Derek Parfit (1942-2017)

Leaureate Derek Parfit

Derek Parfit.

It is with great sadness to learn today that one of my all-time favourite philosophers has died overnight, in the beginning of this year. He was an odd character, certainly, but had a fantastic mind for philosophy and went out of his comfort zone to push his field forward. He was for this reason also, in my opinion, a great academic example of collegiality, transparency, and engagement in the social and public life of academia; despite his reclusive nature he engaged readily and frequently with the media and fellow researchers in order to get at and share the ‘truth’.
In true Parfit style, in the closing paragraphs of his third volume of On What Matters (being published next month by OUP), he wrote: “I regret that, in a book called On What Matters, I have said so little about what matters. I hope to say more in what would be my Volume Four.”
Sadly we may never read volume four. However, in what Peter Singer kindly shared, we may read Parfit’s final, fitting printed words before Feb:
“What now matters most is how we respond to various risks to the survival of humanity. We are creating some of these risks, and discovering how we could respond to these and other risks. If we reduce these risks, and humanity survives the next few centuries, our descendants or successors could end these risks by spreading through this galaxy.
Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine. In Nietzsche’s words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea.
If we are the only rational beings in the Universe, as some recent evidence suggests, it matters even more whether we shall have descendants or successors during the billions of years in which that would be possible. Some of our successors might live lives and create worlds that, though failing to justify past suffering, would give us all, including some of those who have suffered, reasons to be glad that the Universe exists.”
Rest well, mighty mind.

Why animals should be treated as co-citizens

Dogs on a farm in Canada. (Photo: Martin Cathrae)

Dogs on a farm in Canada. (Photo: Martin Cathrae)

Cats, dogs, dolphins, chimps, and humans – we’re all technically animals, but do some of us deserve more rights than others? There is a tiny town in northern Spain that thinks not. In late July, the municipality of Trigueros del Valle unanimously passed a local law which officially defines cats and dogs in the town as ‘non-human residents’.

“The mayor must represent not just the human residents but must also be here for the others,” the Spanish town’s mayor told The Independent.

While it might seem a bit far-fetched, the idea that non-human animals should be given human-like rights is gaining traction in jurisdictions as far as India and Argentina to Romania and the United States. But what are the cultural and philosophical implications of all this? And isn’t giving ‘human-like rights’ going a bit too far? I don’t think so, in fact, I think we should be prepared to grant not just human-like ‘rights’ or ‘residency’ to animals, but indeed we should be prepared to give them citizenship and let their interests be directly represented in our governments.

Such a radical shift in thinking about non-human animals is unlikely to occur quickly, and there seem to be some clear stepping stones which will first need to reached. One of the most pivotal steps centres around the debate of whether some animals have a level of ‘personhood’ that can be legally meaningful.

Personhood – that an entity has the essential capacities of a person, like self-consciousness, intellect, experience of suffering and complex emotional states, etc. – comes in different forms and to varying degrees. We would not say, for instance, that a human infant was criminally liable for their own actions, even if those actions caused serious harm to another human, since we know the infant wouldn’t be properly aware of their own actions or the consequences of those actions. However, if a competent adult harmed an infant, that adult would definitely be criminally liable for their own actions, since they have adequate foresight and self-awareness. In this context, then, both the adult and infant have different levels of legal personhood and this is reflected in how the law treats them.

If non-human animals like chimpanzees or orangutans could be argued as being at least somewhat equivalent in a legal or moral sense (courtesy of their intellectual and other human-like capacities) to a human person – even on the level of a human infant – then courts could be persuaded to recognise them as non-human persons. And with the status of personhood can come great things.

The English Somerset case, which gave an African slave his freedom in 1772, was prompted by a writ of habeas corpus, a legal summons that requires the custodian of a prisoner to demonstrate before a court that their detention of the person in question is lawful. Animal rights activists in Argentina and New York have argued that the same legal summons should be employed to require a zoo or university to demonstrate their lawful detention of an orangutan or chimpanzee, respectively. The question for such cases hinges on whether the zoo or university is detaining a legally-defined person.

While these cases are currently ongoing, some politicians and scientists have already made up their minds, and it’s easy to see why. Advanced non-human animals like dolphins or chimpanzees or others are highly intelligent and share huge swaths of genetic heritage with us humans. They lead rich emotional lives and have human-like capacities such as self-awareness.

But personhood should not be the only game in town when it comes to thinking about animals. My pet dog is quite dull, but that shouldn’t mean I can get away with mistreating it any more than I could get away with mistreating a clever orangutan. The ability to experience suffering, therefore, seems to be important in this regard. That said, there can be indirect negative effects or suffering which results from killing something as basic as even an ant (even though it’s unlikely insects experience pain). Sure, stepping on one accidently from time to time won’t cause a catastrophe, but we couldn’t live a world without ants altogether. They, along with the rest of the insect class, form the basis of the food chain. Crops couldn’t grow and cows couldn’t eat grass if it weren’t for creepy crawlies. So even suffering doesn’t seem to capture everything there is to value about animals. In a broad sense, I think most of us recognise that we ought to value our ecosystem as a whole, if not for its own sake then for our own survival’s.

I’m not arguing that trees or bees ought to be considered our co-citizens, however, but rather the non-human animals which form a part of our societies: companion animals like dogs and cats, produce or working animals like horses and sheep. These are the animals which we have actively enlisted into the ranks of our societies for our own purposes. They are the biggest modern caste group worldwide and are regularly exploited for financial gain without full consideration of their welfare.

Just like we wouldn’t expect a co-citizen to work their whole lives and never be given adequate time for rest and relaxation, we shouldn’t expect this of animals. In most high-income countries, we expect that our co-citizens will enjoy a basic level of provision and protection in the forms of food, medicine, and housing; the same should all be true for animals as well.

What might be a touch difficult is getting hoof and paw prints on electoral votes in a meaningful manner. Indeed, it’s highly unlikely any non-human animal could be expected to understand the complexities (and absurdities) of modern politics. This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t seek to know what is in their best interests and have those interests represented in our governments’ decision-making and services. We don’t expect children to know their best interests or be able to fully care for themselves outside of their families, but we still make concerted efforts to care for children who cannot be cared for by their own families; we, as a society, take it upon ourselves to care for them and to avoid their being exploited or abused. In the same way, perhaps we ought to create policies and agencies which care for animals.

It is likely that the way we treat animals will change and one day we might even call them our co-citizens. A few decades ago the animal rights movement seemed to some like a fringe fad, but it is now part the mainstream. Call me barking mad, but I suspect that in a few more decades we might be talking about co-citizen adoption agencies rather than pet shops.

Friendship and partiality

Old friends sitting on a park bench in Guatemala. Photo: Keneth Cruz

Old friends sitting on a park bench in Guatemala. Photo: Keneth Cruz

On Monday 6 July 2015 I guest hosted BioethxChat – a weekly Twitter discussion based around bioethical issues – on the topic of friendship and partiality. We had 40 participants during the live, online discussion and a few of us continued conversing during the following days.

The discussion was organised into four topic questions, each discussed for approximately 10 or 15 minutes. These were:

  1. What is friendship? What makes a friend a true friend?
  2. Does friendship have intrinsic or merely instrumental value?
  3. Can impartialists coherently maintain true friendships or value friendships intrinsically?
  4. Is impartiality required in moral judgements? If so, to what degree? Does this change with context, e.g. public vs. private morality?

Although these questions are not bioethical in a conventional or typical sense, their answers can be relevant to a range of bioethical dilemmas. Some examples which were brought up in our discussion were of a medical professional reporting on the malpractice of a peer who was also their friend and of medical professionals triaging patients in partial or impartial ways.

To many in the literature and many BioethxChat participants, friendships are something that complete or add to the persons involved. My brother said to me once that friendship was like a sculpture that two people work on. I agree, and think that some of the most beautiful sculptures are those which can be viewed as beautiful from all sides – in the same way, friendships are most beautiful, I think, when both persons put effort into the friendship.

However, can a friendship be valued despite instrumental concerns or does it need to result in something outside of itself to be worthy of value? A quintessentially consequentialist response is presumably that friendship should only be valued by what it gives rise to. But if what is being valued is not the friendship itself but rather what it gives rise to, is friendship a true value? Not according to arguments by Michael Stoker and others. In his paper ‘The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories’, Stoker provides the example of being bored and lonely in hospital when your friend, Smith, visits you not (as you find out) because he is simply your friend, but because he felt it was his duty (subscribing to deontology) or because he could think of no better way to improve utility (subscribing to consequentialism, specifically utilitarianism). It’s argued that Smith isn’t as true a friend as someone who visited you because they valued your friendship. Many BioethxChat participants seemed to agree with this sentiment and some said that in their close relationships and friendships, instrumental aspects were not a major part of what they valued. However, several participants noted that instrumental aspects damages or gives rise to intrinsic value, as in the case of a friend who ‘uses’ the friendship for their own benefit or when two people begin a friendship and are only at the start of developing their intrinsic value for one another.

My own view on this debate is that while this ‘problem of friendship’ for consequetialists (and impartialists generally) is a genuine and worrying problem, there are still options to consider. I present one such option in a paper recently submitted to a journal which I call the ‘personification solution’. I argue that if we agree that personhood grants some intrinsic value to a subject, and it can be shown that friendships possess some level of personhood, then friendships (and relationships generally) can be intrinsically valued by consequentialists and perhaps other impartialists to some degree. If consequentialists can coherently value relationships not only for their instrumental value, but also for their intrinsic value, then this might allow them to engage in ‘true’ (or ‘truer’) friendships and relationships. Such a view also has broader implications for other normative perspectives on the ethics of friendship and relationships generally.

As for the ultimate roles of partiality and impartiality in ethical decision-making, on face value it seems that neither can be used without escaping potential problems: being partial to friends and family is a natural and perhaps essential part of being human, but we can’t justifiably ignore a stranger’s dire needs. Though, in a hospital emergency department, would it be right of a medical professional to see to their friend or family member’s ailment before a stranger’s? It probably depends on the ailments of both the friend/family member and the stranger, but to what degree? I’m not sure, but I know I regularly give friends and family members gifts on special occasions when I could have donated them to charity or spent the money more effectively.

The ethics of child participation in significantly risky non-therapeutic research

Children in Conakry, Guinea, on 14 January 2015. (Photo: UNMEER/Martine Perret)

Children in Conakry, Guinea, on 14 January 2015.
(Photo: UNMEER/Martine Perret)

After recently returning to Melbourne, Australia from Geneva, Swtizerland, where I was the 2015 Monash-WHO Bioethics Fellow at the World Health Organization headquarters in the Global Health Ethics Unit, I have revisited a paper I wrote in November last year on the ethics of child participation in significantly risky non-therapeutic research.

At the time of writing this paper, a safe and effective Ebola vaccine was unavailable and there were many questions related to how to produce one while maintaining existing ethical standards for research involving vulnerable populations. I used this as an example of why I think there are many situations in which it is ethical to allow children to participate in significantly risky non-therapeutic research.

Here are the conclusions I ultimately arrived at:

The principles which can justify significantly risky nontherapeutic research on children are a combination of: (1) direct or indirect benefits to the child participants now and/or in the future (and these benefits need not necessarily be medical, they can also be socioeconomic or otherwise non-medical); (2) a high standard of informed consent that fundamentally focuses on the child participant’s understanding (and capacity for understanding) of relevant features of informed consent. Researchers, parents and guardians, as well as child participants themselves, have different roles and obligations towards one another. This is not an issue of seeking to find excuses to expose children to risk, but rather an issue of seeking the least risky and most ethical way to do so if and when required by public health emergencies or to achieve directly beneficial scientific breakthroughs.

As I do not have any strong inclinations for having this published elsewhere, I have made it available for others via the philpapers archive.

Can I still enjoy a Willy Moon song?

Photo: Alison Curtis

Photo: Alison Curtis

Sitting in a small Indonesian noodle cafe this afternoon in central Berlin, music was playing that I vaguely enjoyed. I say vaguely because, often, my musical knowledge is too limited – particularly to jazz and classical genres – to know if it’s something more than the song I like. Perhaps I simply like the genre, or the lyrics, or the guitar effect. Whatever it is, I don’t have the experience or knowledge to specifically identify what I like about it. Thus, vaguely.

There’s a lot of music I hear when I’m out and about that I find catchy or (again, I’ll use the term) vaguely to my liking. Thus I use what many people do, a smartphone app that will recognise the tune.

I pull out my phone and use the app, as I have many times before, and it recognises the song.

“Good,” I think to myself, “I’ll look it up on YouTube when I get home.”

I do, and I enjoy it once again. Then I read the top comment.

“Just passing by to dislike all his videos.”

Mob online justice. But justice for what?

As it turns out, the song I’d heard was one by Willy Moon, the singer who recently made hugely gross and demeaning comments – along with his wife – to a contestant on the New Zealand talent-finding show X-Factor. I don’t follow such shows or entertainment news generally, but the story was big enough to be hitting hard news sites which I frequent, albeit in the fringes, and I had read of the atrocious act well before hearing the song.

So here I was, having just found a nice meal and a nice song to match (the first two of which I’d enjoyed in a while, and both of which made me nostalgic for home somehow – probably just because I miss music, food, and company I enjoy back in Melbourne), and discovering that one half of that enjoyment had come from a despicable source.

Has my enjoyment been faked or tarnished? Faked, no. But tarnished? Certainly.

So what does one do in this situation? Can I unhypocritically continue to enjoy Willy Moon’s song?

While in no way directly related, it turns out that a much more serious iteration of this dilemma has been faced by others before us; the dilemma of what to do with the ‘good’ that stems from an abject source is not a new one. And, incidentally, I had only just seen – with my own eyes – the physical location of this abject source earlier the same day.

Before going for dinner at the Indonesian noodle place where I heard Moon’s song, I had come from a tour of a former Nazi concentration camp: Sachsenhausen. I’d never visited a camp before, and I can’t say I enjoyed any part of the harrowing experience.

Sachsenhausen, while not the first Nazi concentration camp built, was the nearest to Berlin and site of the headquarters which oversaw the entire Nazi apparatus of concentration and extermination camps from the mid-1930s to the end of World War II.

Passing the original foundation blocks of the barracks which held different political dissidents, ‘asocials’, ‘incompetents’, ‘gypsies’, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and – of course – Jews, nearly brought me to tears. Seeing ovens and hearing of the Schutzstaffel’s thought-processes of ‘efficiency’ when it came to the murdering of tens of thousands (at this particular camp) was almost too much to bear.

The last stop in our tour was at the pathology and medical building. Here, captives would be subjected to cruel experimentation to further the Nazi war effort and reinforce the depraved ideology which drove it. Many experiments were entirely unscientific and warped by the equally unscientific idea of Social Darwinism. A rare few, however, generated genuinely ‘good’ data.

Though what ought we do with such data? Some of it, particularly that on the treatment of hypothermia, could be used to save lives in the future. Is saving lives by the means of others’ killing and inflicting unthinkable suffering on innocent people corrupting our act of saving a life? Some may say so, but not I.

That’s because I think it’s ultimately the motive you have in your action – what you want to achieve – and the predictable results of that action that count. If you use this data with an intention to do good, to save lives, with the full knowledge of how it was generated, you have not done wrong. Rather, you have merely attempted to achieve the most moral outcome from what is available.

As Kristine Moe wrote, we should not let “let the inhumanity of such experiments blind us to the possibility that some ‘good’ may be salvaged from the ashes.”

If we can bring ourselves to recognise some ‘good’ to come from something as horrific as Nazism, can we bring ourselves to recognise some ‘good’ to come from Willy Moon?

Maybe. Except, there is one very important distinction here. By using data from Nazi experiments, we do not explicitly support Nazism. Listening to an artist’s song on YouTube or buying their works, however, does explicitly support them. And there, perhaps, lies our answer.

I, for one, will not be enjoying any more of Willy Moon’s songs, even if I vaguely ‘enjoyed’ one of them.

The death of Martin Burgess

Nembutal and part of Philip Nitschke's euthanasia administration machine. Photographer: Mads Bødker.

Nembutal and part of Philip Nitschke’s euthanasia administration machine. Photographer: Mads Bødker.

Earlier this year, Martin Burgess, a terminally ill man in Darwin, died after requesting assistance to die. An anonymous donor had allegedly sent Mr Burgess a lethal dose of the drug Nembutal prior to his death.

Nearly 20 years ago, Mr Burgess wouldn’t have had to make his final days so controversial, public, or legally risky for him and others.

Bob Dent was in a similar position in July of 1996. He was suffering unbearably, unjustly, and had terminal cancer.

‘If I were to keep a pet animal in the same condition I am in, I would be prosecuted. If you disagree with voluntary euthanasia, then don’t use it, but don’t deny the right to me to use it,’ he stated in a public letter, days before his death. (He was so unwell at the time, that he could not physically write – his wife took dictation.)

The legislation that made it possible for Mr Dent to die with legal medical assistance was the first of its kind in the world when it was passed in 1995 by the Northern Territory’s Parliament. Not long after, however, federal conservatives overturned the Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. Current social services minister Kevin Andrews, then a backbencher, drew up the federal bill that made this possible in 1996. To this day, no territory of Australia – the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory, or Norfolk Island – may legalise euthanasia via an process, even a democratic one such as what happened in the Northern Territory. The states, which have more powers, were and are unaffected.

Since 1995, a total of 29 voluntary euthanasia legalisation bills have been presented to parliaments in Australia. Queensland is the only state that has not yet seen such a bill presented.

Despite the numerous opportunities for legislators to legalise what has overwhelming public support, politicians have either lived in a different world or in fear of losing support from social, especially religious, conservatives. This reckless political failure is paved in the blood and tears of people who have needlessly suffered and endured long, painful deaths.

It has also forced conscientious and empathetic medical doctors to risk criminal charges in the course of their duty to care for the most vulnerable in our population – the sick and the elderly.

Australia was once at the forefront of voluntary euthanasia legislation, in legislation which sought to avoid needless suffering and offer humane, dignified deaths to those who wanted them. How is it that we have let almost 20 years go by and we are still no closer to permanently stopping this sadism which is too-often dressed in anachronistic religious babble? Does being unable to defecate, communicate, shower, or even stand up without assistance while you writhe in constant pain sound like a existence which has so much so-called ‘sanctity’ that you or I should be forced to live it for the rest of our days if would prefer not to? Not to me, it doesn’t. If it does to you, then I ask the ancient question: by what right?

Are emotions evil?

High Tatras, Slovakia. Photographer: Martin Sojka.

High Tatras, Slovakia. Photographer: Martin Sojka.

Humans are emotional creatures. Anger, lust, anxiousness, boredom, disgust, and a whole slew of others can affect us in our day-to-day lives. Sometimes these emotions boil over. We talk about ‘crimes of passion’, for example – crimes that people have committed in the heat of the moment, their emotions raging, and where they have ultimately let their emotions control their actions to such a degree that they overrode their reason or normal temperament. In the case of such crimes, we tend to treat the perpetrator differently to how we treat someone who committed an identical act but with pre-meditation and planning. Given that in an ordinary circumstance we can, to some extent, control or direct our emotions, it seems plausible that acting from emotion (or at least partly) can be morally praiseworthy if properly directed. However, completely trusting one’s emotions to produce morally perfect, and thus morally praiseworthy actions, is naïve. Likewise, acting purely from reason can lead one just as astray as acting purely from emotion. Emotion balanced with reason, then, is necessary for reliable moral praiseworthiness.

Barbara Herman once gave the example of a happy-go-lucky agent motivated by sympathy who unwittingly assists an art thief to steal a heavy piece of artwork. The agent, in this case, is acting out of a commendable emotional reaction: to feel sympathy for someone struggling to carry a heavy object. It just so happens that the person carrying the object is acting wrongly – in other words, it’s simply an ‘unlucky’ or ‘unfortuitous’ circumstance for the agent’s otherwise admirable willingness to help someone who might be in need. If the circumstances were different, say, had it been the gallery assistant and not the art thief, then the happy-go-lucky agent’s action would align with the admirability of their emotional motive. Herein lies the problem: acting purely from emotion is gambling the morality of your actions on fortuitous contexts.

Is the happy-go-lucky agent deserving of moral worth in either scenario? Or is worth only granted when the agent combines their emotional motive with reasons? In the original scenario, where the agent unwittingly helps the art thief, we are only told of the agent’s temperament and not their capacity to, or consideration of, reason. Given the unintentional nature of the agent’s accessory to the robbery, we might claim their action was wrong but avoid claiming their action was morally blameworthy. Perhaps we could say, “you should have known better,” but, then, perhaps they could not have otherwise known better due to the circumstances, their temperament, or a combination thereof. Therefore, if we are going to say that reason is always required to attract moral worth, then we may be unfairly excluding those without full capacities to reason (due to their nature or physiatric ailment, for example) from ever doing anything that we can say is truly and fully ‘right’. Is such a situation ideal? If the happy-go-lucky agent is in fact legitimately incapable of reason (perhaps not always, but at least – for the sake of argument – for the duration of this scenario), it seems unfair of us to say that they acted completely wrongly in the scenario where they helped the art thief, but it also seems unfair of us to say that they didn’t act somewhat rightly when they helped the gallery assistant.

How many entirely naïve, happy-go-lucky agents actually exist though? While they might exist in a very small minority, we can probably say that most people aren’t so naïve as to help the art robber. If this is true, a balanced agent might recognise their emotional response in wanting to help someone in potential need, but then reason that within this context their helping would likely be in an immoral act and thus their helping would be similarly immoral. Their reason might direct their sympathy towards the owners of the artwork and cause the agent to notify the authorities. However, if the agent was acting purely from reason unguided by emotion, they might become a misguided agent who acts on reasons which are contrary to the emotion of sympathy or some other emotion. A classic example of such persons was presented in a paper by Jonathan Bennett. He described how Heinrich Himmler, who succeeded in killing millions of innocent people via World War II concentration camps, acted in accordance with bad reasons, ignoring his admitted sympathy for the people he was responsible for killing.

Reason and emotion can be equally misguiding. Acting purely out of emotion can attract moral worth where reason was not also possible, however where it was, it is morally preferable to guide one’s emotions with reason. The greatest moral worth, then, is attracted by the agent who utilises the greatest combination of both reason and emotion in their actions.