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Moral Psychology at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

Written by Joanna Demaree-Cotton

 

This last Michaelmas term marked the inaugural series of lab meetings for the Uehiro Centre’s BioXPhi lab (https://moralpsychlab.web.ox.ac.uk). Co-directed by myself and Dr. Brian Earp, the lab brings philosophers together with psychologists to conduct experimental studies in moral psychology and bioethics. Specifically, we investigate the contributing factors and psychological processes that shape:

 

  • Moral intuitions, judgments and reasoning
  • Moral agency, moral action and moral motivation
  • The structure and application of (bio)ethical concepts

… with an eye to contributing to substantive normative and philosophical debates in ethics.

(What’s a “lab meeting”, you ask? Our lab meetings are where members of our lab come together with colleagues and collaborators to present and get feedback on ongoing research relevant to the experimental study of ethics.)

 

Just because people reason in a certain way about morality, that doesn’t mean that this is how we should reason about morality. People get things wrong all the time. Concepts can be incoherent. Reasoning can be flawed. Judgments can be biased and self-serving. Moral motivation can be weak. Moreover, people can often be ignorant or mistaken about many of the morally relevant details and nuances that apply to some particular situation, resulting in moral judgments that are simply ill-informed.

 

Yet, investigating ordinary moral psychology is invaluable for ethics and moral philosophy for a number of reasons (Earp, Demaree-Cotton et al., 2020; Earp, Lewis et al., 2021).

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The Football World Cup in Qatar

 

By Alberto Giubilini

 

The forthcoming World Cup in Qatar is perhaps the most controversial in football history.  Qatari social, religious, and legal norms clash with values that many people from other parts of the world hold dear.  For example, things like extramarital sex, same-sex behaviour, and importation of religious books are illegal in Qatar. A Qatari ambassador for the World Cup said that homosexuality is a ‘damage of the mind’ and a ‘spiritual harm’. He added that people going to Qatar will have to accept their rules.

This flies in the face of the fact that many players, commentators, and other stakeholders who will go to Qatar have been openly condemning Qatari social, religious, and legal norms in many ways. For example, Australian footballers have released a video condemning human rights violations in Qatar, including the treatment of migrant workers. German defender Leon Goretzcka said that by displaying messages against Qatari norms players want to “set an example for the values we want to stand for”. Is this hypocritical?

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Does Moral Ignorance Excuse?

Written by Neil Levy

Everyone agrees that ignorance of fact can excuse. If I take your suitcase thinking it was mine, and my belief that it was mine was faultless (perhaps the coach driver handed it to me, saying “this is yours”, and it looked exactly like mine), I seem excused of blame for taking it. But philosophers and ordinary people have been reluctant to excuse people on the basis of their moral ignorance. Think, for example, about recent debates concerning memorials to people we now recognize as deeply racist. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to demand that such memorials be removed on the grounds that it’s inappropriate to laud bad people, but the demand is often combined with blame directed at the racist (conversely, those who defend the memorials often think it’s sufficient to deflect blame on the grounds that the person was “a man of his time”). Continue reading

New issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics – Volume 10 Issue 1

We are pleased to announce the publication of Volume 10 Issue 1 of the Journal of Practical Ethics, our open access journal on moral and political philosophy. You can read our complete open access archive online and hard copies will be available to be purchased at cost price shortly.

Anderson, E. S., (2022) “Can We Talk?: Communicating Moral Concern in an Era of Polarized Politics”, Journal of Practical Ethics 10(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/jpe.1180

Renzo, M., (2022) “Defective Normative Powers: The Case of Consent”, Journal of Practical Ethics 10(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/jpe.2382

Hosein, A., (2022) “Illusions of Control”, Journal of Practical Ethics 10(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/jpe.2381

Fracking and the Precautionary Principle

By Charles Foster

Image> Leolynn11, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The UK Government has lifted the prohibition on fracking.

The risks associated with fracking have been much discussed. There is widespread agreement that earthquakes cannot be excluded.

The precautionary principle springs immediately to mind. There are many iterations of this principle. The gist of the principle, and the gist of the objections to it, are helpfully summarised as follows:

In the regulation of environmental, health and safety risks, “precautionary principles” state, in their most stringent form, that new technologies and policies should be rejected unless and until they can be shown to be safe. Such principles come in many shapes and sizes, and with varying degrees of strength, but the common theme is to place the burden of uncertainty on proponents of potentially unsafe technologies and policies. Critics of precautionary principles urge that the status quo itself carries risks, either on the very same margins that concern the advocates of such principles or else on different margins; more generally, the costs of such principles may outweigh the benefits. 

Whichever version of the principle one adopts, it seems that the UK Government’s decision falls foul of it. Even if one accepts (controversially) that the increased flow of gas from fracking will not in itself cause harm (by way of climate disruption), it seems impossible to say that any identifiable benefit from the additional gas (which could only be by way of reduced fuel prices) clearly outweighs the potential non-excludable risk from earthquakes (even if that risk is very small).

If that’s right, can the law do anything about it? Continue reading

Protecting Children or Policing Gender?

Laws on genital mutilation, gender affirmation and cosmetic genital surgery are at odds. The key criteria should be medical necessity and consent.

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

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In Ohio, USA, lawmakers are currently considering the Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE) Act that would ban hormones or surgeries for minors who identify as transgender or non-binary. In April this year, Alabama passed similar legislation.

Alleging anti-trans prejudice, opponents of such legislation say these bans will stop trans youth from accessing necessary healthcare, citing guidance from the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Providers of gender-affirming services point out that puberty-suppressing medications and hormone therapies are considered standard-of-care for trans adolescents who qualify. Neither is administered before puberty, with younger children receiving psychosocial support only. Meanwhile genital surgeries for gender affirmation are rarely performed before age 18.

Nevertheless, proponents of the new laws say they are needed to protect vulnerable minors from understudied medical risks and potentially lifelong bodily harms. Proponents note that irreversible mastectomies are increasingly performed before the age of legal majority.

Republican legislators in several states argue that if a child’s breasts or genitalia are ‘healthy’, there is no medical or ethical justification to use hormones or surgeries to alter those parts of the body.

However, while trans adolescents struggle to access voluntary services and rarely undergo genital surgeries prior to adulthood, non-trans-identifying children in the United States and elsewhere are routinely subjected to medically unnecessary surgeries affecting their healthy sexual anatomy — without opposition from conservative lawmakers.

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Video Interview: Prof Erica Charters on when does (or did) the Covid-19 pandemic end?

In this ‘Thinking Out Loud’ episode, Katrien Devolder (philosophy, Oxford) interviews Erica Charters, Professor of the Global History of Medicine at the University of Oxford about how we know, or decide, when the covid-19 pandemic ends. Professor Charters explains why the end as well as the beginning of a pandemic are murky, and what past pandemics can and can’t teach us.

Video Interview: Prof Peter Railton, AI and moral obligations

In this Thinking Out Loud interview with Katrien Devolder, Philosophy Professor Peter Railton presents his take on how to understand, and interact with, AI. He talks about how AI can have moral obligations towards us, humans, and towards each other, and why we, humans, have moral obligations towards AI agents. He also stresses that the best way to tackle certain world problems, including the dangers of AI itself, is to form a strong community consisting of biological AND AI agents.

 

Healthcare Ethics Has a Gap…

By Ben Davies

Last month, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported on a healthcare crisis in the country. If you live in the UK, you may have already had an inkling of this crisis from personal experience. But if you don’t live here, and particularly if you are professionally involved in philosophical ethics, see if you can guess: what is the latest crisis to engulf the publicly funded National Health Service (NHS)?

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Returning To Personhood: On The Ethical Significance Of Paradoxical Lucidity In Late-Stage Dementia

By David M Lyreskog

About Dementia

Dementia is a class of medical conditions which typically impair our cognitive abilities and significantly alter our emotional and personal lives. The absolute majority of dementia cases – approximately 70% – are caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Other causes include cardiovascular conditions, Lewy body disease, and Parkinson’s disease. In the UK alone, it is estimated that over 1 million people are currently living with dementia, and that care costs amount to approximately £38 billion a year. Globally, it is estimated that over 55 million people live with dementia in some form, with an expected 10 million increase per year, and the cost of care exceeds £1 trillion. As such, dementia is widely regarded as one of the main medical challenges of our time, along with cancer, and infectious diseases. As a response to this, large amounts of money have been put towards finding solutions over decades. The UK government alone spends over £75 million per year on the search for improved diagnostics, effective treatments, and cures. Yet, dementia remains a terrible enigma, and continues to elude our grasp.

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