Terminal Illness and The Right Not to Know

The parents of a young woman named Vickie Harvey, who tragically died at the age of 24 from acute myeloid leukaemia, have launched a campaign to give patients the right not to know that they are terminally ill.  Eric and Lyn Harvey claim that their daughter lost the will to live when, after her leukaemia returned following a period of remission, doctors told her ‘in graphic detail’ how she would now succumb to her disease. Eric Harvey told the Daily Mail:

After [Vickie was about her prognosis] she changed – and never really got out of bed again. We knew she was dying, but we feel that, if she hadn’t been told that day, she would have lasted longer’. Continue reading

Crowd homebuying (or: How to own a home with no savings and no mortgage)

by Rebecca Roache

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I originally posted this on my own blog. It’s not the usual sort of post I write for Practical Ethics, in that it’s not going to involve any ethical debate. But neither is it an ethically irrelevant topic, since I’m hoping that what I describe could help make life better for many people. I hope you’ll let me know what you think.


People rent rather than buy their homes for various reasons. Renting is more convenient and flexible than buying, since it’s easier to become a tenant than an owner, and easier to move on from a rented property than from one that you own. But a major reason that many people rent rather than buy is because they have no choice: they cannot afford to buy.

I want to challenge this view. I will argue that it is only because of the way in which our current system of buying and selling property works that many people cannot easily invest in property. This system is outdated. Overhauling it would make owning property easier for people not currently on the property ladder and more profitable for current homeowners. It would also give homeowners the flexibility and convenience currently enjoyed by renters, and it would give renters the security and investment opportunity currently enjoyed by owners. Further, overhauling the current system need not be complicated at all: it can be done by implementing tried-and-tested practices that are already used for other purposes.

A disclaimer before I start: I am a philosopher, not an expert on the property market. Reading about financial matters sends me to sleep. Whilst, as a reluctant tenant, I have given this matter a great deal of thought, these ideas are going to be half-baked. I know this already, so you don’t need to leave a comment to point it out. If you know more about how this could work than I do, please help educate me and help develop this idea by sharing your expertise in a comment. I may update this post to reflect improvements suggested by commenters.

Continue reading

Computer vision and emotional privacy

A study published last week (and summarized here and here) demonstrated that a computer could be trained to detect real versus faked facial expressions of pain significantly better than humans. Participants were shown video clips of the faces of people actually in pain (elicited by submerging their arms in icy water) and clips of people simulating pain (with their arms in warm water). The participants had to indicate for each clip whether the expression of pain was genuine or faked.

Whilst human observers could not discriminate real expressions of pain from faked expression better than chance, a computer vision system that automatically measured facial movements and performed pattern recognition on those movements attained 85% accuracy. Even when the human participants practiced, accuracy only increased to 55%.

The authors explain that the system could also be trained to recognize other potentially deceptive actions involving a facial component. They say:

In addition to detecting pain malingering, our computer vision approach maybe used to detect other real-world deceptive actions in the realm of homeland security, psychopathology, job screening, medicine, and law. Like pain, these scenarios also generate strong emotions, along with attempts to minimize, mask, and fake such emotions, which may involve dual control of the face. In addition, our computer vision system can be applied to detect states in which the human face may provide important clues about health, physiology, emotion, or thought, such as drivers’ expressions of sleepiness and students’ expressions of attention and comprehension of lectures, or to track response to treatment of affective disorders.

The possibility of using this technology to detect when someone’s emotional expressions are genuine or not raises interesting ethical questions. I will outline and give preliminary comments on a few of the issues: Continue reading

Is smoking morally wrong?

This week, I’ve been thinking about smoking. Full disclosure: My name is Jim and I am a smoker. I have smoked for nearly a decade now – been since around 2005 – and I only smoke menthol cigarettes. I am addicted to the sweet menthol smoke, where that touch of red fire at the end of a white stick seems so perfectly suited to almost any occasion from celebration to commiseration. I give up on average for a month or two a year, every year. I always come back, though. The reason I say this is to highlight that I am by no means one of these dour-faced moralizers, condemning smokers for their ‘filthy habit’. Like a snot-nosed child, it may be filthy, but it’s my filthy habit. Most efforts to encourage people against smoking focus on the idea that smoking is personally damaging: it causes illness and death, it costs a lot of money, it harms others, it litters the environment, and so on. This week, however, I’ve been thinking about whether the real concern is that smoking might be morally wrong. (NB: I’m discussing where whether it is morally wrong, not whether it should be legally banned or whether people should have the ‘right’ to smoke – these are distinct questions). Continue reading

For theta’s sake, smash up your TV and go for a walk

You can get experienced meditators to produce, on demand, feelings of timelessness and spacelessness. Tell them ‘Try to be outside time’, and ‘try not to be in the centre of space’, and they will.

These sort of sensations tend to happen together – so strikingly so that Walter Stace proposed, as one combined element of mystical experience, ‘non-spatial-and-non-temporal’.1

Why should that be? asked an Israeli research group in a recent and fascinating paper.  And was the generation of these sensations related to alterations in the sense of the body? Continue reading

The Terror of Ignorance

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 along with its 239 passengers and crew has dominated recent news coverage.  Hope for their survival has dimmed, and my thoughts and prayers are with the relatives of those on board.  This incident is getting so much attention, though, not only because it involves a large commercial airplane and potential large loss of life, but additionally because of the mystery of what happened.  There is apparently no trace of the plane; an oil slick and debris in the sea were apparently not related, and there was no mayday or other indication from the pilots of something going wrong (at least, not that’s been reported).  Some sort of accident is possible, but the revelation that two passengers were traveling with stolen passports makes it quite plausible that this was a terrorist attack.  Given that likelihood, I would like to suggest that this would be a uniquely devious and disturbing form of terrorism due to our current ignorance concerning what happened, by whom and why. Continue reading

Innovation’s low-hanging fruits: on the demand or supply sides?

Cross-posted at Less Wrong.

This is an addendum to a previous post, which argued that we may be underestimating the impact of innovation because we have so much of it. I noted that we underestimated the innovative aspect of the CD because many other technologies partially overlapped with it, such as television, radio, cinema, ipod, walkman, landline phone, mobile phone, laptop, VCR and Tivo’s. Without these overlapping technologies, we could see the CD’s true potential and estimate it higher as an innovation. Many different technologies could substitute for each other.

But this argument brings out a salient point: if so many innovations overlap or potentially overlap, then there must be many more innovations that purposes for innovations. Tyler Cowen made the interesting point that the internet isn’t as innovative as the flushing toilet (or indeed the television). He certainly has a point here: imagine society without toilets or youtube, which would be most tolerable (or most survivable)? Continue reading

The innovation tree, overshadowed in the innovation forest

Cross-Posted at Less Wrong.

Many have pronounced that the era of innovation dead, peace be to its soul. From Tyler Cowen’s decree that we’ve picked all the low hanging fruit of innovation, through Robert Gordon’s idea that further innovation growth is threatened by “six headwinds”, to Gary Karparov’s and Peter Thiel’s theory that risk aversion has stifled innovation, there is no lack of predictions about the end of discovery.

I don’t propose to address the issue with something as practical and useful as actual data. Instead, staying true to my philosophical environment, I propose a thought experiment that hopefully may shed some light. The core idea is that we might be underestimating the impact of innovation because we have so much of it.

Imagine that technological innovation had for some reason stopped around the 1945 – with one exception: the CD and CD player/burner. Fast forwards a few decades, and visualise society. We can imagine a society completely dominated by the CD. We’d have all the usual uses for the CD – music, songs and similar – of course, but also much more. Continue reading

Are the reasons why people take illegal drugs relevant to sentencing decisions?

The laws that prohibit possession of certain drugs are ostensibly justified because they protect people from the health risks that are associated with uncontrolled or heavy use. Some have argued that criminalizing possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use is overly paternalistic (people should be free to make potentially risky choices as long as they don’t put others at risk) or even counterproductive (criminalizing drug use fuels a black market, many aspects of which present greater dangers to individual drug users and wider society). I find these arguments intuitively persuasive (although clear evidence would be needed to substantiate the claim that criminalization is in fact counterproductive).

So, if there is a justification for putting controls on personal drug use it seems that it ought to appeal solely to the physical and social harms that would result from a policy of drug liberalization. Such an approach is roughly reflected in the UK drug laws: the graded classification system, which determines the maximum penalty for possessing drugs in each class (A to C), considers only the harmfulness of the drug: punishment is linked to risk to health. Criminalization of drug use thus has nothing to do with a moral evaluation of this drug use.

However, a news story this month raises the question of whether moral considerations are sometimes playing a role in the sentencing of those convicted of possessing illegal drugs. Continue reading