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News: May/June 2014

Philosopher points to a possible future in which ‘life in prison’ means 1,000 years • Do ethicists need a code of ethics? — News reports by Sue Roberts

Doing Extended Time

Philosophers at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute think about ways in which technological advances could enhance our lives and our ability to deal with ethical challenges. Some of them have now been applying their attention to questions of crime and punishment. Dr Rebecca Roache (in an interview with Aeon magazine and in more detail on her blog) predicted that future technology may one day be used to transform perceptions of time passing to make a prisoner’s jail sentence feel as though it lasted 1,000 years. She points out that for the most heinous crimes, some will feel that a life prison sentence is insufficient punishment, yet the death penalty faces well-known objections. She identified two ways in which this could be done: Firstly, drugs could be used to distort prisoners’ sense of time. Secondly, she foresees a future scenario in which we are able to upload a human mind onto a computer. If that becomes possible a prisoner’s mind could be ‘speeded up’. Running it a million times faster than normal might enable the uploaded criminal to serve a 1,000 year sentence in 8.5 hours. Roache refers to this as “looking at today’s punishments through the lens of the future.” In a note on her blog she emphasizes that she is exploring the possibilities and not positively advocating them as prison reforms.

Philosophers of the Code

An online petition on the change.org website recently urged the American Philosophical Association (APA) to create a formal code of conduct and a statement of professional ethics for the discipline because of “recent events at more than one university.” (This probably referred to, among others, the recent APA report on sexual harassment among philosophers at the University of Colorado). The petition was started in March by Prof. Eleanor Stump of St Louis University and Helen de Cruz of Oxford University. It was closed after APA executive director Amy Ferrer replied to them saying that she supported the petition’s aims. Ferrer noted that in 1994 the APA decided that instead of creating its own code of ethics and conduct, it would direct its members to the code of the American Association of University Professors. However, she promised that the APA’s board of officers would revisit that decision in one of its meetings this year.

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