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Archive for January, 2012

Nothing to lose? Killing is disabling

31 Jan, 12 | by BMJ

Guest post by Dominic Wilkinson

(Cross-posted from Practical Ethics)

In a provocative article forthcoming in the Journal of Medical Ethics (one of a new series of feature articles in the journal) philosophers Walter Sinnott Armstrong and Franklin Miller ask ‘what makes killing wrong?’ Their simple and intuitively appealing answer is that killing is wrong because it strips an individual of all of their abilities – acting, moving, communicating, thinking and feeling.

So what, you might ask? If this is right, say Sinnot-Armstrong and Miller, it means that it would be just as bad to commit an act that caused someone to be in a permanent vegetative state, as it would to kill them. more…

Calling Charlton Heston…

27 Jan, 12 | by Iain Brassington

It’s been a while since the last post, and there’s a couple of serious entries on the way – but they’ve been displaced by a bit of silliness from Oklahoma.  State Senator Ralph Shortey (or SHortey, if you follow his Facebook style) has introduced a Bill demanding that

[n]o person or entity shall manufacture or knowingly sell food or any other product intended for human consumption which contains aborted human fetuses in the ingredients or which used aborted human fetuses in the research or development of any of the ingredients.

Robin Marty elaborates:

The Republican has proposed a bill that will ban the use of “aborted human fetuses in food,” despite his admission that he doesn’t know of any companies that actually…well..use them.

So where did Sen. Shortey get this idea?  According to him, from the internet.

The “internet research” Shortey is referring to likely is an ongoing anti-choice crusade that began months ago, when an activist group began demanding a boycott of PepsiCo, which works with a research and development company that uses a line of embryonic kidney stem cells created in the 1970′s to test “flavor enhancers.” The boycotters, led by a group called Children of God for Life, say that’s the same as using aborted fetuses.

Ah: teh interwebz.  I see.  (For the record, the LA Times reports that “[a] U.S. Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman told the Associated Press that the agency has never gotten any reports of fetuses being used in food production.”)

Since there’s never likely to be a better excuse to link to [SPOILER ALERT] the final scene of Soylent Green on this blog, that’s precisely what I’ll do; I only wish I could get the clip to embed.

But there’s more to this than lampooning a typographically-challenged Senator, because the Bill, in its brutal simplicity, is brutally simplistic. more…

Nootropic Drugs in the Professions

16 Jan, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Across at NewAPPS, Eric Schliesser wonders aloud about how common nootropic drug use is in professional philosophy.  (Nootropics are are “drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals, and functional foods that improve mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention, and concentration” – Wikipedia.)  And, quite rightly, some of the commentators have pointed out that it’s fairly common.

Actually, it’s more than that: it’s pretty much ubiquitous.  The definition of a nootropic drug just offered is pretty wide; we can allow it to cover any substance that improves intellectual capabilities.  Once we take that on board, it’s clear that we’re talking about things like modafinil, beta-blockers… but also about things like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.  All these things have the capacity to improve our intellectual ability, at least temporarily.  And the last three are all over the place in academia – and probably professional most-other-things too.

(Granted, alcohol also has the ability to impair our intellectual ability after a fairly short while.  But (warning: anecdote posing as data ahead) it’s also the case that some of the best seminars have been those during which wine has flowed; and it’d be hard to imagine a conference that wasn’t at least paritially fuelled by booze.  And while philosophers do seem to have a reputation for drink, I don’t think that the picture is too different in other fields.  Plausibly, not the least of the reasons for this is that much intellectual labour is a shared enterprise – I’m not talking about co-authorship, as the knocking about of ideas – and something that makes you a bit more convivial makes that sharing more likely.)

So I’m going to take it as read that nootropics amplo sensu are common, and probably pervasive, throughout academia – and throughout all areas of life.  Whether nootropic drugs more narrowly defined are common is a slightly different matter: while there are comments to Eric’s post that tell of some use of things like modafinil and beta-blockers, these stories are – obviously – self-selecting.  (Incidentally: the question of nootropic use in academia was asked a few years ago in the THES.)  Nevertheless, I’d imagine that there is a non-negligible number of people working in academia that makes use of such supplements to enhance performance.

But I’m wondering if there might be a more radical question: might there be situations in which we have a responsibility to use them? more…

Suffering and the Human Condition

6 Jan, 12 | by Iain Brassington

I’m currently working my way through the recently-released report by the Commission on Assisted Dying – it’s a long and appropriately life-sapping document, but a number of commentators has been quicker than I to get through it.  Douglas Noble, writing at the BMJ blog, isn’t impressed.  Based on what I’ve read so far, I’m tempted to agree – though for different reasons.

Anyway: Noble makes a claim that’s a bit puzzling:

In political terms this issue is a dead duck – so why the continual fascination by a minority of vocal campaigners?  The answers are complex.  Perhaps, though, it is ultimately because of an inability to accept that suffering is an integral part of our world, common to all who share the human condition. Dealing a fatal injection and dressing it up as dignity is not a solution to suffering and pain. High quality palliative care is part of the answer, but so too is the effect of the affection, love, and commitment (sometimes over long periods of time) that we can show to one another when the worst hand is dealt.

He may be right in the dead-duck bit.  But his comments about suffering are odd. more…

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