Reflections

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.

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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.

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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

Lies

Written by Stephen Rainey.

 

I’ve been thinking, lately, about lying. Not doing it, just puzzling over what it means.

We all know lying can be morally wrong. But sometimes it can also be a kindness, when the truth might serve no good. Within the constraints of a job, lying might be a professional obligation, morals aside. So I was thinking about the word, ‘lying’, and how maybe it labels a variety of acts that may have different moral implications.

There are some clear-cut cases of wrong that we can spot easily. If we saw a bully shoving someone around, we’d know straight away that was bad. Physically intervening on another person for sadistic kicks, and without their cooperation, is plainly egregious. But the inclusion of sadism and cooperation in the description points to other dimensions of physical intervention that aren’t clearly so bad.

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Abolish Medical Ethics

Written by Charles Foster

In a recent blog post on this site Dom Wilkinson, writing about the case of Vincent Lambert, said this:

If, as is claimed by Vincent’s wife, Vincent would not have wished to remain alive, then the wishes of his parents, of other doctors or of the Pope, are irrelevant. My views or your views on the matter, likewise, are of no consequence. Only Vincent’s wishes matter. And so life support must stop.’

The post was (as everything Dom writes is), completely coherent and beautifully expressed. I say nothing here about my agreement or otherwise with his view – which is comfortably in accord with the zeitgeist, at least in the academy. My purpose is only to point out that if he is right, there is no conceivable justification for a department of medical ethics. Dom is arguing himself out of a job. Continue reading

In Praise Of Dementia

By Charles Foster

Statistically there is a good chance that I will ultimately develop dementia. It is one of the most feared conditions, but bring it on, I say.

It will strip me of some of my precious memories and some of my cognitive function, but it will also strip me of many of the neuroses that make life wretched. It may (but see below) make me anxious because the world takes on an unaccustomed form, but surely there are worse anxieties that are dependent on full function – such as hypochondriacal worries, or the worry that comes from watching the gradual march of a terminal illness. On balance the trade seems a good one. Continue reading

The Re-Greening of Abraham

By Charles Foster

Some odd alliances are being forged in this strange new world,

I well remember, a few years ago, the open hostility shown by dreadlocked, shamanic, eco-warriors towards the Abrahamic monotheisms. They’d spit when they passed a church.

The rhetoric of their distaste was predictable. The very notion of a creed was anathema to a free spirit. ‘No one’s going to tell me what to think’, said one (we’ll call him Jack), the marks on his wrists still visible from where he’d been chained to a road-builder’s bulldozer. And the content of the creeds, and the promulgators-in-chief, didn’t help. ‘I’m certainly taking no lessons’, Jack went on, ‘from some patriarchal sky-god represented by a paedophilic priest.’

But it’s changed. Jack still heaves bricks through bank windows (he says), and still copulates inside stone circles, but now he’s mightily impressed with Jesus, has a Greek Orthodox icon of the resurrection next to his bong, and pictures of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on his dartboard. He’s not alone. He’s part of a widespread movement that is reclaiming and recruiting the intrinsic radicalism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the fight against Neo-Liberalism and the destruction of the planet. Continue reading

Abortion: a Law Unto Itself

By   Charles Foster

Wrongful life cases (typically where a birth has resulted from a failed sterilisation procedure), used to be big business. The parents would sue the negligent steriliser for the costs of bringing up the unwanted child. There was always something distasteful about parents unwishing their child, and this distaste found legal expression in Macfarlane v Tayside Health Board,1  where the House of Lords said that such claims were unlawful. The ratio of Macfarlane was summarised by the Lord Steyn in Rees v Darlington Memorial Hospital NHS Trust:2 Continue reading

The Dangers of Biography

By Charles Foster

A friend of mine has written a brilliant and justly celebrated biography. I am worried about her, and about her readers.

The biography is brilliant and engaging precisely because of the degree of rapport the author has established with her subject, and the rapport she brokers between her subject and her readers. What is the cost of that rapport?

My friend has had to keep the company of her (dead) subject for years. Her book is an invitation to others to keep that company for hours. Two ethical questions arise. Continue reading

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