Nadia N. Sawicki It is well known that maternal mortality rates in the United States are higher than in other countries in the developed world, and that many of these deaths are preventable. But a report published by NPR last week, … Continue reading
This essay received an Honorable Mention in the Graduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics 2017
Written by University of Oxford student, Fergus Peace
- The Problem of Cumulative Impact
In large, integrated societies, some of the most important moral challenges we face can only be resolved by large-scale collective action. Global poverty and climate change are problems which won’t be solved unless large numbers of people act to address them.
One important part of our response to these problems is to avoid fallacious ‘futility thinking’, a cognitive bias which makes people less likely to act when they see the problem as being too large for them to solve. You aren’t going to end world poverty alone, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you should do about it. Your individual donations can make an enormous difference.
Other problems, however, are more philosophically and practically challenging. Sometimes morally significant outcomes are driven by an aggregate which your individual action is powerless to meaningfully affect. In these cases, it’s not just that your individual action won’t completely solve the problem: it won’t do any moral good at all.
Consider a few examples.
- Voting: No election of any real size is decided by a margin of one vote, so it’s true of your vote that it makes no difference: if you don’t vote and your candidate loses, your vote wouldn’t have made them win; if you do vote and they win, withdrawing your vote wouldn’t have made them lose.
- Vegetarianism: Butchers don’t respond to every small change in their customers’ purchasing; wholesalers don’t respond to every change in one butcher’s purchasing; abattoirs and farms don’t respond to every change in wholesale orders.
by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D.
On March 17, 2016 philosopher Peter Railton delivered the Ethics, Politics, and Society lecture at Rice University. Railton is Gregory S. Kavka Distinguished University Professor, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and John Stephenson Perrin Professor at The University of Michigan. His talk was titled, “Homo prospectus: A new perspective on the mind.”
Railton’s main aim was to counter a current trend in the social sciences that involves a distrust of our intuitive responses to the world. This skepticism has crept into moral philosophy as the empirical literature showing the effects of various framing effects on moral judgments increases. Philosophical ethics has had a heavy reliance on “thought experiments” whereby agents are posed with a moral dilemma and asked to make a decision about what ought to be done. Consider, for example, the trolley problem posed in part to help us evaluate consequentialism (i.e., a person is faced with a choice of whether to do nothing and allow a train to travel along a track to kill 5 people, or to flip a switch diverting the train onto another track where 1 will be killed). Neuroscience has shown that we prospect by making “mental models” during these judgments (predictive and evaluative models of the options). Of course, we are often not aware of the models themselves; what we are instead aware of is our intuition or “sense” that a certain choice is a good choice or the best option in the situation.
As mentioned, these intuitions are increasingly questioned. Return to the trolley dilemma just posed.
This essay was a finalist in the Graduate Category of the 2nd Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics
Written by University of Oxford Student, Yutang Jin
In a family, parents can exert enormous influence on their children. Parents tend to implant in their children’s mind, for good or ill, values and ideas which go on to guide their whole lives. This essay focuses on this relationship and discusses what justification we can have for parental influence over their children.
The dominant discourse in addressing the parent-child relationship is that of moral rights. I argue, however, that the liberal discourse of rights, sound as it may be, has lots of drawbacks that disqualify it from being a cogent account of family relationships. I then go on to craft a Confucian framework whereby to discuss how parents and children should behave to each other. My main argument is that parents’ influence is justifiable insofar as parents comply with moral rules that regulate their relationship with children, and these rules are subject to public justification and rectification.
One way to think of where parents’ discretion over their children ends is to be found in the liberal tradition of rights. According to natural rights theories, children are entitled to basic human rights as any others. This account, however, suffers two drawbacks. First, childrearing prima facie demands more of parents than providing basic needs as prescribed by general human rights. The second problem is what I call a ‘redistribution dilemma’, namely that it fails to convincingly account for why a child should not, upon their birth, be redistributed by the state to suitable stepparents in a way that makes her future life better off than if she stays with her biological parents.
This essay was awarded second place in the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics graduate category.
Written by University of Oxford student, Benjamin Lange
Important Decision: Imagine that you are about to finish your philosophy PhD and are faced with the following two choices: You can either accept a postdoctoral position at a prestigious university or you can take up a job that will enable you to positively impact the lives of other people who are very badly off. Suppose further that you would strongly prefer to become a philosopher. However, you are having second thoughts. It’s also clear to you that you could spend your time and energy in a more beneficial way by helping others. And you recognise that you have strong moral reason to do so.
With this in mind, and standing at this important juncture in your life and career you now ask yourself:
“Given that there is some moral leeway, am I justified in pursing a philosophical (minimally helpful) career even though I could also choose a (more helpful) altruistic career?”
How would you answer?
The above is one particular instance of the more general question of whether we are justified in prioritising our own plans and commitments over the demands of morality. Call this question the Big Question.
From a practical perspective, the Big Question is among most important questions that we can ask, since we spend around 80,000 hours in a career over our lifetime. This is not only a big chunk of our lives generally, but also time that we could use to have a positive impact on the world. At the same time, the question is so obvious that hardly anyone seriously considers it—we take it as a given that we have moral leeway to pursue projects that are important for us.
Philosopher Russell Blackford argues that regulatory authorities should not allow “the tyranny of mere public opinion” to impede technological advances in genomics. I disagree strenuously. To explain why, let’s talk for a minute about … Mark Zuckerberg.
It was perhaps the last big Silicon Valley news story of 2015: Facebook’s CEO blew the headlines wide open when he and Dr. Priscilla Chan announced that they will dedicate 99% of their Facebook shares to their eponymous charitable LLC within their lifetimes. Widespread adulation was the order of the day.
You don’t have to be Gawker gadfly Sam Biddle to find some cause for concern, though. Two unelected, unaccountable magnates now wield a $45 billion policymaking LLC, unimpeded by the usual tax-law strictures for charitable organizations. They can and will remake swaths of the world as they see fit. What’s your recourse if you disagree with their definition of “better?” (Think you’ll never disagree? I’ve got some New Jersey charter schools to sell you.)
So, why rehearse the well-worn debate over philanthropy’s democratic legitimacy on a law and biosciences blog? Money isn’t the only way to change the world. Teams of scientists are closing in on the ability to alter the entire biosphere on the genomic level. With Blackford (and other august voices) calling on bioethics to “get out of the way” of advancing genetic technology, I want to discuss a reason to get in the way. It’s not so much about ethics (as we usually envision it) as about political philosophy. I’d exhort us to be quicker to ask: who died and made you king?
Playing God, or Playing King?
One of the most stunning successes I have personally seen in my life is the emergence of the Effective Altruism movement. I remember when Will Crouch (now MacAskill) first presented 80 000 hours to our Graduate Discussion Group and Toby Ord was still a grad student. From their ideas a whole movement has emerged of brilliant young people galvanised into doing good. We are getting the brightest, best people of the current generation coming to Oxford to engage with the Centre for Effective Altruism. Almost every grad student I come across has some connection. Well done Will and Toby, and all those others who have contributed to establishing this movement
So I guess I should not have been surprised when during my visit to Harvard this week, a student contacted me from EA to give an ad hoc talk. I discovered there were cells all over the world and the movement had spread way beyond Oxford.
Anyway, I gave an impromptu talk and predictably there were many questions I could not answer satisfactorily. One the issues I covered was the need to create a new basic (or minimal) secular morality. This is necessary not only to decide what the goals of moral bioenhancement should be (my favourite current pet topic), but indeed how education should be revised and society ordered. Every society has a set of normative commitments. Ours are outdated, archaic and unfit for the challenges of a globalised, interconnected and technologically advanced world.
Since we were talking about Altruism, I said one part of a minimal morality which could be justified on either utilitarian or contractualist grounds is:
Duty of Easy Rescue: when the cost to you of some action is minimal, and the benefit (or prevention of harm) to another is great, you should perform that action.
by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D.
Various ethical theories underlie approaches to resolving bioethical dilemmas. Consequentialist theories hold that the moral evaluation of an action is based solely upon the goodness or badness of its consequences for all of the relevant parties. Deontological theories, on the other hand, hold that the moral evaluation of an action is based at least in part upon its intrinsic nature and its resulting conformity to moral rules. Popular deontological theories utilized in bioethics include Kantianism, Natural Rights theory, or theories about Special Obligations (e.g., physician fiduciary duties). One relatively neglected deontological theory that seems to underlie a significant amount of recent work in bioethics is Contractualism.
Contractualism is the view that actions are morally right if they are permitted by the rules that free, equal, and rational people would agree to live by. Contractualism takes the positions or policies adopted by various stakeholders coming together as constitutive of the political or moral law. I think it is fair to say that a major movement in bioethics, especially among the more empirically inclined bioethicists, is to gather various stakeholders together to reflect on pressing bioethical issues. Public opinion polls on ethical and policy issues, “Delphi processes” to establish recommendations or guidelines, qualitative research to elucidate the moral concerns and views of various parties, public town meetings, and the move to include various stakeholders (especially patients) in research (including bioethical research) funded by the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) all serve as examples. Convening of groups of people to agree on the identification of and sometimes resolution of ethical and policy issues is becoming an increasingly common methodological approach in bioethics.
I wrote recently on this blog about the disappointingly peremptory resolution by the US National Institutes for Health that they would not fund any use of genome editing technologies in human embryos. Although an understandable default, given the history, personalities and politics involved, my point was that while there may be ethical reasons not to support the research there may also be ethical reasons to support it, and to decline to examine these in the novel conditions created by, for example, wide ranging debates on pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and cell reconstruction techniques for the avoidance of mitochondrial DNA disorders, and innovations in biotechnology (notably the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing system), amounts to an abdication of responsibility if you exert a major influence on the production of scientific knowledge for your society. The US Department of Health and Human Services has now commissioned the National Academy of Science to deliver a report on the scientific, medical and ethical considerations relating to gene editing and the Academy has set up an advisory group (which, despite earlier calls from its chair and other members for an international and interdisciplinary debate, apparently has only one non-US and one non-scientist member).
A major influence on the production and transfer of scientific knowledge on this side of the Atlantic is the Wellcome Trust, the world’s second largest non-governmental funder of medical research. The Trust is currently supporting the consensus-building, interdisciplinary (though science-driven) Hinxton Group to examine genome editing and (it must be declared) is one of the three, hands-off funders of the Nuffield Council (along with the Nuffield Foundation and the Medical Research Council).
Written by Johann Ahola-Launonen
University of Helsinki
How should bioethical discussion be? The academic debate entails a tension between different parties, which often are difficult to compare. To mention some, for example, some draw from the tradition of liberal consequentialism and demand for rationalism and the avoidance of lofty moral arguments. Others descend from the teleological and communitarian tradition, emphasizing that the moral issues ought to be holistically confronted in their complexity, accepting that they cannot be analyzed in logical, reasonable fragments.
The tension becomes even more difficult when we concern not only the academic debate but also public engagement and discussion. Can we demand that public discussion be only based on rational and logical thoughts, and escape emotion and more “lofty” moral issues? I think the answer is that it cannot, and great ideas for trying to popularize bioethics are necessary. One of these new tools is “Playing God: The Rock Opera”, created by Finnish bioethicists Tuija Takala and Matti Häyry.
Playing God tells the story of a fictional small town whose inhabitants have enjoyed the benefits of gene technology for decades. The topics covered include designer babies, immortality treatments, savior siblings, cloning and gene therapy, and the commercializing of these technologies. Many bioethical topics are difficult to discuss because they are hypothetical and no one knows how it actually would feel to be a designer baby or to have one, or have immortality treatments. Maybe there is nothing to feel, or maybe there is a lot to feel – the rock opera does not try to give normative answers to any questions, but create an imaginary infrastructure to think about feelings or parental choices, perfection and identity.