Skip to content

Steve Clarke’s Posts

Shamima Begum and the Public Good

Written by Steve Clarke,Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities and Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford,

& School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Charles Sturt University


Shamima Begum, who left the UK in 2015 at age 15, to join the Islamic State, has been the subject of consistent media attention since she was discovered in the Al-Hawl refugee camp in Northern Syria, in February this year. Soon after being discovered in the refugee camp Begum was controversially stripped of her UK citizenship by Home Secretary Sajid Javid. Citizenship can be removed by the Home Secretary if doing so is deemed to be ‘conducive to the public good’. While it is illegal to render a person stateless, the Home Secretary is entitled to deprive UK citizens of their citizenship if they are also citizens of another country, or if they are eligible for citizenship in another country. Begum may be eligible for citizenship of Bangladesh, given that she has Bangladeshi ancestry, and there is a legal argument that she already is a citizen of Bangladesh.[1]

The Home Secretary’s decision has been much discussed in the media. Some commentators have argued that Begum’s interests should not be trumped by considerations of the public good. Others have questioned the legality of the decision. Still others have complained about the secretive nature of the decision-making process that led the Home Office to recommend to the Home Secretary that Begum be deprived of her citizenship. Here I will be concerned with a different issue. I will set aside considerations of Begum’s interests and I will set aside legal and procedural considerations. I will focus on the question of whether or not it is actually conducive to the public good in the UK to deprive Begum of her citizenship. Like most people, I do not have access to all of the information that the Home Secretary may have been apprised of, regarding Begum’s activities while she was living in the Islamic State, which would have informed his decision. So what I will have to say is necessarily speculative.

Read More »Shamima Begum and the Public Good

A punch in the nose from Pope Francis (using religion to justify violence)

Pope Francis has made a couple of statements in response to the recent Charlie Hebdo killings that seem hard to reconcile. On January 13th he spoke in Sri Lanka and informed the world that religion must never be used to justify violence. Today he spoke en route to the  Philippines and is reported as saying that making fun of religion was unacceptable and that anyone who does so can expect ‘a punch in the nose’. The punch in the nose comment is of course, in effect, an appeal to religion to justify violence. The underlying assumption here is that religion is deserving of respect and that at least some (low-level) violent responses are justified in response to displays of disrespect towards religion.

 Read More »A punch in the nose from Pope Francis (using religion to justify violence)

Prometheus and the Drive to Mastery

Writers who express caution about the over-enthusiastic embrace of new technologies, such as Michael Sandel, who worries about human enhancement and genetic engineering, and Clive Hamilton, who worries about geoengineering, sometimes warn us about the ‘Promethean attitude’, or ‘the Promethean urge’. According to Sandel, human enhancement and genetic engineering ‘… represent a kind of hyperagency – a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires. The problem is not the drift to mechanism but the drive to mastery. And what the drive to mastery misses and many even destroy is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements’ (‘The Case against Perfection’, in J. Savulescu and N. Bostrom (eds.) Human Enhancement, OUP 2012, p. 78). Hamilton worries about geoengineers who desire ‘total domination of the planet’. He describes this desire as a ‘Promethean urge named after the Greek titan who gave to humans the tools of technological mastery’ (Earthmasters, Yale 2013, p. 18).Read More »Prometheus and the Drive to Mastery

Reducing Religious Conflict conference podcasts now available

  Dear all, Podcasts of the papers presented at the recent ‘Reducing Religious Conflict’ conference held in Oxford 18-19 June 2012 are now available at: Presentations at the conference included: Scott Atran, Anthropology (University of Michigan and National Center for Scientific Research Paris) Religious and Sacred Imperatives in Human Conflict Liz Carmichael (Faculty of Theology,… Read More »Reducing Religious Conflict conference podcasts now available

Should Peer Review be Rejected?

In most academic disciplines academics devote considerable energies to trying to publish in prestigious journals. These journals are, almost invariably, peer reviewed journals. When an article is submitted their editors send this out to expert reviewers who report on it and, if the article is judged to be of sufficient quality by those referees – who typically report back a few months later – and by the editor (and perhaps an editorial board), then it will be published (often after revisions have been made). If not, as in most cases, the author is free to try to publish the article in another journal. As anyone who has participated in this process can attest, it is very time consuming and often frustrating. The best journals only publish a small percentage of submissions and so an author who is targeting such journals may often have to submit the article several times; and in fields where the convention is that one should only submit to one journal at a given time (almost all fields) they may sometimes find that it takes a year or longer to have their paper accepted somewhere. Not only is this process very time consuming, it is often capricious as the referees that one’s paper is forwarded to may not be competent to assess the article in question and may be biased in various ways against (or for) one’s article. For these sorts of reasons many academics have wondered if there might be a better way.

 Read More »Should Peer Review be Rejected?

Is Darwinian Medicine Good for Us?

 The New Scientist has recently interviewed Dr Paul Turke, paediatrician and advocate of ‘Darwinian Medicine’: Dr Turke is working on a book expounding his views, with the working title Bringing Up Baby: A Darwinian View of Pediatrics. It is unfair to form a settled judgment of Dr Turke’s views before he has had a chance to develop them fully in his book. Nevertheless, I think it is worth making a few comments now, as Dr Turke is not the only advocate of Darwinian medicine and his interview raises a cluster of interesting issues.

One good point that Turke makes is that there is benefit to be had by considering the possible evolutionary functions of our bodies’ responses to injuries and infections. Experiencing a fever is unpleasant, but it seems to be part of our bodies’ preparation to fight certain forms of infection. As such, the propensity to experience fever may well be an evolutionary adaptation that we have acquired because of its contribution to our survival. Similarly, the swelling and pain that we experience when we twist a joint looks like an evolutionary adaptation to prevent us from using that joint and so promote healing and ultimately, long term survival. It surely helps medical practice to understand how and why particular bodily responses evolved, as this helps us to better understand what their functions are.

 Read More »Is Darwinian Medicine Good for Us?

Planet of the (Little) Apes

The Daily Mail has recently published an article entitled ‘Planet of the (little) apes: Save the world by genetically engineering humans to be smaller, suggests NYU philosopher.’ (

 It is always good to see the Daily Mail covering philosophy and covering issues in applied ethics in particular. The NYU philosopher in question is former Uehiro Centre researcher S. Matthew Liao. His co-authors, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache are both affiliated with the Future of Humanity Institute here at Oxford and the paper under discussion is called ‘Human Engineering and Climate Change’ and is forthcoming in Ethics Policy and the Environment, an interdisciplinary academic journal which specialises in environmental policy and ethics.

 Read More »Planet of the (Little) Apes

Should we Encourage Atheists to get into Foxholes?

‘There are no atheists in foxholes’, as the saying goes. This is of course an exaggeration. There have always been some atheists in foxholes. With millions of military personnel representing this or that country around the world it seems inconceivable that no atheists whatsoever would be occupying foxholes. The Richard Dawkins Foundation appears to like the idea of atheists in foxholes. So much so that they have been providing care packages to members of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF) who request them. So far they have sent out over 150 care packages. These contain food items, supplies such as gloves, Dawkins Foundation pins and stickers and the occasional book. See Perhaps enough to encourage an atheist to remain in a foxhole for a while longer.Read More »Should we Encourage Atheists to get into Foxholes?

The NHS should Stop Wasting Money on Homeopaths and Homeopathic Hospitals and should Offer Placebo Pills to Patients Requesting Homeopathic Treatments

The NHS spends three to four million pounds per year on homeopathic remedies, despite conceding that there is no evidence that homeopathic remedies actually work. They justify this expenditure on the grounds of patient choice: In a post on this subject, on August 20th 2010, I took the view there is something right about this line of reasoning. If people want to choose homeopathic remedies that are known to be no more effective than placebos, rather than conventional medical alternatives, then they are making a foolish choice, but it is their choice to make and provided that they are not harming others it should be respected. However, I also argued that the NHS has a duty to manage its budget carefully. They should only pay for homeopathic remedies when these are cheaper than the conventional medical alternatives that they are replacing and they should not spend more money on homeopathic remedies than is necessary. Given that the NHS spends three to four million pounds on approximately 25,000 ‘homeopathic items’ per year, I calculated that the NHS spends an average of £140- per homeopathic item prescribed. This figure could easily be reduced. In the earlier post I offered two suggestions to help the NHS save money on homeopathy. First, on the grounds that homeopathic training makes no difference to the efficacy of homeopathic remedies, I suggested that the NHS should pay homeopaths minimum wage. Second, I argued that the NHS should reduce the cost of homeopathic remedies by making its own homeopathic remedies, or outsource the job to a competitive supplier who can reduce the price of homeopathic remedies.

Read More »The NHS should Stop Wasting Money on Homeopaths and Homeopathic Hospitals and should Offer Placebo Pills to Patients Requesting Homeopathic Treatments

Has Violence Declined? John Gray on Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker, the well-known Harvard evolutionary psychologist, has a new book just out, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, published by Viking. The claim which Pinker defends, that violence is declining and has declined over the course of human history will come as a surprise to many readers who are used to seeing a constant stream of media reports of contemporary wars, riots, homicides, rapes and so on and may have drawn the conclusion that we live in an exceptionally violent age. However, the claim that violence has declined is backed up by a mass of data. Unless Pinker has forged a lot of this data, or ignored significant countervailing evidence, it seems clear that those of us living in the early 21st Century are much less likely to die a violent death than humans living at pretty much any previous stage in history, and much less likely to be subjected to various non-lethal forms of violence too. Pinker offers a rather complicated explanation for the overall decline in human violence. The gist of it is that the spread of various ‘civilising’ cultural influences have operated to reduce violence as states have become successively more powerful and enlightenment ideas have spread. This is a very whiggish explanation of the decline in violence and is very unlikely to be accepted by those who do not share Pinker’s optimistic depiction of the trajectory of human history. Read More »Has Violence Declined? John Gray on Steven Pinker