human rights

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.

Continue reading

Guest Post: The Real Problem With Human Head Transplantation

Written by Michael S. Dauber, MA

In 2015, Sergio Canavero announced that he would perform a therapeutic head transplant procedure on a human subject by December 2017. Since then, he has recruited the assistance of surgeon Xiaoping Ren and switched from Valery Spiridonov to an anonymous Chinese patient whose medical condition remains undisclosed. The procedure, which consists of removing the patient’s head and attaching it to a decapitated donor body, is expected to be carried out in China, will cost tens of millions of dollars, and will require dozens of surgeons. The procedure returned to international attention this week when Canavero announced he had successfully performed the procedure on a human cadaver, and said that the announcement of an official procedure date was “immanent.” Continue reading

Targeted Killing and Black Boxes

Written By Mitt Regan and Michael Robillard

            Various aspects of the US targeted killing program have attracted considerable attention and some criticism in philosophy and international law. One important aspect of the program that deserves more attention is how targeted killing reflects how the growing number of conflicts involving non-state actors are eroding conventions regarding the use of violence.  Those conventions are based on the paradigm of conflict between states waged by uniformed armed forces on segregated battlefields.  In such conflicts, an individual’s status as a member of the armed forces makes him/her liable to lethal force without examining his/her specific conduct.  Non-state actors, however, do not wear uniforms and seek to be indistinguishable from civilians.  What, then, should be the basis for their liability? Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Is Sex With Robots Rape? Written by Romy Eskens

This essay was the winner in the Graduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics 2017

Written by University of Oxford student, Romy Eskens

On The Permissibility of Consentless Sex With Robots

Recent movies and TV-series, such as Ex Machina and Westworld, have sparked popular interest in sex robots, which are embodied AI systems designed to provide sex for humans. Although for many it may seem absurd to think that humans will ever replace their human bedpartners with artificial machines, the first sexbots have already entered the commercial market. In 2010, TrueCompanion introduced Roxxxy, a sexbot with synthetic skin and an AI system that allows her to interact with her user through speech and affective communication. Another example of sexbots currently for sale are the RealDolls, which are silicone sexbots available in different models and upgradable with insertable faces and body parts. The question I address in this essay is: do humans require consent from sexbots for sexual activity to be permissible? Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: What Makes Discrimination Wrong? Written by Paul de Font-Reaulx

This essay was the winner in the Undergraduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics 2017

Written by University of Oxford student, Paul de Font-Reaulx


What makes discrimination wrong?

Most of us intuitively take discrimination based on gender or ethnicity to be impermissible because we have strong rights to be treated on the basis of merit and capacity rather than e.g. ethnicity or gender. I argue that, despite how this suggestion seems intuitive to most of us with a humanist perspective, it is indefensible. I show that well-informed discrimination can sometimes be permissible, and even morally required, meaning we cannot have absolute rights not to be discriminated against. In the last part I suggest an alternative account, arguing that acts of discrimination are wrong because they violate individuals’ weak right to be treated fairly and create negative externalities which – analogously to pollution – there is a collective responsibility to minimize. These results are counterintuitive, and require further attention. Continue reading

Cross Post: We have a moral obligation to allow drug analysis at music festivals

This article was originally published in The Conversation

Written by Julian Savulescu Sir Louis Matheson Distinguishing Visiting Professor at Monash University,

Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

Connor Rochford Medical Student, Monash University

Daniel D’Hotman Medical Student, Monash University

Drug analysis would be a safe, ethical and cost-effective way to reduce harm to young people. Shutterstock

At the Stereosonic festival last year, Sylvia Choi died after consuming a contaminated ecstasy tablet. Unfortunately Sylvia’s narrative is all too familiar – a bright future extinguished at a music festival that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

This summer, many young people will also choose to consume various illegal substances in pursuit of a good time. Regardless of their personal choice to break the law, most would agree that they should not have to die for it. Continue reading

In praise of ambivalence—“young” feminism, gender identity, and free speech

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine.


Alice Dreger, the historian of science, sex researcher, activist, and author of a much-discussed book of last year, has recently called attention to the loss of ambivalence as an acceptable attitude in contemporary politics and beyond. “Once upon a time,” she writes, “we were allowed to feel ambivalent about people. We were allowed to say, ‘I like what they did here, but that bit over there doesn’t thrill me so much.’ Those days are gone. Today the rule is that if someone—a scientist, a writer, a broadcaster, a politician—does one thing we don’t like, they’re dead to us.”

I’m going to suggest that this development leads to another kind of loss: the loss of our ability to work together, or better, learn from each other, despite intense disagreement over certain issues. Whether it’s because our opponent hails from a different political party, or voted differently on a key referendum, or thinks about economics or gun control or immigration or social values—or whatever—in a way we struggle to comprehend, our collective habit of shouting at each other with fingers stuffed in our ears has reached a breaking point.

It’s time to bring ambivalence back. Continue reading

Why is chemical castration being used on offenders in some countries?

Written by Dr Jonathan Pugh
This article was originally published on The Conversation
The answer for some. Shutterstock

Following a horrific act of sexual violence against a 14-year-old girl, the president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, recently signed a decree into law, which, among other things, authorised the death penalty for convicted child sex offenders, and also the use of chemical castration of such offenders.

The main justification cited by Widodo was that castration would act as a deterrent. But how do such interventions fit in the criminal justice system? Are they likely to be successful? Continue reading

Podcast: Justifications for Non-Consensual Medical Intervention: From Infectious Disease Control to Criminal Rehabilitation

Dr Jonathan Pugh’s St Cross Special Ethics Seminar on 12 November 2015 is now available at

Speaker: Dr Jonathan Pugh

Although a central tenet of medical ethics holds that it is permissible to perform a medical intervention on a competent individual only if that individual has given informed consent to that intervention, there are some circumstances in which it seems that this moral requirement may be trumped. For instance, in some circumstances, it might be claimed that it is morally permissible to carry out certain sorts of non-consensual interventions on competent individuals for the purpose of infectious disease control (IDC). In this paper, I shall explain how one might defend this practice, and consider the extent to which similar considerations might be invoked in favour of carrying out non-consensual medical interventions for the purposes of facilitating rehabilitation amongst criminal offenders. Having considered examples of non-consensual interventions in IDC that seem to be morally permissible, I shall describe two different moral frameworks that a defender of this practice might invoke in order to justify such interventions. I shall then identify five desiderata that can be used to guide the assessments of the moral permissibility of non-consensual IDC interventions on either kind of fundamental justification. Following this analysis, I shall consider how the justification of non-consensual interventions for the purpose of IDC compares to the justification of non-consensual interventions for the purpose of facilitating criminal rehabilitation, according to these five desiderata. I shall argue that the analysis I provide suggests that a plausible case can be made in favour of carrying out certain sorts of non-consensual interventions for the purpose facilitating rehabilitation amongst criminal offenders.

Guest Post: Vampire Judges and Blood Money: Blood Donation as Criminal Sanction?

Written by Christopher Chew

Monash University

Early one September morning, plaintiffs at a rural Alabama County court in the US, were greeted with an unexpected and highly unusual offer. To quote presiding Judge Marvin Wiggins:

“There’s a blood drive outside, and if you don’t have any money, and you don’t want to go to jail, as an option to pay it, you can give blood today…bring in a receipt indicating you gave blood…as a discount rather than putting you in jail…or the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money.” Continue reading


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