Eat Pray Love

No, this post is not about the movie. Disappointed? Accept my apologies. The title is a mere reference to a small bit of the movie that made me think of…

We live in an age of unparallel developments in science and technology, where human knowledge has arrived at an unforeseen stage. Continue reading “Eat Pray Love”

How much evidence is enough evidence?

We hear all the time that the industrialized food that we eat and the objects made of plastic and alike that we use (may) contain toxic substances. In many cases, substances that cause cancer in humans: the so-called carcinogens. These substances are so omnipresent that most of us learned to ignore their existence. “I shouldn’t drink this soda because it may cause cancer, but oh well; if I keep thinking like this I won’t eat anything… so let’s just hope for the best!” But how much are we actually risking ourselves? How threatening is our “manmade” environment? And what seems to be the most urgent question: how can we possibly acquire these answers? Continue reading “How much evidence is enough evidence?”

Does moral action depend on reasoning?

This is the sixth Big Question, launched by the John Templeton Foundation, along with thirteen views on it presented by several important scholars. Just to cite a few: Stanley Fish, Christine M. Korsgaard, Joshua D. Greene, Jonathan Sacks, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Antonio Damasio. The material can be found here.

What is (or should be) the role of reason in discerning the morally right from the morally wrong? And from what perspective should we address this problem? Some will argue that we have to search for the answer through philosophical inquiry. Others will endorse a more empirical approach, believing in the advancements of the neurosciences as a source for knowledge about moral behavior.

Both views, and the ones in between, are quite appealing – especially when presented by such brilliant minds. So it is really worth taking a look at what they have to say!

The Morality of Sex Work

The Policing and Crime Act became effective this April in the UK. Given its difficult nature, it has been the focus of stimulating debates on the subject of prostitution. The act further criminalizes sex clients and sex workers, what comes as a direct offense to those who defend the unconditional value of freedom. Criminalizing prostitution would be seen as reinforcing “the idea that sex workers are too stupid, lazy, without any skills, and without consciousness of their alienation”, as put by Schaffauser in his comment in The Guardian. This view represents one side of the criticisms.

Cari Mitchell illuminates the other side of the criticisms in her comment, also in The Guardian. She takes a more pragmatic view on the issue Continue reading “The Morality of Sex Work”

Dangerous Combination: Weak Democracy and Bad Media

This last week all we could hear about in the Brazilian media was the excessive coverage of Isabella Nardoni’s trial. Isabella was a five-year-old Brazilian girl who died in the first semester of 2008 due to a “fall” from her father’s sixth floor apartment in São Paulo. To get a brief summary of the whole tragedy, go here.
As distressing as Isabella’s horrible end has been and still is, we are – or at least one would expect us to be – aware that it is only one of the many innocent children victims of unacceptable behavior by their parents. In 2008, right after her death, BBC News published a short article about the tragedy, emphasizing that “The case has prompted Brazilians to reflect on the kind of cruelty that adults seem capable of inflicting on children. Well, that’s the kind of discussion one would expect from a strong democratic society of well informed and active citizens. Nonetheless, that was not the case in Brazil. Instead what we saw was an endless exposure of the little girl’s death as if it were merely a show, an isolated case in such a “fair” society as the Brazilian society.
This last week we again passively watched the end of this “show”, closed last Friday with the condemnation of both her father and stepmother to about thirty years in prison. There were no debates about the rights of children in Brazil, about the conditions in which we inactively allow them to live, about the thousands that live in the streets with no parents, no love, no education, being mistreated every day of their young lives.
This is what happens with a weak democracy composed of poorly educated people. The media should be playing the role of democracy’s right hand, but all we can see is sad episodes like this; never accompanied by any kind of serious debate and action.
The media’s meat-grinding machine never stops. It needs to produce continually. And to produce, always, something sexy — in the worst meaning of the word. Children being thrown through windows, or dragged by automobiles, anything goes as long as the death has some ‘market value’. That means that the death of a child by starvation, little by little, right in front of the Folha de S. Paulo’s building, in the Barão de Limeira [avenue], has zero value in the news scale. Dead children in indigenous reserves, or in the child-care units, are already part of what is trivial.”

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Epistemological Implications of Cognitive Enhancement

The developments and applications of the new cognitive enhancement drugs are growing rapidly, and the necessary ethical debates that accompany these developments are not keeping the same pace. This week I read an interesting post by Philippe Verdoux, in the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies, that presented an epistemic aspect of neuroenhancing drugs that hadn’t yet called my attention.
Verdoux discusses the possibility of cognitive enhancement technologies actually making us dumber. How would that be possible? It’s a very simple idea and, as he shows later, an apparently mistaken one. It goes as follows.
Imagine that we assume as the measure of our ignorance the difference between the questions that humanity as a whole has posed and the questions to which humanity has been able to provide answers – as proposed by Kevin Kelly. Given the impressive advances of science, our knowledge about the world has been growing exponentially, so we have been able to provide much more answers than our ancestors. Nonetheless, to every answer that science provides us with, comes two or more questions to which we lack explanations. Thus, the number of questions is growing in an even faster pace than the number of answers and, as a consequence, our ignorance is growing with the developments of science.
The problem with the cognitive enhancement technologies would then be that, if these new drugs make us smarter and able to provide even more answers to unknown problems, then they will also be responsible for the generation of an even larger number of unanswered questions. Therefore, these drugs will actually serve to the enlargement of human ignorance.
Interesting, right? But wrong, would argue Verdoux. The problem lies with the definition of human ignorance assumed by Kelly. When we discover some phenomenon yet unknown to us and to which we lack an explanation we do not enlarge our ignorance. Quite the opposite, we enlarge our knowledge about the world.
Verdoux argues, along with Rumsfeld, that our knowledge about the world evolves from “unknown unknowns” to “known unknowns” to “known knowns”. So progressing from “unknown unknowns” to “known unknowns” in epistemically an improvement in human knowledge, not in human ignorance.
To read more about the ethical implications of cognitive enhancement I suggest this enlightening article in the Prospect Magazine.

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The Need for Global Justice

The headline of the talkboard post from BBC news website asked: “Should homosexuals face execution?” We would have to agree that it was not the most appropriate headline, but when contextualized it certainly calls attention to a major problem in the realm of human rights. The article from The Guardian can be read here.
The goal was to promote an open discussion about the anti-homosexuality bill under debate by the Ugandan parliament. Apparently some Ugandans believe that certain homosexual offences are punishable by death. We would immediately think this is an absurd stance, yet even in one of the most liberal states of the most liberal country anti-homosexual regulations have been approved. I am referring to Proposition 8, in California.
The approval of Proposition 8 was a step back in the battle for a world in which human rights are fully respected. Now the anti-homosexual bill under debate in Uganda is a major affront to even a minimum of respect for human rights.
This problem calls our attention to the need of an international agreement about justice principles and of international organizations actually capable of endorsing these principles in every country. Some legislation should be internationally forbidden if we are ever to live in a world where human rights have actual meaning.

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