Last week, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that it would not pursue further action against Oxford Union president Ben Sullivan, due to insufficient evidence arising from an investigation into the two accusations of rape and attempted rape made against him. In early May, Sullivan was arrested and released on bail, prompting a chaotic six-week period for the Union as the Thames Valley Police investigated the claims made against him. After Sullivan refused to resign, a number of high-profile speakers, including the UK director of Human Rights Watch, the Interpol secretary-general, and a Nobel Peace prize winner, pulled out of their speaking commitments as part of a larger boycott of Union events.
In an open letter (which has since been taken down) calling for the boycott, students Sarah Pine, who is Oxford University Student Union’s Vice President for Women, and Helena Dollimor wrote, “Remaining in his presidency continues to offer prestige and power to someone who is being investigated for rape. This undermines the severe nature of allegations of sexual offences.” In contrast, Oxford professor A.C. Grayling penned a response to the letter refusing to cancel his scheduled talk at the Union, noting, “I simply cannot, in all conscience, allow myself to act only on the basis of allegations and suspicions, or of conviction by the kangaroo court of opinion, or trial by press…” In this post, I look at the spectrum of responses in the wake of Sullivan’s arrest, of which these two examples represent the poles. More broadly, I consider how we ought to respond – both as individuals and a society – when those in positions of power are accused of rape or other sexual offences. Continue reading
Complicity and Contraception: Rethinking Hobby Lobby’s Claim of ‘Substantial Burden on the Exercise of Religion’
Within the next month, the United States Supreme Court will decide whether for-profit corporations shall receive an exemption from providing certain types of contraceptives that are otherwise mandated for healthcare coverage by federal law to employees on the basis of the religious objections of the corporations’ owners. The two cases considered in tandem by the Supreme Court, Sebelius v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation v Sebelius (Hobby Lobby from here on out), feature a Christian-owned arts and crafts chain and a Mennonite Christian-owned furniture manufacturer, the owners of which object to four specific forms of birth control that they claim cause abortions.
In making their argument for an exemption, the claimants rely mainly on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed by Congress in 1993. The RFRA states, “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion…” unless “that application of the burden to the person – 1) is furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and 2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” This sets up three tests for judging the permissibility of a government act: the substantial burden test, the compelling interest test, and the least restrictive means test. For the claimants in Hobby Lobby to be successful under the RFRA, the Supreme Court would need to decide first that the government’s ‘contraception mandate’ is indeed a ‘substantial burden’ and second that the provision of contraception is both a compelling government interest and that employer based health insurance is the least restrictive method for securing that interest.
Scholars and journalists have taken various approaches in responding to the range of questions related to these three tests. However, I argue here that Hobby Lobby’s exemption claim can be denied without diving into this spectrum by showing that it fails to meet the first test: the government does not place a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood in its ‘contraception mandate.’ Continue reading
Stop killer robots now, UN asks: the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns has delivered a report about Lethal Autonomous Robots arguing that there should be a moratorium on the development of autonomous killing machines, at least until we can figure out the ethical and legal issues. He notes that LARs raise far-reaching concerns about the protection of life during war and peace, including whether they can comply with humanitarian and human rights law, how to device legal accountability, and “because robots should not have the power of life and death over human beings.”
Many of these issues have been discussed on this blog and elsewhere, but it is a nice comprehensive review of a number of issues brought up by the new technology. And while the machines do not yet have fully autonomous capabilities the distance to them is chillingly short: dismissing the issue as science fiction is myopic, especially given the slowness of actually reaching legal agreements. However, does it make sense to say that robots should not have the power of life and death over human beings?
The first two weeks of 2013 were marked by a flurry of news articles considering “the new science” of pedophilia. Alan Zarembo’s article for the Los Angeles Times focused on the increasing consensus among researchers that pedophilia is a biological predisposition similar to heterosexuality or homosexuality. Rachel Aviv’s piece for The New Yorker shed light upon the practice of ‘civil commitment’ in the US, a process by which inmates may be kept in jail past their release date if a panel decides that they are at risk of molesting a child (even if there is no evidence that they have in the past). The Guardian’s Jon Henley quoted sources suggesting that perhaps some pedophilic relationships aren’t all that harmful after all. And Rush Limbaugh chimed in comparing the ‘normalization’ of pedophilia to the historical increase in the acceptance of homosexuality, suggesting that recognizing pedophilia as a sexual orientation would be tantamount to condoning child molestation.
So what does it all mean? While most people I talked to in the wake of these stories (I include myself) were fascinated by the novel scientific evidence and the compelling profiles of self-described pedophiles presented in these articles, we all seemed to have a difficult time wrapping our minds around the ethical considerations at play. Why does it matter for our moral appraisal of pedophiles whether pedophilia is innate or acquired? Is it wrong to imprison someone for a terrible crime that they have not yet committed but are at a “high risk” of committing in the future? And if we say that we can’t “blame” pedophiles for their attraction to children because it is not their “fault” – they were “born this way” – is it problematic to condemn individuals for acting upon these (and other harmful) desires if it can be shown that poor impulse control is similarly genetically predisposed? While I don’t get around to fully answering most of these questions in the following post, my aim is to tease out the highly interrelated issues underlying these questions with the goal of working towards a framework by which the moral landscape of pedophilia can be understood. Continue reading
For years, ‘sin taxes’ – taxes on socially undesirable and/or addictive substances/activities like smoking, alcohol and gambling – have been a source of controversy. On the one hand, they have been seen as an effective means to raise revenue and reduce consumption of addictive (and generally unhealthy) substances. On the other hand, sin taxes are generally regressive and are rather paternalistic. But beyond these typical disputes, recent research has found a new and important dimension to the sin tax debate: genetics. A study by Jason Fletcher has found that whether or not taxes reduce cigarette consumption depends on the presence of a particular genotype. This suggests an interesting and novel policy: only apply the cigarette tax to those whose genotype indicates they will respond to the tax. But is this a sound policy, or should we be keeping biomarkers out of policy debates over sin taxes? Continue reading
An outburst of blame, vituperation, and indignation, including death threats from all over the world, has followed the sad suicide of a nurse who fell for a ‘prank call’ from two Australian DJs and unwittingly released confidential information about a member of the British royal family.
Some criticism might well be made of any person who engages in such deception for the purposes of entertainment, and the fact that the DJs’ actions were therefore not entirely ‘innocent’ has perhaps fuelled the flames of protest. But there is little doubt that they are being subjected to significantly more blame than many others who engage in similar stunts. Continue reading
Sabrina Stewart is a student at Dartmouth College who is visiting the Uehiro Centre this term.
Newspaper health sections yield many headlines and subsequent articles that do not accurately reflect the research publication that is being reported. One article, “Boozing after a heart attack could help you live longer, research reveals” discusses the finding that drinking after a heart attack is beneficial. The headline is at best misleading, and at worse deceptive: the article fails to report the specific frequency of consumption required to derive the stated benefits, the fact that the benefits would depend on the severity of the myocardial infarction, and that any benefit would be lost by intermittent binge drinking. The publication was significant as it was a large-scale study that complemented previous findings, and could therefore be expected to have an effect on people’s health decisions.
This article was taken from the Metro, a free newspaper distributed in London and the South-East of England targeted at commuters. The self-reported estimated readership is just under two million people. If this figure is accurate, The Metro has the third largest newspaper audience in the United Kingdom, after the Sun and the Daily Mail. This capacity to influence such a significant audience comes with responsibility.
There are various Codes of Practice governing the actions of researchers and doctors to ensure unbiased and truthful information is provided to patients and clinical trial participants in order to obtain informed consent. Why is health reporting not subject to the same strict regulation when it carries similar implications for shaping people’s choices regarding their well-being?
There has been discussion on a Polish news site about an extreme case of reckless driving. The discussion is not about the driver – his culpability and stupidity are in no doubt – rather, the discussion is about whether the passengers in the car should be punished in some way for the role they played; their role not only in failing to calm the driver and his driving, but most importantly in their active and enthusiastic encouragement of him and it.
The video of the drive, taken from within the car and uploaded to YouTube, shows five and a half minutes of speeding through red lights, overtaking despite oncoming traffic, using the curb as a ramp to ‘get air’ and, most disturbingly, only narrowly missing a pedestrian crossing the road. All this is accompanied by encouraging whoops and shouts and exclamations of “Karol, you are my God!” (Karol is the driver.) The passengers clearly want – and ask – Karol to take more and more risks. Continue reading
You are with a group of friends in a bar on a Friday night and one of them has had rather a lot to drink – much more than he usually does. He seems happy, despite slurring his words and taking a few moments to get his balance. But, as he slurs his goodbye at the door of the bar, it flashes through your mind that maybe you should walk him home. ‘Nah’, you think, ‘he’ll be fine’ – and he would certainly protest. Ten minutes later he stumbles and falls into the river and drowns. Did you have a duty to walk him home? What about the others in your group? Moreover, might that duty have been a legal one?