Things I’ve learned (so far) about how to do practical ethics
I had the opportunity, a few months back, to look through some old poems I’d written in high school. Some, I thought, were pretty good. Others I remembered thinking were good when I wrote them, but now they seem embarrassingly bad: pseudo-profound, full of clichés, marked by empty rhetoric instead of meaningful content. I’ve had a similar experience today with my collection of articles here at the Practical Ethics blog. And Oh, the things I have learned!
Here are just a few of the lessons that have altered my thinking, or otherwise informed my views about “doing” practical ethics — particularly in a public-engagement context — since my very first blog post appeared in 2011:
The first systematic study investigating the effects of caffeine on human performance – sponsored by Coca-Cola – has been published about 100 years ago. Since then, thousands of other studies have been looking at if and in which ways caffeine improves cognitive performance. This question is still debated in science, but there is general consensus that caffeine can be seen as an enhancer for specific functions like mood, attention, concentration and reaction time. These enhancement effects have been shown in studies with the general set-up that participants first took caffeine and then did a performance task. This matches our everyday representation of “wise” caffeine use: if I wanted to enhance my performance with caffeine, I’d take it immediately before the “critical situation”, for example an exam.
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: Neuroscience. Proposals for open peer commentaries are due this Monday October 7th.
The article may be accessed here, or at the following link: http://editorial.bioethics.net. 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 http://editorial.bioethics.net. 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.
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There has recently been a spate of news stories about animals grieving. The Huffington Post features a video of a dog burying a dead puppy, New York Daily News reports a dog and a cat mourning the death of a dog, and a video entitled ‘Bella (dog) mourns death of Beavis (beaver)’ recently went viral. There are great contradictions in the way in which we, as a society, view the capacity of animals to experience mental states comparable to those enjoyed by humans. On the one hand, many of us love and share our lives and homes with animals (I am currently battling for space on my keyboard with our black and white cat, Wellie). On the other hand, we humans very often treat animals as nothing more than tools to serve our own ends—and even the UK, a country with relatively strict animal welfare legislation, permits animals to be subjected to conditions akin to a hell on earth in the name of scientific research, intensive farming, and pest control.
Scepticism about the capacity of animals to experience conscious mental states like suffering—let alone more complex ones like grief—is most often associated with the influence of Descartes. Optimists may have reason to hope that scientific evidence about the mental lives of animals will soon extinguish such scepticism: last year a group of eminent neuroscientists published the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which proclaims that humans are not alone in possessing consciousness (for a discussion of the Declaration, see here). Science, it seems, may hold the key to improving the way animals are treated. Continue reading
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Scientific discoveries about how our behaviour is causally influenced often prompt the question of whether we have free will (for a general discussion, see here). This month, for example, the psychologist and criminologist Adrian Raine has been promoting his new book, The Anatomy of Violence, in which he argues that there are neuroscientific explanations of the behaviour of violent criminals. He argues that these explanations might be taken into account during sentencing, since they show that such criminals cannot control their violent behaviour to the same extent that (relatively) non-violent people can, and therefore that these criminals have reduced moral responsibility for their crimes. Our criminal justice system, along with our conceptions of praise and blame, and moral responsibility more generally, all presuppose that we have free will. If science can reveal it to be an illusion, some of the most fundamental features of our society are undermined.
The questions of exactly what free will is, and whether and how it can accommodate scientific discoveries about the causes of our behaviour, are primarily theoretical philosophical questions. Questions of theoretical philosophy—for example, those relating to metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind and language—are rarely viewed as highly relevant to people’s day-to-day lives (unlike questions of practical philosophy, such as those relating to ethics and morality). However, it turns out that the beliefs that people hold about free will are relevant. In the last five years, empirical evidence has linked reduced belief in free will with an increased willingness to cheat,1 increased aggression and reduced helpfulness,2 and reduced job performance.3 Even the way that the brain prepares for action differs depending on whether or not one believes in free will.4 If the results of these studies apply at a societal level, we should be very concerned about promoting the view that we do not have free will. But what can we do about it? Continue reading
Studies have shown that regular physical activity has benefits for mental health: exercise can help people to recover from depression and anxiety disorders. However, not all people like exercise, and a mental disorder like depression can additionally decrease motivation for physical activity. So the disorder itself might inhibit behaviour that helps to overcome it.
We would assume that pressurising people is no solution here: several studies have shown that restricting freedom of choice or control increases stress in both humans and animals. However, new research tentatively indicates that controllability might play a smaller role than expected when it comes to exercise, and that even forced exercise might protect against depression and anxiety symptoms:
By Brian Earp
Love and other drugs, or why parents should chemically enhance their marriages
Valentine’s day has passed, and along with it the usual rush of articles on “the neuroscience of love” – such as this one from Parade magazine. The penner of this particular piece, Judith Newman, sums up the relevant research like this:
It turns out that love truly is a chemical reaction. Researchers using MRIs to look at the brain activity of the smitten have found that an interplay of hormones and neurotransmitters create the state we call love.
My humble reckoning is that there’s more to “the state we call love” than hormones and neurotransmitters, but it’s true that brain chemistry is heavily involved in shaping our experience of amour. In fact, we’re beginning to understand quite a bit about the cerebral circuitry involved in love, lust, and human attachment—so much so that a couple of Oxford philosophers have been inspired to suggest something pretty radical.
They think that it’s time we shifted from merely describing this circuitry, and actually intervened in it directly—by altering our brains pharmacologically, through the use of what they call “love drugs.”