Regulation

Mandatory Morality: When Should Moral Enhancement Be Mandatory?

By Julian Savulescu

Together with Tom Douglas and Ingmar Persson, I launched the field of moral bioenhancement. I have often been asked ‘When should moral bioenhancement be mandatory?’ I have often been told that it won’t be effective if it is not mandatory.

I have defended the possibility that it could be mandatory. In that paper with Ingmar Persson, I discussed the conditions under which mandatory moral bioenhancement that removed “the freedom to fall” might be justified: a grave threat to humanity (existential threat) with a very circumscribed limitation of freedom (namely the freedom to kill large numbers of innocent people), but with freedom retained in all other spheres. That is, large benefit for a small cost.

Elsewhere I have described this as an “easy rescue”, and have argued that some level of coercion can be used to enforce a duty of easy rescue in both individual and collective action problems.

The following algorithm captures these features, making explicit the relevant factors:

Algorithm for Moral Bioenhancement
[modified from JME 2020]

Note that this applies to all moral enhancement, not only moral bioenhancement. It applies to any intervention that exacts a cost on individuals for the benefit of others. That is, when can the autonomy or well-being of one is compromised for the autonomy or well-being of others. This algorithm creates a decision procedure to answer that question.

Indeed, this algorithm was developed to answer the question, in the COVID pandemic: when should vaccination be mandatory? 

But it applies to any social co-ordination problem when risks or harms must be imposed to achieve a social goal. Examples include public health meaures (e.g quarantine or vaccination), environmental policies (e.g. carbon taxes), taxation policies more generally, and others.

Can large harms (including, in extreme cases, death) ever be imposed on individuals to secure extremely large collective benefits (such as continued existence of humanity)? According to utilitarianism and many forms of consequentialism, it can be justified. But we need not answer this question to consider the moral justification for imposing small risks or harms for large collective benefits. We should all agree, whatever our religious or personal philosophical perspectives, that small risks or harms should be imposed for large social benefits (this is the second account below (absolute threshold)). After all, that is what justifies mandatory seat belt laws, speed limits and taxation. And it could justify mandatory moral enhancement, such as moral education, and moral bioenhancement, should that ever be possible, if the risks or harms were equivalent and the benefits as great.

Proportionality: Relative or Absolute?

One way to think about “easy rescue” is whether the proportionality of sacrifice to benefit should be relative or absolute? In a previous paper with Alberto Giubilini, Tom Douglas and Hannah Maslen, I discussed relative thresholds vs absolute thresholds. Peter Singer holds a relative threshold view which stipulate that large individual costs are justified when the benefits for others is proportionately larger. On a threshold account, there is un upper limit to the magnitude of the cost you can impose on individuals for the collective benefit, even if beyond that threshold the cost would be proportionate to the benefit. For example, on the relative account it would be permissible to impose death on an individual to save significantly more, because it is proportionate. Or extreme effective altruists might argue that you should give, say, 70% of your income to save people in a poverty-stricken country. On the absolute threshold account, the individual cost is not justified if it is above a certain threshold (so, for example, we could set the threshold much lower than the famous “kill one to save many” examples, even if it is relatively proportionate, because death is too large a cost for an individual).

Thanks to Alberto Giubilini for helpful comments

Pandemic Ethics: Testing times: An ethical framework and practical recommendations for COVID-19 testing for NHS workers

Dr Alberto Giubilini, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro  Centre for Practical Ethics and Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities was part of an independent rapid-response project to develop an ethical framework for COVID-19 swab testing for NHS workers. Following a stakeholder consultation, the expert group have published a report identifying ethical considerations and providing practical guidance and recommendations to identify good practice and support improvement.

The report is available online. 

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

Pandemic Ethics: Extreme Altruism in a Pandemic

Written by Julian Savulescu and Dominic Wilkinson

Cross-posted with the Journal of Medical Ethics blog

Altruism is one person sacrificing or risking his or her own interests for another’s interests. Humans, like other animals, have a tendency towards altruism. This is usually directed to members of their own group. An example is donating a kidney to a family member. This is quite risky – it involves immediate risk of death from anaesthesia or post-operative complications, and long term risk of kidney failure.

But sometimes people are altruistic towards strangers.

Altruism often involves fairly small personal sacrifices. (For example, most people donate to charity, but in countries like the UK, it is typically only a tiny proportion of their income) Where someone can cause great benefit to another person at little or no personal cost, there is an ethical obligation for them to do so. This is the Duty of Easy Rescue. A whole movement has arisen called Effective Altruism which aims to ensure that altruistic acts do as much good as possible.

Altruism can also be extreme. Some people give up their entire livelihood to work overseas for aid agencies or charities. During a pandemic, health workers may take on significant personal risk to provide front-line medical care. In times of war, people may choose to literally give their life for others of their nation.

We can define extreme altruism as an act taken for the benefit of another that involves making large life-altering or life-threatening sacrifices or personal risks.

Society’s approach to extreme altruism is inconsistent. At times of obvious societal need, it encourages it (for example, clapping on the doorstep for ‘key workers’ is in order to offer our appreciation for their altruistic assumption of great risk) or even requires it by conscription of military personnel. At times of perceived lesser need, it is discouraged or even banned. For example, in normal times people are only allowed to take part in research, even if they do so with full knowledge and for no payment, if the risk of the research is minimal, and not if the risks are similar to everyday life. In some jurisdictions, altruistic kidney donations to strangers are banned.

It is not clear why extreme altruism should be limited to national emergency. If someone is competent, knows all the relevant facts, and is thinking clearly and choosing autonomously, they should be able to sacrifice their interests or even life for others. If someone is permitted to participate in highly risky personal activities for purely personal benefit (e.g. climbing Mount Everest, base jumping, or boxing) they ought to be permitted to at least take equivalent risks for the benefit of someone else (e.g. participating in research). Just as a rational, clear thinking person who is competent should be able to sacrifice their own life through suicide for any reason, they should be able to do this for the benefit of others.

We have argued at various points for extreme altruism in medicine. In one sense, there is a constant national emergency: we are all aging and slowly dying. There is a war against aging and death: we are fighting it with medicine. And people should be able sacrifice their interests or lives in this war. 

Extreme altruism extended to COVID-19

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Guest Post: Pandemic Ethics. Social Justice Demands Mass Surveillance: Social Distancing, Contact Tracing and COVID-19

Written by: Bryce Goodman

The spread of COVID-19 presents a number of ethical dilemmas. Should ventilators only be used to treat those who are most likely to recover from infection? How should violators of quarantine be punished? What is the right balance between protecting individual privacy and reducing the virus’ spread?

Most of the mitigation strategies pursued today (including in the US and UK) rely primarily on lock-downs or “social distancing” and not enough on contact tracing — the use of location data to identify who an infected individual may have come into contact with and infected. This balance prioritizes individual privacy above public health. But contact tracing will not only protect our overall welfare. It can also help address the disproportionately negative impact social distancing is having on our least well off.
Contact tracing “can achieve epidemic control if used by enough people,” says a recent paper published in Science. “By targeting recommendations to only those at risk, epidemics could be contained without need for mass quarantines (‘lock-downs’) that are harmful to society.” Once someone has tested positive for a virus, we can use that person’s location history to deduce whom they may have “contacted” and infected. For example, we might find that 20 people were in close proximity and 15 have now tested positive for the virus. Contact tracing would allow us to identify and test the other 5 before they spread the virus further.
The success of contact tracing will largely depend on the accuracy and ubiquity of a widespread testing program. Evidence thus far suggests that countries with extensive testing and contact tracing are able to avoid or relax social distancing restrictions in favor of more targeted quarantines.

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The Perfect Protocol? Ethics Guidelines in a Pandemic

Written by Joshua Parker and Ben Davies

One question occupying politicians and healthcare workers in the middle of this global pandemic is whether there will be enough ventilators when COVID-19 reaches its peak. As cases in the UK continue to increase, so too will demand for ventilators; Italy has reported overwhelming demand for the equipment and the need to ration access, and the UK will likely face similar dilemmas. Indeed, one UK consultant has predicted a scenario of having 8 patients for every one ventilator. Aside from anything else, this would be truly awful for the healthcare professionals having to make such decisions and live with the consequences.

Ethics is an inescapable part of medical practice, and healthcare professionals face numerous ethical decisions throughout their careers. But ethics is challenging, often involving great uncertainty and ambiguity. Medics often lack the time to sort through the morass that is ethics.  Many therefore prefer heuristics, toolboxes and a handful of principles to simplify, speed up and streamline their ethics.

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Pandemic Ethics: Covid-19 Shows Just How Much of Ethics Depends on (Good) Data

Written by Hazem Zohny

In times of crises, the archetypal ethicist sits in the proverbial armchair and hums and haws, testing out intuitions about an action or policy against a jumble of moral theories. Covid-19 shows why the archetypal ethicist is as useless as antibiotics are for viral infections.

This is because virtually all the difficult ethical questions this pandemic raises boil down to having access to the relevant data, rather than the relevant intuitions or theories.

Consider these questions, all sourced from recent blogs in this Pandemic Ethics Series:

But also: Should isolation have started earlier? How draconian is too draconian? Should we aim for herd immunity? What criteria should determine who gets the ventilator if they start to run out? Etc. Etc.

These all seem like meaty moral questions – and they are. But their meatiness does not really stem from the values or principles they call into question. Instead, it is the uncertainty of the empirical data surrounding all aspects of the pandemic that should incite all the humming and hawing.

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Bad Ads And Stereotypes

Written by Rebecca Brown

In June this year, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) brought into effect a ban on harmful gender stereotypes in advertising. In response to public outcry about adverts such as the 2015 ‘Are you beach body ready?’ campaign by Protein World, and growing discomfort with outdated depictions of gender roles in the media, the ASA undertook a project to consider whether existing regulation is fit for purpose. They concluded that “evidence suggests that a tougher line needs to be taken on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles and characteristics, which through their content and context may be potentially harmful to people.” (ASA, 2017: 3)

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An Ambitious Vision for Bioethics – Some Reflections on Professor Jing-Bao Nie’s St Cross Seminar

Written by Ben Davies

Many readers of the Practical Ethics blog will remember the astounding announcement last November by Chinese researcher He Jiankui that he had used CRISPR-cas9 technology to edit into two healthy embryos a resistance to developing HIV, later resulting in the birth of twins Lulu and Nana. As Professor Julian Savulescu expressed in several posts on this blog, the announcement spurred widespread ethical condemnation.

The first in this year’s series of St Cross Special Ethics seminars saw the University of Otago’s Professor Jing-Bao Nie (who is also currently a 2019/20 Fellow of Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study) get behind the headlines to consider the political and social context of He’s experiment. At the core of Professor Nie’s presentation was that the decision to engage in genetic editing of healthy embryos could neither be written off as the act of a ‘rogue researcher’, nor dismissed as merely the product of a uniquely Chinese disregard for ethics, as some have argued.

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Press Release: Tafida Raqeeb: Right Outcome, Wrong Reasons

Written by Professor Julian Savulescu

Dominic Wilkinson describes well the decision to allow a severely brain damaged girl, Tafida Raqeeb, to travel to Italy to continue to be kept alive with artificial ventilation.

This is the right outcome. It appears as if Tafida is insensate or unconscious. If Tafida is vegetative, continuing treatment won’t cause suffering. So it is not harmful for her to be transferred to Italy at her parent’s request. (It would also be permissible to discontinue medical treatment.)

There is some chance she might experience something, in other words that she is minimally conscious. If she is minimally conscious, doctors would have to show she is unrelievably suffering in order to discontinue treatment in her interests. That has not been demonstrated in this case.

Medicine is provided to patients in their best interests. It is not clear, at least to me, whether it is against Tafida’s interests to continue to be kept alive. Italian experts cite a number of reasons to continue to keep Tafida alive, not least to clarify prognosis and to allow parents to come to terms with the situation.

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