On Swearing (lecture by Rebecca Roache)

Last Thursday’s Special Ethics Seminar at St Cross College was booked out very quickly, and the audience’s high expectations were fully justified. Rebecca Roache returned from Royal Holloway to Oxford to give a fascinating lecture on the nature and ethics of swearing. Roache has two initial questions: ‘Is there anything wrong with this fucking question?’, and ‘Is this one any f***ing better?’. (Her answers turn out to be, essentially, ‘No’ to both.) Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics Presentation

HT15 Week 8, Thursday 12 March, 4.30 – 5.50 pm.

Seminar Room 1, Oxford Martin School (corner of Catte St and Broad St), followed by a drinks reception in Seminar Room 2 until 6.45 pm.

We are pleased to announce the four finalists for the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics and to invite you to attend the final where they will present their entries. 2 finalists have been selected from each category (undergraduate and graduate) to present their ideas to an audience and respond to a short q and a as the final round in the competition. Continue reading

Trust, mistrust, and science – finding the balance between conspiracy theories and naïve trust

Scientific illiteracy and “anti-science”-beliefs are a common topic in scientific and academic communities. For example, how most (or many) Americans do not understand the difference between DNA and a genetically modified food. Another known topic is, for example, skepticism towards vaccinations. In this editorial of the biggest Finnish newspaper, the author predicts that the new rise of the Middle Ages is upon us if people refuse to trust scientific results, and emotions continue to rule out reason.

While excessive skepticism and building conspiracy theories against science might, by and large, be irrational and, most importantly, harmful, the phenomenon deserves a deeper consideration than accusations of irrationality, emotionality, or stupidity.

An important reason for the need of deeper elaboration is in the following controversy: on the one hand, the scientific community, rightly, calls for trust to scientific work. Enormous accomplishments of biomedical science are a great argument for trusting science and its capability to improve life. However, on the other hand, there is strong evidence that the scientific community is not always trustworthy. Medical companies, the paramount founder of medical research, have faced many accusations of scientific misconduct and fraud (how funding affects outcomes – see also this and this -, ghostwriting, corruption). Furthermore, there is discussion about how FDA reacts to questionable and even unreliable scientific papers. It is claimed that despite the knowledge about scientific misconduct, the FDA does little to report the questionable results to physicians and medical researchers. And there is at least much evidence to discuss good practices concerning e.g. Monsanto and how things work with GMO agriculture. “What companies do is not the problem of science” is a legitimate sentence when discussing only the mere possible existence of some biomedical or GMO innovation, but when brought to a concrete level, the real-life questions should be taken back to the issue. Continue reading

The fundamental elements of rights

Rights-talk is pervasive. The assertions “I have a right to that” or “You can’t violate their rights!” are familiar, and we often take ourselves to understand what they mean. But, insufficient attention is often paid to the various elements that jointly comprise a right, and very little attention is given to how those elements fit together.[1] This oversight can cause problems, and so it’s worth being clear about what we’re talking about when we speak of rights. Continue reading

How people are wrong about cognitive enhancement and how to fix it

During my master’s research on human enhancement I did a lot of talks about cognitive enhancement to the general public. Back then I compiled a list of recurring biases I noticed during the subsequent discussions, as well as some tentative techniques to solve them. The paper “Cognitive biases can affect moral intuitions about cognitive enhancement” already explores the possible effects of some of the biases on my list: status quo bias, loss aversion, risk aversion and omission bias; besides those four, the ones that I more often came across were:

Zero risk bias
This was by far the most glaringly recurring one. It might be a mixture of status quo bias and risk aversion, but I don’t know the name of any bias in the cognitive bias literature which specifically matches it. So this might be one likely to be overlooked.wrong and dangerous
People would compare cognitive enhancer’s risks with absence of risks. If it had a risk greater than zero, they would mentally classify it as risky. However, this overlooks two things. Firstly, not taking a cognitive enhancement also has several risks. Sandberg, A., & Savulescu, J. (2011) notice how many deaths, accidents, injuries and so on are caused by decisions of cognitive deprived individuals. Secondly, most people committing this bias were already on a cognitive enhancer, which was known to be pretty risky, namely, caffeine. Continue reading

How polite must I be to cold callers?


At 7pm, as you’re eating your dinner, you get a call from an unknown number. You pick it up, half out of curiosity (perhaps your numbers have finally come up on the premium bonds), half out of worry (was a family member likely to have been driving at this time?), but wholly anticipating the interaction that in fact transpires:

‘Good evening, I was wondering whether I could talk to [Your Name]?’

‘Can I ask who’s calling?’ you deflect.

Enthusiastically: ‘My name’s Charlie and I’m calling from Well Known Phone Company Ltd. I wanted to check whether you had thought about updating your tariff? You’re due an upgrade.’

You have, in fact, been wondering about updating your tariff, but you’re not in the mood to do it now and dinner is getting cold. You think about explaining this to chirpy Charlie, but even the thought of engaging in an exchange about whether and when you might be free to discuss it feels like too much effort.

‘We’d be able to save you about…’

‘Sorry’, you interject with a shade of sincerity, ‘I’m not in the mood for being polite.’

‘Ok, well, I…’

You hang up, feeling a twinge of guilt and tremendous wonderment at how Charlie of Well Known Phone Company Ltd remains so chirpy in the face of such rejection.


Ordinarily, we tend to think there is a presumption towards being polite to other people. By ‘being polite’ I mean acting courteously – considering and acknowledging the needs and feelings of others with whom we interact, even when those interactions are very brief. If someone follows close behind you through a door, you should pause to keep it open rather than letting it shut in their face. If someone asks you the time, you should at least acknowledge their question. If someone lets you into the traffic, you should indicate your thanks. This presumption towards minimally respectful behavior arises partly from social convention and partly from our duty to acknowledge the moral reality of other people.

Given the presumption towards politeness, how polite must you be to Charlie the Salesman? Were you justified in hanging up mid-sentence or did your twinge of guilt inform you that you had behaved unfairly? Or, given a less tolerant day, would you in fact have been justified in expressing anger and contempt to Charlie? Continue reading

“Fifty Shades of Grey” – A Philosophical Review

Fifty Shades of Grey has sparked a lot of debate. Some like the fact that a popular movie now breaks the taboo on BDSM and seeks to challenge common stereotypes. Others condemn the movie for romanticizing violence.

So far, however, no philosophers seem to have joined the debate. That’s unfortunate, for how we should assess Fifty Shades and its BDSM theme depends on a range of philosophical issues such as consent, harm, voluntariness, respect, dignity, and the role of fiction.

BDSM is a somewhat radical topic, and for philosophical purposes, that is often an advantage. Radical topics – like thought experiments – put our principles to the test. (If you think Fifty Shades is grotesque, you should be warned that it is a walk in the park compared to many of the standard thought experiments in ethics).

For philosophical reasons – and philosophical reasons only, of course – I recently went to watch Fifty Shades of Grey. Continue reading

Should lawyers always keep their client’s secrets?


In Chicago, 1982, a security guard at a McDonald’s was shot and killed. Alton Logan was charged with the crime. There was only one problem – Logan was innocent. Another man, Andrew Wilson, was the killer. Logan would spend 26 years in prison before being released.

We might shrug off unfortunate cases like this as simply bad luck. But there was an additional twist to this story: Andrew Wilson had confessed the murder to his lawyers. They knew that an innocent man was about to go to jail for their client’s crime, but were bound by professional rules to keep the admission secret.

Could rules that require lawyers to watch while an innocent person is sent to prison possibly be justified? Should lawyers always keep their client’s secrets?


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Vaccination and the omissions bias.

Vaccination has been in the news recently, as an outbreak of measles hits California. The US virtually eliminated measles around the turn of the century, but it has made a comeback. A big factor in that comeback has been ‘conscientious objection’ on the part of parents, who refuse to have their children vaccinated for religious or ‘philosophical’ reasons. Media reports often focus on the ignorance or confusion of these parents. And there’s plenty of both on show. Prominent anti-vaxxers continue to push the long discredited vaccination causes autism line, while the California conscientious objectors seem to have embraced an ill-informed ‘no chemicals’ line. I want to suggest that these views may be motivated, to some extent and in at least some parents, by the omissions bias. Continue reading

Is Effective Altruism Killing the Love?

In July 1990, the Australian state of Victoria put a law requiring cyclists to wear helmets into effect (1). More than two decades later, it is unclear whether or not the introduction of the law had a net societal health benefit (2). This might be puzzling when considering that cycling with a helmet on is safer than cycling without it. It prevents head traumas, especially those resulting from accidents at lower speeds. In London, the police started last year to stop cyclists without helmets and to educate them about the benefits of wearing a helmet (3). However, one of the arguments against laws requiring the wearing of bike helmets is that it significantly reduces the number of people that cycle. Hence, there is a good chance that the health costs – increased morbidity due to lack of exercise outweigh the health benefits – less head traumas (2). In the words of Milton: “Easy is the descent into Hell, for it is paved with good intentions.” Might effective altruism have similar unintended consequences?

Continue reading