Tired of the human?

February 3, 2016

Pär SegerdahlI have on several occasions encountered what could be called: impatience with the human. Haven’t we been humans long enough? Is it not high time that we stopped to perceive the world from our parochial human perspectives, where the sun “rises” every morning and warms us – as if it cared about us!

We speak of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal flora, as if they took care of us as our inner servants. But what do they care about us? We are grossly anthropocentric. It is time to leave this human idyll and become… posthuman. – At least in serious, intellectual contexts.

The parochial illusion in which we supposedly live is often associated with language. Millennia of human endeavor have been deposited in linguistic structures that constantly repeat the same old spectacle in front of our eyes: the world as seen from a human point of view.

The time is ripe for a revolt against our homespun linguistic tradition; for the construction of new materialistic language, free of inherited folk perspectives on a fundamentally indifferent universe, and on us. – At least in serious, intellectual contexts.

The only problem is that even language, if we are to be consistent, must be a piece of folklore. Entities like language, words, statements, and meanings obviously belong to – if we are to be completely consistent – an oral tradition where we, for utterly mundane purposes, talk about “language,” “words,” “statements,” and “meanings.”

It suddenly seems unexpectedly difficult to go beyond the human. There is no language to rebel against. Or the illusion is too powerful: we cannot even speak of resisting it without relying on it. For the very idea of a ​​revolt, the exciting feeling of being near the truth or on its track… is this not all too familiar, all too human? Even more folklore, then?

Perhaps we should rather be impatient with this metaphysical intellectualism, which not very clear-sightedly – it seems – dreams of beholding an absolutely pure reality.

We continue to be humans who sometimes, for various purposes, describe a material reality and take it into account. – Even in serious, intellectual contexts.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking

Online course in research ethics, spring 2016

January 27, 2016

Pär SegerdahlAnyone who manages research also needs to be able to reflect on research. Not only the researchers themselves, but also funding bodies, journal editors, members of research ethics committees, administrators, journalists, organizations, politicians, and others.

How do you act if you suspect research misconduct, and what is it? What are the ethical and legal regulations governing data management or research on humans and animals?

If you want to learn more about these issues, or perhaps about publication ethics and authorship rules, conflicts of interest, mentor/trainee responsibilities, biosecurity and more – then we can help you. We give an online course in research ethics for medicine and the life sciences.

The course runs for ten weeks, from April 4 to June 10, every week with its own theme (the last week is devoted to sharing what you learned with your home institution). The course includes video lectures and texts to read, but also interactive exercises and regular e-meetings with other students and with the teacher.

The course is given in English and is open to students from all over the world. If you want to know what some of the former students have to say about the course, you can read more here. And if you want to know who the course is aimed at, read more here.

Research ethical responsibility is vital and it is important that ethics education reaches out. The course fee is € 1.125 (including tax), and to students who cannot receive financial support from their home institution we offer a limited number of scholarships for which application deadline is February 15.

If you don’t need a scholarship you can apply for the course until course start.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

We care about education

How are ethical policies justified?

January 20, 2016

Pär SegerdahlEthical policies for practices such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research should, of course, be well justified. But how does one justify that activities involving the destruction or killing of human embryos and fetuses should be allowed? How does one justify that they should be banned?

Just because the issues are so sensitive and important, they awaken a desire to find the absolutely conclusive justification.

The questions arouse our metaphysical aspirations. Ethicists who discuss them can sometimes sound like the metaphysicians of the seventeenth century who claimed they had conclusive arguments that the soul affects the body, or that it absolutely cannot affect it; who thought they could prove that God is the soul of the world, or that such a view detracts from God’s perfection.

Since both parties claim they have absolutely conclusive proofs, it becomes impossible to exhibit even the smallest trace of uncertainty. Each objection is taken as a challenge to prove the superiority of one’s own proofs, which is why metaphysical debates often resemble meetings between two hyper-sensitive querulants.

This is how I perceive many of the arguments about the embryo’s “moral status,” which are believed to provide conclusive evidence for or against moral positions on abortion and embryonic research – based on the nature of things (i.e., of the embryo).

Others, who want to reason more rigorously before drawing conclusions, instead scrutinize the arguments to demonstrate that we haven’t yet found the metaphysical basis for a policy (you can find an example here). From metaphysical dogmatism to metaphysical pedantry.

The metaphysical vision of an absolute path through life does not seem to give us any walkable path at all. It does not even allow meaningful conversations about what we find sensitive and important. But isn’t that where we need to begin when we look for a justification?

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

We think about bioethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


Gene editing: a threat to the moral ecosystem?

January 13, 2016

Pär SegerdahlA few years ago it was discovered that bacteria can protect themselves against viruses by cutting the viruses’ DNA at specific positions. The discovery is the basis for new, easier and more precise ways to make changes in the genome. Researchers have begun to talk about “cutting and pasting” in the genome; about “editing” the genome.

The new gene-editing technique has been applied to plant breeding. But it can, of course, be applied elsewhere too. And as often is the case, the issues appear extra controversial when applications to humans are considered.

I read an intellectual debate between a proponent of therapeutic use of the technique on humans (Julian Savulescu), and an opponent (Margaret Somerville). (You find it here.) The opponent used an analogy to summarize her position, which I cannot resist commenting upon here on the Ethics Blog. Here is the analogy (as I render it):

  • Today we are acutely aware that we must take responsibility for our environment, for the physical ecosystem. But the same can be said of our metaphysical or moral ecosystem. We must care about our values, beliefs, attitudes, principles and narratives. Genetically editing a human embryo, perhaps to remove a disease gene, may have good consequences from an individual perspective. But it threatens the moral ecosystem at its roots: it contradicts the respect for human life.

Say what you want, but it is a dramatic analogy! Maybe a little too dramatic. For essentially the same threat has been depicted many times before, when new forms of biotechnology appeared on the horizon. If this kind of threat was real, morality should lie in ruins since long ago. But we quickly forget and it is always only the latest techniques that Threaten Morality at its Foundation.

I believe that the idea of ​​a major technological threat to morality is based on intellectualizing both technology and morality. One attaches enormous significance to the fact that aspects of the technology can be described with certain words, such as “editing” or “designing.” The description, ​​”designing a child,” sounds like it logically clashed with another intellectualization – of morality as a system of propositions about what a “person” is, about what “respect” is, and about what is “right and wrong.”

The idea of an apocalyptic threat is thus based on reading the new technique and morality literally, so that it sounds as if the technique contradicted the basic tenets of morality.

Is there nothing to worry about, then? Should we not care about important values? Of course we should. My point is that in practice this looks differently than it verbally sounds like.

When new biotechnologies are implemented in society and put to use, this occurs in specific practical contexts where there are recognized problems that one wants to solve or treat. These applications are regulated, ethically and legally.

In vitro fertilization (IVF), another technique, is embedded in its specific contexts. Within these contexts, the technique solves problems for people. But it hardly threatens morality by, on some general and verbal level, contradicting the basic tenets of a moral system – such as “the respect for human life.” Rather, the technology has become a new way to concretely respect people and take their problems seriously.

The practical aspects disappear in the intellectualization of the issues, with its focus on words and theses. But it is the living contexts we have to take responsibility for. That is where we find the respect and the disrespect. That is where the problem lies.

Some moral problems are just false readings, overinterpretations of words.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

We like real-life ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

Fourth issue of our newsletter about biobanks

December 22, 2015

Now you can read the fourth newsletter this year from CRB and BBMRI.se about ethical and legal issues in biobanking:

The newsletter contains three news items:

  1. Moa Kindström Dahlin describes the work on ethical and legal issues in the European platform for biobanking, BBMRI-ERIC, and reflects on what law is.
  2. Josepine Fernow features two PhD projects on research participants’ and patients’ preferences and perceptions of risk information.
  3. Anna-Sara Lind discusses the ruling of the European Court of Justice against the Safe Harbour agreement with the United States.

(Link to PDF version of the newsletter)

And finally, a link to the December issue of the newsletter from BBMRI.se:

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog

Ethical questions raised by experiencing another culture

December 16, 2015

Amal MatarWhen I first moved to Sweden, I was pretty excited to explore a new country and experience Swedish culture and life. In many ways I had not expected the extent of the difference between what I was familiar with and Swedish culture. I assumed, naively, that I would be in a familiar setting because I had been to other countries. One of my preconceptions was seeing all Western countries as similar, another was believing that European countries shared the same values and culture. But I was proven wrong.

Being brought up in Cairo, Egypt, I was raised in a comparatively restrictive patriarchal family-oriented environment where gender roles are very specific. Although this is by no means uniform and there are exceptions to the rule as well as big variation among Egyptian urban and rural contexts, the overarching tendencies in terms of law and societal expectations are quite gender specific. For example, modesty is expected from women at all times in terms of dress and behavior, even when they are ill or seeking reproductive health advice.

Another dominant aspect is hierarchy. It exists not only in the academia and other working environments but also at family levels and even between spouses and between siblings. The older expect respect and obedience and should not be challenged even politely.

In contrast, Swedish culture is based on gender equality, where paternal leave is encouraged, and women’s representation is sometimes ensured by affirmative action. In addition, personal autonomy is embedded in the culture and laws are set to emphasize autonomy particularly in healthcare contexts. Hierarchy is not prominent and obedience is not expected. Respect and politeness are appropriate for all ages.

Navigating the healthcare system was a challenge I faced. It is quite structured and systematic, which in a way ensured efficiency, but this was novel to me. In addition, I had difficulty explaining my symptoms to my GP because of language barriers. She spoke neither English nor Arabic. Later, this was resolved because I was transferred to another GP who spoke English fluently.

This made me ponder on the challenges immigrants and refugees coming from the Middle East encounter upon arrival and the conflict they feel between their value system and the Swedish one. Might this be the reason why migrant women use less healthcare services compared to their counterpart? How culturally sensitive does Swedish healthcare need to be to accommodate the growing numbers of refugees? And would healthcare professionals, in order to be culturally sensitive, be expected to rethink and readdress their cultural norms? Is there a line to be drawn between being culturally sensitive and advocating beneficence? Are these two values (cultural sensitivity and beneficence) culturally relative? Which values should take the upper hand?

These are questions that my experience of moving to Sweden raised. I’m not sure how to answer them but I tend to think that there are possibly two scenarios that can ensue. Either the encounter of these two value systems can, over the long run, evolve into a third one. Or each party accepts their counterpart’s value system even when they don’t fully approve.

You can read more about my pondering in a more specific bioethical field, namely, reproductive ethics, by following this link.

Amal Matar

We like real-life ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


Trust, responsibility and the Volkswagen scandal

December 15, 2015

Jessica Nihlén FahlquistVolkswagen’s cheating with carbon emissions attracted a lot of attention this autumn. It has been suggested that the cheating will lead to a decrease in trust for the company, but also for the industry at large. That is probably true. But, we need to reflect on the value of trust, what it is and why it is needed. Is trust a means or a result?

It would seem that trust has a strong instrumental value since it is usually discussed in business-related contexts. Volkswagen allegedly needs people’s trust to avoid losing money. If customers abandon the brand due to distrust, fewer cars will be sold.

This discussion potentially hides the real issue. Trust is not merely a means to create or maintain a brand name, or to make sure that money keeps coming in. Trust is the result of ethically responsible behaviour. The only companies that deserve our trust are the ones that behave responsibly. Trust, in this sense, is closely related to responsibility.

What is responsibility then? One important distinction to make is the one between backward-looking and forward-looking responsibility. We are now looking for the one who caused the problem, who is to blame and therefore responsible for what happened. But responsibility is not only about blame. It is also a matter of looking ahead, preventing wrongful actions in the future and doing one’s utmost to make sure the organisation, of which one is a member, behaves responsibly.

One problem in our time is that so many activities take place in such large contexts. Organisations are global and complex and it is hard to pinpoint who is responsible for what. All the individuals involved only do a small part, like cogs in a wheel. When a gigantic actor like Volkswagen causes damage to health or the environment, it is almost impossible to know who caused what and who should have acted otherwise. In order to avoid this, we need individuals who take responsibility and feel responsible. We should not conceive of people as powerless cogs in a wheel. The only companies who deserve our trust are the ones in which individuals at all levels take responsibility.

What is most important now is not that the company regains trust. Instead, we should demand that the individuals at Volkswagen raise their ethical awareness and start acting responsibly towards people, society and the environment. If they do that, trust will eventually be a result of their responsible behaviour.

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist

(This text was originally published in Swedish, in the magazine, Unionen, industri och teknik, December 2015.)

Further reading:

Nihlén Fahlquist, J. 2015. “Responsibility as a virtue and the problem of many hands,” In: Ibo van de Poel, Lambèr Royakkers, Sjoerd Zwart. Moral Responsibility in Innovation Networks. Routledge.

Nihlén Fahlquist J. 2006. “Responsibility ascriptions and Vision Zero,” Accident Analysis and Prevention 38, pp. 1113-1118.

Van de Poel, I. and Nihlén Fahlquist J. 2012. “Risk and responsibility.” In: Sabine Roeser, Rafaela Hillerbrand, Martin Peterson, Per Sandin Handbook of Risk Theory, 2012, Springer, Dordrecht.

Nihlén Fahlquist J. 2009. “Moral responsibility for environmental problems – individual or institutional?” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 22(2), pp. 109-124.

This post in Swedish

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