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We’re all Gonna Die… Eventually

6 Oct, 16 | by Iain Brassington

It might just be a product of the turnover of people with whom I have much professional contact, but I’ve not heard as much about human enhancement in the past couple of years as I had in, say, 2010.  In particular, there seems to be less being said about radical life extension.  Remember Aubrey de Grey and his “seven deadly things“?  The idea there was that senescence was attributable to seven basic processes; those basic processes are all perfectly scrutable and comprehensible biological mechanisms.  Therefore, the argument went, if we just put the time and effort into finding a way to slow, halt, or reverse them, we could slow, halt, or reverse aging.  Bingo.  Preventing senescence would also ensure maximum robustness, so accidents and illnesses would be less likely to kill us.  To all intents and purposes, we’d be immortal.  Some enterprising people of an actuarial mindset even had a go at predicting how long an immortal life would be.  Eventually, you’ll be hit by a bus.  But you might have centuries of life to live before that.

Dead easy.

I was always a bit suspicious of that.  The idea that death provides meaning to life is utterly unconvincing; but the idea that more life is always a good thing is unconvincing, too.  What are you going to do with it?  In essence, it’s one thing to feel miffed that one isn’t going to have the time and ability to do all the things that one wants to do: life is a necessary criterion for any good.  But that doesn’t mean that more life is worth having in its own right.  Centuries spent staring at a blank wall isn’t made any better by dint of being alive.

But a letter published this week in Nature suggests that there is an upper end to human lifespan after all.  In essence, the demographic data seem to suggest that there’s an upper limit to survivability.  That being the case, we should stop worrying about making people live longer and longer, and concentrate on what’s going on during the 125 years or so that Dong, Milholland and Vijg think is allotted to us. more…

Further Clarity on Co-operation and Morality

4 Oct, 16 | by miriamwood

Guest Post by David S. Oderberg, University of Reading

Re: Further Clarity on Co-operation and Morality

The 2014 US Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was a landmark case on freedom of religion and conscience in the USA. The so-called ‘contraceptive mandate’ of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) requires employers to provide health insurance cover for contraception used by their employees. The Green family (Evangelical Christian), owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores, challenged the mandate as they objected to providing cover for at least those methods of contraception that are abortifacient. They were joined by the Hahn family (Mennonite Christian), owners of a furniture company.

The case wound up at the Supreme Court, where the majority, led by Alito J, agreed with the plaintiffs. Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act 1993, the plaintiffs were ‘substantially burdened’ in their exercise of religious freedom. They sincerely believed that by providing insurance cover that violated their religious and moral beliefs, they would be complicit in sinful behaviour. Violation of the RFRA, the court decided, meant the plaintiffs were entitled to an ‘accommodation’ or ‘opt-out’ of the contraceptive mandate.

The case is remarkable for a number of reasons. Conscientious objection is not new to the courts, particularly as regards service in war. Nor is Hobby Lobby unusual for recognising that a legal person such as a corporation can have its freedom of religion violated in virtue of what its owners/executives are required to do by law. After all, the contraceptive mandate already exempted churches and other purely religious bodies. In the present case, however, the plaintiff corporations were not religious in nature: it was their owners/executives who claimed a corporate exemption based on their personal religious and ethical beliefs. The judgment thus radically extends the potential scope for religious freedom litigation under RFRA, something that will occupy the courts for many years to come.


In Praise of Ambivalence: “Young” Feminism, Gender Identity, and Free Speech

13 Jul, 16 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine.


Alice Dreger, the historian of science, sex researcher, activist, and author of a much-discussed book of last year, has recently called attention to the loss of ambivalence as an acceptable attitude in contemporary politics and beyond. “Once upon a time,” she writes, “we were allowed to feel ambivalent about people. We were allowed to say, ‘I like what they did here, but that bit over there doesn’t thrill me so much.’ Those days are gone. Today the rule is that if someone—a scientist, a writer, a broadcaster, a politician—does one thing we don’t like, they’re dead to us.”

I’m going to suggest that this development leads to another kind of loss: the loss of our ability to work together, or better, learn from each other, despite intense disagreement over certain issues. Whether it’s because our opponent hails from a different political party, or voted differently on a key referendum, or thinks about economics or gun control or immigration or social values—or whatever—in a way we struggle to comprehend, our collective habit of shouting at each other with fingers stuffed in our ears has reached a breaking point.

It’s time to bring ambivalence back.

A Fatal Retraction

Given the state of politics these days, Dreger’s remarks could have been triggered by just about anything; but as it happens, she was reflecting on a controversial decision by the editors of Everyday Feminism, a popular online feminist magazine, to pull an essay of hers on sex education. The essay had earlier been published by Pacific Standard with the provocative title, “What If We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?”

The essay wasn’t the problem. In fact, the editors liked the essay: they had reached out to Dreger to ask her permission to republish it, which is how this whole episode began. Instead, the problem was some other, unrelated material that Dreger had published elsewhere—a kind of “guilt by association” with her own work.

This is how the editors explained their decision (key bits in bold):

What happened was that we decided to pull the article from circulation shortly after it went up. When we asked permission [to republish] it we weren’t aware of some of the articles you’ve published on trans issues and after a reader brought it to our attention [we] looked into them.

Trans issues means transgender issues. The editor went on:

We … realized that while we very much valued the information in the article on teaching children that sex is about pleasure, the views expressed in several of your other articles directly conflicts with the work we’re trying to do in Everyday Feminism. For that reason, we decided to pull the article.

If you aren’t familiar with Dreger’s work, you are probably wondering what she’s written about trans issues that the editors found so troubling—troubling enough to retract an unrelated essay. And if you are familiar with Dreger’s work, you are probably wondering even more. This is because Dreger is widely regarded as being a supporter of trans rights, as well as rights for intersex people, for gender non-conformers generally, and for other marginalized groups, all of which seems broadly consistent with the aims of Everyday Feminism.

Dreger’s support for sexual minorities is not idle. Instead, she has devoted the better part of her professional career to blowing up narrow-minded gender identity norms, against sometimes huge resistance, and to fighting oppressive attitudes about sex and gender within the more traditional corners of science and medicine. Her work on intersex ethics has been especially influential.

So what could be going on behind the curtain?


IAB 2016: Graeme Didn’t Say “None”…

21 Jun, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Every two years, I write a little post-mortem of the IAB conference, mentioning particular high and low points.  But since I’ve heard near-blanket praise for this year’s Edinburgh fandango, there won’t be too many of the latter.  And everyone with whom I’ve been in contact since has been highly impressed; we’re all still on a bit of a high.

So what was particularly good?  Well, in general, I thought that the standard of argument in most of the papers was high: it’s nice to see really big ideas being grappled with.  Matthias Risse’s paper on IP, particularly in the context of making drugs available to the least well-off, was the keynote on Thursday morning, and was notable in this regard.  Risse was arguing that the current IP regime owes too much to Locke, and not enough to Grotius.  In other words, he made no bones about an appeal to 17th-century political philosophy.  A simple and undemanding rehearsal of principlism this was not.  I’d perhaps have liked to hear more about rights to the medicines in question, as a complement to the point about IP rights – after all, unless there’s a right to the medicines, many of the arguments about IP may be moot; but I’m sure that is, or at least could be, done elsewhere.

Similarly, Gillian Brock’s paper about the medical brain-drain left a few questions unanswered – the proposal that there be some kind of mandatory service for professionals from low-to-middle-income countries arguably places a burden on some people for the misfortune of not having been born in a wealthy part of the world, and leaves open questions about what the point of eduction is to begin with (national needs or personal flourishing?) – but was very good all the same.  I missed Catherine Belling’s “Going Under and Coming Round”, but everyone to whom I spoke was mightily impressed – Stephen Latham seemed genuinely lost for words about how good it was; and I also missed Alondra Nelson’s keynote on the social life of DNA, which seems also to have been warmly received.

Of the parallel sessions, one that particularly stands out is Tamara Kayali Browne’s paper on sex-selection; there’s a different-but-related paper by her currently available as a preview in the JME.

On the Arts and Bioethics theme, Adura Onashile’s HeLa was a thoughtful take on a familiar story, and generated a really interesting Q&A; Vishal Shah’s Vellum was a strange and wonderful thing.

The Early Career Researcher emphasis seems to have been a great success, too.

So were there any down points?

  • Well, there were fewer parallel sessions than there have been in previous iterations of the conference (or at least, so it felt); and that did give the thing a slightly different dynamic.  However, I can’t put my finger on exactly what the difference was, qualitatively speaking; and the fact that there’s a difference doesn’t mean that things should have been done otherwise.  With a lot of people having been offered posters rather than oral sessions (one of my submissions being among them), I think that it’s simply a different way of going about things, and I suspect that any quibbles will boil down to taste.  I don’t think that there’re real grounds for complaint.
  • I was a little saddened that I didn’t get to play my normal game of spot-the-bizarre-paper-that-somehow-got-accepted-with-hilarious-consequences, because there was no bizarre paper, as far as I could see.  (Hmmm.  Maybe that means that my symposium paper was the bizarre one.  Eeeep.)  So that’s a minor disappointment, I guess.  But being denied the opportunity of a good facepalm in the pub afterwards isn’t all that much of a hardship.
  • At the ceilidh, a frightening number of people seemed to be unable to count to eight.
  • I was in Edinburgh a fortnight ago, and it was gloriously sunny and warm.  During the IAB, it was cold and wet.  The word “dreich” shouldn’t be usable in June, but it was this time.  Yet it’d hardly be fair to complain about the IAB on that basis.  Besides, nasty weather reduces the incentive to skive and go for a walk up Arthur’s Seat.  Besides besides… it would have been a shame to miss any of the conference.  So who cares about the rain?

Which is as much as to say: no down points really.  Well – except for that one paper talking about assisted dying that relied on a picture of a child next to a headstone where an argument should have been.  You know who you are.

That aside, though, it was all preternaturally good stuff.

After the closing ceremony, I asked Graeme Laurie how many virgins he’d had to sacrifice in order to make sure that things went as well as they did.  He did not say “none”.  Make of that what you will.

There’s Argument, and there’s Disputation.

7 Jun, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Very well, then: let’s allow that the quality of argument in bioethics – and clinical ethics in particular – is not of high quality.  What should be done about it?

That’s a hard question, though it’s predictable and wholly justifiable that it should be asked.  And, to be honest, I don’t know offhand.  I might have a few germs of ideas, but nothing that I’d be prepared to mention in public.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t look at other ideas, and test them out.  One such idea is mooted in this paper by Merrick et al: in essence, they propose a sort of debating competition.  They begin by explaining – with some plausibility – some of the factors that make it a bit hard to get full-blooded engagement with ethics in the medical curriculum:

As educators, we have observed additional challenges medical students face in their ethics education, which echo others’ experiences. First, because of the prodigious amount of information medical students are presented with during their first two years of training, they typically adopt a strategy of selectively reading assignments, attending large lectures, and participating in small group discussions.  In this context, ethics appears to be deprioritized, because, from the students’ perspective, it is both more demanding and less rewarding than other subjects.  Unlike other subjects, ethics requires students to reflect on their personal moral sensibilities in addition to understanding theory and becoming familiar with key topics and cases.  Yet, also unlike other courses, poor marks in ethics rarely cause academic failure, given the way performance in medical school curricula is typically evaluated.  Thus, ethics is both more demanding—because of the burdens of self-reflection—and less rewarding—because excellence in ethics does not contribute significantly to grades or test scores.

Second, medical students face challenges in how they individually conceptualize the value of ethics in the medical context.  Although many indicate that morality is important to them, they also suggest that it is a subject matter that relates to their personal, as opposed to professional, actions.  Instead, students often conflate the domains of institutional policy and health law (especially risk management and malpractice litigation) with medical ethics.  Although these domains are obviously also of essential concern for future physicians, they remain distinguishable from ethical issues likely to emerge in practice.  Consequently, rigorous and effective ethics education within the medical school context faces the challenge of distinguishing ethics from other aspects of professionalism.

Too often, ethics gets run alongside communication skills training (well, it’s all about getting informed consent, isn’t it?  Eh?  Eh?); and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to prepare multiple choice questions for ethics assessment.  (Standard answer: nope.  It’s got to be an essay of some sort, or it’s not worth doing.)

So what to do?  The paper, as I’ve already said, suggests a quasi-competitive debating competition, in which teams of students are given a problem, and a limited time to make a case in response to that problem.  An opposing team then has a limited amount of time to place a counterargument.  Then they swap roles, so the counterarguing team gets to make the argument, and the previous arguers now become counter-arguers.  Judges can ask questions, and assign a score.  “The basic aim of the MEB curriculum,” the authors say,

is to help students learn how to produce and present an argument for an ethical position in response to a realistic clinical situation.


Every now and again I get asked to help judge debating competitions – sometimes for academic institutions, sometimes for non-University bodies, sometimes for others (*cough* Instituteofideas *cough*).  I used to be happy to help out.  But I’m not so sure now. more…

Writers Whose Expertise is Deplorably Low

4 Jun, 16 | by Iain Brassington

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.  And I don’t doubt that there’ll be philosophers grumbling along those lines at the IAB in Edinburgh in a couple of weeks.  There’s a good chance that I’ll be among them.

There’s a lot going on in McMahan’s piece, and his basic claim is, I suppose, open to a claim that, being a philosopher, he would say that, wouldn’t he?  But even if that claim is warranted, it doesn’t follow that it’s false.  And it probably isn’t false.  There is some very low-quality argument throughout bioethics (and, from what I remember from my time teaching it, business ethics) – more particularly, in the medical ethics branch of bioethics, and more particularly still, in the clinical ethics sub-branch.  Obviously, I’m not going to pick out any examples here, but many of us could point to papers that have been simply not very good, because the standard of philosophy was low, without too much difficulty.  Often, these are papers we’ve peer-reviewed, and that haven’t seen the light of day.  But sometimes they do get published, and sometimes they get given at conferences.  I’ve known people who make a point of trying to find the worst papers on offer at a given conference, just for the devilry.

It doesn’t take too much work to come up with the common problems: a tendency to leap to normative conclusions based on the findings of surveys, or empirical or sociological work; value-laden language allowing conclusions to be smuggled into the premises of arguments; appeals to vague and – at best – contentious terms like dignity or professionalism; appeals to nostrums about informed consent; cultural difference used as an ill-fitting mask for special pleading; moral theories being chosen according to whether they generate the desired conclusion; and so on.  Within our field, my guess is that appeals to professional or legal guidelines as the solutions to moral problems is a common fallacy.  Not so long ago, Julian noted that

[t]he moralists appear to be winning.  They slavishly appeal to codes, such as the Declaration of Helsinki.  Such documents are useful and represent the distillation of the views of reasonable people.  Still, they do not represent the final word and in many cases are philosophically naïve.

Bluntly: yes, the WMA or the BMA or the law or whatever might say that you ought to do x; and that gives a reason to to x inasmuch as that one has a reason to obey the law and so on.  But it’s unlikely that it’s a sufficient reason; it remains open to us always to ask what those institutions should say.  Suppose they changed their minds and insisted tomorrow that we should do the opposite of x: would we just shrug and get on with the business of undoing what we did today?

And yet…  The complaint about poor argument is not straightforward, for a couple of reasons. more…

Special “Editor’s Choice” Issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics Now Online

28 May, 16 | by bearp

by Brian D. Earp / (@briandavidearp)

On behalf of the Journal of Medical Ethics, I am excited to announce the publication of a special “Editor’s Choice” issue, now online at the journal website. In a rare turn for the journal, the entire issue made up of “Editor’s Choice” papers, with invited (peer-reviewed) papers from both up-and-coming and established scholars.

Editor-in-Chief Professor Julian Savulescu explains the significance of the issue: “Our self-imposed brief was to concentrate on excellent but less well-known scholars from a variety of perspectives, especially those who are young and up and coming, alongside some more established contributors.”

Although no particular topic assignment was given, Professor Savulescu remarks that “it is interesting that [the] contributions aggregate naturally around four perennial clusters: the concept of the good life, end of life, public health and new technologies (enhancement/selection).”

Here are some highlights from each contribution to the issue: more…

Enhancement as Nothing More than Advantageous Bodily and Mental States

20 May, 16 | by BMJ

Guest Post by Hazem Zohny

Some bodily and mental states are advantageous: a strong immune system, a sharp mind, strength.  These are advantageous precisely because, in most contexts, they are likely to increase your chances of leading a good life.  In contrast, disadvantageous states – e.g. the loss of a limb, a sense, or the ability to recall things – are likely to diminish those chances.

One way to think about enhancement and disability is in such welfarist terms.  A disability is no more than a disadvantageous bodily or mental state, while to undergo an enhancement is to change that state into a more advantageous one – that is, one that is more conducive to your well-being.  This would hugely expand the scope of what is considered disabling or enhancing.  For instance, there may be all kinds of real and hypothetical things you could change about your body and mind that would (at least potentially) be advantageous: you could mend a broken arm or stop a tumour from spreading, but you could also vastly sharpen your senses, take a drug that makes you more likeable, stop your body from expiring before the age of 100, or even change the scent of your intestinal gases to a rosy fragrance.

Would all such changes be instances of enhancement? more…

Why Brits? Why India?

3 Apr, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Julie Bindel had a piece in The Guardian the other day about India’s surrogate mothers.  It makes for pretty grim reading.  Even if the surrogates are paid, and are paid more than they might otherwise have earned, there’s still a range of problems that the piece makes clear.

For one thing, the background of the surrogates is an important factor.  Bindel writes that

[s]urrogates are paid about £4,500 to rent their wombs at this particular clinic, a huge amount in a country where, in 2012, average monthly earnings stood at $215.

It’s tempting, at first glance, to look at the opportunity to be a surrogate as a good thing in this context: these women are earning, by comparative standards, good money.  But, of course, you have to keep in mind that the standard is comparative.  If your choice is between doing something you wouldn’t otherwise do and penury, doing the thing you wouldn’t otherwise do looks like the better option.  But “better option” doesn’t imply “good option”.  So there’s more to be said there; more questions to be asked.  Choosing x over y because y is more awful doesn’t mean that x isn’t.  It might be a good thing; but it might not be.  There might be economic – structural – coercion.  Choosing to become a surrogate might be a symptom of there being no better alternative.

A related question is this: are the women really making a free choice in offering their reproductive labour even assuming that the terms are economically just?  Possibly not:

I have heard several stories of women being forced or coerced into surrogacy by husbands or even pimps, and ask Mehta if she is aware of this happening.  “Without the husbands’ [of the surrogates] consent we don’t do surrogacy.”

Note (a) the non-denial, and (b) the tacit acceptance that it’s the husband’s decision anyway.  That’s not good.

(In a wholly different context, I’ve recently been reading David Luban’s Lawyers and Justice, and – in a discussion about lawyers cross-examining complainants in rape cases, he makes this point:

([H]ere we have two people who are confronted by powerful institutions from which protection is needed.  The defendant is confronted by the state [that is: in any criminal trial, the defendant does need protection from the power of the state – IB], but the victim is confronted by the millennia-long cultural tradition of patriarchy, which makes the cliché that the victim is on trial true.  From the point of view of classical liberalism, according to which the significant enemy is the state, this cannot matter. But from the point of view of the progressive correction of classical liberalism, any powerful social institution is a threat, including diffuse yet tangible institutions such as patriarchy. (p 151)

(The sentiment would seem to apply here.  A view of human agency that sees liberty as being mainly or only about avoiding state interference is likely to miss all kinds of much more subtle, insidious pressures that are liberty-limiting.  Economic factors are such pressures.  The idea of the wife as property is another.)

I do wonder if readers of this blog might help out with answering one more question, though. more…

Nurses Cannot be Good Catholics

31 Mar, 16 | by BMJ

Guest Post by John Olusegun Adenitire

It seems that if you are a nurse you cannot be a good Catholic.  Or, better: if you want to work as a nurse then you might have to give up some of your religious beliefs.  A relatively recent decision of the UK Supreme Court, the highest court in the country, seems to suggest so.  In a legal decision that made it into the general press (see here), the Supreme Court decided that two Catholic midwives could not refuse to undertake administrative and supervisory tasks connected to the provision of abortions.

To be sure, no one asked the nurses to directly assist in the provision of abortions.  The Abortion Act 1967 says that “No person shall be under any duty … to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection.”  The Nurses argued that this provision of the Act should be understood widely.  Not only should they be allowed to refuse to directly assist in abortion services: they should also be entitled to refuse to undertake managerial and supervisory tasks if those were linked to abortion services.  The nurses’ employer was not impressed; neither was the Supreme Court which ruled that the possibility to conscientiously object only related to a ‘hands-on’ capacity in the provision of abortion services.

In a recent paper in the JME (available here) I have argued, albeit only indirectly, that this decision is only half-correct.  Nurses and other medical professionals have a human right to object to the provision of a wide range of services which they deem incompatible with their conscience.  I say that the decision of the Supreme Court is only half-correct because the Court explicitly avoided investigating the possibility of the nurses’ human right to conscientious objection.  Under the Human Rights Act, individuals have a right to freedom of conscience and religion.  That right may, in appropriate circumstances, entail the right for nurses to object to being involved in administrative and supervisory duties connected with abortion services.  If you ask me how the Supreme Court avoided having to consider the nurses’ human right to freedom of conscience and religion I couldn’t tell you.  I bet neither could any of the Law Dons at Oxford.

I realise that by appealing to human rights I am not necessarily making the nurses’ case any more deserving of sympathy that it already is(n’t). more…

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