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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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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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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