Steve Clarke’s Posts

A punch in the nose from Pope Francis (using religion to justify violence)

Pope Francis has made a couple of statements in response to the recent Charlie Hebdo killings that seem hard to reconcile. On January 13th he spoke in Sri Lanka and informed the world that religion must never be used to justify violence. Today he spoke en route to the  Philippines and is reported as saying that making fun of religion was unacceptable and that anyone who does so can expect ‘a punch in the nose’. The punch in the nose comment is of course, in effect, an appeal to religion to justify violence. The underlying assumption here is that religion is deserving of respect and that at least some (low-level) violent responses are justified in response to displays of disrespect towards religion.

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Prometheus and the Drive to Mastery

Writers who express caution about the over-enthusiastic embrace of new technologies, such as Michael Sandel, who worries about human enhancement and genetic engineering, and Clive Hamilton, who worries about geoengineering, sometimes warn us about the ‘Promethean attitude’, or ‘the Promethean urge’. According to Sandel, human enhancement and genetic engineering ‘… represent a kind of hyperagency – a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires. The problem is not the drift to mechanism but the drive to mastery. And what the drive to mastery misses and many even destroy is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements’ (‘The Case against Perfection’, in J. Savulescu and N. Bostrom (eds.) Human Enhancement, OUP 2012, p. 78). Hamilton worries about geoengineers who desire ‘total domination of the planet’. He describes this desire as a ‘Promethean urge named after the Greek titan who gave to humans the tools of technological mastery’ (Earthmasters, Yale 2013, p. 18). Continue reading

Reducing Religious Conflict conference podcasts now available


Dear all,

Podcasts of the papers presented at the recent ‘Reducing Religious Conflict’ conference held in Oxford 18-19 June 2012 are now available at:

Presentations at the conference included:

  • Scott Atran, Anthropology (University of Michigan and National Center for Scientific Research Paris)
    Religious and Sacred Imperatives in Human Conflict
  • Liz Carmichael (Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford)
    Religion in Conflict and Peacemaking, with Particular Reference to South Africa
  • Tony Coady (Philosophy, University of Melbourne and Leverhulme Visiting Professor, University of Oxford) 
    Civility and Deep Disagreement: Philosophical Reflections on Religious Differences and Public Life
  • Eran Halperin (Lauder School of Government, Israel)
    Can Emotion Regulation Change Political Attitudes in Intractable and Religious Conflict? From the Laboratory to the Field
  • Miles Hewstone ( Katarina Schmid and Ananthi Al Ramiah, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford)
    Intergroup Contact as a Means of Reducing Religious Conflict: Evidence from Belfast and Oldham
  • Julian Savulescu (Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford) and Ingmar Persson (University of Gothenburg and Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford)
    Religion and Religious Conflict: A Secular View
  • Monica Toft (Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University)
    On Counterinsurgency
  • Paul Troop (Faculty of Law and Centre for Neuroethics, University of Oxford)
    How Might Understanding Human Groups Help Address Religious Conflict?

Should Peer Review be Rejected?

In most academic disciplines academics devote considerable energies to trying to publish in prestigious journals. These journals are, almost invariably, peer reviewed journals. When an article is submitted their editors send this out to expert reviewers who report on it and, if the article is judged to be of sufficient quality by those referees – who typically report back a few months later – and by the editor (and perhaps an editorial board), then it will be published (often after revisions have been made). If not, as in most cases, the author is free to try to publish the article in another journal. As anyone who has participated in this process can attest, it is very time consuming and often frustrating. The best journals only publish a small percentage of submissions and so an author who is targeting such journals may often have to submit the article several times; and in fields where the convention is that one should only submit to one journal at a given time (almost all fields) they may sometimes find that it takes a year or longer to have their paper accepted somewhere. Not only is this process very time consuming, it is often capricious as the referees that one’s paper is forwarded to may not be competent to assess the article in question and may be biased in various ways against (or for) one’s article. For these sorts of reasons many academics have wondered if there might be a better way.

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Is Darwinian Medicine Good for Us?

 The New Scientist has recently interviewed Dr Paul Turke, paediatrician and advocate of ‘Darwinian Medicine’: Dr Turke is working on a book expounding his views, with the working title Bringing Up Baby: A Darwinian View of Pediatrics. It is unfair to form a settled judgment of Dr Turke’s views before he has had a chance to develop them fully in his book. Nevertheless, I think it is worth making a few comments now, as Dr Turke is not the only advocate of Darwinian medicine and his interview raises a cluster of interesting issues.

One good point that Turke makes is that there is benefit to be had by considering the possible evolutionary functions of our bodies’ responses to injuries and infections. Experiencing a fever is unpleasant, but it seems to be part of our bodies’ preparation to fight certain forms of infection. As such, the propensity to experience fever may well be an evolutionary adaptation that we have acquired because of its contribution to our survival. Similarly, the swelling and pain that we experience when we twist a joint looks like an evolutionary adaptation to prevent us from using that joint and so promote healing and ultimately, long term survival. It surely helps medical practice to understand how and why particular bodily responses evolved, as this helps us to better understand what their functions are.

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Planet of the (Little) Apes

The Daily Mail has recently published an article entitled ‘Planet of the (little) apes: Save the world by genetically engineering humans to be smaller, suggests NYU philosopher.’ (

 It is always good to see the Daily Mail covering philosophy and covering issues in applied ethics in particular. The NYU philosopher in question is former Uehiro Centre researcher S. Matthew Liao. His co-authors, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache are both affiliated with the Future of Humanity Institute here at Oxford and the paper under discussion is called ‘Human Engineering and Climate Change’ and is forthcoming in Ethics Policy and the Environment, an interdisciplinary academic journal which specialises in environmental policy and ethics.

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Should we Encourage Atheists to get into Foxholes?

‘There are no atheists in foxholes’, as the saying goes. This is of course an exaggeration. There have always been some atheists in foxholes. With millions of military personnel representing this or that country around the world it seems inconceivable that no atheists whatsoever would be occupying foxholes. The Richard Dawkins Foundation appears to like the idea of atheists in foxholes. So much so that they have been providing care packages to members of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF) who request them. So far they have sent out over 150 care packages. These contain food items, supplies such as gloves, Dawkins Foundation pins and stickers and the occasional book. See Perhaps enough to encourage an atheist to remain in a foxhole for a while longer. Continue reading

The NHS should Stop Wasting Money on Homeopaths and Homeopathic Hospitals and should Offer Placebo Pills to Patients Requesting Homeopathic Treatments

The NHS spends three to four million pounds per year on homeopathic remedies, despite conceding that there is no evidence that homeopathic remedies actually work. They justify this expenditure on the grounds of patient choice: In a post on this subject, on August 20th 2010, I took the view there is something right about this line of reasoning. If people want to choose homeopathic remedies that are known to be no more effective than placebos, rather than conventional medical alternatives, then they are making a foolish choice, but it is their choice to make and provided that they are not harming others it should be respected. However, I also argued that the NHS has a duty to manage its budget carefully. They should only pay for homeopathic remedies when these are cheaper than the conventional medical alternatives that they are replacing and they should not spend more money on homeopathic remedies than is necessary. Given that the NHS spends three to four million pounds on approximately 25,000 ‘homeopathic items’ per year, I calculated that the NHS spends an average of £140- per homeopathic item prescribed. This figure could easily be reduced. In the earlier post I offered two suggestions to help the NHS save money on homeopathy. First, on the grounds that homeopathic training makes no difference to the efficacy of homeopathic remedies, I suggested that the NHS should pay homeopaths minimum wage. Second, I argued that the NHS should reduce the cost of homeopathic remedies by making its own homeopathic remedies, or outsource the job to a competitive supplier who can reduce the price of homeopathic remedies.

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Has Violence Declined? John Gray on Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker, the well-known Harvard evolutionary psychologist, has a new book just out, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, published by Viking. The claim which Pinker defends, that violence is declining and has declined over the course of human history will come as a surprise to many readers who are used to seeing a constant stream of media reports of contemporary wars, riots, homicides, rapes and so on and may have drawn the conclusion that we live in an exceptionally violent age. However, the claim that violence has declined is backed up by a mass of data. Unless Pinker has forged a lot of this data, or ignored significant countervailing evidence, it seems clear that those of us living in the early 21st Century are much less likely to die a violent death than humans living at pretty much any previous stage in history, and much less likely to be subjected to various non-lethal forms of violence too. Pinker offers a rather complicated explanation for the overall decline in human violence. The gist of it is that the spread of various ‘civilising’ cultural influences have operated to reduce violence as states have become successively more powerful and enlightenment ideas have spread. This is a very whiggish explanation of the decline in violence and is very unlikely to be accepted by those who do not share Pinker’s optimistic depiction of the trajectory of human history.  Continue reading

Geoengineering, Science, Consequentialism and Humility

The Uehiro Centre has recently hosted Clive Hamilton who was visiting from the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University. Hamilton is well known for his work on the politics of climate change. While here he presented a paper on the ‘Ethical Foundations of Climate Engineering’, which he has now been revised and is available at his website:

Climate engineering is also known as ‘geoenginering’ and the ethics of geoengineering has recently been discussed in a joint paper by several members of the Uehiro Centre who take a view that Hamilton strongly disagrees with:

 Hamilton’s paper is an attack on consequentialist justifications for geoengineering – attempts to use technology to try to manipulate the Earth’s climate in order to ameliorate the effects of climate change. He sees such attempts as part and parcel of a world view which springs from the Scientific Revolution. He tells us that: ‘The consequentialism of climate ethics is built on an unstated (and mostly unrecognized) understanding of the natural world, one that grew out of the Scientific Revolution in the 17th Century and the European Enlightenment philosophy that went with it.’ According to Hamilton, people who are in the grip of this scientific world view, including consequentialist philosophers, lack ‘humility in the face of nature’. The ground for this humility is, ‘… acceptance of our limitations in the face of the superior power, complexity and enigmatic character of the earth’. Hamilton sees the presumption that we might be able to ‘master’ nature as fundamentally misguided: ‘Climate engineering represents a conscious attempt to overcome resistance of the natural world to human domination …’, however, ‘… the sheer complexity and unpredictability of the natural world resists attempts at total mastery’.

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