public discourse

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

Three Black Teenagers

Written by Dr Joshua Shepherd

Yesterday the term ‘three black teenagers’ trended heavily on twitter. (see The trend began when @iBeKabir tweeted the results of two Google searches. A search for three white teenagers turned up images of wholesome smiling white teenagers. A search for three black teenagers turned up images of mugshots. (Google images is already going meta over the story, with Google images now turning up images of three black teenagers contrasted with three white teenagers.) Continue reading

Guest Post: Abortion, punishment and moral consistency

Written by: Rajiv Shah, PhD Candidate, Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge

Donald Trump suggested that women who have abortions should face punishment. For that he was criticised by both the pro-choice side and the pro-life side. The latter claimed that their view is that women should not face punishment for having abortions but that only providers should. This raises the interesting question of whether the pro-life position is coherent. It would seem that it is not. If the foetus has the right to life then having an abortion is like murder and so those who abort should be treated as such. This post argues that the pro-lifer can coherently reject this implication whilst still holding that the foetus has the right to life. Since it considers the responses a pro-lifer could make this post will assume for the sake of argument that the foetus does have a right to life. Continue reading

Announcement: New Publication: Philosophers Take On the World

Philosophers Take on the World book cover

Philosophers Take On the World is based on this blog, ‘Practical Ethics in the News’, and edited by David Edmonds. It is published by OUP and is due out in September 2016.

Every day the news shows us provoking stories about what’s going on in the world, about events which raise moral questions and problems. In Philosophers Take On the World a team of philosophers get to grips with a variety of these controversial issues, from the amusing to the shocking, in short, engaging, often controversial pieces. Covering topics from guns to abortion, the morality of drinking alone, hating a sports team, and being rude to cold callers, the essays will make you think again about the judgments we make on a daily basis and the ways in which we choose to conduct our lives.

This item is not yet published, but may be pre-ordered now for delivery when available.

Published: 01 September 2016 (Estimated)

ISBN: 9780198753728

Cross Post: Ideas for Australia: Rethinking funding and priorities in IVF – should the state pay for people to have babies?

Written by Professor Julian Savulescu and Professor Kelton Tremellen

This is a cross posting of an article which was originally published at The Conversation

How much should the state spend on helping people to have children? At present, government support for infertility treatment is approximately A$240 million a year. The success of fertility treatments such as IVF is good if you are under 35 years of age, but once a woman hits 40 it plummets, falling to an almost futile one-in-80 chance of producing a baby for women 45 years and older. This raises the question – is IVF a cost-effective use of taxpayers’ money? And what about for older women?

Decisions about funding are usually made on grounds of cost-effectiveness. In Australia, the cost-effectiveness threshold is about A$40,000 per “QALY”. A QALY is a quality adjusted life year. Thus the government will spend, for example, A$40,000 to add a year of full health, or improve the quality of life by 10% for 10 years.

Is IVF cost-effective? It depends on how we measure it. Continue reading

Response to Fergus Peace

Author: Neil Levy, Leverhulme Visiting Professor

Podcasts of Prof Levy’s Leverhulme Lectures can be found here:


Fergus Peace’s responses to my lecturers are interesting and challenging. As he notes, in my lectures I focused on two questions:

(1) are we (those of us with egalitarian explicit beliefs but conflicting implicit attitudes) racist?

(2) When those attitudes cause actions which seem appropriately to be characterized as racist (sexist, homophobic…), are we morally responsible for these actions (more precisely, for the fact that they can be classified in these morally laden terms)?

He suggests that these questions simply are not important ones to ask. Getting clear on how we ought to respond to implicit biases (what steps we ought to take to mitigate their effects or to eliminate them) matters, but asking whether a certain label attaches to us does not. Nor does it matter whether we are morally responsible for the actions these attitudes cause.

The first challenge seems to me to be a good one. I will discuss that challenge after I have discussed the question concerning our moral responsibility. This challenge seems very much weaker.

Continue reading

Why it matters if people are racist: A Response to Neil Levy’s Leverhulme Lectures

Author: Fergus Peace, BPhil student, University of Oxford

Podcasts of Prof. Levy’s Leverhulme lectures are available here:


It’s only a little more than forty years ago that George Wallace won the contest for Governor of Alabama by running ads with slogans like “Wake up Alabama! Blacks vow to take over Alabama” and “Do you want the black bloc electing your governor?” That year, 1970, 50% of people surveyed in the American South said they would never – under any circumstances – vote for a black President. By 2012, that number was down by 8%, and it’s hard to deny that open, avowed racism has been in steep decline for most of the last forty years. But even as people’s overt commitment to racism declines, experiments still show that black candidates are less likely to be given job interviews than equally qualified white candidates; African-Americans are still disproportionately likely to be imprisoned, or shot by police.

So what’s going on? That is the motivating puzzle of Professor Neil Levy’s Leverhulme Lectures, and his answer centres on an increasingly well-known but still very disturbing psychological phenomenon: implicit bias. There are a range of tests which have uncovered evidence of implicit negative attitudes held – by a majority of white Americans, but a sizeable number of black Americans too – against black people. Harvard University’s ‘Project Implicit’ has a series of Implicit Association Tests (IATs); Keith Payne, among others, has developed tests of what he calls the Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP). IATs ask us to sort faces and words according to their race and ‘valence’, and we find that task much easier when we have to associate black faces with negative words than we do otherwise. Tests of the AMP ask subjects to rate the pleasantness of an image which is entirely meaningless to them – a Chinese character, for people who don’t speak Chinese – and find that they rate it less pleasant if they’re shown an image of a black face immediately beforehand.

There’s no doubt these results are unsettling. (If you want to do an IAT online, as you should, you have to agree to receiving results you might disagree or be uncomfortable with before you proceed.) And they’re not just subconscious attitudes which are uncomfortable but insignificant; implicit bias as measured by these various tests is correlated with being less likely to vote for Barack Obama, and more likely to blame the black community for violence in protests against police brutality. Tests in virtual shooting ranges also reveal that it correlates with being more likely to shoot unarmed black men when given the task of shooting only those carrying weapons. Implicit biases certainly seem to cause, at least partly, racist actions and patterns of behaviour, like being quicker to shoot at unarmed black people and less likely to invite them for job interviews.

Professor Levy’s lectures grappled with two questions about these attitudes: first, do they make you a racist; and second, are you morally responsible for actions caused by your implicit biases? If you, like me, abhor racism and make that abhorrence at least some part of your political and social identity, but nonetheless come away with a “moderate automatic preference for European … compared to African” on the race IAT, then are you – protestations to the contrary – a racist? His answer to this question in the first lecture, based on the current state of conceptual investigation of what racism is and empirical evidence about the character of implicit biases, was a qualified no: they don’t clearly count as beliefs, or even as feelings, in a way that could let us confidently call people racist just because they possess them.

The second question is similarly complex. When interviewers prefer white applicants over equally qualified black ones, due to their implicit attitudes, are they responsible for the racist character of that action? Levy focused largely on the ‘control theory’ of moral responsibility, which says that you’re responsible for an action only if you exercise sufficient control over it. Levy’s answer to this question is a pretty clear no: implicit attitudes don’t have the right sort of attributes (in particular, reliable responsiveness to reasons and evidence) to count as giving you control over the actions they cause.

I find it very hard to disagree with the core of Professor Levy’s arguments on his two questions. The points I want to make in response come from a different direction, because after listening to the two lectures I’m not convinced that these are the important questions to be asking about implicit bias.

Continue reading

The unbearable asymmetry of bullshit

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine. The official version is forthcoming in the HealthWatch Newsletter; see


Science and medicine have done a lot for the world. Diseases have been eradicated, rockets have been sent to the moon, and convincing, causal explanations have been given for a whole range of formerly inscrutable phenomena. Notwithstanding recent concerns about sloppy research, small sample sizes, and challenges in replicating major findings—concerns I share and which I have written about at length — I still believe that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth. Or to put it a slightly different way (if I may paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous remark about democracy): it is perhaps the worst tool, except for all the rest.

Scientists are people too

In other words, science is flawed. And scientists are people too. While it is true that most scientists — at least the ones I know and work with — are hell-bent on getting things right, they are not therefore immune from human foibles. If they want to keep their jobs, at least, they must contend with a perverse “publish or perish” incentive structure that tends to reward flashy findings and high-volume “productivity” over painstaking, reliable research. On top of that, they have reputations to defend, egos to protect, and grants to pursue. They get tired. They get overwhelmed. They don’t always check their references, or even read what they cite. They have cognitive and emotional limitations, not to mention biases, like everyone else.

At the same time, as the psychologist Gary Marcus has recently put it, “it is facile to dismiss science itself. The most careful scientists, and the best science journalists, realize that all science is provisional. There will always be things that we haven’t figured out yet, and even some that we get wrong.” But science is not just about conclusions, he argues, which are occasionally (or even frequently) incorrect. Instead, “It’s about a methodology for investigation, which includes, at its core, a relentless drive towards questioning that which came before.” You can both “love science,” he concludes, “and question it.”

I agree with Marcus. In fact, I agree with him so much that I would like to go a step further: if you love science, you had better question it, and question it well, so it can live up to its potential.

And it is with that in mind that I bring up the subject of bullshit.

Continue reading

Reporting on a Recent Event: Conscience And Conscientious Objection In Healthcare Conference

The Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics (University of Oxford) and the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (Charles Sturt University) hosted a conference on conscientious objection in medicine and the role of conscience in healthcare practitioners’ decision making; The Conscience And Conscientious Objection In Healthcare Conference.  It was held at the Oxford Martin School on the 23rd and 24th of November, organised by Julian Savulescu (University of Oxford), Alberto Giubilini (Charles Sturt University) and Steve Clarke (Charles Sturt University)

For the full program please follow this link.

The conference was aimed at analyzing from a philosophical, ethical and legal perspective the meaning and the role of “conscience” in the healthcare profession. Conscientious objection by health professionals has become one of the most pressing problems in healthcare ethics. Health professionals are often required to perform activities that conflict with their own moral or religious beliefs (for example abortion). Their refusal can make it difficult for patients to have access to services they have a right to and, more in general, can create conflicts in the doctor-patient relationship. The widening of the medical options available today or in the near future is likely to sharpen these conflicts. Experts in bioethics, philosophy, law and medicine explored possible solutions.

The conference was supported by the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (DP 150102068). We are grateful to the Oxford Martin School for providing the venue for the conference.

On the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics website you will find both video and audio files of various commentaries and talks from the conference.

Psychology is not in crisis? Depends on what you mean by “crisis”

By Brian D. Earp

*Note that this article was originally published at the Huffington Post.


In the New York Times yesterday, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that “Psychology is Not in Crisis.” She is responding to the results of a large-scale initiative called the Reproducibility Project, published in Science magazine, which appeared to show that the findings from over 60 percent of a sample of 100 psychology studies did not hold up when independent labs attempted to replicate them.

She argues that “the failure to replicate is not a cause for alarm; in fact, it is a normal part of how science works.” To illustrate this point, she gives us the following scenario:

Suppose you have two well-designed, carefully run studies, A and B, that investigate the same phenomenon. They perform what appear to be identical experiments, and yet they reach opposite conclusions. Study A produces the predicted phenomenon, whereas Study B does not. We have a failure to replicate.

Does this mean that the phenomenon in question is necessarily illusory? Absolutely not. If the studies were well designed and executed, it is more likely that the phenomenon from Study A is true only under certain conditions. The scientist’s job now is to figure out what those conditions are, in order to form new and better hypotheses to test.

She’s making a pretty big assumption here, which is that the studies we’re interested in are “well-designed” and “carefully run.” But a major reason for the so-called “crisis” in psychology — and I’ll come back to the question of just what kind of crisis we’re really talking about (see my title) — is the fact that a very large number of not-well-designed, and not-carefully-run studies have been making it through peer review for decades.

Small sample sizes, sketchy statistical procedures, incomplete reporting of experiments, and so on, have been pretty convincingly shown to be widespread in the field of psychology (and in other fields as well), leading to the publication of a resource-wastingly large percentage of “false positives” (read: statistical noise that happens to look like a real result) in the literature.

Continue reading


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