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The No harm principle, an ethical principle for economic policy advisors?

In a recent article in the New York Times, Harvard economics professor Gregory Mankiw points out that economic policy advice always relies on political-philosophical standpoints and, inspired by medical ethics, suggests that economists that give policy advice should apply the No harm principle rather than promote policy based on uncertain predictions and political-philosophical convictions. By applying his interpretation of this principle, he claims that economists should not endorse either the Affordable care act, or higher minimum wage because these are in fact policies that cause harm.

It is refreshing with an economist who recognises that there is no such thing as purely scientific, value-free economic policy advice, and it is interesting to consider whether ethical principles can be introduced to deal with biases inherent to policy advice and with uncertainties innate to economic predictions. However, Mankiw’s proposal is as biased as the policy advice he addresses, and his proposed version of the No harm principle is at best a poor re-articulation of his own ideological convictions. Continue reading

Being a Good Person by Deceit?

By Nadira Faulmüller & Lucius Caviola

Recently, Peter Singer, Paul Bloom and Dan Ariely were discussing topics surrounding the psychology of morality. Peter was emphasizing the importance of helping people in need by donating money to poverty fighting charities. That’s easier said than done. Humans don’t seem to have a strong innate desire of helping distant strangers. So the question arises of how we can motivate people to donate considerable amounts to charity. Peter suggested that respective social norms could be established: in order to make people more moral their behaviour needs to be observable by others, as Dan pointed out, only then they will be motivated to help strangers on the other side of the world. Is this true? – do people only behave prosocially because they feel socially pressured into doing so?

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Cricket and mental illness

There is a lively debate in the philosophy of psychiatry over what makes a condition a disease. The debate is particularly heated with regard to addiction: it is a moral failing, a brain disease or something else altogether? People who hold that addiction is a brain disease often claim that their view is more humane, because it removes the stigma from a condition that is not the sufferer’s fault. Unfortunately matters are not so clear cut: there is some evidence that the disease model actually increases stigma, or at least makes mental illness seem more a fixed part of the person’s identity. Continue reading

Trouble Brewing? The Ethical Significance of Synthetic Yeast

Back in 2010, I blogged about Craig Venter’s creation of the first synthetic organism, Synthia, a bacteria.

Now, in 2014, the next step has been made by a team at John Hopkins University, the use of synthetic biology in yeast, which, whilst still a simple organism, has a similar cell structure to humans (and other more complex organisms): a nuclei, chromosomes and organelles. The engineered yeast has been reproduced to over 100 generations, passing on its new DNA.

The pace is breathtaking. Moore’s law describes a phenomenon in computing, where computer capacity (so far) doubles every two years. Kurzweil uses Moore’s law to predict the ‘singularity’: a state where humans no longer control, or even comprehend, the progress that technology continues to make.

It’s difficult to measure scientific progress in the same way as computer power, but it’s clear that leaps in progress are now measured in years, not decades. Yet still we wait until technology is upon us before we act.

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Reconsidering the Ethics of Enhanced Punishment

Last summer, on this blog, Rebecca Roache suggested several ways in which technology could enhance retributive punishment—that is, could make punishment more severe—without “resorting to inhumane methods or substantially overhauling the current UK legal system.” Her approbation of this type of technological development has recently been reported in the Daily Mail, and reaffirmed in an interview for Aeon Magazine.

Roache’s original post was, at least, a response to the sentencing of the mother and stepfather of Daniel Pelka, who was four when he died as a result of a mixture of violence and neglect perpetrated by his parents. They each received the maximum sentence possible in the UK, a minimum of thirty years in prison before the possibility of parole is discussed (and even then they might not get it). This sentence, Roache wrote, was “laughably inadequate.” Continue reading

For theta’s sake, smash up your TV and go for a walk

You can get experienced meditators to produce, on demand, feelings of timelessness and spacelessness. Tell them ‘Try to be outside time’, and ‘try not to be in the centre of space’, and they will.

These sort of sensations tend to happen together – so strikingly so that Walter Stace proposed, as one combined element of mystical experience, ‘non-spatial-and-non-temporal’.1

Why should that be? asked an Israeli research group in a recent and fascinating paper.  And was the generation of these sensations related to alterations in the sense of the body? Continue reading

Luck and Success

I have long been uncomfortably aware that luck has played a major factor in my success (such as it is). I spent more than three years after my PhD alternating between unemployment and low paying part-time jobs, before I got two lucky breaks. First one philosophy department urgently needed a full-time lecturer for a few months due to an unexpected absence, than a second; in both cases, I just happened to be around at the right time. The second job got renewed a few times, and then I was around when the department secured a very large grant which kept me employed for the next five years. I was able to take advantage of my lucky breaks by publishing a lot, but I was lucky to be given the time and conditions to do research. I know that lots of other people who left philosophy due to the scarcity of jobs would have done as well, or better, if they had had the breaks I had. Continue reading

A minimal proceduralist argument against Crimean independence

As the Ukrainian crisis continues to unfold, attention has shifted from the deposed president Viktor Yanukovych to the Crimea peninsula.  Crimea has an ethnic Russian majority and as such are much less sympathetic to the pro-Western uprising that toppled Yanukovych (see the very useful maps posted here).  Now the Russian military has occupied the region, and there is some movement towards either independence or annexation into Russia.  Western powers are unsurprisingly outraged at this military intervention, with UK Prime Minister David Cameron saying there is “no excuse” for Russian occupation.  I would like to suggest that the case against Russia’s use of force is not as clear cut as it first appears, as it could potentially be justified on the grounds of promoting Crimea’s right to self-determination.  Still, careful attention to how recent events unfolded do indicate that both the occupation and recent (quite quick) moves for separation from Ukraine are illegitimate on relatively minimal procedural grounds. Continue reading

Woody Allen and those allegations

It is hard to be agnostic when someone is charged with a terrible crime like child abuse. It is still harder when that person is a beloved filmmaker and symbol of artistic excellence (even if few of his recent films have lived up to expectations). Given the depth of some people’s emotional attachment to Allen and his films, many have reacted by refusing to believe Dylan Farrow’s claims that she was abused by him. Others, though, can’t believe that she would lie about something like that, and have therefore concluded that the allegations are true. Continue reading

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