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Cooperating with the future

This is a guest post by Oliver P. Hauser & David G. Rand.

“It often strikes me that the complex problems we face in the world – problems of corruption, environment, politics, and so on – almost always indicate a failure of moral ethics and inner values. … The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit on the global environment was, sadly, an example of how, when parties fail to look beyond their own narrow self-interest, cooperation becomes impossible.”

— The Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion

Do we have a moral responsibility to sustain the planet for future generations? The Dalai Lama, in the quotation above, gives an almost unequivocal ‘yes’. But a cursory understanding of economics shows us that it’s not just about morality – or at least, that morality doesn’t always have the final word. We, today’s decision-makers, are simply better off economically if we harvest all resources today without thinking about the future. To state the economic, ‘rational’ argument in bald terms: why leave something for the future if we won’t benefit from it?

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Assisted Suicide: A Better Alternative

The new DPP Alison Saunders has clarified the Policy for Prosecutors in Respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide issued by the previous DPP, Keir Starmer, in 2010. This has led to claims by right to life groups that assisted suicide will be available in the UK. This is, I argue, false. Assisted suicide remains a crime. I argue a better alternative under current law is Voluntary Palliated Starvation. This could render unconscious patients who embark on suicide by starvation and dehydration, such as the recent tragic case of Mrs Jean Davies. This could be lawful under current law and acceptable to doctors who do not wish to kill, but wish to relieve suffering.

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She was one in a million, so there’s five more just in New South Wales.

We’re not good at large numbers. Our brains are adapted to living in groups of perhaps 150 individuals. City living is a very recent innovation, and our psychological mechanisms struggle to cope with it. One way in which we may go astray is through the misapplication of heuristics that worked well for our ancestors, but which misfire in very large groups. Suppose you learn that there is a person in your group prone to violence without provocation. If you live in a group of 150 individuals, you need to be on high alert: your paths will cross. But if you live in a city of 5 million people, you really shouldn’t worry (unless you have some reason to think the violent individual lives in your street). In fact, on learning that there is such an individual you will probably feel more anxiety than you should – not as much as you would if you knew your paths would cross, but more than you rationally ought to. Continue reading

The Isis Propaganda War and its Moral Consequences

Islamic State (Isis) is using a variety of social media tools to spread their jihadist message across the globe. While some are rather odd, such as the internet meme of #catsofjihad, which combines cats with weapons, others are highly sophisticated, as Steve Ross details in his comprehensive article on the media tools Isis is using. Isis is distributing documentary-style videos in several languages which come with their own Hollywood-like trailers, propaganda tweets that detail the supposedly good Isis is doing, and footage of gruesome combat actions which at times is intertwined with video game footage. But nothing attracted more media attention than the videos of hostage killings such as the latest of the beheading of Alan Henning. While all the other parts of the Isis propaganda make sense to me, I had a hard time understanding why publish such horrific videos: How could such appalling videos help recruitment?

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Will Virgin staff really be allowed to take ‘as much holiday as they want’?

This week Richard Branson announced that Virgin would no longer be tracking people’s holidays. The move was apparently inspired by Netflix, who have similarly instigated a “no holiday policy” policy, which permits all salaried staff to ‘take off whenever they want for as long as they want.’ According to Branson, the idea came to him via his daughter, Holly, who sent him the following cheery email about Netflix, sounding suspiciously like a copywriter from Virgin’s media team:

Dad, check this out. It’s something I have been talking about for a while and I believe it would be a very Virgin thing to do to not track people’s holidays. I have a friend whose company has done the same thing and they’ve apparently experienced a marked upward spike in everything – morale, creativity and productivity have all gone through the roof.

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Would it be bad if humanity were to become extinct?

That’s (roughly) the topic of a panel held at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. It is a topical question, in this age of potentially catastrophic climate change. There is no realistic risk that climate change threatens life on this planet, after all,  but it could threaten human existence (not directly, but by triggering widespread conflicts over scarce resources). The Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, has dubbed this our final century, envisaging other means whereby human existence could end. So: would it matter? Continue reading

Can it be morally wrong to make people happy?

We all want to be happy. Just recently, a study led by Robb Rutledge and colleagues at UCL made the news cycle showing the importance of recently received rewards and expectations for people’s happiness . This study got a lot of well-deserved media attention worldwide, highlighting the huge interest people have in being happier and societies have in improving the happiness of their members. Governments are considering and / or implementing measures of happiness as part of their public policy programs. And interventions to improve happiness are in high demand, in research and on the book market. However, one question that is more or less never discussed is whether making someone happier is always a good idea. Can it be, at times, morally wrong?

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Playing the game: a story for the pool-side sun-lounger

It’s still summery, and so here is a little story for the beach or the side of the pool

‘There are challenges, certainly’, said the Boss. ‘But we’re confident that we can meet them. Or at least’, he went on, looking over his glasses for signs of dissent, ‘for a critical mass of stakeholders’.

A graph appeared on the screen at his side. He traced its lines with a red laser dot.

‘Here’, he said, ‘we have the expected rise of temperature with time. And here’ (he stabbed with the dot, as if doing the killing himself), ‘we have the consequent reduction in human population – assuming’ (and he held up a schoolmasterly finger), ‘we don’t have any HR66.’

He sipped some water, and waited for this to sink in. It did.

‘But don’t worry’, he said. ‘There’s good news. We do have HR66. Not enough for everyone, sadly, but enough to ensure that the human baton is passed on. And enough, I’m glad to say, for everyone in this room.’

There was a ripple of relief.

‘And their families, of course’, the Boss continued. ‘Families are very important to us. But all this assumes that you want to have the HR66. No one will make you. But, frankly, what’s not to like? You take a single dose, and you survive. If you don’t take it, you don’t survive. It’s as simple as that. It even tastes of candy floss. It has only one side-effect, and that’s a wholly good thing. It increases – increases, mark you – your IQ. Very, very significantly. By about 100 points, in fact. Not only will you be alive; you’ll be a genius beside whom Einstein would have seemed a hopeless retard.’

One more press of the button, and up flashed the logo of the corporation that manufactured HR66. The Boss didn’t think it relevant to mention his shareholding.

‘Naturally’, said the Boss, ‘we have to vote for this in the usual way. Yes, humanity’s facing apocalypse, and there’s one, and only one way out. But we’ve still got to do things properly. But I expect that we can move to a vote now, can’t we?’

‘I’m sure we can’, agreed the Deputy. ‘You’ve all seen the motion. All those in favour….’

‘One moment’.

The Boss and the Deputy, up on the podium, stared. Everyone else turned. A little man in tweed lisped through a badger’s beard. ‘I’d like some clarification, please.’

‘But of course, Tom’, said the Boss, magnanimous and desperately alarmed. ‘Anything you like.’

No one really knew how Tom had got into the government, or why he wanted to be there. He had no strategically significant connections, no dress sense, no publications other than some monographs on moths and mediaeval fonts, no assets other than a dumpy wife, some anarchic, unwashed children and a small cottage on Dartmoor, and no entries in the Register of Members’ Interests apart from ‘Masturbation’. This entry had caused a terrible storm. He’d been accused of injuring the dignity of the House, but, after expensive legal advice had been taken, it had been ‘reluctantly concluded’ that there was no power to force him to remove it.

‘I’d like to know’, said Tom, ‘who’s going to get the drug. And why them rather than anyone else.’ Continue reading

Getting People To Get Things Done – A New Psychological Trick

Subtly designing people’s choice environment in a way that they decide for a desired cause of action – so called “nudging” – receives growing interest as a potential tool for practical ethics. New psychological research suggests a surprisingly simple, but potentially powerful strategy to nudge people.

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Epigenetics and Blaming Pregnant Women: Hasty Conclusions, Control, and Simplified Burden of Responsibility

In a recent (13.8.2014) article in Nature , Sarah S. Richardson and colleagues maintain that careless discussion of epigenetic research on how early life affects health across generations could harm women.

Authors discuss the extensive history of placing the burden of responsibility of a child’s health on the lifestyle of the pregnant mother – and the means for controlling women’s behavior. Authors describe how, for example, evidence of any fetal harm easily lead to zero-tolerance regulatory frameworks and severe informal and formal consequences (e.g. social condemnation for an occasional sip of alcohol despite the ambiguous evidence that very moderate and occasional drinking should harm the fetus), and how the “lack of emotional warmth” of the “refrigerator mothers ” was considered to be the reason to child autism as late as the 1970s. Going even more backwards in the history, various defects were attributed, for example, to the company the mother kept during pregnancy.

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