The importance of Disambiguating Questions about Consent and Refusal

Imagine you have an adolescent patient who is in need of life saving treatment. You offer him the treatment, assuming that he would consent, but he refuses. As he is not yet a competent adult, you decide to treat him despite the fact that he wishes to refuse treatment.

Now consider the question: does it make sense to say that there is an asymmetry between consent and refusal?

If you are familiar with the term “asymmetry between consent and refusal”, the chances are that you will believe that you know what the question means and you are likely to have an opinion regarding the answer. And if you are like John Harris, you may also think that the answer is obvious and that any other answer would be “palpable nonsense”. However, if you are not familiar with the term or with the relevant literature, you may be far less confident that you even understand the question.

Despite their lack of familiarity with the question, I believe the latter group may have a better understanding of the issue than the first group. Why? Because these people are wondering, “What does this question mean?” My claim is that we would make more progress if more people took the time to ask this question. The phrase “the asymmetry between consent and refusal” allows us to capture the topic of a particular debate in a fairly succinct way, but I suggest that it obscures the ethical issues, rather than illuminating them.

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Moral Failure and Trade

On 24 April, 2013, over 1,100 people died after the structural collapse of an 8-story building, mostly made up of garment factories, in Bangladesh. Afterwards, there was a lot of condemnation of the working conditions in this factory; many criticised not just the low wages being paid (approx. €38 a month), but also the complicity of the West in buying the products produced within such substandard conditions. We’ll come back to that.

But first, let’s turn to another story about modern day Bangladesh, one of huge growth and development. It’s GDP has gone from 31 billion in 1992 to 195 billion in 2016. In the same timeframe, life expectancy has gone from 59 years old to over 70. While it is still an incredibly poor country, with a large number of people living below the $1.90 poverty line, this figure has fallen from 44% of the population in 1991 to less than 20% in 2010 (based on 2011 Purchasing Power Parity).

So, story 1: bad. Story 2: good. The problem with this simple classification is that the two stories are intimately linked, and story 2 may not have been possible without the conditions which led story 1 to occur.

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Social Media and the Fitness to Practice

A recent case[i] to come before the General Dental Council (GDC) involved a dental nurse in Northern Ireland who had made a sectarian and strongly offensive comment on social media.  She admitted guilt under the terms of the GDC’s code of conduct regarding use of social media, and was reprimanded on the grounds of her fitness to practice being impaired.

A person who breaks the rules of a professional organisation should be disciplined, or the rules are of little value.  However, in this case one pertinent question is surely whether a comment made on social media, however inflammatory, impairs a person’s fitness to practice?

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A Day Off For Democracy?

In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, The Independent newspaper ran a story with the following headline: “EU referendum: British public wrong about nearly everything, study shows”.[1] In the weeks that followed, many lamented the alleged ignorance of large swathes of the British population, and similar concerns have been raised about the American electorate in advance of their upcoming presidential election.

James Madison, one of the American ‘Founding Fathers’ warned that “a popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both”. Assuming for the sake of argument that there is widespread misunderstanding of political, economic, and social reality, how much of a problem is it, and what should we do about it?

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New Videos on Climate Change

From 2014-2015 I had a project on the ethics of climate change, which included a large number of events, which were recorded.
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With the exception of the main conference, and the workshop on rationing, all the events were actually designed with videos in mind, such that the events were designed with the intention of making videos that people would watch after the event, with the aim of reaching a much larger audience than could be reached in the event itself.

Instead of going with the usual academic format of a presentation of 25 minutes or more followed by Q&A, these events had a number of short presentations (often between 5 and 10 minutes) followed by a panel-based Q&A (kind of Question Time style, for those of you based in the UK.)

These videos  – featuring a number of leading academics from a range of different disciplines – have now been uploaded, and are now available to anyone who is interested.

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The New Deepwater Horizon Film

Last week, I went to see the new Deepwater Horizon film, without really knowing what to expect.

Ultimately, I was pretty impressed with the film, even if it is not perfect. Below I will offer a few thoughts about some of the ethical issues highlighted by the film.

First though, we might worry that the film will be inaccurate or hugely simplified, in which case we might wonder if there is really any value about reflecting on the ethical issues raised by the film, if the film has nothing in common with reality.

The following articles discuss the extent to which the movie is accurate.

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‘Professionalisation’ of the banking ‘profession’

Yesterday our report on professionalism in UK banking was published.  The report is the culmination of a research project commissioned by the Banking Standards Board which took around six months to complete.

In the course of the research, and particularly the 54 interviews which we carried out with a range of banks, building societies, banking and non-banking professional bodies and other financial stakeholders, we had the opportunity to take a close look at an industry at a critical stage of its history.  The banking sector in the UK is in the process of trying to answer some difficult questions, and our research plays a small part in that wider process.

The particular questions which the research addresses are about professions and professionalisation.  These distinct but closely related terms are at the heart of a particular approach to raising standards whose potential in the banking sector we were trying to assess.  These issues are at the heart of much of our other research, our teaching, and our consultancy activities.   We were therefore able to bring to the research many of the ideas developed through our other work , and in turn the research has influenced our broader thinking on these issues. Continue reading ‘Professionalisation’ of the banking ‘profession’

The Foundation Forum: The Pavement of Good Intentions

On 8th September The Foundation held a forum in London on “The pavement of good intentions – how do we rebuild trust to get beyond the scandals and lies?”. The evening’s talks and discussion were structured around a central moral problem: why is it that too often good people end up doing bad things in public life? And how does this affect the trust that the public can have in these people? The speakers introduced examples of situations in which well-intentioned groups or individuals were entangled in dilemmas, public scandals, and lies. These examples were then used in order to identify some of the key factors that lead to morally questionable action and a loss of trust, as well as to suggest ideas on what it would take to avoid these problems arising again in the future. The broad consensus was that the key factor in “good people somehow breaking bad” in public life and the resulting lack of trust were of a structural and sometimes cultural nature, and that it would take a careful reform in both areas to minimise future incidences.

UPDATE: The official event write-up can be found here.

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Transitional Justice and Freedom: the case of Manbij

I recently read an article about how the town of Manbij in Syria had been freed from the oppressive rule of ISIS. The article contained a number of pictures of residents with beaming faces, they bore looks of relief, happiness and hope. Men were having their beards cut, after the 2 year ban on beard cutting imposed by the Islamic regime had been repealed. Women in Hijabs were smoking cigarettes openly and defiantly in the streets, others walked happily carrying their babies in their arms. Wide-eyed children cheerfully looked on at their elders. The pictures told of a mood of happiness, as though a huge weight had been lifted. And it was happiness at their new found sense of freedom – at enjoying a level of liberty that had previously been denied them under the oppressive regime.

The value of removing forces of oppression (be this in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Burundi or any other state riven apart by conflict, political fragility and illegitimate rule) lies for the most part in the value of increasing and protecting individual freedom. Continue reading Transitional Justice and Freedom: the case of Manbij

Workshop: Free Speech and the Requirements of Democracy

This event will be held at the Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied (IDEA) Centre, University of Leeds on 24th-25th August.

How we understand, protect, and discharge our rights and responsibilities as citizens is intimately connected to the standards and behaviour of our media in general, and our news media in particular. However, the media do not just stand between the citizenry and their leaders, or indeed between citizens and each other. The media is often the site where individuals attempt to realise some of the most fundamental democratic liberties, such as the right to free speech. Philosophers have been slow to recognise the unique institutional significance of the media in liberal democratic societies and to address the question of what duties should be assigned to individual citizens who engage, for a variety of reasons, in this kind of mass public communication.

In our workshop we will explore the conflict between the rights that people attempt to exercise in, and through, the media and the responsibilities that fall out of the awesome power of the modern media and the special role that it performs in a society committed to the principle of political equality.
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