Cross-Post: A Few Thoughts on Neuroscience and Consciousness in Marginal Cases (Stanford CLB Blog)

November 20, 2012 at 23:14 (Law, Neuroethics, Philosophy, Politics)

Over at the blog of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences, I’ve got a post looking at some normatively significant neuroscience in the news. Here’s the intro to that post.

A couple of items in the news over the past few weeks have left me in a peculiar (maybe uncomfortable, but probably healthy) position: partly agreeing with the view of a philosopher whose general approach I bristle at, and receiving with some skepticism the work of a scientist whose project I think is important and worthy of much respect.

Writing in the NY Times’ philosophy column a few weeks ago, William Egginton – whose prior essays in that forum were met, rightly I think, with excoriating or at least cautious responses – set about answering the question “Can Neuroscience Challenge Roe v. Wade?” in the negative.  His view, in brief, is that while neuroscience can supply information about pain-related activity in the brain of a fetus, this information is useless (or maybe he means near-useless, there’s some vacillation) when it comes to “the fundamental question of what counts as a full-fledged person deserving of the rights afforded by a society.”

See the rest of the post on the CLB’s blog.

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Fairness in Games, Metagames, and the “Real” World

February 4, 2012 at 17:16 (Game Design, Law, Philosophy, Politics)

Leave it to a stimulating conference to bring me back from thesis-induced blog-cation. Two weeks ago, the Peter Wall Institute hosted an exploratory workshop on fairness, and I was most fortunate to attend as a graduate student commentator for a panel on fairness and economic advantage. In the course of reading over the papers for the panel – an eclectic assortment of pieces ranging from insolvency law to the Eurozone crisis to some of the work I’ve helped carry out looking at attitudes towards distributive justice issues in cognitive enhancement – I perceived several recurring themes that I drew out and elaborated on in my commentary. One in particular, it seemed to me, emerged frequently throughout the rest of the conference as well: thinking of fairness in terms of games and rules, especially with an eye to zero-sum vs. positive-sum games, and often with similarities to the Prisoner’s Dilemma or other game-theoretic scenarios. In particular, some of the discussion later in the conference that happened to deal with fairness in sporting events set me thinking about how this approach to conceptualizing fairness might be quite concretely useful when redeployed in the realm of rather more “serious business.”

Let’s begin with an example – a clear, if not exactly commonly occurring, example of an unfair game. Imagine a marathon about to begin. The various competitors are poised and ready at the starting line … but one of them is not on foot. He’s sitting in a Formula One car. It should be clear enough that this is a pretty terrible marathon that none of the on-foot participants will be altogether keen on going through with. But though the example is whack-you-over-the-head obvious in its unfairness, things get a little more interesting when we do some proper philosophy and try to clarify just what about the nature of the situation is constitutive of its unfairness.

I think we can say at least two things on this topic that will turn out to have sufficient generality. Read the rest of this entry »

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Structural Injustice, Procedural Equality, and Diversity in Recruitment

April 1, 2011 at 11:10 (Philosophy, Politics)

A handful of news items and discussions lately have prompted me to think about the issues in the title of this post. I should clarify at the outset that the phrase “diversity in recruitment” here is meant to refer to, e.g., a university or workplace actively endeavouring to make admissions / hiring decisions in a way that increases the representation of visible minorities and other marginalized groups. I sometimes get the sense that, before the partisan debate is even joined, this is an issue that divides liberals, if only in the sense of quiet inner conflict.

Let’s start by considering this post, detailing a scholarship that a Texas non-profit is offering strictly to white men. Go ahead and have a read; skip the comments, as they’re distracting in this case. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Done? Okay. Now, consider your initial gut reaction to the whole thing. It’s possible, I think, that people who are otherwise liberal will bristle at the disdain this scholarship has prompted – people who might say, “wait a sec, I’m not sure we have any grounds to oppose this” and/or “I’m not sure I understand how the people who oppose it aren’t hypocrites.” I would know: not so long ago, I was at least conflicted enough to quasi-count as one of them.

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Is the Case “Against” Euthanasia Really Just a Case for Better Policy?

February 24, 2011 at 00:20 (Bioethics, Great Quotes, Politics)

Lately, one of the topics I’ve had occasion to think about quite a bit is the culture-war-tinged set of issues swirling around physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. A couple of months ago, a dear family friend of mine succumbed to lymphoma, and while the specific question of assisted suicide didn’t come into the picture there, end-of-life care inevitably forces everyone to consider what might happen along those lines. In particular, that episode prompted me to revisit the powerful Nietzsche quote I keep on my Facebook profile: “One should die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly.”

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I happened to sit in on a lecture by one Dr. Margaret Cottle, whose unexpectedly polemical presentation really jarred me into revisiting the euthanasia debate with some of the perspective I have gained from my own area of research. For the sake of background, here is an article that quotes Dr. Cottle quite a bit (though I must apologize that I couldn’t find an article from a less upsetting and nasty website). Interestingly, though, the talk that I heard her give didn’t really focus on what one might take to be the deep, in-principle reasons to oppose physician-assisted suicide. Instead, it was largely a broadside on how permissive euthanasia policies have played out where they have been implemented. In Dr. Cottle’s estimation, the impact of such policies has, in every case, been an unmitigated disaster.

Why did her talk give me such pause? Well, because it highlighted an important feature in the topography of this, and other similar, debates.

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Selection Effects, Homogeneity, and Diversity in Academia

February 9, 2011 at 22:07 (Politics, Psychology)

I had been meaning for a while to suss out this issue in depth for a couple of reasons, but what really crystallized everything was this New York Times article covering Jonathan Haidt’s provocative presentation on political homogeneity in academic psychology at a recent conference in San Antonio. The journalist, John Tierney, nicely covered Haidt’s point, though also chose to focus on some interesting stuff, which I’ll get into momentarily. The comments (I only read the top-rated ones) are similarly enlightening and nicely illustrate the range of opinion on the topic.

The upshot of Haidt’s presentation was that an overwhelmingly vast majority of social psychologists (really, psychologists in general) are situated firmly in the left wing of the American / Canadian political spectrum. Judging from the quick straw poll he took, a small handful of conference-attending social psychologists identify as political moderates, and a vanishingly minuscule percentage were willing to out themselves as avowed conservatives. Haidt suggests some explanations for how such a statistically uncanny state of affairs might have emerged, and, quite importantly, suggests that it has and will continue to “hinder [social psychologists’] research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.”

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