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The Hastings Center Report, October 13, 2022

Which research topics should ethicists focus on? Recent arguments for “effective altruism” and “longtermism” suggest that ethicists should set all competing interests aside and pursue the area in which researchers can have the greatest impact: avoiding long-run human extinction. This brief essay by a Hastings Center research scholar raises some concerns about shifting research priorities in this way and suggests that ethicists can make progress in both the short and long term by thinking about how society makes progress.

Science, December 23, 2023

The 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) offers the chance to reflect on its relevance to our current politics, climate, and technology. In this invited commentary, we point out the complications for the ESA posed by genome editing technology, which include the ability to eradicate a species well before it is endangered and the significant differences between gene drives and threats like habitat reduction and hunting. Future species protection acts will have to clarify the values we seek to promote: do we want to protect all species or just the more complex ones? What kinds of threats to humanity allow for extinction: disease, blight, or mere irritation? 

Moral Philosophy and Politics, January 6, 2022

Using AI decision systems to avoid the need for human discretion in government contexts – a scenario we call ‘rule by automation’ – can help us achieve the ideal of a free and equal society. Drawing on relational theories of freedom and equality, we explain how rule by automation is a more complete realization of the rule of law and why thinkers in these traditions have strong reasons to support it. Relational theories are based on the absence of human domination and hierarchy, which AI helps us achieve. Nevertheless, there is another understanding of relational theories where what matters is the presence of valuable human relationships with those in power. Exploring this further might help us see when and why we should accept human discretion.

Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, February 2023

Concern for corporate influence on democratic decisions has mostly focused on campaign funding and access to legislators. While these are certainly worrisome, corporations have another tool to influence decisions, which they are increasingly using. They can threaten to move their operations or cancel expansion plans in a municipality unless its public officials pass (or kill) certain policies. In one sense, this is business as usual. Companies have the right to decide where to operate, and it is important for officials to consider how policy will impact local businesses that provide jobs and tax revenue. On the other hand, companies can use these threats to get their way on any policy, whether or not it impacts them. How do we tell when this kind of corporate action is illegitimate? We argue that such actions are illegitimate when they violate democratic norms of reason-giving, which occurs when companies offer the public “created” rather than “natural” reasons for their proposed policy.

Journal of Moral Philosophy, October 14, 2020

Since John Rawls, public reason theorists have attempted to show how liberal political norms could be acceptable to people with diverse religious and ethical viewpoints. However, these theories overlook the importance of the distinction between acceptability to realistic people and acceptability to viewpoints, which matters because public reason theories are committed to the former, but only deliver the latter, thereby failing to justify liberal norms. Public reason theories therefore face a dilemma: abandon realistic people and lose normative appeal, or retain realism and find a new way to justify liberalism.

Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, October 24, 2022

The “expressivist objection” argues that prenatal genetic screening leading to termination of embryos or fetuses with disabilities sends a harmful message to people with disabilities, such as the message that their lives are not worth living. I first argue that whether it sends such a message depends on how a reasonable person would see the motives behind the screening. I then argue that a reasonable person would see a harmful message, not when individuals terminate embryos, and not for severe disabilities, but when the state allows the screening and termination of embryos with less severe conditions, such as Down syndrome. This sends the message that it is permissible not to pay a higher cost to support people with disabilities, when there is an abled alternative. This attitude is harmful to the welfare, rights and self-worth of people with disabilities because it reinforces the refusal to provide them with equal opportunity. The state therefore has a strong pro tanto reason to ban prenatal screening for less severe disabilities.

Journal of Social Philosophy, March 30, 2023 (Online Early)

There is deep disagreement about political principles and policy, so prudence often requires us to temper our political proposals to make them more broadly acceptable. But is accommodating disagreement in this way also a moral requirement? Public reason theories offer some of the strongest arguments for thinking that political norms should accommodate disagreement, as long as the rival views are “reasonable” – that is, they are grounded in established ethical or religious viewpoints. However, I will argue that the justifications for accommodating this reasonable disagreement also require us to accommodate certain irrational biases, such as heuristic reasoning, motivated reasoning, and intra-group bias. If we must also accommodate irrational biases, then this undermines the appeal of accommodating reasonable disagreement and therefore of public reason theories, as currently conceived.

Bioethics, June 27, 2021

In the wake of the current pandemic, researchers and bioethicists have called for human challenge trials to hasten the development of a vaccine for COVID. However, the fact that there is no known treatment for COVID has led many to argue that a COVID challenge trial would be unethical. In discussions about risk in biomedical research, it is common to make analogies to other social practices where individuals are permitted to assume high levels of risk. We submit that non-directed live organ donation (NDLOD) is a promising analogy. After arguing that the risks to volunteers for each activity appear similar, we explore potential disanalogies that would undermine the comparison. We note that there are differences in both the kind and certainty of benefit secured by NDLOD compared to challenge trials. We conclude that while the kind and certainty of benefit are different with NDLOD compared to challenge trials, the differences are insufficient to make the one permissible and the other impermissible. Ultimately, if we think the risks associated with non-directed live organ donation are ethically permissible, then we should think the same of the risks associated with COVID challenge trials.

American Journal of Bioethics, August 17, 2021 

In “Neutrality and Perfectionism in Public Health,” Hafez Ismaili M’hamdi poses a dilemma for defenders of state neutrality about political justification: either they must reject a wide range of common-sense public health interventions like cigarette taxes and mask mandates, or they must abandon their commitment to state neutrality and accept perfectionism. Fortunately for defenders of state neutrality, this dilemma only has force against Gerald Gaus’ more libertarian version of the theory; it poses no problem, however, for John Rawls’ theory of political liberalism. According to Rawls’ theory, cigarette taxes and mask mandates are legitimate because, even though there is reasonable disagreement about how to balance individual freedom and public health, one does not need to invoke a particular religious or ethical tradition in order to justify them. Insofar as disagreement is simply about the relative weight of these values, and the democratically-chosen policy strikes a reasonable balance between them, sensible public health policy does not violate Rawls’ neutrality requirement.

American Journal of Bioethics, May 4, 2020

Pratt et al. (2020) rightly argue that, if community engagement aimed to develop solidarity between health researchers and the marginalized communities they work in, it can improve cooperation and even reduce the disparity in power between the two groups. Solidarity certainly plays that role within political communities, so it makes sense to think it can have similar benefits in other types of cooperation. However, it is also important to note the disanalogies between political and research cooperation. These differences point to ways in which solidarity can actually worsen the power disparity between researchers and marginalized communities. If community engagement is to aim at solidarity, we should take care to mitigate any of these perverse effects.

Gene Drives and the Malaria Eradication Agenda, ed. by Rebeca Carballar-Lejarazú, February 24, 2023

CRISPR “gene drives” are a promising and terrifying new technique in genetic modification. They allow scientists to modify the genes of organisms such that the modification is almost guaranteed to be passed on to the next generation, instead of the usual 50/50 chance. If an organism reproduces often enough, as mosquitoes do, then the modified organisms will make up a greater and greater share of the species until every wild type has been replaced with a modified organism. A gene drive can therefore change entire species with a single intervention.

The project to develop gene drives in mosquitoes is an effort to drive a particular modification through entire species of mosquitoes. The modification will make mosquitoes resistant to the malaria parasite, making them less likely to spread it to humans. If it works, this could solve the “last mile” problem of anti-malaria efforts and save millions of lives.

But, it could also worsen the health and environment of already vulnerable people. The risks of any new technology, especially a new genetic technology, are significant, and we can expect to see unintended consequences. The challenge for ethics, then, is to assess whether, given the risks, we should develop gene drive mosquitoes. And, if so, how we should design them, where we should release them, and who gets to make these decisions.  

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