Reflections

Lockdown Erodes Agency

By Charles Foster

A couple of lockdown conversations:

  1. The other day I met a friend in the street. We hadn’t seen one another for over a year. We mimed the hugs that we would have given in a saner age, and started to talk. ‘There’s nothing to tell you’, she said. ‘Nothing’s happened since we last saw you. And that’s just as well, because, as you’ll find, I’ve forgotten how to talk, how to relate, and how to read ordinary cues. We’ve not been out. We’ve not changed anything. I wonder if we’ve been changed?’
  1. Another friend. ‘Zoom’s great, isn’t it? You switch off your camera and your microphone, and the meeting just goes on perfectly happily without you. Everyone thinks you’re there. Your name’s up on their screen. But you are just getting on with your own business.’

And a lockdown fact: Lockdown has been great for book sales. 2020 saw an estimated rise of 5.2% in volume sales of print books in the UK compared with 2019 sales. This was the biggest annual rise since 2007: Continue reading

Crosspost: Learning to live with COVID – the tough choices ahead

By Jonathan Pugh, Dominic Wilkinson and Julian Savulescu

This work was supported by the UKRI/ AHRC funded UK Ethics Accelerator project, grant number AH/V013947/1. The UK Ethics Accelerator project can be found at https://ukpandemicethics.org/

 

As mass vaccination continues to be rolled out, the UK is beginning to see encouraging signs that the number of COVID deaths is reducing, and that the vaccines may be reducing the transmission of coronavirus.

While this is very welcome news, a mass vaccination programme is unlikely to be enough to eliminate the virus, so we need to turn our thoughts towards the ethics of the long-term management of COVID-19.

One strategy would be to aim for the elimination of the virus within the UK. New Zealand successfully implemented an elimination strategy earlier in the pandemic and is now in a post-elimination stage.

An elimination strategy in the UK would require combining the mass vaccination programme with severe restrictions on international travel to stop new cases and variants of the virus being imported. However, the government has been reluctant to endorse an elimination strategy, given the importance of international trade to the UK economy.

One of the main alternatives to the elimination strategy is to treat coronavirus as endemic to the UK and to aim for long-term suppression of the virus to acceptable levels. But adopting a suppression strategy for the long term will require us to make a societal decision about the harms we are and are not willing to accept.

 

Continue reading

Lessons for Philosophers and Scientists from Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown

By Charles Foster

Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate has issued proceedings, complaining that Enola Holmes,  a recently released film about Sherlock Holmes’ sister, portrays the great detective as too emotional.

Sherlock Holmes was famously suspicious of emotions. 1 ‘ [L]ove is an emotional thing’, he icily observed, ‘and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. ‘2  “I am a brain’, he told Watson. ‘The rest of me is a mere appendix’.3

I can imagine that many professional scientists and philosophers would feel affronted if they were accused of being emotional animals. Holmes is a model for them. He’s rigorous, empirical, and relies on induction.

But here’s the thing. He’s not actually very good. Mere brains might be good at anticipating the behaviour of mere brains, but they’re not good for much else. In particular Holmes is not a patch on his rival, Chesterton’s Father Brown, a Roman Catholic priest. Gramsci writes that Brown ‘totally defeats Sherlock Holmes, makes him look like a pretentious little boy, shows up his narrowness and pettiness.’ 4 Brown is faster, more efficient, and, for the criminal, deadlier. This is because, not despite, his use of his emotions. Continue reading

The Duty To Ignore Covid-19

By Charles Foster

This is a plea for a self-denying ordinance on the part of philosophers. Ignore Covid-19. It was important that you said what you have said about it, but the job is done. There is nothing more to say. And there are great dangers in continuing to comment. It gives the impression that there is only one issue in the world. But there are many others, and they need your attention. Just as cancer patients were left untreated because Covid closed hospitals, so important philosophical problems are left unaddressed, or viewed only through the distorting lens of Covid. Continue reading

We’re All Vitalists Now

By Charles Foster

It has been a terrible few months for moral philosophers – and for utilitarians in particular. Their relevance to public discourse has never been greater, but never have their analyses been so humiliatingly sidelined by policy makers across the world. The world’s governments are all, it seems, ruled by a rather crude vitalism. Livelihoods and freedoms give way easily to a statistically small risk of individual death.

That might or might not be the morally right result. I’m not considering here the appropriateness of any government measures, and simply note that whatever one says about the UK Government’s response, it has been supremely successful in generating fear. Presumably that was its intention. The fear in the eyes above the masks is mainly an atavistic terror of personal extinction – a fear unmitigated by rational risk assessment. There is also a genuine fear for others (and the crisis has shown humans at their most splendidly altruistic and communitarian as well). But we really don’t have much ballast.

The fear is likely to endure long after the virus itself has receded. Even if we eventually pluck up the courage to hug our friends or go to the theatre, the fear has shown us what we’re really like, and the unflattering picture will be hard to forget.

I wonder what this new view of ourselves will mean for some of the big debates in ethics and law? The obvious examples are euthanasia and assisted suicide. Continue reading

What is Your Gender? A Friendly Guide to the Public Debate

What is your gender? A friendly guide to the public debate

Brian D. Earp

 

Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of an informal lecture, based on coursework submitted as part of my Ph.D. It was recorded on Whidbey Island, Washington, and published online on January 15th, 2020. A link to the video is here: https://youtu.be/LZERzw9BGrs

 

Video description:  I’m a philosopher and cognitive scientist who studies gender, sex, identity, sexuality and related topics and I am offering this video as a friendly guide to the (often very heated) public debate that is going on around these issues. This is my best attempt, not to score political points for any particular side, but to give an introductory map of the territory so you can think for yourself, investigate further, and reach your own conclusions about such controversial questions as “What does mean to be a man or a woman?” This video is not meant to be authoritative; it is not the final word; experts on these topics will find much to quibble with (and perhaps some things to disagree with outright). But for those who would like to take some first steps in getting a sense of the landscape without feeling intimidated, I hope this will be of some use. Continue reading

Coronavirus: Dark Clouds, But Some Silver Linings?

By Charles Foster

Cross posted from The Conversation

To be clear, and in the hope of heading off some trolls, two observations. First: of course I don’t welcome the epidemic. It will cause death, worry, inconvenience and great physical and economic suffering. Lives and livelihoods will be destroyed. The burden will fall disproportionately on the old, the weak and the poor.

And second: these suggestions are rather trite. They should be obvious to reasonably reflective people of average moral sensibility.

That said, here goes:

1. It will make us realise that national boundaries are artificial

The virus doesn’t carry a passport or recognise frontiers. The only way of stopping its spread would be to shut borders wholly, and not even the most rabid nationalists advocate that. It would mean declaring that nations were prisons, with no one coming in or out – or at least not coming back once they’d left. In a world where we too casually assume that frontiers are significant, it doesn’t do any harm to be reminded of the basic fact that humans occupy an indivisible world.

Cooperation between nations is essential to combating the epidemic. That cooperation is likely to undermine nationalist rhetoric.

2. It will make us realise that people are not islands

The atomistic billiard-ball model of the person – a model that dominates political and ethical thinking in the west – is biologically ludicrous and sociologically unsustainable. Our individual boundaries are porous. We bleed into one another and infect one another with both ills and joys. Infectious disease is a salutary reminder of our interconnectedness. It might help us to recover a sense of society.

3. It may encourage a proper sort of localism

Internationalism may be boosted. I hope so. But if we’re all locked up with one another in local quarantine, we might get to know the neighbours and the family members we’ve always ignored. We might distribute ourselves less widely, and so be more present to the people around us.

We might even find out that our local woods are more beautiful than foreign beaches, and that local farmers grow better and cheaper food than that which is shipped (with the associated harm to the climate) across the globe.

4. It may encourage altruism

Exigencies tend to bring out the best and the worst in us. An epidemic may engender and foster altruistic heroes.

5. It may remind us of some neglected constituencies

Mortality and serious illness are far higher among the old, the very young, and those suffering from other diseases. We tend to think about – and legislate for – the healthy and robust. The epidemic should remind us that they are not the only stakeholders.

6. It may make future epidemics less likely

The lessons learned from the coronavirus epidemic will pay dividends in the future. We will be more realistic about the dangers of viruses crossing the barriers between species. The whole notion of public health (a Cinderella speciality in medicine in most jurisdictions) has been rehabilitated. It is plain that private healthcare can’t be the whole answer. Much has been learned about the containment and mitigation of infectious disease. There are strenuous competitive and cooperative efforts afoot to develop a vaccine, and vaccines against future viral challenges are likely to be developed faster as a result.

7. It might make us more realistic about medicine

Medicine is not omnipotent. Recognising this might make us more aware of our vulnerabilities. The consequences of that are difficult to predict, but living in the world as it really is, rather than in an illusory world, is probably a good thing. And recognising our own vulnerability might make us more humble and less presumptuous.

8. Wildlife may benefit

China has announced a permanent ban on trade in and consumption of wildlife. That in itself is hugely significant from a conservation, an animal welfare, and a human health perspective. Hopefully other nations will follow suit.

Continue reading

Why Epistemologists Should Sniff

By Charles Foster

There are lots of big and clever books about epistemology. It’s a complex business. Although one can do some epistemology (some icy thinkers say all) without making any empirical claims about what the senses show (and hence how the senses work), such empirical claims are essential for the discipline to get any real traction on the world.

Whenever this is acknowledged (and it often is not), the emphasis is very much on sight. There is the same bias in lay speech and thought – so much so that sight and some sort of cognitive process or conclusion are commonly conflated. ‘Seeing is believing’, we say. ‘I see’, we say, when we really mean that we understand.

This is not surprising. Language and cognition are intimately entangled, and so are vision and cognition. Vision and ‘higher order’ cognition (important inverted commas, those) are spatially close to one another in the brain: that spatial closeness is reflected in functional closeness. Evolutionarily older centres – notably olfaction – are buried deep in the brain. Since they don’t have an office near to ‘higher order’ cognition, their contribution tends to be overlooked in the cognitive league tables. The insights of the nose tend to be denigrated. Continue reading

An Ambitious Vision for Bioethics – Some Reflections on Professor Jing-Bao Nie’s St Cross Seminar

Written by Ben Davies

Many readers of the Practical Ethics blog will remember the astounding announcement last November by Chinese researcher He Jiankui that he had used CRISPR-cas9 technology to edit into two healthy embryos a resistance to developing HIV, later resulting in the birth of twins Lulu and Nana. As Professor Julian Savulescu expressed in several posts on this blog, the announcement spurred widespread ethical condemnation.

The first in this year’s series of St Cross Special Ethics seminars saw the University of Otago’s Professor Jing-Bao Nie (who is also currently a 2019/20 Fellow of Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study) get behind the headlines to consider the political and social context of He’s experiment. At the core of Professor Nie’s presentation was that the decision to engage in genetic editing of healthy embryos could neither be written off as the act of a ‘rogue researcher’, nor dismissed as merely the product of a uniquely Chinese disregard for ethics, as some have argued.

Continue reading

The Doctor-Knows-Best NHS Foundation Trust: a Business Proposal for the Health Secretary

By Charles Foster

Informed consent, in practice, is a bad joke. It’s a notion created by lawyers, and like many such notions it bears little relationship to the concerns that real humans have when they’re left to themselves, but it creates many artificial, lucrative, and expensive concerns.

Of course there are a few clinical situations where it is important that the patient reflects deeply and independently on the risks and benefits of the possible options, and there are a few people (I hope never to meet them: they would be icily un-Falstaffian) whose sole ethical lodestone is their own neatly and indelibly drafted life-plan. But those situations and those people are fortunately rare. Continue reading

Authors

Affiliations