Politics

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

Legacies

By Stephen Rainey

Joe Biden won the recent US election. As yet, the normal concession speech from the losing candidate has not been forthcoming. Donald Trump’s actions since losing the presidency have been, well, Trumpian, prompting Biden to label them an ‘embarrassment.’ He also suggested that The Donald was endangering his legacy in not reacting more gracefully. But what use is talk of ‘legacy’? What matters most about it?

It would be easy to ‘Goldwater’ Trump, that is, diagnose some mental incapacity from afar. One could suggest he was ill-equipped to absorb his defeat. He has behaved in ways that could be seen as pathological. Maybe, we might continue, he really doesn’t believe this is the end. If that were the case, there would be no need to consider legacy. It would also be easy to have suspected that, far from sticking around, 45 would flounce out of the White House, his pride wounded. Legacy wouldn’t matter in that case, because the electorate, the people, would have shown themselves to be unworthy, having voted the wrong way. Sad. 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

We’re All Vitalists Now

By Charles Foster

It has been a terrible few months for moral philosophers – and for utilitarians in particular. Their relevance to public discourse has never been greater, but never have their analyses been so humiliatingly sidelined by policy makers across the world. The world’s governments are all, it seems, ruled by a rather crude vitalism. Livelihoods and freedoms give way easily to a statistically small risk of individual death.

That might or might not be the morally right result. I’m not considering here the appropriateness of any government measures, and simply note that whatever one says about the UK Government’s response, it has been supremely successful in generating fear. Presumably that was its intention. The fear in the eyes above the masks is mainly an atavistic terror of personal extinction – a fear unmitigated by rational risk assessment. There is also a genuine fear for others (and the crisis has shown humans at their most splendidly altruistic and communitarian as well). But we really don’t have much ballast.

The fear is likely to endure long after the virus itself has receded. Even if we eventually pluck up the courage to hug our friends or go to the theatre, the fear has shown us what we’re really like, and the unflattering picture will be hard to forget.

I wonder what this new view of ourselves will mean for some of the big debates in ethics and law? The obvious examples are euthanasia and assisted suicide. Continue reading

Forced Medical Feeding

By Roger Crisp

At a recent New St Cross Special Ethics Seminar Prof. Noam Zohar of the Dept. of Philosophy, Bar Ilan University and a member of Israel’s National Bioethics Council, spoke on ‘Debating Forced Medical Feeding: A Critical Examination of Israeli Responses to Hunger Strikes’. Continue reading

What is Your Gender? A Friendly Guide to the Public Debate

What is your gender? A friendly guide to the public debate

Brian D. Earp

 

Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of an informal lecture, based on coursework submitted as part of my Ph.D. It was recorded on Whidbey Island, Washington, and published online on January 15th, 2020. A link to the video is here: https://youtu.be/LZERzw9BGrs

 

Video description:  I’m a philosopher and cognitive scientist who studies gender, sex, identity, sexuality and related topics and I am offering this video as a friendly guide to the (often very heated) public debate that is going on around these issues. This is my best attempt, not to score political points for any particular side, but to give an introductory map of the territory so you can think for yourself, investigate further, and reach your own conclusions about such controversial questions as “What does mean to be a man or a woman?” This video is not meant to be authoritative; it is not the final word; experts on these topics will find much to quibble with (and perhaps some things to disagree with outright). But for those who would like to take some first steps in getting a sense of the landscape without feeling intimidated, I hope this will be of some use. Continue reading

Coronavirus: Dark Clouds, But Some Silver Linings?

By Charles Foster

Cross posted from The Conversation

To be clear, and in the hope of heading off some trolls, two observations. First: of course I don’t welcome the epidemic. It will cause death, worry, inconvenience and great physical and economic suffering. Lives and livelihoods will be destroyed. The burden will fall disproportionately on the old, the weak and the poor.

And second: these suggestions are rather trite. They should be obvious to reasonably reflective people of average moral sensibility.

That said, here goes:

1. It will make us realise that national boundaries are artificial

The virus doesn’t carry a passport or recognise frontiers. The only way of stopping its spread would be to shut borders wholly, and not even the most rabid nationalists advocate that. It would mean declaring that nations were prisons, with no one coming in or out – or at least not coming back once they’d left. In a world where we too casually assume that frontiers are significant, it doesn’t do any harm to be reminded of the basic fact that humans occupy an indivisible world.

Cooperation between nations is essential to combating the epidemic. That cooperation is likely to undermine nationalist rhetoric.

2. It will make us realise that people are not islands

The atomistic billiard-ball model of the person – a model that dominates political and ethical thinking in the west – is biologically ludicrous and sociologically unsustainable. Our individual boundaries are porous. We bleed into one another and infect one another with both ills and joys. Infectious disease is a salutary reminder of our interconnectedness. It might help us to recover a sense of society.

3. It may encourage a proper sort of localism

Internationalism may be boosted. I hope so. But if we’re all locked up with one another in local quarantine, we might get to know the neighbours and the family members we’ve always ignored. We might distribute ourselves less widely, and so be more present to the people around us.

We might even find out that our local woods are more beautiful than foreign beaches, and that local farmers grow better and cheaper food than that which is shipped (with the associated harm to the climate) across the globe.

4. It may encourage altruism

Exigencies tend to bring out the best and the worst in us. An epidemic may engender and foster altruistic heroes.

5. It may remind us of some neglected constituencies

Mortality and serious illness are far higher among the old, the very young, and those suffering from other diseases. We tend to think about – and legislate for – the healthy and robust. The epidemic should remind us that they are not the only stakeholders.

6. It may make future epidemics less likely

The lessons learned from the coronavirus epidemic will pay dividends in the future. We will be more realistic about the dangers of viruses crossing the barriers between species. The whole notion of public health (a Cinderella speciality in medicine in most jurisdictions) has been rehabilitated. It is plain that private healthcare can’t be the whole answer. Much has been learned about the containment and mitigation of infectious disease. There are strenuous competitive and cooperative efforts afoot to develop a vaccine, and vaccines against future viral challenges are likely to be developed faster as a result.

7. It might make us more realistic about medicine

Medicine is not omnipotent. Recognising this might make us more aware of our vulnerabilities. The consequences of that are difficult to predict, but living in the world as it really is, rather than in an illusory world, is probably a good thing. And recognising our own vulnerability might make us more humble and less presumptuous.

8. Wildlife may benefit

China has announced a permanent ban on trade in and consumption of wildlife. That in itself is hugely significant from a conservation, an animal welfare, and a human health perspective. Hopefully other nations will follow suit.

Continue reading

Climate Ought to Change Politics

Written by Stephen Rainey

In the midst of global climate change set to devastate entire ways of life, and ultimately on track to render the biosphere uninhabitable for all but the most adaptable organisms, it seems timely to question how political legitimacy relates to matters of scientific fact. While it seems mostly desirable that groups of people ought to be self-determining in terms of how they get along with the business of living, there appears to be a limit wherein this principle renders mutual self-determination among groups impossible.

Self-determination among different groups in some sense generates contradictory demands. Especially where limited resources are a factor, not everyone can successfully pursue their own ends, which generates tensions between groups. Among the limits that prompt such mutually challenging ways of life are the kinds of facts discovered in scientific research. We know from trends observable by climate scientists that patterns of living currently enjoyed by many are unsustainable and are causing damage to the possibility of continued living on Earth. Yet this is known in a rather strange way. Continue reading

Pub Bores and Politics

Written by Stephen Rainey

Pub bet: I bet you can’t button your coat up. You smell a rat, but go along with it, fastening you coat to see what’s up. I claim a victorious pint of plum porter because you close your coat starting with the top button and moving down. You didn’t button your coat up but down.

A pub bet works, to the extent that it does, by subverting a conventional meaning of some phrase or word. We know buttoning up has nothing to do with direction, but there is a direction word in the phrasal verb. Cheeky subversion leads to endless mirth. 

There’s clearly no ethical problem in the minor subversion and misleading that characterises a pub bet. For bigger, or for real bets, we’d be concerned if subversion like this went on. The genie that granted wishes on a tight, close, literal meaning of words used, rather than on the basis of what the wisher probably wanted, would be a scary being. 

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