BIOETHICS DIGEST: Volume 1

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Image credit: Jpogi (Wikimedia Commons)

Welcome to the first Bioethics Digest, brought to you in association with the editors of the Bioethics Forum. This digest aims to bring you commentary on today’s most topical bioethics issues. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and not The Hastings Center.

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Sacred versus Synthetic: Nature Preservationism and Biotechnology

Eventbrite-image-400x400One of the long-term contributions of Earth Day, which occurred on April 22, is that it offers a regular, semi-official reminder that a sense of the sacred is a vital part of environmentalism. But in the era of biotechnology, the notion of sacredness can pull in other directions.

A recent public form on synthetic biology hosted by Friends of the Earth and some other civil society groups effectively brought out how the notion of sacredness is woven into objections to genetically modifying microorganisms to produce fuel, cosmetics, medicines, and other chemicals. The event was titled “Sacred versus Synthetic: Competing Visions for Life on Earth,” and what was especially remarkable and helpful about it was that the presentations continually brought concerns about the possible practical harms of GM microorganisms back down to concerns about the very idea of GM microorganisms. To the speakers, the genetic modification of an organism is by definition a harm to nature, and it is perhaps the most fundamental harm to nature.

The goal of protecting life and preserving nature is a good moral starting point, writes Gregory E. Kaebnick, a research scholar at The Hastings Center and editor of the Hastings Center Report and author of Humans in Nature: The World as We find It and the World as We Create It. But a concern to preserve the natural world still requires careful thinking about which ways of altering nature constitute fundamental harms to nature.

“When I first began reading and writing about the genetic modification of organisms, I, too, felt that there was something particularly unattractive about it, that a sense of life’s value should guide us away from all forms of it,” Kaebnick writes. “I now believe that the real friends of earth should look at the big picture–at ecosystems and biodiversity, at the land, at the earth–and that the modification of DNA, per se, is not really the issue. The real issues have to do with the overall human-caused damage to the planet. We should focus on the problems of global climate change, pollution, ecosystem destruction, and human-driven extirpation of species.”

U.S. Bioethics Commission’s Recommendations on Use of Cognitive Enhancers

Image by Wei-Chung et al.
Image by Wei-Chung et al.

The idea that we can get better grades at school and advance our careers by taking drugs that improve concentration and other brain functions is at once controversial and tempting. Is this cheating, or is it in the same realm as drinking coffee to increase alertness? Bioethicists, medical professionals, and the general public are divided on this question.

What’s not contested is that teenagers and adults in the United States are using prescription medications such as Ritalin for nonmedical purposes in an attempt to enhance normal cognitive functioning. People are getting the drugs from doctors, or from patients (such as classmates) with prescriptions for neurological conditions who are willing to sell or share their pills.

Against this Wild West backdrop, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (PCSBI) has taken a significant step by issuing recommendations on the ethical use of medications and other means of “neural modification,” which includes drugs and interventions such as deep brain stimulation that  might either treat neurological disorders or augment normal brain function. The recommendations are part of its final report, Grey Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics and Society.

Those who firmly believe that college students without ADHD who take Ritalin before finals are cheaters or that people in hard-driving careers who use drugs to sustain a seemingly inhuman output of work are frauds (or victims of coercion in a hypercompetitive job market) are likely to be disappointed by the commission’s report, writes Susan Gilbert, editor of Bioethics Forum, the blog of the Hastings Center Report. It is guardedly optimistic about the prospects for neural modification for enhancement purposes, stating that “contemplating novel methods of improving such functions as learning and memory in school or performance in competitive professions is truly exciting.” The commission does not assume that cognitive enhancers will necessarily promote injustice (by benefiting mainly those who are able to afford them) or help level the playing field (by enabling people with below average but still normal memory and other brain functions to perform better). But it concludes that it’s worth finding out.

Sex, Consent, and Dementia

Woman diagnosed as suffering from chronic dementia (Wellcome)
Woman diagnosed as suffering from chronic dementia (Wellcome)

A 78-year‐old man in Iowa, Henry Rayhons, was charged with third‐degree felony sexual abuse for having sex with his wife, who had severe Alzheimer’s, in her nursing home last year. Though Rayhons was acquitted last month, the case raises questions about the capacity to consent in cases of severe dementia, an issue that is not limited to sexual relations, writes Bonnie Steinbock, a Hastings Center Fellow, who is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University at Albany, State University of New York and a professor of bioethics at Union Graduate College’s Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership. It also comes up also in cases where patients with dementia initially resist food and water, but can be coaxed to eat. Does opening one’s mouth and ultimately swallowing indicate consent?

The importance of consent in sexual relations is well recognized, but this case is clearly not a case of spousal rape. No one suggests that Mrs. Rayhons resisted sexual contact with her husband, nor were there any signs of abuse. Indeed, by all accounts, theirs was a loving and affectionate relationship, and Mrs. Rayhons was always pleased to see her husband, even in the final stages of her dementia.

In other contexts, the absence of affirmative consent to sexual relations may be the right criterion for rape or other sexual abuse. On many college campuses, the movement is away from “no means no” (absence of consent) to a standard of affirmative consent. That is, both partners must give affirmative consent, whether verbal or otherwise, for sex to be consensual.

However, using affirmative consent as the standard for patients with severe dementia would deprive them of sexual relationships, because few retain the capacity to articulate a desire for sex. That would be a shame, because of the importance for human beings—including those who have dementia — of physical intimacy.

Brought to you in association with the editors of:

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Bioethics Forum Collaboration

1280px-Human_Paneth_cells
Image credit: Jpogi (Wikimedia Commons)

Bioethics Forum, the blog of the Hastings Center Report, publishes thoughtful commentary from a range of perspectives on timely issues in bioethics. Starting this month, Philosopher’s Eye will bring you a digest of the most relevant commentary from Bioethics Forum and Hastings Center scholars. With over 100 contributing bloggers working in a variety of positions, the blog supports a breadth of topics relevant to researchers, medical practitioners, health care professionals, ethicists, and philosophers.  The opinions expressed are those of the authors and not The Hastings Center.

The Hastings Center Report has a long-standing history of exploring the ethical, legal, and social issues in medicine, health care, public health, and the life sciences. Wiley is proud of our continued partnership with the Hastings Center and their publications. For more information on this publication, take a look at their free sample issue for 2015.

UPDATE: Read Bioethics Digest: Volume 1 now

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HowTheLightGetsIn 2015 Programme Announced!

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Philosophy takes centre stage at HowTheLightGetsIn, the world’s largest philosophy and ideas festival, this May. Bringing together world-leading scientists, politicians, artists and philosophers, including John Searle, Mary Midgley, Simon Blackburn, Ray Brassier, Ted Honderich, Rae Langton, Bernard Stiegler, Peter Hacker, Nancy Cartwright, John Milbank, Berit Brogaard and may more, for debates, talks and wild parties, this year’s programme examines the elements of reality that might soon turn out to be illusions.

Philosophy debates range from ‘In Search of Self with Mary Midgley, Simon Blackburn and Colin Blakemore to ‘The Good, the Bad and the Dangerous’ with Gianni Vattimo, Helena Cronin and Daniel Everett and ‘Matter & Mind’ with Markus Gabriel, Ray Brassier and Eva Jablonka. For more info head to www.howthelightgetsin.org

Beyond Reality: The Limits of Understanding

Beyond reality

From trees to houses, atoms to stars, we assume our senses and instruments reveal the truth about the world. But could our picture of reality be radically incomplete? Is this hocus pocus best reserved for fools and philosophers, or does it open a world of infinite potential? Watch the debate with the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, the award-winning novelist Joanna Kavenna and post-modern philosopher Hilary Lawson: Beyond Reality.

[VIDEO] Irony, Truth and Reality: Confronting the limits of sincerity

From political cartoons to contemporary art, irony can demean and parody. But it also enables us to say things we could not say otherwise. Might the American philosopher Rorty be right that irony is the key to understanding? Is this a postmodern dead end or a freer and less autocratic culture?

Watch: http://iai.tv/video/irony-truth-and-reality

The Panel: Philosopher Hilary Lawson, historian of ideas Peter Watson and film director Sophie Fiennes confront the limits of sincerity.

‘Metaphysics: The Fundamentals’ by Robert C. Koons and Timothy Pickavance

1405195746Fresh out this month, Metaphysics: The Fundamentals gives students and instructors a comprehensive survey of the whole of analytic metaphysics. Includes introductions to the metaphysical work of particular figures (contemporary and historical), and explores all the key questions. See more.

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Reviews:

 “Robert C. Koons and Timothy H. Pickavance have mastered the art of succinct and non-technical digression. They are to be commended for their clear summaries. And, most important, they write in a way that invites readers to make up their own minds without attempting to conceal their own conclusions. As a result they have written a refreshingly different introduction to metaphysics, which I highly recommend.”

Peter Forrest, University of New England

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“A superb overview of the central issues in contemporary metaphysics, written with clarity and rigor, exploring both particular issues and deep structural divides. ”

Alexander R. Pruss, Baylor University

The Philosopher’s Eye – 2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 31,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 11 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.