Wow! Also, Helsinki seems to be something of an incubator for discussions of rights.

Based on the principle of the equal treatment of all persons;
Recognizing that scientific research gives us deeper insights into the complexities of cetacean minds, societies and cultures;
Noting that the progressive development of international law manifests an entitlement to life by cetaceans;
We affirm that all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and wellbeing.
We conclude that:

  1. Every individual cetacean has the right to life.
  2. No cetacean should be held in captivity or servitude; be subject to cruel treatment; or be removed from their natural environment.
  3. All cetaceans have the right to freedom of movement and residence within their natural environment.
  4. No cetacean is the property of any State, corporation, human group or individual.
  5. Cetaceans have the right to the protection of their natural environment.
  6. Cetaceans have the right not to be subject to the disruption of their cultures.
  7. The rights, freedoms and norms set forth in this Declaration should be protected under international and domestic law.
  8. Cetaceans are entitled to an international order in which these rights, freedoms and norms can be fully realized.
  9. No State, corporation, human group or individual should engage in any activity that undermines these rights, freedoms and norms.
  10. Nothing in this Declaration shall prevent a State from enacting stricter provisions for the protection of cetacean rights.

Makes me want to re-read Moby-Dick.

via io9


I laughed loud and hard when I saw this picture for the first time. What a traumatic and bizarre image.

That it needs to exist is sad. That someone thought they could stop the behavior with a sign is absurd. That someone was commissioned to create the sign is oddly funny. I guess I have a macabre sense of humor.

But there is a lesson here: For those of you who have forgotten, the job of the bioethicist to look at this and ask, Why?

The simpler and more obvious an answer, the more difficult it is to prove. The recent essay “After Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”  in the Journal of Medical Ethics is already enraging more than a few people. The purpose of articles that are so obviously controversial and counter-intuitive. is not to endorse or advocate a political position and say “this is right and should be law.” Instead, they are exactly what intellectual exercise is meant to be: a reasoned exploration of an idea we find difficult and troubling. True philosophy, honest ethics, dares to ask the un-askable questions. If we are horrified by what we find, then we need to examine the very foundations of our philosophies.

If something is obvious, then that is the very thing a diligent bioethicsist should be questioning and doubting.


Ed Yong takes us through the reason recent breakthroughs in transplants (e.g. a new trachea) doesn’t mean we’ll be printing more complex anytime soon:

“A good way to think about it is that there are four levels of complexity,” says Anthony Atala from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, one of the leaders of the field. The first level includes flat organs like skin, which comprise just a few types of cells. Next up are tubes, like windpipes or blood vessels, with slightly more complex shapes and more varied collections of cells. The third level includes hollow sac-like organs, like the bladder or stomach. Unlike the tubes, which just act as pipes for fluid, these organs have to perform on demand – secreting, expanding or filtering as the situation arises.

Scientists have fashioned lab-grown organs from all three of these categories. Surgeons have implanted artificial skin and cartilage into thousands of patients. Synthetic windpipes are now a reality. Artificial blood vessels are going through clinical trials for patients on dialysis and children with congenital heart problems. Atala himself has transplanted lab-grown bladders into several patients, the first of whom has now been living with her new organ for over a decade.

. . .

The cells also need to grow along the right shapes, so getting the right scaffold is essential. For simple organs, like Beyene’s windpipe, it is possible to fabricate the whole scaffold from scratch. But solid organs have more complex shapes, so some teams start with existing organs, taken either from cadavers or from animals. They use detergents to strip away the cells, leaving behind a natural scaffold of connective tissues and blood vessels, which can then be seeded with a patient’s stem cells. It is the equivalent of stripping a building down to its frame and filling the walls back in. Scientists have made liverslungs and even beating hearts in this way, and some have started to transplant their organs into animals.

Some researchers are excited by the potential organ-building capabilities of three-dimensional (3-D) printers. These devices are modified versions of everyday inkjet printers that squirt living cells rather than drops of ink. Layer by layer, they can make three-dimensional structures such as organs and, as of September last year, the blood vessels they contain. Atala is developing this technique – he wowed the audience at a TED conference last year by printing a kidney on stage (although not a functional one).  He says, “For the level four organs, it’s just a matter of time,” says Atala. “We’re still a long way from full replacement, but I do believe that these technologies are achievable.”


It starts with asking the right questions. Patrick Lin, Keith Abney, and George Bekey’s new book Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics is packed with them:

If a robot malfunctions and harms someone, who is responsible — the robot’s owner, its manufacturer, or the robot itself? Under what circumstances can robots be put in positions of authority, with human beings required to obey them? Is it ethically wrong for robots to prey upon our emotional sensitivities — should they be required to remind us, explicitly or implicitly, that they are only machines? How safe do robots need to be before they’re deployed in society at large? Should cyborgs — human beings with robot parts — have a special legal status if their parts malfunction and hurt someone? If a police robot uses its sensors to perform a surveillance operation, does that constitute a search? (And can the robot decide if there is probable cause?)


We Pop Way Too Many Pills And The Pills Don’t Even Work” underlines, simplifies, and circles the key points of the same argument. Also: infographics!

The single most important point to consider in both the article and video is this: the argument is not that anti-depressants don’t work at all, but that for those with mild or moderate depression, they have little to no positive effect and distract from other treatments for depression like exercise and talking therapy.

Pharmaceuticals are often wonderful and represent genuine medical advances. Like anything, they can become a false or lazy solution for both doctors and patients. Be a critical and questioning patient.

Pills aren’t bad, taking pills without knowing why or as the only solution is.


Tauriq Moosa at Big Think argues the case:

I think yes. Firstly, merely, say, debilitating him in some way is not helpful. What’s powerful is not The Joker’s physical presence but what he can create and conjure. For example, in The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, The Joker attempts to drive Commissioner Gordon insane – The Joker wants to show that anyone, given the right circumstances, could end up as he did. The Joker himself does not need to be there for this to occur. Gordon for most of the story is simply strapped to a ride, in an abandoned amusement park. Even if he was locked up or crippled, there is little doubt The Joker’s powerful mind could still pull on threads that run like veins throughout Gotham’s criminal underworld. The Joker after all is the decayed beating heart of crime.

Or in A Death in the Family, The Joker blackmails the biological mother of Jason Todd (the second Robin) to hand the boy over to him. The Joker proceeds to kill him. However, the blackmail and death need not have been performed by The Joker himself. The Joker’s access to and acquisition of information is what made him successful.

Secondly, Batman could make it such that The Joker’s death appears to be an accident. This means The Dark Knight can retain his image as a nonlethal superhero, but still have the chaotic force of The Joker forever gone.

It appears that Batman’s nonlethal attitude to The Joker is partially responsible for the continual death and suffering of many innocenets. This is so because we all know that Arkham Asylum – the revolving door of Gotham’s criminals – can’t hold The Joker. And, as I said, debilitating him doesn’t work and there is no cure for his chaos and insanity.

The question left unaddressed by Moosa that is essential to this discussion is: Why doesn’t Batman kill?

I’ve often wondered if it’s because he’s terrified he’ll enjoy it and not be able to draw the line after that. Batman is a psychopath. And we’ve already been shown what Batman is like when he kills – Rorschach. Now the question is not the Joker continuing to kill vs not killing, but the horrors of Joker killing on balance against Batman killing.


Barbara J King critiques the “humans are hard-wired for X” trope that pops up far too often among op-eds:

Anthropological studies show that humans respond with incredible plasticity to the social and environmental forces around us. As biological anthropologist and blogger Patrick Clarkin aptly puts it, our abilities for cooperation and conflict, love and hate are “triggered under given circumstances, facilitated or hampered by social conditions and structures.”

In a beautiful piece from 2006 for the magazine Foreign Affairs,neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky meshes Clarkin’s point with an evolutionary perspective. He argues that even our primate heritage is one of plasticity; small shifts in social dynamics may tip the scales toward violence or peace.

Sapolsky describes a shift towards non-aggression in a Kenyan baboon troop he was studying. When the fiercest males died of TB, the local monkey culture became immediately more peaceable. This behavioral shift has been maintained over the course of more than two decades.

HT: The Dish


Mass Effect is epic. It’s the product of the best parts of Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and more with a protagonist who could be the love-child of Picard, Skywalker, and Starbuck. It’s one of the most important pieces of science fiction narrative of our generation. Mass Effect goes so far beyond other fictional universes in ways that you may not have yet realized. It is cosmic in scope and scale.

Sci-fi nerds have long debated over which fictional universe is the best. The Star Trek vs Star Wars contest is infamous into banality, with lesser skirmishes among fans of shows and books like Battlestar Galactica, Enders Game, Xenogenesis, Farscape, Dune, Firefly, Stargate, and others fleshing out the field. Don’t mistake this piece as another pointless kerfuffle among obsessive basement dwellers. Mass Effect matters because of its ability to reflect on our society as a whole.

Science fiction is one of the best forms of social satire and critique. Want to sneak in some absolutely scandalous social more, like, say, oh, I don’t know, a black woman into a position of power in the ‘60s? Put her on a starship command deck.

Most science fiction, even the epic universes in Star Wars and Star Trek, pick only two or three issues to investigate in depth. Sure, an episode here or a character there might nod to other concepts worthy of investigation, but the scope of the series often prevents the narrative from mining the idea for what it’s worth.

Mass Effect can and does take ideas to a new plane of existence. Think of the Big Issues in your favorite series. Whether it is realistic science explaining humanoid life throughout the galaxy, or dealing with FTL travel, or the ethical ambiguity of progress, or even the very purpose of the human race in our universe, Mass Effect has got it. By virtue of three simple traits – its medium, its message, and its philosophy – Mass Effect eclipses and engulfs all of science fiction’s greatest universes. Let me show you how.

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Zombies are a strange source of ethical inspiration, but as I mentioned to io9’s Lauren Davis, if academic ethicists get to spend all day talking about trolleys, I see no reason we can’t banter about the ethics of the undead.

Lauren posed the following query: When is it ok to kill a zombie? Should zombies be killed on sight, or quarantined as sick humans? As an answer, she has an excellent post up that has a some other cool responses to the questions and is worth a full read.

I responded as follows:

To answer your question, I think there are some things we simply can’t know in a realistic situation, so we have to make a couple assumptions for the sake of argument.

Assumption 1: We live in a materialistic universe. Zombies, therefore, are not the result of necromancy, demons, possession, or souls escaping from hell.

Assumption 2: We are discussing “classic” zombies – seek flesh, stimulus-response function, and the condition is communicable through bodily fluids (i.e. saliva to blood).

Both assumptions allow us to discuss most zombies, including those from The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, and World War Z.

There are three criteria for ethical zombie killing to consider: dignity of the body, state of the infection, and potential for recovering consciousness.

A) Dignity of the Body: For those who don’t think it is possible to “desecrate a corpse” in a morally repugnant fashion, this point is moot. Whether you’re a consequentialist arguing the social impacts of disregarding the emotions of kin or a Kantian arguing the inherent dignity of the human form, there is a strong case that a human body deserves respect. The question as to what one can do to a zombified body are then called into question. I shouldn’t mutilate a corpse, therefore I shouldn’t damage an animated corpse, which is a problem when that corpse wants to gobble my brains.

The resolution is acknowledging that being zombified is itself a desecration of a corpse. I use the ideal of an open-casket funeral to judge whether or not a certain behavior reduces the dignity of a corpse. A moaning, mindless meat-seeking monster attempting to escape the coffin to disembowel those come to mourn it would reduce the dignity of said corpse. Thus, any action necessary to de-animate the corpse is an effort to return its dignity and, therefore, it is acceptable to lobotomize, ignite, and/or puree the zombie without violating your Kantian commitment to the dignity of the body.

B) The state of the infection: How infected is this person? Just bitten? How long until the shambling starts? There are three possible states that are ethically relevant: 1) Bitten Person knows they are infected and others know as well, but there are no signs yet 2) Bitten Person is in transition thru death – fever, shakes, morbidity – but not dead/undead 3) Bitten Person is reanimated. These states parallel the conditions of many illnesses and thus we can apply the general rules for informed consent and euthanasia.

The resolution is that for those who know they are infected, an honest discussion about how they wish to die before infection sets in is had. Mourning, goodbyes and choice of euthanasia are allowed as the situation permits (we are presuming an ideal here, not under constant assault by a shuffling hoard). In this instance, the amount of pain likely caused by transition makes “letting die” an immoral and impermissible decision, thus “active killing” becomes the moral action.

For those who are infected and in transition to the point of having lost lucidity, the moral action is immediate death. Whether you are considering the later possible harms of the zombie, the current harms of pain to the individual, or the dignity of the person being robbed by the transition, the lack of reasonable thought means that person’s protests and pleading are to be ignored. All thought is now the result of infection madness, through a haze of blinding pain, or the manifestation of the zombie micro-organism’s self-preservation function and are not to be considered in the way the pleading of a lucid person would be.

It is possible that the 28 Days Later rage zombies actually exist in this category, in that they are not “dead” per se, but reduced to madness. Criterion C may come into play, but in a state of anarchy, it is ethically permissible to terminate anyone infected with rage because of 1) the extremely high potential for harm to others 2) the strong possibility of current harm to the individual (presuming a nugget of preserved consciousness likely experiencing nothing but pain and fear) 3) and the fact that involuntary rage behavior violates Criterion A.

Finally, for the reanimated, see Criterion A.

C) The potential for recovering consciousness: If zombification is irreversible and incurable, the potential is zero and this point is moot. If zombification is preventable only through vaccination, the potential once infected is still zero. Considering stage 2 of infection, however, whether that is in the process of transition or in a non-mobid form of zombification like rage, there seems the potential for a cure. Presumption of destroying the micro-organism does not guarantee or even create a likelihood of a return to former consciousness undamaged. Based on the degradation of behavior and the nature of zombification (either reanimative or rage) a baseline assumption of severe brain-damage seems reasonable. The diseases effectively necessitate demolition of the pre-frontal cortex and all brain function outside of vulgar sensation for food-seeking and cerebellar activity necessary for locomotion. There is also the real chance that the disease constructs temporary ad-hoc networks to overcome the colossal damage to the original brain function. Terminate the disease, the networks collapses and the zombie deanimates or the rage fades and the body is left in a persistent vegetative state.

Thus, the resolution is that, should a cure become available, it comes with the presumption that active killing may still be necessary to prevent further suffering. Delivering the cure during the transition of an individual may result in recovery with none, minor, significant, severe, or mortal brain damage. Based on the individual and the decisions of trusted surrogates, it may be necessary to euthanize anyone with significant or worse brain damage. To persist in such a state is undignified and violates Criteria A.

So, to answer your initial question: I would need to know the state of the infection and the possibility of recovering full consciousness based on the criteria of preserving a person’s dignity.

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Lauren Davis reopens the debate started by Zach Zorich at Archeology and continued by yours truly over whether or not we should clone a Neanderthal. She does a nice job compiling a list of yays and nays, including this gem I hadn’t much considered:

Neanderthals might not be built for modern life. The last recognizably Neanderthal human died out tens of thousands of years ago. Since then, modern humans have moved into cities and proven, to varying degrees, our ability to live in modern society. It’s entirely possible that a Neanderthal would adjust to modern life as easily as any other child. But we won’t know for sure until we clone one.

What caught me here is that as I read it I said aloud, “humans aren’t built for modern life!” I think of all the diets and exercise routines and explanations for ailments that stem from the idea that humans have changed our world faster than our body can evolve. As a result, an animal that evolved to live in small social groups (< 150) on savannah and to eat mostly vegetables with occasional meat acquired by long-distance running now spends most of its time socializing with thousands of different individuals in overwhelmingly urban environments with a meat, dairy, and grain-based diet spending large amounts of time sitting.

We, Homo sapiens sapiens, are not built for the world we’ve built ourselves.

So we’ll have to change the world some more, to bring things back into balance. Or maybe we’ll turn inward and change ourselves. Both seem to be in order. Either way, the Neanderthal stands as much a fighting chance as we do. I still think cloning a Neanderthal and raising her while allowing her to be observed and studied can be done ethically.

The other two “cons” Davis points out, “You would be creating a person just for them to be studied,” and “She would have no peers” are both non-starters.

The former is an appeal to a Kantian “mere means” critique of cloning. The Neanderthal clone would not be created just for study any more than a parent has a second child to give the first a playmate. You can create a person with a goal without dehumanizing that person. To want to give a Neanderthal the chance to walk this Earth again is reason enough for her to be. She would be as valuable as any other person. That she would be studied is secondary to her reason for being.

The latter, that she would have no peers, is without impact. There have always been firsts, originals, and peerless individuals among human beings. That she might be mocked or ridiculed is why it would be critical to ensure she had a supportive and nurturing family environment. Beyond that, there is no reason anyone else should know she is a Neanderthal. Like adoption, it should be something the family shares together, but needn’t broadcast to the world.

Without the label, I doubt anyone would be able to differentiate her from us. I suspect the differences would be so minimal as to upset human exceptionalists everywhere. Given safe methods, a proper foster family, strict guidelines for study, adequate privacy, and full human rights, I can see no reason cloning a Neanderthal would be unethical.