Beyond 23andMe’s Shutdown: The Role of the FDA in the Future of Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing

Kyle Edwards, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and The Ethox Centre, University of Oxford

Caroline Huang, The Ethox Centre, University of Oxford

An article based on this blog post has now been published in the May – June 2014 Hastings Center Report: Please check out our more developed thoughts on this topic there!

Could ad hominem arguments sometimes be OK?

By Brian D. Earp

Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.

Could ad hominem arguments sometimes be OK? 

You aren’t supposed to make ad hominem arguments in academic papers — maybe not anywhere. To get us on the same page, here’s a quick blurb from Wikipedia:

An ad hominem (Latin for “to the man” or “to the person”), short for argumentum ad hominem, is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Ad hominem reasoning is normally categorized as an informal fallacy, more precisely as a genetic fallacy, a subcategory of fallacies of irrelevance.

Some initial thoughts. First, there are some clear cut cases where an ad hominem argument is plainly worthless and simply distracting: it doesn’t help us understand things better; it doesn’t wend toward truth. Let’s say that a philosopher makes an argument, X, concerning (say) abortion; and her opponent points out that the philosopher is (say) a known tax cheat — an attempt to discredit her character. Useless. But let’s say that a psychologist makes an argument, Y, about race and IQ (i.e., that black people are less “intelligent” than white people), and his opponent points out that he used to be a member of the KKK. Well, it’s still useless in one sense, in that the psychologist’s prior membership in the KKK can’t by itself disprove his argument; but it does seem useful in another sense, in that it might give us at least a plausible reason to be a little bit more cautious in interpreting the psychologist’s results.

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What Fuels the Fighting: Disagreement over Facts or Values?

In a particularly eye-catching pull quote in the November issue of The Atlantic, journalist and scholar Robert Wright claims, “The world’s gravest conflicts are not over ethical principles or disputed values but over disputed facts.”[1]

The essay, called “Why We Fight – And Can We Stop?” in the print version and “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality” in the online version, reviews new research by psychologists Joshua Greene and Paul Bloom on the biological foundations of our moral impulses. Focusing mainly on Greene’s newest book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, Wright details Greene’s proposed solution to the rampant group conflict we see both domestically and internationally. Suggesting that we are evolutionarily wired to cooperate or ‘get along’ with members of groups to which we belong, Greene identifies the key cause of fighting as different groups’ “incompatible visions of what a moral society should be.”[2] And his answer is to strive for a ‘metamorality’ – a universally shared moral perspective (he suggests utilitarianism) that would create a global in-group thus facilitating cooperation.

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Announcement: “Brave New Love” in AJOB:Neuroscience – peer commentaries due October 7

Announcement: “Brave New Love” – peer commentaries due October 7

Dear Practical Ethics readers,

The paper, “Brave new love: the threat of high-tech ‘conversion’ therapy and the bio-oppression of sexual minorities” by Brian D. Earp, Anders Sandberg, and Julian Savulescu has been accepted for publication in the American Journal of Bioethics: NeuroscienceProposals for open peer commentaries are due this Monday October 7th.

The article may be accessed here, or at the following link: Be sure to select AJOB:Neuroscience from the drop-down menu of journals. Here is an abstract of the argument:


Abstract: Our understanding of the neurochemical bases of human love and attachment, as well as of the genetic, epigenetic, hormonal, and experiential factors that conspire to shape an individual’s sexual orientation, is increasing exponentially. This research raises the vexing possibility that we may one day be equipped to modify such variables directly, allowing for the creation of “high-tech” conversion therapies or other suspect interventions. In this paper, we discuss the ethics surrounding such a possibility, and call for the development of legal and procedural safeguards for protecting vulnerable children from the application of such technology. We also consider the more difficult case of voluntary, adult “conversion” and argue that in rare cases, such attempts might be permissible under strict conditions.


Open Peer Commentary articles are typically between 500-1500 words and contain no more than 10 references. A guide to writing an Open Peer Commentary is available under the Resources section “Instructions and Forms” at AJOB:Neuroscience asks that by Monday, October 7, 2013 you submit a short summary of your proposed Open Peer Commentary (no more than 1-2 paragraphs). Please submit your proposal online via the AJOB:Neuroscience Editorial site, following the instructions provided there. They ask that you do not prepare a full commentary yet. Once they have evaluated your proposal, they will contact you via email to let you know whether or not they were able to include you on the final list of those to be asked to submit an Open Peer Commentary.

You will then have until Friday, October 25, 2013 to submit your full Open Peer Commentary.


How to get positive surveillance – a few ideas

I recently published an article on the possible upsides of mass surveillance (somewhat in the vein of David Brin’s “transparent society”). To nobody’s great astonishment, it has attracted criticism! Some of them accuse me of not knowing the negative aspects of surveillance. But that was not the article’s point; there is already a lot written on the negative aspects (Bruce Schneier and Cory Doctorow, for instance, have covered this extremely well). Others make the point that though these benefits may be conceivable in principle, I haven’t shown how they could be obtained in practice.

Again, that wasn’t the point of the article. But it’s a fair criticism – what can we do today to make a better surveillance outcomes more likely? Since I didn’t have space to go through that in my article, here are a few suggestions: Continue reading

Twitter, paywalls, and access to scholarship — are license agreements too restrictive?

By Brian D. Earp

Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.

Twitter, paywalls, and access to scholarship — are license agreements too restrictive? 

I think I may have done something unethical today. But I’m not quite sure, dear reader, so I’m enlisting your energy to help me think things through. Here’s the short story:

Someone posted a link to an interesting-looking article by Caroline Williams at New Scientist – on the “myth” that we should live and eat like cavemen in order to match our lifestyle to that of our evolutionary ancestors, and thereby maximize health. Now, I assume that when you click on the link I just gave you (unless you’re a New Scientist subscriber), you get a short little blurb from the beginning of the article and then–of course–it dissolves into an ellipsis as soon as things start to get interesting:

Our bodies didn’t evolve for lying on a sofa watching TV and eating chips and ice cream. They evolved for running around hunting game and gathering fruit and vegetables. So, the myth goes, we’d all be a lot healthier if we lived and ate more like our ancestors. This “evolutionary discordance hypothesis” was first put forward in 1985 by medic S. Boyd Eaton and anthropologist Melvin Konner …

Holy crap! The “evolutionary discordance hypothesis” is a myth? I hope not, because I’ve been using some similar ideas in a lot of my arguments about neuroenhancement recently. So I thought I should really plunge forward and read the rest of the article. Unfortunately, I don’t have a subscription to New Scientist, and when I logged into my Oxford VPN-thingy, I discovered that Oxford doesn’t have access either. Weird. What was I to do?

Since I typically have at least one eye glued to my Twitter account, it occurred to me that I could send a quick tweet around to check if anyone had the PDF and would be willing to send it to me in an email. The majority of my “followers” are fellow academics, and I’ve seen this strategy play out before — usually when someone’s institutional log-in isn’t working, or when a key article is behind a pay-wall at one of those big “bundling” publishers that everyone seems to hold in such low regard. Another tack would be to dash off an email to a couple of colleagues of mine, and I could “CC” the five or six others who seem likeliest to be New Scientist subscribers. In any case, I went for the tweet.

Sure enough, an hour or so later, a chemist friend of mine sent me a message to “check my email” and there was the PDF of the “caveman” article, just waiting to be devoured. I read it. It turns out that the “evolutionary discordance hypothesis” is basically safe and sound, although it may need some tweaking and updates. Phew. On to other things.

But then something interesting happened! Whoever it is that manages the New Scientist Twitter account suddenly shows up in my Twitter feed with a couple of carefully-worded replies to my earlier PDF-seeking hail-mary:

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In the genetic supermarket, should parents be allowed to buy?

Imagine a world in which genetic interventions (for hair/eye colour, health, strength, happiness, morality…) were tested, safe, effective and accepted. In this genetic supermarket, who should be allowed to buy – to decide how children should be modified? Parents seem the obvious choice – but on reflection, there seem few reasons to allow this.

Why is it good for people to make their own choices? Firstly, out of liberty: everyone should have the right to do what they want with themselves. Secondly, because people know their own preferences much better than anyone else (one of the reasons that the communist command economies failed). And thirdly because people can experience the consequences of their choices, and become more skilled consumers, driving poor products out of business.

None of these applies to parents choosing their children’s genes. Here they are making the choice for other people, whose preferences they don’t know (because they don’t even exist yet!). And unless parents plan to have ten or twenty children, they have no relevant personal experience to draw on for comparing genetic interventions. And the main effects of these interventions are very long term, making the parents even less suited to making the choice in an informed way. Continue reading

Ethics In Finance: A New Financial Theory For A Post-Financialized World

On Thursday 30 May, Dr Kara Tan Bhala from University of Kansas treated lecturees at St Cross to a crash course in Modern Finance Theory (MFT) and its limitations. Guiding listeners through weighty acronyms and weightier formulae spiked with Greek alphabetical symbols, she deftly dispatched MFT with the following:

  • that economic agents are non-rational;
  • that fairness plays a part in finance; and
  • that in our post-financialised word,  “homo economicus” (some kind of Thatcherite love-child I wondered idly?) is well and truly an endangered species.

She went state her self-admittedly “quixotic” mission for an altered financial theory which properly accounts for, or exposes an underlying ethics and morality. As she envisaged it, this mission is at once 1) an addition to MFT such that it also includes principles of ethics (let’s call this MFT-plus) and 2) the creation of a new financial theory which is based on MFT-plus and principles from two other theories, Islamic finance and behavioural finance. This would unite the forecasting functionality (such as it is) and ethics of MFT-plus, the “unapologetically ethical” and community-beneficial values of Islamic finance, and the psychological sensitivity of behavioural finance.

It is to Dr Tan Bhala’s credit that such a mission has led to her leaving her own presumably highly lucrative and powerful positions in the finance world, in order to set up a global think-tank, the Seven Pillars Institute for Global Finance and Ethics. However, there is clearly a lot to think about, as demonstrated by questions following the lecture.

She met with a passionate reception from a varied audience comprising ethicists, philosophers, financiers and associates of big pharma. The usefulness of Islamic Finance Theory was questioned given that its application in many Islamic states wreaks an apparent gaping inequality of wealth and power. So too, questioners were uncomfortable with the retention of MFT in Tan Bhala’s mission, it having been shown by Tan Bhala herself to be an inadequate quantitative and forecasting agent. It was unclear therefore whether her mission will be to bin MFT completely, or propose a radical alteration, but in either case it was clear the struggle will be gigantic (windmill-tilting, anyone?)

The discussion moved onto telos, with agreement that the free market economic model has not been allowed to express its natural purpose or telos, multiple financial crises having been patched by governments and thus persisting the current (dysfunctional) model. Questioners argued that until the telos of the free market is allowed true expression, and is allowed to fail, change will be highly difficult. When asked whether such change could be fomented by academia, the speaker’s own experience was disheartening: namely censorship by her institution of the teaching of novel financial theories.

With the speaker showing no sign of tiring, but the resonance of this sobering thought being felt, here ended the discussion.  This blogger concludes that when moral and financial bankruptcy have the (market) freedom to collide, the field will be fertile for development of a value-enriched financial system. Until then it is up to organisations such as the Seven Pillars Institute to take to that field with all the chivalric heroism they can muster – may the sparring commence!

Audio file available here.

The St Cross Special Ethics seminars are hosted by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. They are held twice-termly at the college. For more details click here.

Cry havoc and let slip the robots of war?

Stop killer robots now, UN asks: the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns has delivered a report about Lethal Autonomous Robots arguing that there should be a moratorium on the development of autonomous killing machines, at least until we can figure out the ethical and legal issues. He notes that LARs raise far-reaching concerns about the protection of life during war and peace, including whether they can comply with humanitarian and human rights law, how to device legal accountability, and “because robots should not have the power of life and death over human beings.”

Many of these issues have been discussed on this blog and elsewhere, but it is a nice comprehensive review of a number of issues brought up by the new technology. And while the machines do not yet have fully autonomous capabilities the distance to them is chillingly short: dismissing the issue as science fiction is myopic, especially given the slowness of actually reaching legal agreements. However, does it make sense to say that robots should not have the power of life and death over human beings?

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Cultural bias and the evaluation of medical evidence: An update on the AAP

By Brian D. Earp

Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.

Cultural bias and the evaluation of medical evidence: An update on the AAP

Since my article on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent change in policy regarding infant male circumcision was posted back in August of 2012, some interesting developments have come about. Two major critiques of the AAP documents were published in leading international journals, one in the Journal of Medical Ethics, and a second in the AAP’s very own PediatricsIn the second of these, 38 distinguished pediatricians, pediatric surgeons, urologists, medical ethicists, and heads of hospital boards and children’s health societies throughout Europe and Canada argued that there is: “Cultural Bias in the AAP’s 2012 Technical Report and Policy Statement on Male Circumcision.”

The AAP took the time to respond to this possibility in a formal reply, also published in Pediatrics earlier this year. Rather than thoughtfully addressing the specific charge of cultural bias, however, the AAP elected to boomerang the criticism, implying that their critics were themselves biased, only against circumcision. To address this interesting allegation, I have updated my original blog post. Interested readers can click here to see my analysis.

Finally, please note that articles from the Journal of Medical Ethics special issue on circumcision are (at long last) beginning to appear online. The print issue will follow shortly. Also be sure to see this recent critique of the AAP in a thoughtful book by JME contributor and medical historian Dr. Robert Darby, entitled: “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Why Can’t the US Stop Circumcising Boys?”

– BDE