Tag: utilitarianism

Bioethics News

Germany Takes an Ethics Stance on Driverless Cars

August 24, 2017

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The idea of autonomous cars has always raised a big question: in the event of a serious crash that involves life-and-death decisions, what should the vehicle do? Clearly, it’s possible to program cars to do as humans desire, but there isn’t necessarily a clear course of action to take in every situation.

That, however, hasn’t stopped German regulators from taking a stance on the issue. Reuters reports that autonomous-car software must be “programmed to avoid injury or death of people at all cost.”

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Image: By Grendelkhan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47467048

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MIT Technology Review

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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

Common ground in ethical debates

On 7/10/17, Janie Valentine posted a review of the new book, Why People Matter, edited by John Kilner. Recently while I was on vacation I had the chance to read it and found the basic concept of the book very interesting. It begins with the idea that people on opposite sides of many of the ethical debates in our society actually have common ground that they agree on which can be used to engage each other in a constructive way. I heartily agree with that idea and would suggest that one area of common ground is that those interested in moral and ethical issues agree that morality is important and that there are ethical standards that should influence how we live. That is good place to start. Dr. Kilner and his co-authors are more specific in suggesting that the concept that people matter, that they have moral significance and should be treated with respect, is an underlying concept that people on both side of many currently debated issues use to support their positions. That is also a very good place to start.

From that starting place the authors look at five common ways of looking at the world and moral issues and show that there are some problems with supporting the common idea that people matter within those ways of seeing the world. They contrast that with the robust support for the significance of people with in a Christian view. I was particularly impressed by the reviews of utilitarianism, individualism, and naturalism by Gilbert Meilaender, Russell DiSilvestro and Scott Rae.

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

Medical Decision-Making In the Tragic Life of Charlie Gard

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

On Friday, Charlie Gard is scheduled to have his life support discontinued. Charlie Gard is an 11-month-old baby born with RRM2B encephalomyopathic mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome—a rare genetic disorder with no cure. Those with the mutation live at most into early childhood with a multitude of life threatening conditions (lactic acidosis, ammonia build up, heart abnormalities). Charlie suffers from seizures, cannot independently breathe. He is also blind and deaf. Great Ormond Street Hospital (London) and Charlie’s doctors believe there is nothing more medically that can be done to benefit him and requested to remove his life sustaining treatment. Connie Yates and Chris Gard, his parents, believe that there is a chance of a miraculous cure in an experimental nucleoside treatment in the United States, even though the technique has never been tried for this condition. In the words of the unnamed U.S. specialist, nucleoside treatment would provide a “small hope” for helping

The case has gone through the British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, all of which agreed with the hospital. They declared that prolonging Charlie’s life would be “inhumane and unreasonable.” The courts believed that the experimental treatment in the US would be futile and could cause Charlie much suffering. The European Court ruled on July 4 that life support can be removed on Friday.

Under British law, when parents and physicians disagree on treatment, the courts normally intervene and are the final decision-makers. Unlike in the US, the highest value is the best interest (benefit) to the child rather than parental rights to make decisions for their child.

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

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 News

Peter Singer interviewed about, well, everything

The Journal of Practical Ethics recently posed 20 hardball questions to Peter Singer about his philosophy. It is a terrific insight into his thinking as his long career draws to a close.

About utilitarianism: Why do many intelligent and sophisticated people reject utilitarianism? Some people give more weight to their intuitions than I do—and less weight to arguments for debunking intuitions. Does that reduce my confidence in utilitarianism? Yes, to some extent, but I still remain reasonably confident that it is the most defensible view of ethics. I don’t know if everyone will accept utilitarianism in 100 years, but I don’t find the prospect frightening. It would only be frightening if people misapplied it, and I do not assume that they will.

On critics: There have been many critics of my views about euthanasia for severely disabled infants. I had some good discussions with the late Harriet McBryde Johnson, who was not a philosopher but a lawyer who had a rich and full life despite being born with a very disabling condition. As long as she was alive, when I wrote anything on that topic, I wrote with her potentially critical response in mind.

The objective truth of morality: You could just say “these are my normative views, and I’m going to treat them as if they were true, without thinking about whether moral judgments really can be objectively true.” If you do that, then in practice your decisions will be the same whether or not moral judgments can be objectively true. But given that I think morality is highly demanding, it becomes easier to say that, since morality is so highly demanding, and there is nothing irrational about not doing what morality demands, I’m not going to bother doing what I know to be right.

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 News

Is climate change denial a crime?

Free speech is one of the most treasured rights in Western democracy. However, ethicists are constantly making exceptions for points of view which they regards as particularly destructive and evil. In the latest issue of the Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics, Trygve Lavik, a philosopher at the University of Bergen, argues that climate change denial is a crime and that it should be made illegal. He does not specify what penal sanctions should be imposed.

Climate denialism is not beneficial because its main goal is to produce doubt, and not truth. Climate denialism is not sincerely meant, which is a necessary condition for Mill to accept utterances. Climate denialists bring harm, by blocking necessary action on climate change. Primarily they harm future generations and people in developing countries.

Lavik attempts to distinguish between skepticism and denialism. Relying upon renowned sceptic Michael Shcrmer, he says that “denialism is typically driven by ideology and religious belief”. A refusal to accept the overwhelming preponderance of evidence is insincere if it masquerades as skepticism. It is simply and plainly denialism.

Lavik acknowledges that “The common view is … that free discussion is always a good thing.” Even though this comes straight from John Stuart Mill, the patron saint of utilitarianism, Lavik denies it. Mill did not foresee that modern psychology would discover that people are often unmoved by debate; they stick to their guns.

These findings challenge Mill’s utilitarian justification of the liberty principle. If free discussion does not work, if more debate does not lead to more truth, then free speech is not useful.

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

BioethicsTV: Oct 3-7 – Surrogate Consent, Grace, Conscientious Objection, End of Life Conversations and Lessons on Utilitarianism

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

BioethicsTV is an special section of bioethics.net that looks at the ethical issues raised in television medical dramas

Code Black (season 2, episode 3) revolved around a bus crash. The team captain, a promising athlete, has a crushed leg and requires a leg amputation. His father initially refuses to consent, stating that he can’t destroy his son’s dreams. He later tells the doctor that he is okay with the needed surgery but he can’t be the one to make the decision.…

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 News

Bioethical debates. Contributions of religion in the field of research and biomedical practice

As a general rule, bioethical debates deal with the questions raised by scientific-technical breakthroughs in the field of research and biomedical practice. The swiftness with which these advances take place calls into question whether moral philosophy —and in particular theological ethics— can provide answers to the new questions raised, or whether it should capitulate to strategic ethics.

In the last few months, the Journal of Medical Ethics has reignited the debate about the place of religion in medical ethics. Nigel Biggar, Professor of Moral Theology at Oxford University [1], has criticised the moral ambiguity of secular ethics, which often obliges us “to settle for a somewhat messy compromise” [1]. Biggar denies that religious logic is irrational, and admonishes intellectuals to overcome their “scientistic” prejudices and recognise that moral theology is a repository of genuinely convincing and illuminating principles. Biggar’s theory is contested by Kevin Smith, professor at Abertay University in Dundee [2]; Brian Earp, researcher at Oxford University [3]; and Xavier Symons of Sydney Catholic University [4].

Smith’s criticism of Biggar’s arguments centres on the following: firstly, the principles of theological ethics are not universal, since they appeal to divine authority instead of rational discourse; furthermore, they were formulated when the possibilities of contemporary technology for detecting prenatal disease early on, creating and maintaining embryonic life outside the maternal womb, or eliminating intrauterine life using techniques that are safe for the pregnant woman were still unknown. Only “secular” ethics, he adds, guarantee discussion based on ethical principles open to rational analysis. He concludes that only utilitarianism has the potential to attract a universal consensus, because happiness and suffering are, respectively, highly valued and deprecated by all agents who participate in the debate.

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 News

Brexit and English utilitarianism

What does Brexit mean for bioethics?” is our lead story today. Given that the Leavers were not expected to win and that the pundits have widely different views of the future of the politics and economies of the UK and the EU, it is unwise to be dogmatic on the issue.

However, the question highlights the importance of Britain in the world of bioethics. Britain is the home of utilitarianism, which is the dominant philosophy in bioethical discourse at the moment. The medical and scientific establishment is dominated by a utilitarian mindset which has set the agenda for debates on embryo research, stem cell research and assisted dying around the world. As one cynical writer commented, “when it comes to bioethics, Europe might be better off without Britain”.

There is something in this. Although I am handicapped by a big language barrier, my impression is that from Norway to Italy there is much more depth and diversity in bioethical discourse across the Channel. The Greens and the Christian Churches are much more influential, to say nothing of Continental philosophy, which despises utilitarianism as vacuous and naïve. If England (the pundits all agree that Scotland will secede) loses its biomedical industry to the EU, perhaps utilitarian bioethics will lose some of its funding and its influence. That would be no bad thing, I think.

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Sorry, guys, but BioEdge will be taking a holiday during July. Our next issue will be in the first week of August. 

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

Mark A. Largent, Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012; Mark Navin, Values and Vaccine Refusal: Hard Questions in Ethics, Epistemology, and Health Care, Routledge, 2016

Over the last twenty years or so, vaccines have developed as one of the standard examples of major public scientific controversies, alongside climate change and genetically modified foods. This public contention has attracted scholarly attention, and the current review examines two recent attempts at such scholarly intervention. While both books have their limitations, I recommend both to anyone interested in a sophisticated introduction to the vaccine controversy. Specifically, the first substantive chapter of each book would be an excellent set of readings for one-session discussion of the controversy in a bioethics class or science communication workshop.

Mark Largent’s Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America was published in 2012 by Johns Hopkins University Press (Largent 2012). Largent is a historian of science at Michigan State University, and most of the book takes the form of historical narratives of some key figures or moments in the development of the vaccine controversy. Mark Navin is a political philosopher at Oakland University in Auburn, Michigan, and so his Values and Vaccine Refusal—published in 2016 by Routledge—focuses on a more abstract analysis of arguments (Navin 2016). Both books are broadly accessible. While Largent’s book was published a few years ago, the two books work well together; thus the current, joint review.

Before getting into the details, let me introduce some terminology and provide a brief overview of the state of the vaccine controversy and vaccine compliance. Following Navin, vaccine denial is a denial of mainstream medical beliefs about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, while vaccine refusal is the behavior of refusing routine childhood vaccinations.

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.