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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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Forgotten Baby Syndrome

Defense lawyers are increasingly calling upon the services of neuroscientists to give evidence excusing, or mitigating the guilt of, their clients. A recent case illustrates some of the risks of doing so, as well (perhaps) of the potential benefits to lawyers and their clients.
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A Wrong Turn, A Hundred Years Ago

Just over a hundred years ago, a car took a wrong turn. It happened to stop just in front of Gavrilo Princip, a would-be assassin. Princip took out his gun and shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife from point blank range. This triggered a chain of events that would soon lead to the Great War. Millions died in the trenches, and the map of Europe was redrawn. In those few breathless minutes, history had taken a different, more sinister turn. Continue reading

A shocking discovery about thinking?

You’ve probably already seen the story. Participants in an experiment were asked to sit and think. The only distraction available was the possibility of giving themselves a mild electric shock. One third of women and two thirds of men shocked themselves to pass the time. One man shocked himself 190 times. Continue reading

Thank You Luis Suarez!

The world cup is winding down, and a lot of astonishing, surprising things happened throughout the tournament. But nothing offered more to people interested in morality than when Luis Suarez, Uruguayan football star and Premier League player extraordinaire, bit Italian football player Giorgio Chiellini during the World Cup match between Italy and Uruguay. Which is the third time Suarez bit someone on the football pitch. Of course, in the ensuing days, the Twittersphere exploded, the global media jumped on it, and every imaginable joke and pun made the rounds on the internet. And every single person with the slightest claim to expertise was asked one question: How should Suarez be penalized? Their answers provided one textbook example after another of the ways that research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that people make moral judgments, and especially how emotions trump rational arguments.

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Tony Coady – Trusting Emotion, Trusting Reason: A False Dichotomy

In his recent seminar (a recording of which can be found here), Australian philosopher Tony Coady seeks to criticize the entrenched dichotomy of ‘emotion’ and ‘reason’. He argues that this rigid division is outdated and unsophisticated, and that its persistence is limiting the quality of both philosophical debate and wider scientific investigation.

Coady opens his talk by noting the derogatory accusations of ‘appealing to emotion’ that have been levied at opponents in the enhancement debate. He contends that this simply follows in a long philosophical tradition of separating and placing reason above emotion, from Plato’s allegory of the Charioteer (reason) harnessing his Horses (the passions), to the Christian concept of conflict between the higher desires of the Spirit and the desires of the Flesh that must be tamed. Coady claims that this view of reason, which he terms rationalism, has been the dominant paradigm in Western philosophical thought. Continue reading

Horizon 2020 and The Role of Lay People’s Perspectives in Bioethical Reasoning

By Kimberly Schelle & Nadira Faulmüller

Horizon 2020, the European Union’s 2014-2020 largest research programme ever, includes the call to pursue ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ (RRI). RRI stands for a research and innovation process in which all societal actors (e.g. citizens, policy makers, business and researchers) are working together in the process to align the outcomes with the values, needs, and expectations of the European Society. In a recently published paper on the importance of including the public and patients’ voices in bioethical reasoning, the authors describe, although in other words, the value of the RRI approach in bioethical issues:

“A bioethical position that fails to do this [exchange with the public opinion], and which thus avoids the confrontation with different public arguments, including ones perhaps based in different cultural histories, relations and ontological grounds […], not only runs the risk of missing important aspects, ideas and arguments. It also arouses strong suspicion of being indeed one-sided, biased or ideological—thus illegitimate.”

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