Dangers of moral words

December 11, 2018

Pär SegerdahlThe philosopher Bernard Williams distinguished between thick ethical concepts such as “brave” and “brutal,” which have both descriptive and evaluative content, and thin ethical concepts such as “right” and “wrong,” which are purely evaluative. “Murder” and “exploitation” are thick ethical concepts that sometimes play a central role in ethical debate. They have descriptive content combined with a negative evaluation: murder and exploitation are wrong.

This duality of thick moral words, their descriptive/normative Janus face, makes them an impelling part of the vocabulary of most, if not all, ideological movements. If you oppose X, and can demonstrate that X, in fact, involves murder or exploitation (descriptive aspect), then you have immediately demonstrated that X must be opposed (normative aspect). Thick ethical concepts are often used in conflictual situations to legitimize violent actions against people who are described as intriguing, murderous, exploitive, and much else. Since the words are taken to describe reality as it is, such bad individuals must be watched over and, if necessary, acted against.

Thick moral words thus easily lend themselves to functioning as ideological firearms. Their descriptive aspect allows taking aim. Their evaluative aspect says, “Fire!” I want to mention three further dangers of thick ethical concepts.

Dogmatism. The first is that it is difficult to raise questions about their applicability, since it can appear as if you questioned the evaluative component. Let us say that you raise the question if embryo destruction really constitutes murder. In the eyes of those who take this description for reality, you appear like a treacherous person who shrewdly argues that murder might be right! Simply raising the question, no matter how open-mindedly you do it, places you in the firing line. Your very open-mindedness speaks against you: “Murder is not something to be open-minded about!”

Righteousness. A second troublesome feature is that thick ethical concepts produce instant goodness in any ideological movement. Any ideology is on the right side, regardless of which side it is on, since it fights for what its moral vocabulary unites with the good, and fights against what its vocabulary unites with the bad. Any ideology has the right and the duty to act resolutely against what its dualistic vocabulary picks out as impermissible features of reality. – Which side for peace are you on?

Suffering. A third problem is that thick moral words produce suffering in the form of gnawing suspicions and fears. Since we are not omniscient, there is much we do not know, for example, about embryonic stem cell research. Thick ethical concepts here tend to appear in our heads as stand-ins for reality. They appear in the form of an inner voice that tells us what stem cell research is. This is not a purely descriptive “is,” but a double-edged one, for what the voice in the head says the research is can be a nightmarish, “It is murder.” Since we are ignorant of much, but not of our anxiety, we cannot shake off the worrying double-edged concepts that spin in the head. They seem validated by the gnawing anxiety they produce, and we suffer without end, caught in a whirlpool of thick descriptive/normative moral language.

In pointing out dangers of thick moral words, I am not questioning their descriptive or evaluative content. Murder is a reality and it is a serious crime; the same is true of exploitation. I am just pointing out that the dual nature of thick moral words can turn our heads. Moral language can make us violent, dogmatic, righteous, and anxious about issues that perhaps exist mainly in our descriptions of reality.

I think most of us have fallen into such dark pits.

Pär Segerdahl

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Contemplative conversations

November 19, 2018

Pär SegerdahlWhen we face new sensitive and worrying issues, there is an instinctive reaction: this must be debated! But is debate always the right way, if we want to take human concerns seriously?

That some are worried about new research and technology, is a fact. That others are not worried, is also a fact. Suppose these people handle their differences by debating with each other. What happens?

What happens is that they leave the actual world, which varies as much as people are different, and end up in a universal world of rational reasons. Those who worry must argue for their concerns: All sensible people should feel worried! Those who are not worried must provide weighty counter-arguments: No sensible person should feel worried!

Debate thus creates an either/or conflict from what was only a difference. Polarization increases the fear, which amplifies the desire to be absolutely right. Everyone wants to own the uniquely compelling reason that everyone should obey. But since we are different, the debate becomes a vertiginous hall of mirrors. It multiplies exaggerated world images in which we lose ourselves and each other.

The worry itself, as trembling human fact, is forgotten. The only thing that engages us is the weighty reason for, or against, being worried. The only thing that interests us is what everyone should feel. Is that taking human concerns seriously? Is it taking ourselves seriously?

If a child is worried, we do not ask the child to argue for its worries, and we do not comfort the child by refuting it. We take care of the child; we take care of its worries, as compassionate parents.

I play with the idea that we and our societies would be in better shape if we more often avoided the absolute world of reasons. Through its universality, it appears, of course, like a utopia of peace and unity among rational beings. In fact, it often creates polarization and perplexes us with its exaggerated images of the world. Arguing for the right cause in debate is perhaps not always as noble as we take it to be.

We are, more often than we think, like children. That is, we are human. Therefore, we need, more often than we think, to take care of ourselves. As compassionate parents. That is another instinct, which could characterize conversations about sensitive issues.

We need to take care of ourselves. But how? What is the alternative to debate? For want of better words: contemplative conversations. Or, if you want: considerate conversations. Rather than polarizing, such an open spirit welcomes us all, with our actual differences.

Perhaps that is how we become adults with regard to the task of living well with each other. By tenderly taking care of ourselves as children.

Pär Segerdahl

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International brain initiatives need cultural awareness

November 12, 2018

Pär SegerdahlToday, billions of research dollars are being invested in developing huge research collaborations about the human brain. Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea and the United States have their own brain initiatives. In Europe, the Human Brain Project has a total budget of around one billion euros over a ten-year period, 2013-2023.

Scientific research is often seen as an activity that transcends cultural differences. However, research about the brain touches such fundamental aspects of human existence that it cannot ignore cultural views. For example, the notion that the brain, as a separate organ, is the locus of human identity, of the self, is not generally embraced. Neuroscientific research touches profound cultural ideas about human life which require careful philosophical and ethical attention.

The international brain initiatives also touch other culturally sensitive issues, in addition to questions about human identity. Ideas about death and brain death, about the use of nonhuman primates in research, about privacy and autonomy, and about mental illness, differ across cultures. For example, a diagnosis that in one culture can be seen as an opportunity to get individual treatment can in another culture threaten to condemn a whole family to social isolation.

Neuroethicists from parts of the world that currently make major investments in neuroscientific research met in Korea to highlight ethical questions on cultural differences, which the international brain initiatives need to address. This in order for the research to be conducted responsibly, with awareness of relevant cultural diversity. The questions that the neuroethicists (among them, Arleen Salles) propose should be addressed are summarized in an article in the journal Neuron.

The authors mention questions about how neuroscientific research could cause stigma in individuals or social groups, and about how cultural notions might bias research design and the interpretation of results. They ask how collecting and storing neural tissue can be viewed in different cultures, and about how we should understand the moral status of robots and computer-simulated brains. They mention questions about how new brain interventions (brain devices and drugs) may affect notions of responsibility and autonomy, as well as issues about drawing boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate uses of neuroscientific techniques. Finally, questions are highlighted about fair access to research results.

How can these questions be addressed and discussed in the international brain initiatives? The authors propose education in neuroethics, as well as dialogue with scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and finally improved communication and interaction with the publics.

Within the European Human Brain Project, four percent of the budget is used for ethics and society. Similar emphasis on ethical reflection would be desirable also in other brain initiatives.

Pär Segerdahl

Global Neuroethics Summit Delegates. 2018. Neuroethics questions to guide ethical research in the international brain initiatives. Neuron 100, October 10, 2018.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2018.09.021

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Supporting clinicians to trust themselves

October 3, 2018

Pär SegerdahlSuppose that you want to learn to speak a language, but the course is overloaded by grammatical terminology. During the lessons, you hardly hear any of the words that belong to the language you want to learn. They drown in technical, grammatical terms. It is as if you had come to a course on general linguistic theory, not German.

When clinicians encounter healthcare ethics as a subject of education, they may have similar experiences. As adult humans they already can feel when everything is alright in a situation. Or when there is a problem; when attention is needed and action must be taken. (We do it every day.) However, to handle the specific challenges that may arise in healthcare, clinicians may need support to further develop this already existing human ability.

Unfortunately, healthcare ethics is typically not presented as development of abilities we already have as human beings. Instead, it is presented as a new subject. Being ethical is presented as having the specific knowledge of this subject. Ethics then seems to be about reasoning in terms of abstract ethical concepts and principles. It is as if you had come to a course on general moral theory, not healthcare ethics. And since most of us do not know a thing about moral theory, we feel ethically stupid and powerless, and lose our self-confidence.

However, just as you don’t need linguistic theory to speak a language, you don’t need moral theory to function ethically. Rather, it is the other way around. It is because we already speak and function ethically that there can be such intellectual activities as grammar and moral theory. Can healthcare ethics be taught without putting the cart before the horse?

A new (free to download) book discusses the issue: Rethinking Health Care Ethics. The book is a lucid critique of healthcare ethics as a specific subject; a critique that naturally leads into constructive suggestions for an alternative pedagogy. The book should be of high interest to teachers in healthcare ethics, to ethicists, and to anyone who finds that ethics often is presented in ways that make us estranged from ourselves.

What most impresses me in this book is its trust in the human. The foundation of ethics is in the human self, not in moral theory. Any adult human already carries ethics in the self, without verbalizing it as specific ethical concepts and principles.

Certainly, clinicians need education in healthcare ethics. But what is specific in the teaching is the unique ethical challenges that may arise in healthcare. Ethics itself is already in place, in the living humans who are entering healthcare as a profession.

Ethics should not be imposed, then, as if it were a new subject. It rather needs support to grow in humans, and to mature for the specific challenges that arise in healthcare.

This trust in the human is unusual. Distrust, feeding the demand for control, is so much more common.

Pär Segerdahl

Scher, S. & Kozlowska, K. 2018. Rethinking Health Care Ethics. Palgrave

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Genetic risk: Should researchers let people know?

September 24, 2018

Should researchers inform research participants if they happen to discover individual genetic risks of disease? Yes, many would say, if the information is helpful to the participants. However, the value of complex genetic risk information for individuals is uncertain. Jennifer Viberg Johansson suggests that this uncertainty needs to be acknowledged by both geneticists and ethicists.

One reason people want to participate in large genetic studies is the comprehensive health checks researchers often offer to collect data. In the future, people could also be offered information about genetic risks. According to Jennifer Viberg Johansson, there are some factors researchers should consider before offering these kinds of results.

Providing genetic risk information may not be as helpful to individuals as one may think. Knowing your genetic make-up is not the same as knowing your own probability for disease. In addition, the genetic risk information from research is not based on symptoms or personal concerns, as it would be in the healthcare system. It is thus less “personalised” and not connected to any symptoms.

Genetic risk information is complex and can be difficult to understand. To the research participants interviewed by Jennifer Viberg Johansson, risk information is something that offers them an explanation of who they are, where they are from, and where they may be heading. To them, learning about their genetic risk is an opportunity to plan their lives and take precautions to prevent disease.

Whether research participants want genetic risk information or not is more complex. Research participants themselves may change their answer depending on the way the question is asked. Risk research shows that we interpret probabilities differently, depending on the outcome and consequences. Jennifer Viberg Johansson’s work points in the same direction: probability is not an essential component of people’s decision-making when there are ways to prevent disease.

People have difficulties making sense of genetic risk when it is presented in the traditional numeric sense. It is hard to interpret what it means to have a 10 per cent or 50 per cent risk of disease. Instead, we interpret genetic risk as a binary concept: you either have risk, or you don’t. Based on her results, Jennifer Viberg Johansson suggests we keep this in mind for genetic counselling. We need to tailor counselling to people’s often binary perceptions of risk.

Communicating risk is difficult, and requires genetic counsellors to understand how different people understand the same figures in different ways.

Jennifer Viberg Johansson defended her dissertation September 21, 2018.

Anna Holm

Viberg Johansson J., (2018), INDIVIDUAL GENETIC RESEARCH RESULTS – Uncertainties, Conceptions, and Preferences, Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

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Philosophy in responsible research and innovation

August 22, 2018

Pär SegerdahlThe honorable discipline philosophy is hardly anything we associate with groundbreaking research and innovation. Perhaps it is time we began to see a connection.

To begin with, we can let go of the image of philosophy as an honorable discipline. Instead, let us talk about the spirit of philosophy. People who think for themselves, as philosophers do, rarely find themselves at home within the narrow bounds of disciplines and fields. Not even if they are called philosophical. On the contrary, if such a person encounters boundaries that restrict her thought, she investigates the boundaries. And removes them, if necessary.

Forget the reverent representation of philosophy as an honorable discipline.

The spirit of philosophy is to avoid discipline, submission, tradition and all forms of dependence. Someone who functions as a loyal representative of a philosophical school is hardly a genuine thinker. A philosopher is someone who, in a spirit of absolute independence, questions everything that makes a pretense of being true, right and correct. Therefore, it has been said that one cannot learn philosophy, only to philosophize. As soon as a philosophy crystallizes, the philosophical spirit awakens and investigates the boundaries of what usually turns out to be a fad that attracts insecure intellects who shun independent thinking. No system of thought restricts a freely investigating thinker. Especially not the philosophy that is in fashion.

How does this spirit of philosophy connect to research and innovation? The connection I see is different than you probably guess. It is not about boosting the development by removing all boundaries, but about taking responsibility for the development. Philosophical thinking does not resemble an overheated research field’s fast flow of ideas, or an entrepreneur’s grandiose visions for the future. On the contrary, a philosopher takes a step back to calmly investigate the flow of ideas and visions.

Philosophy’s freedom is basically a responsibility.

Responsible Research and Innovation has become an important political theme for the European Commission. This responsibility is understood as an interactive process that engages social actors, researchers and innovators. Together, they are supposed to work towards ethically permissible research activities and products. This presupposes addressing also underlying societal visions, norms and priorities.

For this to work, however, separate actors cannot propagate separate interests. You need to take a step back and make yourself independent of your own special interests. You need to make yourself independent of yourself! Reflect more open-mindedly than you were disciplined to function, and see beyond the bounds of your fragmentary little field (and self). This spacious spirit of philosophy needs to be awakened: the freedom of thought that is basically the responsibility of thought.

Concrete examples of what this means are given in the journal, Neuroethics. In an article, Arleen Salles, Kathinka Evers and Michele Farisco describe the role that philosophical reflection currently plays in the European Flagship, the Human Brain Project. Here, philosophy and neuroethics are no mere appendages of neuroscientific research. On the contrary, by reflecting on central concepts in the project, philosophers contribute to the overall self-understanding in the project. Not by imposing philosophy as a special interest, or as a competing discipline with its own concepts, but by open-mindedly reflecting on neuroscientific concepts, clarifying the questions they give rise to.

The authors describe three areas where philosophy contributes within the Human Brain Project, precisely through awakening the spirit of philosophy. First, conceptual questions about connections between the brain and human identity. Secondly, conceptual questions about connections between the brain and consciousness; and between consciousness and unconsciousness. Thirdly, conceptual questions about links between neuroscientific research and political initiatives, such as poverty reduction.

Let us drop the image of philosophy as a discipline. For we need the spirit of philosophy.

Pär Segerdahl

Salles, A., Evers, K. & Farisco, M. Neuroethics (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-018-9372-9

(By the way, anyone can philosophize. If you have the spirit, you are a philosopher. A demanding education in philosophy as a separate discipline can actually be an obstacle that you have to overcome.)

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Intellectual asceticism

August 7, 2018

Pär SegerdahlWe dismiss the magician’s claim to be in touch with the spirit world. We dismiss the priest’s claim to be in touch with the divine. We do not believe in supernatural contact with a purer world beyond this one!

Nevertheless, similar claims permeate our enlightened rationalist tradition. Even philosophers promised contact with a purer sphere. The difference is that they described the pure sphere in intellectual terms. The promised control of “concepts,” “categories,” “principles” and so on. They lived, like monks and magicians, as ascetics. They sought power over life itself, but they did it through intellectual self-discipline.

If you want to think about asceticism as a trait of our philosophical tradition, you may want to take a look at an article I wrote: Intellectual asceticism and hatred of the human, the animal, and the material.

In the article, I try to show that philosophy’s infamous anthropocentrism is illusory. Philosophers never idealized the human. They idealized something much more exclusive. They idealized the ascetically purified intellect.

Pär Segerdahl

Segerdahl, P. 2018. Intellectual asceticism and hatred of the human, the animal, and the material. Nordic Wittgenstein Review 7 (1): 43-58. DOI 10.15845/nwr.v7i1.3494

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