Philosophy & Ethics

Gay marriage is rapidly becoming less and less controversial, at least in the Western world. Yes, the battle hasn’t been won just yet, both in Europe and in the US, but we are getting there at a pace that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

The next frontier, it seems, is adoptions by gay parents. When I talk to even some of my somewhat progressive friends and relatives, including those in the Old Country, they seem to resist the idea of gay couples adopting children much more than they resisted (if they ever did) the idea of gay marriage. Why?

A hundred years ago, progressive efforts to bring about Utopia led to eugenics and social Darwinism, efforts to breed out undesirable traits by sterilizing people who had them. The concept was endorsed by luminaries such as the author H.G. Wells, economist John Maynard Keynes and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Oh, and eventually the New York Times and Adolph Hitler.

Racism as a social and scientific concept recurs periodically and researchers need to be careful that the growth of genomics does not bring about another resurgence of scientific racism, according to anthropologist Nina Jablonski of Penn State.


Here comes another post on ethics! This one is, I must admit, somewhat meta-ethical, despite my recent post about the limited value of meta-ethical discussions when it comes to debates in first-order ethics. As I pointed out in the discussion that followed that essay, it’s not that I don’t think that meta-ethics is interesting, it’s just that it shouldn’t be used as an excuse for refusing to get down and dirty about actual everyday moral questions.
I used to have the “meta” itch, but I learned to live with it and stop scratching it. It only irritates anyway, without doing much good work.

Let me explain.

If you are a regular (or even occasional) reader of Rationally Speaking you know that we often publish essays that have to do with ethics and moral philosophy. That's because ethics is one of those things that always lurks in the background (and sometimes the foreground) of our lives, whether we reflect on it or not. And I of course think it is better to reflect on it, at least from time to time.

The families of some very severely brain injured patients believe that once all treatment options are exhausted, allowing their relatives to die with the help of terminal sedation would be a humane and compassionate option.

The authors interviewed the families of patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state, found some relatives believed euthanasia by sedation would be preferable to withholding or withdrawing treatment. Currently, the withdrawal of treatment such as artificial nutrition and hydration is the only legal method guaranteed to allow death in patients in a vegetative state.


In a forthcoming episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast, Julia and I discuss the philosophy and science of suicide, i.e. what empirical inquiry tells us about suicides (who commits them, how, what are the best strategies for prevention) and how philosophical reflection may lead us to think of suicide. In this post I will focus on the philosophical side of the discussion, for which an excellent summary source, with a number of additional references, is this article by Michael Cholbi in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, to which I will keep referring below.

America has developed a surveillance problem, hiding behind a facade of security. Britain has been down this road before, the average citizen in London is photographed 300 times per day by government, which has done nothing to reduce crime.

Thus it makes sense that a law academic from the University of East Anglia (UEA) has advice for how to repair the trust of people and foreign governments who feel violated by the administration's tactics.


I am not particularly friendly to the so-called New Atheism.
So the other day Julia Galef and I had the pleasure of interviewing mathematical cosmologist Max Tegmark for the Rationally Speaking podcast. The episode will come out in late January, close to the release of Max’s book, presenting his Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH). We had a lively and interesting conversation, but in the end, I’m not convinced (and I doubt Julia was either).

For decades, some minority students (blacks, Latinos, native Americans) were given preferential treatment in college admissions while other minorities (Asians) were penalized. This posed a legal and cultural dilemma. Stipulating that recruitment must occur “without regard to race, color, or creed” except for certain groups was seemingly in conflict with the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids consideration of race.