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Gratuitous Misuse of the Blog

Stop What You’re Doing: This is Important.

14 Oct, 15 | by Iain Brassington

I’d not realised it, but the latest iteration of the erstwhile Medical Innovation Bill – colloquially known as the Saatchi Bill – is up for debate in the Commons on Friday.  This is it in its latest form: to all intents and purposes, though, it’s the same thing about which I’ve blogged before.

In a nutshell, the Bill does nothing except remove protections from patients who would (under the current law) be able to sue for negligence in the event that their doctor’s “innovative” treatment is ill-founded.

Much more articulate summaries of what’s wrong with the Bill can be found here and here, with academic commentary here (mirrored here on SSRN for those without insitutional access).  There have been amendments to the Bill that make the version to be discussed on Friday slightly different from that analysed – but they are only cosmetic; the important parts remain.

Ranged against the Bill are the Medical professional bodies, the personal injuries profession, patient bodies, and research charities.  In favour of the Bill are the Daily Telegraph, a few people in the Lords who should know better (Lord Woolf, Lady Butler-Sloss: this means you), and Commons MPs who – understandably – don’t want to be seen as the one who voted against the cure for cancer.

Gloriously, Christ Heaton-Harris, who introduced the Bill, did so only after winning the ballot for Private Members’ Bills.  In a nutshell, he was allotted Parliamentary time, and then began the process of wondering what to do with it – which suggests that even the Bill’s sponsor doesn’t have a burning commitment to the cause – or, at least, didn’t when he took it on.

Still, the Bill has the support of Government; as it stands, there’s a good chance that it’ll pass.

SO: Take a few minutes to look up your MP’s email address – you can do that by following this link – and drop him/ her a line to encourage them to vote against the Bill.

Do it.

Brocher Foundation – a review

28 Jul, 15 | by David Hunter

For the last month I have been staying with 14 other academics on the shores of lake Geneva in Switzerland, free of charge thanks to the Brocher Foundation. I thought a review of the stay would potentially be of interest to others working in the field of medical ethics generally as it is an interesting opportunity that is available.

My One Appearance in “Cosmo”…

28 Apr, 15 | by Iain Brassington

… and they go and screw it up.

A few weeks (months?) ago, I got a call from Cosmopolitan to ask if I’d talk about home-testing kits for genetics – stuff like what 23andMe offers.  We talked, and I like to think that I said something useful… and promptly forgot all about it, until just now, when the University of Manchester press office sent me a link to this: a story about HIV self-testing kits in the UK.

It’s a piece that quotes me.  It quotes me from that interview I did about genetic – genetic! – tests:

Iain Brassington, Healthcare Ethics professor at the University of Manchester told Cosmo Body:

“People invest a lot in genetic information and it could have a serious psychological impact. Someone could feel anxious, distraught, even suicidal if they find out they are carrying a gene associated with particular diseases.”

Can you see the problem here?

Apart from the fact that I’m not, and am unlikely soon to be, a Professor, I mean?

OK: for clarity’s sake (and just in case there are any Cosmo readers who’ve drifted here): genetic tests and HIV tests are VERY DIFFERENT THINGS, and raise CORRESPONDINGLY DIFFERENT PROBLEMS.  I don’t think that HIV is a genetic condition.  Only idiots think that.  Some of the problems with one might well be problems with the other.  But we can’t leap between the two so easily.  I don’t know what I think about home HIV tests; I’ve not thought about them much, and noone’s asked me to have an opionion on them yet.  THIS QUOTATION MAKES ME LOOK LIKE AN IDIOT.

Also, they put words in my mouth.  I can’t remember what I said, but I doubt it’d’ve been anything as fatuous as “Someone could feel anxious, distraught, even suicidal if they find out they are carrying a gene associated with particular diseases.”  That’s simply not the kind of thing I say.

Yes, I’m posting here shamelessly, because I don’t want that particular piece to appear if people Google me without some kind of balancing act.  And I’m posting a screengrab just below the fold for posterity’s sake, just in case Cosmo deletes the page.


Testing, testing…

24 Mar, 14 | by Iain Brassington

So, yeah.

It’s been a bit quiet here, hasn’t it?

There’s been a range of reasons.  Mainly, it’s had to do with David and I both having to do (whisper it) real w*rk, and that’s got in the way.

And then WordPress went a bit odd, which made it impossible to post anything.  (Part of the reason for this post is to confirm that I can publish something.)

And something else, too, from my personal perspective: I’ve been blogging here since 2008, and it’s hard to stay grumpy for that long.  Even for me.  So think of recent quietness as a sabbatical.  I think my grumpiness is recharged now, though.  So there’ll be a guest post going up soon, and then – I hope – back to something like normal from me.

Hello, hello; it’s good to be back.  I’d post a link to a vid for that, too, except for the unfortunate associations with Gary Gli…  Wait: what?  The Glitter Band is still touring?  Good grief.  Well, if they can keep going, I have no excuse, do I?

Still can’t embed videos, though…

How to write a crap essay/paper in bioethics – or how to write bioethics to be published in medical journals…

7 Oct, 13 | by David Hunter

I’ve been considering writing a reflective piece about the general quality of bioethics papers in medical journals, focusing on how the medium (the audience and the severe word limits) impacts on the message and its quality – possibly as a bit of a moan since I’ve not yet managed to get a medical journal to accept one of my papers (my favourite rejection from an editor yet being “nice try, but too philosophical – maybe try the journal of medical ethics?”). Furthermore publication pressures tend to select for particular styles of pieces – I’ve remarked to people in the past that the way to get published in the BMJ is to write a piece critical of research ethics review – preferably with an anecdote  Then this morning on twitter I saw this lovely funny piece by James Lenman of the University of Sheffield on how to write a crap essay in philosophy which contains gems such as:

 “Whenever in any doubt as to what to say about X, say, apropos of nothing in particular and without explanation, that X is extremely subjective.

When that gets boring, try saying that X is all very relative. Never say what it is relative to.”

And I decided to just borrow and extend the idea in this piece. So take James’ rules as given and add these rules to enable the reader to write a crap piece of work in bioethics:

1. Unreflectively copy a piece of work by a philosopher. If they wasted time qualifying their view or noting it only applies in a limited situation make sure you strip that out.

2. Remember if you are a doctor you don’t need good arguments – you have authority… Remember if you are a philosopher you don’t need to know the context to write authoritatively about it.

3. Never use an argument where an anecdote will do. A homily is worth a thousand arguments.

4. Instead of making an argument, say “I will argue”. Then don’t, an assertion will do. No one will notice.

5. Don’t ever make a modest claim when you can make a bold assertion. Only extremes can be correct.

6. According to the OED it is important to define your terms using the dictionary not how they have been defined in the relevant literature.

7. Please do begin your paper with a vaguely relevant quote from “Literature” this shows that you are well read and thus quite clearly correct. As D’Israeli said: “The wisdom of the wise, and the experience of ages, may be preserved by quotation.”

8. If empirical evidence is relevant to your paper make sure you either don’t find any or you just run a google search and then cherry pick the evidence to support your case without considering its quality.

9. Remember the is/ought problem is a philosophical problem not a bioethical problem so you don’t need to worry about it when making grand assertions from tiny bits of empirical evidence.

10. Ad hominem is a valid argument structure.

11. All slopes are slippery. If its bad and it is remotely possible let us assume that it will happen.

12. There are no principles/theories but the four principles.

13. Obviously the four principles approach is the only one worth considering. Make sure you refer to all four principles (but nothing other than them) especially if several of the principles are irrelevant to the situation you are discussing – before concluding that autonomy trumps the others.

14. Remember the more arguments/assertions you can give the better – why waste time on critical reflection and depth when you can squeeze in more arguments/assertions. Especially ensure that there is no methodological or theoretical consistency about the position you advance.

15. If your argument gets into trouble you can save it by referring to Nazi Germany and implying that your opponents view would have been looked on kindly there.

Please suggest more rules in the comments…  

PhD funding in ethics and/ or law at Manchester School of Law

28 Jan, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Details here; bioethics PhDs are available in the conventional form, or as a structured PhD in Bioethics and Medical Jurisprudence.

NB: the first deadlines are next week, so get your skates on.


A Little Something for the Holiday…

22 Dec, 11 | by Iain Brassington

Here’s a little holiday challenge for you: come up with a bioethical controversy that some dark part of your soul wants to be real, if only because (a) you can get a paper out of it, and (b) it’ll cause heart attacks among the sort of people who make a point of listening to The Moral Maze.  The only real constraint that I’m placing is that your scenario has to be at least on nodding terms with plausibility.

Put the title of the paper, and the abstract, in the replies.  Since the scenarios you’ll describe will almost certainly never arise, there’s no need to worry about having your thunder stolen.  Although, thinking about it, it’d be interesting to see if any real papers did materialise.

Here’s mine to get you going.

How Reproductive Cloning can Solve the Organ Shortage.

Saviour siblings have enjoyed a reasonable amount of attention in the bioethical literature over recent years, with a significant number of voices arguing in favour of the permissibility of deliberately choosing embryos that are tissue-matches for older siblings – though perhaps with the proviso that the parents should have been intending to reproduce anyway.  But what about adults who develop serious health problems requiring a transplant?  One potential solution to the problem is therapeutic cloning.  However, this is potentially problematic, on the grounds that it involves creating a human life just to harvest component parts.  A better solution would be to create a saviour sibling by means of reproductive cloning; this would mean patients benefit from new bone-marrow, and a nice new baby brother or sister.

Sheelagh McGuinness tells me that she and Margot Brazier cooked up something to beat this a while ago, and described the outline.  It was impressively weird: I hope she posts it.

Symposium on Public Health and Political Philosophy

28 May, 11 | by David Hunter

We are happy to announce a symposium on Public Health and Political Philosophy hosted by the Centre for Professional Ethics at Keele and funded by the Wellcome Trust.

The symposium will run from 10 – 5 on the 17th of June and is at Keele University. (Directions to Keele can be found here: )

Public health raises issues that are familiar in political philosophy,
such as when is it permissible for the state to force people to do
something either for their or others good, how we ought to distribute
scarce resources, decision making in situations of fundamental
uncertainty and the limits of common moral concepts such as
responsibilities in the face of disasters.

The focus of the symposium will be on topics in public health where
ideas from political philosophy are relevant. We are particularly
interested in the interplay between public health ethics and political
philosophy, and what these two areas can learn from each other.

Speakers include:
Dr James Wilson, UCL
Dr Martin O’Neill, York
Dr Simon Clark, Nottingham
Dr Stephen John, Cambridge
Mr Adrian Viens, Queen Mary

Attendance is free however places are strictly limited so please contact David Hunter at to book a place.

There will be a limited number of travel subsidies up to the value of
£50 available for students who wish to attend the workshop available on a first come, first served basis please indicate if you would like to be considered for such a bursary when you book your place.

In ur videoz, appreciatin ur formz

27 May, 11 | by Iain Brassington

After yesterday’s maundering on about Kant, here’s an example of how to keep philosophy in its rightful place.   I like to think that the cat was thinking, “Holy tables?  Really?  I’m going to have to save you from yourself here, matey”.

(props to HappyToast for the link.)

Musing about Kant (2)

26 May, 11 | by Iain Brassington

It’s very easy, having encountered Kant for the first time, to think that his account of morality is much too cold and impersonal to be plausible – the sort of thing you might expect from a computer rather than a human.  And though this criticism is rather simplistic – I think that Kant does have a deep humanity to him: it’s just that he doesn’t think that that should inform morality – I wonder whether there’s something to it after all.  I wonder whether there’s a reading of Kant that could only make sense to intelligent computers, and – more importantly – computers in a network; and whether such an account of morality would come naturally to them.

The starting point for this little essai (and I make no claims that the thoughts expressed here are particularly well-developed: all I’m doing is taking the opportunity afforded by the blog to publicise some stuff that’s been knocking around my brain for a while) is fairly straightforward: Kant’s separation of the sensible and intelligible parts of human life.  As far as he’s concerned, morality has to do with the latter rather than the former (because sensibility implies determinism; morality implies freedom; freedom implies autonomy; autonomy implies the will; and the will is practical reason); he claims that

a rational being must regard himself qua intelligence as belonging not to the world of sense but to the world of understanding.  Therefore he has two standpoints from which he can regard himself and know laws of the use of his powers and hence of all his actions: first, insofar as he belongs to the world of sense subject to laws of nature (heteronomy); secondly, insofar as he belongs to the intelligible world subject to laws which, independent of nature, are not empirical but founded on reason.

As a rational being and hence belonging to the intelligible world, can man never think of the causality of his own will except under the idea of freedom.  […]  Now the idea of freedom is inseparably connected with the idea concept of autonomy, and this in turn with the universal principle of morality, which ideally is the ground of all actions of rational beings, just as natural law is the ground of all appearances. (4:452-3; emphasis mine)

and makes similar claims elsewhere.

Right: so the moral law is ideal rather than real; but, more importantly, Kant contrasts the “universal principle of morality” with the natural law that is the ground of all appearances – and so, implicitly, the universal principle of morality is to be distinguished from appearances.  I don’t think that any of this is particularly radical.  By which I mean, of course, that it is radical – but it’s standard undergrad philosophy stuff.

However, things get a bit weirder once you begin to prise that apart. more…

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