responsibility

Sin Taxes and Biomarkers

            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

Prank Calls and Moral Luck

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

HARMFUL HEADLINES: The ethics of reporting health findings

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?

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Driving Crazy

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

‘Please drink responsibly’: voluntary intoxication and generating responsibilities

A scenario:

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?

 

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The will is caused, not free

By Brian Earp

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The will is caused, not free

Everyone is talking about free will these days. Sam Harris has a new book out. Eric MacDonald has weighed in on that. Jerry Coyne, Paul Bloom, and some philosopher-types have a debate going on in the Chronicle of Higher Education. And way back in 2009 the Society for Personality and Social Psychology hosted a “showdown” between psychologists Roy Baumeister and John Bargh on the topic: What does the ‘free’ in ‘free will’ really mean? [A video of Bargh’s half can be seen here. Baumeister is here.]

The SPSP conference led to a fiery exchange of blog posts between the two principles, and then to a more sedated pair of papers in the society’s newsletter, Dialogue. Baumeister enlisted Kathleen Vohs to co-author his piece, and Bargh (for some reason) enlisted me. Here is what Professor Bargh and I had to say — after this delightful FoxTrot comic by Bill Amend.

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Love and other drugs, or why parents should chemically enhance their marriages

By Brian Earp

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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.”

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10-year-old gets a tattoo, mother gets arrested

By Brian Earp

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Inking arms, piercing ears, and removing foreskins: The inconsistency of parental consent laws in the State of Georgia 

Gaquan Napier watched his older brother die in Acworth, Georgia after being hit by a speeding car. He was with him in those numbing final moments. And now Gaquan wants to keep his brother close to his own heart as he picks up the pieces and moves through life: in the form of a tattoo on his upper arm. Malik (that’s his brother’s name) plus the numbers from Malik’s old basketball jersey. Rest in peace. A memorial to his sibling and best friend, whose life was cut tragically short.

Gaquan is ten years old. So he asked his mother, Chuntera Napier, about the tattoo. She was moved by the request, by the sincerity and maturity of her son’s motivations. She assented. She took Gaquan to have the remembrance he wanted etched into his arm in ink.

Now stop the presses. Chuntera was arrested last week under child cruelty laws and for being party to a crime. Someone at Gaquan’s school had seen his tattoo and tattled to the authorities. But what was the offense?

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We ARE lords of the planet – that’s the problem

The lord of the manor is not a typical peasant, and doesn’t have the same responsibilities. Nowadays, it is quite fashionable to see humans as part of the natural world, part of a cycle of life, dependent on a nature that could eradicate us in an instant if it chose to. The truth is far less comforting.

We are the lords of the planet. Some have made the entertaining claim that we are not even a very successful species, that technological intelligence isn’t evolutionarily very useful. Yes, viruses and bacteria are wildly successful, cockroaches and beetles have the numbers and the resilience, and all our client species – species that profit from human existence, such as dogs, rats, cattle, wheat and rice – are doing well. We are not the Earth’s only evolutionary success story. But we are a success; we have a population of over 7 billion, dwarfing that of any other wild large mammal. We are reshaping the world on ever larger scales, changing the appearance of the whole planet (rarely for the better, of course). We’ve depopulated the oceans and lit up the sky at night. We’ve put men on the moon, and already have started building space stations, thus claiming an empty but huge ecological niche.

Yes, of course, if the whole natural system turned against us, if our agriculture collapsed or the Earth’s climate disintegrated, we couldn’t ride that out (though some day soon, we could probably even survive that). But the fact that the lord of the manor couldn’t survive if all the peasants revolted at once didn’t make him any less a lord, and them more than peasants.

I understand why people would wish for us to be part of the natural cycle; for if that were the case, then conservation and sustainability would be in our enlightened self-interest. And we could certainly make great improvements in how we log, mine and fish, thinking for the long term rather than the short. But a world in which humans followed their selfish but enlightened self interest, kept their own resources sustainable, their air breathable and their water drinkable, is still a world in which most natural species would be annihilated, and anything of not explicit worth for humans was destroyed. Human self-interest won’t save much of the planet.

Instead, we are the lord of the manor, with no possibility of shrugging that off or of calling a council of villagers to devolve power and decision-making. We need to explicitly decide what gets saved and what dies, what the limits of our exploitation will be, and what costs we are prepared to pay for that. Nature is now our responsibility.

Blaming victims, individuals or social structures?

When the Swedish politician Erik Hellsborn of the rather xenophobic Sweden Democrats party blogged that the massacre in Norway was really due to mass immigration and islamization that had driven the killer to extremes (link in Swedish), he of course set himself up for a harsh reprimand from the party chairman Jimmie Åkesson: “I do not share this analysis at all. One cannot blame individual human actions on social structures like this.”

While it is certainly politically rational for the party to try to distance themselves as far as they can from the mass-murderer Breivik (who mentioned them positively by name in his manifesto) this is of course a rather clear deviation from many previous comments from the party that do indeed seem to blame bad actions by people, such as terrorism, as due to Islam or other (foreign) social structures.

It is of course always enjoyable to see political movements you disagree with struggle with their internal contradictions. But this is an area where most of us do have problems: how much of the responsibility of an action do we assign to the individual doing it, and how much do we assign to the group the person belongs to?

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