Ethics

Lessons for Philosophers and Scientists from Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown

By Charles Foster

Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate has issued proceedings, complaining that Enola Holmes,  a recently released film about Sherlock Holmes’ sister, portrays the great detective as too emotional.

Sherlock Holmes was famously suspicious of emotions. 1 ‘ [L]ove is an emotional thing’, he icily observed, ‘and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. ‘2  “I am a brain’, he told Watson. ‘The rest of me is a mere appendix’.3

I can imagine that many professional scientists and philosophers would feel affronted if they were accused of being emotional animals. Holmes is a model for them. He’s rigorous, empirical, and relies on induction.

But here’s the thing. He’s not actually very good. Mere brains might be good at anticipating the behaviour of mere brains, but they’re not good for much else. In particular Holmes is not a patch on his rival, Chesterton’s Father Brown, a Roman Catholic priest. Gramsci writes that Brown ‘totally defeats Sherlock Holmes, makes him look like a pretentious little boy, shows up his narrowness and pettiness.’ 4 Brown is faster, more efficient, and, for the criminal, deadlier. This is because, not despite, his use of his emotions. Continue reading

This Machine Kills Viruses

Written by Stephen Rainey

If we had a machine that could eradicate coronavirus at the press of a button, there would likely be a queue to do the honours. Rather than having such a device, we have a science-policy interface, and a general context of democratic legitimacy. This isn’t a push-button, but a complex of socio-political liberties and privations. We can’t push the button, but we can learn how to use the technology we do have – by collectively following policies like staying inside, wearing masks outside, and keeping distance from others.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic a novel form of this scientific research, technological application, and influence or control of nature (including humans) is emerging. In this case, the application is public policy, as based on multitudes of scientific advice. That over which control is sought is twofold: the virus, and people. Control of the virus is not really possible without some control over the people. Likewise, control of the people becomes harder where the virus is not controlled. Public trust in tough policies wanes if there is no end in sight, or no clear rationale in place. Continue reading

Selectively Saving Christmas?

Written by Ben Davies and Gabriel De Marco

The UK governments in Westminster and the devolved nations (Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) have made a recent about-turn regarding Christmas. Where there were previously plans to relax Covid-related restrictions for five days, they will now be relaxed for only Christmas itself, and not at all in some parts of the country.

The planned relaxations were extensive. And even following the recent changes, Christmas is being treated in a way that is considerably different to other major religious festivals: no relaxation of lockdown was seen for Sikh festival Vaisakhi, Muslim celebration Eid (where more extensive lockdowns were announced just the day before), Jewish Hanukkah, or Hindu Diwali.

Although it has not explicitly been posed as such, it seems reasonable to think that saving Christmas has been a long-term plan.  The timing of the recent ‘second lockdown’ in England is also suggestive. In order to avoid many going into Christmas with infections, and many leaving with new infections, the thought may have been that we needed this “circuit-breaker”; indeed, when Johnson announced the lockdown at the end of October, one hope he expressed was that “taking action” at that point would make Christmas gatherings more likely. And even amid the recent reversal, communal worship can continue even in the new ‘Tier 4’ locations.

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Consent Without Alternatives

Written by Ben Davies and Joshua Parker

“COVID-19: Do not resuscitate orders might have been put in place without consent, watchdog says”. This recent headline followed an investigation by the Care Quality Commission into Do Not Attempt Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) decisions early in the pandemic. In a recent post, Dominic Wilkinson highlights two misconceptions in the coverage of this report, one of which is the ‘consent misconception’.

Dominic’s view is that “there is no ethical requirement…to seek the agreement of patients not to offer or provide a treatment” which a medical professional judges inappropriate. Of course, his position is not that consultation and discussion around CPR is inappropriate, only that consent is not necessary. This is the standard view on consent in this context and, due in part to the Tracey judgment, reflects doctors’ practice. Thus, an important distinction emerges between consenting to the withholding of some treatment, and discussion of that decision. Doctors may be ethically required to discuss a decision without also having an obligation to seek the patient’s consent. The absence of consent, then, does not signal that the DNACPR was unethical, whereas a failure to consult probably will.

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Could vaccine requirements for entering pubs be wrong, while closing pubs altogether is OK?

By Tom Douglas

Suppose that, before you could enter a pub, you had to produce a ‘vaccine passport’ showing that you had been vaccinated against the new coronavirus. 

Vaccine requirements like this are controversial. In the UK, the government has been keen to deny that it is even considering their use. This is in some ways puzzling, for closing pubs altogether has not been that controversial, and preventing people from entering pubs without exception seems, at first sight, to be a greater imposition on liberty than preventing people from entering pubs without first being vaccinated. As my colleagues Julian Savulescu and Alberto Giubilini recently noted, it seems better, in terms of liberty, to have some choice than none. 

This raises the question, could a vaccination requirement for entering pubs be wrong, while closing pubs altogether is not?

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DNACPR Orders in a Pandemic: Misgivings and Misconceptions.

by Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

This week, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) published an interim report into resuscitation decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a number of media outlets, the report found that in the first wave of the crisis inappropriate and possibly unlawful ‘do not resuscitate’ orders were used “without the consent of patients and families” (see eg Telegraph, Sky).

There are real concerns and important questions to answer about policies and care for patients in care homes and in the community during the pandemic. However, the media stories, and the CQC report itself appear to illustrate two ethical misconceptions.

 

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Antenatal Care During The COVID-19 Pandemic: Couples As Dyads

Written by Rebecca Brown

 

During the pandemic, many healthcare services have been reduced. One instance of this is the antenatal care of expectant mothers. Ordinarily, partners of pregnant women are permitted to attend appointments. This includes the 12 week scan: typically the first opportunity expectant parents get to see the developing foetus, to discover whether it has a heartbeat and is growing in the right place. This can be very exciting and, if there’s bad news, devastating. It also includes scans in mid pregnancy and (for first-time mothers) at 36 weeks, as well as the entirety of labour.

During the pandemic, many healthcare providers have restricted attendance at antenatal appointments as well as labour and postnatal care. Even when lockdown restrictions were eased, with pubs, zoos and swimming pools re-opening and diners in England being encouraged to Eat Out to Help Out, some hospitals continued to exclude partners from all antenatal appointments and all but the final stage of labour, requiring them to leave shortly after birth. This included cases where mother and newborn had to remain on wards for days following delivery. With covid cases rising, it seems likely that partners will once again be absent from much antenatal, labour, and postnatal care across the country. Continue reading

The Duty To Ignore Covid-19

By Charles Foster

This is a plea for a self-denying ordinance on the part of philosophers. Ignore Covid-19. It was important that you said what you have said about it, but the job is done. There is nothing more to say. And there are great dangers in continuing to comment. It gives the impression that there is only one issue in the world. But there are many others, and they need your attention. Just as cancer patients were left untreated because Covid closed hospitals, so important philosophical problems are left unaddressed, or viewed only through the distorting lens of Covid. Continue reading

Press Release: UK Approves COVID-19 Challenge Studies

Responses to the UK COVID-19 Challenge Studies: 

“In a pandemic, time is lives.  So far, over a million people have died.

“There is a moral imperative to develop to a safe and effective vaccine – and to do so as quickly as possible.  Challenge studies are one way of accelerating vaccine research.  They are ethical if the risks are fully disclosed and they are reasonable.  The chance of someone aged 20-30 dying of COVID-19 is about the same as the annual risk of dying in a car accident.  That is a reasonable risk to take, especially to save hundreds of thousands of lives.  It is surprising challenge studies were not done sooner.  Given the stakes, it is unethical not to do challenge studies.”

Prof Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics, and Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and Co-Director of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, University of Oxford

“Human challenge studies are an important and powerful research tool to help accelerate our understanding of infectious diseases and vaccine development.  They have been used for many years for a range of different infections.

“The announcement of the UK Human Challenge Program is a vital step forward for the UK and the world in our shared objective of bringing the COVID-19 pandemic to an end.  With cases climbing across Europe, and more than 1.2 million deaths worldwide, there is an urgent ethical imperative to explore and establish COVID-19 challenge trials.

“All research needs ethical safeguards.  Challenge trials need to be carefully designed to ensure that those who take part are fully informed of the risks, and that the risks to volunteers are minimised.  Not everyone could take part in a challenge trial (only young, healthy volunteers are likely to be able to take part).  Not everyone would choose to take part.  But there are hundreds of young people in the UK and elsewhere who have already signed up to take part in COVID challenge studies.  They deserve our admiration, our support and our thanks.”

Prof Dominic Wilkinson, Professor of Medical Ethics, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

Further Research

Read more about the ethics of challenge studies:

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Must Clinical Ethics Committees Involve Patients or Families in their Meetings?

By Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics and Michael Dunn @ethical_mikey

In a high court case reported last week, a judge strongly criticised a London hospital’s clinical ethics committee (CEC). The case related to disputed treatment for a gravely ill nine-year old child. There had been a breakdown in the relationship between the clinical team and the child’s parents. Prior to going to court, the clinicians had referred the case to the CEC. The committee had heard evidence from the medical professionals involved, and apparently reached consensus that further invasive life prolonging treatments were not in the child’s best interests. However, the committee had not involved the parents in the meeting. The judge found this omission striking and regrettable. She noted

“a lack of involvement by patients and/or their families is itself an issue of medical ethics and I am most surprised that there is not guidance in place to ensure their involvement and/or participation. … the absence of any prior consultation or participation, cannot be good practice and should generally be unacceptable.”
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