A significant obstacle to the realization of the free and equal status of all citizens within democratic societies is the inheritance of wealth — or more precisely, the intergenerational accumulation and transfer of wealth within families. The extreme wealth inequality caused by flows of inheritances can render a de jure democratic society a de facto aristocracy, wherein individuals’ life-prospects are determined largely by the economic class into which they are born. Because of this, liberal egalitarian justice demands limits on inheritances. John Rawls, for instance, recommends that intergenerational bequeathments and gifts be taxed, so that individuals can acquire only limited amounts of wealth through such processes over the courses of their lifetimes.
The Inheritance of Wealth: Justice, Equality, and the Right to Bequeath
Posted in Wealth
Alasia Nuti believes, however, that current approaches to the issue have serious defects, and she offers a new theory, which sees the past and the present linked inextricably by “historical structures.”
Nuti then applies her theory to the situation of women — much neglected by the literature on historical injustice. She reasonably claims that women are a paradigm example of the kind of social group to which her theory is meant to apply — members of which continue to be subjected to systematic wrongs, including serious violence, despite their societies’ endorsing formal equality. Nuti offers many sound observations about the position of women and sensitive suggestions about corrective policies. I refrain here from commenting further on applications of her theory to the case of women as I believe it most important in this brief review to focus on her general theory.
Injustice and the Reproduction of History: Structural Inequalities, Gender and Redress
For many of us working in bioethics, the most exciting movement in our field is what Alan Cribb calls the “social turn” in healthcare ethics. A touchstone for Cribb’s framework-building project in Health and the Good Society is the question: how do clinical ethics and public health ethics come together?
“Framework” can mean more than one thing. It can mean a code to apply, like a checklist, to determine the ethical acceptability of a proposed course of action. One familiar proposal in this area is that public health’s emphasis on the common good can correct the bioethicist’s emphasis on individual choice (see for instance (Kass 2001)). This would have us re-prioritize items on the checklist. “Framework” can also mean something more like a map of the terrain or an exploration of the conceptual space within which the questions at hand arise and may be treated: a disciplinary (re)configuration. Cribb is after the latter kind of “framework,” specifically with methodological intent. Bioethics has always brought together philosophers, lawyers, and doctors to contribute their distinct expertises; what Cribb advocates is an integration of this evolving project with the social sciences: history of medicine, social studies of technology, medical sociology and anthropology, not to mention political science and policy studies. These come to the bioethical enterprise not as “add-ons:” they bring deep engagement with, and contextualization and scrutiny of, the very terms in which the traditional partners in bioethics operate.
Health and the Good Society: Setting Healthcare Ethics in Social Context
Posted in Health
If we could assign a foil for this volume, it would be the view that takes emotions to be opposed to rationality, a view on which emotions are generally distracting, fact-twisting, misleading, and unreliable, hindering rather than furthering our epistemic goals. Most of the papers in this volume challenge this picture in one way or another. Together, they offer an alternative outlook on which emotions stand to play a multitude of key epistemic roles.
The volume covers many bases, with contributions from a wide range of perspectives, including situated, embodied, pragmatist, and literary perspectives. The volume arguably has something for everyone interested in the topic, though many readers will prefer to pick and choose among the contributions.
The Value of Emotions for Knowledge
Germany—even when contrasted with other European countries—has taken a very conservative attitude toward anything that smacks of eugenics (for clear historical reasons), and Habermas has been one of the most prominent voices reminding his countrymen that they cannot and dare not forget the errors of their past. In the three lectures compiled in this recent book he speaks out on some issues that are of great interest to contemporary bioethics, which he sees as related to the history of eugenics. Habermas questions the ethical justification for genetic interventions, embryo research and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD).
The Future of Human Nature
Those of us who live in liberal democracies do not tend to think of ourselves as connected to our fellow citizens by bonds of friendship. Most of us recognize special obligations towards our fellow citizens on account of our shared membership in a given society. We find it natural, for instance, that more of our tax dollars go to welfare programs within our own country than to overseas aid. But if pushed on why that is, we would be unlikely to invoke the notion of friendship. The concept of friendship seems to apply at a fundamentally different scale to the concept of citizenship: even in the era of Facebook, it still evokes relatively small-scale networks that tie individuals together on the basis of idiosyncratic affinities and histories. Aristotle, by contrast, gives a crucial place in his political theory to the notion of friendship between citizens. Was he simply using the word in a different way to us? Or might he, as Paul W. Ludwig suggests in the book, have something important to teach us?
Many of us have spent a considerable amount of 2020 working and teaching in a much more solitary environment than we’re used to. Rather than conversing with one another in person, we are instead spending hours and hours staring at one another arranged in little boxes on a computer screen, listening to disembodied voices through our hastily acquired headsets, and attempting to form some kind of meaningful human connection. Yet even in these strange and difficult days of the COVID-19 era, when so much of our interaction with other people is virtual, we still take it completely for granted that this virtual interaction puts us in contact with actual other people and, correspondingly, with actual other minds. Moreover, we generally take ourselves to know quite a bit about the other minds with which we’re interacting. We can typically tell when someone with whom we’re interacting is frustrated or furious, when they’re happy or when they’re hurting. As co-editor Matthew Parrott says in his introductory chapter, “We normally take ourselves to know what other people think, feel, or want, and we rely on this knowledge in our actions and interactions.” (p. 1) But even if it seems beyond reasonable doubt that we have knowledge of other minds, philosophers have traditionally taken this knowledge to be puzzling, i.e., puzzling in a way that sets it apart from other kinds of knowledge that we have. In this volume, the editors have assembled ten high quality and thought-provoking contributions that address the family of puzzles that underlie our knowledge of other minds.
Knowing Other Minds
Posted in mind
In this timely book, Toby Ord argues that there is a one in six chance that humanity will suffer an existential catastrophe within the next 100 years, and that minimizing this risk should be a major global priority. We live in an age of heightened existential risk, due to such powerful technologies as nuclear weapons, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence. Ord calls this age “the Precipice.” It is an unsustainable time: humanity cannot carry on playing Russian roulette. Unless we soon achieve a much higher level of existential safety, we will destroy ourselves.
The book offers an engaging and empirically-grounded synoptic view of humanity’s past, present, and future, and of the risks threatening to cause that future to be far worse than it could be. Do not be intimidated by the fact that the book is 480 pages long. The main text is only about 250 pages, and the rest is notes, references, and appendices. You can work through the main narrative quite quickly if you resist the urge to read the notes. Because it is so well written — and on such an important topic — I found the book hard to put down once I got going.
The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity
That equality is an essential part of justice – or even that justice just is some kind of equality – has been central to the way many people have thought about equality and justice at least since the American and French revolutions. The idea that all plausible theories of justice are on the same “egalitarian plateau”, or that equality is the “presumption” when it comes to justice, has been influential in English-language political philosophy for more than half a century. John Rawls is credited specifically with the conception of justice as fundamentally “distributive”. G.A. Cohen encapsulated that whole era of political philosophy when he said that distributive egalitarians take it “for granted that there is something which justice requires people to have equal amounts of…”