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Coronavirus: Dark Clouds, But Some Silver Linings?

By Charles Foster

Cross posted from The Conversation

To be clear, and in the hope of heading off some trolls, two observations. First: of course I don’t welcome the epidemic. It will cause death, worry, inconvenience and great physical and economic suffering. Lives and livelihoods will be destroyed. The burden will fall disproportionately on the old, the weak and the poor.

And second: these suggestions are rather trite. They should be obvious to reasonably reflective people of average moral sensibility.

That said, here goes:

1. It will make us realise that national boundaries are artificial

The virus doesn’t carry a passport or recognise frontiers. The only way of stopping its spread would be to shut borders wholly, and not even the most rabid nationalists advocate that. It would mean declaring that nations were prisons, with no one coming in or out – or at least not coming back once they’d left. In a world where we too casually assume that frontiers are significant, it doesn’t do any harm to be reminded of the basic fact that humans occupy an indivisible world.

Cooperation between nations is essential to combating the epidemic. That cooperation is likely to undermine nationalist rhetoric.

2. It will make us realise that people are not islands

The atomistic billiard-ball model of the person – a model that dominates political and ethical thinking in the west – is biologically ludicrous and sociologically unsustainable. Our individual boundaries are porous. We bleed into one another and infect one another with both ills and joys. Infectious disease is a salutary reminder of our interconnectedness. It might help us to recover a sense of society.

3. It may encourage a proper sort of localism

Internationalism may be boosted. I hope so. But if we’re all locked up with one another in local quarantine, we might get to know the neighbours and the family members we’ve always ignored. We might distribute ourselves less widely, and so be more present to the people around us.

We might even find out that our local woods are more beautiful than foreign beaches, and that local farmers grow better and cheaper food than that which is shipped (with the associated harm to the climate) across the globe.

4. It may encourage altruism

Exigencies tend to bring out the best and the worst in us. An epidemic may engender and foster altruistic heroes.

5. It may remind us of some neglected constituencies

Mortality and serious illness are far higher among the old, the very young, and those suffering from other diseases. We tend to think about – and legislate for – the healthy and robust. The epidemic should remind us that they are not the only stakeholders.

6. It may make future epidemics less likely

The lessons learned from the coronavirus epidemic will pay dividends in the future. We will be more realistic about the dangers of viruses crossing the barriers between species. The whole notion of public health (a Cinderella speciality in medicine in most jurisdictions) has been rehabilitated. It is plain that private healthcare can’t be the whole answer. Much has been learned about the containment and mitigation of infectious disease. There are strenuous competitive and cooperative efforts afoot to develop a vaccine, and vaccines against future viral challenges are likely to be developed faster as a result.

7. It might make us more realistic about medicine

Medicine is not omnipotent. Recognising this might make us more aware of our vulnerabilities. The consequences of that are difficult to predict, but living in the world as it really is, rather than in an illusory world, is probably a good thing. And recognising our own vulnerability might make us more humble and less presumptuous.

8. Wildlife may benefit

China has announced a permanent ban on trade in and consumption of wildlife. That in itself is hugely significant from a conservation, an animal welfare, and a human health perspective. Hopefully other nations will follow suit.

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Ethics Goes on Holiday

By Stephen Rainey

Summer time, and the living is ethically perplexing. Hordes of holidaymakers, the shimmering sea, busy beaches, and one sun over it all. How can the eager ethicist assess how to make the most of a fortnight away? We all know how we can generally make the most of things – but how ought we to treat the beach while we’re away? Should we think of our own pleasure, the pleasure of all, or something else? Here, we can explore some options, and get some answers. Continue reading

The Tunnel Problem

Driverless or autonomous cars will almost certainly be commonplace quite soon. Imagine you are sitting in such a car, approaching a tunnel on a single-lane mountain road. A child wanders into the middle of the road, blocking the entrance to the tunnel. How should such cars be programmed to react? Two options are: to keep going and kill the child; or to swerve aside into the tunnel wall and kill the driver. Continue reading

The Ethics of Checking People Out

You’re walking down the street. In the opposite direction comes a person whom you find very attractive. As he or she passes by, you feel tempted to turn your head so as to, well, check them out. I assume that you have felt this temptation. I, at least, have felt it many times. I have resisted turning my head, however, since doing so is supposedly a bad thing.

But what, exactly, is so bad about turning one’s head to check someone out on the street? What is the bad-making property (or properties) of such actions? Let’s consider a number of possible answers.

Privacy and consent
One answer might be that if one turns one’s head to catch an extra glance of an attractive person, one invades their privacy. In assessing this suggestion, let us grant, for the sake of the argument, that invading someone’s privacy is indeed a bad-making property. The relevant question then becomes whether one invades someones’s privacy by turning one’s head to check them out. Continue reading

Why a painting is as good as a photo on a passport

by Rebecca Roache

Fredrik Saker, a Swedish artist, is in the news this week for having successfully applied for a driving licence using a photograph not of himself, but of a self-portrait painting. It is interesting to consider, in the light of this, what is so special about photographs. Why do agencies that issue documents featuring images of their bearers – like driving licences and passports – require applicants to submit photographs? Is there any good reason not also to permit self-portrait paintings, drawings, or any other sort of artistic creation?  Continue reading

Volcano Ethics: Should we be Flying the Unfriendly Skies?

An ash cloud produced by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland has led to the severe disruption of airline transportation in the UK and across a wide swathe of Europe, with UK airspace almost completely closed since midday last Thursday. Passengers, freight importers and exporters, and airlines are just some of those affected by the disruption; some British employers are also taking a hit due to absent workers who went abroad for their Easter holidays and then found themselves stranded and unable to get home. The reasons for grounding the planes are non-trivial: as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) wrote in a press release last week: “Since volcanic ash is composed of very abrasive silica materials, it can damage the airframe and flight surfaces, clog different systems, abrade cockpit windows and flame-out jet engines constituting a serious safety hazard.”

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Is your fingerprint part of you?

In a report expressing concern about the increasing use of
biometric information to protect security and privacy, the Irish Council for
Bioethics (ICB) claimed earlier this month that “an individual’s biometric
information is an intrinsic element of that person”. Such claims are quite
commonly made in relation to genetic information, though the ICB’s extension of
the concept to other forms of biological information, such as that acquired from
fingerprinting, voice recognition software, and gait analysis, may be novel.

The claim that biometric information is an ‘intrinsic element of
the person’ seems designed to invoke powerful intuitions about our ownership of
our own body parts: we own our biological information just like we own our
kidneys. Indeed, the ICB go on to say that “the right to bodily integrity…. should
apply not only to an individual’s body, but also to any information derived
from the body, including his/her biometric information”. But both the
metaphysical claim that biometric information is an intrinsic element of the
person,and the moral claim that it is covered by rights to bodily integrity
are highly problematic.

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