Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

Roboethics on YouTube

Despite my skepticism about roboethics having much to do with ethics about robotics, it’s only fair to let roboethicists have their say. Here’s a YouTube advertisement of a website on the subject.

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Am I press?

Having been a journalist in a former life, I try to keep my nose in the game by subscribing to press release services. It’s an interesting way to see the news cycle and journalists’ judgement in action, since reportage from many media outlets can be recycled or augmented press releases.

For the science beat, that means EurekAlert, which is how I got hold of this little gem:

It is about a study to be released in PLoS Medicine which argues we just don’t know if circumcision will hinder HIV transmission rates in the United States. Boiled down, Africa and America are two very different places with very different disease vectors, which means public health data from the former won’t yield predictions about the later.

I got all that from the press release. I haven’t read the paper, which has the following citation:

The reason I haven’t read the paper, and can’t give you juicy quotes (theirs) followed up with bloated analysis (mine)? The press release links to:


The all-caps aren’t mine, but they have sufficient emphasis that I gather a hands-off approach is encouraged if you aren’t a journalist.

This brings me to ask the big question which crosses the mind of a serious blogger at least once: Do I count as press?

I could put on my freelancing hat and say, ‘Yes, I am.’ I could even send off an email and ask permission. But that’s just avoiding the bigger question of when a blogger counts as a journalist and is entitled to the same treatment.

My intuition is that anyone who picks up a pen can be a journalist for the purposes of any given story. Amateur or professional, it matters not a whit as long as you behave responsibly. That’s why excluding bloggers from press galleries should rankle everyone – even graduates of journalism school.

I suspect Canadian courts would see it the same way, since they don’t elevate the rights of journalists over those of citizens. Here are two statements to that effect:

Journalists have no more right to information, or to disclosure or even to access to information than the ordinary citizen. Freedom of the press as a concept does not confer any special status on media people. MacLeod v. de Chastelain, [1991] 1 F.C. 114 (F.C.T.D.).

Canadian courts have stated emphatically that the press enjoys no privilege of free speech greater than enjoyed by a private individual and that the liberty of the press is no greater than the liberty of every subject. Coates v. The Citizen (1988), 44 C.C.L.T. 286 (N.S.S.C.). [ed: the irony of the newspaper’s name should not escape us]

Even so, I’ll wait to read the article. Unless the story merits confrontation, a journalist should be polite and err on the side of caution.

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It is a fact of human nature that we tend to focus on conflict. Journalists and writers know this is their stock in trade, because without conflict there is no story, and nowhere is this more apparent than in discussions of right and wrong. Morality is the conflict-generator, and our sense of injustice is more than willing to weigh in on the legal implications following from these conflicts.

But what, exactly, is our sense of justice, and how is it to be explained?

According to Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, our moral intuitions arise from the interplay between 5 core psychological responses. One of these relates to justice. Unfortunately, it is not quite clear what Haidt and Graham mean by justice, except that they associate it with fairness and rights.

Contrast this with a pair of papers by Paul Robinson, Robert Kurzban, and Owen Jones, who have a narrow examination of justice that pertains to punishment. They argue we have shared intuitions about the justice of punishment, and these arise from evolutionary biology.

It seems to me that these authors are talking about two very different conceptions of justice. Intuitions regarding justice-about-punishment are not the same as the intuitions regarding justice-about-rights.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to reconcile these views, because it isn’t clear where intuitions about punishment (criminal or otherwise) should fit in Haidt and Graham’s schema. This is a strange problem – all the more so because intuitive demands for punishment are studied in Haidt’s early examinations of moral disgust – and it means we are left to wonder whether intuitions about punishment and moral responsibility belong in one of the existing 5 categories or in a supplementary 6th category.

For further reading:


Today BoingBoing points us to a post at The Mouse Trap which references Carlsmith et al. (noted above) and a post at Do You Mind.

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Following a paper published in Fertility and Sterility, the New York Times weighs in with this: As Demand for Donor Eggs Soars, High Prices Stir Ethical Concern.

The surprise for me was how Hastings Center ethicist Josephine Johnston characterized the problem: she thinks the lure of a big payment can cloud informed consent.

The real issue is whether the money can cloud someone’s judgment… We hear about egg donors being paid enormous amounts of money, $50,000 or $60,000… How much is that person actually giving informed consent about the medical procedure and really listening and thinking as it’s being described and its risks are explained?

Informed consent can’t happen when a lot of money is involved? Johnston’s assumption needs empirical evidence to back it up. Is it true that women are so tempted by money they become incapable of making an informed decision?

Informed consent is a legal concept, so its meaning varies by jurisdiction. However, at its core it involves the subject of a medical intervention only agreeing to the procedure after considering its purpose, risks, benefits and uncertainties – and the availability of alternatives.

It’s something you’ll almost never see in medical dramas like House, where doctors  – not patients – make the decisions.

There are occasions when people are believed to be incapable of providing or withholding informed consent. This happens when patients are unable to make judgements about their care, either because of immaturity, cognitive infirmity or duress.

Since youth and mental health are not at issue, perhaps Johnston is thinking about duress. But since when is a profit incentive equivalent to duress? Where are the women held to ransom by student loans, who feel bad about selling eggs but do it anyways?

While it may be common for us to think that decisions we would not make signal an inability to make informed judgements, the question of a patient’s capacity to consent should have nothing to do with whether or not we think the decision is a good one.

A principled approach also recognizes the type of procedure should make no difference at all to the measurement of a person’s capacity to give informed consent. This just means that if a person is capable of giving informed consent for one medical procedure, they are capable of doing so for any. The stakes don’t matter. A woman who can give informed consent for a vaccination can give or withhold informed consent for a kidney donation, sex change, blood transfusion, or for-profit fertility treatment.

Also, why shouldn’t people consider facts external to the medical merits of a procedure? How does this threaten informed consent? Consider the following examples:

  1. When a person worries that they might lose their job if they don’t undergo a procedure, does this mean they lose the capacity to make informed consent?
  2. When a person is worried they might lose weeks of work if they undergo a procedure, does this mean they lose the capacity to withhold informed consent and refuse treatment?

Keeping in mind the second example, consider how nobody would question a woman’s capacity to consent if a she decided to not donate her eggs because it cost her too much time and money.

How can it be that women lose the capacity to make or withhold informed consent when they think about monetary advantages, but keep their ability to decide when they think about monetary disadvantages?

The lesson we should take away from this is simple: the capacity to give or withhold informed consent doesn’t go away when a person has access to extra information about incentives and disincentives.

If there are good objections to the sale of human eggs, they don’t have anything to do with informed consent.

(Hat tip to Pure Pedantry for mention of the NYT article. However, he is wrong about the law in Canada and the UK. In both jurisdictions, egg sales are illegal. In Canada, it is a serious criminal offense to buy human eggs. In the UK, while egg sales are illegal, donation with some compensation is permitted.)

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Joshua Knobe has an interesting post today at the group blog Philosophy Ethics and Academia (PEA) Soup about research done by David Shoemaker.

Test subjects reacting to stories gave intuitive evaluations of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness. His results suggest moral ignorance attracts blame while moral knowledge does not attract praise.

  • A character who does something morally wrong, believing it to be morally right, is more blameworthy than a character who does something morally wrong even though they believe it is morally wrong. Conclusion: moral ignorance increases blameworthiness.
  • A character who does something morally right, but believes it to be morally wrong, is just as praiseworthy as a character who does something morally right, believing it to be morally right. Conclusion: moral knowledge does not increase praiseworthiness.

These results leave us with two puzzles:

  1. Why do we penalize moral ignorance contributing to bad acts?
  2. When we assess the motivations for good acts, are we failing to reward moral knowledge, or are we discounting moral ignorance (i.e. giving moral ignorance a pass)?

My explanation: we are more willing to assign blame than praise, and we are unwilling to assign praise for something we would have done.

This might have something to do with the way we see our own ideas of right action as presenting the ‘obvious choice’. Satisfying expectations is nothing special, but failing to meet our expectations creates blame.

In a mix of deontological and consequentialist thinking, we have expectations pertains to the action and the motivation for the action. Bad outcomes from incorrect action fails one expectation; two expectations are violated when the wrong action is compounded by a second, underlying mistake about ethical norms.

Might there be a way to empirically test this hypothesis?

One last thing: the results do not accord with my own intuitions. I tend to think moral ignorance decreases blameworthiness.

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