Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Teaching in Prison (Final Reflections)

Last week I finished volunteer teaching a 5 month Political Philosophy class to 8 inmates here at a prison in Kingston. I have to say it was without a doubt the most significant and rewarding teaching experience of my 16 year teaching career. And I have had many teaching highlight moments having taught in Canada, England, Scotland and the US.

Like most things in life, I find the most rewarding things are those you are not financially compensated for. So why teach in prison? Two reasons.

Firstly, it is extremely rewarding. The intrinsic benefits of engaging with students eager to hear about the canon of political thought, eager to share their personal experiences, eager to contemplate what a more desirable and fair society would entail, is deeply rewarding for someone who has chosen a career in higher education. My students were bright, perceptive, engaging and friendly. They each brought a depth of personal life experience to our debates I seldom witness in a university seminar. Debating the topics of what makes an action morally right or wrong, or when (if ever) one is morally justified in engaging in civil disobedience or why punish wrongdoers with interlocutors who have themselves admittedly committed severe wrongs and have been subjected to state-enforced punishment (e.g. decades of imprisonment) brings a richness and complexity to the discussion which I seldom find teaching in a university setting.

Secondly, there are also instrumental (societal) benefits. These inmates will, eventually, be released back into the general population. Exposure to, and engagement with, political philosophy can, I believe, make their lives richer so they might be better fathers, better husbands, and better citizens when released from prison than they would otherwise be without such intellectual engagement while behind bars.

Granted my course was only a very small exposure to the discipline for most of the men, but I hope to make the teaching of the course over the summer months a regular thing in the future. And I have ambitions to organize workshops, conferences, journal submissions and more courses in the future. Having had a taste of what teaching in prison has to offer, I am eager to make it a regular part of my life for many years to come.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Biologically Modified Justice (FINISHED!)

My book Biologically Modified Justice is now finished, and sent off to the publishers at Cambridge University Press. PHEW!

It took me over a decade and a half to write the darn thing. By far it will be the most significant book I write in my career, which is not to say it will necessarily be significant. But I obviously hope it is! By "significant" I mean I hope it will help foster interdisciplinary dialogue between those working in the humanities/social sciences and those working in the life sciences. I also hope it will help foster more rational and cogent deliberation and debate of how to regulate novel technologies like gene therapy and an aging intervention.

It is hard to comprehend the emotions of finally completing a project that I have been working on for 15.5 years! I suppose it might be similar to the feeling a parent must have when, after years of feeding, caring for and driving their child around daily they finally(!) send the child off to college only to realize how much they are going to miss them being so dependent on them. But of course college kids still depend on their parents! And likewise I know the work on this book will still come in with proofs, hopefully replies from critics, etc. So it's not "over" in many senses, but in the most important sense (as a live "work in progress" in my mind) it is now OVER!

I decided to start writing a book on the genetic revolution back in the spring of 2000 as the race to sequence the human genome was heating up and there were lots of emotive discussions in the media about the pros and cons of things like gene therapy and gene patents. At the time I thought I would complete the book by 2005 at the latest and that it would be an arm-chair philosophical reflection on the issues. But in the end I developed an empirically-informed, non-ideal moral analysis that (I hope!) seriously engages in the diverse scientific and societal concerns and issues that arise with new biotechnologies.

What am I up to next?- PLAY! (the study of play to be more precise!)

This is what I wrote on my FB page this morning:

Is the following reasoning sound?

After spending the last decade learning about aging- the biology of aging, interventions to retard aging and the ethical implications of life extension- I am very aware of the fact that I am more aged now than I was when I started seriously thinking about aging 10 years ago.

I am now devoting the next decade of my research to learning about play- the biology of play, the different types of social, imaginative and physical play and the societal implications of pursuing what I call the "Playful Dividend".

So does it stand to reason that I can expect to become much more playful over the next decade? :)


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Teaching Political Philosophy in Prison: Some Initial Reflections

For the past two months I have been (volunteer) teaching a bi-weekly Political Philosophy Discussion Group to inmates at a prison here in Kingston. So far we have covered Plato’s Republic, The Apology, Crito, civil disobedience, and Hobbes’s Leviathan (next up is Marx).

While it is not appropriate for me to comment on anything specific to the inmates or penal institution (which would violate confidentiality guidelines I am bound to), I can share a few pedagogical reflections on my experience to date which I hope might motivate other academics (and non-academics) to consider getting involved with their local prison.

Teaching to inmates is something I have been meaning to do for years. Now that I finally have started doing it I wish I did it years ago. While the class is not yet over (it runs for 4 months) I can say that the experience thus far has been among the most rewarding teaching experiences I have had in my 16-year career as a professor. And I say that as someone who has had the privilege to teach excellent students at 7 different universities in 4 different counties.

What makes it such an engaging teaching experience? Well, for me, the number one determinate of a rewarding teaching experience is this- does it facilitate my own intellectual growth and development? In other words, I think the best teaching moments are those that facilitate my own growth and development as a student (and yes the growth and development of my students matters immensely as well, that is a given! :) ).

I became a professor precisely because it was a career path that permitted to remain a student for life. And I think there is no greater calling, at least personally for me, than the path of perpetual learning (something I also try to pursue outside of my job, whether it be with parenting, companionship, friendship, volunteering, exercising, etc.).

Teaching to inmates facilitates my own growth and development in a variety of novel ways. Firstly, the demographics of the students in the class are very different from that in your typical university class. So the age, socio-economic background, etc. of the prison population is very different from what I am use to. This is not to suggest that the inmates I teach lack in education (formal or informal). On the contrary, some of them have university degrees, or are in the process of working towards a university degree. And they all have valuable life experiences relevant to the questions we ponder. Collectively I find them extremely intelligent and engaged in the topics in the course.

This group does have life experiences different than your typical 19 year-old university student, and as such it is very interesting to hear their reactions and thoughts on the topics I typically teach. For example, when I teach civil disobedience and political obligation to your typical 19 year-old at university this is typically a topic addressed in a purely academic or "arms-length" speculative fashion. Many of these university students haven’t yet even voted in an election, let alone seriously contemplated the conditions under which it may be ethical to violate a law. But when engaging these topics with students who (a) have actually broken the law; (b) who experience, daily, the personal costs of their illegal action and (c) might spend years in (relative) isolation contemplating the very philosophical questions you have posed then you get a wealth of different perspectives on such topics. As inmates open up about their own history and story a rich, nuanced understanding of the topics emerges that I think is difficult to replicate in your typical university seminar.

So to date this experience has been extremely positive for me (and the feedback they provide me suggests they enjoy it as well). I have learned a great deal so far and I look forward to the remaining weeks of the course.


Monday, March 30, 2015

“End of Teaching Term”

7 months ago 250 undergraduate students and I started an intellectual journey through the history of ideas, from Plato to Marx, in my Introduction to Political Theory evening course.

We transcended our time and location in search of knowledge and wisdom concerning how we ought to live, collectively together, as a society.

Our journey started with the Ancient Greeks- Is democracy simply “rule by the ignorant”, as Plato argued in The Republic? Is the “unexamined life not worth living”, as Socrates asserted when threatened with the death penalty for challenging the beliefs of his contemporaries? We also explored Hobbes’s state of nature, contemplated Rousseau’s diagnosis of inequality, debated Burke’s defence of tradition, considered Wollstonecraft’s argument for equality of the sexes, examined the pros and cons of utilitarianism and finished by pondering Marx’s critique of capitalism. Our collective goal was to engage in, and critically assess, the intellectual project of positing and refining a “science of politics”.

What is human nature? What constitutes the good life? What are the legitimate functions, and limitations, of state coercion? What is freedom and equality? These questions remain persistent, live questions for us today as we ponder the collective fate of humanity this century. By turning to the past we can understand where many of these ideas originated, how others attempted (either successfully or unsuccessfully) to meet the challenges of their times, and we can assess which aspects of their ideas should be rejected, refined or revived. The past contains a wealth of wisdom that we ignore at our folly.

Tonight the intellectual journey with my students came to an end, with our last lecture. I really love teaching this class. And I look forward to doing so again next year!

For the next few months I will be hunkering down to the solitary exercise of making the final revisions and edits to a book on justice and the genetic revolution, a project I must complete before teaching re-starts in September. Oscillating as I do between the concerns of the past and those of the future helps keep me as grounded as I could hope to be in the all too elusive "present"!


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Virtue Ethics and Democracy Paper

Tomorrow the Queen's Political Philosophy Group will be discussing my new paper titled "Virtue Ethics and the Democratic Life". The group is very good at highlighting the problems with an author's argument- bringing to the fore an author's hidden assumptions, misinterpretations, mistakes, etc. so it should be fun!

A draft version of the paper is available on my academia.edu page,


Monday, February 09, 2015

Getting to Age 100... How Healthy Are Centenarians in the Years Leading Up to that Milestone?

One of the central concerns people often express about longevity science is the worry that science might just extend the number of years we live in a frail, disabled state at the end of life. Our goal should be to "add life to years, rather than simply adding (unhealthy) years to a long life".

The good news is that an aging intervention would most likely address exactly that concern. The bad news is that the current approach of the biomedical sciences (what I call "negative biology"), by striving to tackle each specific disease of aging, is doing *precisely* what we all don't want- extending the amount of time we live managing multi-morbidity, with diminishing quality of life.

So this study appears to be more good news. It looks at how healthy people who make it to age 100 are. Not surprisingly there is variation. But "positive biology" encourages us to focus on the puzzle of explaining the most exemplary of those with exceptional health in late life (e.g. those individuals who escape/or delay the chronic diseases that ravage most people decades earlier). Here are the results of the study:

As they age to 100, centenarians are generally healthier than nonsurviving members of their cohort, and a number of individuals who become centenarians reach 100 with no self-reported diseases or functional impairments. About 23% of centenarians reached age 100 with no major chronic disease and approximately the same number had no disability (18%). Over half (55%) reached 100 without cognitive impairment. Disease and functioning trajectories of centenarians differ by sex, education, and marital status.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Biologically Modified Justice (now forthcoming...)

For the past 15 years I have been working on my book titled Biologically Modified Justice, which is an examination of some of the ethical and social implications of the genetic revolution.

I was thrilled to learn this week that Cambridge University Press has agreed to publish this book. This project has been a true (and lengthy!) labour of love. Now that I am in the final stretch of completing it I thought I would share some reflections on the challenges and joys of writing an interdisciplinary book over so many years.

The book develops a series of ideas, insights and arguments I have published over the past 13 years in diverse journals ranging from Bioethics and the British Medical Journal, to Biogerontology, Social Philosophy and Policy, Hypatia and the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. In addition to the external referees who evaluated the complete manuscript for CUP, various chapters of the book started as journal articles and thus were examined by (this is a rough total estimate) some 40-50 referees in philosophy, political science, medicine, geriatrics, genetics, biogerontology and evolutionary biology.

Receiving feedback from such a diverse range of experts proved to both enormously helpful as well as extremely daunting and challenging. By subjecting my work to review by scholars in different disciplines I have forced myself to transcend some of the limiting assumptions and myopic theoretical frameworks that arise from the inward disciplinary specialization typical of any one discipline (especially political philosophy). I did not want to write a book on the genetic revolution that would only appeal to, let alone be comprehended by, political philosophers (many of whom tend not to see the relevance or importance of the genetic revolution, or the biomedical sciences more generally). I wanted to write a book that would stimulate discussion and debate between scholars in many different disciplines so that we increase the probability that we will implement sensible and fair policies concerning the goal of directly modulating our biology via new genetic interventions.

The book brings together ideas I have published in these venues:

Empirical Ethics and the Duty to Extend the Biological Warranty Period
“Normative Theorizing about Genetics”
“Patriarchy and Historical Materialism”
Equality and the Duty to Retard Human Aging” .
Why Aging Research?”
Framing the Inborn Aging Process and Longevity Science” .
Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, Reproductive Freedom, and Deliberative Democracy
Towards a More Inclusive Vision of the Medical Sciences
Aging Research, Priorities and Aggregation
Genetic Justice Must Track Genetic Complexity
Has the Time Come to Take on Time Itself?”
Gene Patents and Justice
The Genetic Difference Principle
Genes and Social Justice: A Rawslian Reply to Moore"

A number of specific events proved to be important catalysts in determining the shape of the project. The first formative influence was I had the opportunity to co-teach a graduate level course at Manchester University in 2002 with an excellent colleague. This was a year after the draft sequences of the human genome were published in Nature and Science. It was the first time I taught the course, and we had students from diverse disciplines in the course- politics, philosophy, law and medicine. That experience convinced me there was a number of important issues worth thinking about more seriously, and that interdisciplinary dialogue and debate was absolutely crucial for tackling these issues. The issues were way too complex and challenging to approach with the armchair theorizing so prominent in analytic political philosophy.

A second event was my growing disillusionment with "ideal theory" in discussions of justice. I had completed this book on that topic a decade ago and its concerns informed the methodology I developed for this new book on the genetic revolution. I remember the merging of these two concerns (non-ideal theory and the biomedical sciences) became explicit in my mind after attending a talk by a philosopher on the topic of genetic enhancement. The author argued that genetic enhancements are morally permissible, assuming of course they were safe and equally accessible to all. During the question period I asked the author what their view was if the latter condition did not hold. Did they think genetic enhancements were morally permissible if they were not, at least initially, equally accessible to everyone in the world? I pointed out that such technologies would cost millions of dollars in research, and may or may not ever become a reality. Assuming they did become a reality they would be costly at first and thus not likely to be equally accessible to all. So I was curious if this philosopher still thought genetic enhancements were morally permissible in that scenario.

The response the speaker gave was that they were talking about what is permissible in ideal theory, so concerns about unequal access did not arise. This response let me bewildered and troubled. To me, the question of whether or not genetic enhancements were morally permissible was a live, pressing and interesting question precisely because concerns about safety, efficacy, and accessibility arise. Philosophers would not have to spend time thinking about the moral permissibility of such technologies if they were guaranteed to be safe, effective, cheap and available to all. What is controversial about such interventions? It would be like arguing that a free gym membership for all is morally permissible. The whole point of the intellectual exercise, for me, was to figure out what the proper attitude to take was in the non-ideal "here and now" context. Should we support or oppose the prospect of genetic enhancements? How much risk of harm is reasonable in this context? Should such technologies be privately or publicly funded, and why? But all of these important questions become null and void if one just declares they are a card-carrying member of the "ideal theory" club.

I could not help but feel that the type of response this philosopher made (and it is a very common attitude among political philosophers) was somewhat intellectually dishonest. Who, other than an analytic philosopher specializing in abstract, idealized accounts of distributive justice, would think invoking such fanciful and obviously false empirical assumptions could be a helpful part of the intellectual exercise and discussion? Instead of writing a book on ideal theory, that would be about ideal justice plus an "add genetics and stir" approach, I decided to undertake a much more burdensome but, I think, interesting project. I wanted to learn about the biological sciences, the role genes play in different diseases, the risks and costs associated with gene therapy, the evolutionary explanations of senescence and experiments on the biology of aging. Staying abreast of these scientific findings consumed most of my research for well over a decade. All the while I had no guarantee that a viable book could emerge from this effort. It was a very risky project. But one I felt compelled to undertake and could, professionally, afford to take as I continued to publish in more mainstream venues and topics in philosophy and political theory (so tenure and promotion were not put at risk).

In 2002 I was also fortunate to attend a Wellcome Trust weekend workshop on genetics, which involved getting a tour of the Sanger Institute where part of the human genome was sequenced. Participants in the workshop had the opportunity to extract the DNA from a strawberry and we also participated in group discussions related to the regulatory and ethical issues of genetic technologies. Engaging with scholars from different disciplines on these issues reinforced my conviction that interdisciplinary dialogue and outlook, rather than inward specialization (i.e. idealization and abstraction), was the way for me to move forward with this project.

I was very fortuitous to have the opportunity to spend my first sabbatical at Oxford University for the year 2006/07. I spent time with the theorists in the Centre for the Study of Social Justice and time among the philosophers working on topics in the biomedical sciences. It was a wonderful opportunity to develop new ideas, engage with very bright scholars in the field, and read and write. I also organized this conference on "Genetics and Justice". 7 years later, on my next sabbatical, I spent a term at UCLA where I taught a graduate version of my course on this topic to MA students in public policy. These diverse educative opportunities were crucial in helping to keep me motivated and focused on completing this book project.

Another important influence on this project was learning about, and engaging with, the scientific field of study on aging and longevity. In 2005/6 I was still primarily committed to writing a book on genetics and justice that was "intuition driven". This means the litmus test in terms of determining how defensible my normative prescriptions were were my own intuitions. When I first began to seriously consider life extending technologies I was unsure what my intuitions were. There seemed something inherently unfair about worrying about extending the human lifespan when so many people in the world died before reaching late life. So while I was not opposed to research on such technologies, and a potential aging intervention, I did not think it was a pressing concern. And certainly not a priority in terms of investing scarce public funding. But then I decided to seriously listen to the arguments of the biogerontologists who argued for greater public investment and support of their science. I was very impressed by what I heard and learned. I also began to learn about evolutionary medicine, and about global mortality and morbidity trends and then it all came together. While my initial intuitions did not tell me that slowing human aging was an important or viable aspiration for humanity, the rapid rise of chronic disease, the marginal health dividends of tackling specific diseases and the incredible advances being made with understanding how to modulate the aging process convinced that it was.

The final, and perhaps most important influence on my project was my laboratory-- the classroom. For more than a decade I taught undergraduate and graduate students a seminar on "Science and Justice" (which focuses on the genetic revolution). Over that time I estimate that approximately 150 students took my seminar at the University of Manchester, Waterloo University, Queen's University and UCLA. In these seminars I asked students what they thought about the issues, I presented different sides of the arguments, I presented my own positions and listened to, and engaged with, their objections. Year after year I became more convinced that political science students longed to engage in normative questions concerning the regulation of the biomedical sciences. And each year I found that existing normative frameworks were often ill-equipped to do justice to the complexity and nuances of the issues typically at stake in this domain. My students believed that science was vitally important to their future and they wanted to think cogently, imaginatively and rationally about the role science could play in helping to create a more humane and fair future. My teaching this class was an intricate part of my research for this book.

The “biologically modified” account of justice I develop is a theory of distributive justice that possesses three distinct characteristics:

(A) it brings insights from biology to the foreground of a normative analysis of the demands of justice. The fundamental orienting assumption of biologically modified justice’s is Dozhansky’s claim that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.

(B) it focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on the novel benefits and burdens which may arise out of the genetic revolution.

(C) a biologically modified theory of justice adopts a particular kind of methodology. Rather than advancing a normative analysis that privileges idealized assumptions or abstract theoretical experiments, biologically modified justice emphasizes the importance of adopting a pluralistic, “contextual” analysis of the issues and topics it addresses. Biologically modified justice advances an account of justice that is much more interdisciplinary than the kinds of theories of justice typically advanced in political theory/philosophy. The account of the duty to aid advanced in Part 1, for example, is predicated upon insights from demography and biogertonology. The account of “genetic justice” developed in Part 2 modifies the demands of Rawlsian justice by taking seriously insights from epidemiology and genetics. The framing of the benefits of life extension draws on insights from prospect theory. The analysis of the scope and limits of reproductive freedom advanced in Part 3 relies upon the commitments of “deliberative democracy”. And finally the analysis of the creation and evolution of patriarchy invokes the account of historical materialism advanced by Karl Marx as well as insights from evolutionary biology.

Rather than relying on one theoretical tradition or championing one or two particular normative principles, biologically modified justice advances a pluralistic, contextual analysis. As such, many of the conclusions I reach are very provisional, as they are open to revision in light of new empirical discoveries and moral insights. Below are the provisional conclusions I argue for in the book:

(1) There is a pressing moral imperative to extend the human “biology warranty period” by slowing the rate of molecular and cellular decline. The goal of extending lifespan by retarding the rate of biological aging is distinct from the goal of preventing avoidable mortality by tackling each specific disease of aging (e.g. cancer, heart disease, and stroke).

(2) Inequalities in our biological capacities (e.g. ability to repair DNA damage, regulation of cell division, antioxidant defence, immunity, etc.) to realise the natural primary goods are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest reasonable benefit of the least advantaged (what I call the “lax biological difference principle”).

(3) there is a conditional moral presumption in favour of gene patents that satisfy a stringent utility requirement.

(4) There is a strong presumption in favour of procreative liberty and thus parents should have the freedom to utilize PGD for both medical and non-medical purposes. This liberty is subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a fee and democratic society.

(5) The degree and form of patriarchy present in any particular society is determined by the productive forces it has had at its disposal. Technological, material and medical advances that ease the pressures on high fertility rates (such as the sanitation revolution, vaccinations, birth control, etc.) are the real driving force behind the positive modulations to patriarchy witnessed in the twentieth century.

I wrote this self-reflective blog post on finishing this book primarily for my own benefit (it's a kind of therapy for me! :)), and for the possible benefit of junior scholars who might be slugging away on writing a book and perhaps struggle with finding the motivation to complete it. Why write, and publish, a book? The absolute worst answer to this question is-- "because I need to to get tenure and/or promotion!". It may be true you need to write a book to achieve those things, but why write *this* book, the book you think or hope you are writing? You must go beyond purely careerist instrumental reasoning to stay motivated and engaged in creative, worthwhile scholarly research. Engage in self-reflection frequently, so the following questions are alive in your mind at all times- "what is the significance of this project?", "Why should I be the person to write this book?", "Who am I writing for?" etc. These types of questions should be consistently returned to over and over again. At least doing so has helped me keep my motivation and attention focused on the end-game of completing this book. Perhaps others respond to different incentives.

The book is approximately 115,000 words in length. And here is the table of contents:

Chapter 1: The Genetic Revolution

Part One: The Duty to Aid in an Aging World

Chapter 2: Empirical Ethics and Singer’s Principle of Preventing Bad Occurrences
Chapter 3: The Duty to Extend the Biological Warranty Period
Chapter 4: Equality and the Duty to Retard Human Aging
Chapter 5: Framing the Inborn Aging Process and Longevity Science

Part Two: Genetic Justice

Chapter 6: Science and Justice
Chapter 7: Genetic Justice and the Limitations of Formulating Distributive “Ideals”
Chapter 8: Normative Theorizing about Genetics: A Response to Loi

Part Three: Patents, Reproductive Freedom and Patriarchy

Chapter 9: Gene Patents and Justice
Chapter 10: PGD and Reproductive Freedom
Chapter 11: Historical Materialism and Patriarchy


Once I get the final edits of this book completed (which still constitute a lot of work) I already have a contract for a textbook on genetics and ethics with Polity Press that needs to be completed, and then I hope to undertake some substantive new research on the topics of play, virtue epistemology, non-ideal theory and punishment.