Tag Archives: ethics

How capitalists profit from the refugee crisis

Over the last few months, the scale of the unfolding humanitarian crisis coming out of Syria . In the backwaters of the news we have had a steady, but muted patter, of stories of rickety boats sinking, with dozens of people losing their lives in the process. After the publication of one photo, some of the more apathetic sections of society have been jolted into action and are now doing headless chicken impressions asking “[what can we do]” or asking for others to “[just do something]”. Such reactions are natural, as may be observed (by analogy) in someone waking up from a deep sleep by an unpleasant action, such as water being poured on their head.

What we end up doing is going to buy supplies to give out. In this act of purchasing, we are contributing to the revenues of the shops (mostly supermarkets) who provide those products. While they will have paid a wholesale price, they still take a gross profit. Their business model is such that they end up with their overheads are fixed, not variable, so that the additional gross profit flows down to their operating profit pretty much unscathed.

With this extra profit, it is likely that the share price increases (or it mitigates a fall, if there are other, bigger, factors at play) and so those who already own shares in the company have their wealth increased (or their losses ameliorated).

It sucks that that’s the way the world that has been constructed before we ever had a chance to have our say in it. It’s a rigged game, designed to favour the rich, to further enrich them. What is personally frustrating is that the spread of investments in a pension fund mean it is quite possible that I have an indirect investment in those who gain from such a human tragedy. If you have a pension, you may too.

Yet can it be right to then turn around and refuse to help others because some might profit it? I’m not sure it is, so I pick what may not be the lesser of two evils, but the less visceral of two evils.

Book Review: The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

Having tried to look at the origins of what we might recognise as philosophy, I wanted to read some more of the “Big 3”. It was a slightly arbitrary choice to pick Aristotle over Socrates or Plato, but my interest in ethics and morality probably swayed it.

The book begins with a very long introduction by Jonathan Barnes. I also ought to note that this particular version was translated by J.A.K. Thomson.

The introduction makes clear what others have told me about the book, in that it is really a series of lecture notes rather than a book that is meant to be read cover to cover. There is also a lot of background on Aristotle, placing the work within his surviving corpus of work. One of the frustrations is that the introduction contains lots of seemingly random references, almost a dewey decimal-like system. Only at the end is it stated what these are; but they refer to a different edition, so are very little use to the reader of this Penguin Classics edition.

What might one expect from an early book on ethics? Well, I wasn’t expecting a vast amount of deliberation or references to earlier writers. I thought this was just going to be a straight-from-the-hip exposition. That is more or less what we get.

Aristotle’s aim is that this is not a work to be merely studied. Rather, the aim is that it is a transformative work that should make one a better man. The fact that it comes to us in book form might be something of an oddity as there is some suggestion in the notes (as well as hints in the text) that this is really a set of lecture notes. I also use the term ‘man’ in the masculonormative sense that Aristotle himself uses, so I shall stick that form for the purposes of this review.

The fact that it was lecture notes didn’t really strike me at first, as the work (made up of some 12 short books) is really rather gripping to begin with. I could faintly see how this could be in terms of the history of thought, though reading a modern translation made it just seem like a treatise on common sense. If anything, the fact that it was so unscandalous is testimony to the influence that Aristotle has upon western culture. It is only when we get to a question of ‘continence and incontinence’ that the book slows somewhat. I confess that I find the term incontinence to be somewhat lavatorial, so it was not clear what Aristotle was on about.

Up until then, the whole tenor of the book had been about moderation. The ideal man, in Aristotle’s view, was not a person of extremes, but who took everything in their stride with due consideration, who could be allowed to be passionate, but who was not quick to be inflamed. That’s the overarching message. What we don’t get, which many modern readers may come with, are questions over particular moral dilemmas. Contrast this with Julian Baggini’s The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten.

Having laid out this vision of the moderate man, the remainder of the book is a little bit turgid to get through. I think I rather lost track in book 7 entitled ‘continence and incontinence’. Through my own ignorance, my immediate thought on reading that header regards the ability of a person to maintain control of their bladder. So what does Aristotle (or the translator) mean by these terms? Well, I was no more enlightened after reading it. There was no clear definition given and without that I couldn’t get a grip on the topic.

Thereafter, I rather struggled to maintain interest and the remainder of the book became more of a chore than a joy to read.

With that said, I would still recommend it as a reading in the history of thought. Not having formal training in philosophy, I probably skimmed over many of the finer points and failed to appreciate it to its full, but it remains (mainly in the first half) an interesting work. There are a great many more works of ethics that I have yet to read (those on my radar include those by Spinoza and Bonhoeffer) and it will be interesting to compare the approaches.

In the end, though, I cannot say it has made me a better man for having read it. In the culture I’ve grown up in, moderation has always been instilled as a good thing. Yet here is where we may well find the origin of that idea. In a world that has its fair share of extremism, moderation is clearly a tempting alternative. Though as I sometimes hear, extremism is only bad is it directed in a bad direction. Can there be anything bad about an extremist for love? Or someone who has extreme generosity? Aristotle would argue that while those things are virtues, an extreme bias towards one of them will detract from a person being capable in another.

Whatever your view here, there’s certainly plenty to think about here.

Book Review: Stem Cells – A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Slack

It feels like some time since I picked up one of the Very Short Introductions (VSI). This has, I think, been sat on my shelf for over a year now, as I plucked it off the shelf of one of my local bookshops with the simple thought, “I don’t really understand much about stem cells. I read about them in the news occasionally. Maybe I ought to plug a hole in my knowledge.”

A year from having bought it, that thought has barely changed. Any time the issue of stem cells appears on the news or is discussed in terms of ethics, I have felt myself at a loss through being under-informed. So how well did Jonathan Slacks’ book do in filling in this particular family of gaps in my understanding?

We begin with the basic question of ‘what is a stem cell?’ To answer this we get a crash course in terminology. It’s worth paying attention here as most of the book is written with fluent use of this. Though, as a mathematician, one might expect me to complain that biology is often the science of obfuscation by making up complicated words for relatively simple things! Thankfully, a useful glossary is provided at the back of the book. At times, one is forced to turn to this 2-3 times per sentence so that even though this is a short introduction at a little over 110 pages, one has read some parts several times over before the linguistic spaghetti is unravelled to render a paragraph comprehensible.

Slack defines a stem cell not by any inherent characteristic, but by the potential of what it does. He is also keen to stress that stem cells do not occur naturally in the body but are instead derived from cells that do occur naturally.

It is the natural step to look then in detail at the kind of stem cells most people have heard of, embryonic stem cells. Slack goes into some detail about basic cell biology and how embryonic stem cells are created and cultivated.

From here, he looks at the next class of stem cells, which he refers to as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). These are better known as adult stem cells though Slack expresses some disdain for the term. He gives a brief guide over how they are produced, though in so doing he throws around the names of various proteins and enzymes without much detail.

The question then is, what can be done with them? This is the realm where stem cells tend to make the news as though they were some kind of miracle cure. They’re not. Many treatments he describes as ‘aspirational’ which is another way of saying ‘unproven’. Nonetheless, stem cells can and do have their uses in some treatments. He picks up on the most widely known stem cell treatment, though it’s not often known as such, bone marrow transfers. Slack also outlines other uses, such as testing drugs on particular types of cells which can’t be tested in vivo (that is, in a living patient) but can be tested in vitro (in a petri dish). An example would be using stem cells to create cells that occur in the heart and then test to see if any new drugs cause an adverse reaction in the heart.

The book does have a couple of curious features, however. The first is that Slack tries to draw a distinction between scientists and clinicians. I think this is an idiosyncratic phraseology, whereby instead of meaning “scientists” I think he means to refer to “research scientists” since, of course, clinicians are just a subgroup of scientists. The other, which is perhaps more of a failing of the book, is its diminution of ethics. By all means, it gets mentioned, but for a more well-rounded account I think the matter could have been dealt with in a slightly less dismissive manner than Slack chooses here.

In spite of the linguistic befuddlement and the downplayed ethics, I think I did learn a lot from this. As I write this on the morning of the 9th of August, I noticed a stem cell related story in the news today. This book has enabled me to better understand such stories, which as to mean that it has achieved its aim of educating.

A christian ethic of blogging

Of late, I have been reading Justification by Tom Wright. I have now finished it and my review will be published before long on this site. However, near the beginning, one little passage jumped out at me and I could not help but be drawn into engagement with it. It reads thus:

“Go to the blogsites, if you dare. It really is high time we developed a Christian ethic of blogging. Bad temper is bad temper even in the apparent privacy of your own hard drive, and harsh and unjust words, when released into the wild, rampage around and do real damage. As for the practice of saying mean and untrue things while hiding behind a pseudonym – well, if I get a letter like that it goes straight into the bin. But the cyberspace equivalents of road-rage don’t happen by accident. People who type vicious, angry, slanderous and inaccurate accusations do so because they feel their
worldview to be under attack.”

I like the idea of a christian ethic of blogging. Though I wonder how it might differ from a christian ethic of any other form of communication. As a fairly regular blogger with an online presence on Twitter and Facebook also, how we communicate our faith to one another and to those who are not christians is a topic of great interest to me.

I agree with Wright that we ought to remain courteous and gracious in all our dealings with one another, whether that be conducted face-to-face, via handwritten letters, writing books or composing blog posts and commenting thereon. Though it strikes me that these are all just different forms of communication; so maybe we could generalise to a christian ethic of communication. Though I think this was outlined quite well by James in what has become known as chapter 3 in his letter to the dispersion.

What really struck me about this snippet was the phrase, “hiding behind a pseudonym”. I have written a little on web anonymity before but it may be worth restating some things. I blog under a pseudonym to keep my normal life and my working life separate. I’m not sure how many of my employers, past or present, would like what I write. I do not claim to speak as a representative of anyone other than myself, which would be compromised if I openly blogged in my own name. Aside from that, there is nothing duplicitous in what I write. I would hope that any readers here have found me to be open and honest.

What I aim for is what I think of as credible anonymity. To avoid such fallacies as the argument from authority or the argument from no authority, I think it is important to assess a person’s words on what they actually say rather than any secondary information which may be dug up by researching their real name. After all, what is a name if not a label by which someone is known. To be simultaneously credible and anonymous, one ought to maintain a self-consistency. I wouldn’t claim I always attain this, though it is something I aim for, and I hope you might recognise this.

The trouble with anonymity is that there are those who use it, as Wright points out, as a mask to hide behind while abuse is hurled out from behind it. Yet to characterise all such anonymous bloggers as such would be (though Wright doesn’t quite go that far) a terrible slur. Of course, people don’t like being told that they’re wrong, especially when the accusation is false. That doesn’t just happen to famous authors, bloggers do that to one another.

In my opinion, it is only by setting an example of being both anonymous and credible, with others following en masse, that attitudes towards anonymity may be helped. I don’t think it will ever be free from suspicion, as the likes of LulzSec and the “Anonymous” collective continue to use the web for purposes perceived (not always unjustly) as nefarious.

I also, wonder if, given that this blog is anonymous, Prof Wright would even read this piece, all other considerations aside…

Thoughts on “post-birth abortion”


 Last week’s highlighting of an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics (JME) on “post-birth abortion” [sorry, the article may have pulled from the site, which is why this link no longer works] prompted much comment, among the most cogent of which was Andrew Brown of the Guardian. Another post I highly recommend you read is at Phil’s Treehouse, where a comparison is made with Jonathan Swift’s “modest proposal”.

The overriding verdict from both conservatives and liberals has been that the paper is abhorrent. This is a view I agree with, but here I wanted to go beyond the knee-jerk reaction and to think through why it is abhorrent. This is, of course, linked in with the notion of abortion in general, so I think I am compelled to state my thinking on the matter, which I have until now been generally reluctant to do. The reason for this reluctance is that abortion is not an issue that directly affects me though it does affect those close to me.

Where I stand

In many debates there are often a wide spectrum of views, though the debate can often be cast in terms of polarity. In this case there is ‘pro choice’ on one hand and ‘pro life’ on the other. If I had to pick one, I would have to consider myself ‘pro life’ though this is more a case of ‘leaning’ towards this view than necessarily agreeing on all points shared by those who identify themselves as such.

Arguments I have often read from pro choice advocates rely heavily on the idea that it is solely the woman’s choice what she does with her own body. This is a very good argument and one that I would normally support. However, implicit within this, though, is the idea that the foetus being aborted is not an “actual person” however one might try to determine that (see further down for details). Taking the argument reductio ad absurdum it could be argued that it is entirely my choice as to whether to pull the trigger on a gun held against a bystander’s head. Yes, we have free will, but we have a moral duty to exercise it well. Exercising the free will to end another person’s life without their explicit consent is, in my view, morally wrong is the majority of circumstances.

That said, I believe abortion is justified in some cases. Such cases include, but are not limited to, instances where the health (mental or physical) of either the mother or the child is at significant risk (although this is admittedly very difficult to quantify). While there are arguments based on unplanned pregnancies (where those brought about by violent means, I would consider may likely cause significant psychological distress and thus would be justified by my previous sentence) or economic considerations do need to be considered but that in such instances adoption is preferable to termination. How to improve the adoption system is a matter that would need to be addressed, though I would make no such attempt here.

I know this brief discussion is all too brief, but I want to get on the JME paper.

The state of the debate

One weapon used by both sides in the debate is that of semantics. This is highly evident in the JME paper where the term “post-birth abortion” is preferred to “infanticide” even though in substance they are exactly the same thing. But the relative novelty of the former lacks the raw impact of the latter.

Pro life supporters tend to word their views in such a way as to portray an unborn child as being a human. Pro choice supporters will often distinguish between an unborn child and one that has been born.

One thing that made the JME paper stand out was that its rhetoric did not distinguish between the recently born and those that were unborn. In this respect, their view seemed to be more akin to the pro life group. However, the crucial difference here was that the newly born were only considered “potential persons” rather than actual human beings.

The growth and development of any person is a gradual thing. The law is generally not very good at recognising this. For example, it is legal for someone to purchase alcohol on their 18th birthday, but not the day before. The age of consent is 16, but not 15 months & 11 years. While recognising that there may be good reasons for setting age limits, I can see no scientific reason for such sharp boundaries. If anyone has any references for these, please pass them on to me.

I think the same is true of the abortion debate. According to Marie Stopes  the time limit for an abortion is 24 weeks, but can be extended “if there are foetal abnormalities”. The scientific basis for the 24 week limit is interesting. If you do a search for “24 weeks evidence” then you come up with references to 2 reports from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) in 2010.

Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jun/25/human-foetus-no-pain-24-weeks
BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10403496
Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/7853321/Foetus-cannot-feel-pain-before-24-weeks.html
RCOG: http://www.rcog.org.uk/news/rcog-release-rcog-updates-its-guidance

The issue that was considered here was whether or not the foetus was capable of feeling pain. The paper that is linked to is not a research paper, but rather a summary of other research; all of which is referenced, but much of which is hidden from public view behind paywalls. This has the effect of making the methodologies and resulting evidence extremely difficult to review and assess. What I would be particularly interested are the margins of error. For example, was it a case that there was no evidence found that any babies felt pain before this period, or was it an average with a margin of error of 10 days either side?

Giving RCOG the benefit of the doubt, and assuming there are sound medical reasons for supposing that a foetus cannot feel pain before 24 weeks, it is still a huge leap from there to link that to an abortion limit. Abortion is not merely the affliction of something which is painful; it is the termination of life (or a potential life).

However, the pain argument does not figure in the line of reasoning provided by the JME paper. The word itself only crops up 3 times (in close succession) and is dismissed as being an irrelevant factor.

Instead the main consideration here is whether or not “the well-being of the family is at risk.” This would seem to coincide with my own view on when an abortion is acceptable. However, this remains incredibly hard to quantify. Having a child is always going to carry some risk and that cannot be eliminated. It is a question of how much risk one is willing to tolerate.

The justification for the paper

The abstract states that the proposition hangs on 3 points:

1) That fetuses [sic] and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons,
2) the fact [sic] that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and
3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people.

To deal briefly with point 3, I would actually agree. The use of the term ‘always’ means that the opposite statement would be that “adoption is always in the best interest of actual people”. Logically, this is a universal statement, so could be falsified by a single counter-example. Though I do not have such an example to hand, I think it is more probable that such an example exists than not. As noted earlier, I think adoption is preferable but it cannot be a panacea for unwanted pregnancies.

On the other two points, the crux of the issue is the demarcation between a “potential person” and an “actual person.”  The authors boldly state “Both a fetus [sic] and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life.’” The lines that follow, which ought to attempt to justify this statement, wholly fail to do so. Instead, there is a line of thinking given about whether or not a person can make plans for themselves. However, none of that provides adequate reason for the supposition quoted.

In the JME paper no specific time limit was proposed. I interpret this as meaning the authors simply failed to put a number on it, rather than proposing that there should be no limit. But this really then asks very similar questions to those involved in the pre-birth abortion debate. Personally, I think the authors failed to propose such a limit because they lacked any evidence that would back up such a proposal.


The key issue is when one considers a human being to have become an “actual person.” The wilful causation of the death of such a person is, in my view, morally wrong, unless it can be shown that it prevents greater harm to that individual or another at a later time. Some may wish to add the word “innocent” into that, though my own view is that the statement stands well enough as it is.

The paper’s authors acknowledge that a foetus is a human being, though deny it the status of “actual person”, downgrading it to “potential person.” The justification provided for this is weak to the point of non-existence. I can see no good reason for setting demarcation on the development of a human being from the point of being a foetus through a continuum of development into a newborn baby and beyond.

Therefore, I would regard a foetus as having the same moral right to life as a child about to be born, a child just born, a toddler, an adolescent and an adult. Wilfully taking their life away is an act of murder and one I would not support.