Loebel Lectures and Workshop, Michaelmas Term 2015, Lecture 1 of 3: Neurobiological materialism collides with the experience of being human

The 2015 Loebel Lectures in Psychiatry and Philosophy were delivered by Professor Steven E. Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard as well as Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. Both the lecture series and the one-day workshop proved popular and were well-attended. Continue reading

What’s the moral difference between ad blocking and piracy?

On 16 September Marco Arment, developer of Tumblr, Instapaper and Overcast, released a new iPhone and iPad app called Peace. It quickly shot to the top of the paid app charts, but Arment began to have moral qualms about the app, and its unexpected success, and two days after its release, he pulled it from the app store.

Why the qualms? For the full story, check out episode 136 of Arment’s excellent Accidental Tech Podcast and this blog post, but here’s my potted account: Peace is an ad blocker. It allows users to view webpages without advertisements. Similar software has been available for Macs and PCs for years (I use it to block some ads on my laptop), but Apple has only just made ad blockers possible on mobile devices, and Peace was one of a bunch of new apps to take advantage of this possibility. Although ad blockers help web surfers to avoid the considerable annoyance (and aesthetic unpleasantness) of webpage ads, they also come at a cost to content providers, potentially reducing their advertising revenue. According to Arment, the ethics of ad blocking is ‘complicated’, and although he still believes ad blockers should exist, and continues to use them, he thinks their downsides are serious enough that he wasn’t comfortable with being at the forefront of the ad blocking movement himself.

In explaining his reasons for withdrawing the app, Arment drew a parallel between ad blocking and piracy. He doesn’t claim that the analogy is perfect (in fact, he explicitly disavows this), and nor does he take it to be a knock-down objection to ad-blocking (presumably he believes that piracy is also morally complicated). But he does think there’s something to the comparison.

Like Arment, I think there are considerable moral similarities between ad blocking and piracy. But, also like Arment, ad blocking seems to me, intuitively, to be somewhat less morally problematic. This raises an obvious question: what’s the moral difference?

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The dappled causal world for psychiatric disorders: implications for psychiatric nosology

On Thursday 16th October, Professor Kenneth Kendler delivered his second (and final) Loebel Lecture, entitled ‘The dappled causal world for psychiatric disorders: implications for psychiatric nosology’. You can view it online here or listen here.

Whilst Kendler’s first lecture – summarised by Roger Crisp here – focused on empirical issues, the second lecture was more philosophical. Kendler’s key question in the second lecture could perhaps be formulated as: Given the complex aetiology of mental disorders, how can we best understand and explain how they arise? Continue reading

Professor Tim Scanlon: When Does Equality Matter?

2013 Uehiro Lectures by Professor Tim Scanlon (Department of Philosophy, Harvard University)

We are very grateful to Professor Tim Scanlon (Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, Harvard University) for delivering the 10th Annual Uehiro Lectures in December 2013, entitled “When Does Equality Matter?”

Lecture 1: “Equal Treatment”  AUDIO 

Lecture 2:”Equal Status”  AUDIO 

Lecture 3: “Equal Opportunity”  AUDIO  (includes discussion with Professors John Broome, Janet Radcliffe Richards and David Miller).

Video files will shortly be available here.

Uehiro Lectures and Book Series: The annual public Uehiro Lecture Series captures the ethos of the Uehiro Centre, which is to bring the best scholarship in analytic philosophy to bear on the most significant problems of our time, and to make progress in the analysis and resolution of these issues to the highest academic standard, in a manner that is also accessible to the general public. Philosophy should not only create knowledge, it should make people’s lives better. In keeping with this, the Annual Uehiro Lectures are published as a book series by Oxford University Press.  See Uehiro Series in Practical Ethics on the OUP website for further details

Speaker bio: Professor Scanlon received his B.A. from Princeton and his Ph.D. from Harvard. In between, he studied for a year at Oxford as a Fulbright Fellow. He taught for many years at Princeton before taking up a position at Harvard in 1984. His dissertation and some of his first papers were in mathematical logic, where his main concern was in proof theory, but he soon made his name in ethics and political philosophy, where he developed a version of contractualism in the line of John Rawls, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Professor Scanlon has also published important work on freedom of speech, equality, tolerance, foundations of contract law, human rights, conceptions of welfare, theories of justice, as well as on foundational questions in moral theory. His books include What We Owe to Each Other (Harvard University Press, 1998) and The Difficulty of Tolerance (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Other recent publications include Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame, published by Harvard University Press in September 2008

Podcast: Is Networking Immoral?

Guest Post: Ned Dobos, University of New South Wales

This post is a summary of a talk presented by Dr. Dobos at the University of Oxford. Listen to the Podcast

Despite being ubiquitous in both the public and private sectors, “networking” has largely escaped ethical scrutiny. But is it the perfectly innocuous business and career-advancement strategy it is presumed to be? Let us concentrate on a specific kind of career networking: networking aimed at increasing one’s prospects of prevailing in a formal competitive selection process for a job or university placement. That is the end, so what is the means? How exactly is networking supposed to deliver this advantage? Experts tend to answer with at least one of the following responses: 1) networking is about building relationships with people that are (or might be) in a position to benefit your career; 2) networking is about demonstrating your worth to these people.

On either account, networking arguably involves seeking unfair advantage.

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Oxford Martin School Seminar: Robert Rogers and Paul Van Lange on Social Dilemmas

In a joint event on November 15th, Prof Robert Rogers and Prof Paul van Lange presented their scientific work related to social dilemmas.

Social dilemmas are situations in which private interests conflict with collective interests. This means that people facing a social dilemma have to decide whether to prioritise either their own short-term interests or the long-term interests of a group. Many real-life situations are social dilemmas. For example, as individuals we would (economically) benefit from using public motorways without paying taxes to maintain them, but if all acted according to their self-interest, no motorways would be built and the whole society would be worse off. In the academic literature, the three types of social dilemmas that are discussed most prominently are the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Public Goods Dilemma, and the Tragedy of the Commons. All three types have been modelled as experimental games, and research from different fields like psychology, neuroscience, and behavioural economics uses these games to tackle the question of under which conditions people are willing to cooperate with one another in social dilemmas, instead of maximising their self-interest. The ultimate goal of such research is to be able to give recommendations about how to solve social dilemmas in society.

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Podcast: Ethics and Expectations, Seth Lazar

Imagine you have been set the following trolley problem by a villain. There is a central track, called CONTINUE. If you do nothing, the trolley will continue down this track, and kill whomever is at the end of it, then stop.

Part way along the line, there is a junction, with a lever. If you pull that lever, then the trolley will go down one of two tracks—STOP and LOOP. If it goes down STOP, then it stops, killing whoever is at the end of the line (if anyone).

If it goes down LOOP, it returns to the start of the track, killing whoever is on LOOP, and leading to the trolley returning to the junction. The lever determining which way the trolley will go is probabilistic, and the villain controls the probabilities.

The villain also controls how many people are tied to the tracks, and which tracks they are tied to. Importantly, if the trolley goes down LOOP, killing whoever is on there, then the villain will replace those victims with fresh ones (for the moment we’ll assume that he does so with the same number).

This lecture animated by a concern that deontological theorists have trouble accommodating ignorance and uncertainty into our theories, developed a broadly deontological approach to iterated, probabilistic decision problems like this one.

Audio file


Pak-Hang Wong on “Virtuous Climate Making? Towards a Virtue-Theoretic Approach to Geoengineering”

In the final Uehiro Seminar of Trinity Term, Pak-Hang Wong offered a novel approach to the ethics of geoengineering. He argues that if we view geoengineering as a large socio-technical system (LTS), which he asserts we should, then traditional approaches to the ethics of geoengineering that focus on intentions and outcomes are inadequate.

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Podcast: The Ethics of Infant Male Circumcision

In this talk (audio- MP3 and video -youtube)  , Brian D. Earp argues that the non-therapeutic circumcision of infant males is unethical, whether it is performed for reasons of obtaining possible future health benefits, for reasons of cultural transmission, or for reasons of perceived religious obligation. He begins with the premise that it should be considered morally impermissible to sever healthy, functional genital tissue from another person’s body without first asking for, and then actually receiving, that person’s informed consent—otherwise, this action would qualify as a criminal assault. He then raises a number of possible exceptions to this rule, to see whether they could reasonably serve to justify the practice of infant male circumcision in certain cases.

First, what if it could be established that the risk of contracting certain diseases might be diminished by removing a person’s foreskin in infancy, as is often suggested in the United States? Second, what if circumcision could be shown to reduce the spread of AIDS in African populations with high transmission rates of HIV? Third, what if the infant’s parents believed that they had a cultural or a religious obligation to remove the foreskin from his penis before he was old enough to give his consent?

After discussing the merits of these considerations as possible “exceptions” to the ethical premise with which he began, he concludes that they do not present compelling justifications for circumcision before the boy is old enough to understand what is at stake in such a surgery and to decide for himself whether he would like to part with his own foreskin. He concludes with a discussion of the similarities and differences between male and female forms of genital cutting, andsrgues that anyone who is committed to the view that infant male circumcision is morally permissible must also accept the moral permissibility of some (though not all) forms of female genital cutting. However, as he argues, neither type of cutting should be allowed absent clear consent of the individual and/or strict medical necessity.

Ethics In Finance: A New Financial Theory For A Post-Financialized World

On Thursday 30 May, Dr Kara Tan Bhala from University of Kansas treated lecturees at St Cross to a crash course in Modern Finance Theory (MFT) and its limitations. Guiding listeners through weighty acronyms and weightier formulae spiked with Greek alphabetical symbols, she deftly dispatched MFT with the following:

  • that economic agents are non-rational;
  • that fairness plays a part in finance; and
  • that in our post-financialised word,  “homo economicus” (some kind of Thatcherite love-child I wondered idly?) is well and truly an endangered species.

She went state her self-admittedly “quixotic” mission for an altered financial theory which properly accounts for, or exposes an underlying ethics and morality. As she envisaged it, this mission is at once 1) an addition to MFT such that it also includes principles of ethics (let’s call this MFT-plus) and 2) the creation of a new financial theory which is based on MFT-plus and principles from two other theories, Islamic finance and behavioural finance. This would unite the forecasting functionality (such as it is) and ethics of MFT-plus, the “unapologetically ethical” and community-beneficial values of Islamic finance, and the psychological sensitivity of behavioural finance.

It is to Dr Tan Bhala’s credit that such a mission has led to her leaving her own presumably highly lucrative and powerful positions in the finance world, in order to set up a global think-tank, the Seven Pillars Institute for Global Finance and Ethics. However, there is clearly a lot to think about, as demonstrated by questions following the lecture.

She met with a passionate reception from a varied audience comprising ethicists, philosophers, financiers and associates of big pharma. The usefulness of Islamic Finance Theory was questioned given that its application in many Islamic states wreaks an apparent gaping inequality of wealth and power. So too, questioners were uncomfortable with the retention of MFT in Tan Bhala’s mission, it having been shown by Tan Bhala herself to be an inadequate quantitative and forecasting agent. It was unclear therefore whether her mission will be to bin MFT completely, or propose a radical alteration, but in either case it was clear the struggle will be gigantic (windmill-tilting, anyone?)

The discussion moved onto telos, with agreement that the free market economic model has not been allowed to express its natural purpose or telos, multiple financial crises having been patched by governments and thus persisting the current (dysfunctional) model. Questioners argued that until the telos of the free market is allowed true expression, and is allowed to fail, change will be highly difficult. When asked whether such change could be fomented by academia, the speaker’s own experience was disheartening: namely censorship by her institution of the teaching of novel financial theories.

With the speaker showing no sign of tiring, but the resonance of this sobering thought being felt, here ended the discussion.  This blogger concludes that when moral and financial bankruptcy have the (market) freedom to collide, the field will be fertile for development of a value-enriched financial system. Until then it is up to organisations such as the Seven Pillars Institute to take to that field with all the chivalric heroism they can muster – may the sparring commence!

Audio file available here.

The St Cross Special Ethics seminars are hosted by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. They are held twice-termly at the college. For more details click here.