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News: January/February 2004
Cloning Clampdown • Sex Selection Ban • Sell Your Own Liver! • Iris Murdoch’s library for sale • Robot Gets Emotional — News reports by Sue Roberts in London and Lisa Sangoi in New York
An interactive robot called eMo was unveiled in October at the Thinktank science exhibition in Birmingham. Resembling a human face, with red rubber tubing for a mouth and camera lenses for eyes, eMo is driven by 22 small computerlinked motors. The aim is to explore ways in which we may in future communicate with robots through our emotions. eMo can display a wide range of emotions including anger, happiness, surprise and disgust. It is also hoped that eMo will be able to recognize emotions on the faces of visitors. He/she/it is brainchild of Professor Noel Sharkey of Sheffield University, who specialises in neurocomputing. Sharkey commented “the serious side of trying to develop machines that can express and recognize human emotions is the role they could play in our lives – actually responding to our moods. One day an emotional machine could be fitted to cars to prevent a driver with road rage from doing something stupid.”
Elizabeth Bates, a leading expert on the manner in which infants develop language, died at her home in San Diego at the age of 56. Dr Bates was a professor of cognitive science at U.C.S.D. and the director of its Center for Research in Language. She was known for her public stance in the nature vs nurture debate, that is, how much of human behavior is genetic and how much is learned from the environment. An outspoken critic of the theory that humans are endowed at birth with a ‘language module’, Dr Bates criticized the theories of the linguist Noam Chomsky of MIT and his colleague Steven Pinker, the psychology professor, now at Harvard. Chomsky contends that infants have an innate grasp of grammar so that development is more a matter of unfolding inborn traits.
Sex and the Slippery Slope
Should prospective parents be allowed to use new technology to select the gender of their babies? A ban has been recommended to the British Government by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in a recent report following a year-long consultation and an independent MORI poll. Opposition to such selection had been registered by 80% of the 600 responses to their consultation document and by 69% of those who took part in the MORI poll. If adopted, the ban would ensure that only couples at risk of having a baby with a serious sex-specific medical condition would be allowed to undergo such procedures, in order to ensure a healthy child. They wouldn’t be allowed to choose the sex of their child just to ‘balance’ their family or because they had a preference for daughters over sons or vice versa. Tom Baldwin, deputy HFEA chairman and a professor of philosophy at the University of York, attributes public hostility to fears that allowing sex selection would be a ‘slippery slope’, so that it would be used for increasingly trivial reasons. He said the HFEA had considered the possible ‘damage’ to a baby who turned out not to be the desired sex, since no technique is 100% reliable. It was strongly felt that children should be able to develop in their own way and not be pressured to fulfil parents’ expectations. Arguably this is true even when the child’s sex isn’t pre-selected. The call for a ban has met widespread approval. Health Secretary John Reid has guaranteed his full support, as have the British Fertility Society, the BMA and the watchdog group Human Genetics Alert. If it is implemented, parents wishing to ‘balance’ their family with a child of the opposite sex will have to go abroad for treatment.
World Cloning Ban Postponed
The General Assembly of the United Nations has put off the human cloning debate for one more year. All 191 members of the United Nations agree on a treaty to prohibit cloning human beings. Yet, they are in disagreement as to whether to extend the ban to therapeutic, or non-reproductive, cloning. Opponents claim that complete prohibition would block vital research on cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and other conditions. The U.S. Government holds that cloning an embryo for any reason is unethical and that enough stem cells from human embryos exist for research.
The principle of a ‘living will’, where a previously nominated person is given power of attorney in the event of deterioration of a patient’s mental state to the point where they can no longer make decisions for themselves, is to be recognised by legislation being prepared by the British Government.
The Roman Catholic Church and prolife groups claim that the Mental Incapacity Bill, now at the draft stage, is a ‘back door’ means of permitting euthanasia since that power would extend to refusing consent to doctors to continue giving life-sustaining treatment to the patient if the ‘living will’ specified this. They claim that the existing law already allows withdrawal of treatment in cases of patients in a persistent vegetative state.
Sell Your Liver for Cash!
In early December the British Medical Association debated, in closed session, the highly controversial issue of permitting the sale of human organs by live donors. The Association appears to have moved away from its previously entrenched opposition, bringing face-to-face a leading proponent of the right to sell certain body parts for transplant and a committed critic of any such scheme.
John Harris, professor of bioethics at Manchester University, speaking with the backing of some of Britain’s leading transplant surgeons, argued that the establishment of an ‘ethical market’ in live organs could save thousands of lives. Current law allows only for organs to be donated free of charge by a card-carrying donor or their relatives. The incentives for donors other than the obvious cash one should, he suggests, include tax free payment without consequent loss of state benefits. They and their families should also receive priority treatment for a transplant should the need arise.
Writing jointly in the British Medical Journal with Charles Erin, senior lecturer in applied philosophy at Manchester, Prof Harris has emphasised the importance of making sure that organs would be available on the basis of need and urgency at no cost to the recipient rather than to those who could most easily afford to buy. He extended the argument to include ensuring that rich countries should not be able to buy organs from people in poorer countries who would not themselves be eligible for receiving treatment.
In the opposite corner was Alastair Campbell; not the notorious spin doctor but the emeritus professor of ethics and medicine from Bristol University. He fears that “studies of the market in kidneys in India have shown the consequences of a market in human organs are inevitably exploitative.”
Furthermore, “even in a developed country it will only be the most needy who subject themselves to the risks of surgery for cash.” He believes that the notion of an “ethical and regulated market is a myth.”
Philosophy For All - U.S.A.
The popular philosophy organisation Philosophy For All has spread to the USA for the first time. Philosopher Mark Chekola and some likeminded souls have founded a local chapter in the adjoining towns of Moorhead, Minnesota and Fargo, North Dakota. Chekola writes, “Its aim is to approach philosophical problems in a non-technical way to enable everyone to participate in discussion and debate.” The new Philosophy For All Fargo-Moorhead will meet on the second Tuesday of each month, and launches in January with a viewing and discussion of Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film Decalogue.
Philosophy For All was started by Anja Steinbauer in 1998 in London, where it brings academics and the philosophicallyinterested public together at ‘Kant’s Cave’ meetings in pubs, movie nights, debates and philosophical walks (another activity the Fargo-Moorhead group intends to adopt). For more about Philosophy For All Fargo-Moorhead, please email email@example.com.
World Philosophy Day 2003
Thursday November 20th was the second annual International Philosophy Day. This is a UNESCO initiative to raise the profile of philosophy. As well as a programme of events at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters, there were celebrations of Philosophy Day in dozens of countries around the world. The only observance of Philosophy Day in the United States took place at St John Fisher College in Rochester in upstate New York. The organizers of the all-day event were Philosophy Now’s Dr Tim Madigan and Dr David White, and their motto was “No Philosopher Left Behind!”
The free, all-day event included short presentations on a multitude of topics, literature distribution and a sale of old philosophy books.
Iris’s Library Seeks New Home
The personal library of the late Iris Murdoch, philosopher and novelist, has yet to find a new home following the decision to sell by her former husband, John Bayley. The heavily-annotated volumes are said to have been a source of inspiration to her over many years. Bayley will donate the money raised to St Anne’s College, Oxford.
Kingston University in Surrey, is aiming to raise sufficient funds to make a successful bid for the library. They have already acquired the personal archives of Peter Conradi, Iris Murdoch’s biographer and Professor Emeritus at Kingston University. Following a recent radio interview given by Anne Rowe, a senior lecturer at the University, a listener was moved to donate £30,000 toward the fund. Any like-minded readers can contact Dr Rowe at firstname.lastname@example.org
We sadly announce the demise after a prolonged illness of the philosophy unit of the City University, London during the last year. This was due to a supposed lack of cost-effectiveness which had already proved fatal to other philosophy units in Britain. The unit saw the light of day in the sixties and matured to the point of employing five members of staff who taught undergraduates, supervised PhD students and produced a stream of publications. In the eighties, when financial pressures hit the universities, two teachers were persuaded to take early retirement and a third, seeing the way the wind was blowing, sought other employment. The unit carried on with the help of competent parttime teachers but expired when the remaining full-time teachers reached retirement age. The death is mourned by all those who remember that it was a philosopher who invented and realised the first European university and that for the following millennia philosophy remained a defining feature of Universities.
- Professor Peter Rickman