philosophy

Making Ourselves Better

Written by Stephen Rainey

Human beings are sometimes seen as uniquely capable of enacting life plans and controlling our environment. Take technology, for instance; with it we make the world around us yield to our desires in various ways. Communication technologies, and global transport, for example, have the effect of practically shrinking a vast world, making hitherto impossible coordination possible among a global population. This contributes to a view of human-as-maker, or ‘homo faber‘. But taking such a view can risk minimising human interests that ought not to be ignored.

Homo faber is a future-oriented, adaptable, rational animal, whose efforts are aligned with her interests when she creates technology that enables a stable counteraction of natural circumstance. Whereas animals are typically seen to have well adapted responses to their environment, honed through generations of adaptation, human beings appear to have instead a general and adaptable skill that can emancipate them from material, external circumstances. We are bad at running away from danger, for instance, but good at building barriers to obviate the need to run. The protections this general, adaptable skill offer are inherently future-facing: humans seem to seek not to react to, but to control the environment.

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A Proposal for Addressing Language Inequality in Academia

Written by Anri Asagumo

Oxford Uehiro/St Cross Scholar

Although more and more people see the importance of diversity in academia, language diversity is one type of diversity that seems to be diminishing: English is increasingly dominant in both areas. I would like to argue that people who are born and raised in an English-speaking country should be required to acquire a second language to the level they can write a rudimentary paper and give a presentation in that language in order to apply for international conferences and submit papers to international journals. The purpose of this requirement would be to address the significant inequality between native English-speakers and others. I focus on academia here, but ideally the same thing should be applied to the business world, too. Continue reading

Cross Post: Philosophy Can Make the Previously Unthinkable Thinkable

Written by Dr Rebecca Brown

In the mid-1990s, Joseph Overton, a researcher at the US think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, proposed the idea of a ‘window’ of socially acceptable policies within any given domain. This came to be known as the Overton window of political possibilities. The job of think tanks, Overton proposed, was not directly to advocate particular policies, but to shift the window of possibilities so that previously unthinkable policy ideas – those shocking to the sensibilities of the time – become mainstream and part of the debate.

Overton’s insight was that there is little point advocating policies that are publicly unacceptable, since (almost) no politician will support them. Efforts are better spent, he argued, in shifting the debate so that such policies seem less radical and become more likely to receive support from sympathetic politicians. For instance, working to increase awareness of climate change might make future proposals to restrict the use of diesel cars more palatable, and ultimately more effective, than directly lobbying for a ban on such vehicles. Continue reading

Neuroblame?

Written by Stephen Rainey

Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), or brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), are technologies controlled directly by the brain. They are increasingly well known in terms of therapeutic contexts. We have probably all seen the remarkable advances in prosthetic limbs that can be controlled directly by the brain. Brain-controlled legs, arms, and hands allow natural-like mobility to be restored where limbs had been lost. Neuroprosthetic devices connected directly to the brain allow communication to be restored in cases where linguistic ability is impaired or missing.

It is often said that such devices are controlled ‘by thoughts’. This isn’t strictly true, as it is the brain that the devices read, not the mind. In a sense, unnatural patterns of neural activity must be realised to trigger and control devices. Producing the patterns is a learned behaviour – the brain is put to use by the device owner in order to operate it. This distinction between thought-reading and brain-reading might have important consequences for some conceivable scenarios. To think these through, we’ll indulge in a little bit of ‘science fiction prototyping’.

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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.

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Cross Post: Sacred Places and Traditions with Lea Ypi

Suppose a religious community regards a site – with, say, a stone circle – as sacred. It has for centuries been used as a place of prayer and contemplation. The land is owned by the state and they want to sell it off to build apartment blocks. You might think that the deep attachment the religious community has to this place of worship is what gives it some right to protect the site. But Lea Ypi of the London School of Economics, is not so sure.

Lea Ypi’s paper ‘Structural Injustice and the Place of Attachment’, was published in the Journal of Practical Ethics, Vol 5 No.1.

In response to her paper Lea Ypi has been interviewed by David Edmonds for the Philosophy 24/7 podcast series. The podcast is available here on the Philosophy 24/7 website

Lea Ypi is Professor in Political Theory in the Government Department, London School of Economics, and Adjunct Associate Professor in Philosophy at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University. Before joining the LSE, she was a Post-doctoral Prize Research Fellow at Nuffield College (Oxford) and a researcher at the European University Institute where she obtained her PhD. Her website is here.

2017 Annual Uehiro Lectures in Practical Ethics: Audio Recordings Now Available

We were extremely honoured to welcome Professor Larry Temkin (Rutgers University) to Oxford to deliver the 2017 Annual Uehiro Lectures on 6, 8 and 10 November.  The engaging lectures were fully booked well in advance, and were each followed by a lively discussion.  Continue reading

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)

 

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

INTRODUCTORY REMARKS
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

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