Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Against Making a Difference

This essay was the winning entry in the undergraduate category of the 7th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Written by University of Oxford student Imogen Rivers 

I. The Complacency Argument

Some of the most serious wrongs are produced collectively. Can individuals bear moral responsibility for such outcomes? Suggestively, it’s been argued that “all who participate by their actions in processes that produce injustice [e.g. “sweatshop” labour] share responsibility for its remedy”;[1] “citizens… bear partial responsibility for the election outcome. Even if an individual’s vote is not decisive for a given candidate’s victory”;[2] “those who contribute to climate change… (by using… excessive… fossil fuels or by deforestation) should make amends”.[3]

However there’s a prevalent defence: it makes no (significant) difference if I do it. For example, “global warming will still occur even if I do not drive [my “gas-guzzler”] just for fun”;[4] “my polluting doesn’t actually harm anyone, since it doesn’t make a difference to anyone’s health”;[5] “why [should citizens] vote even if… each particular vote does not make a difference to the outcome”?;[6] “British officials… dismiss suggestions that our role on the ground in Saudi Arabia makes any difference [to targeting Yemeni civilians]”.[7]  Continue reading

Seminar Recordings: The Neuroscience of a Life Well-Lived

Audio and Video recordings of Professor Morten L. Kringlebach (Aarhus University, Denmark; University of Oxford) online St Cross Seminar (21 January 2021) are now available.

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Oxford Uehiro Centre Prize in Practical Ethics: ‘Rational Departure’: What Does Stoicism Reveal About Contemporary Attitudes Towards Suicide?

This essay received an honourable mention in the undergraduate category.

Written by Ed Lamb, St. Anne’s College


The Stoics’ approach to suicide appears to differ remarkably from our own. By contrasting these two views, I will explore why a difference in circumstances, epistemic claims, and value ascribed to life itself provides justification for our believing that suicide is wrong where the Stoics did not. I take suicide as the act of taking one’s own life both with intent and by using only one’s own capacities. After considering how the Stoic account of suicide brings into relief the reasons which lie behind our own view, I will outline two valuable insights which arise from the comparison: first, that the conditions many hold as required for euthanasia to be permissible are actually very similar to those the Stoics’ required for suicide; second, that the Stoics’ open and rational confrontation of mortality reveals how our own reticence towards it is tragically inadequate. Continue reading

Seminar Recordings: Towards a Plasticity of the Mind – New-ish Ethical Conundrums in Dementia Care, Treatment, and Research

Audio and video recordings of David Lyreskog’s online St Cross Seminar (25 February 2021) are now available.

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Cross-Post: Self-experimentation with vaccines

By Jonathan Pugh, Dominic Wilkinson and Julian Savulescu.

This is a crosspost from the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog.

This is an output of the UKRI Pandemic Ethics Accelerator project.


A group of citizen scientists has launched a non-profit, non-commercial organisation named ‘RaDVaC’, which aims to rapidly develop, produce, and self-administer an intranasally delivered COVID-19 vaccine. As an open source project, a white paper detailing RaDVaC’s vaccine rationale, design, materials, protocols, and testing is freely available online. This information can be used by others to manufacture and self-administer their own vaccines, using commercially available materials and equipment.

Self-experimentation in science is not new; indeed, the initial development of some vaccines depended on self-experimentation. Historically, self-experimentation has led to valuable discoveries. Barry Marshall famously shared the Nobel Prize in 2005 for his work on the role of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, and its role in gastritis –this research involved a self-experiment in 1984 that involved Marshall drinking a prepared mixture containing the bacteria, causing him to develop acute gastritis. This research, which shocked his colleagues at the time, eventually led to a fundamental change in the understanding of gastric ulcers, and they are now routinely treated with antibiotics. Today, self-experimentation is having something of a renaissance in the so-called bio-hacking community. But is self-experimentation to develop and test vaccinations ethical in the present pandemic? In this post we outline two arguments that might be invoked to defend such self-experimentation, and suggest that they are each subject to significant limitations. Continue reading

An Ethical Review of Hotel Quarantine Policies For International Arrivals

Written by:

Jonathan Pugh

Dominic Wilkinson

Julian Savulescu


This is an output of the UKRI Pandemic Ethics Accelerator project – it develops an earlier assessment of the English hotel quarantine policy, published by The Conversation)


The UK has announced that from 15th Feb, British and Irish nationals and others with residency rights travelling to England from ‘red list’ countries will have to quarantine in a government-sanctioned hotel for 10 days, at a personal cost of £1,750. Accommodation must be booked in advance, and individuals will be required to undergo two tests over the course of the quarantine period.

Failure to comply will carry strict penalties. Failing to quarantine in a designated hotel carries a fine of up to £10,000, and those who lie about visiting a red list country are liable to a 10-year prison sentence.

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Guest Post: What Is The Case For Virtual Schooling?

Written by Thomas Moller-Nielsen

News that children in England were to switch to online schooling as part of the country’s third national lockdown in response to the Covid-19 global pandemic was met with widespread support in the British press. Doctors, public health specialists, and even teaching unions similarly applauded the decision. (Nurseries, which have remained open during the latest lockdown period, have also been put under heavy pressure to close.)

The justification for the suspension of in-person schooling during this pandemic, however, is far from obvious. Indeed, there are at least two prima facie plausible reasons for scepticism. Firstly, children are far less susceptible to serious infection or death from Covid-19 than adults are. (While the precise figures are open to dispute, the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit at the University of Cambridge has estimated that the infection-fatality rate for 5-14 year-olds in England is 0.0013% – which is roughly 24 times smaller than the infection fatality rate for 25-44 year-olds, and approximately 9000 times smaller than the infection-fatality rate for 75+ year-olds.) Secondly, virtual schooling – in addition to being a poor substitute for in-person schooling – is widely recognized to be a key contributing factor in students’ increased feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety during the pandemic, and has been similarly linked to many physical paediatric disorders such as juvenile hypertension and obesity.

In other words, it seems that: (i) children are not in serious danger of being (directly) harmed by Covid-19; and (ii) children are in very real danger of being harmed by online schooling. Why, then, should students be required to attend virtual school? Continue reading

Consent Without Alternatives

Written by Ben Davies and Joshua Parker

“COVID-19: Do not resuscitate orders might have been put in place without consent, watchdog says”. This recent headline followed an investigation by the Care Quality Commission into Do Not Attempt Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) decisions early in the pandemic. In a recent post, Dominic Wilkinson highlights two misconceptions in the coverage of this report, one of which is the ‘consent misconception’.

Dominic’s view is that “there is no ethical requirement…to seek the agreement of patients not to offer or provide a treatment” which a medical professional judges inappropriate. Of course, his position is not that consultation and discussion around CPR is inappropriate, only that consent is not necessary. This is the standard view on consent in this context and, due in part to the Tracey judgment, reflects doctors’ practice. Thus, an important distinction emerges between consenting to the withholding of some treatment, and discussion of that decision. Doctors may be ethically required to discuss a decision without also having an obligation to seek the patient’s consent. The absence of consent, then, does not signal that the DNACPR was unethical, whereas a failure to consult probably will.

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Climbing the Pension Mountain: A Review of Michael Otsuka’s 2020 Uehiro Centre Lecture Series

Written by Professor Larry Locke (University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and LCC International University)

On three successive Tuesdays last November, Michael Otsuka of the London School of Economics delivered the annual Uehiro Centre Lecture Series.  The Series, entitled “How to Pool Risk Across Generations”, focused on the ethics of pension reform.  Otsuka attacked the real-world problem of low bond yields producing a crisis of pension funding with three alternative models.  Echoing Derek Parfit’s magisterial work, On What Matters, Otsuka presented his proposals as three alternative means for scaling the dangerous summit of pension obligations.

Otsuka’s proposals are important.  Ethics issues rarely come with this much money at stake.  In 2018, the Office of National Statistics published a study showing that UK pension schemes were underfunded by over £5 trillion .  That is an attention-grabbing number but not extraordinary in the context.  The Trustees of the US Social Security system recently published their 2020 report indicating this scheme alone anticipates a shortfall of US$16.8 trillion over the next 75 years.  Like scientists employing standard form when the numbers they use become too large to comprehend, the US Social Security Administration now refers to its shortfall in terms of percentages of total payroll taxes.

The proposals Otsuka has set forth are not amoral financial models.  Each involves shifting risk and responsibility among parties, and sometimes across generations, with diverse arguments as to the fairness of these shifts.  Any resulting pension system’s impact on lifestyles and liberty for workers, employers, and governments may strain the social contract between these groups and set them up for a potential fall. Continue reading

Guest Post: A Relentless Focus on the Given – Reviewing O. Carter Snead’s What it Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics

Guest Post by Charles Camosy

Professor Carter Snead, at least in my world, is about as important a contemporary voice in bioethics that we have today. A professor on Notre Dame’s law faculty, he is perhaps better known as director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture—one of the most significant positions in the United States for doing public bioethics. He was heavily involved in the topic before coming to Notre Dame, including when serving as general counsel to the President’s Council on Bioethics chaired by Leon Kass. He currently serves on the Pontifical Academy for Life and as an elected fellow of the Hastings Center.

When Professor Snead came out with a book on public bioethics from Harvard University Press this month, that became good reason for many of us to pay close attention—especially when Alasdair MacIntyre gave a back cover endorsement calling it “indispensable reading” whether “you agree or disagree with Snead’s perspective.” Indeed, Snead makes it clear that he’s not merely preaching to the choir in this book, but instead aiming at making his case to folks with  different perspectives in “the spirit of friendship” and “anchored in the firm belief that we can only govern ourselves wisely, humanly, and justly if we become the kind of people who can make each other’s goods our own.” Continue reading

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