that you are Charlie, drawing cartoons of pens confronting swords, standing around with your fellow world leaders, these are all worthy gestures of revulsion. None of them are acts of defiance. Defiance would be publishing the cartoons, tweeting the cartoons, drawing Mohammed and standing around with your fellow world leaders holding up the very editions of Charlie Hebdo for which their artists were slain.

Born this way? Selecting for sexual preference

Doctors Offering ‘Gay Gene’ To Same Sex Couples Wanting Gay Children: apparently Dr. William Strider at the Fertility Center of Chicago suggests that homosexual parents should have the option of increasing the chances of their kid being homosexual:

“When straight couples have children, the majority of them want their children to be straight as well. That is why most straight parents have trouble accepting it when their children announce to them that they are gay,” …  “So it only makes sense that same-sex couples would want children that carried out their same family values of homosexuality.”

The article is likely reporting wrong on what method would be used: germline manipulation sounds like a unproven and risky approach, while PGD is a proven technique that could presumably select based on X-chromosome sequence. And given the topic it is not implausible that Dr. Strider is being misquoted. But let’s take everything at face value: would it be ethical to select for sexual preference?

Aboriginal rights and refusal of treatment in Canada


An 11 year-old girl, J.J., is diagnosed with high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of cancer that arises in the bone marrow. She is put on a 32-day course of chemotherapy with an estimated success rate of over 90%. Her doctors don’t know of anyone who has survived this illness without such a course of treatment. However, after just 10 days, her mother withdraws her consent to J.J.’s chemotherapy in order to pursue alternative, non-western remedies. J.J. doesn’t object, but both of her doctors believe that J.J. doesn’t understand either her illness or the importance of the treatment she is on. In all matters, she defers to her mother who is also her surrogate decision maker. The hospital in which J.J. is a patient appeals to Child Services, stating that by ceasing treatment J.J.’s mother has put J.J. into the position of a child in need of protection. Such a status would permit the hospital to continue treatment despite disagreement from J.J’s mother (in her capacity as surrogate decision maker). The case goes to trial, and a ruling is made in favour of J.J.’s mother. J.J. is taken out of the hospital in order to pursue non-western treatment alternatives. It is very likely that J.J. will die. Continue reading

How Could Julian Savulescu Still Be a Utilitarian

Guest post: Professor Valentin Muresan, University of Bucharest

Professor Julian Savulescu writes: “People think I am a utilitarian, but I am not. I, like nearly everybody else, find Utilitarianism to be too demanding” .

Why does he need to confess? He tells us: ethical utilitarianism is in crisis because of several misunderstandings. One is that recent research in moral psychology shows that utilitarian judgments do not reflect so much the old noble “impartial concern for the greater good of all” but are rather correlated with psychopatic and egoistic tendencies . Consequently, he feels that the Utilitarianism used to set up empirical research on moral psychology is not fit for the job, and should be abandoned or improved. Philosophy is important for moral psychology, but this does not mean that we don’t need a better philosophy. Julian Savulescu’s solution was to try to abandon the camp of utilitarianism, looking instead for an external refuge in a weak form of “easy rescue consequentialism”.

What I want to show is that although he currently speaks about Utilitarianism in general, he has in view only a version of Utilitarianism, the most vulnerable one. This type of utilitarianism was already criticised from various perspectives, the main line of attack being that “it is too demanding”. This shortcomming has also a variety of aspects. The solutions resulted from the criticisms addressed by Julian Savulescu to the weak points of the official utilitarian doctrine configure tacitely the draft of an improved utilitarianism which satisfy all the requirements raised by critics and is very similar to Mill’s utilitarianism. Therefore, even if Julian Savulescu criticized Utilitarianism, there is no need to abandon the utilitarian camp.

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Moral Offsetting

A recent blogpost on 3 Quarks Daily satirised the idea of ‘moral offsetting’. Moral offsetting would work like carbon offsetting. With carbon offsetting, you purchase carbon credits to offset against your emissions – for instance, you might give money to a private company that plants trees, to offset your transatlantic flights. Moral offsetting works in a similar way: whenever you indulge in behavior of dubious morality (say eating meat, or buying clothes made in a sweatshop), your transgression would be offset. The simplest way to offset would be through a donation to a charity. Continue reading

Treated like Animals, Guest Post by Christine Korsgaard

Guest Post: Christine Korsgaard, Harvard University

On November 5, 2014, RT reported that Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia claimed that they were being “treated like animals.” On November 14, The Independent reported that the members of Pussy Riot complained that while in prison in Russia they were “treated like animals.” On November 17, the BBC reported that Nepalese migrant workers building the infrastructure for the World Cup meeting in Qatar complained of being “treated like cattle.” On November 25, The Indian Express reported that Indian tennis star Sania Merza complained that women in India are “treated like animals.”

What does it mean to be “treated like an animal”? The Filipino workers gave as an example that their “feet were chained.” Members of Pussy Riot complained that in Russian prisons, the wardens “very casually beat people up. They don’t have a sense that they [inmates] are human.” Earlier they claimed that prison administrations “just treat prisoners as they want with impunity.” By being “treated like cattle” the Nepalese migrant workers meant “working up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, including during Qatar’s hot summer months.” On December 24, Time reported that the Nepalese migrant workers are dying at the rate of one every two days. Sania Merza said that women in India face discrimination and violence. She also said, “I hope one day everyone will say that we are equal and women are not treated as objects.”

Merza’s last remark raises a question. As these examples suggest, people whose rights are violated, people whose interests are ignored or overridden, people who are abused, harmed, neglected, and unjustly imprisoned, standardly protest that they are being treated “like animals.” Why do we so often formulate our protest that way, rather than saying, as Merza also said, and as people sometimes do, that we are being treated “like objects”? After all, it is objects that may, in the words of Pussy Riot, be treated “just as [we] want with impunity,” if indeed anything can. Perhaps it’s because people feel that that fails to completely capture the force of their protest. After all, an object cannot suffer from being beaten up or chained or caged, or die from overwork in harsh working conditions. In the relevant sense, you cannot treat an object badly, even if you do treat it “just as you want with impunity.” But when we treat animals just as we want we can treat them badly. But in that case, the implication of the phrase seems to be that animals are the beings that it is all right to treat badly, and the complainant is insisting that he or she is not one of those.

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What are the ethics of using brain stimulation technologies for ‘enhancement’ in children?

New open access publication: announcement:

In a recently published article, Hannah Maslen, Roi Cohen Kadosh, Julian Savulescu and I present an argument about the permissible (and not-so-permissible) uses of non-invasive brain stimulation technology in children. We consider both children who may be suffering from a specific neurological disorder, for whom the stimulation is intended as a ‘treatment’, and those who are otherwise healthy, for whom the stimulation is intended as ‘enhancement’. For the full article and citation, see here:

Maslen, H., Earp, B. D., Cohen Kadosh, R., & Savulescu, J. (2014). Brain stimulation for treatment and enhancement in children: An ethical analysisFrontiers in Human Neuroscience, Vol. 8, Article 953, 1-5. Continue reading

“Ravines and Sugar Pills: Defending Deceptive Placebo Use” – New Open Access Publication

A placebo can be understood as a medical intervention that lacks direct specific therapeutic effects on the condition for which it has been prescribed, but which can nonetheless help to ameliorate a patient’s condition. In March 2013, a study by Howick et al. suggested that the vast majority of UK general practitioners (GPs) have prescribed a placebo at some point in their career. This finding was somewhat controversial and received national media coverage in the UK (here and here). Part of the reason for this controversy is that the use of placebos in clinical practice is often deemed to be morally problematic, in so far as it often involves the intentional deception of the patient. Continue reading

Is it worth saving human lives at the cost of mistreating animals?

Guest Post: Emilian Mihailov, Research Centre in Applied Ethics, Univeristy of Bucharest

The most persuasive argument for experimenting on animals is probably the claim that it is only through such research, that we save human lives. This does not imply that we don’t have any moral duties towards animals. Because they are not mere objects we ought to treat them kindly, promote their wellbeing, and even take action to prevent others from applying cruel treatment. However, when human lives are at stake, we have the strong belief that it is morally permissible to experiment on animals even if the experiments in question necessarily involve chronic pain and death. We might get residual moral feelings, such as guilt, from the infliction of pain, but nevertheless, it is believed that saving human lives takes priority. We are sorry, but we matter more.

It is hard to argue the contrary, since the idea of saving human lives seems so appealing. How can we not try to cure cancer, epilepsy, or Alzheimer’s disease? Those who challenge the desirability of this aim will be considered eccentric, if not irrational.

But, sometimes, our strong reactions may stem from the framing of a problem. The way a problem is “framed” often has a powerful influence on how people react. The “framing effect” is observed when the description of consequentially identical decision problems in terms of gains (positive frame) rather than losses (negative frame) elicits systematically different choices (Tversky & Kahneman 1981). Christine Korsgaard recently suggested in the Animal Ethics Workshop, held in Oxford, that the there are “framing effects” with the problem of saving lives through animal experimentation. If the benefits of experimentation are not framed in terms of saving lives, but in terms of extending lives, then our supportive reactions might not be so strong, because the benefit of gaining a few more years to live does not seem extremely attractive. Christine Korsgaard then proposed to imagine two possible worlds: in world A we live 70 years and we have social practices that do not allow animal experimentation; in world B we live 90 years and have social practices which permit experiments on animals. She believes that world A is morally preferable because the benefits we get from extending our lives do not seem that high as to justify failing to treat animals as ends in themselves. More simply, it is not worth having a mere extension of our lives with the moral cost of mistreating animals. If we frame the problem in these terms, then perhaps many would be more sympathetic towards the moral standing of animals in research.

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Bucharest – Oxford Workshop in Applied Ethics: Workshop Summary

Guest Post: Toni Gibea, University of Bucharest. 

The Bucharest-Oxford Workshop in Applied Ethics, which took place in Oxford on the 1st of December, brought together researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Bucharest to discuss new research across a variety of topics in applied ethics.

The workshop consisted of three main sessions: Principles and practice in applied ethics, Enhancement and Neuroethics. In what follows, I will summarize conclusions from the presentations together with responses from the audience, in order to give a quick overview. If you want to hear more about a particular presentation see the podcasts here.

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