Philosophy & Ethics

Cosmologist Sean Carroll is one of many who have recently answered the annual question posed by Edge.org, which this year was: What scientific idea is ready for retirement? Sean, whom I’ve met at the Naturalism workshop he organized not long ago, and for whom I have the highest respect both as a scientist and as a writer, picked “falsifiability.”
By growing “mini-livers” from adult mouse stem cells, the road may be paved to replacing, reducing or refining the use of animals in science.

Dr. Meritxell Huch from the Gurdon Institute at Cambridge received the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) 3Rs Prize for developing a method that enables adult mouse stem cells to grow and expand into fully functioning three-dimensional liver tissue. 
I’ve been reading for a while now Jim Baggott’s Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth, a fascinating tour through cutting edge theoretical physics, led by someone with a physics background and a healthy (I think) dose of skepticism about the latest declarations from string theorists and the like.

It used to be that only rich people could afford to be fat. Now only rich people can afford to be thin.

And there's even a growing income gap when it comes to suicide.

Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland but that doesn't make it equal, and the authors of a paper in the International Journal of Epidemiology have found that assisted suicide is more common in wealthier areas.

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.