Current Affairs

Fracking and the Precautionary Principle

By Charles Foster

Image> Leolynn11, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The UK Government has lifted the prohibition on fracking.

The risks associated with fracking have been much discussed. There is widespread agreement that earthquakes cannot be excluded.

The precautionary principle springs immediately to mind. There are many iterations of this principle. The gist of the principle, and the gist of the objections to it, are helpfully summarised as follows:

In the regulation of environmental, health and safety risks, “precautionary principles” state, in their most stringent form, that new technologies and policies should be rejected unless and until they can be shown to be safe. Such principles come in many shapes and sizes, and with varying degrees of strength, but the common theme is to place the burden of uncertainty on proponents of potentially unsafe technologies and policies. Critics of precautionary principles urge that the status quo itself carries risks, either on the very same margins that concern the advocates of such principles or else on different margins; more generally, the costs of such principles may outweigh the benefits. 

Whichever version of the principle one adopts, it seems that the UK Government’s decision falls foul of it. Even if one accepts (controversially) that the increased flow of gas from fracking will not in itself cause harm (by way of climate disruption), it seems impossible to say that any identifiable benefit from the additional gas (which could only be by way of reduced fuel prices) clearly outweighs the potential non-excludable risk from earthquakes (even if that risk is very small).

If that’s right, can the law do anything about it? Continue reading

Hang Onto Your Soul

By Charles Foster

Image: https://the-conscious-mind.com

I can’t avoid Steven Pinker at the moment. He seems to be on every page I read. I hear him all the time, insisting that I’m cosmically insignificant; that my delusional thoughts, my loves, my aspirations, and the B Minor Mass’s effect on me are merely chemical events. I used to have stuck up above my desk (on the principle that you should know your enemy), his declaration (as stridently irrational as the sermon of a Kentucky Young Earth Creationist): ‘A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution – perhaps its greatest breakthrough – was to refute the intuition that the Universe is saturated with purpose.’ 1

He tells me that everything is getting better. Has been getting better since the first eruption of humans into the world.2 That there’s demonstrable progress (towards what, one might ask, if the universe has no purpose? – but I’ll leave that for the moment). That there’s less violence; there are fewer mutilated bodies per capita. He celebrates his enlightenment by mocking my atavism: he notes that the Enlightenment came after the Upper Palaeolithic, and (for the law of progress admits no exceptions) concludes that that means that our Enlightenment age is better than what went before. Continue reading

No, Plant-Based Meals Do Not Undermine Freedom of Choice

No, Plant-Based Meals Do Not Undermine Freedom of Choice

Written by Joanna Demaree-Cotton

 

Last month, TV personality Jeremy Clarkson took centre-stage in our local county politics with an argument against plant-based meals. His fury—expressed on television, on Twitter, and in a strongly-worded column in The Sun—was sparked by the Oxfordshire County Council’s decision to provide only plant-based meals at council-catered events as a move towards environmental sustainability.

 

Local farmers—including Jeremy Clarkson, whose farm in Oxfordshire was the focus of his latest TV venture Clarkson’s Farm—protested the measures. There is nothing surprising about this. There’s a straightforward conflict of interest here. It’s in the interests of people who make a living from selling animal products to promote diets based around animal products. (As local arable farmer John Richardson was reported to have said at the protest, “[we’re] just trying to promote the good food we produce”.)

 

More curious, however, is the claim that it’s morally wrong to have policies committing to plant-based catering. More specifically, one of Clarkson’s arguments was that deciding to provide plant-based catering is morally wrong because it interferes with freedom of choice. Standing with protesting farmers, Clarkson reportedly argued:

 

“I think people have to have choice. If people want to eat seeds and weeds, fine. If people want to eat meat, fine. … You can’t dictate. You might be a vegetarian but you can’t make everyone else a vegetarian just because you are.”

Continue reading

The Aliens Are Coming

By Charles Foster

It’s said that 2022 is going to be a bumper year for UFO revelations. Secret archives are going to be opened and the skies are going to be probed as never before for signs of extraterrestrial life.

This afternoon we might be presented with irrefutable evidence not just of life beyond the Earth, but of intelligences comparable in power and subtlety to our own. What then? Would it change our view of ourselves and the universe we inhabit? If so, how? Would it change our behaviour? If so how?

Much would depend, no doubt, on what we knew or supposed about the nature and intentions of the alien intelligences. If they seemed hostile, intent on colonising Planet Earth and enslaving us, our reactions would be fairly predictable. But what if the reports simply disclosed the existence of other intelligences, together with the fact that those intelligences knew about and were interested in us? Continue reading

Should Vaccination Status Affect ICU Admission?

By Ben Davies and Joshua Parker

Intensive care units around the country are full, with a disproportionate number of patients who have not had a single COVID-19 vaccination. Doctors have been vocal in describing the emotional cost of caring for critically unwell patients suffering from the effects of a virus for which there is an effective vaccine. Indeed, one doctor has gone so far as to argue that the unvaccinated should contribute financially for their care. It is easy to understand doctors’ frustrations given the relentless pressures and difficult decisions they’ve had to face. In the face of very real dilemmas about how to allocate scarce ICU beds, some might wonder whether the NHS should adopt a policy of ‘no vaccine, no ICU bed’.

Continue reading

How we got into this mess, and the way out

By Charles Foster

This week I went to the launch of the latest book by Iain McGilchrist, currently best known for his account of the cultural effects of brain lateralisation, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western WorldThe new book, The Matter with Things: Our brains, our delusions, and the unmaking of the world is, whatever, you think of the argument, an extraordinary phenomenon. It is enormously long – over 600,000 words packed into two substantial volumes. To publish such a thing denotes colossal confidence: to write it denotes great ambition.

It was commissioned by mainstream publishers who took fright when they saw its size. There is eloquent irony in the rejection on the ground of its length and depth of a book whose main thesis is that reductionism is killing us. It was picked up by Perspectiva press. That was brave. But I’m predicting that Perspectiva’s nerve will be vindicated. It was suggested at the launch that the book might rival or outshine Kant or Hegel. That sounds hysterical. It is a huge claim, but this is a huge book, and the claim might just be right.

Nobody can doubt that we’re in a terrible mess. The planet is on fire; we’re racked with neuroses and governed by charlatans, and we have no idea what sort of creatures we are. We tend to intuit that we are significant animals, but have no language in which to articulate that significance, and the main output of the Academy is to scoff at the intuition. Continue reading

NHS and Care Home Mandates Should Take Account of Natural Immunity to COVID

by Dominic Wilkinson, Jonathan Pugh, Julian Savulescu

 

Yesterday, the health secretary, Sajid Javid announced that COVID vaccines would become mandatory for frontline NHS staff from April.

Meanwhile, from tomorrow care home workers in the UK will not be able to work if they don’t have a vaccine certificate and are not medically exempt. This vaccine mandate has been controversial, with providers raising concerns that as many 70’000 employees could leave the sector putting beds and care at risk. However, its advocates have argued that it is a proportionate public health measure due to the need to protect vulnerable care home residents.

Proportionality is one key ethical criterion in public health ethics; public health interventions are only permissible if their benefits outweigh their costs. However, another key ethical criterion is necessity; public health interventions are only permissible if they are necessary for achieving a certain benefit.

One striking feature of the current UK care home and NHS staff mandate is that it does not allow an exemption for those who have proof of natural immunity.

Continue reading

Paying for the Flu Vaccine

By Ben Davies

As I do every winter, I recently booked an appointment for a flu vaccine. I get it for free in the UK. If I didn’t have asthma, I’d still get vaccinated, but it would cost me between £9 and £14.99. That is both an ethical error on the part of the government, and may be a pragmatic one too.

Continue reading

Philosophical Fiddling While the World Burns

By Charles Foster

An unprecedented editorial has just appeared in many health journals across the world. It relates to climate change.

The authors say that they are ‘united in recognising that only fundamental and equitable changes to societies will reverse our current trajectory.’

Climate change, they agree, is the major threat to public health. Here is an excerpt: there will be nothing surprising here:

‘The risks to health of increases above 1.5°C are now well established. Indeed, no temperature rise is “safe.” In the past 20 years, heat related mortality among people aged over 65 has increased by more than 50%.Hi gher temperatures have brought increased dehydration and renal function loss, dermatological malignancies, tropical infections, adverse mental health outcomes, pregnancy complications, allergies, and cardiovascular and pulmonary morbidity and mortality. Harms disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, including children, older populations, ethnic minorities, poorer communities, and those with underlying health problems.’ Continue reading

We Should Vaccinate Children in High-income Countries Against COVID-19, Too

Written by Lisa Forsberg, Anthony Skelton, Isra Black

In early September, children in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are set to return to school. (Scottish schoolchildren have already returned.) Most will not be vaccinated, and there will be few, if any, measures in place protecting them from COVID-19 infection. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) have belatedly changed their minds about vaccinating 16- and 17-year olds against COVID-19, but they still oppose recommending vaccination for 12-15 year olds. This is despite considerable criticism from public health experts (here, here, and here), and despite the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) declaring COVID-19 vaccines safe and effective for children aged 12 and up—Pfizer/BioNTech in the beginning of June, and Moderna the other week.

In Sweden, children returned to school in the middle of August. As in the UK, children under 16 will be unvaccinated, and there will be few or no protective measures, such as improved ventilation, systematic testing, isolation of confirmed cases, and masking. Like the JCVI in the UK, Sweden’s Folkhälsomyndigheten opposes vaccination against COVID-19 for the under-16s, despite Sweden’s medical regulatory authority, Läkemedelsverket, having approved the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for children from the age of 12. The European Medicines Agency approved Pfizer and Moderna in May and July respectively, declaring that any risks of vaccine side-effects are outweighed by the benefits for this age group.

Continue reading

Authors

Affiliations