ethics

Should Rhodes stay or should he go? On the ethics of removing controversial statues

This is an unedited version of an article originally published by The Conversation.

Picture this: it’s 20 April 2021 and the charming Austrian village of Braunau am Inn – Hitler’s birth place – reveals a new statue of Adolf Hitler on the main square. In his inauguration speech, the mayor stresses that although Hitler obviously did many immoral deeds, he also achieved some good things, such as building motorways and railroads, and advancing rocket science. With the new statue, the village wishes to commemorate Hitler’s valuable contributions to Germany and Austria, contributions from which many still reap benefits.

If this scenario were to occur,[1] it would cause a public outcry. It would be considered offensive and disrespectful towards Hitler’s victims and their families. It would also be seen as conveying implicit approval or tolerance of the atrocities that were committed in his name, perhaps making the village authorities complicit in the continuing stigmatisation of those same groups targeted by Hitler. In no time, the village would succumb to the pressure to take it down.

If there are good reasons not to erect a statue of Hitler, are there also good reasons to remove existing statues that some find problematic, such as that of the controversial British imperialist Cecil Rhodes?

In January, after months of heated debate and Rhodes Must Fall activism, Oxford University’s Oriel College decided to leave a statue of Rhodes on his pedestal at the front of the college. But protests are continuing against Oriel’s decision – mixed in with calls to remove statues of other controversial imperialist figures. Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: “What justifies parents’ influence on their children?” written by Yutang Jin

This essay was a finalist in the Graduate Category of the 2nd Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by University of Oxford Student, Yutang Jin

In a family, parents can exert enormous influence on their children. Parents tend to implant in their children’s mind, for good or ill, values and ideas which go on to guide their whole lives. This essay focuses on this relationship and discusses what justification we can have for parental influence over their children.

The dominant discourse in addressing the parent-child relationship is that of moral rights. I argue, however, that the liberal discourse of rights, sound as it may be, has lots of drawbacks that disqualify it from being a cogent account of family relationships. I then go on to craft a Confucian framework whereby to discuss how parents and children should behave to each other. My main argument is that parents’ influence is justifiable insofar as parents comply with moral rules that regulate their relationship with children, and these rules are subject to public justification and rectification. Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: “Should feminists in rich countries shift their focus to international development?” written by Carolina Flores Henrique

This essay is a joint winner in the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics undergraduate category.

Written by University of Oxford student, Carolina Flores Henrique

I will argue that feminists should move some of their attention to evidence-based, cost-effective interventions targeted at improving the lives of women in poor countries. In particular, feminists in rich countries should shift resources to supporting interventions that improve health (e.g. fistula treatment), allow women to make their own reproductive choices (e.g. contraception distribution), and empower women economically (e.g. direct cash transfers) in poor countries.
Feminists should fundraise for and donate to effective charities working in these cause areas; bring their skills to researching effective ways to improve women’s
health and economic standing in poor countries; and give more of a voice to women in poor countries and the obstacles they face.  Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Is Graffiti Ever Morally Permissible? written by Areti Theofilopoulou

 This essay received an Honourable Mention in the graduate category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by University of Oxford Dphil candidate Areti Theofilopoulou

 

Introduction

On March 4th 2015, the graffiti team “Icos & Case” covered the National Technical University of Athens with an enormous black and white mural[i]. The graffiti was viewed as a political statement regarding the country’s socioeconomic crisis. In fact, the University was chosen due to its history as a centre of resistance during Greece’s dictatorship. Although public opinion over the permissibility of the graffiti was divided, the media and the state overwhelmingly opposed it. Eventually, the state decided to remove it, claiming it was an act of vandalism.

This recent example gives rise to the following question: is graffiti ever morally permissible? In other words, are the actions of graffiti artists always blameworthy? Taking “graffiti” to mean writing or drawings created on a public building or other public surface, I will argue that, under certain circumstances, it is morally permissible. If we grant that all morally permissible actions should be legal, we may further conclude that governments should not prosecute graffiti artists. Even if one does not accept this corollary, however, the argument regarding permissibility still stands.

As addressing the issue of private property is not possible on this occasion, the discussion will be limited to graffiti on public buildings. Moreover, an abstract commitment to equality and liberty will be assumed. Continue reading

Naughty words What makes swear words so offensive? It’s not their meaning or even their sound. Is language itself a red herring here?

Dr Rebecca Roache, former Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics staff member, and lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, has recently published an essay on swearing in the online Aeon Magazine.  To read the full article and join in the conversation please follow this link: https://aeon.co/essays/where-does-swearing-get-its-power-and-how-should-we-use-it.  Dr Roache has previously spoken on this topic, as reported by Prof Roger Crisp on this blog.

 

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Should We Take Moral Advice From Our Computers? written by Mahmoud Ghanem

This essay received an Honourable Mention in the undergraduate category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Written by University of Oxford student, Mahmoud Ghanem

The Case For Computer Assisted Ethics

In the interest of rigour, I will avoid use of the phrase “Artificial Intelligence”, though many of the techniques I will discuss, namely statistical inference and automated theorem proving underpin most of what is described as “AI” today.

Whether we believe that the goal of moral actions ought to be to form good habits, to maximise some quality in the world, to follow the example of certain role models, or to adhere to some set of rules or guiding principles, a good case for consulting a well designed computer program in the process of making our moral decisions can be made. After all, the process of carrying out each of the above successfully at least requires:

(1) Access to relevant and accurate data, and

(2) The ability to draw accurate conclusions by analysing such data.

Both of which are things that computers are very good at. Continue reading

Announcement: 2nd Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Finalists and Honourable Mentions

The 2nd Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics was announced on this blog on the 11th November 2015.  By the 25th January 2016 a large number of high quality essays had been submitted and the judges had a difficult time narrowing the field down to 5 finalists and 6 Honourable Mentions, which are now listed here. We are very pleased to announce that over the next few weeks we will be publishing the essays listed below in our Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics series. Continue reading

Does the desire to punish have any place in modern justice?

Professor Neil Levy, visiting Leverhulme Lecturer, University of Oxford, has recently published a provocative essay at Aeon online magazine:

Human beings are a punitive species. Perhaps because we are social animals, and require the cooperation of others to achieve our goals, we are strongly disposed to punish those who take advantage of us. Those who ‘free-ride’, taking benefits to which they are not entitled, are subject to exclusion, the imposition of fines or harsher penalties. Wrongdoing arouses strong emotions in us, whether it is done to us, or to others. Our indignation and resentment have fuelled a dizzying variety of punitive practices – ostracism, branding, beheading, quartering, fining, and very many more. The details vary from place to place and time to culture but punishment has been a human universal, because it has been in our evolutionary interests. However, those evolutionary impulses are crude guides to how we should deal with offenders in contemporary society.

Our moral emotions fuel our impulses toward retribution. Retributivists believe that people should be punished because that’s what they deserve. Retributivism is not the only justification for punishment, of course. We also punish to deter others, to prevent the person offending again, and perhaps to rehabilitate the offender. But these consequentialist grounds alone cannot justify our current system of criminal justice. We want punishments to ‘fit the crime’ – the worse the crime, the worse the punishment – without regard for the evidence of whether it ‘works’, that is, without thinking about punishment in consequentialist terms.

See here for the full article, and to join in the conversation.

Professor Levy has also written on this topic in the Journal of Practical Ethics; Less Blame, Less Crime? The Practical Implications of Moral Responsibility Skepticism.

Using birth control to combat Zika virus could affect future generations

Written by Simon Beard
Research Fellow in Philosophy, Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford

This is a cross post of an article which originally appeared in The Conversation.

In a recent article, Oxford University’s director of medical ethics, Dominic Wilkinson, argued that birth control was a key way of tackling the Zika virus’s apparently devastating effects on unborn children – a strategy that comes with the extra benefit of meeting the need for reproductive health across much of the affected areas.

However, although this approach might be one solution to a medical issue, it doesn’t consider the demographic implications of delaying pregnancy on such an unprecedented scale – some of which could have a significant impact on people and societies. Continue reading

The unbearable asymmetry of bullshit

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine. The official version is forthcoming in the HealthWatch Newsletter; see http://www.healthwatch-uk.org/.

Introduction

Science and medicine have done a lot for the world. Diseases have been eradicated, rockets have been sent to the moon, and convincing, causal explanations have been given for a whole range of formerly inscrutable phenomena. Notwithstanding recent concerns about sloppy research, small sample sizes, and challenges in replicating major findings—concerns I share and which I have written about at length — I still believe that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth. Or to put it a slightly different way (if I may paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous remark about democracy): it is perhaps the worst tool, except for all the rest.

Scientists are people too

In other words, science is flawed. And scientists are people too. While it is true that most scientists — at least the ones I know and work with — are hell-bent on getting things right, they are not therefore immune from human foibles. If they want to keep their jobs, at least, they must contend with a perverse “publish or perish” incentive structure that tends to reward flashy findings and high-volume “productivity” over painstaking, reliable research. On top of that, they have reputations to defend, egos to protect, and grants to pursue. They get tired. They get overwhelmed. They don’t always check their references, or even read what they cite. They have cognitive and emotional limitations, not to mention biases, like everyone else.

At the same time, as the psychologist Gary Marcus has recently put it, “it is facile to dismiss science itself. The most careful scientists, and the best science journalists, realize that all science is provisional. There will always be things that we haven’t figured out yet, and even some that we get wrong.” But science is not just about conclusions, he argues, which are occasionally (or even frequently) incorrect. Instead, “It’s about a methodology for investigation, which includes, at its core, a relentless drive towards questioning that which came before.” You can both “love science,” he concludes, “and question it.”

I agree with Marcus. In fact, I agree with him so much that I would like to go a step further: if you love science, you had better question it, and question it well, so it can live up to its potential.

And it is with that in mind that I bring up the subject of bullshit.

Continue reading

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