Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Framing One's Worldview

I posted this on my FB and any academics currently not FB friends that wish to send along their answers can email me. thanks

Non-scientific poll for philosophers and theorists who teach on topics like global justice, equality, democracy, freedom, etc.

Question #1.

When you reflect upon the way you frame with subject matter you teach, is there an apparent "Negative Worldview" (humanity is heading towards the dumps) or "Positive Worldview" (humanity's prospects are improving and will likely continue to do so) perspective that you have?

Question #2.

If you answered "yes" to number 1, please briefly expand upon the factual accuracy of that perspective. What I'm specifically interested to hear about are (a) the timeframe of comparison you typically invoke (e.g. How things were compared to 20 years ago, or 200 years ago, or 20 000 years ago or compared to some counterfactual or hypothetical state-of-affairs, etc.) and (b) the variables or measure you use to draw such conclusions (e.g, is it life expectancy, level of socio-economic inequality, number and health of democratic countries in the world, etc.).


Friday, October 10, 2014

The Problem

Humanity faces a major problem (what I refer to here simply as the Problem) this century. And given the nature of the Problem it will most likely be a significant problem for all future generations as well, unless we seriously tackle this problem.

The Problem is one of the most significant problems we have ever faced. Sadly not very many people realize how big of a problem the Problem is, and few believe there is anything we can do to remedy the Problem. Thus people do not pressure their governments to take action to address the Problem.

There is an extremely strong scientific consensus concerning the likelihood that the Problem will impose unprecedented levels of suffering, disease and disability on people in both rich and poor countries. Indeed this is a certainty if we do nothing to prevent the Problem. Furthermore, the Problem threatens to undermine the economic prosperity of all nations, rich and poor alike.

Humanity is collectively responsible for the Problem. Our actions, especially over the past century and half, have made the Problem the reality it is today. If we hadn't pursued the actions we did, the Problem would not exist. It's a "man-made problem", and the only way to fix it is with a "man-made solution".

Some claim we should just focus on "adaptation" to minimize the harms of the Problem. Those taking this position doubt we can do anything to directly alter the certainty and severity of the problem. And yet many of the scientists with expertise on the nature of the Problem believe we can directly manipulate the factors responsible for the Problem. Numerous scientific experiments have demonstrated that the biological processes involved in senescence (aging) can be modulated, thus slowing down the rate of molecular and cellular decline. So if you hadn't yet guessed it, the Problem is GLOBAL AGING (what did you think it was?)

By the middle of this century there will be 2 billion people in the world over the age of 60. Most people over the age of 60 suffer from at least one serious medical condition, if not more. And they are a significant risk of co-morbidity. The number of people who die from age-related chronic disease each year is unprecedented. Never before in human history have so many humans died from such a slow and painful (and expensive) death.

Global aging is a product of human action. Civilization has become so successful at preventing early and mid-life mortality- thanks to public health measures like the sanitation revolution, immunizations, antibiotics, changes in behaviour and increases in material prosperity- that our populations now age. This was not the case for 99.9% of our species' existence. Life expectancy at birth for humans was 30 years or less for the vast majority of the time homo sapiens existed. Today it is age 70 for the world as a whole, and is expected to rise to age 80 by the end of the century.

While in many respects this is an incredible success story, it is also a story of the creation of a new and novel health challenge- the challenge of keeping our bodies and minds healthy beyond the biological warranty period (estimated to be approximately 70 years) that evolved from our life in hunter gather societies.

Given the rapid rise of chronic disease that has already occurred, and will dramatically rise this century as populations age, what can be done? The strategy of adaptation is one that simply takes the biology of aging we have inherited from our specie’s life and evolutionary history as a given, and looks for ways to minimize the harmful effects of aging. So promoting exercise, or tackling specific diseases of aging by funding medical research on cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, or redesigning cities to better promote the mobility of aging populations, raising the age of eligibility for social security, etc. these are all adaptive solutions. They are important, but of very limited impact. Eliminating all 200+ types of cancer would only likely increase life expectancy at birth by a few years (e.g. 3 years) because those most at risk of death by cancer (age >60) would simply die from one of the other major causes of age-related death, like a stroke or heart disease.

A more ambitious and rational strategy would be to aspire to modulate aging itself. Some humans naturally possess the ability to retard the normal rate of aging. Centenarians and supercentenarians (age > 110) possess “longevity genes” that delay and even insulate them from the more common health conditions that afflict the normal person decades earlier. I believe the development of a drug that activates the “anti-aging” genes these rare individuals naturally possess would be, by far, the most significant advancement in medicine this century. It would, at a minimum, simultaneously delay age-related frailty, disease and disability. It might also compress morbidity and mortality at the end of the lifespan, so that the period of time it takes to die once our health has faded is shorter than how we die under the normal rate of biological aging. Retarding human aging could dramatically increase the health span and reduce the period of time humans will suffer chronic disease. Such an intervention could be something all future generations benefit from as well. There are hardly any global problems as pressing and significant as tackling aging is today.


Thursday, October 09, 2014

Canadian Attitudes Towards Radical Life Extension

In my "Science and Justice" seminar this afternoon we will be discussing this paper which found some interesting things about Canadian attitudes towards radical life extension. For example, Science Negativity (“Science and technology make our way of life change too fast”) and a Declinist Worldview (“Modern civilization has reached its peak and is in decline.”) were associated with less support for life extension. Whereas higher levels of Bio-Literacy (knowledge of biological science), General Health and being male were associated with being more pro-life extension.


Monday, September 22, 2014

End of Sabbatical

This blog has been very quiet for the past 12 months or so as I was away on sabbatical (and I joined FB, where I post almost daily). As such I thought I should post a few remarks here.

While I am sad that the extra research time afforded by the sabbatical has come to an end, I am happy to have full-time teaching return as a regular part of my responsibilities. I find teaching helps stimulate thought and balances what can be an otherwise hermit-like existence (my research tends to be very solitary).

What did I accomplish on the sabbatical? I spent the Fall term teaching in the School of Public Policy at UCLA. This was an excellent opportunity, compelling me to devote a great deal of time and attention into the questions- Why learn normative theory? And how best to teach such theory to practitioners? (i.e. those who will work in public policy rather than become moral or political philosophers). I am bringing a version of the new course I taught at UCLA back here to Queen's where I will teach it in the MPA program in the School of Policy Studies.

Some challenges on the family front meant that my research output was not as productive as I had initially planned. I completed a draft of my book examining the ethical and social challenges of the genetic revolution. But the interdisciplinary nature of the book makes finding a publisher extremely challenging. Theory types will want more theory and less science, and science types want more science and less theory. Various chapters of the book have already appeared in print in over a dozen articles in journals in Philosophy, Bioethics, Medicine and Science. But at this stage I am unsure if the book will ever see life as a larger, more unified, project. I want to move on to other things.

I signed a book contract to write a textbook on genetics and ethics. This nicely overlaps with the research I already conducted over the past decade for the work I just described above. So at the very least I hope to have a new textbook written up in the next year or so.

Typically I write almost exclusively for peer-reviewed journal submissions. Looking over my CV I see that 94% of my article publications are in journals vs only 6% as chapter contributions to books. This was in many respects a conscious decision I made many years ago having spent time in the UK system where the RAE values such publications over book chapter contributions. Furthermore, I think there are many benefits to subjecting oneself to the uncertainties, labour and torture of the peer review process of journal submissions. But perhaps I have gone overboard in this respect! Proportionality is in order, so this year I actually agreed to write two new chapter contributions. The first on virtue and politics, and a second on ethical issues related to life extension.

My hopes to make serious headway on a book on play have been delayed as I have had to invest a good deal of time and energy into some other priorities. But I am optimistic that a viable project on this topic will be pursued in the years to come. The theme of play is something I find myself grappling with in my own personal life as well. And I think the intersection of personal and professional interests is the best recipe for maintaining a productive research project (it certainly seemed to work with me and the topic of aging... :) )

So I hope to start re-posting on here more regularly.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Ideas for New Paper

This blog post is posted on my FB page with comments open. If you are a political philosopher who wishes to comment please send me a FB friend request.

In the coming weeks I hope to develop some ideas that I have been mulling over for a few years now on methodological issues in normative political philosophy into a coherent paper tentatively titled “Justice by Earthlings” or "Psychology Constrains Political Philosophy".

I thought I would try something new for me and invite FB friends interested in ideal/non-ideal theory to offer comments, suggestions, etc. as I work through these ideas while they are still at a somewhat embryonic stage of development. I would be very appreciative for any suggested readings, criticisms, etc.

What I propose to do is post 2 or 3 short FB posts on the central arguments I am developing. What follows below is an overall summary of the paper I envision writing. A future post will expand upon some of these points in greater detail. Comments and suggestions most welcome!

In recent years political philosophers have turned their attention to methodological issues within the discipline. A number of questions have been raised concerning the relation between empirical facts about humans (e.g. human nature) and societies (e.g. racism, scarcity of goods, colonialism, globalization, etc.) and the normative principles and theories developed by political philosophers. Most of this debate has focused attention on the potential constraints human nature ought, or ought not, to have on the principles of justice themselves. In this paper I emphasize the importance of extending an empirically-informed critical light on the discipline even further, namely, to the epistemic capacities of the political philosopher herself. Doing so can, I argue, help progress the so-called “ideal/non-ideal” debate in novel and useful ways. Defenders of ideal theory presuppose that the normative theorist can deduce “fact-insensitive” (Cohen) normative principles or those appropriate for a “realistic utopia” (Rawls). By drawing attention to the epistemic capacities of the political philosopher, the limitations and hazards of highly idealized and abstract analyses of justice can be effectively highlighted.

In Justice for Earthlings David Miller suggests that political philosophers should invest a greater amount of their time and energy in ensuring that the empirical claims their theories or principles are predicated upon are valid or defensible. To determine how much weight and attention should be devoted to empirical insights from the social sciences, argues Miller, theorists must not only ponder “What is political theory?”, but also “How, and why, should we go about doing it?” Employing a “virtue epistemological” (Greco, Zagzebski) analysis of the goals and aspirations of political theory/philosophy, one that equates knowledge with “success from ability”, I argue that the ultimate aim of the discipline is to yield emancipatory knowledge. However, to have success in this endeavor the normative theorist must develop insights, theories, and principles that guard against (at least) three common cognitive limitations and errors of “Earthlings”- (1) categorical thinking (at least those kinds which undermine emancipatory knowledge), (2) prospection errors (which can skew the aspirations of a normative theory, even a “realistic utopia”) and (3) thinking in terms of sacred values (which can make normative principles or theories inert by obstructing our ability to contemplate reasonable ways of navigating the tradeoffs that must inevitably be made between desired goals and values in the real world).

I conclude that the take home message of the “psychology constrains political philosophy” maxim is that normative theorists should develop more contextualized and provisional theories and principles than those typical of the ideal theory paradigm.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

SPP Article Now Out

My paper titled "EMPIRICAL ETHICS AND THE DUTY TO EXTEND THE “BIOLOGICAL WARRANTY PERIOD”is now available in the latest issue of Social Philosophy and Policy. The abstract:

The world's aging populations face novel health challenges never experienced before in human history. The moral landscape thus needs to adapt to reflect this novel empirical reality. In this paper I take for granted one basic moral principle advanced by Peter Singer — a principle of preventing bad occurrences — and explore the implications that empirical considerations from demography, evolutionary biology, and biogerontology have for the way we conceive of fulfilling this principle at the operational level. After bringing to the fore a number of considerations that Singer ignores, such as the probability that nonintervention will result in harm and the likelihood that different kinds of extrinsic and intrinsic harms can be prevented, I argue that the aspiration to extend the human biological warranty period (by retarding the rate of aging) is a pressing moral imperative for the twenty-first century. In the final sections I briefly address some standard objections raised against life extension and conclude that, while there may be some legitimate concerns worth addressing, they are not compelling enough to provide a rational basis for forfeiting the potential health and economic benefits that could be realized by extending the biological warranty period.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Norman Geras (RIP)

So sorry to learn the news that my former colleague from Manchester University and friend Norm Geras has died. Norm will be sadly missed. The Guardian reports here.