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On Being a Hypocrite

1 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington

A piece appeared in The Atlantic a few days ago that aims to prick the perceived bubble of professional ethicists.  In fact, the headline is pretty hostile: THE HYPOCRISY OF PROFESSIONAL ETHICISTS.  Blimey.  The sub-headline doesn’t pull its punches either: “Even people who decide what’s right and wrong for a living don’t always behave well.”

I know that headlines are frequently not written by the person whose article they head, and so these won’t tell us much about the article – but, even so, I’m beginning to twitch.  Do I decide what’s right and wrong for a living?  I don’t think I do.  I possibly thought that that’s what an ethicist does when I was a fresher, or at school – but I’m not certain I did even then.  And even if I did, I discovered pretty quickly that it’s quite a bit more complicated than that.  For sure, I think about what’s right and wrong, and about what “right” and “wrong” mean; and I might even aspire to make the occasional discovery about right and wrong (or at least about how best to think about right and wrong).*  But as for deciding what is right and wrong?  Naaaah.

Anyway: to the substance of the piece, which – to be fair – is more moderate in tone, pointing out that “those who ponder big questions for a living don’t necessarily behave better, or think more clearly, than regular people do”.  That’s probably accurate enough, at least a good amount of the time.  I’d like to think that I’m thinking better about a particular problem than most people when I’m working on it; but I’m also thinking better about in that context than I would be at other times.  (Ask me about – say –  genetic privacy while I’m drafting a section of a paper on genetic privacy, and I’m your man.  Ask me while I’m making pastry… not so much.)  If we allow that I’m better at dealing with (a) specific moral question(s) while “on duty”, that won’t mean I’m not susceptible to the same intellectual shortcuts and fallacies as everyone else at least most of the rest of the time.  I’m probably almost as susceptible to them even when I am on duty.  I’d assume that the same applies to others in the profession, too.

The article does make great play of the apparent inconsistencies between what ethicists say and what they/ we do.  So there’s the finding about how many more say that eating meat is morally problematic than actually avoid it, and the chestnut about how ethics books are the ones most frequently stolen from libraries.**  At least there are decent sources cited – peer-reviewed papers like this one that are philosophically informed, to boot.

So: ethicists aren’t reliably better behaved than others.  I don’t think that should surprise us, though.  But, there’s a couple of questions into which we might still want to dig more deeply. more…

Research Ethics: You’re Doing it Wrong!

1 Jun, 15 | by Iain Brassington

With any luck, the marking tsunami will have receded by the end of the week, and so I should be able to get back to blogging a bit more frequently soon.

In the meantime, I’ll fill some space by ripping off something from the “Feedback” page of the latest New Scientist:

The TV industry has […] yet another new mantra: “Not just more pixels, but better pixels”.  The marketeers’ problem is that few people can actually see the extra details in their newest, flashiest sets unless they sit very close or the screen is very, very bright.

A colleague found a demonstration unpleasant, especially when the image flashed, and wondered about the possible risk of this triggering photo-epilepsy or migraines.  One company said, yes, this was being looked into- but no, they could not identify the university doing the work.

Then in the tea break at a tech conference a senior engineer from a UK TV station confided the reason: “We are very aware of the risks and would love to do some real research.  But nobody dares to do it because it would involve tests that deliberately push subjects into epileptic fits, and might very possibly kill them.”

In other words: here’s an intuitively plausible risk associated with product p; we could test whether p is safe; but doing that test itself would be unsafe.  Were this a pharmaceutical trial, one would expect that things would stop there – or, at the very least, that things would move very slowly and carefully indeed.  (Maybe if the drug is highly beneficial, and can be used in highly controlled circumstances, it might be worth it.)

But with TVs… well, it looks like journalists have been invited to the product launch already.  My guess is that if the TV is found to be risky, it’d be quietly withdrawn ex post facto – which seems rather late in the day.

It is a bit strange that trials on a product aren’t being done not so much because of what they might reveal, as because even doing the test might be iffy.  Stranger yet that this is unlikely to make much of a dent in the marketing strategy.  Or, given the requirements of consumer capitalism, not all that strange after all: take your pick.

Sometimes, Big Pharma can seem like a model of probity.

Would Aristotle Vape?

13 Nov, 14 | by Iain Brassington

As I surfaced the other day, there was a discussion on Today about the marketing of e-cigarattes between Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, and Lorien Jollye of the New Nicotine Alliance (now there‘s an organisation that wears its heart on its sleeve!).  It’s available from about the 1:22 mark here.  Having re-listened, it appears to me that they’re talking past each other for a significant amount of time; but the points around which they’re at least orbiting has to do with the safety of e-cigarettes and the permissibility of advertising for them.  Arnott’s concern is not so much about whether using e-cigs – which I believe the well-informed call “vaping” – can be shown in adverts, but how.  Jollye’s claim is that all that matters is whether and that the devices reduce levels of smoking across the board.  The subtext here is that the tone of the advertising possibly doesn’t matter – but if it does matter, and making the devices more attractive gets smokers to make the switch, then so much the better.

Arnott’s response here is that if e-cigs can lure smokers, they can presumably lure non-smokers, too.  And it does seem initially plausible that if the point is to coax smokers rather than non-smokers, it could be done in a non-glamorous way. emphasising the grimness of smoking-related illness and the relative benefits of vaping.  Glamour seems to be an attempt to be appealing to non-smokers as well.

Does that matter, though? more…

Film Review: “Obvious Child”

3 Sep, 14 | by Iain Brassington

We’ve not had a film review here before, have we?  OC-poster-screenshot-121013

As far as I can tell, the ratio of talked-about-ness to actual screenings of Obvious Child is unusually high; it doesn’t seem to have got all that much time in mainstream cinemas, which meant that I had to schlep along to Manchester’s Cornerhouse to see it.  (I have a theory about cinemas, which is that the artistic quality of the establishment is inversely proportional to the comfort of the seating.  The Cornerhouse is a nice example of this rule in action.)  Why it’s attracted so much attention is captured in the elevator pitch: it’s a romantic comedy about abortion.  It certainly got certain elements of the US commentariat all excited – RightWingWatch has a nice little compilation here – though admittedly, as far as I can tell, the objections haven’t been matched in the UK, where the emphasis has been much more along the lines of “It’s that film that got the American right all antsy”.

I can see why certain sectors of the commentariat have got upset about it; the film is remarkable in just how down-to-earth its handling of the plot is.  The plot is dead simple: a woman (Donna, played by Jenny Slate) loses her boyfriend and her job within the space of about three frames, gets drunk, has a one-night-stand, gets pregnant, decides to have an abortion, lets the father of the child know all this in the course of a stand-up routine, has that abortion, then decides to watch Gone with the Wind.  It’s that straightforward.

For Donna, it’s less a matter of obvious children than obvious decisions.  She doesn’t want to be pregnant, and sets about not being.  There’s no indication that she’ll regret the decision; there’re no lingering shots of Donna agonising over whether it’s the right thing to do; the father (Max, played by Jake Lacy) says he wants to be a grandfather in passing, but doesn’t try to talk her out of it, or even insist that he should have a say.  Donna is a little nervous about the procedure – but then, it makes sense to be a little nervous about having a mole removed or any other minor surgery.  There’s no moral freight, though.  Donna is not irresponsible – I mean, she might have done something a bit irresponsible in not taking more care with the contraception, but that’s a shared thing with Max; and making a decision about what to do in the wake of having done something a bit daft is responsible.

In other words, Obvious Child is just about a person making a decision. more…

Oh, dear, Richard…

20 Aug, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Look, I know that Twitter really isn’t the place for nuanced debate.  But, by that token, everyone else should realise that as well – especially intellectual superstars. So how, then, to explain Richard Dawkins’ spectacular foot-in-mouth moment earlier today? It started off reasonably enough, with him tweeting about Catholicism’s stance on abortion and providing a link to this piece by Jerry Coyne in the New Republic; lots of people are going to agree with both Coyne and Dawkins, and lots to disagree, but we should expect that.  The tweet got a couple of replies.  I can’t be bothered transcribing them, but here’s a screenshot; you should be able to click to enbiggen it. Screen shot 2014-08-20 at 19.50.23

So far so good.  Dawkins’ reply is about as good a version of the sentience argument that you could cram into 140 characters; and InYourFaceNewYorker’s point articulates a problem faced by any number of women who are carrying a child with a disability of some kind.  (Well, by any number of parents, I suppose, except that it’s women who hold the moral trump here simply by dint of being the one carrying it.  Fathers could agonise about the best thing to do, too; it’s just that they don’t get to make the final decision.  Oh, you know what I mean.)  Where you stand on abortion doesn’t preclude recognising that it’s a genuine moral dilemma for many people, and a that there are respectable arguments and proponents of those arguments on both sides – by which I mean that people on either side should be able to recognise that their opponents are at the very least worth the effort of an argument. InYourFaceNewYorker goes on to articulate some of the aspects of the debate that make it so emotive and so intellectually rich:

Screen shot 2014-08-20 at 19.58.49

That doesn’t reflect Dawkins’ response to the dilemma, though.  Brace yourselves. more…

Paternalism up a Mountain

12 Aug, 14 | by Iain Brassington

“Paternalism” is one of those words that has a hell of a lot of power.  On several occasions, I’ve seen it used as a trump to shut down an argument: saying “But that’s paternalism” is, at least sometimes, treated as a way of showing that anyone arguing in favour of the allegedly paternalistic action is an imbecile, and has therefore lost the argument by default.  I suspect that this is due to a bastardisation of the (already iffy) “Georgetown Mantra”; but it does seem to be a position horribly common in medical schools.  It’s also very unsophisticated.  Whether or not something is paternalistic seems to me to be less important than whether it’s justified.  Something might be unjustified, and the reason for that might be because it’s paternalistic; but it doesn’t follow from that that no paternalism could be justified.  In just the same way, too much bleach or bleach in the wrong place is something you’d want to avoid; but it doesn’t follow that you should avoid bleach at all times and at all costs.

I want here to tell you a story based on something that happened just over a week ago. more…

How Not to Argue against a Proposed Law

5 Jun, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Yes, yes: it’s tedious and internecine, but it’s almost a year since I had a pop at Kevin Yuill’s book on assisted dying; how about an update?  Well, conveniently, there’s this, in which he tries “to convince my fellow liberal minded atheists to reconsider their support for legalized assisted dying”.  OK, then.  First up, this isn’t a pro-legalisation post: I’m much more interested in looking at the arguments presented in their own terms.  I think they’re bad; but that is to do with their form rather than their content.  Indeed, one of Yuill’s opening moves is something to which I’m sympathetic: in respect of Lord Falconer’s latest Bill to legalise assisted dying, he points out that

the chief sponsoring agency (Dignity in Dying) lamely differentiates between the dying (those with six months or less to live) and those with more time.
If the latter ingest poison in a room by themselves – well, that’s suicide.  But if those with less than six months take poison with the intent to end their lives, that is not suicide at all but <ahem> assisted dying. Nope, me neither.

I agree that the six-month time limit is arbitrary, and probably morally indefensible.  But…

*deep breath*

But note how Yuill botches even this point. more…

Their Poor Little Heads might Explode

1 Jun, 14 | by Iain Brassington

There’s a nice little piece by Martin Robbins in this week’s Guardian in which he talks about the fact that women seem to be less supportive of abortion than men.  That does seem counterintuitive, given that… well, given the obvious physiological facts and the relative burden of risks related to pregnancy.  So there’s an interesting little anthropological puzzle here; and he suggests a number of factors that might explain the phenomenon. For example, there’s some research that finds that women are more likely than men to agree that life begins at conception – though, as he points out, while that might help explain the different views of termination, we’d still need to know why more women think that to begin with. Another potential explanation is that men like the idea of not having to do the right thing by their pregnant partners by paying child-support or, if you’re reading this in the 1950s, marrying them: abortion gives a way out of that.  But – and Robbins doesn’t mention this – that again presupposes keeping the baby as the default position to which people are looking for an alternative.  We could also talk about social pressure, and the way that women are still expected to be mothers, and how that feeds into attitudes.  In fact, we could talk about a lot of things:

So which is it? Internalised sexism, men’s liberation, fundamentally different ideas about the point at which life begins, or something else entirely? I doubt only one factor is at work, but it seems that we lack a definitive answer. And that’s a shame, because in the ongoing battle of ideas it seems like a very important question to ask.

I suspect some will deride his “we need to do more research” conclusion, but it seems eminently sensible to say that, faced with a quirk of attitudes, a full explanation would be at least aesthetically satisfying, even if not especially urgent.  He also provides lots of useful links.

Over at the CMF blog, Philippa Taylor’s suggestion – which also has lots of useful links – is a little different. more…

Consigned to the Index

28 May, 14 | by Iain Brassington

There’re probably times when all of us have had a solution, and just had to find a problem for it.  It’s an easy trap; and it’s one into which I suspect Gretchen Goldman may have fallen in an article in Index on Censorship about scientific freedom and how it’s under threat from disputes about Federal funding in the US.  No: I’m not going to be arguing against scientific freedom here.  Only against a certain use of the appeal to scientific freedom in response to a particular problem. First up, let’s note the points on which Goldman may well be correct.  She notes that the disputes in the US about federal funding that have led to big cuts and a short-but-total government shutdown are very bad for science.  She points out that political machinations even meant that researchers working in government-funded areas couldn’t access their emails.  This had direct and indirect consequences, all of which were pretty undesirable.  For example,

[m]any government scientists were not allowed to access email, much less their laboratories. One scientist noted that his “direct supervisor … confiscated all laptop computers on the day of the shutdown”.

Without access to work email accounts, federal scientists were also prevented from carrying out professional activities that went beyond their government job duties. Several scientists pointed out that their inability to access emails significantly slowed down the peer-review process and, therefore, journal publication.

In the wider sense, to have science and funding bodies that are vulnerable to political shenanigans isn’t good for science, and is probably not good for humanity.  You don’t have to think that research is obligatory to think that it’s often quite a good thing for science to happen all the same.  And shutdowns are particularly bad for students and junior researchers, whose future career might depend on the one project they’re doing at the moment; if a vital field trip or bit of analysis or experiment is liable to get pulled at almost any moment, they don’t have a reputation yet to tide them over.

So far, so good.  However, things are iffier elsewhere. more…

While We’re Talking about Ambiguous Sex

16 May, 14 | by Iain Brassington

So: what is one to make of Conchita Wurst?  I’ve not heard the song that won Eurovision this year, but I’m willing to bet that the world would be a better place if every entrant had been thrown into the Køge Bay before a single note was struck.  But that might just be me.


Conchita Wurst. Wurst. Geddit? Wur… Oh, suit yourself

Writing in the TelegraphBrendan O’Neill has other concerns.  Why, oh why, oh why can’t people just use the pronoun “he” when referring to Wurst?  Wurst was born a man; therefore the male pronoun is more appropriate.  (He’s never one to duck the important issues of the day, is Bren.)  “Did everyone overnight transmogrify into a Gender Studies student and imbibe the unhinged idea that gender is nothing more than a ‘playful’ identity?” he asks.  More: the fact that people refer to Wurst with the feminine pronoun is a symptom of what he calls “today’s speedily spreading cult of relativism”, and allowing people to choose their identity is “narcissistic”.

Now, let’s just ignore for the moment that Conchita Wurst is a character, and so it makes perfect sense to call her “her” in just the same way that one might use “her” to refer to Dame Edna Everage.  (Thanks to someone I don’t know on Facebook for making that analogy – it’s a good ‘un.)  O’Neill sort-of-acknowledges that, but he doesn’t let that minor point get in the way of a more general rant against people preferring to be referred to by one pronoun rather than another.  For example, he takes this swipe at Chelsea Manning:


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