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Toby Ord’s Posts

Excitement vs Importance: Do we have any sense of proportion?

When I was choosing a topic to write about today, I almost passed over a story on the grounds of it being too boring. It was about a large corporate donation of vaccines for developing countries — much less exciting than some other stories, such as the outbreak of killer bacteria in Germany. But then I realised that as stories go, the vaccine donation was *very* important. It also raised some very interesting questions about ‘important news’ versus ‘exciting news’.Read More »Excitement vs Importance: Do we have any sense of proportion?

Will the protection of animals be left to corporations?

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There is a pair of interesting stories connected to animal ethics in the media at the moment. One is an exposé of bad practices that persist in many British abattoirs — a mix of cruelty and sloppiness that is against the rules but happens regardless. The other is an exposé on the bad effects of EU fishery laws. In order to stop overfishing, boats are not allowed to return to harbour with more than a certain amount of fish, and must have none at all of certain species.  The problem is that this leads to perverse behaviour among the fishing boats: the amount of fish caught is always a bit random and they want to get as many as possible, so they often catch too many and dump the excess overboard (which are typically dead by that point). We hear that this results in ‘as much as two-thirds of the fish caught being thrown back in the water’ (and I’d love to know what the overall average is).

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Trying to get to the bigger moral picture

Jeff McMahan's recent piece in the New York Times has provoked a lot of discussion (including two pieces here). He argued that just as it is bad for animals to suffer at the hands of humans, so is it bad when they suffer in the wild. Moreover, since there are vastly more animals in the wild than in captivity, this might be a much bigger issue. McMahan illustrated the problem by suggesting that if there were some way to eliminate carnivorous animals from the planet without messing up the ecosystem (a big if), then it would be very important that we do so. This example was presumably designed to show how the moral claim that it is bad for so many animals to suffer could be made practical, but it ended up muddying the issue a lot, as many people focused on this hypothetical rather than the big issue.

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The ethics of prescribing antibiotics

Antibiotics are overprescribed. That is, they are given out in many cases where they will achieve little or nothing for the patient. On its own, this would merely be wasteful, but usage of antibiotics increases the development of antibiotic resistant organisms and this is bad for everyone. Today's Guardian has an article suggesting that antibiotic resistance could become a *very* big problem, with all major antibiotics becoming ineffective within a couple of generations (see also the original research in the Lancet). This leads to some very interesting questions concerning the ethics of prescribing antibiotics.

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Is it wrong to vote tactically?

Tomorrow will see the closest election in the UK for many years and there is considerable debate about whether tactical voting is acceptable (see here, here, here). This is a particularly big issue this election as the Liberal Democrats (the UK's third largest party) have had a significant rise in popularity and the vote looks to be split fairly evenly among the three parties. A three-party race causes significant problems for the 'first past the post' voting system used in the UK and the US, as it means that a party can win a seat even if 60% or 70% of the people in the seat think that it is the worst option. For example, suppose that a seat has the vote split as follows:

40% — Conservatives

38% – Liberal Democrats 

22% – Labour

The Conservatives would win this seat even if they were the third choice of all the Liberal Democrat and Labour voters. In such a case, the Labour supporters might realise that they have relatively little chance of winning and that they can avoid a worst-case scenario by voting Liberal Democrat. Voting for a party that is not your preferred party is known as tactical voting and is quite contentious.

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Do the Arts and Humanities need to justify their existence?

There has been a recent controversy in the UK over proposed cuts to university Arts and Humanities budgets (see here, here, here). These cuts are to the scale of £600 million by 2013 and are joined with a call for stronger ties between universities and business. There are also moves to make research funding depend upon the 'impact' of previous research in that university department (see here). The moves have been very unpopular with researchers in Arts and Humanities and prompt questions about whether it is right to measure these areas in terms of their contributions to the world.

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The ethics of mind-reading

Recent developments in neuroimaging have created concerns about the ethics of 'mind-reading'. A technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has led to significant advances in the ability to determine what someone is thinking by monitoring their brain activity. Early research focused on determining very simple features of a person’s mental state, such as whether or not they were currently looking at a picture of a face. However, new research by John-Dylan Haynes of the Max Planck Institute has gone beyond this, allowing scientists to determine which action the subjects in their trial were intending to perform before they performed it (see a summary, or the paper itself). The task in question was to decide whether to add or subtract the two numbers which would later be shown. After being trained on a number of examples, the system could predict which of the two operations the subject would later perform. Furthermore, a study at Carnegie Mellon University showed that it was possible to determine which word from a given list a subject was thinking of, even if it had not scanned that person’s brain before.

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How not to criticize the NHS

The British National Health Service (the NHS) has been in news a lot recently. First it was the Investor's Business Daily in the US, which claimed that:

'People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.'

This is a particularly ridiculous claim as Stephen Hawking of course has lived in the UK all of his life! He responded saying:

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Animal experimentation vs factory farming

Recent figures showing a large increase in the number of animal experiments in the UK have spurred strong complaints from animal rights campaigners (link). Nearly 3.7 million experiments were performed on animals last year, an increase of 14% over last year and the largest yearly increase since the 1980s. 

There has been a longstanding debate in the UK about whether medical experiments upon animals can be ethically justified and this debate shows no signs of ending soon. However, even setting aside this question, there is a strong argument that animal rights campaigners would better meet their own objectives by devoting most of their energy to combatting factory farming. 

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