Tag: normative ethics

Bioethics Blogs

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Global Warming & Vegetarianism: What should I do, when what I do makes no difference? By Fergus Peace

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

  1. 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.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

An Interview with Tom Beauchamp, Early Bioethics Innovator

By Elizabeth Galt

Tom Beauchamp, PhD, has been a principle pioneer in the field of bioethics. As a young philosophy professor at Georgetown, he created the first applied ethics program in the United States. In 1975, he was recruited by the newly formed National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, where he wrote the bulk of The Belmont Report, the first federal document outlining the ethical principles and guidelines for research on human subjects.

Dr. Beauchamp and his collaborator, James Childress, were the foremost exponents of ethical decision making known as “principlism.” In their seminal work, Principles of Biomedical Ethics (1979), they laid out the guidelines of autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice as the framework for bioethical evaluation. These were to serve as “action guides” to dictate the types of actions that are permitted, required, or prohibited in certain situations. The idea is that no one principle is, prima facie, ultimate or absolute. Rather, biomedical ethical dilemmas are best resolved through the balancing and specification of the various principles in their application to clinical research situations. These principles continue to be the basis of bioethics today.

At seventy-six years of age, Dr. Beauchamp is Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar at the Georgetown Kennedy School of Ethics. He has authored many volumes on bioethics, and he continues to influence and contribute substantially to the field. In 2004, Dr. Beauchamp received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities in recognition of his outstanding contributions and significant publications in bioethics and the humanities.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Writers Whose Expertise is Deplorably Low

Something popped up on my twitter feed the other day: this document from Oxford’s philosophy department.  (I’m not sure quite what it is.  Brochure?  In-house magazine?  Dunno.  It doesn’t really matter, though.)  In it, there’s a striking passage from Jeff McMahan’s piece on practical ethics:

Even though what is variously referred to as ‘practical ethics’ or ‘applied ethics’ is now universally recognized as a legitimate area of philosophy, it is still regarded by some philosophers as a ghetto within the broader 
area of moral philosophy.  This view is in one way warranted, as there is much work in such sub-domains of practical ethics as bioethics and business ethics that is done by writers whose expertise is in medicine, health policy, business, or some area other than moral philosophy, and whose standards of rigour in moral argument
are deplorably low.  These writers also tend
 to have only a superficial understanding of normative ethics.  Yet reasoning in practical ethics cannot be competently done without sustained engagement with theoretical issues
in normative ethics.  Indeed, Derek Parfit believes that normative and practical ethics are so closely interconnected that it is potentially misleading even to distinguish between them.  In his view, the only significant distinction is between ethics and metaethics, and even that distinction is not sharp.  [emphasis mine]

It’s a common complaint among medical ethicists who come from a philosophical background that non-philosophers are (a) not as good at philosophy, (b) doing medical ethics wrong, (c) taking over.  All right: there’s an element of hyperbole in my description of that complaint, but the general picture is probably recognisable. 

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

CFP: Speculative Ethics Forum at St John’s

Location: St. John’s University, Manhattan campus, New York Date: December 5, 2015, Saturday Call for papers: Meta-Ethics and Normative Ethics The Speculative Ethics Forum is a one day workshop-style event in which we’ll consider the most challenging matters of ethics. Ethical approaches of all sorts are welcomed–analytic, continental, ancient, medieval, Asian, and so on. Most […]

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.

Bioethics Blogs

Cognitive (neuro)science and bioethics

by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D.

In a recent article in Ethics, “Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality: Why Cognitive (Neuro)Science Matters for Ethics,” Josh Greene argues that empirical research in moral judgment has significant relevance for normative ethics in that it (1) exposes the inner workings of our moral judgments, revealing that we should have less confidence in some of our judgments and the ethical theories that are based on them, and (2) informs us of where we tend to rely on intuition or automatic processing (which is often heavily emotive), but ought to rely more manual, controlled processing (such as consequentialist reasoning).

Problems with our (intuitive) moral judgments (and for deontology?)

Greene uses a camera analogy throughout the article: a camera has an automatic mode (which allows for efficiency) and a manual mode (which allows for flexibility and is sometimes important to use). Such is the case with moral reasoning. The problem is that automatic, intuitive moral judgment is susceptible to framing effects, reflects imperfect cognitive heuristics, and is often resistant to evidence that might change or undermine it (instead, we tend to engage in post-hoc rationalization or “intuition chasing”). Greene recounts a substantial amount of this evidence. And, here’s the kicker: deontological type judgments (“rights,” “duties”) are linked more closely to the automatic, emotional response systems (the VMPFC region of the brain is activated), and consequentialist type judgments (impartial cost-benefit reasoning) are linked more closely to the controlled, reasoned response systems (the DLPFC region of the brain is activated). Thus, according to Greene, we should have less confidence in deontological moral theories than in consequentialist ones.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.