Saturday, June 23, 2018

Soccer (and Play)

With the World Cup of soccer on, and me coaching boys U9/10 again this season, I thought I would write a brief post on the power of play. My next major book project is a book on the playful society as a "realistic utopia". And in addition to reading extensively on play, I have also immersed myself in different types of play over the last 4 years. Here I will just briefly mention soccer.

For 14 years I have coached young kids soccer. The age group (boys 9-10) that I am coaching this year is my favourite age to coach. The games have referees, we place 6 vs 6. And it is the first age where the kids in our league play with goalies.

I find it fascinating to observe how, when assigned to the goalie for the first time in their lives in a soccer game, the young boys respond. Most of them have only played offense or defense before, and the most basic rule of soccer is: DON'T USE YOUR HANDS!! It can take a few years before a young soccer player really internalizes this basic expectation with soccer. So when they first become the goalie, their training to internalize the rule "don't use your hands!" can be strained. Many of them find it difficult to make the transition to a goalie. Once in net they either simply don't use their hands, or if they do, it is with great hesitation and ambivalence.

After a bit of experience inhabiting the conflicting imperatives of "don't use your hands!" and "use your hands!", most boys come to realize that the imperatives of soccer are role-specific. With some experience, they eventually learn to effortlessly shift back and forth from the one imperative to the other. But initially this is very hard to do for most of them. What soccer teaches them, among many other things, is to inhabit the multitude of identities of a team player in soccer. When in offence you are a striker, with a chance to please the crowds and bend it like Beckham. When on defence you realize that this is basically the bread and butter of a team at this age. If you lack a solid defence you are done for. And when goalie you take on a radically different identity- having the ability to touch and grab the ball.

A physical form of play like soccer, which obviously develops many physical skills (e.g. endurance, strength, balance, etc.) also facilitates emotional and cognitive development. You learn to play as part of a team, you learn the virtue of having an effective division of labour, you learn to inhabit different roles/identities and rules within sport. Having the opportunity to observe and coach young children soccer for the past 14 years has been an invaluable experience for me.


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Freedom and Aging (New paper)

I am finishing up writing a brand new paper on freedom and aging. My central thesis is that senescence is one of the greatest threats to human freedom in the 21st century. I exam two conceptions of freedom- negative and positive liberty- and argue that my thesis can be substantiated by both accounts of freedom.

The negative conception of liberty equates freedom with the absence of interference. Coercive measures like limiting free speech or enforcing a “one-child” policy are obvious examples of a violation of negative liberty because both involve the imposition of external obstacles on our menu of options. This negative account of freedom can be contrasted with the “positive” conception of freedom which equates freedom with having the capacity to be self-determining. The positive conception of freedom is often invoked to help emancipate collective groups of people (e.g. low-paid workers). Marxists, for example, endorse this account of freedom in their attempts to reveal how a whole class of people (e.g. the proletariat- persons who must sell their labour power in order to survive) remain unfree despite the removal of many external obstacles (e.g. slavery, the monarchy, etc.).

I then exam what both accounts of liberty might say about the inborn aging process. For negative liberty, my critic might argue that I conflate liberty with capacity. And so I consider 3 points critics might raise against my thesis. These involve the following points:

(1) The paradigmatic threat to freedom is coercion.
(2) Threats to freedom must come from human-created limitations.
(3) The interference is a violation of freedom when it limits a moral right we have as humans.

After critically examining these three points I conclude that even proponents of negative liberty ought to agree that aging does limit our freedom (even if it is not coercion), that humans are (at least partly) responsible for this limitation, and that the interference does violate a moral right (to health) that we have as humans.

The positive conception of freedom more naturally presents advocates of geroscience with an account of freedom that can readily explain why tackling senescence itself, rather than just specific diseases of aging, would promote freedom for the world’s aging populations. And this is so because positive liberty emphasizes the importance of the internal factors necessary for living an autonomous life. That autonomy might be compromised, for example, when an individual has a drug addiction and thus lacks self-determination. Or collective autonomy might be compromised when a class of persons (e.g. proletariat) must sell their labour power doing work they find alienating or when citizens lack the ability to contribute to their own self-governance.

How might the story of the aging of humanity be integrated into this account of positive liberty? Perhaps the most natural way of doing so is to emphasize the connection between our physical and mental health and our autonomy. The latter means having the ability to act on one’s free will. And thus the positive conception of liberty, unlike the negative conception, equates freedom with possessing a capacity. The capacity to be self-determining.

When a person is younger, in the prime of health during their 20s for example, they will have many capacities that diminish later in life. Capacities such as running long distances without experiencing joint pain, playing contact sports without risking serious injury, and possessing a higher cognitive processing speed, better memory and attention that help aid with many cognitive tasks in life. Because senescence has detrimental effects on a person’s physical and mental health, it can be said to diminish a person’s ability to be self-determining. And this means that, according to the positive conception of freedom, aging reduces our freedom. Our menu of options are diminished as we acquire more and more physical and cognitive limitations.

I anticipate, and reply to, two objections to my argument at this stage. One line of criticism is the popular belief that exercise itself is sufficient for liberating humans from the limitations/harms of senescence. And a second objection might come from those who believe my argument promotes a negative stigma about aging- that getting older brings only negative things for society and older persons as individuals. Thus my suggestion that aging diminishes our freedom is, the critic might charge, “ageist”. To hear my reply to these two objections you will have to wait till the paper (hopefully!) finds it way into print in the coming months!


Monday, April 02, 2018

National Geographic has a very informative video up on the plague:


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Slowing Aging as Preventative Medicine

There is a great article out by Olshansky and Carnes on the importance of age retardation in the Autumn 2017 issue of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. Here is the abstract:

The survival of large segments of human populations to advanced ages is a crowning achievement of improvements in public health and medicine, but in the 21st century, our continued desire to extend life brings forth a unique dilemma. The risk of death from chronic fatal diseases has declined, but even if it continues to do so in the future, the resulting longevity benefits are likely to diminish. It is even possible that unhealthy life expectancy could rise in the future as major fatal diseases wane. The reason for this is that the longer we live, the greater the influence of biological aging on the expression of fatal and disabling diseases. Research in gerontology has already demonstrated that aging is inherently modifiable, and that a therapeutic intervention that slows aging in people is a plausible target for science and public health. Given the speed with which population aging is progressing and chronic fatal and disabling conditions are challenging health-care costs across the globe, the case is now being made that delayed aging could be one of the most efficient and promising ways to combat disease, extend healthy life, compress morbidity, and reduce health-care costs.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Moral Enhancement and Pre-Commitment Devices

In ULYSSES UNBOUND the social scientist Jon Elster recalls Homer's tale, in the Odyssey, of Ulysses binding himself to the mask of his ship so that he could not give in to the siren's song (which would have caused the ship to steer into rocks). By binding himself to the mask of the ship, Ulysses was employing what Elster calls a "pre-commitment" device. He explains such as device as follows:

“…to protect themselves against passion, preference change, and . . . time-inconsistency. They do so by removing certain options
from the feasible set, by making them more costly or available only with a delay, and by insulating themselves from knowledge about their existence.”

Other examples of pre-commitment devices are as follows:

(1) you have problems with impulsive spending, so you place your credit card in a bag of water and place it in the freezer, so no decision to use it can be made without waiting a few hours for it to thaw.

(2) you have a gambling addiction and self-identify yourself to the managers of all your local casinos, telling them not to let you in to the casino in the future.

(3) you consistently have bad luck in romantic relationships. The pattern seems to be relationships start quick and intense, but end shortly thereafter, often with drama and hurt feelings. To change this pattern you bind yourself to the rule- do not have sex with a person you are dating before you have build some potential friendship and some compatibility first.

(4) a country is a liberal democracy, that governs by majority rules but has a constitution that limits the will of the majority by ensuring certain rights and freedoms are off the political agenda.

The prospect of our being able, in the not too distant future, to morally "enhance" humans via genetic engineering or some other biomedical intervention raises the fascinating question of whether such interventions should be morally permissible, or even morally obligatory. The genes we are born with certainly play an important role in human behaviour, especially moral behaviour. I have linked a video here to the work of James Fallon which is worth watching and considering.

I think any potential biomedical moral enhancement should be thought of as a novel, potential pre-commitment device. If it could, safely and effectively, alter our potential for morally problematic behaviour (e.g. violence, manipulation, impulsivity, etc.) or morally desirable traits (e.g. empathy, rationality, etc.) I think there is a strong presumption in favour of considering such interventions as not only morally permissible, but perhaps even morally obligatory. At the moment we pursue moral enhancement via parenting, education in school, religion, etc. but do not aspire to directly modify the biology we have inherited from our evolutionary history. So we are using only a small set of the potential tools that may be available to us to improve our potential for virtue. Furthermore, fhe efficacy of some environmental moral enhancements can certainly questioned. AS we learn more about the role genes play in human behaviour I believe some fascinating questions will be posed about how we best move forward in terms of the available means of moral enhancement available to us.


Thursday, January 25, 2018

Philosophy for Children and Teens- Kingston

I am creating a new educational outreach initiative called "Philosophy for Children and Teens- Kingston".

Phase 1 of the program will involve me giving a 45 minute interactive class to children in grades 4-5 on what philosophy is, and why it is important to their lives and society.

Phase 2 will involve getting high school students involved, and hosting a "Day of Philosophy" at Queen's University for high school students in the area. Please help spread the word and encourage your schools to get involved!


Monday, January 22, 2018

Genethics and Ethics: Finished!

Tonight I finally finished all the revisions to my latest book Genetic Ethics: An Introduction.

Over my 18 year academic career I have never worked so intensely on just one project as I have in the last year on this book. I typically have 3-4 different things I work on simultaneously, but over the last 12 months I have worked solely on completing this book (with the exception of 1 invited chapter I wrote the draft of 2 months ago). While this new book is on the same topic as Biologically Modified Justice, I decided to address the ethical and social implications of the genetic revolution from a completely different moral lens than the one adopted in that earlier book. In many ways this introductory book profited immensely from the hard lessons I learned spending 16 years writing Biologically Modified Justice first. So starting this new book with a fresh normative lens, and aspiring to reach a broad audience of students in the humanities/social sciences and life and medical sciences, proved to be the catalyst I needed to generate more new ideas on the topic.

Here is the table of contents (book totals about 68,000 words):

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Eugenics: Inherently Immoral?
Chapter 2: The Genetic Revolution: A Snapshot
Chapter 3: Disease
Chapter 4: Epigenetics
Chapter 5: Reproductive Freedom
Chapter 6: Aging Research and Longevity
Chapter 7: Happiness, Memory and Behaviour

And here is a sample from the final few paragraphs in the Concluding chapter:

The biology of humans has a long and varied evolutionary history. A history shaped by the hazards of the external world, such as infectious disease, scarcity of food, intergroup conflict, etc. And humans have crafted various forms of social engineering to help redress or minimize some of these external risk factors. Public health and preventative medicine, democratic governance, market economies, these are all forms of social engineering that have shaped a culture that, indirectly, influenced the biology of humans. Technological innovations in food production, coupled with a global economy, mean that billions of (but not all) people in the world today have been emancipated from the daily hunger and risks of starvation which would have been typical for many humans living in earlier historical epochs. And yet, in developed countries, the abundance of relatively cheap high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages has increased the incidence of childhood obesity. Social engineering of any kind- whether it be to modify the technologies of food production, or political governance or expedite economic growth, is not necessarily all-good or even desirable. A virtuous polity must continuously modify, refine and improve the forms of social engineering it employs, to improve its knowledge and technology so that individuals and the polity itself can flourish, rather than flounder.

“Genetically engineering” humans, via gene therapy or genome editing or a drug that modulates aging by activating the “longevity genes”, is yet one further possible form of social engineering. The critic might ask why should we should seriously consider adding genetic intervention into the possible mix of technologies humans pursue. Our response can highlight the prevalence of genetic disorders, from early onset single gene conditions, to more common multi-factorial conditions. The genes we inherit influence not only our health, but also our intelligence, behavior (e.g. parent investment), happiness and how we age. The genetic revolution might permit humans to intentionally intervene in the genetic lottery of life in a way that improves our life prospects much further than what could be realized if we left our biology to the blind and arbitrary process of evolution by natural selection.

By reducing mortality from infectious diseases, and developing medical procedures and pharmaceuticals that permit us to manage multi-morbidity in late life, humans can now survive beyond the “biological warranty period” of seven decades. The aging of human populations is a very new and novel phenomenon and one that demonstrates how important the epistemic virtue of adaptability of intellect is if we hope to improve the health prospects of an aging world. New knowledge about our genes might prove to be foundational in developing the health innovations needed to realize greater equality, health and economic prosperity for all of the world’s diverse populations.

As with other intellectual projects I have completed, it is a somewhat bitter sweet feeling. Sweet to be able to feel the sense of accomplishment in completing something so ambitious and arduous. But at the same time, it is a bit bitter because it leaves a gaping whole in one's life when something that has consumed so much of one's time, thought and energy is finally completed. The next major project will get under serious way in the fall when I am on sabbatical. Until then, 3 classes to finish teaching this term, a book chapter to revise, and a presentation on play and happiness to prepare and present at Harvard in the spring term. So I am sure I will find ways to keep myself busy!

Fingers crossed that this book makes it out in print for the summer!