Does Female Genital Mutilation Have Health Benefits? The Problem with Medicalizing Morality

Does Female Genital Mutilation Have Health Benefits? The Problem with Medicalizing Morality

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

Please note: this piece was originally published in Quillette Magazine.


Four members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Islam living in Detroit, Michigan have recently been indicted on charges of female genital mutilation (FGM). This is the first time the US government has prosecuted an “FGM” case since a federal law was passed in 1996. The world is watching to see how the case turns out.

A lot is at stake here. Multiculturalism, religious freedom, the limits of tolerance; the scope of children’s—and minority group—rights; the credibility of scientific research; even the very concept of “harm.”

To see how these pieces fit together, I need to describe the alleged crime.

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Can we trust research in science and medicine?

By Brian D. Earp  (@briandavidearp)

Readers of the Practical Ethics Blog might be interested in this series of short videos in which I discuss some of the major ongoing problems with research ethics and publication integrity in science and medicine. How much of the published literature is trustworthy? Why is peer review such a poor quality control mechanism? How can we judge whether someone is really an expert in a scientific area? What happens when empirical research gets polarized? Most of these are short – just a few minutes. Links below:

Why most published research probably is false

The politicization of science and the problem of expertise

Science’s publication bias problem – why negative results are important

Getting beyond accusations of being either “pro-science” or “anti-science”

Are we all scientific experts now? When to be skeptical about scientific claims, and when to defer to experts

Predatory open access publishers and why peer review is broken

The future of scientific peer review

Sloppy science going on at the CDC and WHO

Dogmas in science – how do they form?

Please note: this post will be cross-published with the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog.

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics:In It To Win It: Is Prize-giving Bad for Philosophy? Written by Rebecca Buxton

This essay received an Honorable Mention in the Graduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics 2017

Written by University of Oxford student, Rebecca Buxton

We live in a culture of prize-giving. The Nobel Prize, the Medal of Honour, the Man Booker and, not least, the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. But, in giving such prizes, and indeed prize money, we operate under the assumption that prizes are ‘good’. However, the fact that I am offered a prize for writing
a practical ethics paper is itself a practical ethical conundrum. This essay takes a preliminary amble into the ethical problem of prize-giving with regards to Philosophy specifically, offering reasons as to why we should question current practice. Primarily, I will define what we mean by the term ‘prize’ noting its
necessary and sufficient features. Secondly, I discuss the impact of prize-giving on research, considering how the ramifications of ascribing value through prizes affects the course of academia, especially when focusing on the lack of diverse voices within the subject. I then consider the deeper question of philosophical value: does the very act of constructing an ethical argument for a prize diminish the value of the work? Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Global Warming & Vegetarianism: What should I do, when what I do makes no difference? By Fergus Peace

This essay received an Honorable Mention in the Graduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics 2017

Written by University of Oxford student, Fergus Peace

  1. The Problem of Cumulative Impact

In large, integrated societies, some of the most important moral challenges we face can only be resolved by large-scale collective action. Global poverty and climate change are problems which won’t be solved unless large numbers of people act to address them.

One important part of our response to these problems is to avoid fallacious ‘futility thinking’, a cognitive bias which makes people less likely to act when they see the problem as being too large for them to solve. You aren’t going to end world poverty alone, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you should do about it. Your individual donations can make an enormous difference.

Other problems, however, are more philosophically and practically challenging. Sometimes morally significant outcomes are driven by an aggregate which your individual action is powerless to meaningfully affect. In these cases, it’s not just that your individual action won’t completely solve the problem: it won’t do any moral good at all. 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: IAI debate, ‘Doing Right and Feeling Good’

Zero Degrees of Empathy author Simon Baron-Cohen, philosopher Peter Dews and Oxford Transhumanist Anders Sandberg dispute how to be good.

We think empathising with others is the route to a better world. But studies show that empathy encourages us to help one named child over ten anonymous others. Is morality perhaps not about empathy at all? Does the moral way to act have more to do with thinking than feeling, or is empathy a vital force for good?

New Year resolutions and tripartite human nature

Written by Charles Foster

‘I do not understand my own actions’, grumbled St. Paul. ‘For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do….’1

That’s a fair summary of the evidence about the fate of New Year’s resolutions. The University of Hertfordshire psychologist, Richard Wiseman, found that only 10% of New Year’s resolutions succeed. Most of them are abandoned by 23 January. Continue reading

Functional neo-Aristotelianism as a way to preserve moral agency: A response to Dr William Casebeer’s lecture: The Neuroscience of Moral Agency

Written by Dr Anibal Monasterio Astobiza

Audio File of Dr Casebeer’s talk is available here:


Dr. William Casebeer has an unusual, but nonetheless very interesting, professional career. He retired from active duty as a US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and intelligence analyst. He obtained his PhD in Cognitive Science and Philosophy from University of California, San Diego, under the guidance and inspiration of Patricia and Paul Churchland, served as a Program Manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency from 2010-14 in the Defense Sciences Office and helped to established DARPA’s neuroethics program. Nowadays, Dr. William Casebeer is a Research Area Manager in Human Systems and Autonomy for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Laboratories. As I said, not the conventional path for a well known researcher with very prominent contributions in neuroethics and moral evolution. His book Natural Ethical Facts: Evolution, Connectionism, and Moral Cognition (MIT Press) presented a functional and neo-Aristotelian account of morality with a clever argument trying to solve G. E. Moore´s naturalistic fallacy: according to Casebeer it is possible to reduce what is good, or in other words morality, to natural facts.

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Guest Post: Mind the accountability gap: On the ethics of shared autonomy between humans and intelligent medical devices

Guest Post by Philipp Kellmeyer

Imagine you had epilepsy and, despite taking a daily cocktail of several anti-epileptic drugs, still suffered several seizures per week, some minor, some resulting in bruises and other injuries. The source of your epileptic seizures lies in a brain region that is important for language. Therefore, your neurologist told you, epilepsy surgery – removing brain tissue that has been identified as the source of seizures in continuous monitoring with intracranial electroencephalography (iEEG) – is not viable in your case because it would lead to permanent damage to your language ability.

There is however, says your neurologist, an innovative clinical trial under way that might reduce the frequency and severity of your seizures. In this trial, a new device is implanted in your head that contains an electrode array for recording your brain activity directly from the brain surface and for applying small electric shocks to interrupt an impending seizure.

The electrode array connects wirelessly to a small computer that analyses the information from the electrodes to assess your seizure risk at any given moment in order to decide when to administer an electric shock. The neurologist informs you that trials with similar devices have achieved a reduction in the frequency of severe seizures in 50% of patients so that there would be a good chance that you benefit from taking part in the trial.

Now, imagine you decided to participate in the trial and it turns out that the device comes with two options: In one setting, you get no feedback on your current seizure risk by the device and the decision when to administer an electric shock to prevent an impending seizure is taken solely by the device.

This keeps you completely out of the loop in terms of being able to modify your behaviour according to your seizure risk and – in a sense – relegates some autonomy of decision-making to the intelligent medical device inside your head.

In the other setting, the system comes with a “traffic light” that signals your current risk level for a seizure, with green indicating a low, yellow a medium, and red a high probability of a seizure. In case of an evolving seizure, the device may additionally warn you with an alarm tone. In this scenario, you are kept in the loop and you retain your capacity to modify your behavior accordingly, for example to step from a ladder or stop riding a bike when you are “in the red.”

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Video: Professor Julian Savulescu speaks in the DNA Manipulation Debate at The Oxford Union

The Oxford Union.

The Motion: This House Believes the Manipulation of Human DNA is an Ethical Necessity.

The Speakers: Julian Savulescu closed the case for the Proposition, as the fifth speaker of six in the debate.


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