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Alexandre Erler’s Posts

Are cyborgs the future of humanity?

Yesterday’s Observer features two pieces about human enhancement in the prospect of the FutureFest festival in London in September (see here and here). The articles mention Bertolt Meyer, a Swiss man born without a left hand who was recently fitted with a state-of-the-art bionic one (which he controls from his iPhone), and include quotes from well-know authors associated with the topic of human enhancement, such as Nick Bostrom and Andy Miah.

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Frej Klem Thomsen, ‘Rescuing Responsibility from the Retributivists – Neuroscience, Free Will and Criminal Punishment’ (Podcast)

Do advances in neuroscience threaten the idea of free will, and if so, what practical implications does this have, for instance when it comes to criminal responsibility and punishment? In a stimulating talk at the Uehiro seminar (the podcast of which is available here), Frej Klem Thomsen, assistant professor of philosophy at Roskilde University, discussed the answers that the prominent American neuroscientists Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen have proposed to those questions [1]. Briefly put, Greene and Cohen predict that cognitive neuroscience will make it increasingly apparent to everyone that (as some philosophers have argued centuries ago already) there is no such thing as free will as commonly understood. This, they add, will shift the approach to punishment in criminal law from the current “retributivist” one to a consequentialist one – a change they also judge desirable, on the grounds that the current approach relies on intuitions they take to be scientifically untenable.

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Jeff McMahan and John Broome discuss the value of life and the badness of death

Wednesday the 6th of February saw two of the most prominent ethicists of our time engage in a (friendly) debate on two crucial, related philosophical questions: the value of life and the badness of death. (You can listen to the podcast of the debate here.) In a room filled to capacity at the Oxford Philosophy Faculty, Jeff McMahan, Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University, and John Broome, White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford, discussed their respective views on these questions, explaining in turn where they agreed and disagreed with each other and why, using rigorous, sophisticated philosophical arguments.

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In vitro meat, new technologies, and the “yuck factor”

In vitro meat, recently discussed on this blog by Julian Savulescu, is gradually becoming a reality. It holds great promise, notably considering that billons of animals are slaughtered for food every year, often after spending miserable lives in factory farms, and that the current production of meat contributes significantly to the emission of greenhouse gases. In spite of those facts, it seems highly unlikely that most meat-eaters will agree to give up meat anytime soon (though the success of the “meat-free Mondays” initiative in a number of different places should be saluted), yet they might well prove more willing to switch from traditionally produced meat to in vitro meat, if the latter were as healthy (or even healthier), reasonably priced, and tasted the same as the former.


Discussions of in vitro meat in the media most often cite the so-called “yuck factor” as a major obstacle to its general acceptance: i.e. the instinctive revulsion that many people feel at the idea of eating “unnatural” meat grown in a petri dish. I am inclined to be cautiously optimistic about the prospects of overcoming that obstacle: “unnatural” meat substitutes have already become popular among vegetarians, and some meat-eaters do consume them as well occasionally. Although in vitro meat should bear even more of an uncanny resemblance to the real thing than those substitutes (which might be why some people are revulsed by the idea), I would expect it to find success if issues of health and taste can be adequately dealt with. Now what if the yuck factor were to prove more of an issue than I anticipate? I believe the following points deserve to be emphasized:

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What is my “true self”?

Joshua Knobe has got a very interesting piece in the New York Times in which he discusses the ideas of authenticity and the “true self” and their normative implications. The starting point of his reflection is the case of evangelical preacher Mark Pierpont, known for his work as an activist encouraging homosexuals to seek a “cure” for their sexual orientation. The paradoxical thing is that Pierpont himself was gay, and, Knobe tells us, constantly waging war against his urges, which he regarded as sinful. The case of Pierpont presents a challenge to the popular idea that the aim of one’s life should be to live authentically, in the sense of being “true to oneself”. Many people would have advised Pierpont to “just look deep within and be true to himself” in order to get out of his predicament. But what exactly does being true to oneself entail in the case of someone like Pierpont?

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Should we be able to know how long we have to live?

A new test, soon to become available to the general public in the UK, can tell people how fast they are aging, thereby allowing them to estimate their life expectancy. The test, which should be available for €500 (£435), is based on an analysis of the telomeres, small protective caps at the extremities of a person’s chromosomes. Short telomeres are associated with a shorter lifespan and indicate a more advanced biological age (by contrast with the person’s chronological age). The test has been described as opening an “ethical Pandora’s box”. Concerns have been raised regarding people’s possible reaction to information about how long they still have to live. Some are also worried that the test might be used by organizations selling dubious “anti-aging” remedies to attract potential customers, and that insurance companies might demand to have access to such information before providing cover, requiring people with shorter telomeres to pay higher premiums. Should the prospect of the public availability of such a test concern us, and should we try and restrict it?

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Suicide for sale in Oregon: a “valuable service”?

Oregon is currently the scene of a controversy about the sale of so-called “suicide kits” or “helium hoods” (see here and here). These kits are sold by mail by a two-person company called The Gladd Group; one of its owners is reported to be a 91-year-old San Diego County woman who has been selling the kits for four years. The device is now receiving increased media attention following the suicide, with the help of the helium hood kit, of 29-year old Nick Klonoski, who had health-related issues that had brought him into depression, but was not terminally ill. His tragic death has now sparked a movement to outlaw the sale of those kits in Oregon. However, the woman selling the kits protests that she is providing a valuable service, and is quoted as saying that “[i]t is not my intention to hurt anybody, but to offer people comfort when they die”. Is the sale of those suicide kits a legitimate form of business, or should it be banned?

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Can forced sterilization ever be ethical?

A British court still needs to decide whether to authorize the sterilization, at her mother’s own request, of a mentally disabled woman (see e.g. here and here). Reading only the headlines and initial paragraphs of the news entries devoted to the case, one might become worried that we are seeing here a resurgence of an abhorrent practice that gained much favour in the first half of the 20th-Century, in countries like Germany or the United States: i.e. the compulsory sterilization of the mentally retarded for eugenic purposes. However, it is important to look at the particulars of this case in order not to be misled. The 21-year old woman, referred to as P, is pregnant with her second child, and her mother (“Mrs. P”) says that they “can’t carry on supporting more and more children”. She also said that after the birth of her second child her daughter would have “a complete family” (a girl and a boy). But her mother is worried that she will soon fall pregnant again, in which case the child will have to be given away for adoption – something that her daughter, she says, is unable to understand, yet an outcome that would cause her much distress were it to happen.

Reacting to the case, bioethicist George Annas, from Boston University, commented that “this is eugenics if they are doing this because she’s mentally disabled. This decision needs to be made based on the person’s best interests, not the best interests of society or her caregivers.”

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Beauty, brains, and the halo effect

by Alexandre Erler

Satoshi Kanazawa is currently in the news – see e.g. these articles in the Daily Mail, The Australian and Psychology Today. An evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, Kanazawa has just published a new article in the journal Intelligence (Kanazawa 2011) in which he argues, in continuity with his previous research, that beautiful people tend to be more intelligent than plainer ones (especially if they are men). Only now he is arguing that this correlation may be much stronger than we previously thought. His conclusion is based on data from two studies, conducted respectively in the UK and the US, which tested the intelligence of children and young teenagers but also rated their level of physical attractiveness. In the British study, attractive respondents had a mean IQ about 13 points higher than unattractive ones, and the beauty-intelligence correlation turned out to be of a similar magnitude to that between intelligence and education.

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People will behave badly if it’s not too much work…and if no one is watching

by Alexandre Erler

An interesting article recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science concludes that people are more likely to transgress moral norms if doing so does not require an explicit action on their part. The researchers, from the University of Toronto, conducted two studies: in one of these, they asked participants whether they would volunteer to help a student with a learning disability complete a problem-solving task. One group of participants had only the option of checking a 'yes' or 'no' box that popped up on the computer. The second group of people could follow a link at the bottom of the page to volunteer their help or simply press 'continue' to move on to the next page of their questionnaire. Participants were five times more likely to volunteer when they had to expressly pick either 'yes' or 'no.'


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