Petrov Day

Today, 31 years ago, the human species nearly came to an end. Lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov  was the officer on duty in bunker Serpukhov-15 near Moscow, monitoring the Soviet Union early warning satellite network. If notification was received that it had detected approaching missiles the official strategy was launch on warning: an immediate counter-attack against the United States. International relations were on a hair trigger: just days before Korean Air Lines Flight 007 had been shot down by Soviet fighter jets, killing everybody onboard (including a US congressman). Kreml was claiming the jet had been on a spy mission, or even deliberately trying to provoke war.

Shortly after midnight the computers reported a single intercontinental missile heading towards Russia.

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Will Virgin staff really be allowed to take ‘as much holiday as they want’?

This week Richard Branson announced that Virgin would no longer be tracking people’s holidays. The move was apparently inspired by Netflix, who have similarly instigated a “no holiday policy” policy, which permits all salaried staff to ‘take off whenever they want for as long as they want.’ According to Branson, the idea came to him via his daughter, Holly, who sent him the following cheery email about Netflix, sounding suspiciously like a copywriter from Virgin’s media team:

Dad, check this out. It’s something I have been talking about for a while and I believe it would be a very Virgin thing to do to not track people’s holidays. I have a friend whose company has done the same thing and they’ve apparently experienced a marked upward spike in everything – morale, creativity and productivity have all gone through the roof.

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Framing the Ebola epidemic

“CDC estimates Ebola epidemic could be over in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January!”

So ran the headline of exactly no news outlets.  Instead, a typical headline ran the following sort of dire prediction: “Ebola cases could reach 1.4 million within four months, CDC estimates.”  Only a few went with what is arguably the fairest sort of headline: “CDC offers sharply differing forecasts for Ebola epidemic.”  I would suggest that, while on its face the more dire headline is somewhat deceptive and driven by bad journalistic practices, it is all things considered preferable to the alternatives.   Continue reading

Trust and Institutions

Last week I attended part of a fascinating conference on Trust, organized by the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford. In her opening paper, Katherine Hawley raised many interesting questions, including those of whether trustworthiness is a virtue and whether it can be a virtue of institutions. Continue reading

Not-so-lethal – the ethics and costs of extraordinary fetal intervention

By Dominic Wilkinson (@Neonatal Ethics)

Late last month, a paper in the US journal Obstetrics and Gynecology reported the extraordinary case of Abigail Beutler. Abigail is now 14 months old. She was born without kidneys, a condition sometimes called ‘Potter’s syndrome’. Potter’s syndrome is normally universally fatal in the newborn period, because without kidneys the fetus does not produce urine and has little or no fluid around them. Without any fluid around the fetus, their lungs do not develop.

Abigail is the first baby to ever survive with this condition. Doctors infused artificial fluid into the uterus around her (amnioinfusion) on five occasions during the pregnancy. This seemed to allow her lungs to grow. Although she was born 3 months prematurely, she had only minor breathing problems at birth. She has received kidney dialysis since soon after birth, was discharged home after 19 weeks and is now reportedly being considered for a kidney transplant. Continue reading

Practical Ethics Bites

This week at the centre we are excited to be launching a new series of podcasts “Practical Ethics Bites

These podcasts have been recorded to support secondary school students (particularly A-level students) who are studying philosophy or religious studies and their teachers. They are available to download (free) from the podcast webpage, and you can subscribe to the series through iTunes U.

The interviews cover a set of core topics in applied ethics, and aim to provide an accessible introduction to key arguments, and concepts. They were recorded by philosophers Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds, the team behind the popular Philosophy Bites series.

We will be releasing more podcasts over the next two months, but the first interview is already available – ‘Should euthanasia be legal?’ – interview with Dr Dominic Wilkinson (@NeonatalEthics), consultant neonatologist and Director of Medical Ethics at the Oxford Uehiro Centre.

We are keen to get feedback on this podcast series from students and their teachers. Are the interviews at the right level? Are they helpful? What topics would be useful for future podcasts to cover? As an incentive, students/teachers who provide feedback will be entered into a draw for a set of the Philosophy Bites books (generously donated by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton)! For details see here.

Rationality and the Scottish referendum

One argument that has been put forward against voting for Scottish independence in the Scottish referendum is that it would be irrational for Scotland to break free of the rest of Great Britain. The grounds for this claim are that the Scottish economy would be significantly worse under independence. This is an empirical claim and for the sake of argument I am going to grant it. What I am interested in is whether, supposing that to be true, it would in fact be irrational. There are a number of things seriously wrong with this inference.

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Would it be bad if humanity were to become extinct?

That’s (roughly) the topic of a panel held at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. It is a topical question, in this age of potentially catastrophic climate change. There is no realistic risk that climate change threatens life on this planet, after all,  but it could threaten human existence (not directly, but by triggering widespread conflicts over scarce resources). The Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, has dubbed this our final century, envisaging other means whereby human existence could end. So: would it matter? Continue reading

A Right to Die in Prison?

Frank Van Den Bleeken wants to die.  He is not physically ill, but claims to be suffering from persistent mental anguish, from which death will provide him with some release.  And as a Belgian man, living in Belgium, we might ordinarily expect him to be able to take advantage of that country’s fairly liberal euthanasia laws.  Whereas many of the assisted dying regimes around the world specify that the person who wants to die must be terminally ill to qualify, Belgium has seen several cases in which people have been helped to die for reasons that do boil down to psychological distress: in a couple of fairly well-reported cases, Marc and Eddy Verbessem were deaf twins who feared blindness and sought death on that basis, and Nathan Verhelst sought it in the wake of unsuccessful gender-reassignment surgery.

What makes Van Den Bleeken particularly newsworthy is this: he is a convicted killer and rapist.  According to the CBC, he had argued that “he had no prospect of release since he could not overcome his violent sexual impulses and so he wanted to exercise his right to medically assisted suicide in order to end years of mental anguish”.  It’s not clear whether the anguish came from being in prison, or guilt, or something else.  This might make a difference; I’ll touch on that below.

What should we say about the morality of such a case? Continue reading

Is there anything (morally) special about dogs?

As a borderline-obsessive dog lover, the news of the blaze at the Manchester Dogs’ Home this week particularly saddened me. A fire was started – it seems deliberately by a 15-year old boy – and around 60 dogs died, with another 150 alive after being rescued. Yet, alongside this there was some uplifting news. A number of passers-by ran into the burning building to rescue dogs, and as I write this the Just Giving page for people to donate to the home after the fire has now reached £1,416,549 in just a few days, with 140,914 donations. Of particular interest to me were the number of people calling the suspect ‘evil’ – this act really pulled at the heartstrings. More worryingly (but I am ashamed to say, understandable to me) were the visceral reactions to this where people were calling for this child to be burned alive himself.

What is so special about dogs? Do we have any particular moral obligations to dogs? Are there any rational reasons for the enhanced moral status of dogs?

Perhaps dogs are more intelligent? We might think that dogs are intelligent, sentient animals, and this this justifies their enhanced moral status. Dogs are trained for a number of tasks, including guide dogs, police dogs, service warning dogs, and so on. Surely, their intelligence warrants additional concerns. But, on the other hand, we know that other animals – like pigs – have an intelligence that at least parallels that of dogs. Yet pigs are factory farmed in horrendous conditions, at latest matching the pain these dogs suffered. If intelligence is the decisive criterion, it seems we exhibit mass hypocrisy when we raise such concern over occasional dog atrocities while remaining blind to the daily suffering of pigs on a staggeringly large scale.

Perhaps we have special obligations to dogs because they are pets? This perhaps is a more promising argument (even if disagreeable to animal rights activists who believe animals cannot be possessions). Perhaps when taking on dogs we enter an implicit contract whereby we protect and care for them? Yet as a rational explanation, this again seems to fail on at least two immediately obvious counts. First, it is not clear that these animals were under any such contract, for they had no owners, and so didn’t have this enhanced status for being pets. Second, it isn’t clear that this kind of argument would apply to stray dogs. What if all of these dogs were strays? Would it not then be seen as so morally reprehensible? I doubt it. It seems that there is something about dogs as species – as a whole – that is important, regardless of the specific facts of their existence.

Perhaps dogs can feel pain more than other animals? Again, this argument seems a non-starter, for there is no evidence at all that dogs feel more pain than other animals that we routinely keep in horrendous conditions – cows; pigs; sheep, etc.

I am, no doubt, missing some rational arguments in favour of the enhanced status of dogs. But, I am also reasonably confident that this is because such arguments, such as they are, are weak.

Work from moral psychology has highlighted the importance that non-rational considerations play in our moral decision-making (e.g. see Jonathon Haidt’s classic paper here, or his wonderful best-selling book The Righteous Mind; also see Josh Greene’s work here). Is it possible that our increased moral concern for dogs has no rational basis, but is rather driven by our intuitive reactions of greater warmth felt towards dogs? I think so. Evidence suggests that people do have stronger intuitive reactions to family members, and dogs are often described as being part of the family. Perhaps our close proximity to dogs has led to anthropomorphism, where we begin to think of them as quasi-human, and thus deserving of quasi-human moral concern.

That said, highlighting such insights from moral psychology that might apply here does not really help one in exploring whether there is any rational basis for our increased moral concern for dogs – it merely describes why we might think it is so.

A search for a rational explanation may, it seems, be a non-starter (although I would be interested to hear any good arguments to the contrary, if only to justify my own excessive love for dogs). But is this a problem? Perhaps the issue is not our increased moral concern for dogs, but rather our dampened moral concern for other similar animals. Maybe the question could be reframed: why do we think of certain animals as being non-deserving of moral concern? And here, a number of reasons could be suggested, most notably some form of motivated social cognition. For example, some recent and fascinating work has suggested that dissonance reduction is important in the denial of minds to animals used for human consumption (see here for a recent review). But that, sadly, is a topic for another day.

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