Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Play and Politics Paper


My paper "Play and Politics" has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Political Science Education. The abstract:

Political scientists have much to learn from the biology of play. The most important political activities of democracy, like discussion and debate, gathering new information, and even voting and elections, are perhaps best understood as forms of play. Play has both intrinsic attraction and a developmental function (i.e. it promotes skill acquisition). As such, democratic political activity can be conceived of as social and imaginative explorative play. This robust understanding of democracy and political behavior coheres with the American pragmatist John Dewey’s (1916) conception of democracy as a “mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience”. In this paper I detail how the “politics as play” analogy can help enhance the study and pedagogy of political science.

Getting this paper in print will be particularly satisfying for me as it pretty much embodies my "teaching philosophy". A sample:

The “politics as play” analogy is something that I have found, as an instructor, useful in helping me think about pedagogy in my own field of political theory. Conceived as a form of imaginative play, teaching politics well means expanding (not narrowing) the cognitive toolbox of my students. The readings, lecture material and forms of assessment I utilize in my courses are chosen because I believe they (a) can foster the intellectual virtues (e.g. adaptability of intellect, sensitivity to details, insight into problems, etc.), and (b) ensure there is a continuation of the desire to better understand the determinants of good governance and the good life. And I believe these can confer important, tangible societal benefits. A student that can transcend their geography or time, and contemplate, for example, the importance of sanitation for developing countries, or why Hobbes placed so much importance on the stability of the state during a period of civil war, can then better appreciate the complexities of their own situation and society. They might better understand the importance of global health priorities or how our moral and political sensibilities can be swayed by perceptions of risk and uncertainty.

A few years back I posted the video below, which was an early expression of the ideas I developed into this forthcoming paper.

video

Cheers,
Colin

Friday, October 26, 2012

JRSM Essay Published


My Essay titled "Why the NIH Should Create an Institute of Positive Biology" is now published in the October issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. The paper is available online for free here. A sample:

The IPB [Institute of Positive Biology] would be an interdisciplinary institute, bringing together researchers from the natural and social sciences. The central goal of the institute would be to translate basic scientific research on exemplar positive phenotypes into safe and effective clinical and environmental interventions that could promote human health and happiness. A strategic focus on exemplar positive phenotypes would bring to the fore not only research on exceptional longevity, but also play, resilience,happiness and high cognitive ability.

Celebrating and supporting scientific research into exemplar positive phenotypes, by designing and funding a specific institute dedicated to positive biology, would help legitimize many important areas of scientific research – from longevity science and positive psychology to research into high cognitive functioning and play. These fields
of research have tended to be viewed as, at best, ‘intellectual curiosities’ and, at worst, a waste of public funding. By creating the IPB, the NIH would be sending a clear message that the study of exemplar phenotypes is an intricate part of well-ordered science and medicine for the 21st century.

Cheers,
Colin

Monday, October 22, 2012

NatureNews on GE Food Animals


The latest issue of Nature has an interesting news item on how the politics of genetically engineered food animals is impeding the progress of this science. A sample:


Inquiries by Nature reveal that fewer than 0.1% of research grants from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have gone to work on GE food animals since 1999, in part because of a poor public image. In one case, James Murray, another geneticist at the University of California, Davis, was told in 2003 that the USDA had rejected his proposal to develop a goat that produces milk rich in human lysozymes — enzymes that fight diarrhoeal disease — because the agency felt that “the general public would not accept such animals”.

....Van Eenennaam once hoped to engineer a cow that produced milk rich in omega-3 fats, but the USDA rejected her proposals, and she ended the project because of a lack of funding. The agency now funds her work on conventional breeding techniques to create dairy cows without horns, sparing farmers the danger and expense of removing them. Van Eenennaam says that she might do better by disrupting the genes that lead to horns, but there is no money for that. “I’ve got plenty of funding now, but the project is completely inefficient compared to genetic engineering,” she says.


Cheers,
Colin

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Duty to Extend the “Biological Warranty Period” (Part 4)


For the past few months (see here, here and here) I've been reflecting on the link between the following moral principle (from Singer) and practical aspiration:
Duty to Aid: If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.

Practical Aspiration: decelerating the human rate of molecular and cellular decline (i.e. slowing the rate of biological aging).

The principle is of course Singer's famous moral principle invoked in 1972 to raise greater awareness about global poverty. So how can this principle be employed to get to the practical prescription I believe is imperative for addressing the health challenges of today's aging populations? To see the connection, a great deal of empirical and theoretical work must be done. In this post I will focus on the theoretical work that must be done.

I will focus on what I take the limitations of Singer's principle to be, limitations which make it unlikely that the principle will be of much help in tackling global poverty or any other issue that is more complex than the issue of saving a drowning child from a pond.

As originally stated, Singer's duty to aid only tracks two important variables:

(a) the magnitude of the harm in question (e.g. lack of food, shelter and medicine).

and
(b) the cost of intervening to prevent that harm.

So what is ignored? I believe there are (at least) two other important variables that must also be considered:

(c) the probability that intervening will result in the prevention of harm.

and
(d) the magnitude of the benefits of preventing the harm in question.


(a third variable is the probability that the harm of non-intervention will be realized, but I won't complicate matters further by addressing that point here)

These two further variables come into sharper focus when we attend to the realities of disadvantage, and combating disadvantage, in the real world.

As originally stated, Singer's duty to aid is an impotent moral principle for guiding moral action in the real world because it assumes that the relevant harms in question (i.e. suffering and death from poverty and lack of medicine) can be prevented with 100% certainty and it provides insufficient details concerning the relevant benefits (i.e. prevention of suffering and death from lack of food and/or medicine permanently?, for 2 days? for 20 years?). His famous example of a child drowning in a pond example clearly illustrates this. Let me expand upon that example.

Singer asks us to imagine you are walking by a pond and notice that a child is drowning in that pond. You could save the child's life if you jumped into the pond (thus making the modest sacrifice of getting your clothes wet). But notice that in this scenario there is a 100% certainty that intervention will result in success. Furthermore, because it is a child drowning, it is also the case that "preventing the child from drowning" will result in "adding 60-70 years of additional life". And these two factors thus make the intuitive force of the duty to aid the drowning child very stringent.

However, when Singer moves to the example of helping the poor in distant lands, he insists that the probability of preventing suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medicine is also a certainty with little regard for the magnitude of the benefits of intervention (beyond saying "it prevents suffering and death"). Here is a very telling passage which illustrates this first point:

From the moral point of view, the development of the world into a "global village" has made an important, though still unrecognized, difference to our moral situation. Expert observers and supervisors, sent out by famine relief organizations or permanently stationed in famine-prone areas, can direct our aid to a refugee in Bengal almost as effectively as we could get it to someone in our own block. There would seem, therefore, to be no possible justification for discriminating on geographical grounds. (232)


In the 40 years since Singer wrote that statement we now know that the story of humanitarian aid is, at best, a mixed story of both failures and successes. Effectively combating global poverty has proved to be much more challenging and complex than Singer presupposed in 1972 (see this article). The expert observers and famine relief organisations did not always pursue policies that helped (in the long term) the poor. Indeed, sometimes they made, despite good intentions, the situation even worse.

And this is related to the second issue Singer's principle and example obscure. By characterizing the goal of intervention as "preventing suffering and death" one presumes Singer means permanently preventing (i.e. eliminating) the suffering and death of lack of food, shelter and medicine. And thus his claim that it is just as easy to help a refugee in Bengal as it is a poor neighbour down the street is obviously false. Assuming the neighbour down the street lives in a society with access to clean drinking water, security (e.g. effective police force), a strong economy, etc. the odds that providing some food to them will, in the long run, prevent them suffering and dying from poverty are much higher than the odds facing the person who lives in a less developed country that is plagued by infectious disease, lacks basic sanitation, is prone to civil war and conflict, etc.

Singer deliberately limits his principle to refer only to "the prevention of harm", rather than suggest the duty requires us to benefit others (see p. 238). He wants to avoid suggesting that others are morally required to benefit others as that could would lead to a principle of max utility that would enslave everyone to work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Singer's principle only instructs us to prevent avoidable suffering and death, in a world devoid of those harms you are morally free to do as you wish. But by avoiding the proposed benefits of intervention Singer's principle becomes untenable for very few harms can be permanently eradicated, even in the richest of countries.

The point of giving to humanitarian aid is not just to "prevent suffering and death", more details must be given. What if, for example, the intervention only prevents suffering and death for 5 days? Or 5 weeks? Or just 5 months or 5 years? Shouldn't this matter to the stringency of the duty to aid? Singer's moral principle, as stated, obscures such considerations by defining the benefit of intervention in such vague terms.

How could we improve Singer's principle, so that it could function at the operational level of the real world where there are pervasive forms of suffering and death, where interventions can range from low probability to high probability of success, and the magnitude of the benefits of intervention can range from short-term (prevent suffering and death for a few weeks or months) to the long-term (prevent suffering and death for the foreseeable future).

To see the relevance of these issues consider again Singer's simple example of the drowning child. Rather than the simple case where the probability of saving the child is 100%, imagine a case where there is only a probability of success. So you are walking between 2 ponds, and each pond contains a drowning child. In one pond, the child has just fallen in and will drown in the next few minutes unless you (the only person around) save her. If you act quickly you can make it to her in time and save her life 100% guaranteed. In the other pond is a drowning boy who, you can infer, has been drowning for a few minutes already and has now stopped moving. If you act quickly you may be able to revive him before he dies. However, because he is unconscious already, there is only a 50% chance that you can save his life.

What do you do? Singer's original principle does not help us in this case because the principle only applies in the cases where the possibility of aiding is 100%. In the case I have now described, I suspect most people believe the duty to aid should be influenced by the probability of success. With the numbers presented in my case, most probably feel that we would be morally obligated to rescue the child with the 100% survival probability. This guarantees at least one child will live, and that is better, all else being equal, than doing an act with a 50/50 chance of saving 1 life.

If we alter that example slightly further now, so that there is only the 1 pond and the only child drowning is the child with a 50/50 of surviving, do we feel the duty to aid is significant enough to warrant the action of getting one's shoes and pants wet? Yes. Why? Because the probable prevention of suffering and death is something we are obligated to pursue when the sacrifice involves nothing of moral importance.

From these kinds of examples we can generate the following "rule of thumb": the greater the chances are that we can prevent serious harm, the more stringent the duty to aid is.

It is important that this point be made for those who wish to invoke a Singer-like argument to tackle poverty. Suppose a critic says that global poverty is just inevitable. Singer might respond, as he does, by saying "Poverty can be eliminated, and helping the poor in distant lands is just like helping the poor in one's own country". The critic might respond that this is a real stretch of the truth. Many of the poor living in distant lands face problems the poor in our own country do not face, such as infectious disease, lack of sanitation, the "resource curse", etc. So the critic is sceptical about the likelihood that any action they could undertake, either as an individual or collectively as whole society, will prevent poverty. As stated, Singer's principle assumes the chances of success must be 100%, but in the real world there are very few guarantees of anything. A principle that takes the probability of success seriously is more likely to lead to sage moral decision making.

Let us now imagine some scenarios that illustrate the importance of also considering the magnitude of the benefits of aiding others. Imagine there are two ponds, each with a drowning child. You only have time to save only one child. If you save the first child then it is reasonable to expect that they can live an additional 60+ years of life. But the child drowning in the other pond suffers a rare and incurable heart disorder they just contracted earlier that week. You recognize the child from a news story you watched that very morning. This disorder impairs the proper functioning of their heart, so each day there is a 50% chance the child will suffer a fatal heart attack and not live to see another day. If you save this child from drowning there is a 50% chance they will die tomorrow from the heart attack, a 50% chance they would die the following day if they survive, and so on until their luck runs out. So while you can prevent this child drowning and dying today, it is a certainty that they will suffer and die from another cause within the next days. Who do you save? Should the magnitude of the benefits factor into your deliberations? Are they morally relevant?

As stated, Singer's moral principle does not treat such considerations as morally relevant. All that matters is that you save a child from drowning. And when extended to the context of global poverty, all that matters is you prevent people suffering and dying from poverty. But in real life the magnitude of the benefits of interventions do matter. Consider the case of poverty. Suppose that, when Singer was writing in 1972, there existed two international aid agencies you could donate money to to aid the poor in other countries. The two agencies took different approaches to poverty. Agency A focused on shipping food and clothes to this poor country, so with you donation enough food could be shipped to feed 100 people for 6 months. Agency B takes a different approach. Instead of spending charitable donations on food they buy modern agriculture equipment, build wells and schools so that the poor can become self-sufficient and escape poverty. With your donation enough equipment and education could be provided to feed 100 people for the rest of their lives. Both agencies fulfill the criteria detailed in Singer's principle- they both prevent suffering and death. But the magnitude of the benefits are very different. Charity B eliminates poverty for 100 people, while agency A simply postpones the problems for a couple of months. You have to decide which agency to donate your money to. Should the magnitude of the benefits of aiding matter? Yes. How can the duty to aid be modified to track such a consideration?

Ok, so bringing all these points together, here is what I propose we do:

Singer's original duty to aid: If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.

To make this principle sensitive to the probability that intervention will be successful, we need to add the proviso : All else being equal, the greater the likelihood that we can prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, the greater the moral duty to do it.

And to make this principle sensitive to the magnitude of the benefits of intervention, we need to add: All else being equal, the greater the likelihood that we can prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, the greater the moral duty to do it. Furthermore, the greater the benefits of preventing something very bad from happening, the greater the moral duty to do it.

This principle can be a useful moral compass for tackling the dilemmas that arise in a world with limited resources and pervasive suffering, disease and death. More to follow on moving from this principle to tackling the rate of biological aging.

Cheers,
Colin

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Duty to Extend the “Biological Warranty Period” (Part 3)


As noted in some earlier posts (see Part 1 and Part 2), I am developing a new moral argument for retarding the rate of aging which utilizes Singer's influential argument for tackling poverty.

Recall the context for Singer's argument- Avoidable suffering and death are bad. There is a moral duty to provide food, shelter or medical care which can prevent suffering and death. And Singer invokes the following principle, which I shall refer to simply as DA (duty to aid):

If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.

[note: There is a stronger version of the principle, which stipulates "without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance..." but that does not concern me here, so I will refer simply to the weaker version of DA]

I believe Singer’s principle must be analyzed further, so that an ambiguity concerning how it is employed at the operational level can be rectified. This ambiguity stems from the fact that the applied examples Singer invokes, such as saving a drowning child and providing food and shelter for the poor, are both examples that involve protecting humans from extrinsic factors which cause suffering and premature death. But focusing only on extrinsic factors leads to a limited moral perspective, one where DA is conceived of as only aspiring to prevent the harms of extrinsic factors. But there are also intrinsic factors which cause (avoidable) disability, disease and death. And some of these intrinsic factors account for an increasing amount of the suffering and death in the world given the significant improvements that have been made with material prosperity, sanitation, etc. over the past century (and since Singer first wrote his paper in 1971). For this reason it is prudent to critically examine how DA ought to be addressed at the operational-level in an aging world.

Broadly speaking, there are three different causes of the kinds of harm (i.e. preventable suffering and death) DA seeks to mitigate. There are harms that arise from extrinsic factors, harms that arise from intrinsic factors, and harms that arise because of a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic factors.

Extrinsic factors are those typical of the world’s hostile environment. For example, infectious diseases like smallpox and malaria, natural disasters (e.g. hurricanes), violence and scarcity of resources. But there are also intrinsic factors, such as our biological design, which make our bodies and minds less resistant to various kinds of stress over time (this is called biological aging or senescence). Understanding the evolutionary and life history of our species is thus vital to appreciating the origins of these kinds of intrinsic harms.

Many instances of disease and death are a combination of both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Take, for example, poverty. It is easy to assume that all the causes of malnutrition stem from extrinsic factors, like lack of food. A person that does not have amble food will be malnourished, and thus vulnerable to disease and suffering and, eventually, death. But, strictly speaking, this explanation is only part of the story of our vulnerability to starvation. There are also intrinsic factors at play. Not every mammal will die if they go weeks, even months, without food. Bears, for example, can survive prolonged periods of time without food when they hibernate. So what determines the nourishment requirements humans need to stay healthy and alive? Why can’t humans be sustained by more infrequent access to food? The biology of homo sapiens in thus implicated, to some (non trivial) degree, in the story of our vulnerability to starvation in the world. If humans had the ability to slow down their metabolism, as animals that hibernate can, they could reduce the expenditure of energy when food is scarce. But humans do no have this biological capability. We have basic material needs that must be met frequently (i.e. almost daily). And these nutritional demands mean that we risk malnourishment, even starvation, when the supply of food is not steady. The metabolism we have today is a result of our species' evolutionary and life history.

The fact that humans have the biology we have means that we must consume a certain level of calories and nutrients consistently in order to survive. This intrinsic factor can result in death when food is in short supply. By the same token, if the reason food is in short supply stems from the fact that there was a drought, or misguided public policies were implemented to oversee the creation and distribution of food, then these extrinsic factors are also part of the explanation of the cause poverty and malnourishment.

While we can make a conceptual distinction between external and intrinsic factors, both factors are typically at play when describing the cause of disease and death. One might wonder why it is even worth bringing up the intrinsic factors at play in the story of human malnourishment. Am I suggesting we could re-design the human metabolism? No. But actually considering such a case could be instructive. So let us do that now.

To illustrate the significance of identifying the different causes of avoidable suffering and disease, when it comes to the operational level of DA, consider the following purely hypothetical and fanciful scenario. Suppose that, while Singer was writing in 1971, a new drug had just been developed that safely and effectively re-programmed the metabolism of the human body. By simply taking one (inexpensive) pill a day, the food and drink a person consumed would automatically be converted into the nutrients typical of a healthy, balanced diet regardless of the quantity and quality of provisions consumed. So consuming even just a few minimum grains of rice and some water could, when taken in conjunction with this metabolic drug, be equivalent to consuming the nourishment provided by eating a balanced diet composed of fruits and vegetables, meat and bread.

Furthermore, imagine also that the person taking this pill in conjunction with minimal amounts of food and water would not feel any hunger pains after taking this pill. So the psychological, as well as physiological effects, of eating a balanced and healthy diet would also be realized. Suppose this scientific discovery occurred on the eve of Singer completing his paper “Famine, Affluence and Morality". Would he have reason to edit and revise his paper before sending it off for publication? I think he would.

It would be odd to invoke DA and insist that those living in affluent countries donate money only to charities which would ship food half way across the world to impoverished nations if there was another, more efficient and effective, way to prevent the bad of poverty. DA does not prejudge what constitutes the most effective way to prevent the bad of avoidable suffering and death. It merely instructs us to prevent something bad from happening when we can prevent this bad, without sacrificing something of moral significance. Assuming the drug in question was truly safe and effective, the provision and distribution of such a pill could be a more effective way of combating the harms of poverty than trying to redress all the extrinsic factors at play with food provision (e.g. drought, floods, war, agricultural infrastructure, etc.). Such a pill would be viewed as "a medicine" which protects against malnourishment. And if we could prevent suffering and death by providing this pill to the world's poor then we ought to do so.

What this example suggests is that DA should be sensitive not only to the costs or burdens associated with fulfilling DA, but also to the probability that different kinds of interventions to prevent harm will be successful. When it comes to malnourishment we tend to think the provision of food is the central strategy for combating poverty because it redresses one extrinsic factor (namely, the shortage of food). But of course eliminating poverty is vastly more complex and challenging that making food available. 40 years after the publication of Singer's article millions of people still live in poverty, despite enormous humanitarian efforts to eradicate poverty. Could we do more? Yes. But poverty persists not only because of a lack of "political will", but also because of a lack of knowledge concerning the most effective ways of mitigating poverty in the long term. Our knowledge has improved since 1972, but there is still much work that needs to be done.

To bring the likelihood of success to the fore our of reflections at the operational level of DA, we can modify DA in the following manner:
DA: If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. The cause of this suffering and death could be extrinsic and/or intrinsic factors, but these causes themselves have no moral relevance to the stringency of the duty to aid. What is relevant, however, are the costs and likelihood of success in preventing suffering and death. When aspiring to implement the duty to aid consideration must be given to such empirical complexities.


What does this modified version of DA give us? I think its main benefit is that it compels us to consider the full range of ways we could prevent disease and death. More specifically, it opens the door to identifying the evolutionary causes of disease in late life as something that should be mitigated (and might possibly be mitigated by an "anti-aging" pill that mimics calorie restriction or activates the "longevity genes"). More on that later.

Cheers,
Colin

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Webpage Updates


Over one my other, and newly updated, website colinfarrelly.com I have added a bunch of new features, such as a page with my publications, a page with info on my teaching, a research statement page and a multimedia page that contains a number of videos I have posted on this blog over the past 4 years. The appeal of this new webpage is that the videos are in HD, so the quality is much crisper than the versions posted on here.

For fun, I ran the 5 videos (on aging, play, and patriarchy) on the multimedia page simultaneously and found that the clash of different sounds (music and my blathering) effectively captured the headache that is my intellectual life!

Those interested in this blog might also find the new updated webpage of interest. The other site is really just "window dressing" for finished items. This blog remains the central location for the real serious (and fun!) business (i.e. working out new ideas and insights).

Cheers,
Colin

Friday, October 12, 2012

Lessons from the Past: The Case of Smallpox


This morning I started reading this interesting book. I was motivated to read it because I believe that understanding the historical example of smallpox (the only disease we have eliminated) will be useful for understanding how we should tackle the diseases of aging in the 21st century.

I've finished the first 3 chapters of the book and want to make some notes here, and will simply update this post in the future for any future points.

Why focus on smallpox? Human populations have always faced significant risks of harm from infectious diseases. It is worth bearing in mind that for 99.9% of our species' existence, average life expectancy at birth did not surpass 30 years (source). Why? Death in early and mid-life was a regular part of life. And infectious diseases were a main (and remain so in developing countries) culprit. Small pox is a special case in this story for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the magnitude of the suffering and death caused by smallpox is beyond what the human mind could possibly comprehend. In the 20th century alone it is estimated that between 300-500 million people died from smallpox. So from the perspective of human suffering and death, smallpox warrants serious attention. Secondly, the World Health Organization declared smallpox was eradicated in 1980. This is an enormous success story worth understanding if we hope to be prepared for the health challenges of the 21st century.

OK, some points of note from the book:

Origins of smallpox: p.3, from the East, recorded in Arabia in 572 AD.

Symptoms of the disease: 1. shivers or convulsions, sharp pain, usually in lower back (lasts 1-2 days) [period of invasion]. 2. Red spots appear on body, become pimples and then blisters containing a pale yellow liquid [period of eruption]. 3. Blisters burst, releasing significant amounts of pus [suppuration], high fever returns.

Mortality caused by smallpox (p.6): 80% of people contracted the disease, mostly as children, and authors in 18th and 19th centuries estimate between 1-10 to 1-7 died from the disease.

What did people think caused the disease? many thought it was innate to humans (p. 4). Others thought it was an infection attributed to menstrual blood or something caused by the putrefaction of the umbilical cord(p. 5).

What did people think could cure it? A host of remedies were proposed at the time, such as special diets and enemas.

First real progress: from the East, came the advice that it was possible to inoculate smallpox in order to protect oneself against it (p. 7). It was realized that someone who developed smallpox and survived would be protected from the disease in the future. In the 18th century this process was called "insertion" as it involved inserting a thread that had been doused in the liquid from a blister into a cut in the healthy person.

The details of some of the early human experiments are both fascinating as well as disturbing. Prisoners from Newgate prison in London, who were destined to hang, were convinced to try the smallpox inoculation. Three men and three women agreed to this and the procedure was successful, after which they were released from prison. Inoculation became fashionable, but then faced setbacks as people inoculated against the disease died from the disease. And many of the unnecessary preparations undertaken at this time, such as strict diets, enemas and taking blood, made things much worse than they needed to be. Only the upper classes pursued inoculations at this time, who could afford to keep their children isolated from others for weeks on end.

Food for thought: I couldn't help but be struck by the important lessons the case of smallpox provides us as we struggle to combat the chronic diseases of late life.

Here are a few points to keep in mind:

1. The health risks associated with senescence are a relatively new problem for human populations, created by civilization's success in combating early and mid-life morbidity and mortality. Nonetheless, senescence is a biological puzzle that ought to be investigated with much vigor, and interventions sought which could slow down the rate of aging so that aging populations can remain healthy for a prolonged period of time.

2. The mortality caused by aging today is also staggering. Unprecedented numbers of people suffer cancer, heart disease, stroke, AD, etc. So retarding the rate of molecular and cellular decline is the health challenge of the 21st century.

3. Like smallpox, many falsely attributed aging to factors that were subsequently shown to be false. For example, many Christians just assume that aging is part of god's plan for humans and, by this logic, I presume other domesticated or protected species, like laboratory mice and rats, pet cats and dogs, and zoo animals, etc. Others believed there was an aging "gene" that programmed us for death, perhaps as part of a group selection design to limit the strains of overpopulation (here is a contemporary proponent of such a view). But biogerontology has demonstrated aging is a product of evolutionary neglect, and that the rate of aging is not immutable.

4. Like a potential aging intervention, small-pox faced tough ethical issues in terms of how one can justifiably experiment on humans to test the safety and efficacy of an intervention. Back in the 18th century there were not the ethical and bureaucratic regulations for clinic trials that there are today.

5. The timeline from Jenner's first experiments with a vaccine to the eradication of smallpox in 1980 is telling for a number reasons. More to follow on this as I get through the book.

6. There is a striking parallel between the plurality of proposed "cures" for smallpox and so-called anti-aging interventions pandered to the public by those looking to make a quick buck. So the fad of special diets and enemas are still with us. It is important to distinguish between those interventions that are demonstrated, empirically, to work and those that are presented as "alternative" medicine (read- not regulated for safety or efficacy).

6. The biggest and most important part of the story-- success against smallpox came when efforts focused on those cases where people were immune to the disease (i.e. those that had previously contracted the disease). This reinforces the point that positive biology ought to be part of our strategic plan to promote health this century. With aging, the real secret to unravel lies in understanding the biology of those with exceptional longevity (like supercentenarians age >110 years). If the thought of developing a drug that activates the longevity genes these people are born with sounds farfetched, just remember Jenner's accomplishment of eradicating smallpox by injecting children with cowpox, a mild viral infection of cows that protected against small pox. Health innovations are not always intuitive, but rather are made by innovative thinkers who are brave enough to try something new and think outside the box.

I expect to update this post as I get further into the book.

Cheers,
Colin

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Punishment and Incarceration (Part 3)


This post is Part 3 on some new ideas I am developing for a paper on punishment. Part 1 and Part 2 were posted earlier in the year.

Earlier this week I presented this new paper (which is still very much a work in progress) to the political philosophy reading group here at Queen's. So I owe a special thanks to the faculty and grad students in the group for raising a number of interesting criticisms and suggestions. Here I will detail some of the points raised, my thoughts about how to respond, etc. so that I can refer to them at a later stage when I re-work the paper.

I began the session by briefly summarizing my motivation for my writing the paper, and so I want to start by expanding further on some of those points here as they address methodological issues that arose in the discussion period.

Recall from my earlier post, that this paper was part of a workshop on the theme of virtue and law back in May. When I was first invited to participate in that event I thought it would be a good idea to commit myself to writing something on punishment. This is a topic I have not written on before, indeed I had not undertaken any serious research on these issues. As I began to think about the ideas for the paper I realized how immense the undertaking was. Why, I started to wonder, would I agree to write a paper on a topic like punishment, a topic that has become a real cottage industry of scholarship over the last 3 decades? What novel or useful insights could an outsider (or at least real newbie) possibly offer on an issue so exhaustively examined and debated?

But then I realized that, because I was an outsider to such debates, there might actually be useful thoughts I could offer on punishment. An outsider, unlike the insiders, is not bogged down in the intricacies of the nuanced debates. A fresh set of eyes on a debate can be useful if it draws attention to some important considerations that have been lost or bracketed by those focusing on points of greater detail. And in my own case, I truly had an open mind about the issue of punishment. I had no prior theoretical commitment (I'm not a closet Kantian or Hegelian, for example), indeed I didn't have (and in some respects still don't) established moral intuitions about why we should punish and the specific forms state enforced punishment should take. And thus I believe I am more cognizant of certain kinds of considerations than I would have been if I consciously set out to defend or critique a certain account of punishment (rather than my initial starting point, which was-- what do I think about punishment?).

So let me expand a bit further on this methodological point. One could be motivated to write on punishment because one has specific moral intuitions (e.g. wrong doers deserve to suffer in proportion to the severity of the wrong committed) about punishment, and thus one aspires to construct a theoretical/conceptual framework that vindicates those intuitions. Or, one might be motivated to write a paper on these topics because one disagrees with the particular interpretations that have been made of historical figures (e.g. Kant, Hegel or Bentham) who have written on punishment. But these kinds of considerations don't motivate me to want to reflect seriously on any subject matter. What did initially motivate me was the fact that I didn't have any settled ideas or thoughts about punishment, and I thought I should develop some (or at least come up with some good reasons why I had no settled ideas about punishment).

Thus my first question was: where do I start? And I think there were one of two options (which I believe are opposite ends of a "fact-sensitivity" spectrum). I could start at the level of high abstraction-- what are my intuitions about punishment? I did not think this was a prudent starting place. To opt for such an approach would be to risk pursuing a kind of "Nancy Grace" type gloss of the issues raised by criminal justice. Such an approach requires one to envision the most heinous crimes imaginable, and then ponder what the appropriate kind of punishment is for such crimes. I do not think this is a helpful or interesting starting place if we hope to develop some rational and coherent ideas on punishment. So intuitions and knee-jerk emotive responses are not, in my opinion, the proper starting point for a reflective deliberation of punishment.

So where to begin then? My approach was to start with some "on the ground" empirical gathering. Which forms of punishment do liberal democracies typically impose? So my focus turned naturally to incarceration, the primary form of state enforced punishment. And as I did so the United States became my focus as it has the largest prison population in the world. Thus the natural question to ask, in light of the fact that the prison population in America is approximately 2.2 million is - why incarcerate? How could we tell if the story of America's high incarceration rate was a story of success or a story of failure? I also became interested in the impact long-term incarceration has on both the happiness and welfare of inmates. The more I learned about these empirical considerations the more I realized that there are a host of important issues I felt I should work on.

After delving into some psychology (how humans can adapt to adversity, including life in prison), some history (why America "leveled down" with respect to the treatment of criminals while France and Germany "leveled up") I felt I was ready to start to connect some dots concerning the implications these considerations have for the justification of punishment. And then the focus turned to retributivism and the moral education account of punishment. And my argument, very briefly, is that the former helps perpetuate the inefficiencies (huge costs and higher rates of recidivism) as well as harshness (prolonged prison sentences that reduce health and life expectancy, social relationships and dignity of wrongdoers) of American-style criminal justice. And the moral education view of punishment could help steer America away from this grossly unjust approach by (a) depoliticizing the administration of justice and (b) placing a greater emphasis on the prevention of wrongdoing.

Now philosophers might object that the coherence and viability of an account of punishment was nothing whatsoever to do with such empirical factors. The fact that particular attempts to implement retributivist aspirations has problems doesn't mean the theory or account of punishment itself is problematic. This kind of response (which has been made in political philosophy concerning the issue of "ideal theory") has also struck me as puzzling, as if the primary objective of an account of punishment is to detail a purely conceptual account of punishment that coheres with our intuitions. But if you can't implement the theory in practice, the argument goes, that does not undermine the theory as an attractive or viable account of punishment. I have also found this an odd argument (I guess I'm more of an Aristotelian than a Platonist). I take it as self-evident that an account of punishment is inherently practical, We believe it is important to think reflectively and rationally about punishment not because it is an intrinsically interesting puzzle to ponder (which it is), but because it is pressing practical problem in need of solutions. The stakes are high, as the practices in question often involve the curtailment of liberty and can also impact the health, social relationships and dignity of inmates. A theory of punishment that is blind to the complexities involved at the operational level of the theory is, in my view, a severely impaired theory. I can't see what would motivate one to endorse or support such a theory if such considerations are deemed "irrelevant" or merely "asides". My basic point-- human psychology trumps legal theory. The only serious accounts of punishment the theorist should entertain are those that work within the confines of the parameters of human psychology. A theory that assumes that inmates will experience less day-to-day happiness the longer they are in prison contravenes the empirical findings and thus must be revised accordingly.

OK, so to some themes and issues that arose in the discussion period of the reading group.

One point raised concerned the relevance of the empirical findings that, over time, most inmates adapt to life behind bars and thus their levels of happiness actually increase the longer they are in prison. One potential retributive response might be that it is the curtailment of liberty, and only the curtailment of liberty, that is the relevant suffering. The fact that an inmates' happiness is increasing over time while imprisoned doesn't matter because what is good is that the wrongdoer has less liberty.

I suppose my response to this is that there must be an "interest-based" account of the value of liberty lurking behind any plausible defence of this line of retributivist argument. Why is it that the deprivation of liberty (or rather specific liberties, such as freedom of movement and association, etc.) is considered the relevant "suffering" here? I think there are two plausible responses- either we value our liberty because the exercise of liberty makes us happy (increases day-to-day experience of happiness) or the exercise of liberty promotes our welfare by some perfectionist account of well being. What I do not think is a viable move is to say that the deprivation of liberty itself constitutes suffering without saying more details about how this impacts our reported levels of happiness or objective standards of wellbeing (like life expectancy). And when it comes to these two things long-term incarceration has an impact of happiness and welfare that contravene what (at least humanitarian) retributivism prescribes.

Another point raised was the a question about the target of my critique. There are a cluster of retributive theories, am I seeking to refute them all or just some of them? My answer is "NO". I'm not, at least at this stage of things, taking on the ambitious project of refuting all conceivable retributist theories of punishment. What I do want to do is chip some dents in the retributive principle of proportionality by highlighting the fact that inmates often adapt to life in prison (in ways which protects their levels of happiness from humane retributive measures which seek to inflict suffering) AND the deprivation of liberty (at least as practices in American prisons) lowers the life expectancy of inmates, erodes social relationships and damages the dignity of inmates. This means the current state-of-affairs is this odd paradox, where inmates condemned to long-term prison sentences are better off in terms of happiness than what retributivism prescribes but at the same time are much worst-off, in terms of their welfare (e.g. health and social relationships) than what (humane) retributivism maintains. How to resolve this? I suggest we abandon retributivism, at least as a central component of an attractive and viable justification of punishment.

A further point raised concerned my suggestion that the moral education account of punishment is better equipped to tackle the prevention of wrong doing than retributivism. The suggestion was that an advocate of the latter might also be in favour of tackling the causes of wrongdoing, but that would just be a distinct issue from the issue of state punishment. This is certainly true, but I believe what makes the education account of punishment unique is that it does not treat the issue of prevention as a separate or "aside" concern. Because punishment is meant, primarily, to benefit the wrongdoer, according to the moral education view, this means one must understand the *context* within which the wrongdoing took place before determining how offenders could best redress the moral and or epistemic failings. My main point, the moral education view of punishment does not necessarily prioritize the very things that retributivism does- namely, the infliction of suffering on wrongdoing. Recall Hampton's definition of "punishment"- the general “disruption of the freedom to pursue the satisfaction of one's desires” (Hampton, p. 224). We should not automatically assume then that the focus of a theory of punishment ought to be on prisons and fines enforced by the state. Punishment also takes place within the family, and social mores can also function as punishment, etc. This broader lens is, I believe, a distinctive strength of the moral education account over retributivism and its primary concern for the infliction of suffering on wrongdoers.

Some resources others suggested I look up include: this scholar's work on psychopaths, and this paper on retribution.

Last thought I had for me to look up: how popular is retributivism among American law professors? Are there any surveys that compose such data? Check that out, could add some more interesting context to my argument.

Thanks again to the reading group for their helpful comments and suggestions. Plenty to mull over.

Cheers,
Colin