I’m a consequentialist, so forgive me if I don’t spend a great deal of time parsing the meaning of ‘ethics matters’. I shall leave that task to ‘real’ philosophers. Ethics uncontroversially matters if we take ‘matters’ to mean ‘be of consequence’. In case you doubt this claim, and you should not, let me give you just a few high-profile examples.
‘…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?’ Most students of ethics will have come across Jeremy Bentham’s rhetorical question that changed the nature of the international animal rights movement. Having taught bioethics for a bit more than two decades now, I can testify to the large number of students whose views on the moral status of animals were changed for good by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. A lot of the students have sworn off eating sentient non-human animals altogether.
While I’m talking about Peter Singer, he published a while ago a piece in the first issue of a that-time unknown little journal called Philosophy and Public Affairs. He called it ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’. Leaving aside for a moment that this journal article has become a mainstay in ethics undergraduate course, textbooks and whatnot else, Singer eventually used his stature to start a movement asking us to contribute individually to particular charities that are most likely to generate the greatest impact from our donations. Do a Google search to check on the large number of activist groups his arguments have spawned. You’d try the same for the work of influential feminist ethicists such as Judith Jarvis Thompson’s work, or that of Sue Sherwin.
Another area where ethics matters a great deal is in the context of policy development. Just think of research ethics. Binding research policy documents in most countries today are the result of extensive debates about the ethics of clinical research, exploitation in non-therapeutic research in the global south and other such issues.
The introduction of medical aid in dying in an ever-growing number of jurisdictions owes much to ethicists who have dissected normative counter arguments and whose works have been cited in some of the most consequential court and/or parliamentary proceedings, certainly in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Ethics apparently motivates ethicists to do the right thing, going beyond merely producing academic content. A number of Australian academics have not only published academic content on Australia’s appalling treatment of refugees, they have also become activists trying to change the status quo. Those who argue that ethics also provides reasons for action might gain satisfaction from knowing that there are at least some examples suggesting that they might be on to something.
Arguably, the works of ethicists as well as political philosophers have significantly contributed to public reason becoming the modus operandi of political debate in multi-cultural societies all over the globe. Apparently, ethics can matter. Of course, I could point you to any number of ethics papers that have aimed to remain inconsequential and they succeeded fully on that count. It is worth raising the question of the ethics of such ethics content production.
Udo Schuklenk, Professor of Philosophy and Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics
Joint Editor-in-Chief Bioethics and Developing World Bioethics
Department of Philosophy
In a fascinating article published in Significance, author Robert Bain delves into the arguments for and against viewing human judgements and decisions in terms of Bayesian inference. We are grateful to Significance and the editor, Brian Tarran, for permission to publish the excerpt below.
The human brain is made up of 90 billion neurons connected by more than 100 trillion synapses. It has been described as the most complicated thing in the world, but brain scientists say that is wrong: they think it is the most complicated thing in the known universe. Little wonder, then, that scientists have such trouble working out how our brain actually works. Not in a mechanical sense: we know, roughly speaking, how different areas of the brain control different aspects of our bodies and our emotions, and how these distinct regions interact. The questions that are more difficult to answer relate to the complex decision-making processes each of us experiences: how do we form beliefs, assess evidence, make judgments, and decide on a course of action?
Figuring that out would be a great achievement, in and of itself. But this has practical applications, too, not least for those artificial intelligence (AI) researchers who are looking to transpose the subtlety and adaptability of human thought from biological “wetware” to computing hardware.
In looking to replicate aspects of human cognition, AI researchers have made use of algorithms that learn from data through a process known as Bayesian inference. Bayesian inference is a method of updating beliefs in the light of new evidence, with the strength of those beliefs captured using probabilities. As such, it differs from frequentist inference, which focuses on how frequently we might expect to observe a given set of events under specific conditions.
In the field of AI, Bayesian inference has been found to be effective at helping machines approximate some human abilities, such as image recognition. But are there grounds for believing that this is how human thought processes work more generally? Do our beliefs, judgments, and decisions follow the rules of Bayesian inference?
For the clearest evidence of Bayesian reasoning in the brain, we must look past the high-level cognitive processes that govern how we think and assess evidence, and consider the unconscious processes that control perception and movement.
Professor Daniel Wolpert of the University of Cambridge’s neuroscience research centre believes we have our Bayesian brains to thank for allowing us to move our bodies gracefully and efficiently – by making reliable, quick-fire predictions about the result of every movement we make. Wolpert, who has conducted a number of studies on how people control their movements, believes that as we go through life our brains gather statistics for different movement tasks, and combine these in a Bayesian fashion with sensory data, together with estimates of the reliability of that data. “We really are Bayesian inference machines,” he says.
Other researchers have found indications of Bayesianism in higher-level cognition. A 2006 study by Tom Griffiths of the University of California, Berkeley, and Josh Tenenbaum of MIT asked people to make predictions of how long people would live, how much money films would make, and how long politicians would last in office. The only data they were given to work with was the running total so far: current age, money made so far, and years served in office to date. People’s predictions, the researchers found, were very close to those derived from Bayesian calculations.
Before we accept the Bayesian brain hypothesis wholeheartedly, there are a number of strong counter-arguments. For starters, it is fairly easy to come up with probability puzzles that should yield to Bayesian methods, but that regularly leave many people flummoxed. For instance, many people will tell you that if you toss a series of coins, getting all heads or all tails is less likely than getting, for instance, tails–tails–heads–tails–heads. It is not and Bayes’ theorem shows why: as the coin tosses are independent, there is no reason to expect one sequence is more likely than another.
“There’s considerable evidence that most people are dismally non-Bayesian when performing reasoning,” says Robert Matthews of Aston University, Birmingham, and author of Chancing It, about the challenges of probabilistic reasoning. “For example, people typically ignore base-rate effects and overlook the need to know both false positive and false negative rates when assessing predictive or diagnostic tests.”
Diagnostic test accuracy explained
How is it that a diagnostic test that claims to be 99% accurate can still give a wrong diagnosis 50% of the time? In testing for a rare condition, we scan 10 000 people. Only 1% (100 people) have the condition; 9900 do not. Of the 100 people who do have the disease, a 99% accurate test will detect 99 of the true cases, leaving one false negative. But a 99% accurate test will also produce false positives at the rate of 1%. So, of the 9900 people who do not have the condition, 1% (99 people) will be told erroneously that they do have it. The total number of positive tests is therefore 198, of which only half are genuine. Thus the probability that a positive test result from this “99% accurate” test is a true positive is only 50%.
Life’s hard problems
All in all, that is quite a bit of evidence in favour of the argument that our brains are non-Bayesian. But do not forget that we are dealing with the most complicated thing in the known universe, and these fascinating quirks and imperfections do not give a complete picture of how we think.
Eric Mandelbaum, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the City University of New York’s Baruch College, says this kind of irrationality “is most striking because it arises against a backdrop of our extreme competence. For every heuristics-and-biases study that shows that we, for instance, cannot update base rates correctly, one can find instances where people do update correctly.”
So while our well-documented flaws may shed light on the limits of our capacity for probabilistic analysis, we should not write off the brain’s statistical abilities just yet. Perhaps what our failings really reveal is that life is full of really hard problems, which our brains must try and solve in a state of uncertainty and constant change, with scant information and no time.
Robert Bain is a freelance journalist. He was previously editor of Lux magazine and deputy editor of Research magazine.
About the Magazine
Significance is published on behalf of the Royal Statistical Society and is a bimonthly magazine for anyone interested in statistics and the analysis and interpretation of data. Its aim is to communicate and demonstrate in an entertaining, thought-provoking and non-technical way the practical use of statistics in all walks of life and to show informatively and authoritatively how statistics benefit society.
Recently, Wiley was honored to sponsor a bursary for Dr. Mary Kasule, Assistant Director of Research Ethics at the University of Botswana, to attend the 13th World Congress of Bioethics. We caught up with her after the conference to see how it went.
Recently, Wiley was honored to sponsor a bursary for Dr. Mary Kasule, Assistant Director of Research Ethics at the University of Botswana, to attend the 13th World Congress of Bioethics. This biennial conference is the largest gathering of bioethics thought-leaders in the world, which this year took place in Edinburgh, Scotland.
We previously got to know Dr. Kasule in this lovely Q&A, and were able to catch up with her after the conference to see how it went.
FN: Welcome back from Edinburgh! How did your poster presentation go?
MK: I must say the presentation went well. The title was “Practical and ethical challenges posed in obtaining parental informed consent for HIV clinical trials research with pediatric patients: A case of Botswana,” which fell under the conference’s Global Bioethics theme. Challenges mainly focused on the readability of the consent forms, information disclosure process by the study staff, parental comprehension of information disclosed, and parental motivation to enroll children into HIV clinical trials.
In his welcome address, Professor Graeme Laurie mentioned that the congress would be attended by 700 delegates, and the thought that all these people might visit my poster gave me nightmares and butterflies in my stomach! Indeed, so many viewers visited my poster that I lost count!
I had active discussions with viewers and received very informative feedback on the findings, which will enrich my future work. My general observation was that there was a huge difference in viewers’ opinions and appreciation of my findings. We debated if my findings were critical or not, and whether or not these findings needed solutions. I noticed a wide difference of opinions between members of western and non-western societies. According to the questions and comments I got, most western viewers were surprised that in non-western countries, consent is being sought on more than one level, which reflects communalism. On the other hand, a majority of non-western viewers admitted to having faced similar challenges which required immediate solutions. These differences are likely to majorly impact collaborative research.
FN: How wonderful to be able to discuss your research with your peers, and get such engaged feedback. How was the conference itself?
MK: If I could summarize it in two words, I would say, “amazing and successful.” It was invigorating, inspirational, and informative – there was so much to do and learn!
I felt proud and honored to be part of the proceedings and to contribute to such a noble cause. I’d like to express my sincere appreciation to John Wiley & Sons, who sponsored my travel as part of its initiative to further support the bioethics community. And, a big “thank you” to the University of Botswana for its support.
FN: You’re welcome. We are thrilled to support you in your amazing endeavors.
MK: The venue (Assembly Rooms) is a huge and impressive 18th century event space. The conference itself had such a variety of sessions that choosing which to attend was a challenge! Prior to each day, I made sure I went through the program very carefully for fear of getting lost. I later realized one could not get lost, as everyone was kind and ready to help.
FN: What was your favorite session?
MK: Because of my background, I tried to attend sessions related to bioethics and public health. The keynote address by Professor Alastair V. Campbell (Director of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics at the National University of Singapore) was hilarious and very inspirational. He made the audience laugh when he referred to himself as, “the Accidental Bioethicist,” and described, “what makes God laugh.” His advice was a very good take-home message for me – “You need to follow what you truly care about.”
When Professor Florencia Luna from CONICET (National Scientific and Technological Research Council, Argentina) gave her key note address on “Women and (NON) Ethical Places: The Case of Zika,” you could hear a pin drop! It was deeply touching! She described the disproportionate harms of the Zika virus to poor women from endemic areas, which I thought was similar to what HIV and Ebola virus have done to women in many sub-Saharan countries. It was very sad to hear her say, “Simply referring to the situation ignores the stories and the suffering, anguish, and abandonment of women affected by the epidemic. There is need to look into women’s social and economic disadvantages, gender bias, their exclusion from research to avoid perpetuating poverty, and increased gender bias as well as social and health disparity.” Bioethicists and governments have a very big role to play through reviewing research regulatory guidelines and laws that exclude women from health research.
FN: It sounds like you were able to hear from so many inspirational experts in bioethics. Will you tell us more about new things you learned?
MK: Ah! There were so many interesting sessions relevant to my carrier, which made choosing difficult. I had to make very calculated choices. Something new I learned is that the bioethics community is quite big in western countries, and sub-Saharan Africa is still lagging behind. With more collaboration and networking, it would be possible to build research ethics capacity in sub-Saharan Africa.
FN: When we first spoke, you outlined what you think are the biggest public health priorities for Botswana today. Did you find that others had similar issues they are grappling in their own regions? How did Botswana’s public health priorities compare and contrast with other countries?
MK: I would say strengthening health systems as well epidemiological control of communicable and non-communicable diseases remain universal challenges.
FN: Who did you enjoy meeting the most? What did you discuss together?
MK: I did get to talk to many people, but because on my bioethics background I was lucky to speak with Professor Luna after her inspirational key note address. We shared views and opinions about ethical issues associated with research involving pregnant women and their exclusion from research as a vulnerable group which results in a lack of research evidence for medications to treat pregnant women. Since there wasn’t much time, we exchanged cards to continue the discussion over email. Hopefully I will meet her again at IAB 2018 in New Delhi, or at other bioethics forums!
FN: What is next for you and your research, and how will your experience at IAB help inform that?
MK: Well, there were so many stimulating ideas, but all of them require funding. Now that I’ve had such great discussions and gotten advice from early carrier researcher sessions, I should be able to apply for research funding do more research and publish more.
FN: Do you have any other anecdotes you’d like to share with our readers?
The closing ceremony was full of drama with the competition on pronunciation of Scottish phrases by some delegates. That was a mutilation of the Scottish language!
The atmosphere was full joy and tears for those who won prizes. I would like to congratulate one of our own from Africa, Dr. Nicola Barsdorf (Head of Health Research Ethics at Stellenbosch University), who placed second in the Medical Ethics Poster Prize. She made us proud!
The breathtaking video shown to advertise the IAB 2018 (to take place in New Delhi!) gave delegates hope of meeting again. This video demonstrated the need for more research on the social determinants of priority public health problems, and how a health-systems-strengthening approach can contribute to more effective program delivery and health outcomes.
FN: We look forward to seeing what great things you’ve achieved at the next World Congress of Bioethics. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us!
This bursary was sponsored by Wiley on behalf of its bioethics journals.
Read the latest in bioethics from your peers around the world, and submit your paper today. Click on the journals below to discover groundbreaking research.
With the final day of June, LGBTQ Pride Month comes to a close for 2016. The Wiley Blackwell Team hopes to serve the LGBTQ Community by continuing the much needed discussion. As a reminder, all of the curated research collections for Pride Month will be freely available through July 31.
With the final day of June, LGBTQ Pride Month comes to a close for 2016. Just last year, same-sex marriage was federally legalized in the United States. In sharp contrast, this year’s pride month was shadowed by the devastation of the Orlando shootings. We were all painfully reminded that despite great strides made by the LGBTQ community, hate and inequality still run rampant. Through this grim reality, the outpour of love and support that emerged from such a violent act of hate is a testament of hope and strength.
Thanks for visiting us each week this month to continue the necessary discussion on LGBTQ rights and issues. As a reminder, all of the curated research collections for Pride Month will be freely available through July 31.
Rounding out LGBTQ Pride Month, our final week is dedicated to LGBTQ Awareness & Education. We’ve unlocked a curated selection of research articles, which covers a wide array of topics such as intersectionality, gender identity, institutional inclusion, etc.
Rounding out LGBTQ Pride Month, our final week is dedicated to LGBTQ Awareness & Education. We’ve unlocked a curated selection of research articles, which covers a wide array of topics such as intersectionality, gender identity, and institutional inclusion.
Enjoy this research freely through July 31, and don’t forget to comment and share below. Thanks for joining us as we continue the necessary conversation on LGBTQ rights, awareness, and support.
In an original podcast, Wiley’s Senior Marketing Manager Kathleen Mulcahy interviews Orvis School of Nursing’s Dr. Christine Aramburu Alegría on her clinical practice article titled, “Gender nonconforming and transgender children/youth: Family, community, and implications for practice,” published in the Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners.
For this week of LGBTQ Pride Month, we continue our thematic exploration in Trans Issues. In an original podcast, Wiley’s Senior Marketing Manager Kathleen Mulcahy interviews Orvis School of Nursing’s Dr. Christine Aramburu Alegría on her clinical practice article titled, “Gender nonconforming and transgender children/youth: Family, community, and implications for practice,” published in the Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. Along with podcast, we have also included a transcript below.
Don’t forget to come back each Monday as we post articles and think pieces from Wiley authors and LGBTQ advocates centered around a unique theme. Thanks for joining us as we continue the necessary conversation on LGBTQ rights, awareness, and support.