Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Experimental Bioethics

The ethics of animal research: a survey of pediatric health care workers

Ari R Joffe126*Meredith Bara3Natalie Anton1 and Nathan Nobis45
Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 2014, 9:20  doi:10.1186/s13010-014-0020-7



Pediatric health care workers (HCW) often perform, promote, and advocate use of public funds for animal research (AR). We aim to determine whether HCW consider common arguments (and counterarguments) in support (or not) of AR convincing.


After development and validation, an e-mail survey was sent to all pediatricians and pediatric intensive care unit nurses and respiratory therapists (RTs) affiliated with a Canadian University. We presented questions about demographics, support for AR, and common arguments (with their counterarguments) to justify the moral permissibility (or not) of AR. Responses are reported using standard tabulations. Responses of pediatricians and nurses/RTs were compared using Chi-square, with P < .05 considered significant.


Response rate was 53/115(46%) (pediatricians), and 73/120(61%) (nurses/RTs). Pediatricians and nurses/RTs are supportive of AR. Most considered ‘benefits arguments’ sufficient to justify AR; however, most acknowledged that counterarguments suggesting alternative research methods may be available, or that it is unclear why the same ‘benefits arguments’ do not apply to using humans in research, significantly weakened ‘benefits arguments’. Almost all were not convinced of the moral permissibility of AR by ‘characteristics of non-human-animals arguments’, including that non-human-animals may not be sentient, or are simply property. Most were not convinced of the moral permissibility of AR by ‘human exceptionalism’ arguments, including that humans have more advanced mental abilities, are of a special ‘kind’, can enter into social contracts, or face a ‘lifeboat situation’. Counterarguments explained much of this, including that not all humans have these more advanced abilities [the argument from species overlap], and that the notion of ‘kind’ is arbitrary [e.g., why are we not of the kind ‘sentient animal’ or ‘subject-of-a-life’]. Pediatrician and nurse/RT responses were similar.


Most respondents were not convinced of the moral permissibility of AR when given common arguments and counterarguments from the literature. HCW should seriously consider arguments on both sides of the AR debate.


Survey; Animals; Animal research; Ethics

Sunday, January 11, 2015

What's Philosophy?

What is philosophy? What makes a topic, issue, problem or question philosophical

Here are some quick thoughts.

Philosophy and Science

If the question can be answered, or the problem entirely solved, by contemporary science, then it’s not philosophy. So, if the question is one of purely empirical fact, then it’s not a philosophical question.

Some philosophical questions, however, cannot reasonably be answered without scientific input. This is most obvious with topics in applied ethics. For examples: questions about the morality of abortion cannot be answered without knowing important scientific information about fetuses: e.g., when do they become conscious and when can they feel pain? Moral questions about the treatment of animals: what are their minds like? What kinds of positive and negative emotions can they have? This scientific (and/or common sense-empirical information is surely relevant to how they should be treated. And environmental questions: whether we should or should not do X depends, in part, on how will doing X affect the environment, and science is required to determine that.

While science is essential to reasonably answering moral questions like these, the science itself doesn’t settle the issue. Moral principles and other explicitly philosophical methods of reasoning must be applied to the information.

Philosophy and Arguments

Philosophy requires arguments: philosophy requires giving reasons. Philosophy isn’t about merely stating “opinions” (whatever that might mean) or giving views. Someone might state a view on a philosophical issue, but if that view isn’t supported by reasons, then it’s not (yet) philosophy.

Philosophy, Understanding and Objections

Although a claim usually isn't philosophy unless reasons are given, better philosophy, however, requires an conscious understanding that there often are objections and questions that need to be addressed. For example, suppose someone claims that, "It's wrong to eat meat because animals suffer when turned into meat." While a reason is given, the reason is a bit simplistic, if this is all that's said: e.g., the argument doesn't consider whether and when suffering is justified, whether animals always suffer, whether it's the actual eating that causes suffering, and more. So, better philosophy displays an understanding of and engagement with the relevant complexity of an issue, that there are often alternative theories and explanations, and an engagement with all that. 

Philosophy and Observations

Some philosophy isn't explicitly argumentative: it's descriptive. For example, a "phenomenology" of experience X is an attempt to offer insightful observations of what it's like to be X, or have the experience of X. This description, however, is argumentative in that the description, typically of an often overlooked, controversial and/or murky experience is either (partially) correct or not, and people can argue about that.

Philosophy and Conceptual Analysis

A lot of philosophy involves the attempt to analyze controversial and hard to define concepts, that is, to say what something is. For example, what is knowledge? What is it to have free will? What is it to be a person? What is it to be masculine (as opposed to 'male')? What is it for a decision or policy to be fair or just? What is it for an an action to be morally wrong? Many philosophical issues that don't explicitly involve analyzing concepts depend on analyses of controversial concepts.

Philosophy and “Importance”

Some philosophical issues are important: how we should live, how society should be organized, what we should believe about challenging, controversial, philosophical issues (apologies for the perhaps unavoidable circularity here!) such as whether there is a God or not, and more.

Some philosophical issues, however, perhaps are not important. E.g., how much hair must a person lose to be definitely bald? The problem of vagueness is a classical philosophical problem, but is it really all that important? Some would say, “Not really.” It might be fun to think about for a while, an interesting puzzle, but it’s not really all that important, especially compared to other, more important issues.

Many genuinely important issues and problems, however, are not philosophical, really. About almost any important issue, someone says, “That’s really philosophical,” when maybe it’s really not. People say, about many important topics, “My philosophy is this…” when they don’t really have a philosophy to offer. In these cases, maybe what people are doing, typically, is offering their views on some important issues, but without much in the way of giving reasons for these views. But the point is this: just because someone is engaging an important issue, that doesn’t mean that they are doing philosophy or engaging the issue in a philosophical way. And that’s OK: something not being philosophy or philosophical doesn’t mean it is not important or not valuable: philosophy isn’t everything, of course.

But what is to be “important” anyway? Surely some questions are important to particular people, such as the problem of vagueness is important to those who find it interesting. But are some issues just plain important, perhaps irrespective of what people think of them? It seems so, but how this could be so is surely a philosophical question, and one that at least I find important!

Philosophy and Assumptions

Some areas in philosophy examine the assumptions that other fields, and common experience, take for granted. For example, almost all of us assume that there's an external physical world that causes our ordinary sensory experience, and that we are the same people that we were yesterday. Philosophers, however, try to find the best reasons we can give in favor of these common assumptions and try to determine if these reasons are very good or not. And some philosophers have given reasons to think that many common assumptions like these are actually false.

Philosophy and Controversy 

Most philosophical issues are controversial: there is widespread disagreement about what to think about the topic. Even when there is not disagreement with the exact issue (e.g., that torturing people for fun is wrong), there are controversies nearby (e.g., Why, exactly, is torturing people for fun wrong? What explanation, among the many, is the best explanation here?).

Philosophical Attitudes and Virtues

A philosophical person, or a person who is a genuine philosopher, is someone who seeks to have these attitudes and virtues:

  • open-minded: I don't know everything, I have been mistaken before, and I may have a lot to learn about a topic!
  • open to the possibility of error: I have been mistaken in the past, entire cultures have been mistaken, so perhaps I am mistaken, we are mistaken, in our beliefs, attitudes and actions about an issue now. Why not?
  • curious
  • patient: learning about important issues and thinking carefully about them takes time.
  • seeks evidence
  • seeks to understand contrary views: maybe others are right and I am mistaken!
  • informed
  • not dogmatic
  • seeks to have reasons
  • courageous: philosophical topics can be challenging, and some views are unpopular, so it takes courage to consider the merits of these views and whether they are worthy of belief or not.
  • willing to act on the basis of his or her reasoned convictions

To be continued!

Sunday, January 04, 2015

A Philosophy and Problem-Based Learning Grant Opportunity

Available in PDF here.

RE: Doing Philosophy in Teams.
Invitation to participate in an NEH Digital Humanities Implementation

Dr. Michael Hoffmann
Associate Professor
Director of the Philosophy Program
School of Public Policy
Email: m.hoffmann@gatech.edu

December 31, 2014

Grant proposal

Dear colleague,

I would like to invite you to participate in the writing of a grant proposal whose goal is to get funding for a three-year, $325,000 project that focuses on using web-based argument mapping software to support problem-based learning (PBL) in philosophy. PBL is learning in teams. Traditionally, PBL has one goal and two basic strategies. The goal is to stimulate and guide self-directed student learning. The first strategy is to let small groups of students collaborate autonomously, but guided by a “facilitator” or “tutor,” and the second is to confront student teams with a problem that poses a real challenge. As Allyn Walsh (2005) highlights in her tutorial, the goal “is NOT to solve the problem which has been presented. Rather, the problem is used to help students identify their own learning needs as they attempt to understand the problem, to pull together, synthesize and apply information to the problem, and to begin to work effectively to learn from group members as well as tutors.” In PBL students are supposed to acquire on their own the knowledge they need to approach the problem. Students should learn to learn.