Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

Op-ed on Pandemic Ethics

Co-authored with Peter Singer, 'Pandemic ethics: The case for experiments on human volunteers' was published online yesterday in the Washington Post!We begin:The pandemic has thrown previous moral assumptions into disarray. Most of us now accept restrictions on our freedom of movement and association that would have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago. Yet the research we are willing to do to combat the virus is still governed by assumptions developed in calmer times when less was at stake.Research ethics normally prohibits exposing human subjects to significant risk. The overriding aim is to prevent their exploitation by researchers whose interests may not coincide with those of the individual patient. But in a pandemic, the overriding aim must be to avoid a potentially catastrophic toll. We all face such heightened risk that restrictions on promising research (beyond the basic requirement of informed consent) could easily prove counterproductive in humanitarian terms.We discuss three kinds of "risky" research: (i) skipping lengthy animal trials for promising treatments, (ii) human challenge trials for vaccines (though what we say here could also extend to more speculative theories, e.g. using challenge trials to test the possibility of cross-immunity from cold coronaviruses), and (iii) variolation.  Regarding the latter, we argue:The seriousness of the coronavirus cuts both ways: more risk from the initial low-dose infection, but greater benefits if it does [More]

Collapse: the way we imagined it, and the way it was.

Even those of us who could see some kind of collapse coming (the "collapsniks") were taken by surprise by the form it took. But, as always, for everything that happens there has to be a reason for it to happen. Above: the Seneca Curve.Collapses happen, it is a rule of life, as the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca had noted long ago when he said that "ruin is rapid" (festinantur in damnum). Yet, another rule of collapses is that they always take you by surprise. I think even Seneca himself was surprised when he received a message from his former pupil, Emperor Nero, ordering him to commit suicide.So, even the most hardened collapsniks were surprised by the onrush of the coronavirus epidemic. I had been thinking about the collapse that the models predicted but, honestly, I hadn't imagined it would take this form. Surely, I had in mind that some unexpected shock would have unbalanced society enough to cause it to take the fast way down, but I imagined it mostly in the form of a war. When the Iranian general Soleimani was assassinated by US drones in January, I thought "This is it." It wasn't. Nobody could have imagined what would have happened just a couple of months afterward.Yet, for everything that happens, there is a reason for it to happen. And there is a reason also for the coronavirus. I noted in my book (Before Collapse) that epidemics hit stressed societies after that they have reached their physical limits. The main example I discuss is that of the "Black [More]

Aristotle's Anthropology

2020.04.15 : View this Review Online | View Recent NDPR Reviews Geert Keil and Nora Kreft (eds.), Aristotle's Anthropology, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 295pp., $99.99 (hbk), ISBN 9781107192690. Reviewed by Robert Howton, Koç University According to its editors, Geert Keil and Nora Kreft, the aim of this collection is "to study the various intriguing and sometimes curious observations Aristotle makes about human beings" (4), an effort they hope will "shed light" on the relations among the characteristics Aristotle takes to be uniquely human and help "explore their importance for the rest of Aristotle's philosophy" (5). The thirteen essays collected in the volume more than meet this aim, not only examining an impressive array of Aristotle's observations about human nature, but in many cases offering fresh perspectives on much-discussed passages and problems and, in some instances, making important contributions to ongoing debates over the status of an Aristotelian science of human nature. The volume will be a resource... Read [More]

al-Farabi’s Psychology and Epistemology

[Revised entry by Luis Xavier López-Farjeat on April 26, 2020. Changes to: Bibliography, notes.html] Abū Naṣr al-Fārābī (c. 870 - 950), known in the Arabic philosophical tradition as the "Second Master" (al-mu'allim al-thānī) after Aristotle, and Alpharabius/Alfarabi in the Latin West tradition, is one of the major thinkers in the history of Islamic philosophy. He wrote extensively on logic, philosophy of language, metaphysics, natural philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, philosophical psychology and epistemology. His teachings had a strong [More]

Monotonicity and Inadvisable Oughts

Daniel Muñoz & Jack Spencer have a great new paper, 'Knowledge of Objective ‘Oughts’: Monotonicity and the New Miners Puzzle' (forthcoming in PPR).  In it, they dispute that knowing that you objectively ought to do something entails that you subjective ought to do it, on the basis of non-maximal act-types, which might be performed in multiple ways (some ideal, some disastrous). Their argument depends upon 'ought' being upward monotonic (UM): "if you ought to do a certain act X, and X-ing entails Y-ing, then you ought to do Y."  I think their central case instead demonstrates why we should reject UM (and similar normative inheritance claims, as found, e.g., in Doug Portmore's Opting for the Best).In a classic mineshafts case, you know that (to save the most lives) either you objectively ought to block shaft A, or you objectively ought to block shaft B, but you don't know which.  Because blocking the wrong shaft would be disastrous, you rationally (or "subjectively") ought to block neither. M&S now highlight that the above disjunction, together with UM, entails the less-specific prescription that you objectively ought to block a shaft.  You could know this to be true, they argue, but still you (rationally) shouldn't block a shaft, given the risk of disaster.UM violates a plausible constraint on the objective ought: that if it would be morally worse for you to ϕ, then it is not the case that you objectively ought to ϕ.  [More]

Why Italians are not singing anymore: the problem of a weak state

Shows of brutality are used by politicians to look "tough on crime," but they are a mark of weakness, not of strength. Something similar has happened in Italy where a weak government imposed harsh confinement measures on citizens. They didn't arrive to force everyone to wear iron chains, but the idea was similar: politicians trying to look "tough on the virus. Image: convicted inmates from Brevard County Jail. In some places in the US, jail inmates are forced to wear black-and-white striped costumes and chains around the ankles. In some cases, even iron balls are attached to the chains. Without denying that there exists a crime problem, you may reasonably argue that this is not the best way to reduce it. But these spectacular measures are chosen by politicians competing against each other by showing that they are "tough on crime."Something similar seems to have happened in Italy, with local politicians competing against each other to impose on citizens harsher and harsher measures against the coronavirus epidemic. Also in this case, without denying the gravity of the epidemic, you may reasonably argue that most of these measures were not the best way to fight it.The Italian lockdown was probably the harshest seen anywhere in Europe. It involved a series of unclear and often contradictory orders from the government, sometimes looking like they were meant to harass citizens rather than stopping the epidemics. Just as a few examples, you could be fined if your spouse rode in [More]