Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New York, New York

I am currently attending the American Philosophical Association's Eastern Division's meeting in New York. I am not exactly what you'd call an avid conference goer, so - believe it or not - this is my first philosophy conference. We got an unwieldy conference program (a book of some 200pp). The variety of what's on offer is truly impressive. To my surprise, more than a fair number of contributors to our recent volume 50 Voices of Disbelief are presenting here, including Philip Kitcher and John Schellenberg. I went to a panel yesterday, chaired by my good friend Rosamond Rhodes, on health care reform in the US and heard Norm Daniels as well as the Hastings Center's Daniel Callahan speak. Impressive people. Daniels, in response to a question from an audience member, replied that the health care reform package should not be permitted to fail over the troublesome exclusion of abortion related medical services. I wondered about this very same question. Clearly what happened there is appalling, but within the political constraints of the votes available to progressive agendas in the US Senate, what's currently on the table probably is the best that can be done. To argue that it's better not to achieve small progress in order to avoid the political sell-out on the abortion front, seems short-sighted. Daniels called that one right, I think. Callahan wrote a thoughtful, critical commentary recently on the Hastings Center's website that is quite critical of the liberal embrace of stem cell research. Check it out if you feel like. I also attended a meeting with fellow journal editors, primarily aimed at an exchange of views. I was pleased to learn that Hypatia, the feminist philosophy journal moved over to Wiley-Blackwell, the publisher of two journals that I jointly edit. Last but not least I had a congenial lunch with Jeff Dean, the commissioning editor for Wiley-Blackwell's philosophy books. All that done in a day. It's worth attending conferences after all, if yesterday's outcome is anything to go by. Well, I better get my own acts together for my talk tomorrow morning. I also need to get going to be able to catch up this morning with Mary C Rawlinson, the Editor of The International Journal on Feminist Approaches to Bioethics. Not that you likely care, but it's the coldest day in New York City this winter, and stormy weather at that. Bummer.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Brief hiatus

I am traveling to the American Philosophical Association's Eastern meeting in New York tomorrow. Will be blogging likely from NYC, but who knows. Don't be too surprised if there's a week's silence :). In case you happen to be there, too, give me a shout!


Friday, December 18, 2009

And the weekend good news: Manto Tshabalala-Msimang is dead

I like the hypocrisy of people insisting that we must never speak bad of the dead. Why not? If the dead were bad people, what's wrong with wishing them good riddance. A case in point is Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (better known as Dr Beetroot), the former South African health minister. Her policies and that of her boss Thabo ('I don't know anybody who died on AIDS in South Africa.') Mbeki led to about 300,000 preventable deaths among infected people. Beetroot insisted that it ain't clear that HIV causes AIDS, and claimed that anti-retrovirals for Africans were an evil scheme by the CIA and the pharmaceutical industry to poison Africans. Those suffering from, and dying on AIDS she offered, well, you guessed it, beetroot, lemon juice and garlic. Moron that she was she thought nothing of it to jump the waiting list for organ transplantations in order to grab a liver when her old failed as a result of her marriage to alcohol. Excuses were found for why this woman, in her 60s at the time, was deserving of the liver (ie public sector clinicians, working for her, colluded in lies about her legitimate rank on the waiting list). During the time it became public knowledge that as a hospital doctor in Botswana she was convicted of stealing patients' property while they were in surgery. It didn't occur to the ANC and its senior officials to fire Dr Beetroot. Well, I was elated when I found out that the transplant liver crapped up on her, and the system refused to offer her yet another one. Good riddance Dr Beetroot. Thabo, we're waiting for you to join her. After all, you also like your booze and there's some 300,000 people who are dead today because of you. Why don't you also call it a day?

On a slightly more analytical (as opposed to purely angry) level (even though my anger about these two South African politicians' murderous policies knows few boundaries, I have admit): What is of interest is that there's a pattern of colonial mentalities in play in South Africa as well as in Uganda. In South Africa, black nationalist politicians happily ganged up with Western crank scientists against their own people, because they were suspicious of mainstream Western science and knowledge. White Westerners taught them stuff that translated into genocidal policies costing about 300,000 predominantly black people's lives in that country alone. The attempted political emancipation drove these black nationalists straight into the hands of crackpots, that's how substantial their concern was that hooking their people onto life saving medicines was just another ruse by the West to poison and keep Africans down and dependent on the West. Incomprehensible. As good nationalists are wont to do, they insisted on 'local solutions', hence beetroot, garlic and lemon juice. African scientists and medical doctors standing up to them were fired and bullied sufficiently that Stalin could have taken a page from that book (Beetroot managed this without actually killing the scientists, she simple removed them from jobs and funding).

Uganda is another example. It has become clear by now, that draconian anti-gay legislation, threatening gays with the death penalty, was inspired by US evangelicals, white US evangelicals. How ironic that Africans, busily trying to assert themselves against 'evil Western values', are being goaded by other Westerners (crazy ones) to implement seriously civil rights violating policies against their own people ... bizarre stuff. The only good news is that they're being opposed frequently by younger generations of Africans who won't stand for that sort of crap.

Anyhow, Manto is gone, let's go and drink to her demise :).

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Solidarity with BA cabin staff

UNITE, the union of the BA cabin staff have called a strike, lasting from December 22 to January 02. Hey, let me declare a conflict of interest. I am scheduled to fly on BA on December 23 from LHR to JFK. I was looking forward to catching up with secular friends in New York to get over the painful sickening sweetness that comes with Xmas. I was also looking forward to giving a talk on December 30 at the APA Eastern meeting in New York, and to a lively discussion about my paper (the joys of the academy).

Well, I may or may not get to New York, who knows. I can't rebook my flight, because it's a return leg, so in a sense I am on the road and can't easily change horses in the middle of the race (or so my booking agent, AA, told me - I had some hope they'd help me, being gold member [pun intended] and all). So, I am likely to be well and truly stuck in London unless BA and UNITE reach an agreement, or unless the UK Supreme Court forces UNITE to back down for the time being. I shall see.

What irks me about the public debate on this is the nasty response by the wider traveling (even the not traveling) public. There we hear stories about priests not being able to return to Africa (to do what, propagate the death penalty for gays in Uganda as they're wont to do? surely they're not doing anything really useful there anyway!), married couples not being able to go on a honeymoon in Florida (at least you won't be eaten by the crocs that are everywhere in that state), and so on and so forth. Some of the stories are truly sad, BUT, surely the point of a strike is to put pressure on your employer. What's the point of striking if nobody notices (us academics faces this problem just about all the time, especially in the context of strikes :-)? So, here's my first point: you can't blame cabin staff for striking at peak season, because this is the best time of the year to go on strike, from a strategic perspective.

BA and the sorry British public opinion on this matter also go on about their cabin staff being paid better than anywhere else in the industry. The company churns out press releases using their (arguably overpaid) inflight directors' long-haul salaries to show how well paid their cabin staff are. Of course, starting salaries for current flight attendants they're proposing now are a fraction of those directors' salaries! They're barely a living wage. Bizarrely the published opinion on the matter points out that Virgin Atlantic cabin staff already are being paid these miserable salaries for the hard work they're doing. What kind of argument is that? Since when has the lowest salary in the industry established what is reasonable? I kid you not, this is the level of public debate in this country!

Then there is people going on how miserable BA's service is. Well, for better or worse, I like the company's economy and premium economy better than that of many other carriers. Compared to Air Canada, for instance, BA's performance is way better. Admittedly, BA's long-haul business class is a bit of a joke (the in-flight service, not the seats). I would not ever fork out my own hard-earned cash for a seat in the far front of their planes, sorry to say.

Either way, good success to their cabin staff, don't let published public opinion in papers like the Daily (Hate) Mail drag you down! You're right to fight for better working conditions (or at least to prevent a further deterioration). I for one don't go on Virgin Atlantic anylonger because I know that their arguably superior service is paid for by greedy ol Richard Branson's miserable pay conditions for his staff.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Open Letter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Uganda

I am reproducing an open letter my colleague John-Stewart Gordon has written to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the dismal situation of gays in Uganda.

Dear High Commissioner Navanethem Pillay:

my name is John-Stewart Gordon (Germany) and I am currently visiting
professor at Queen's University Kingston, Canada, conducting
a research project on human rights in bioethics.

Even though you are certainly aware of the current situation
concerning gay rights in Uganda (and other countries in Africa:
I wonder whether there is anything
what you can do about this serious human rights violation.

I am not gay but I do care for other people and I am a professional
philosopher who notice when serious changes in communities effect the
lives of innocent people. You can certainly call this a "sex-related
genocide" that has to be stopped immediately. The situation is grim,
the social climate is poisoned and hatred crimes happen on a daily
basis. I am deeply concerned about this situation and I want you to
take any possible action in order to end this humiliating tragedy.
This seems to be only the beginning of a cultural change
concerning minorities in Africa and in other countries etc. Once
again, I urge you to act now or to contact the relevant human rights
bodies that might be of any help. Please, use all your authority to
end this "war against gay people".

If I can be of any help, please, let me know and I will be there for
your assistance.

Professor Dr. John-Stewart Gordon

John-Stewart Gordon, Ph.D.
Visiting Professor

Area-Editor of The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Queen's University Kingston
Department of Philosophy
Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6


The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) is currently looking for
authors with (great) proficiency in the field of Bioethics.
Please, have a look at the following topics, at:

Friday, December 11, 2009

'Where there is smoke, there is Pfizer'

I took this header from the hugely recommended and informative site my colleagues at noveltechethics.ca have put together. You might recall that it has been decided to appoint a Pfizer VP to the governing board of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The CIHR is a public agency funding biomedical research in the country. I have already pointed out elsewhere why such an appointment is untenable. It is untenable for one fundamental and one slightly more contingent reason. The fundamental reason is that the Pfizer VP has a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders of his company to maximise profits. He is by necessity unable to prioritise the public interest over the profit interest over his employer, hence he has a continuing conflict of interest that makes him eminently unsuitable for accepting such a post. Just to be clear, maximising the profits of his publicly listed employer in its own right is not objectionable, what is objectionable is that someone representing such interests should serve on the board of a funding agency aimed at maximising the public good. The second reason is that Pfizer has a dismal record in terms of its business ethics. As noveltech documents on its site, the company has been paying out billions of dollars to extricate itself from ethics failings and violations of the law. Sweet irony that the CIHR's ethics chap should be supportive of the appointment...

The Canadian government is keen to have someone with a background in product development (commercialisation in the widest sense) on the CIHR governing council to ensure that more of the biomedical research undertaken in Canada, that is funded by taxpayers, is subsequently commercially exploited. In its own right this isn't a bad idea, even though the immediate worry would be that commercial organisations (Pfizer comes to mind) would try to exploit taxpayer funded research as a shortcut to product development, with a pittance flowing back to the publicly funded research and the public being bilked for what it's worth by Pfizer for a drug that we paid already for as taxpayers who fund the CIHR.

Francoise Baylis at Dalhousie University has written a letter to Harvey Chochinov, the ethics member of the CIHR governing council. Chochinov has made himself a name by way of writing about something he calls dignity enhancing end-of-life care. His trivial insight is essentially that we should meet dying patients' needs better and that that would reduce the number of such patients who ask for assisted dying. He is, of course, right on both counts. Google him for fun to see how often he has published that very same insight in an avalanche of similar papers.

Anyway, I digress, Baylis asked Chochinov why he has supported the Pfizer appointment. To the crucial conflict of interest charge Chochinov replies: 'GC members are not there to promote their own vested interests or those associated with their specific geographic, financial, disciplinary or pillar based affiliations. [...] Rather, GC members are expected to place those personal agendas aside, and promote the best interests of CIHR, the broad research community and health related concerns of Canadians.' The trouble is that the Pfizer employee could not act in this manner due to his contractual obligations to his employer. He could not put his employer's commercial agenda aside even if he wanted to. So, Chochinov fails fully to address the issue at hand. In his reply to Baylies he argues that 'Members of the ethics committee have taught over the years that it is possible for people to reach different conclusions, in spite of following ethically sound processes. I believe the process of ethical debate in this instance has been sound, in spite not reaching consensus.' This statement is sufficiently bizarre that I tried to find his CV online in order to ascertain whether the CIHR's Chair of the Standing Committee on Ethics has any qualifications in ethics at all or whether we have here another physician with an urge to go on about ethics who has no formal training in ethics. I have got to be honest, despite trying for some time to trace his academic CV, I was unable to find it. He may or may not have had ethics training, I do not know. I am doubtful at the very least. His statement to Baylis constitutes a petitio principii. He is well and truly begging the substantive question by saying that reasonable people can legitimately disagree in matter of ethics. That's true, but surely only after the issues at hand have been addressed. His explanation for why the Pfizer VP would not face conflicts of interest is plain wrong. So, if on that basis he supports the appointment, the fact that some process was followed does not make his stance any more right. Ethics is not that relative! It's not a matter of having a chat and then it's a free-for-all.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Locker Room Etiquette

I know, I know, there is the climate thing in Copenhagen (even the man who walks on water is expected to say his HOPEful prayers and deliver suitably little, just before returning with his entourage, a squadron of vehicles and probably a few planes to where he came from). Goodness, what can I say, things are pretty obvious, I have little to add. I love the climate change denialists. Remarkable coalition of rightwingers and the usual rabble of fringe scientists. All quite funny, and boy, am I glad that I at least haven't bred. No kid to worry about too deeply when things go downhill. And I don't even drive or own a car... so I'm probably in the good books.

Now that that's out of the way, onto something slightly more serious. Gym locker rooms. No you gay guys, not that kind of locker room, go and rent your own video... - I mean real gym locker rooms. I went to the gym tonight, ran my 10k's, did weights, the lot. After about 2 hours I finally returned to the locker room, went to the locker, fiddled around with the combination lock and opened the locker. When I buy those combination locks each time I join a gym, I truly can't be bothered figuring out how to change the pre-set numbers. So, mine is always 000. Well, there I opened 'my' locker tonight. I ended up rumaging for awhile thru sort-of-interesting men's clothes, alas after awhile I realized that they were not mine at all. The number was right, the clothes were not. So, I ended up in another bloke's locker who obviously also couldn't be bothered changing his number. Being in a bit of a bind I tried to recall where I left my clothes this particular evening and settled for another locker. Same thing happened. Interesting clothes (lovely wallet, nice watch...), just not my stuff. Thankfully I got third-time lucky. I finally found my own stuff.

I was always suspicious about how many people can really be bothered to change those pre-set numbers, and by chance I discovered today that possibly not too many do. I am sure that what happened to me tonight happened to other folks, too (did you like my clothes by any chance? leave a note next time you accidentally drop in :).

So, how come that in all those many years I have not once had any of my property stolen in the gym. I had things stolen just about everywhere else, at home, from the hotel room, even in front of police stations, but never in the gym. Is it possible that folks who do the gym regularly and keep fit are nicer people? Are they in the average more ethical than folks doing no sport? Questions, and more questions, anyone up for a research project?

Friday, December 04, 2009

Open Letter to Canadian Health MInister

Dear Ms Leona Aglukkaq:

I am currently on a research assignment in Britain, hence I missed the uproar in Canada about the appointment of a Pfizer VP to the governing council of the CIHR. This open letter is in response to this growing scandal.

I am appalled that anyone should have considered appointing a representative of the pharmaceutical industry to such a position of influence, let alone a representative of Pfizer.

As to the former: Continuing conflicts of interest between the role the Pfizer VP would have to play in order to avoid breaching the fiduciary relationship the company and its employees have to its shareholders, and the public interest are inevitable. His role is to represent the interests of Pfizer and its shareholders, while the CIHR agenda surely is in the Canadian public's interest. There is no reason at all to assume that Pfizer's interests and those of the Canadian public necessarily are identical.

As to the second: Pfizer as a pharmaceutical company is probably the most egregious of the companies involved in terms of continuing breaches of ethics regulations. The company routinely and repeatedly pays out large sums to extricate itself from breaches of ethical guidelines, and frequently the law. I am flabbergasted that, of all companies available, a Pfizer representative should have ever been considered. Are you or your advisers unaware of any of this?

I urge you to intervene before it is too late. The CIHR is at great risk of losing credibility as a biomedical research funder by appointments such as these.

udo schuklenk

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Atheist bioethicists?

As most readers of this blog will know, I am an atheist. I am also a bioethicist (everyone needs a job, so don't hold that one against me), and a journal editor. I came across a semi-interesting blog entry where someone was critical of Russell Blackford and myself for 'coming out' as atheists in our book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. The gist of the blog entry (written, I hope I'm not getting the minutiae wrong, by a woman who once was a Reverend of sorts and quit her Reverend day job because she realised that the admission of women to Reverend jobs is mistaken) was that it's a bad idea for bioethicists to admit to being non-religious. The reason given was that this would give bioethics a bad name in the USA where people don't like non-religious folks and where many have become suspicious of non-God based bioethicists anyway. My good mate, the creationist Discovery Institutes propaganda chief on bioethics, Wesley J Smith could probably take some credit for this, assuming the empirical claims made are correct to begin with. Of course, our ex-Reverend has no evidence for her claim one way or another. She may or may not be right about US Americans' attitudes to bioethicists. It's probably fair to assume that among conservative religious people like herself that view might be somewhat more prevalent. You know, the types of people who refer to married gay couples as 'family' in inverted commas, who really really really hate hate crimes legislation, and who tend to subscribe to the view that abortion is akin to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.

The question though is not unreasonable to ask: Should bioethicists who happen to be non-religious try to hide that view in order to avoid putting off creationists? Or even just putting off people who are vaguely religious? You can also turn that question around and ask whether bioethicists who happen to be religious should try to hide that view in order to placate non-religious people who can't handle any more 'God' business? So, if they submit an article to the journal that I edit, should they hide their views in order to make what they conclude palatable to me?

In Bioethics (one of the journals that I edit), kindly and rightly identified as a leading journal in said critical blog entry, we had articles by openly religious people arguing their case. Even stuff on a thomistic understanding of personhood (ie what someone who believes St Thomas Aquinas is a brilliant guy makes of modern notions of personhood in the context of that thinker's theology). Basically, as a journal editor you try to ensure that you're fair to content submitted to your journal. Surely that wouldn't be achieved by sending a piece that's situated in the context of Catholic moral theology to the atheist Russell Blackford for review. But that's about as far as it goes.

It's unclear though, why I as editor of the journal should not be entitled to hold my own views on the God question and why I should not be permitted to publish those views. Strategic views about the status of bioethics among evangelic Christians in the USA notwithstanding, the objective of any paper surely should be to make the strongest possible argument for one's case. Ideally you'd try to persuade both those who come from an ideological basis similar to yours, as well as those who com an entirely different angle of your views.

So, to sum up: Journal editors are entitled to hold strong views on matters affecting their field. They must not permit those views to prejudice fair process for submitted content that is in conflict with their strongly held opinions. Concerns about how that goes down with a particularly partisan section of the wider public are irrelevant.