Ethics in the midst of life

November 25, 2015

Pär Segerdahl“You don’t treat another human like that!” Thus we may speak, with a trembling voice that simultaneously reveals our confidence. Perhaps to a person who harasses someone else. You just don’t treat people like that!

But what gives us the right to object? From where does our confidence come? Must it not be from the concept of the human? Perhaps we should bracket our passionate voice and instead soberly examine the concept “human being”: so that we may purely intellectually understand why it is wrong to harass people. Perhaps our conceptual investigation reveals some sort of inviolable dignity in human essence. The rest follows from the pure laws of thought.

I believe Socrates did something similar. He shook Athenians’ confidence in life through conceptual investigations that he indicated would lead them to the ultimate source of true confidence; to knowledge of the pure ideas of what is good and right. The Athenians’ mistake was that of simply being confident in life; as humans are confident. That confidence in life made them blind to the purer and more fundamental knowledge that can be reached by turning the gaze toward the concepts themselves.

These tendencies to purify what is intellectually binding in morality make me think of inventors of perpetual motion machines. They dream of machines that, through their ingenuity, can do what no ordinary machine can do. They just move and move, all by themselves, without any connections with the energy flows of nature and life. For they are so cleverly made immune to friction and objections.

The problem is that the purity of these unobjectionable constructions is achieved at the cost of no longer speaking to people; only to other dreamy seekers of perpetual motion machines.

The trembling voice characterizes ethics. Our confidence in life has no ingenious source in reason itself, which we should seek instead of being confident. This does not prevent us from reflecting on our ethical responses and develop our way of living and thinking, allowing our trembling voice to deepen as we seek our way through life.

Ethics is in the midst of life. A moral perpetual motion machine outside of any such living context cannot be constructed. There are limits to how reasonable one can be.

Pär Segerdahl

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The Ebola epidemic also created an epidemic of rumors

November 18, 2015

Pär SegerdahlThe outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa in 2014 was fought with scientific, medical knowledge about the virus. But for that knowledge to be translated into practice, good communication with the people in the affected areas was needed.

Joachim Allgaier and Anna Lydia Svalastog describe how communication was hampered by the fact that the epidemic also created an epidemic of rumors about the disease, which internet and mobile communication quickly spread in the affected areas and other parts of the world. The Ebola epidemic was at least two epidemics:

Unscientific ideas about the causes of the disease or about remedies (like eating raw onions, drinking salt water) spread online. But also conspiracy theories about the international efforts spread, which sometimes led to locals hiding their sick or preventing the work of humanitarian organizations.

The article also includes examples of successful treatments of the communicational epidemic. Local anthropologists found, for example, that the name “isolation centers” was interpreted by the locals as “death chambers,” and suggested that one should instead speak of “treatment centers.” Anthropologists could also, by contacting respected members of local communities, help changing burial rituals and other customs that contributed to the spread of the Ebola virus.

The article furthermore gives examples of how online social networks and YouTube, which contributed to the spread of rumors, also were used by the local populations to inform each other about how to wash  hands and behave to actually reduce the spread of the disease.

The conclusion of the article is that even if scientific and medical tools are absolutely central to combating virus epidemics, we must in order to succeed also treat the secondary, virtual epidemics that quickly spread through click-friendly news links and social networks online. All this requires sensitivity to local contexts.

Both kinds of epidemics must be treated simultaneously.

Pär Segerdahl

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We care about communication - the Ethics Blog

Open data access is regulated access

November 11, 2015

Pär SegerdahlWe usually associate open access with the publication of scientific articles that anyone with internet access can read, without price barrier.

The concept “open access” is now being used also for research data. I have written about this trend towards open data earlier on the Ethics Blog: Openness as a norm.

In many cases, research data are made as freely available as the open access articles that anyone can read; often in connection with the publication of results based on the data. This occurs, for example, in physics.

There is a strong trend towards open data also in medical research; but here the analogy with articles that anyone can read is no longer valid. Biobank and register-based research work with sensitive personal data, to which a number of laws regulating data access apply.

Yet one could speak of a trend towards open data also in this domain. But it then means something different. It’s about making data as accessible as possible for research, within the regulations that apply to this type of data.

Since the relevant laws and ethical frameworks are not only opaque but also differ between countries, the work is largely about developing common models for researchers to work within. One such attempt is made in an article by, among others, Deborah Mascalzoni and Mats G. Hansson at CRB:

The article formulates 15 principles for sharing of biological samples and personal data between researchers. It also includes a template of the written agreements that scientists can make when one research group transfers data or materials to another research group.

Take a look at these principles, and the template of the agreements, and you’ll soon get an idea of how many strict conditions that must be met when biological samples and personal data are shared for research purposes.

Given how open access often is associated with the possibility for anyone at any time to read articles without price barrier, one should perhaps avoid using the term in this context. It may mislead, since this form of data access is heavily regulated, although the aim is to support researchers to share their data and samples.

Pär Segerdahl

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Minding our language - the Ethics Blog

Culturally sensitive ethics

November 3, 2015

Pär SegerdahlHealth care receives patients from many different cultures and health care professionals are encouraged to be sensitive to patients’ cultural background. But what is a culture? What is it one should be sensitive to?

Last week, CRB organized a workshop on Islamic perspectives on reproductive ethics. A case that was discussed was this: an unmarried Muslim couple (21 years old) seeks advice on contraception. Should health care workers provide counseling, when premarital sex is forbidden in Islam?

The case brought the question of cultural sensitivity into immediate focus for me. To what should one be sensitive: to doctrines, or to human lives? What “is” a culture: the formulated ideas or the way people live (with their ideas)?

The Muslim couple actually sought counseling. Being culturally sensitive can also mean being sensitive to this fact: that this is how people can live (with their ideas).

It is tempting to objectify cultures in terms of doctrines, especially when they are foreign to us. We don’t know the people and their daily lives, so we try to understand them through the texts – as if we read their “source code.” But the texts are living parts of the culture. They have uses, and these practices cannot be inferred from the texts.

Aje Carlbom (social anthropologist at Malmö University) stressed that this temptation to objectify other cultures can arise even in a culture; for example, when people who belong to it move to parts of the world where people live differently. Suddenly they don’t fully understand their own culture, for it lacks its real-life support, its everyday context, and therefore one turns to the texts. One’s own culture is objectified.

I wonder: Are not these tendencies extremely common; are they not in all of us? Are they not in ethics? Isn’t there a will to objectify ethics, to formulate the “ethical source code” that should govern, for example, our biomedical practices?

I think we need culturally sensitive ethics: in the sense of an ethics that responds sensitively to what is actually happening, and that contributes to meaningful contexts. An ethics that does not objectify either cultures or Ethics (capitalized).

Pär Segerdahl

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Scientists shape how the media portray synthetic biology

October 27, 2015

mirko-ancillotti2 Most of us learn about scientific developments through the media. Journalists and newspaper editors not only select what to bring to public attention but also the way the contents are conveyed. But how can we be sure that what they report is well researched?

There are some new studies on how media portray synthetic biology in different countries. It turns out that reports are both unbalanced and uncritical. Most of the stories use the same terminology, figures of speech and envision the same fields of application. This is because they rely on the same sources: press releases, press conferences or interviews with a few prolific American scientists, with Craig Venter doing the lion’s share. Stories are often optimistic and future oriented. The promising applications of synthetic biology are connected to subjects that people already prioritize like health and environment. But it also means that the possible risks are omitted or presented in a few choice words close to the end.

josepine-fernow2Scientists have a public role and a duty to perform science outreach and science communication in a responsible way. This duty is amplified by the interaction with mass media. Indeed, there are a number of national and international regulations and guidelines that provide indications on what kind of relationship and communication scientists should entertain with the media and what pitfalls they should avoid. Is it a problem that the media copy their framing and present the field with their words? If scientists can reach the public directly, does that mean that we should increase our demand on their communication? Maybe not. Managing to popularize and frame science in a way that attracts media’s attention and an inattentive and unengaged public is already a communications feat.

Journalists have ethical responsibilities and a strong professional ethics. This resounds in a remarkable amount of national and international guidelines and regulations. Did the journalists do a good job when they kept the message and vision the scientists provided and spread that to the public? Should we ask journalists to be more critical and filter the voice of the scientists involved?

Well, we would of course prefer to receive balanced information filtered by knowledgeable science journalists. But science news is not always handled by them. Perhaps the real problem is the logic of the current media landscape. There is no time to research a press-release: the news have to go out, otherwise someone will beat you to it.  In the extreme, this logic allows for hoax press releases to become news (like the one that made the Emulex stock plummet in 2000). If we want journalists to do a good job, we have to give them time. Because the idea that media basically “retweet” what a few scientists and entrepreneurs decide is of course a bit disturbing.

If you are interested to read more about this topic have a look at Mirko Ancillotti’s recent publications:Uncritical and unbalanced coverage of synthetic biology in the Nordic press that was just published in Public Understanding of Science, or Synthetic Biology in the Press: Media Portrayal in Sweden and Italy.

Mirko Ancillotti and Josepine Fernow

We care about communication - the Ethics Blog

Two kinds of nonsense?

October 21, 2015

This is just a short follow-up to last week’s post: Thinking to the limits of language.

The attentive reader may have noticed that I spoke there of two kinds of transgressions of limits of language:

  1. A tendency to make a sweeping gesture and say, “Space is everywhere; it surrounds me.”
  2. A tendency to interpret the limit that is transgressed in (1), and which can be highlighted by saying, “Space does not exist in space,” as a profound truth indicating that space itself must be something hitherto unthought.

If space isn’t out there, surrounding me, then what is it? And thus one moves on, to explore this radical question about space in a hitherto unthought sense.

Both tendencies give rise to nonsense. I want to say that (1) gives rise to rather innocent nonsense talk. Almost anyone can feel the temptation to make that sweeping gesture, but it often ends there. Tendency (2), on the other hand, reveals a philosophically minded person, and it is only the beginning of a possibly life-long investigation.

Now, it has been argued, by Wittgensteinian philosophers, that there is only one kind of nonsense: pure nonsense (like “piggly wiggle tiggle”). But if we put nonsense in context and consider its manner of arising, then I believe we need to distinguish between at least two kinds of nonsense: in order to know what we deal with when we deal with philosophy.

Significant philosophers typically acknowledge the limit that we easily transgress; but their interpretation of it as “deep” turns it into a starting line for philosophy. And thus they transgress it anyway, but in their own way.

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog

Thinking to the limits of language… and then onwards

October 15, 2015

Pär SegerdahlI read last summer Immanuel Kant’s enormous work, Critique of Pure Reason. It struck me that one of the “methods” he uses could be described as: thinking to the limits of language.

How is such thinking done?

Like this, for example: I see a cloud in the sky and think that the cloud is up there (I indicate “where” with a pointing gesture). Thereafter, I think more abstractly that the same can be said about the part of space that the cloud fills. That part of space is also up there (I point again).

– But where is space itself, as a whole?

Here it is tempting to make a sweeping gesture and say, “Space is everywhere; it surrounds me.” But precisely that I cannot do, say or think. Because then I would treat space as if it were somewhere. I would treat space as if it existed, in space.

My thinking took me to a limit of language, which it is tempting to transgress. So far, so good. But then it struck me that Kant also has a definite interpretation of his method.

He interprets the limit he acknowledged as if it were fundamental and primary: as if it were a source that enables our seeing of clouds and other things (here and there). Space itself does not exist (in space): space is the possibility of seeing things (here and there). This possibility is subjective, “within us,” Kant says; but that cannot be meant in the ordinary spatial sense.

Kant thus interprets limits of language as sources. Speaking, writing and thinking about these sources, he develops purified philosophical prose. He develops extra-ordinary forms of language, possessing absolute authority since they speak of what comes first: the sources within us of what we ordinarily experience and chatter about.

So although Kant indeed acknowledges the limit (by pointing out that space does not exist in space), he nonetheless contrives esoteric language to systematically present its nature and function as a source. The limit inspires, as if it were a philosophical starting line.

Is there an alternative to Kant’s interpretation? The alternative is that the limits of language hold for all of us, not least as thinkers. Thinking to the limits of language, as we did, does not lead to sublime discoveries of “first truths,” although it sounds profoundly true to say: “space does not exist in space.”

Paradoxically, it is when we reach the limit, and acknowledge it as a limit, that the temptation to transgress it arises. For our acknowledgement of the limit appears profoundly true and worth its own investigation. It strikes us as an “original” truth preceding all ordinary truths about, for example, that cloud in the sky.

And in that spirit we move onwards, as if summoned by the perceived profundity of the limit.

Pär Segerdahl

The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking


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