Tuesday 27 July 2021

Ethics, Law & Natural Hazards

In today's blog, Lauren Traczykowski (Aston University) presents her new book: Ethics, Law & Natural Hazards: The Moral Imperative for Intervention Post-Disaster (Routledge 2021).

Some of the first official feedback I received on my research was that it was morbid. Well, yes, I guess; I am interested in post-natural hazard response. I study the ethical what should happen when we have mass casualties, large scale homelessness or even physical insecurity after say, an earthquake, volcanic eruption, tsunami, hurricane, etc. and a national government is either unable or unwilling to help its people. 
Governments usually try to help their people if for no other reason than that they have a sovereign responsibility to do so. Even if their attempts are feeble or full of mistakes, a government recognizing that it is unable to fulfil its duties shows willing. 

Take the US Government response to Hurricane Katrina. There are a lot of notable failings; but the government was acting to support its people and it definitely had the resources and personnel to adequately respond. Likewise, when international assistance was offered, it was (eventually) accepted. In this way, I would argue that the US Government was both able and willing to respond to the needs of those affected by Hurricane Katrina.


But what I’m worried about is when a government is either unable or unwilling to support its people. Beyond any sovereign responsibility to help your people it is our duty to help other humans. In this monograph I explain that we have a duty or responsibility to help other humans because humans have (moral) human rights; they matter.


Specifically, I focus on the human right to welfare. When we consider any human right to welfare in the aftermath of a natural hazard, I’m talking about the minimum, basic provision necessary for human survival: objective goods that people need to live a life with a high level of welfare including a life sustaining amount of food, water, shelter and security. Humans cannot pursue their concept of a good life if they don’t have certain basic elements necessary for survival.


If we can agree that humans have a right to life-saving, life-sustaining goods, then we should be able to likewise agree that there must be a duty holder. When a state, the primary duty holder, has not acted on their duties to save or sustain life, the duty doesn’t just disappear. Instead, we, other humans, are still duty holders, and have a moral obligation to act.


There are only rare occasions when governments can’t or don’t act on behalf of their people in the aftermath of a natural hazard. The most contentious case of this was in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008. Mass homelessness, destroyed buildings, and thousands killed. Myanmar did not request any international assistance in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Worryingly, though, the Government also restricted the movement of foreign aid workers already in-country. One could argue that aid workers were being prevented from doing their jobs. Foreign aid was also not allowed into the country. I would suggest that Myanmar, at this point, was unwilling to do what was necessary for its people.


Let’s quickly consider when a country can’t provide life-saving assistance to its people. For example, imagine that every person in the Myanmar Government was killed by the cyclone (you can see a bit of the morbid-ness critics were talking about). The international community is legally prevented from providing assistance to the people of Myanmar without a specific request/consent from the Government of Myanmar. But they can’t give that consent if they are no longer alive. There is no mechanism in international law for the international community to act in this kind of scenario. This is ethically problematic as the international community has second-order duties to provide for the welfare of those affected.


Lauren Traczykowski

When a government won’t act on behalf of its people, we have a bigger ethical problem. In 1999, Hasner argued that ‘preventing people from being saved’ is an act of allowing harm. Whilst doing harm is, ethically, more blameworthy, preventing someone from being saved is, still a ‘lethal’ harm and hence carries moral blameworthiness. The international community needs some sort of mechanism in which we recognize this moral blame and are empowered to act for the welfare of those affected.

When assistance was not accepted or requested, and diplomacy was not budging the Myanmar government, the international community started having political discussions amongst themselves. Some argued that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine should be triggered and with that military force should be used to ‘protect’ those being prevented from being saved.


But death caused by natural hazards are not one of the triggers for initiating the R2P doctrine. R2P can only be triggered through international agreement and in response to a genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. So, there is no legal or practical way to use R2P in the aftermath of a natural hazard. Similarly, it is argued, that if we (the international community) tried to use any military force, we would be violating the sovereignty of the country as well as possibly triggering a domino effect of social, political, and economic issues resulting in mass causalities (within and around the affected country).

Hence, the ethical issue: there is no formal mechanism for when a government is unable or unwilling to help its people in the aftermath of a natural hazard. This is despite the international community having a moral obligation to provide the goods associated with basic survival for those humans affected. To that end, in the monograph I suggest a possible way of developing international policy based on Just War criteria which account for our ethical requirements whilst addressing the possible legal and political hurdles that stand in the way of saving lives.


So, yes, there is a lot of death and destruction in my research. But don’t mistake the morbid-ness of what I research for anything other than hope. I work to make ethical justifications for international community action in ways that mean that those in life threatening situations in the aftermath of a natural hazard are properly valued as being worthy of being saved. The type of emergency should never undermine our duties to other humans.


Tuesday 20 July 2021

Dementia and Identity

Today’s post is by Giovanni Boniolo, Professor of Philosophy of Science and Medical Humanities in the Department of Neuroscience and Rehabilitation at the University of Ferrara, Italy.

Giovanni Boniolo

Since 2018, I have been appointed as Scientific Director of the Civitas Vitae Research Centre (CVRC). This is a new department of the Fondazione OIC onlus (Padova, Italy) devoted to seeking, implementing and disseminating sociological and ethical innovative procedures and strategies aimed to improve the quality of life of people who are vulnerable and fragile due to age or disability. 

The Fondazione OIC onlus is an innovative nursing home with about 1500 guests (from about 65 to about 100 years old) and 1700 operators, where the values of longevity as a resource, intergenerationality, positive culture of the limit, and fragility are intended as opportunities for social networking.

Since its establishment, the CVRC has been realizing several initiatives and research programs. In 2019, we organized a workshop on Rethinking Aging from the point of view of a philosophy of science interbreed with ethics and sociology (the contributions are published in History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences). On that occasion, I presented a talk on identity and dementia that has been published in the collection just mentioned.

This paper (“Demented patients and the quandaries of identity: setting the problem, advancing a proposal”) was intended to enter the vivid debate concerning the impression that dementia brings loss of the self, or loss of identity, or loss of personhood. This loss is alleged to occur since dementia negatively affects, step-by-step, the proper functioning of the main higher mental functions (memory and decision-making capacity). 

This decline, especially in the middle and late stages, could lead to the idea that the self, or the identity, or the personhood, has completely changed and is replaced by a different one. Further on, that decline could lead also to the idea that demented individuals would no longer have moral status, since they would no longer be persons. 

However, what do ‘self’, ‘identity’ and ‘personhood’ mean? Before addressing the problem of whether a demented individual has a loss of self, identity, or personhood, and then provide a judgment about his or her moral status, we should have a clear idea of what we mean by those terms. In my paper, first, I have provided some clues to clarify the meaning of the terms. 

Next, without using vague or ambiguous term like “self” and “personhood,” I have proposed an empirical (more precisely, biological) perspective on identity, based on the notion of ‘whole phenotype’ (I call it the Whole Phenotype Account, or WPA), which has allowed me to argue that the demented individuals maintain their identity, in particular their whole phenotype identity. Moreover, I have advanced some remarks on how it is possible to use the WPA to cope with the questions related to demented individuals’ loss of the capacity to make moral decisions.

On the basis of the WPA, the conceptual analysis I proposed resulted in showing that there are no strong reasons to claim that a demented individual is a different individual compared to whom they were before the disease. Claiming that they are different means starting from very partial accounts of identity where, many times, vague concepts (as self), or ambiguous concept (as personhood) are introduced. We do not need this kind of accounts when we are in the unlucky position of being forced to consider the dementia of our relatives. 

We need an open mind to understand that the demented individual in front of us is not a different individual from what they were before: they are the same, as the WPA allows to argue. Unfortunately, they have a terrible pathology and we have to help them and take care of them as far we can and until we can. We have to respect them and their choices and decisions as long as they are capable of choosing and deciding. Then, when this capacity has vanished, we have to continue respecting not only them, but also the choices and decisions they made.

Tuesday 13 July 2021

Philosophy of Psychology: An Introduction

Our (Kengo Miyazono and Lisa Bortolotti's) new Philosophy of Psychology textbook is out! Today it is the worldwide publication date for the book but in the UK it has been available since 14th May. 

If you want to participate in the book launch, please visit this page and enjoy two conversations on the themes of the book, one with Nevia Dolcini and Jules Holroyd on rationality, self-knowledge, and implicit bias; and one with Katrina Sifferd and Pablo López-Silva on autism, psychopathy, delusion, and confabulation.

In the book, we defend a particular view of human cognition and agency as imperfect. In this post, we say a little more about the sense in which human agents fail to meet ideal standards of cognition and agency, such as criteria for rationality and self-knowledge. 


Rosa wants to pass her ballet exam tomorrow and she knows that she needs to rehearse the opening routine to make sure she remembers all the steps. Passing the exam is important to her, and she would be very disappointed if she failed. Yet she sits on the sofa to watch a movie instead of practising her routine. Given Rosa's goal (passing the ballet exam tomorrow), her behaviour (watching a movie instead of practising) may be considered irrational since she does not take the appropriate steps to fulfil her goal (see chapter 1 on rationality).

Giorgio describes himself as an exceptionally generous child, always willing to support his friends. However, that is not how his friends describe him. On a number of occasions, they have observed that Giorgio has put his own needs before theirs and has refrained from sharing snacks or helping them with their homework. They think of him as mean and selfish. If Giorgio’s friends are right, then we can say that Giorgio does not have an accurate representation of himself. In particular, he attributes to himself qualities (such as generosity) that he does not have (see chapter 2 on self-knowledge).

Elsa, a white US citizen, thinks of herself as a very egalitarian person who respects everybody and considers them all equal, independently of ethnic origin or skin colour. However, when she goes to work, she avoids sitting next to Asian passengers on the bus and, when she talks to her colleagues at work, she tends to ignore her Nigerian secretary. Elsa does not have explicit beliefs that are prejudiced against people who look different from her but behaves in ways that are inconsistent with her explicit beliefs and values. She is vulnerable to implicit biases for which she may or may not be responsible (see both chapter 3 on duality and chapter 6 on free will and responsibility).

You may have experienced similar failures of rationality and self-knowledge and have encountered biases in yourselves and others, especially when considering beliefs and choices that have morally relevant implications (see chapters 4 and 5 on moral judgement and motivation). Indeed, the view that human cognition and agency are imperfect is not new. However, our book does not just claim that human cognition and agency are limited; on the basis of relevant psychological studies, it also makes some potentially surprising and controversial claims about the extent to which human cognition and agency are limited.

Human cognition and agency can be ‘imperfect’ in another sense; i.e. they are vulnerable to impairments and behavioural anomalies. Our book discusses delusion and confabulation (in chapter 7) and autism and psychopathy (in chapter 8). Thinking about unusual behaviours helps us understand how cognition works and how vulnerability to disorders of the mind relates to the failure to meet ideal standards.


Overall, we are not committed to a pessimistic conception of human cognition and agency. Rather, we advocate a realistic conception that is informed by psychological findings and is defended by philosophical arguments. We resist two extreme views of human cognition and agency. On the one hand, we resist an overly optimistic view according to which human cognition and agency are perfect (or near-perfect) with respect to ideal standards such as rationality, self-knowledge, and free and responsible agency. 

Kengo Miyazono

Lisa Bortolotti

On the other hand, we resist an overly pessimistic view according to which human cognition and agency are hopeless with respect to these ideal standards. By learning about the nature and the extent of their limitations, human agents can improve their performance. That is one of the reasons why philosophy of psychology matters. It does not simply provide information about what we can or cannot do. It offers us the resources to enhance our performance (in reasoning, decision-making, problem-solving, etc.) so that we can get closer to our ideal standards.

Tuesday 6 July 2021

Philosophy Labs

This post is by Joe Vukov, Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Philosophy Department at Loyola University Chicago. The post discusses ideas presented in his recent paper, “Philosophy Labs: Bringing Pedagogy and Research Together,” co-authored with Kit Rempala, PhD student at Loyola Chicago, and Katrina Sifferd, Professor of Philosophy at Elmhurst College.


Joe Vukov


In STEM fields, collaboration is the norm. Go visit the biology or engineering building on campus, and you’ll notice undergraduates consenting participants for an experiment, graduate students crunching statistics in the hallways, post-docs writing articles in their offices, and faculty guiding the process. 

The experience provides a pedagogically-rich experience for those being apprenticed into their fields. It also produces a wealth of research. Take a look at the CV of a mid-career chemist or neuroscientist, and the list of publications far outpaces that of a mid-career philosopher. The lesson? Collaborative research not only provides a path for training those new to a discipline; it can also foster the efficient production of high-impact research. 

Philosophers don’t typically take advantage of this model. Sure, philosophers sometimes co-author articles or book chapters. This process, however, often consists in little more than the formal documentation of a series of happy-hour conversations. There’s nothing wrong with this -- we all do our fair share of co-authoring of this kind. But genuine collaborative research in philosophy--the pursuit of long-term projects between scholars at various stages in their careers--is rare. 

Need things be this way? We think not, and propose one model for conducting philosophical research in collaborative contexts: the philosophy lab. The philosophy lab is modeled on the STEM lab, and uses collaboration to pursue professional-level funding, presentations, and publications. Pedagogically, philosophy labs take their cues from group learning models such as Positive Interdependence Theory (PIT). 

In a new article, we argue that PIT, when deployed in the context of a philosophy lab, provides four central guidelines: 
  1. the careful selection of small, heterogeneous groups of collaborators 
  2. facilitators who foster individual autonomy among all participants
  3. an emphasis on open-ended taskwork
  4. a careful balancing of individual and group rewards. 

These tenets are broad, and applying them will be an art, not a science. After all, institutional contexts differ, and what works in one won’t work in another. Launching and maintaining a philosophy lab must therefore take on-the-ground conditions into account. The academic interests of faculty leaders; the presence of a graduate program; funding for undergraduate research: all of these should influence the precise form a philosophy lab takes. Just like a STEM lab, we believe there is no one form philosophy labs should take. 

But the proof is in the pudding. Do philosophy labs get results? In our experience, the answer is a resounding ‘yes,’ on whatever metric you’d like to measure success: consistent professional publications and presentations; funding for lab activities and individual students; placement of undergraduate students into choice graduate programs. Philosophy labs not only provide a rich learning experience for collaborators. They also further the careers of those involved in them. 

Do we want the hallways of philosophy departments to one day resemble those of a STEM building? No. Philosophy is not a STEM field, and we are confident that lonely-armchair-style philosophy will and should continue. There has always been a place for that kind of philosophy, and we see no reason to abandon it. 

But at the same time, we’d like to challenge our discipline to reflect carefully on new, more collaborative ways to engage in philosophical research. Collaboration is good for ourselves, for our students, and for the work we produce. There will, no doubt, be a plurality of methodologies that can serve these ends. We believe philosophy labs are one of them.