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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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Dr Neil Armstrong – Why is Mental Healthcare so Ethically Confusing

Co-authored with Daniel D’Hotman de Villiers

In the first St. Cross seminar of the term, Dr. Neil Armstrong talked about ethical challenges raised by mounting bureaucratic processes in the institutional provision of mental healthcare. Drawing on vignettes from his ethnographic fieldwork, Dr. Armstrong argued that the bureaucratization of mental healthcare has led to a situation in which the provision of care involves conflicts of the sort that make it irretrievably morally confusing. The podcast will follow shortly here.

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Video Interview: Rebecca Roache on Passive Aggression

What is passive aggression? Why is it so annoying? What message does the person being passive aggressive try to convey? Is it usually better to speak our mind about what bothers us, or to be passive aggressive? Is it sometimes better to just swear at people? In this interview with Dr Katrien Devolder (Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics), philosopher Dr Rebecca Roache  (Royal Holloway) talks us through the philosophy of passive aggression!

Cross Post: Is Virtue Signalling a Perversion of Morality?

Written by Neil Levy

Originally published in Aeon Magazine

People engage in moral talk all the time. When they make moral claims in public, one common response is to dismiss them as virtue signallers. Twitter is full of these accusations: the actress Jameela Jamil is a ‘pathetic virtue-signalling twerp’, according to the journalist Piers Morgan; climate activists are virtue signallers, according to the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research; vegetarianism is virtue signalling, according to the author Bjorn Lomborg (as these examples illustrate, the accusation seems more common from the Right than the Left). Continue reading

Rewarding what matters: Status in academic ethics

By Charles Foster

Not everything matters equally. If academic ethics is to be useful – if, indeed, it is to be ethical – it should address itself more to the things that matter most than to things that matter less.

It is hard to imagine a pair of sentences more uncontroversial – no, downright trite – than the two above. And yet not only are these basic principles not acknowledged, they are often reversed: often the manifestly least important work in academic ethics gets the most applause and recognition. This may be because it is more arcane and therefore perceived as requiring greater cleverness.

This needs to stop, and that demands a system whereby important and useful work is incentivised by enhanced status and funding. Continue reading

Journalistic Ethics and the Mandy Rice-Davies Principle

Written by Neil Levy

It is an entrenched and central principle of journalistic ethics that the subjects of stories must have an opportunity to respond to them; comment must be sought. These comments are then published in any resulting story.

For example, the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics requires journalists to “[d]iligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing”. The Canadian Association of Journalists’ Statement of Principles for Investigative Journalism sets down a similar requirement slightly more fully:

We will give individuals or organizations that are publicly criticized an opportunity to respond. We will make a genuine and exhaustive effort to contact them. Where possible, we will give them an opportunity to respond before the story is published or broadcast.

While the principle does not mandate that the comments provided are published, in practice they almost always are, if only to show that the principle has been abided by. I want to suggest that this practice should be abandoned. Continue reading

Elizabeth Anderson’s Uehiro Lectures: Lecture 3 – Communicating Moral Concern Beyond Blaming and Shaming

In Elizabeth Anderson’s final Uehiro lecture, she tackles what she takes to be the hardest problem facing our current political discourse – How can we overcome obstacles to communicating moral concerns in order to orient policy to important values (such as public health and justice)? This is a particularly difficult and intractable problem because it concerns our moral values; in overcoming this obstacle, there is thus a considerable degree of scope for disagreement, and judgments of the moral character of others based on their moral opinions. Over the course of the lecture, Anderson refines the diagnosis of this problem, and once again expresses optimism about overcoming the obstacles she highlights. This time she outlines how we might disarm the fear, resentment, pride, and contempt that is currently derailing our political discourse, and the virtues that we must develop to do so. You can find a recording of the lecture here.

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Prof. Elizabeth Anderson’s Uehiro Lectures: Lecture 2 Summary – “Improving Political Discourse (1): Re-learning how to talk about facts across group identities”

Prof. Elizabeth Anderson’s second Uehiro lecture focuses on how we can overcome obstacles to fact-based political discourse. In particular, the lecture concerns how we might prevent identity-expressive discourse (a term introduced in the first lecture; see summary of lecture 1 below) from displacing the discussion of facts and evidence in public discourse, and how we might overcome the shameless lying and disinformation campaigns of populist populations. Over the course of the lecture, Anderson illustrates her analysis with illuminating cases studies, and finishes by providing her own solutions to the problem at hand, drawing on Cultural Cognition theory, John Dewey’s cultural conception of democracy, and emerging data from deliberative polling studies. You can find a recording of the lecture here

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Tafida Raqeeb and Charlie’s Law

by Dominic Wilkinson

Disputes between parents and doctors are back in the media. This morning, in the case of Tafida Raqeeb, the court concluded that her parents should be allowed to take her to Italy for continuing intensive care.

In Tafida’s case, the court found in favour of her parents and against the doctors treating her. That might help address concerns in the minds of some that the courts are biased against parents, and in favour of health professionals.

However, some may still be concerned that the UK legal approach to disagreements is the wrong one. Of relevance, in the next couple of weeks, a Labour politician is planning to put forward a law to the Commons – the Children (Access to Treatment) Bill, otherwise known as ‘Charlie’s law’. (See this separate guest post for a press release from Bambos Charalambous, MP). Continue reading

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