Feb 28, 2011

Embryonic stem cells without embryo destruction

The ethical debate concerning stem cell research tends to assume that harvesting human embryonic stem cells (HESCs) requires destroying embryos. But this assumption is mistaken. As early as 2006, scientists showed that a single-cell biopsy technique could be used to produce embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo itself. The technique was developed by Advanced Cell Technology, which has just been awarded a patent for its process.

The availability of non-destructive techniques for developing HESCs introduces some complexity into the ethical debate on stem cell research. For those who view the embryo as having some kind of moral status --whether personhood or something weaker--, this development opens up the possibility that embryonic stem cell research could be just as morally permissible as adult stem cell research. (Though the latter also presents ethical issues, as I've discussed previously.) However, non-destructive techniques may still present concerns for proponents of embryonic moral status. When the single-cell biopsy technique is performed, the embryo is at the 8-cell stage of development. Even though the embryo survives the biopsy, one might ask whether the embryo is harmed in some way by the procedure. If one sees the procedure as harmful, there will then be the further question of whether the harm is serious enough to constitute a compelling objection to using the procedure. This question, in turn, is complicated by the fact that embryonic stem cells may be therapeutically equivalent to adult stem cells.

A final question to consider is the extent to which the non-embryo destructive technique ACT has developed will be widely used by stem cell researchers now that it is covered under a patent.

Feb 19, 2011

Re-writing 20th Century Ethics

The ethics chapter in the Columbia Companion to Twentieth-Century Philosophies is one of the worst pieces on the history of philosophy I've ever read.

It is undoubtedly difficult to capture a century of ethical thought in a short chapter, but Jan Narveson has done an awful job. There is no mention of virtue ethics, only a brief mention of ethical naturalism. Only one female philosopher, Philippa Foot, is mentioned by name. One would have thought her teacher, Elizabeth Anscombe, would also merit inclusion.

The section on feminist ethical theory was written without reference to a single feminist author-- though Narveson sarcastically remarks that they're "almost always" women-- and is utterly disparaging. The complaint? That feminist ethics fails to abstract away from particular social roles and relationships, which is precisely a goal that many feminist philosophers reject! Besides that, it ignores the feminist critique that the "impartial" perspective has often historically been the male perspective.

Narveson assigns an important strand of 20th (and 21st!) century ethics zero philosophical value on wholly question-beggging grounds, though he fails to cite a single work on feminist ethics. Quite remarkable, really.

Feb 15, 2011

Are omnipotence and necessary existence compatible?

Now posted at Faith in Philosophy: Are omnipotence and necessary existence compatible? If not, there are interesting and (at least to me) novel arguments against theism. While the arguments are ultimately not successful, I think they highlight some interesting questions for theistic metaphysics.

Feb 14, 2011

A new blog devoted to philosophy of religion

Interested in the philosophy of religion? I've started a new blog, Faith in Philosophy, designed to present the state of the art in academic philosophy of religion. You can read my introduction to the blog for more information about what's coming. And, if you're interested in discussing any recent books or articles, send me an email at faithinphilosophy@gmail.com.

How slippery is the slope?

The slippery slope fallacy is rather slippery. We often make claims about a slippery slope, and also accuse others of making the fallacy of the slippery slope. Which is it, a legitimate argument, or a fallacy?

It depends. We should distinguish several kinds of slippery slope arguments, neither of which is necessarily fallacious.

Let's suppose we're discussing eating dessert before dinner. You are in favor, and I am opposed. There are three kinds of slippery slope arguments I might make.

Tendency arguments: X tends toward Y
(1) Eating dessert before dinner tends to lead to eating lots of sweets.
(2) One shouldn't eat lots of sweets.
(3) Therefore, one shouldn't eat dessert before dinner, since one shouldn't do what tends to lead to something else that one shouldn't do.
This is a pretty reasonable prudential argument. (1) may be disputed, but the most controversial bit is drawing the conclusion (3) from the premises (1) and (2).

Necessity arguments: X always results in Y
(1) Eating dessert before dinner always leads to eating lots of sweets.
(2) One shouldn't eat lots of sweets.
(3) Therefore, one shouldn't eat dessert before dinner, since one shouldn't do what always leads to something else that one shouldn't do.
This argument reverses the weaknesses of the first: (1) is implausible (though potentially true as an empirical matter), whereas the inference from the premises to the conclusion is more sound.

Parity arguments: X is on par with Y

(1) Eating dessert before dinner is on par with eating too many sweets. (That is, if it's acceptable to eat dessert before dinner, then it's also acceptable to eat lots sweets.) 
(2) It's not acceptable to eat lots of sweets.
(3) Therefore, it's not acceptable to eat dessert before dinner, since it's not acceptable to eat lots of sweet and that is on par with eating dessert before dinner.
As with the second argument, the action is all in the first premise. The claim that two action types are on par from the perspective of morality or prudence is a substantive claim, and will likely to be controversial.

These are three varieties of the slippery slope argument. Each variety has some sound instances, and some unsound instances: neither one is always fallacious.

Having diagnosed the structures of these arguments and their distinctive weaknesses, we can see that accusing an interlocutor of making a slippery slope argument is a rather delicate matter. The first thing to do is get clear about which form of the argument the opponent is making. It's very common to mistake Parity arguments for Tendency or Necessity arguments. In those cases, the person making the allegation of a slippery slope is himself committing the strawman fallacy, since those versions of the argument are often weaker. The second thing to do is to pinpoint the disputed premise. For example, one sometimes hears the following argument against abortion:

(1) Abortion is just like infanticide. (Or: If abortion is acceptable, then so is infanticide.)
(2) Infanticide is wrong.
(3) Therefore, abortion is wrong.

This is an example of a Parity argument. While some philosophers dispute (2), the allegation of a slippery slope here is about the first premise. Once we identify that premise as controversial, the real work starts. (1) is a substantive moral claim. To rebut it, one points to features that distinguish abortion from infanticide. Once we start down that road, we are able to have a much more productive discussion than if we had simply rejected the argument as committing a slippery slope fallacy. Whether it does so is a substantive question.

So, the slippery slope fallacy is a slippery beast, and is perhaps best not thought of as a fallacy at all.

Ethics 'round the web

This weekend featured some interesting discussions of ethics, in the New York Times and elsewhere.

First, there's a nice article about high school ethics bowls. For philosophers who advocate for pre-college philosophy curricula, it's good to hear that some high schools are getting students involved in debating ethical issues.

This piece provides a good overview of the bioethics debate concerning a recent study on the effectiveness of fetal surgery for spina bifida. In this case, as with many others, there's a tradeoff between developing an effective study for a novel surgical technique and providing the best possible care for the patients.

Tauriq Moosa engages Don Marquis's argument against human embryonic stem cell research. It's a good read for anyone interested in stem cell research ethics.

Finally, Public Discourse has published three interesting essays on the ethics of false assertions, inspired by some recent events involving Planned Parenthood. Christopher Tollefsen argues against false assertions in this case, Christopher Kaczor takes the opposite view, and Tollefsen responds.

Feel free to comment if you've recently read some other good ethics or philosophy pieces.

Feb 9, 2011

Haidt on bias in the academy

After mentioning Haidt's controversial talk yesterday, and reading some very negative responses on some other blogs, I sat down and read the transcript. Haidt's a good psychologist-- his work on social intuitionist models of moral judgment is interesting and important-- and it's worth reading what he has to say about the discipline.

Haidt's central claim is that since the 1960s social psychology has treated certain  values--values Haidt labels liberal-- as sacred. A sacred value, according to Phil Tetlock, is one that "a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance." When the community perceives a threat to a sacred value, it protects the value by rationalizing away apparent threats. For Haidt, social psychology's sacred values involve what he considers liberal commitments to certain position regarding race and gender. When these values were seen to be threatened-- by Larry Summers and Patrick Moynihan-- social psychology responded by treating them as out of bounds rather than by considering the hypotheses offered by the violators for their scientific merit. Haidt sees those episodes as evidence that the values in question are sacred.

He goes on to cite two further pieces of evidence. The first is the statistical rarity of conservatives within social psychology. He mentions several informal sampling techniques he's used, and estimates that conservatives are outnumbered two or three hundred to one. The final piece of evidence is anecdotal testimony from "closeted" conservatives in the field.

While Haidt think this evidence shows that social psychology treats certain liberal values as sacred, he also thinks it shows something stronger: that the community, united by those values, "actively discourages conservatives from entering." This isn't just discrimination, Haidt argues, but bad science. Just as the influx of female academics to social psychology fostered new and fruitful research, so too would an increase in political diversity yield scientific fruit.

Haidt closes with three suggestions for improving the political climate in psychology:
(1) "be careful about locker room talk"
(2) "expose yourself to other perspectives"
(3) "advocate for moral diversity"

What should we make of Haidt's argument? I think it's fair to say that the evidence for a comparative lack of conservatives in social psychology is pretty convincing. No one seriously doubts that Republicans are vastly outweighed by Democrats in academia and psychology in particular. (A recent study by Harvard's Neil Gross and George Mason's Solon Simmons found that only about 9% of American professors identify as conservative, and only 14% identify as Republican. In psychology, 77.8% identify as Democrats, 15.6% as Independent, and 6.7% as Republicans.) The real debate is over why the numbers are like that, and whether it's indicative of a problem.

The decision to pursue an academic career is obviously complex, so any number of factors will be in play in explaining the data. Surely, though, we need to consider the hypothesis that  "locker room talk" with any kind of political bias is potentially one cause among others. Is there hostility toward or open suspicion of certain political viewpoints in psychology departments, or philosophy departments for that matter? And, if so, does that climate make it less likely for students with conservative leanings to pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees in those fields? These are important empirical questions that merit careful consideration. Philosophers of all political stripes should care about not alienating students with reasonable political viewpoints, not just because it's the decent thing to do, but because it makes for a more successful discipline.

Feb 8, 2011

Gender, Politics, and the Academy

I want to highlight three interesting stories about gender, politics, and the academy.

First, as reported elsewhere, the percentage of Ph.D.'s in philosophy earned by women in 2009 was about 30%, on the low end for Ph.D. subjects in general. This is an important statistic to keep track of over time

Second, there's an important new study on the causes of male-female disparities in science. While the data in the paper are from the sciences, much of the discussion about what's to be done is applicable to philosophy as well.
Here's a blurb:

"Despite frequent assertions that women’s current underrepresentation in math-intensive fields is caused by sex discrimination by grant agencies, journal reviewers, and search committees, the evidence shows women fare as well as men in hiring, funding, and publishing (given comparable resources). That women tend to occupy positions offering fewer resources is not due to women being bypassed in interviewing and hiring or being denied grants and journal publications because of their sex. It is due primarily to factors surrounding family formation and childrearing, gendered expectations, lifestyle choices, and career preferences—some
originating before or during adolescence—and secondarily to sex differences at the extreme right tail of mathematics performance on tests used as gateways to graduate school admission. As noted, women in math-intensive fields are interviewed and hired slightly in excess of their representation among PhDs applying for tenure-track positions.
The primary factors in women’s underrepresentation are preferences and choices—both freely made and constrained..."

Since the cause of the gender disparity is apparently not sex discrimination at the level of hiring and publishing, the authors argue that preferential hiring for female academics is not an appropriate response to the gender gap. Instead, they suggest:
(i) Increasing outreach to young girls to encourage interest in math-heavy careers.
(ii) Reforming the traditional route to tenure-track academic positions to make it more accommodating for academics choosing to have families.
(iii) Providing additional resources and support to academics with families (child care, stopping the tenure clock to allow for time off to care for young children, etc.) My own institution, the University of California, has taken steps in this direction, and is cited in the article.

Anyone concerned about gender issues in the academy should read this article.

Third, and finally, the New York Times has an article about Jonathan Haidt's presentation at the conference for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Haidt raised the issue of the disparate representation of conservatives in the academy, particularly in such fields as social and political psychology. While this is an old issue, the article is worth a read.

Divine Command Ethics and Abhorrent Commands

A familiar worry for divine command theories of ethics is the following:
(1) Necessarily, if God commands an agent to perform an action, the action is obligatory.
(2) Possibly, God commands something abhorrent, e.g. that Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
(3) Possibly, it's obligatory to follow the abhorrent command, i.e. for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

(1) is a rough statement of a simple divine command theory. (2) is a plausible premise on certain interpretations of omnipotence, and depending on how the individual theist renders certain Biblical passages, (2) might be strengthened to (2'): God has commanded something abhorrent, such as for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This would license a stronger conclusion of (3'): It's in fact obligatory to follow the abhorrent command, such as for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

That's the worry in a nutshell. Once we put the worry in this form, we see that there are three ways for the divine command theorist (which, I should note, I am not) to respond.

One option is to reject (1). Only commands from a loving God will be suitable candidates for making actions obligatory. Thus suggests Robert Adams.

A second option is to reject (2). Whatever we know about God, we might think, we know he wouldn't command human sacrifice. So says Kant, in The Conflict of the Faculties. The reason we know that God wouldn't command such things, presumably, has something to do with God's nature: it would be inconsistent with his goodness to do so. (I should note that there's a healthy debate among Biblical scholars and Jewish and Christian philosophers about whether God did in fact command some of the things that he would seem to have commanded in the Bible. See here, for example.)

A third response, of course, is bullet-biting: accept the implication that if God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, then it's permissible for Abraham to do so. This strikes most of us, I think, as somewhere between implausible and downright horrific. I think this is by far the least popular response among divine command theorists. Perhaps something can be said for this response, however, though I do not think it is enough to make this option favorable to those inclined to a divine command theory.

The quick response that I've described- and that certainly resonates with me- derives some of its force, I believe, from a poorly described counterfactual. What do we know about a world in which God (while still benevolent) commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? I confess I have little idea what such a world look like. It seems to me quite possible that it would be very different from the actual world, in ways that it is difficult to anticipate. It might be, for example, that the facts of human psychology, and indeed human nature itself, are radically different. (If you think human nature is entirely essential properties, then we'd have to put the point a bit differently.) Or perhaps that world has a different metaphysics of death, or a different phenomenology of suffering. At the least, I would think that we would find such a world quite unfamiliar. Our quick reaction against the bullet-biting response may be unduly influenced by thinking that a world in which God commands  Abraham to sacrifice Isaac only differs from the actual world in the content of its divine commands. When we admit the possibility that that world is dramatically different from ours, the judgment becomes more delicate, and the bullet-biting response to the abhorrent command objection more plausible. In the end, I do not think this response is sufficient. Some evils are such that in any possible world-- no matter how much we vary the facts of human psychology and other parameters--a just and loving God could not command them.

Feb 4, 2011

Update on embryonic vs. adult stem cells

Scientists comparing the safety and pluripotency of adult and embryonic stem cells now have a sophisticated  new tool at their disposal, according to an article published today in Cell. They've developed an assay that permits a comparatively fast and accurate determination of how the stem cells will behave over time. As I reported in my last post, the debate over the efficacy and safety of adult and embryonic stem cells continues, and this is an important new tool in stem cell scientists' tool kit. As always, ethicists should follow these developments closely.

For an overview of the article, see here.

Feb 2, 2011

Improved Technique for Producing Adult Stem Cells

As I wrote about on this blog here, and at greater length for the Public Discourse, stem cell scientists continue to develop faster and safer techniques for developing induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) from adult tissue. Last fall, a team at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute pioneered a method that used mRNA to produce iPS cells from skin cells, an important improvement over techniques that used viruses and created an elevated risk of cancer for patients receiving stem cell treatment.

In January, a paper published in the journal Cell Research demonstrates an improvement over the mRNA technique. [1] Rather than mRNA being used to produce iPS cells from skin cells, a fragment of DNA is used to produce iPS cells from blood cells. Since blood cells culture faster, the cells can be converted more quickly once they are harvested. Besides being more efficient, the technique may lower the cancer risk to patients receiving stem cell therapy, since the DNA needed for the transformation does not become a permanent part of the cells' genome.

There is an ongoing debate among stem cell scientists about whether iPS cells are just as good as embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes. Are they, for example, as safe and as pluripotent? An article published online in Nature today provides a nice overview of the state of the question. Both kinds of stem cells, it seems, have their limitations, and it is not yet clear whether either one is superior for therapeutic use.

These are important issue for ethicists and policymakers to keep tabs on. Unsettled ethical and legal issues with adult stem cell research will become more pressing as the science advances.

[1] "Efficient human iPS cell derivation by a non-integrating plasmid from blood cells with unique epigenetic and gene expression signatures." Cell Research.