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!


Sunday, January 21, 2018

Chipping Away at the Bibliography for Genetic Ethics...

I am in the final completion stage of Genetic Ethics, which should be off to the production team later this week. The last looming task is compiling the bibliography. It has proven to be a very laborious task to try to complete during a busy teaching term with 3 courses.

My rough count of the sources listed in the bibliography is approximately 230 articles and books that I have utilized. Reading over the list of sources I have relied upon it made me appreciate how much work I have undertaken on this topic over the past 18 years. And while compiling a bibliography is not a particularly rewarding task, it has provided me with deep gratitude and a sense of accomplishment.

Paradoxically many academics do not place much importance on writing a textbook designed for the students they teach, and even less value on something that is interdisciplinary. Looking over the diverse sources I have engaged in while writing this book has reminded how enriching the experience has been. In addition to engaging with the standard philosophical literature on bioethics and genetics, I draw upon the feminist literature on reproductive freedom and patriarchy, insights from epidemoliogy and evolutionary biology on the causation of disease, demography and population aging, and findings on epigenetics. I have also learned new things about the role of genes in intelligence, behaviour (such as addiction, investment in parental care, empathy, etc.), happiness and memory. And of course I had to stay abreast of, and think of some new ideas for, addressing findings about the biology of aging and extending the human lifespan.

I am very proud of the final, finished product. I just need to get this formatting of the bibliography finished so I can enjoy some much needed R&R!


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Caloric Restriction: Special Journal Issue

The January 2018 issue of THE JOURNAL OF GERONTOLOGY: BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES is a special issue dedicated to CR. A sample from the editorial for the issue:

The principle of GeroScience is that aging itself is a worthy target for intervention: if aging can be offset then age-related vulnerability to diseases and disorders such as cancer, heart disease, frailty, and neurodegeneration, would be postponed and attenuated (6). If we could understand how CR exerts its effects to prolong health and delay mortality we will surely be able to identify key regulatory nodes involved in countering the causative factors in aging that lead to morbidity and mortality. In this special issue, we have collected a series of primary papers and reviews showcasing the breadth of CR research, including studies from the simple unicellular yeast to humans. Each model brings its own strengths and together CR studies continue to provide unique insights into aging biology.


Friday, December 22, 2017

Year in Review (2017)

Another busy year comes to an end! So it is fitting to summarize some of the highlights of the year for me.

This past year was a very busy year for me teaching-wise. It was the most courses, and students, I have taught in my 18 year career! Most academics tend to wind-down their teaching as their career progresses, but I seem to be going in the opposite direction. And this has been a positive development for me, as teaching remains a major catalyst for my research and passion of mine. In addition to increasing my year-long Plato to Marx course from 250 students to 275 students, and teaching an overload course in my department again this year, I also taught a summer MPA course in the School of Public Policy at Queen's.

Research-wise I am, as a write this, putting the final edits on this Genetic Ethics book which I expect to be out by the summer. It was actually a very grueling summer for me, with teaching, finishing the draft of this new book, and undergoing surgery shoulder on my dominant arm no-less!. Somehow I forget to schedule myself any summer vacation. But the promise of a sabbatical term next fall, dedicated solely to writing and regaining some life-balance, gives me something to work towards.

My contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Virtue will be available in about 2 weeks time. And I am writing a new paper on Rawls and ideal theory for an edited volume on the work of John Rawls.

In the coming year I hope to be able to make serious headway on a new book on play- integrating insights from evolutionary biology, psychology and philosophy. I also have plans to write more on genetics and aging, topics I find I cannot stop contemplating.

As part of my ongoing research on play I actually played a season of archery tag this past fall. A really fun, fast-paced, and (I found out half-way through the season!) a somewhat painful game. I also retired, after a 13 year-stint, coaching kids soccer as my youngest son decided to hang up the cleats for good. But I have been able to foster new play interests with him and his friends, including being the Dungeon Master for some homemade D & D campaigns we have enjoyed over the past few months. And my kids are constantly exposing me to new ideas as they navigate various games and apps.

Blogging has been light as teaching, research and parenting continue to take up more of my time. But I still aspire to return to this space to think through ideas when time, and my interest, permit. I have made a conscious effort to devote more time to activities like this blog.

All the best for New Year!


Monday, November 06, 2017

Play in Ancient Greece Interview

The latest issue of The American Journal of Play has an interesting interview with Simon Goldhill, Professor of Greek at the University of Cambridge. Here is a sample:

Did ancient authors regard play as a serious subject for reflection? Did they
celebrate play’s benefits or warn about its dangers?

Goldhill: The ancients discussed play extensively, talking about how to behave at a symposium, what theater meant, or what the role of nonwork—leisure—was in society. They discussed it philosophically, in comedy, and in casual remarks. A host of moralists considered the danger and necessity of humor, for example, and what constituted acceptable playfulness in social discourse. And their discussions were picked up by hundreds of later writers. Aristotle’s definition of wit as “civilized outrageous violence” has been hugely influential. The language in which play was debated, and especially the nature of humor, was set by Greek philosophy, just as the first extended discussion of the value and purpose of social life in the city was by Plato.