Thursday 26 September 2019

Ethics and the Contemporary World

Today's post is by David Edmonds, presenter and producer at the BBC, host of The Big Idea, author of many books, including Would You Kill the Fat Man? and (with John Eidinow) Wittgenstein’s Poker. David is also a senior research associate at Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and a columnist for the Jewish Chronicle. In this post he introduces his new book, Ethics and the Contemporary World.

I was rummaging through my attic last week when I came across some notes and essays I’d written as an undergraduate and graduate studying ethics in the 1980s.

What surprised me – apart from the clunky prose and the no-nonsense typeface produced by my clunky dot-matrix printer – was the narrowness of subject range. There was a lot, for example, on abortion. It’s easy to forget that abortion was only legalized in Britain in 1967 and the key Supreme Court ruling in the US, Roe v Wade, was in 1973. Then there was capital punishment – the death penalty had only been abolished in Northern Ireland in 1973.

It’s not that all these issues are now irrelevant: capital punishment plays no serious role in current British political debate, but the issue of abortion remains a hugely divisive one in parts of the world, including the US. However, the philosophical terrain of applied ethics today is far less narrow than it was three decades ago.

Take some of the topics discussed in a book I’ve recently edited, Ethics and the Contemporary World (Routledge). The book includes a section on the environment and one chapter on whether we should use drastic technical fixes – climate engineering – to tackle our current climate crisis. Back in the 1980s global warming was not widely debated and few philosophers had the foresight to address it.

Ethics and the Contemporary World devotes a whole section to social media – Rebecca Roache writes about Facebook and friendship, Carissa Valiz about the internet and privacy and Neil Levy about Fake News. I finished the BPhil at Oxford in 1988 five years before pinging off my first email.

Another section in the book is entitled Science and Technology. The first IVF baby was born in 1978, but if Dolly the Sheep – the first cloned mammal – were alive today, she would still only be 23. The pace of change in the genetic revolution continues to accelerate – generating a constant stream of fresh moral predicaments.

Then there’s robots and AI? The issues raised by autonomous machines and artificial intelligence are brilliantly mapped out in the book by John Tasioulas. One category of problem, for example, is whether autonomous machines will possess rights and responsibilities. Another is what threats they pose to our interests and values. At least here the old and the new conjoin. The much derided trolley problem – a staple of 1980s academic ethical debate – has made a comeback, in part because of dilemmas thrown up by driverless cars and autonomous weapons.

Several changes in the world since the 1980s – AI and climate change for example – pose an existential threat to humanity. Even if humanity is still more or less intact in three decades, I won’t be one of those writing about the contemporary ethical issues of the 2050s. Still, it’s really not that far away, and I do think we – we philosophers - should be spending more time trying to reflect on what they will be.

Wednesday 25 September 2019

Philosophy, Bias, and Stigma

In this post, I summarise a paper I recently wrote with Kathy Puddifoot (University of Durham), which appears open access in an excellent new book, entitled 'Why Philosophy?' and edited by Diego Bubbio and Jeff Malpas.

Kathy Puddifoot

Philosophical research impacts on our understanding of the world. We argue that empirically informed philosophy can help us both reduce and control the effects of implicit bias on our behaviour, and challenge the stigma associated with the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders. In both cases, knowledge of philosophy and practice of philosophy make a significant contribution to the development of a fairer society.

Implicit bias

Implicit biases are responses to members of social groups (e.g., races, religions, gender, ability groups), associating members with traits in virtue of their social group membership. Biases may occur unintentionally, seemingly without the believer being aware of their occurrence, and are difficult to control. They can lead to the differential treatment of group members.

There is an interesting philosophical debate as to whether implicit biases are: 

(1) associations that people make in their thinking and that can only be changed via retraining (Jerry associates women with physical weakness and dislikes Jenny on that basis); or

(2) belief-like mental states that can be changed via the presentation of evidence (Jerry believes that women are physically weak, assumes that Jenny is also weak, and dislikes her for that).

This discussion is not merely theoretically interesting but it matters to how we go about combatting implicit bias. If we find that implicit biases are associations, we may invest our resources in retraining people's habits. If we find that implicit biases are beliefs, then we can aim to combat them via argumentation and evidence.

Mental health stigma

Stigma is very persistent in the area of mental health, and there is a pervasive “them and us” attitude dividing people who experience mental health issues from people who do not.

Philosophy can help address stigma by showing that there is no sharp divide (but rather significant continuity) between being mentally well and being mentally unwell. Distress can manifest in a variety of ways, ranging from debilitating diseases affecting good functioning for several years, to temporary forms of anxiety or depression that have no long-term consequences for the person's wellbeing.

Lisa Bortolotti

In our own research, we have investigated those reports that are often regarded as marks of irrationality and as symptoms of a mental disorder, such as implausible delusional beliefs and distorted autobiographical memories. Although such reports can emerge in the context of psychiatric conditions, they are not confined to them, and can affect everybody. 

Research suggests that people routinely ignore evidence when it does not lend support to their often-inflated views of themselves, that they reinterpret memories of failure and overestimate future chances of success, and that they see the past as coloured by their current beliefs and values.

The emphasis on continuity can shape our attitudes towards people who experience mental health struggles and also informs the breadth of treatment options available to them.


Philosophical discussions can contribute to developing practical solutions to the problems raised by implicit bias and the mental health stigma. Philosophy therefore has the potential to fundamentally change interpersonal interactions so that they are no longer underwritten by bias, stigma, and prejudice, which distort judgments and lead to unfair treatment.

Thursday 19 September 2019

Why Philosophy?

This post is by Diego Bubbio (Western Sydney University) presenting a new book, Why Philosophy, co-edited with Jeff Malpas. The book also features a chapter by Kathy Puddifoot and myself on the themes of project PERFECT. We will blog about that next Tuesday!

Nowadays, very few people seem to care about philosophy. Why should we devote resources, and especially financial resources, to research in philosophy? Even more fundamentally – do we really need philosophy? In short – why philosophy?

The present collection of popular essays aims at answering this question – or better, at providing a series of answers. The essays of the book address, each from a different angle, the question of why philosophy matters. As we aim at engaging the intelligent but non-specialist reader, the essays are written in a ‘popular’ (jargon-free) rather than in ‘scholarly’ style. All the contributors have been carefully selected not only because of their excellent academic profiles, but also, and even more importantly, because of their ability to address the topic in a rigorous and yet challenging and entertaining way.

Each essay considers the central question (‘Why Philosophy?’) from different angles: the unavoidability of doing philosophy, the practical consequences of philosophy, philosophy as a therapy for the whole person, the benefits of philosophical analysis for improving public policy, and so on.owadays, very few people seem to care about philosophy. Why should we devote resources, and especially financial resources, to research in philosophy? Even more fundamentally – do we really need philosophy? In short – why philosophy?

The present collection of popular essays aims at answering this question – or better, at providing a series of answers. The essays of the book address, each from a different angle, the question of why philosophy matters. As we aim at engaging the intelligent but non-specialist reader, the essays are written in a ‘popular’ (jargon-free) rather than in ‘scholarly’ style. All the contributors have been carefully selected not only because of their excellent academic profiles, but also, and even more importantly, because of their ability to address the topic in a rigorous and yet challenging and entertaining way.

Each essay considers the central question (‘Why Philosophy?’) from different angles: the unavoidability of doing philosophy, the practical consequences of philosophy, philosophy as a therapy for the whole person, the benefits of philosophical analysis for improving public policy, and so on.

Tuesday 17 September 2019

Stereotyping Patients

Today’s post is provided by Katherine PuddifootAssistant Professor of Philosophy, Durham University. Here, she introduces her article, "Stereotyping Patients", that has recently appeared in the Journal of Social Philosophy.

Should healthcare professionals respond to the social group status of their patients, automatically associating patients of particular social groups (e.g. certain races, religions, social classes) more strongly than they automatically associate patients of other social groups with certain concepts, traits and characteristics? In other words, should healthcare professionals be influenced in their clinical judgement and decision making by automatically activated stereotypes or implicit biases?

This can produce unethical outcomes (Matthew 2018). Where healthcare professionals associate members of some social groups with certain traits, for example uncooperativeness, this can lead to group members receiving poorer quality treatment. However, the association of social groups with characteristics can facilitate higher quality decision-making in the medical context.

If, for example, a medical condition is more prevalent in one social group than another, associating members of the social group more strongly than others with features associated with the medical condition can increase the chance of a correct diagnosis being made.

Healthcare professionals therefore appear to face a dilemma between achieving ethical goals of fair treatment and epistemic goals of making correct diagnoses and treatment decisions. (This outcome is fitting with recent arguments in philosophy about the impact of implicit biases in other contexts: that they seem to lead people to face an ethical-epistemic dilemma. See for example Gendler 2011.)

In my paper, however, I argue that it is misleading to portray healthcare professionals as facing a dilemma of this sort. I argue that healthcare professionals can often achieve their ethical and epistemic goals in the same way, eitherby responding to or failing to respond differentially to patients due to their social group status. However, I argue, they nonetheless face a serious difficulty: the difficulty of deciphering which response is best within a particular context.

Thursday 12 September 2019

Philosophical Posthumanism

Today's post is by Francesca Ferrando. She is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Philosophy at NYU-Liberal Studies, New York University. A leading voice in the field of Posthuman Studies and founder of the NY Posthuman Research Group, she has been the recipient of the Sainati prize with the Acknowledgment of the President of Italy. She was the first speaker to give a TED talk on the topic of the posthuman. US magazine "Origins" named her among the 100 people making change in the world. 

She is introducing here her new book Philosophical Posthumanism (Bloomsbury). 

We are no longer “human”. We live in a time of radical bio-technological developments, where human enhancement, designer babies and sentient AI are the next frontiers. We live in the era of the Anthropocene and of the sixth mass extinction of species caused, directly and indirecly, by human action. In light of the political and environmental imperatives of our age, the term 'posthuman' provides an alternative by addressing humanity not by itself, but in relation to technology and ecology.

The philosophical landscape which has developed as a response to the crisis of the human, includes several movements, such as: Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, New Materialism and Object Oriented Ontology. This rich variety of voices is very exciting and it shows that Posthumanism is the philosophy of our time; and still, it can be daunting and confusing. 

This book, written as questions and answers to facilitate the readers, offers a clear navigational tool to understand the similarities and differences between all these currents. Furthermore, it develops the reflection on Philosophical Posthumanism in detailed ways, from ethics to politics, from epistemology to ontology, emerging in the global call for social change, responsible science and multispecies coexistence. This book explains why the notion of 'the human' in the 21stcentury is in need of urgent redefinition and why we, as a species, have always been posthuman.

More information about Francesca's work can be found here. If you are interested in her book, you can receive a 35% discount ordering online and entering the code POST19 on the first page at checkout.

Tuesday 10 September 2019

Is the Capgras Delusion an Endorsement of Experience?

This post is by Federico Bongiorno, a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham working primarily in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. Earlier this year, he was a visiting research fellow at Yale University. Here he offers an overview of his paper ‘Is the Capgras delusion an endorsement of experience?' which was recently published in Mind & Language.

The Capgras delusion is a condition in which a person believes that a loved one has been replaced by an identical or near-identical other (this can take a variety of forms, such as an imposter, clone, alien, robot, etc.). A more careful definition would specify two propositions that the person believes (Aimola-Davies & Davies, 2009): the proposition that someone is not a certain known individual (e.g., this man is not my father), and the proposition that someone has replaced a certain known individual (e.g., this is a replacer of my father). I name the content of the former proposition misidentification and the latter replacement.

One popular idea within the background of cognitive neuropsychiatry is that the Capgras delusion is grounded in an irregular experience, whereby a person sees a familiar face but lacks the characteristic affective response (Ellis & Young, 1990; Stone & Young, 1997). The problem, then, is to clarify the specific role played by the experience in originating the delusional content. An influential approach to the problem is the endorsement model which claims that the experience encodes the content of the delusion. As such, all that it suffices to lead from the experience to the delusion is that the subject accepts her experience as veridical (Pacherie, Green, & Bayne, 2005; Pacherie, 2009).

Endorsement theorists take the irregular experience to be a perceptual state, where the content amounts to misidentification or replacement. There are a number of problems with this, which I discuss in the paper. Here, I mention one: it is unclear whether the experience can encode the sort of contents that the model says it does. I call this the experiential encoding problem (following Langdon & Bayne, 2010).

Thursday 5 September 2019

Phenomenology and Qualitative Health Research

The Phenomenology and Mental Health Network organized a workshop last June 20th at the Collaborating Centre for Values-based Practice in Health and Social Care at St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford. The theme was Phenomenology and Qualitative Health Research.

The aim of the workshop was to explore different ways in which philosophical phenomenology is applied in qualitative research and address issues that arise from the increasingly collaborative nature of these fields. The organizers were Anthony Fernandez, Marcin Moskalewicz and Dan Zahavi. I was very glad to be included among the speakers and have the chance to present some of my work. This report includes a detailed summary of everyone’s talks. I thank everyone for sharing their notes to make this report.

The first talk was Applied Phenomenology by Dan Zahavi, professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Subjectivity Research (University of Copenhaghen and University of Oxford) Zahavi addressed some fundamental questions that arise from the influence that phenomenological philosophy has had on empirical science: 
  • How is phenomenology best applied in non-philosophical contexts? 
  • What are the conditions for qualitative research to qualify as phenomenological? 
  • Is it sufficient to simply consider the first-person perspective of the informant? 
  • Should research employ interpretation or remain mainly descriptive? 
  • Should it investigate essential structures or focus on the particularity of individuals? 

Zahavi mainly addressed Max van Manen’s work but he also reviewed some common assumptions and made some recommendations.

The common assumption in van Manen’s work (and in applied phenomenology in general) is that because we have beliefs, biases and other presuppositions that structure our view and impede our access to the things themselves, if we want access to the things themselves, it is necessary to bracket such theoretical presuppositions and prejudices (and perform the epoché). 

But Zahavi argued that this view is mistaken. In early works of phenomenology (such as in Husserl’s descriptive phenomenology in Logical Investigations or in Reinach’s 1914 lecture What is Phenomenology?) we find discussions of the return to the things themselves and detailed descriptions of experience without there being any reference to the reduction or the epoché.

Zahavi recommended that there are several other features of philosophical phenomenology that are more relevant to the qualitative researcher than the epoché and the reduction. Phenomenological tools can be employed in a way that can allow new insights and create better therapeutic interventions and this is does not necessarily need to be achieved by following a rigorous method. One of the possible ways to achieve this could be, for instance, by developing a toolbox.

Lastly, Zahavi suggested that van Manen’s book Phenomenology of Practice offers a presentation of the phenomenological method that is problematic. One of the reasons for this is that when it comes to characterizing phenomenological research, van Manen presents conflicting views. 

For instance, in some occasions van Manen proposes that phenomenology is a philosophy with an interest in the particular, and in others that phenomenology should aim to capture essential aspects of the lived experience. Conflicting statements of the sort together with an insufficient guidance for the clear use of terms such as pre-reflective self-awareness, lifeworld or intentionality, are likely to make it a complex endeavour for researchers who are not professional philosophers to apply the method in their practice.


Tuesday 3 September 2019

Minds, Mental Disorders and Processes

This post is by Elly Vintiadis, a philosopher based at the American College of Greece and interested in metaphysics and philosophy of mind.

In most discussions about the mind and mental disorders the metaphysical framework within which they take place is rarely questioned. It is however, important to check our metaphysical beliefs--including our beliefs about what the world is made up of--because whether they are held consciously or not, they affect the way we understand the world and how we approach it scientifically. 

For this reason, in my recent work I explore what seeing the world--and biological organisms in particular--within a metaphysical framework that puts at its centre the notion of a process can add to our understanding of the mind and its disorders. I contend that seeing the world as fundamentally ‘processual’ in nature rather than in terms of substances and things, provides the best explanation of what we know about the mind and mental disorders. In addition, pragmatically it opens up the way for better treatment and prevention options. 

Traditional metaphysics has seen the world as made up of things that are in turn made up of smaller things--and so on all the way down. In contrast, according to process metaphysics the world is made up of processes that can be understood as occurrences that take place in time and that essentially involve change. That is, the world is made up of a hierarchy of intertwining processes that exist at different time scales--and whatever stability we experience in the world is the result of processes in dynamic interaction. 

Viewing brains and minds within a processual framework--and therefore as dynamic and physically, socially and historically situated- can not only make better sense of the plasticity and complexity of our brains but also allows us to give pivotal importance to the self-organization - through constant feedback and feed forward loops with their environment--of the brain and the mind.