The Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: The Economics of Morality, By Dillon Bowen

This essay, by Oxford undergraduate student Dillon Bowen, is one of the two finalists in the undergraduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Dillon will be presenting this paper, along with three other finalists, on the 12th March at the final.


The Economics of Morality: By Dillon Bowen


The Problem

People perform acts of altruism every day.  When I talk about ‘altruism’, I’m not talking about acts of kindness towards family, friends, or community members.  The sort of altruism I’m interested in involves some personal sacrifice for the sake of people you will probably never meet or know.  This could be anything from holding the door for a stranger to donating a substantial portion of your personal wealth to charity.  The problem is that, while altruism is aimed at increasing the well-being of others, it is not aimed at maximizing the well-being of others.  This lack of direction turns us into ineffective altruists, whose generosity is at the whim of our moral biases, and whose kindness ends up giving less help to fewer people.  I propose that we need to learn to think of altruism economically – as an investment in human well-being.  Adopting this mentality will turn us into effective altruists, whose kindness does not merely increase human happiness, but increases human happiness as much as possible.


For the first section, I explain one morally unimportant factor which profoundly influences our altruistic behavior, both in the lab and in the real world.  In the next section, I look at decision-making processes related to economics.  Like altruistic decision-making, economic decision-making is also burdened by biases.  Yet unlike altruistic decision-making, we have largely learned to overcome our biases when it comes to resource management.  Continuing this analogy in section three, I express hope that we can overcome our moral myopia by thinking about altruism much the same way we think about economics. Continue reading

The Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: How Should Vegans Live, by Xavier Cohen.

This essay, by Oxford undergraduate student Xavier Cohen, is one of the two finalists in the undergraduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Xavier will be presenting this paper, along with three other finalists, on the 12th March at the final.

How should vegans live? By Xavier Cohen

Ethical vegans make a concerted lifestyle choice based on ethical – rather than, say, dietary – concerns. But what are the ethical concerns that lead them to practise veganism? In this essay, I focus exclusively on that significant portion of vegans who believe consuming foods that contain animal products to be wrong because they care about harm to animals, perhaps insofar as they have rights, perhaps because they are sentient beings who can suffer, or perhaps because of a combination thereof.[1] Throughout the essay, I take this conviction as a given, that is, I do not evaluate it, but instead investigate what lifestyle is in fact consistent with caring about harm to animals, which I will begin by calling consistent veganism. I argue that the lifestyle that consistently follows from this underlying conviction behind many people’s veganism is in fact distinct from a vegan lifestyle. Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: May the state limit the free speech of individuals who advocate against vaccines intended to combat infectious disease? by Miles Unterreiner

This essay, by Oxford graduate student Miles Unterreiner, is one of the two finalists in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Miles will be presenting this paper, along with three other finalists, at the 12th March final.

May the state limit the free speech of individuals who advocate against vaccines intended to combat infectious disease?

Freedom is the most contagious virus known to man.

-Hubert H. Humphrey


Philosophical arguments concerning freedom of speech have traditionally focused upon which types of expression the state apparatus may justly limit, and under which circumstances it may do so. The state has therefore been the locus of history’s most celebrated works on the subject, including John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), chapter 20 of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), and perhaps most famously J.S. Mill’s On Liberty (1859). Mill’s argument in favor of the free exchange of ideas remains today the most lasting and the most relevant, and his formulation of the “harm principle” – that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” – continues to undergird significant components of law and policy in industrialized democracies today.[1] Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Is prohibition of breast implants a good way to undermine harmful and unequal social norms? by Jessica Laimann

This essay, by Oxford graduate student Jessica Laimann, is one of the two finalists in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Jessica will be presenting this paper, along with three other finalists, at the 12th March final.

Is prohibition of breast implants a good way to undermine harmful and unequal social norms?


1           Introduction

Some individuals decide to inflict harm on themselves. Examples range from smoking or fasting, up to self-mutilation or suicide. In liberal moral theory, paternalistic interventions, that is, interventions with an individual’s choices for the individual’s own good, are considered prima facie morally wrong. Clare Chambers agrees with the liberal presumption against paternalism. However, she argues that some self-harming choices do permit interference due to the circumstances in which they occur. These are choices made in the context of unequal and harmful social norms, which fulfil the following three conditions (see Chambers 2008, 265):

  • The practice is significantly harmful to the individuals who engage in it.
  • Individuals engage in the practice in order to attain benefits which are norm-dependent – the benefits are linked to engagement in the practice only in virtue of social conventions.
  • The social norm that links the practice to the benefits undermines social or political equality.

Continue reading

On holding ethicists to higher moral standards and the value of moral inconsistency

A few weeks ago, Adela Cortina, one of the most important moral philosophers in Spain, was interviewed on the journal El País. “This should be the easiest interview in the world,” said the journalist by way of introduction. Adela Cortina asked why. “Because of your profession. Professors of Ethics never lie, right?” “People assume we are faultless, and when they talk to me they are always justifying themselves. What I work on is something academic, and then, when it comes to life, I try to be consistent with my convictions, but nobody is incorruptible,” she said.

Suppose I tell you that a professor from your local university did something morally reprehensible—cheated on his spouse, failed to pay taxes, or stole money from his department. Suppose that I then tell you this professor is a moral philosopher. Does this further fact make his actions all the more disappointing? I suspect most people think it does. Why is it that ethicists are commonly held to higher moral standards than the rest of the population? Should they be?

Continue reading

Should lawyers always keep their client’s secrets?


In Chicago, 1982, a security guard at a McDonald’s was shot and killed. Alton Logan was charged with the crime. There was only one problem – Logan was innocent. Another man, Andrew Wilson, was the killer. Logan would spend 26 years in prison before being released.

We might shrug off unfortunate cases like this as simply bad luck. But there was an additional twist to this story: Andrew Wilson had confessed the murder to his lawyers. They knew that an innocent man was about to go to jail for their client’s crime, but were bound by professional rules to keep the admission secret.

Could rules that require lawyers to watch while an innocent person is sent to prison possibly be justified? Should lawyers always keep their client’s secrets?


Continue reading

Vaccination and the omissions bias.

Vaccination has been in the news recently, as an outbreak of measles hits California. The US virtually eliminated measles around the turn of the century, but it has made a comeback. A big factor in that comeback has been ‘conscientious objection’ on the part of parents, who refuse to have their children vaccinated for religious or ‘philosophical’ reasons. Media reports often focus on the ignorance or confusion of these parents. And there’s plenty of both on show. Prominent anti-vaxxers continue to push the long discredited vaccination causes autism line, while the California conscientious objectors seem to have embraced an ill-informed ‘no chemicals’ line. I want to suggest that these views may be motivated, to some extent and in at least some parents, by the omissions bias. Continue reading

Is Effective Altruism Killing the Love?

In July 1990, the Australian state of Victoria put a law requiring cyclists to wear helmets into effect (1). More than two decades later, it is unclear whether or not the introduction of the law had a net societal health benefit (2). This might be puzzling when considering that cycling with a helmet on is safer than cycling without it. It prevents head traumas, especially those resulting from accidents at lower speeds. In London, the police started last year to stop cyclists without helmets and to educate them about the benefits of wearing a helmet (3). However, one of the arguments against laws requiring the wearing of bike helmets is that it significantly reduces the number of people that cycle. Hence, there is a good chance that the health costs – increased morbidity due to lack of exercise outweigh the health benefits – less head traumas (2). In the words of Milton: “Easy is the descent into Hell, for it is paved with good intentions.” Might effective altruism have similar unintended consequences?

Continue reading

Living to 150

The Treasurer of Australia, the Hon Joe Hockey MP, recently received widespread attention with the statement:

It’s kind of remarkable that somewhere in the world today, it’s highly probable that a child has been born who will live to be 150.[1]

Hockey made the claim while discussing some of the problems Australia faces as a result of an ageing population.  While his statement was ridiculed by cartoonists and political rivals, he received support from some in the medical community.  The Dean of Medicine at the University of New South Wales, Peter Smith, described Mr Hockey’s claim as a “reasonable assumption”. Professor Smith noted that life expectancy for Australians has been climbing dramatically over the past 100 years. A boy born between 2010 and 2012 can expect to live to 80 years and a girl can expect to live to 84 years. This is up from 55 and 59 years respectively in 1910.

However the fact that, on average, people have been living longer and longer does not support the claim that there is someone living today who will reach 150. Continue reading

Cancer – The Best Way to Die?

A blog post late last month by Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ, has provoked a storm of criticism and controversy. Provocatively entitled, “Dying of Cancer is the Best Death”, the author argues that a death from cancer is preferable and closes, controversially, with:

“…let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death.”

To be fair, the points Smith attempted to make in his article have been taken to their emotional extreme by his critics – so much so that he has written a follow-up post better explaining his (far more moderate) views.

In any case, two questions come to mind. Might cancer indeed be the best, or least worst, death? And is it possible money allocated to cancer treatment and research could be better spent elsewhere? The first will be addressed in this piece – the latter, on the other hand, cannot be done justice in this given space (and may be the subject of a follow-up post). Continue reading