Autonomy

Video Interview: Richard Holton on Addiction

Is addiction within or beyond our control? What turns something into an addiction? What should we do (more of) to tackle addiction? In this interview with Dr Katrien Devolder (philosophy, Oxford), Professor Richard Holton (philosophy, Cambridge) discusses these questions.

 

Utilitarian Supervillains, Moral Enhancement, and Enforced Vegetarianism

By Hazem Zohny

 

Bad utilitarians make for great supervillains.

Take Thanos, the purple CGI nemesis the Avengers have to face this year in what feels like the gazillionth Marvel movie. In his sincere desire to reduce suffering, Thanos is trying to kill half of all life in the universe.

Like all utilitarian-type supervillains, he has presumably gotten his welfare-maximizing calculus very wrong. But it made me wonder what such a supervillain might look like if their calculus wasn’t so comically dim-witted. To that end, I’m going to discuss a character we can call Vegetarian Thanos.

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Addiction, Desire, and The Polluted Environment – Richard Holton’s 2nd Uehiro Lecture

By Jonathan Pugh

 

In the second of his three Uehiro lectures on the theme of ‘illness and the social self’, Richard Holton turned to the moral questions raised by addiction. In the first half of the lecture, he outlined an account of addictive behaviour according to which addictive substances disrupt the link between wanting and liking. In the second half of the lecture, he discusses the implications of this account for the moral significance of preferences, and for how we might structure environments to avoid triggering addictive desires.

 

You can find a recording of the lecture here

 

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Dementia and the Social Scaffold of Memory

By Jonathan Pugh

 

The number of individuals suffering with dementia is steadily increasing; as such, the moral issues raised by the neurodegenerative diseases that bring about the symptoms typifying dementia are of pressing practical concern. In this context, Richard Holton’s topic for the first of his three 2018 Uehiro lectures (on the theme “Illness and the Social Self”) is a timely one: What are the ethical implications of the progressive and pervasive loss of memory that is a central feature of dementia?

I shall be blogging a synopsis of each lecture in the series on the Practical Ethics blog – You can find a recording of the lecture here

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Video Series: Tom Douglas Defends the Chemical Castration of Sex Offenders

The Minister of Justice in the UK wants to dramatically increase the use of chemical castration in sex offenders to reduce their risk of reoffending.Dr Tom Douglas (University of Oxford) argues that offering chemical castration to sex offenders might be a better option than current practices to prevent sex offenders from reoffending (e.g. incarceration), and responds to concerns about coercion and interfering in sex offenders’ mental states (e.g. by changing their desires).

Should Iceland Ban Circumcision? A Legal and Ethical Analysis

By Lauren Notini and Brian D. Earp

*Note: a condensed version of this article titled “Iceland’s Proposed Circumcision Ban” is being cross-published at Pursuit.

 

For a small country, Iceland has had a big impact on global media coverage recently, following its proposed ban on male circumcision before an age of consent.

Iceland’s proposed legislation seeks to criminalise circumcision on male minors that is unnecessary “for health reasons,” stating individuals who remove “part or all of the sexual organs shall be imprisoned for up to 6 years.”

The bill claims circumcision violates children’s rights to “express their views on the issues [concerning them]” and “protection against traditions that are harmful.”

According to bill spokesperson Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir, a key reason for the bill is that all forms of female genital cutting (FGC), no matter how minor, have been illegal in Iceland since 2005, but no similar legislation exists for males.

“If we have laws banning circumcision for girls,” she said in an interview, then for consistency “we should do so for boys.” Consequently, the bill is not specific to male circumcision, but adapts the existing law banning FGC, changing “girls” to “children.”

There is much to unpack here. We first discuss self-determination and informed consent, before addressing claims about potential health benefits and harms. We then explore the religious significance of circumcision for some groups, and ask what implications this should have.

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Cross Post: The Discomforts of Being a Utilitarian

Written by Hazen Zohny 

Please note that this essay was originally published in Quillette Magazine.

 

The Discomforts of Being a Utilitarian 

I recently answered the nine questions that make up The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. My result: “You are very utilitarian! You might be Peter Singer.”

This provoked a complacent smile followed by a quick look around to ensure that nobody else had seen this result on my monitor. After all, outright utilitarians still risk being thought of as profoundly disturbed, or at least deeply misguided. It’s easy to see why: according to my answers, there are at least some (highly unusual) circumstances where I would support the torture of an innocent person or the mass deployment of political oppression.

Choosing the most utilitarian responses to these scenarios involves great discomfort. It is like being placed on a debating team and asked to defend a position you abhor. The idea of actually torturing individuals or oppressing dissent evokes a sense of disgust in me – and yet the scenarios in these dilemmas compel me not only to say such acts are permissible, they’re obligatory. Biting bullets is almost always uncomfortable, which goes a long way in explaining the lack of popularity utilitarianism enjoys. But this discomfort largely melts away once we recognize three caveats relevant to the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale and to moral dilemmas more generally.

The first of these relates to the somewhat misleading nature of these dilemmas. They are set up to appear as though you are being asked to imagine just one thing, like torturing someone to prevent a bomb going off, or killing a healthy patient to save five others. In reality, they are asking two things of you: imagining the scenario at hand, and imaging yourself to be a fundamentally different being – specifically, a being that is able to know with certainty the consequences of its actions.

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Video Series: Should We Pay People to Quit Smoking or Lose Weight?

Should we pay people to quit smoking or lose weight? Would paying them amount to coercion?  Is there a risk that if we start paying for healthy behaviour, its value will be corrupted? Is paying unhealthy people unfair to those who already lead healthy life styles? In this video interview (with Katrien Devolder),  Dr Rebecca Brown from the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics responds to these and other concerns and defends the use of financial incentives as a tool for health promotion.

Cross Post: Machine Learning and Medical Education: Impending Conflicts in Robotic Surgery

Guest Post by Nathan Hodson 

* Please note that this article is being cross-posted from the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog 

Research in robotics promises to revolutionize surgery. The Da Vinci system has already brought the first fruits of the revolution into the operating theater through remote controlled laparoscopic (or “keyhole”) surgery. New developments are going further, augmenting the human surgeon and moving toward a future with fully autonomous robotic surgeons. Through machine learning, these robotic surgeons will likely one day supersede their makers and ultimately squeeze human surgical trainees out of operating room.

This possibility raises new questions for those building and programming healthcare robots. In their recent essay entitled “Robot Autonomy for Surgery,” Michael Yip and Nikhil Das echoed a common assumption in health robotics research: “human surgeons [will] still play a large role in ensuring the safety of the patient.” If human surgical training is impaired by robotic surgery, however—as I argue it likely will be—then this safety net would not necessarily hold.

Imagine an operating theater. The autonomous robot surgeon makes an unorthodox move. The human surgeon observer is alarmed. As the surgeon reaches to take control, the robot issues an instruction: “Step away. Based on data from every single operation performed this year, by all automated robots around the world, the approach I am taking is the best.”

Should we trust the robot? Should we doubt the human expert? Shouldn’t we play it safe—but what would that mean in this scenario? Could such a future really materialize?

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Does Female Genital Mutilation Have Health Benefits? The Problem with Medicalizing Morality

Does Female Genital Mutilation Have Health Benefits? The Problem with Medicalizing Morality

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

Please note: this piece was originally published in Quillette Magazine.

 

Four members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Islam living in Detroit, Michigan have recently been indicted on charges of female genital mutilation (FGM). This is the first time the US government has prosecuted an “FGM” case since a federal law was passed in 1996. The world is watching to see how the case turns out.

A lot is at stake here. Multiculturalism, religious freedom, the limits of tolerance; the scope of children’s—and minority group—rights; the credibility of scientific research; even the very concept of “harm.”

To see how these pieces fit together, I need to describe the alleged crime.

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