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.

Podcast:Attention, Action, and Responsibility

On Friday 14 June, Carolyn Dicey Jennings – who is about to take up a post as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Merced — offered a fascinating Uehiro seminar (mp3) paper on whether action or responsibility require attention. Continue reading

Podcast: David Nutt, ‘The current laws on drugs and alcohol – ineffective, dishonest and unethical?’

Professor David Nutt argues in this podcast of his lecture, that whilst the use of the law to control drug use is long established, it remains unproven in efficacy. Although seemingly obvious that legal interdictions should work there is little evidence to support this assertion. So for example cannabis though illegal is at some time used by nearly half of the population. Similarly drugs like ecstasy and amfetamine are widely used by up to a million young people each weekend. This use is underpinned by a demand for the pleasurable experiences that the drugs produce, and also by a paradoxical desire by some people to break the law.

As well as being ineffective for many users prohibition of drugs often leads to perverse magnification of harms and drug use. When the “English” approach to heroin use i.e. prescription to addicts was abolished in the 1970s on moral grounds heroin use increased tenfold in a few years as addicts were forced to become dealers so getting more people addicted to fuel their income. The banning of alcohol in the 1920s in the USA lead to huge criminal expansion of alcohol sales the perpetrators of which turned to other drugs once prohibition was repealed: a legacy that we still experience today.

Moreover the un-scientific and arbitrary distinct between legal drugs particularly alcohol and tobacco and “illegal” drugs also has perverse negative consequences. As well as bringing the scientific foundation of the drug laws into disrepute it also precludes the use of possibly life-changing drugs for those who might benefit from them as treatments: examples of these include cannabis for Multiple sclerosis, MDMA [ecstasy] for PTSD and psilocybin for cluster headaches.

For these reasons Nutt argues that there are serious ethical implications for a simplistic prohibitionist approach to drugs and suggest alternative strategies that might be used.

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Podcast: Folk Psychology, the Reactive Attitudes and Responsibility

In this podcast of her recent lecture, Professor Jeanette Kennett explores the connections between the folk psychological project of interpretation, the reactive attitudes and responsibility, (podcast ). The first section argues that the reactive attitudes originate in very fast and to a significant extent, non-voluntary processes involving constant facial feedback. These processes allow for smooth interaction between participants and are important to the interpretive practices that ground intimate relationships as well as to a great many less intense interactions. She then examines cases of facial paralysis (Moebius Syndrome and Botox studies) to support the argument that when these processes are interrupted or impaired, the interpretive project breaks down and social relationships suffer.

But do failures of interpretation lead, as Strawson suggests, to the suspension of the reactive attitudes relevant to responsibility assessments? Prof Kennett suggests that in many important instances they do not, considering the cases of children who murder, alien cultures, and psychopaths. In the second part she examines the supposed constitutive relation between the reactive attitudes and responsibility.

Jeanette Kennett is Professor of Moral Psychology and Deputy Director of the Centre for Agency Values and Ethics at Macquarie University. She has published widely on moral cognition, moral and criminal responsibility, and impairments of agency. She is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council funded project on Addiction and Moral Identity and is also a chief investigator on an ARC project examining implicit persuasion in direct to consumer pharmaceutical advertising.

This seminar was co-hosted by The Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and the International Neuroethics Society


Enhancement: Rat Race or Supermarket? (Podcasts)

In this special Enhancement seminar, visiting speakers Rob Sparrow and Chris Gyngell discussed two aspects of enhancement. You can hear the podcast here (mp3).

Rob Sparrow on ‘Enhancement and Obsolescence: Avoiding An “Enhanced Rat Race”‘: A claim about continuing technological progress plays an essential, if unacknowledged, role in the philosophical literature on “human enhancement”. Advocates for enhancement typically point to the rapid progress being made in the development of biotechnologies, information technology, and nanotechnology as evidence that we will soon be able to achieve significant improvements on normal human capacities through applications of these technologies. Sparrow argues that – should it eventuate – continuous improvement in enhancement technologies may prove more bane than benefit. A rapid increase in the power of available enhancements would mean that each cohort of enhanced individuals will find itself in danger of being outcompeted by the next in competition for important social goods – a situation he characterises as an ‘enhanced rat race’. Rather than risk the chance of being rendered technologically and socially obsolete by the time one is in one’s early 20s, it may be rational to prefer that a wide range of enhancements that would generate positional disadvantages that outweigh their absolute advantages be prohibited altogether. The danger of an enhanced rat race therefore constitutes a novel argument in favour of abandoning the pursuit of certain sorts of enhancements.

 Chris Gyngell on ‘Stocking the Genetic Supermarket: Genetic Enhancements and Collective Action Problems’: In the near future parents may be able to directly alter the genetic make-up of their children using genetic engineering technologies (GETs). A popular model that has been proposed for regulating access to GETs is the ‘genetic supermarket’. In the genetic supermarket parents are free to make decisions about which genes to select for their children with little state interference. One possible consequence of the genetic supermarket is that ‘collective action problems’ will arise. The combined result of individuals using the market to pursue self-interested gains may have a negative effect on society as a whole, and on future generations. In this paper Gyngell asks whether GETs targeting height, innate immunity, and certain cognitive traits would lead to collective action problems if available in the genetic supermarket. he argues that that the widespread availability of GETs targeting height are unlikely to lead to genuine collective action problems, but that those targeting innate immunity and aspects of our cognition, could. He then discusses some implications of this claim for the regulation of GETs.


‘Precarious (Bio)ethics: Research on Poisoning Patients in Sri Lanka’

On 9 May 2013, Salla Sariola, from ETHOX, gave a fascinating talk at the St Cross Ethics Seminar, based on work done collaboratively with Bob Simpson (Durham). The presentation focused on the large number of self-poisonings which have been taking place in Sri Lanka, often using lethal agricultural pesticides and herbicides unavailable in many developed countries. This presentation is now available as a podcast at the bottom right of the Oxford Uehiro Centre main webpage. Continue reading