Category: Book Reviews

Book Reviews

Sean Valles, Philosophy of Population Health: Philosophy for a New Public Health Era, Routledge, 2018

Sean Valles’ Philosophy of Population Health marks an important contribution to the analysis of philosophical issues relevant to a broad range of issues at the interface of population and public health. The book exemplifies the constructive contributions scholars from philosophy of science and ethics can make to advance our understanding core issues in this area, historically dominated by concern for medicine and the delivery of health care to individuals. Professor Valles’ contribution joins the work of Alex Broadbent and the philosophy of epidemiology, and the work of Angus Dawson and Marcel Verweij and Ruth Faden and Madison Powers and others in public health ethics.

The stated purpose of the book is to advance a population health framework and spark a dialogue between philosophy and population health. The book succeeds in achieving both aims. In the introduction, Professor Valles notes that unlike in previous philosophical work where “we typically find a combination of individually avoidable errors dubious shortcuts and ill designed methods. All the while philosophers of science and medicine still tend to have an abiding respect and appreciation for the science/medicine, critiquing in the hopes of making things better. When scrutinizing the philosophical underpinnings of a new interdisciplinary program such as in my previous work on evolutionary medicine and personalized genomic medicine I’ve come to expect extensive, if not fatal, problems. Imagine my surprise at encountering population health science and finding nothing really fundamentally broken. What I found instead was a field that has many debates and unsettled theoretical and practical questions that remain to be sorted out.” (3) This optimistic perspective pervades the book which is quite useful in sorting out some of the philosophical issues at the interface of the philosophy of medicine, philosophy of science and ethics relevant population health.

The book is well organized and laid out. The introductory chapter provides a blueprint of a philosophy of and for population health. A brief overview commences with a broad definition of public health and population health and explains how the aims and methods of these are distinct from clinical medicine and healthcare. The core philosophical issues and arguments to be addressed in each chapter are outlined, as are the methodological and normative commitments of the author.

The book is divided into three parts: Part 1: What should health mean in population health science; Part 2: What causes and effects matter most in population health; Part 3: How can population health science better promote equity health equity. Each section contains chapters which systematically address key concepts and engage deeply with the current literature. The chapters explore key epistemological, ethical and metaphysical issues related to the concept of health, a social concept of health, health as a life course trajectory and how accounts of causation expand the boundaries of population health and how causation can be understood in population health. Part 3 brings things together through the lens of ethics and evidence. Each of the chapters ends with a case study that illustrates the issues that are raised in the chapter. The case studies are exceptionally well chosen as they are drawn from contemporary events and touch on Indigenous health, environmental issues, communicable disease and migrant health.

What is most notable about this book is the way that the author skillfully and with great nuance explicates and distils the arguments of the many debates about population health and the determinants of health. He successfully and clearly lays out some of the key boundary issues concerning the scope and range of population health, summarizes and brings coherence to the many debates concerning the nature of causation, and sympathetically navigates the sometimes bitter arguments between public health and health care. The discussion of health equity is noteworthy in bringing clarity to the discussions of how equity is defined in health and its relationship to theories of justice.

Professor Valles is committed to an expansive concept of health and argues for the irreducible role that social forces play in the creation of health. He also argues for a life course trajectory concept of health. He is unabashedly supportive of pluralism in our metaphysical, empirical, ethical and methodological engagement with population health. Professor Valles provides an update and spirited defense of the 1946 World Health Organization definition of health, which has come under significant criticism in recent years. His reconstructed argument yields a new definition of health as a life course trajectory of complete well-being in a social context.

This concluding chapter argues for the overarching need for a spirit of humility and collaboration. As Valles notes, power relationships take on a special importance for population health science. He argues further that humility is key to population health sciences success: “Humility is needed in three areas: an overarching epistemic humility recognizing that no single person or perspective can have a full understanding of population health; intersectoral humility recognizing that no sector of society (government, health care etc) is elevated above the others; and a disciplinary humility recognizing that no contributing discipline in interdisciplinary population health science is elevated above the others.” (181)

Professor Valles has skillfully drawn together and woven into a coherent framework a diverse set of literature dating back to the 19th century and the origins of social medicine. He does justice to the literature and acknowledges the importance of integrating elements of modern preventive medicine with a sustained explication of the work of Geoffrey Rose. He also highlights the significance of modern frameworks such as the WHO Social Determinants of Health Commission.

I believe that some readers, no doubt wed to a particular theory, may take issue with arguments raised in the discussion of causation. Professor Valles contrasts his approach with that of Alex Broadbent’s as set out in his book Philosophy of Epidemiology. Professor Valles endorses the notion of fundamental cause theory as a particularly promising contribution to population health science. His endorsement of this theory should stimulate significant debate. Similarly, I think there may be scholars committed to a particular theory of justice and of particular interpretations of health equity that may resist the pluralism that he endorses.

I highly recommend this book to scholars, public health and health care practitioners, policy makers and the general reader interested in population health. The book is an excellent complimentary source to Population Health Science by Keyes and Galea, for those interested in a more technical approach to population health. Few books I know of so skillfully and effortlessly employ concepts form the philosophy of science, philosophy of medicine, and ethics. I hope this book finds its way into undergraduate and graduate courses in schools of public health, faculties of medicine, and into graduate courses in philosophy of science and philosophy of medicine. I hope that this book stimulates the creation of new courses in philosophy of population and public health. Many curricula at schools of public health leave little room for engagement with the wide range of diverse philosophical views relevant to their field. I believe that this book would help provide a sound foundation for early 21st century graduate students struggling with the deeper concepts raised by the practice of public health and population health.

Ross Upshur

Dalla Lana School of Public Health

Bridgepoint Collaboratory for Research and Innovation

Lunenfeld Tanenbaum Research Institute, Sinai Health Systems

University of Toronto

Toronto, Canada

Book Reviews

Carl Cranor, Tragic Failures: How and Why We are Harmed by Toxic Chemicals, Oxford University Press, 2017

Long before there were any professional philosophers who identified as doing socially engaged or socially relevant philosophy of science, Carl Cranor was demonstrating exactly how philosophical reflections on science can and should inform law and policy. Cranor is a philosopher who also is a professor of law. He is thus in a unique position to explain how failures in legal protection are tied in part to ignorance about the nature of scientific inquiry. His Regulating Toxic Substances (Cranor 1993), Toxic Torts: Science, Law, and the Possibility of Justice, (Cranor 2006, Cranor 2016), and Legally Poisoned: How the Law Puts Us at Risk of Toxicants (Cranor 2011) explain and describe how the law in many cases has failed to protect our health. He traces these failures to unrealistic standards of evidence, particularly for demonstrating links between toxic substances and human health. Tragic Failures: How and Why We are Harmed by Toxic Chemicals, gives a clear overview of the entire body of current regulatory law and policy as concerns environmental toxins. It is written with great transparency, for a wide audience. It is not just an elegant summary of the state of the law and environmental policy; it is an exceptionally humane call for better thinking about the nature of science, and a passionate call for justice with respect to environmental risks to our health.

The book opens with the story of a cancer cluster among workers and locals near a DuPont plant in Parkersberg, West Virginia. Cranor weaves vivid case studies such as this into a larger argument that all of us have been subject to higher levels of exposure than we would in a different legal context. In particular, Cranor attributes these levels of exposure to the U.S.’s postmarket laws for industrial chemicals, which were modeled in part on nuisance laws. While such laws might be appropriate for visible substances, like burning rivers or smoggy air, such laws were not appropriate for the large majority of potential toxicants, many of which are invisible, diffuse and not immediate in their effects. Postmarket laws put such substances into the environment with no legally required toxicity testing. This places the burden of proof of harm on federal agencies, or (in the case of toxic torts) those who claim to have been harmed. Testing is voluntary, and according to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (Toxic Substances Control Act 15 U.S.C. ch. 53 (1976)), as many as 62,000 chemicals manufactured or imported into the U.S., already in use were “grandfathered” in as “safe.” Manufacturers are not required to routinely test chemicals to demonstrate safety before putting them into the environment, though they may voluntarily do so. As much as 22,000 additional chemicals have been added to the pool to which we are all exposed, including fire retardants, byproducts of rocket fuel, and a variety of potential endocrine disruptors. As a result, according to Cranor as many as 84,000 untested substances have entered the market since the 1970s, or were grandfathered in, only a small percentage of which have been subsequently tested for toxicity, and a yet smaller percentage have been removed from the market. Because such testing is voluntary, and the costs (both immediate, and potential) to industry of voluntary premarket testing are high, postmarket laws create and invite willful ignorance of potential harms. The first half of the book documents some of these harms, and explains how and why certain populations have been particularly vulnerable: namely, children. It is, quite frankly, a devastating read, but essential for anyone concerned with how U.S. law protects us from harm (or, has failed to do so).

The second half of the book engages with toxic torts. Given the failures of protection from regulatory law, tort law (in principle) gives those harmed means of receiving compensation, and (ideally) serves to incentivize safe workplaces and safe disposal of potential toxins. Unfortunately, the decision in Daubert v Merrell Dow Chemical has not only failed to protect citizens from harm, but also positively fostered ignorance and injustice, according to Cranor (Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The Daubert decision (or, perhaps better: interpretations of this decision) led to a shift in admissibility of expert testimony. Prima facie, the view defended by Judge Blackmun, that expert opinion must have “a reliable scientific foundation and be relevant to the task at hand,” seems plausible. However, Blackmun’s gloss on having a scientific foundation opened the door to questioning of expert testimony. Moreover, subsequent decisions were taken to establish precedent by defendants for the requirement that epidemiological studies be present, or must show a specific risk increase. But of course, evidence other than epidemiological studies can be quite compelling, and setting particular increase in risk as the standard necessary for proof is at best arbitrary. In other words, Daubert shifted matters of assessment of quality of testimony to the judge presiding over a case. But, many judges have no training in relevant science. Without knowing how weight of evidence is assessed given a body of epidemiological and toxicological studies, various judges appealed to arbitrarily high standards for the kind of research of relevance to assessment of toxicity. This in turn led to failure after failure at redress for plaintiffs. Given the great expense of toxic torts, and the high chance of failure on the part of plaintiffs, Cranor argues that this effectively shrunk the deterrence effects of toxic torts cases, leading all of us to be more vulnerable to harm from industry, which of course was no longer motivated to be particularly cautious about workplace exposure or externalities.

The final chapters explain and describe how weight of evidence is assessed in service of scientifically warranted judgments of toxicity, and discusses how the relatively recent Lautenberg Act attempts to reform and address some of the failures of Toxic Substances Control Act. One particular chapter, “How Demands for Ideal Science Undermine the Public’s Health,” should, in my view, be required reading for all federal court judges. Cranor reviews why a scientific ideal (represented by Furst) has mistakenly guided judges’ views about what is required to establish toxicity. The details matter, but his point can be put relatively straightforwardly: sufficient evidence for belief, in terms of ideal scientific “proof” of causation, is a different matter from sufficient evidence for protecting the public from harm. There is a difference, in other words, between evidence we require for belief in the ideal case in science, and what evidence we ought to require to act in the context of regulatory policy and toxics law.

What may Cranor have done better? The book is written for a broad audience, and based on Oxford lectures, so he had limited space, but it may have been useful – at least for philosophically inclined readers – to delve deeper into the principles underlying some of his arguments. For instance, in some of his discussion of law and policy, he makes reference to Rawls’s principles of justice; not all readers may have been moved by this appeal, and so cashing out how and why one might arrive at the same general conclusions from different starting points might have an interesting and worthwhile project. Another concern is to do with the matter of distinguishing warrant for belief and warrant for action. Perhaps making more explicit when there can be good grounds for appeal to values in setting standards of evidence for legal action might have been useful. While philosophers of science are (by now) mostly convinced that values of some sort or other play some role in setting standards of evidence, a careful explanation of why such a view can be maintained consistently without denying objectivity, by Cranor’s lights, might have been valuable. In particular, how and why should we make the role of values in setting standards for policy relevant science transparent? What counts as adequate transparency? Others (Mayo, Steel, Douglas, and Cranor himself) have spoken to this question of precaution and values in science, but it may have been useful to have a general overview of this matter in the context of discussion of Furst’s standards, for example, toward the end of the book. One can imagine some philosophically naïve readers pushing back against Cranor’s claim that ideal evidence for scientific “proof” is simply not appropriate in contexts of the law and toxic torts: Why not, they may ask? Isn’t that exactly why we appeal to science in the first place, to settle matters of fact, before we turn to matters of value? Speaking to this all too common view of the nature of objectivity and “proof” in science may have been helpful.

That said, the book is an engaging and provocative discussion of the history of regulatory and tort law, covering the history leading up to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the precedents in toxic torts, including but not limited to the Daubert v. Merrill Dow Chemical. In addition, it brings readers up to date with the current law, providing a nuanced explanation of the science of environmental toxins, and its import for law and policy. I would not hesitate to assign this book in any course in philosophy of public health, bioethics, environmental ethics, law or policy. Philosophers of science, law and environmental policy especially can gain from this book, not only in teaching, but also in informing their own thinking. It not only reviews the history of environmental regulation, but brings those who brings readers familiar with toxics law up to date: explaining how and why the Lautenberg Act (which was passed just as the author was completing the book) attempts to improve upon the 1976 TSCA, or Toxic Substances Control Act, and how it may have done far better. I sincerely hope more philosophers of science seek to follow Cranor’s example of socially engaged philosophy of science, in service of better law, and better health.

Anya Plutynski

Washington University in St. Louis

St. Louis, MO



References

Toxic Substances Control Act 15 U.S.C. ch. 53 (1976)

Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. 509 U.S. 579 (1993)

Cranor, C. (1997). Regulating toxic substances: A philosophy of science and the law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
———. (2006a). Towards a non- consequentialist approach to acceptable risks. In Tim Lewens (Ed.), Risk: Philosophical Perspectives (36– 53). London: Routledge.
———. (2006b). Toxic torts: Science, law, and the possibility of justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. (2011). Legally poisoned: How the law puts us at risk from toxicants. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Book Reviews

Cathy Gere, Pain, Pleasure, and the Greater Good: from the Panopticon to the Skinner box and beyond, University of Chicago Press, 2017

The opening pages to Pain, Pleasure, and the Greater Good read almost like an historical mystery or an ethical “whodunit,” (hint: it was the Utilitarians), capturing the reader’s attention immediately. It is certainly pleasing to encounter a work on utilitarianism that is not another dry philosophical text. Yet, ultimately, do the author’s philosophical points get lost in the rhetorical intricacies? I will return to this question at the end of the review.
In the introduction, Cathy Gere sets out her intellectual territory by discussing the notorious Tuskegee medical study, which, alongside the medical war crimes of the Third Reich, is usually seen as starting the discussion on the ethics of medical research. Insightfully, Gere points out that at stake was not a battle between good and evil, but a “conflict between two different conceptions of the good” (4). One, the greatest good for the greatest number – medical utilitarianism – and the other, informed consent. The rest of the book traces the history – and triumphs – of medical utilitarianism.

We are perhaps so used to multiple informed consent forms in our own personal medical encounters that we forget how recently these forms became an established part of medical procedures and research practices in Anglo-European medicine. Gere’s analysis serves as a useful reminder that it was only in the 1970s that the philosophical foundations for medical ethics were fully established. These are understood to be autonomy (we have the right to decide what happens to us), beneficence (essentially the costs versus benefits of research), and justice. This third pillar of justice was to ensure that research subjects were not solely drawn from vulnerable populations, and Gere points out that justice has since become assimilated into informed consent policies and procedures. Thus, autonomy is morally primary in research ethics, but beneficence – essentially (medical) utilitarianism – is a close second.
Gere recognizes that utilitarian reasoning will always ground medical research, but she argues that we must understand why “informed consent arose as a necessary corrective” (12). The right to informed consent she aims to prove in this work “is a principle explicitly formulated to trump utility considerations” (225). Gere then supplies throughout the book convincing evidence of a long history of problematic theories and troubling scientific experiments that were supposedly justified by considerations of utility. One particularly gruesome example from the late 1800s is the case of Mary Rafferty, who presented at a hospital with an ulcer so deep that part of her cerebral cortex was exposed. American physician Roberts Bartholow decided to probe her brain with a needle to see her responses, an experiment intended to gain scientific knowledge but not to treat Rafferty herself. Unsurprisingly, Rafferty was caused pain and suffering. After four days of experiments, she fell into a coma and subsequently died.

Medical utilitarianism, argues Gere, is not a moral procedural overlay on top of apparently value-neutral medical research. Rather, it is a fundamental worldview of the medical subject itself, the human animal, a subject driven by pain and pleasure, reward and punishment. And it is the history of this animal – through Gere’s account of utilitarian theory(ies) – that drives this book. This history begins in Chapter Two, which is primarily a discussion of Bentham’s utilitarianism. Gere offers a charmingly written overview of Bentham’s life and philosophy. But it is unclear – at least to this reader – the purpose of this overview. There are more insightful accounts of both the man and his theories elsewhere. But Gere’s philosophical biographies multiply, leaving the reader struggling to find the argumentative core of this central chapter for the book. We are offered biographies of Hobbes, and Locke, with a brief excursion into the lives and thought of Hutcheson, Hume, Smith, Beccaria, Hartley, and Priestly, all in only 20 pages. We then circle back to Jeremy Bentham, only to be informed of such minutiae as the street where he was born and the marital happiness of his parents.

Chapter Four examines the contributions of the next generation of British utilitarians, such as John Stuart Mill and the utilitarian psychology of Alexander Bain. In many ways, the discussion of Bain is more significant than that of Mill, as the former is often neglected in histories of philosophy and science. Bain provided a material foundation for human psychology. As Gere notes, his theory was not especially original, but it was historically important because it was grounded on the primal experiences of pleasure and pain. Chapter Five traces the history of utilitarian psychology in America, and we learn of some horrific human experiments that were performed under the guise of the search for scientific knowledge. These experiments were driven by the relief of pain or the production of pleasure; for example, Robert Heath “cured” one young man’s homosexuality by associating heterosexual sex with the pleasurable stimulation produced by electrodes implanted in his brain.

In the final chapter, we are in the closing decades of the twentieth century. This final chapter may be the most fascinating and informative of the book, because, among its elements, Gere explains how the “sovereign individual of reformist medical ethics” has mutated “from informed citizen to empowered consumer” (204). The advent of AIDS meant that thousands of people were desperate for treatment to save their lives, and they were not prepared to wait for drugs to go through lengthy FDA approved trials. AIDS activists argued that they had the right to choose for themselves to participate in experimental drug trials. Thus, the autonomous individual was now making a utilitarian argument: arguing for pain avoidance for the benefit of the many with AIDS.

Gere’s work is potentially important, adding to critiques of medical utilitarianism. However, it repeats what is essentially the Kantian-utilitarianism dichotomy without allowing for alternative perspectives or questioning the legitimacy of the dichotomy itself. Gere’s work is historiography and not intended to be a meta-ethical discussion, so perhaps this last comment is unfair. However, even taken as history of philosophy, the work is at times shaky. While the first references to the author’s own philosophical history may serve to humanize the work and draw in the reader, this particular reader grew weary of the many references to such things as reading philosophy in Christ Church Meadows in Oxford (23). Such autobiographical references seem to serve little intellectual purpose, and they sometimes strike false notes.

This latter comment may seem like a petty point, but it seems to be part of a bigger problem with this work. Unnecessary repetitions between chapters eventually make the work seem casually written, and the chapters themselves did not connect and build well one onto the other. Often there is jarring modern slang: Bentham “burned” through his formal education (86); Henry Beecher “nailed it” (47). Overall, the impression is that one is reading a series of lectures for students by the “cool” professor. We get vignettes of famous philosophers and amusing descriptions of their foibles or absent-minded antics; for example, Thomas Hobbes is anachronistically described as having “a little soul patch beneath his lower lip” (70); and Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments can “profitably be read as an Enlightenment version of How to Win Friends and Influence People” (83).

Writing intertwined history and philosophy is difficult. When Gere’s work is seamless, it sparkles. But too often the different elements are not interwoven carefully and the reader is left wondering what purpose the information and arguments serve. A firm copy editor should have taken this text in hand. Ultimately, I am disappointed. I wanted to like the work very much.

Catherine Villanueva Gardner

University of Massachusetts

Dartmouth

Book Reviews

Katie Watson, Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion, Oxford University Press, 2018

“This book isn’t a blueprint for a new conversation. It’s an explanation of why we need one, and an invitation to participate in moving that forward,” (12) says Katie Watson in the introduction to her book Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law and Politics of Ordinary Abortion. She does herself a disservice with this; in many respects her text provides us with just that – a model for what a more productive discussion of how society responds to and organizes around the issue of unwanted pregnancy might look like; a question that has remained contentious across the centuries and for which we may never have an ‘answer’. It is precisely because perceptions of abortion are so hard to prise apart from our attitudes towards women, sex, social roles and the meaning of motherhood, that we may never find permanent peace – more a truce that each generation must work out for itself anew. And Watson’s book could well be a handbook this generation needs in its arsenal as it seeks a settlement for the 21st century.

Watson, a professor of bioethics and medical humanities, wrote this book while experiencing pregnancy herself and the text reflects, as she says, the journey she has been on as a lawyer, a woman and now a mother. I work as the director of communications for a British charity providing abortion care and advocacy and for my part read this book in the Autumn of 2018; I reflected upon her thoughts as we campaigned to fully decriminalize abortion in the UK – including in Northern Ireland, where there has been no access to lawful abortion. While the book is written in reference to the febrile conversation in the US, there is much that is relevant from a European perspective – and much we can learn from successes and challenges on either side of the Atlantic.

Scarlett A is a reference to the sentence given to the character Hester Prynne in the novel The Scarlet Letter; when pregnancy reveals she has committed the sin of adultery she is to forever wear a scarlet A as a symbol of shame. Watson contends abortion stigma today brands the women who need this care and the professionals who provide it with an invisible scarlet A that most women, and indeed many care providers, will never reveal. It is this stigma which prevents women from speaking about ordinary abortion, the theme which shares the title of this book. Watson identifies ordinary abortion as the key component missing from the conversation, a conversation which is dominated by heart-wrenching tales of extraordinary abortion including rape, fatal fetal anomaly, and pregnant 12 year olds. One in five US (and UK) pregnancies end in abortion and most are for the ‘ordinary’ reason of not wanting to be a mother, or expand one’s family, at that time – and it is real stories of ordinary abortion which pepper Chapters 1 and 2, interwoven with analysis of the competing abortion narratives – “abortion is always a difficult decision” (50) (the stories illustrate it isn’t); “abortion is a women’s issue” (60) (yet this neglects the fact that many abortions are the result of a decision taken within a relationship); abortion is about sex and promiscuity (yet abortion is also a family issue, and the majority of women who have abortions are already mothers). Why don’t we hear more stories of abortion as a straightforward decision, as a couples’ issue, as a family issue, Watson asks. Ordinary abortion is a large part of abortion experience and a small part of abortion narratives.

Chapter 3 explores the language we use to speak about abortion and which in turn shapes our debate, using the case of a 17 year old girl in a small Utah town who paid a local boy to assault her so that she would miscarry her 7 month pregnancy in legal proceedings that sought to establish that that pair had undertaken the attempted murder of a ‘human being’. Against this backdrop Watson looks at the vocabulary employed by all stakeholders in the abortion discussion – life/potential life, unborn child/pregnancy, late-term/midtrimester (to describe a second trimester abortion) – “none of our words… say whether abortion is ethical or should be legal. But every one of them seems to be the first step towards different conclusions, so of course, they’re contested. These linguistic gymnastics are part of why it makes it so hard to even start a conversation about abortion” (85). It is also one reason why Ann Furedi , author of the Moral Case for Abortion which Watson’s book references, believes those who are pro-choice should not skirt around words (she herself uses the word killing in relation to abortion). “I don’t think it helps to obfuscate or be mealy-mouthed. That creates the impression that you want to draw a veil over what happens. You have to be prepared to be quite blunt.”(Meredith, 2016) In the Utah case, a distressingly vulnerable teenager – extremely poor ( she lived in a house without running water), facing abandonment by a boyfriend who was a convicted criminal if she did not end the pregnancy – became the impetus for her state legislature to pass a bill defining self induced abortion as murder after prosecutors found they could not convict her under existing legislation. Watson describes her as being a minor in need whose needs were ignored by her community until she tried to harm her fetus, and “Then her fetus got the attention she did not.”(90) The case thus provides the perfect segway in to the sentiments of Chapter 4 of the respective positioning of woman and fetus – “We can see a woman, or we can see her embryo or fetus, but we can’t see both simultaneously” (100).

In her subsequent critiques of the approaches to abortion ethics, which Watson broadly distinguishes between autonomy approaches that focus on women and biological ones, which focus on embryos or fetuses; and the public health ones which skirt around both – that women will suffer greater harm if abortion is inaccessible – she provides an excellent account of the various underpinnings used to argue whether abortion is permissible – and if so – in Chapter 5, then when. And she also reaches into whether it is acceptable to ask why, and to question whether the phrase “don’t judge me” (173) – is really apt. “Pro-choice doesn’t mean you can’t have opinions about other people’s choices, or that you can’t think a woman is wrong about moral status. To be ‘pro-choice’ is to recognize that your neighbor is a moral thinker too. In a pluralistic society, she’s allowed to disagree with your assessment, and you must have reciprocal respect for each other’s conclusion”(172). She argues the need to understand that when you disagree with someone’s reasons for abortion, that what is really happening is you are disagreeing on the moral status of embryos or fetuses; “moving from judgment of reasons to disagreement on moral status can help us productively discuss our true conflict”, Watson argues. And it is with the same clarion call for honesty in Chapter 6 that she navigates the clinic TRAP laws – or ‘Trojan Horse’ abortion regulations aiming to create obstacles to access under the false guise of patient safety as well as regulations mandating waiting periods, dressed up to look like a minor imposition, a sensible precaution to ensure a woman is certain of her choice, but with the effect of infantilizing women, besmirching doctors, and in areas where clinics are few are far between, creating significant delays to care or make associated costs prohibitive. This climate of what Watson calls “structural stigma” (184) in which doctors can also be forced to read from a script regardless of the needs of the individual patient before them, in which abortion is treated differently from all other forms of healthcare, are far more damaging than clinic blockades by protesters. And in a heartbreaking but perfectly pitched epilogue, Watson recounts her own abortion following a diagnosis of a fetal anomaly; the conversation with the hospital where she was receiving her prenatal care where an abortion cost $20,000 rather than the $700 at Planned Parenthood, but where some women still preferred to go to avoid the stigma of attending an abortion clinic. Watson tells us how she too considered not using her insurance to pay for her abortion to keep this visit separate from the rest of her life – “but a study I read finding that a large number of women with private insurance still choose to pay for their abortion themselves struck me as a sad, expensive expression of abortion stigma, and remembering that keeps me on track. Pulling out my insurance card suddenly feels like a political statement.” (225)

It’s a fine ending to this book, and one which Watson clearly struggled with whether to include. Although hers is an ‘extraordinary’ abortion, for her, her own decision sits alongside of all those belonging to other women who felt that they were not in the position to parent this child at this particular time in their lives.

From my perspective, I do think we have made huge strides in telling women’s stories – both extraordinary and ordinary – although there is much work still to be done. Stigma silences the voices of the ordinary, but it is also true that when it comes to direct campaigning we do not hang our hats on tales of ordinary abortion. We find the examples we believe most likely to help us achieve our political goals, and which will motivate constituents to lobby their elected representatives for change. This is certainly not problem-free, as Watson identifies, and her book made me reflect on the importance of weaving ordinary abortion into everything we do. But I felt her book was at its most pioneering and thought-provoking in its exploration of the issues and identities of providers, and the particular and pernicious ways in which the current abortion discussion stigmatizes them and undermines the work they do. We have yet to adequately tell the story of the doctors, nurses, and midwives who provide care to women day in, day out – some still unable to tell their own families what it is they do. A key component of the book is the identification of the ‘beneficiaries’ of abortion – the women who receive them, of course, but also their partners, who may go on to establish a much loved family with somebody they want to start a family with, the children both may go on to have, the children they may already have. But Watson also identifies another group of beneficiaries: “all the physicians, nurses, hospital administrators, and other healthcare workers who would be personally devastated to see women harmed by unsafe abortion, and who could provide this service themselves, but choose not to. Like men who benefit from their girlfriend’s choice to have an abortion, these clinicians benefit from their colleagues’ choice to provide abortion.”(192) As put by Dr Lori Freedman, physicians want both distance from abortion and someone skilled to send their patients too. But this has a sometimes considerable cost to those who provide the abortions, who carry the burden of responsibility for an entire abortion service – often leaving little space to carry out other gynaecological or obstetric practices which may bring them professional satisfaction – and become the target of various restrictions and regulations that do not apply to other areas of medical care. Watson highlights how the enthusiasm for accommodating conscientious objection to abortion within a medical practice is accepted as taking precedence over and above any doctor’s conscientious commitment to helping their patient obtain the abortion she wants. Her analysis of the framing of the doctor within the 2007 Supreme Court review of the partial birth abortion ban is superb – these doctors are not identified by medical specialty (obstetrician-gynaecologist, family physician, surgeon) but as abortion doctors, and at issue is whether they could be trusted to provide patients with details of what the partial birth abortion – itself a loaded term – would involve, that this would be a procedure they would undertake for ‘convenience’ to themselves. Watson deftly tracks the narrative of the doctor from Roe v Wade, cast as the hero rescuing the damsel in distress, to the demon of Gonzales v Carhart, where both woman and fetus needed to be rescued from the clinicians’ claws. She rightly highlights the way in which supposedly benign mandatory waiting periods enforce this view of the doctor as untrustworthy, uncaring, at the same time as belittling women. “They insult physicians – your state thinks you are so despicable that is a patient expressed uncertainty in the consent process, instead of suggesting she come back if and when she’s certain, you would herd her through for an abortion anyway.”(187-188) It was depressing to see that Ireland, in its much heralded new abortion legislation written from scratch, also opted for the mandatory waiting period and the continued criminalization of doctors in a way unmatched in any other form of Irish healthcare.

One of the abortion beneficiaries Watson identifies, an interviewee whose girlfriend ended a pregnancy while they were at college, but who has never spoken of it, or the life it has enabled him to live, comments on the need for more people to “come out”(72) about abortion. This attempt to draw parallels with the LGBT movement appears so obvious, and so tempting – particularly in the lights of the gains made on that front. But Watson is right to stress the problems of this approach – abortion is not an identity for the individual women who needs one. It is one event, usually not repeated, that may give her ownership of her own life story but which does not define her. No woman aspires to have an abortion – and on this side of the Atlantic we too are familiar with the philosophy of abortion support which runs “rape, incest, and me”(23), and not infrequently see women who say they are against abortion, but that their circumstances are different to those of the other women waiting. It explains why many of the direct beneficiaries of abortion would not necessarily be guided by that issue when it came to the polls – if it’s a service they have received, they might assume they will never need it again, and if they haven’t, they have no expectation they may need to – particularly in a climate where abortion is routinely stigmatized and exceptionalised. But for providers, not least because of the way abortion services are organized in the US – and also the UK, providing abortion care is their professional identity – and I absolutely share Watson’s view that were there to be a Will and Grace of abortion it would be providers who took center stage.

But while abortion itself as a singular event may never be an identity, there are crucial dots that must be drawn between abortion and other areas where reproductive autonomy is being eroded. I was surprised that Watson, writing from a US context where the relationship between abortion restrictions and persecution of women deemed to pose a risk to or to have harmed their fetus is more obvious than elsewhere, did not pursue this further. Paradoxically in the UK, we see support for women’s access to abortion growing at the same time as we see mounting censorship of women’s behavior in pregnancy – and indeed increasingly pre-pregnancy, including of women who have no desire or intention to get pregnant. Women of childbearing with epilepsy are now refused access to a particular drug, Sodium Valproate, unless they agree to accept a Long Acting Reversible Method of contraception and undergo regular pregnancy testing on the basis that the drug is known to be teratogenic to the fetus. It is important that women are fully informed of the risks to the fetus were they to become pregnant on this drug, but this new policy now effectively curtails women’s right to access the treatment most suited to her over the health of a fetus that does not even exist. It is particularly disheartening to see this recent development at a time when women with uncontrolled epilepsy remain among the most likely to die in pregnancy – often because they have come off medication for fear of harming their fetus. In a climate where obesity is now deemed to pose a risk not just to the fetus, but the future children of that fetus (even though the evidence for this is shaky in the extreme) women with high BMIs can struggle to persuade healthcare professionals to remove IUDs and implants to enable them to get pregnant. Although a case in 2014 seeking to establish that a woman who whose child was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome committed a crime by drinking in pregnancy failed, there is a relentless focus on the harms women cause their offspring by alcohol consumption. A new test is being developed in Scotland to establish whether a newborn’s first meconium can be used to accurately establish a woman’s alcohol use in pregnancy. The news of this development, which raises all manner of ethical questions about how it will be used, on whom, and what the consequences will be, was largely met with either indifference or support in a climate where fetuses are increasingly deemed to be at risk from the reckless actions of their mothers.

We may believe these initiatives are all aimed at ensuring the best possible outcomes for babies. Yet the fact that, in the UK at least, where the clear link between folate deficiency and neural tube defects in babies was first made decades ago, we have failed to fortify our flour with folic acid to improve pregnancy outcomes on the basis that we would be interfering in the diets of the entire public, not just women – shows these measures are often not driven by the desire for better outcomes but underpinned by the other social concerns such as obesity and alcohol, and the need to control women and their behavior. Which brings us back to abortion. In the final pages of her book, Watson gives us the image of the Russian Doll. “Nested inside an argument about embryonic and fetal status is a hidden argument about the proper role of women….Conflict is only productive when we’re honest about the real reasons we’re fighting. Let’s transform our political bickering into productive fighting by further unpacking the Russian Doll of abortion, and openly discussing how recent social changes are affecting people both practically and emotionally…if some abortion conflicts are largely about issues like gender, sexuality, and religion, it would be more productive to identify our true disagreements and discuss them directly.”(207)

And this is the real challenge that awaits us. Abortion discussions so often hinge on a wide range of other social tensions. A case in point is the opprobrium over sex selective abortion – where racists, feminists and anti-abortion campaigners unite in a curious alliance to crusade against a practice which largely does not exist in countries where there is not significant gender inequality – and, where it does take place, the answer is not to further restrict women’s already limited reproductive choices but challenge the misogyny that underpins and drives son preferences. Abortion is absolutely wrapped up in perceptions of good women and bad women, and nested inside that – to borrow Watson’s Russian doll analogy – good abortions and bad abortions, often also synonymous with the extraordinary and the ordinary. The role this book plays in bringing ordinary abortion to the fore, telling its story and casting the spotlight on its many beneficiaries, is invaluable to anyone involved in or looking to join the debate about abortion in the 21st Century, wherever they may be.

Clare Murphy

Director of External Affairs

British Pregnancy Advisory Service

London, UK

 

 

References:

Meredith, F. (2016, October 21). ‘The end of a life in the womb doesn’t compare with any other taking of human life’. The Irish Times. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/the-end-of-a-life-in-the-womb-doesn-t-compare-with-any-other-taking-of-human-life-1.2804888

Book Reviews

Sergio Sismondo, Ghost-Managed Medicine: Big Pharma’s Invisible Hands, Mattering Press, 2018

Sergio Sismondo coined the term “ghost-management” to characterize the broad behind-the-scenes activities of the pharmaceutical industry after he successfully infiltrated publication planning conferences and seminars from 2007 to 2017 as sort of academic spy. His academic espionage mission provided valuable intelligence. In addition to revelations from lawsuits against the pharmaceutical industry and accounts from former ghostwriters turned whistleblowers, Sismondo’s information from within has been crucial to understanding the corruption in the conduct and reporting of industry-sponsored medical research. Ghost-Managed Medicine exposes the conspiracy to conceal the players in the marketing of drugs, including ghostwriters, key opinion leaders, patient advocacy organizations, contract research organizations, publication planners, and even medical journal editors and publishers. The credibility of the claims conveyed by the industry depends on the invisibility of these players.

Publication planning of ghostwritten articles is the bedrock of this scheme. It is conducted by pharmaceutical companies working in conjunction with medical communication firms to plant marketing messages in medical journal articles. Medical communication firms also produce continuing medical education programs, medical conference presentations, and lunch and dinner drug talks from the same content that produced the journal articles, all delivered by physicians who have the greatest influence on prescribers, namely, the key opinion leaders or thought leaders.

Sismondo’s main example of the harm done to patients is the case of OxyContin (oxycodone), now infamous for its part in the opioid epidemic in North America which has taken over 200,000 lives (30-31). Sismondo begins his book describing a common scenario in which a patient takes a drug as prescribed by his physician. For prescribing strategies, the physician relies upon an article she read in a medical journal and a presentation at a medical conference. From this point Sismondo describes how the patient and physician’s trust that they are operating rationally is largely misguided because of a system designed to conceal all of the invisible forces of marketing which influenced the information available. But now let us suppose that the patient suffers a serious adverse event or even death as a result of the drug’s side effects. It turns out, as is so common in these situations, that the drug company concealed the adverse event in the articles published in the medical journals and was able to do so because the critical data from the clinical trials is the intellectual property of the company. Neither the ghostwriters nor the nominal “authors” on the articles ever see that data. In the case of OxyContin, one of the influential ghostmanaged medical journal articles was reprinted 10,000 times for distribution to prescribing physicians (34).

One of the most alarming revelations of this book is Sismondo’s discussion of the role of medical journal editors as co-conspirators in the corruption of medicine. Sismondo, who attended meetings of the International Society of Medical Planning Professionals and the International Publication Planning Association, reports that in addition to ghostwriters and medical communication executives, publishers and medical journal editors attended these meetings and gave lectures as stakeholders in the business of publishing the results of industry-sponsored clinical trials. Some medical journal editors gave sales pitches at these meetings, essentially soliciting publication planners to submit ghosted articles to their high-impact journals (91-94). Medical journals in this respect continue to be part of the problem rather than the solution to the problem. Instead of demanding rigorous peer review of submissions and an independent analysis of the data, most editors are eager to publish favorable articles of industry-sponsored trials and rarely publish critical deconstructions of ghostwritten clinical trials. This is due to the simple fact that medical journals and their owners have become dependent upon pharmaceutical revenue that comes in the form of advertising, reprint sales and, more recently, fees for open access.

Commenting on the role of ghostwriters in the process, Sismondo writes:

“Articles are produced by teams, perhaps no one member of which meets requirements for authorship. In this largely unseen process, pharma companies initiate and fund the planning, research, analysis, writing and placing of articles, and typically maintain control of data throughout. In the corporate production of knowledge, medical writers perform their functions, just as planners, company scientists and statisticians do. Authors are there to give a sheen of legitimacy and independence to articles” (104).

If the reader is struck by the distinction between a writer and an author, a distinction that could only make sense in the bizarre world of pharmaceutical publication planning, it is because the “author” is merely a name purchased in the marketing of drugs, typically a key opinion leader who might or might not have had a role to play in the actual research.

Sismondo’s use of the term “corporate production of knowledge” to describe this process throughout the book is particularly noteworthy. Given that the main problems with the ghost-management of corporate-sponsored medical research are the failures to do rigorous testing, manipulation of the efficacy and safety results and outright deception involved in the reporting of results via the ghostwriting of manuscripts, in what sense does this count as knowledge at all? The word “fraud” comes to mind as a more accurate description and the vast number of successful plaintiffs’ lawsuits has demonstrated the point. But here we have stumbled upon a philosophically-sensitive issue, for even when the process functions at its very best, in an uncorrupted, disinterested, rigorous manner, we might still pause at claiming we have arrived at what we might call “knowledge.” Philosophers of science and epistemologists are well aware of the difficulty. Justification remains elusive. Leaving this aside for the moment, however, there is still a common-sense distinction between honest and dishonest testing, accurate reporting and spin, and scientific integrity and scientific fraud. Honest testing, accurate reporting and scientific integrity are the subject matter of epistemology; dishonest testing, spin and fraud have become the subject matter of a new discipline, agnotology, the study of how the public is kept in the dark intentionally by manipulation and deception.

I would classify Sismondo’s work as agnotology. But having done a superb service to exposing the ghost-management of corporate medical research, there is a question of whether he views the corporate production of knowledge as just another social construction, neither better nor worse than non-commercial, academic science. He identifies his approach to these topics from frameworks established in Science and Technology Studies, a field that always treats “knowledge as something constructed, and not just waiting to be found” (10). While he acknowledges that “it is beyond doubt that some of the claims that drug companies make and promote are poorly justified, and some are false in egregious ways,”(12) he views the knowledge produced by these companies as within the medical mainstream. The data produced is “of reasonably high quality using the most valued of research tools; they go on to analyse it using standard statistical means, and construct articles that pass the scrutiny of peer reviewers at many of the best medical journals” (12-13). Yet Sismondo also believes there are serious concerns about the practices of pharmaceutical companies since the medical world is influenced by their agenda. He writes: “The flood of knowledge that companies create and distribute is not designed for broad human benefit, but to increase profits” (13).

Rather than describe the pharmaceutical industry’s business as a ‘corporate production of knowledge,’ I would rather Sismondo had said it has the “appearance of science” since, after all, its prime directive is sales. It is the development of blockbusters that should cause the most alarm, for the recent record shows this is where there is most potential for misrepresentation. Physicist Richard Feynman introduced the term “cargo cult science” during his 1974 commencement address at the California Institute of Technology as a means of exposing the façade of commercial science. This refers to the story that certain Pacific Islanders have been known to build mock airports with control towers, runways and mock airplanes with the expectation that planes will land and bring material wealth, although nothing actually functions as an airport. No planes land even though what is created has the form of an airport. So, with regard to the pharmaceutical industry, all the co-conspirators create the appearance of science, i.e., clinical trials, medical journal articles, scientific posters, speakers at conferences, etc., but there is very little that could count as genuine attempt at knowledge.

If passing peer review demonstrates that the corporate production of knowledge qualifies as mainstream medicine, then something is seriously wrong with peer review in medicine. Indeed I believe that Sismondo himself provides the evidence why this is the case although he does not come to this conclusion in his book; the players involved maintain the status quo in a win-win situation for themselves―except when patients are harmed, the resulting lawsuits reveal the corruption and the industry suffers reputational harm for producing pseudo-science and polluting our scientific record with misrepresentations of the data.

Although I have disagreements with Sismondo over his philosophical perspective, I believe Ghost-Managed Medicine should be read by every physician who prescribes medications and patients who rely on the information conveyed to them by their physicians, as it encourages a healthy skepticism about medicine in a market economy.

Leemon B. McHenry

California State University

Northridge, California

Book Reviews

Shannon Vallor, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting, Oxford University Press, 2016

Some books can be said to represent ‘new beginnings’, opening up new spaces for academic discourse and new methods and perspectives. Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues can rightfully be claimed to be one of those books. There is much about this book that is not only laudable but also urgent. First, it has managed to firmly establish virtue ethics as a tradition worthy of consideration in the field of ethics of technology. Other authors have suggested such a turning (Ess 2009, Coeckelbergh 2012), but none have done it so far in a manner that can live up to the comprehensiveness of Technology and the Virtues. Second, the book has served the virtue ethics tradition well in convincingly arguing for its continuing relevance in a time of serious sociotechnical challenges. As our moral critiques of technologies are increasingly entangled in discussions of existential threats that are claimed to be too complex to be handled by common human beings and call for an enhancement of our species, Vallor’s urgent call back to earth, back to our own human capabilities, will be welcomed by many. Third, it establishes a way of approaching matters in moral philosophy that is quite uncommon today, namely drawing from not only the ‘Western’ perspective but also systematic moral philosophies from other cultures: Buddhist and Confucian ethics. This echoes the increasing need in a multipolar world to build bridges between moral traditions, to construct a global dialogue (insofar possible) concerning the good life and the kind of societies we want to live in.

Vallor’s book is structured in a convincing way and guides the reader from foundational questions to a framework of the ‘technomoral’ virtues, and to a series of in-depth case studies of contemporary technologies: social media, surveillance technologies, robots, and human enhancement technologies. In the introduction and Part I of the book, Vallor has three main objectives. The first is to argue for the existence of a so-called state of “acute sociotechnical opacity” (6) in the 21st century, which means that the practical circumstances of our everyday lives are changing so rapidly due to technological innovations that we cannot reasonably anticipate the impact of future states of affairs on our morality. This notion provides Vallor with the resources to argue against the use of utilitarian ethics, due to its false reliance on transparent choices based on the rational calculation of their outcomes, and against Kantian ethics, due to the impossibility of any categorical rule to respond to highly contingent future states of affairs. Virtue ethics is presented as a modest but viable alternative, in that enables us to acknowledge the existence of sociotechnical opacity and at the same time offers us a strategy for self-cultivation that empowers us to manage it prudently. The second objective is to introduce the revival of the virtue ethics tradition, to connect it to contemporary philosophy of technology, and to make the claim that both should be wary of their Western provincialism and engage in a global dialogue because the problems they address (e.g. climate change) are of a global character. The third objective is to lay down the fundamentals of the three virtue ethics traditions used in the book (Aristotelian, Buddhist, and Confucian) and to argue for their convergence on four major issues: a conception of the highest human good, of virtues as cultivated states of character, of a practical path for moral self-cultivation, and of a the existence of an essence of human beings (44).

In Part II of the book, Vallor presents seven “core elements” (64) or perhaps rather conditions of the practices that mediate the cultivation of technomoral virtues. These conditions pertain to the ‘how’ of the cultivation of technomoral virtue, indicating according to what kinds of standards we could for instance evaluate our educational, mentoring, and training practices. Vallor painstakingly discusses the details of the accounts of cultivation of virtue in the three virtue ethics traditions she draws from to formulate a common ground for each core element. Concerning the first element, she argues that our practices should be engaged with habitually: meaning that one repeats them, guided by moral exemplars and eventually gets accustomed to them in a positive sense (74). For the second element, she contends that practices should be engaged with from within a relational understanding: meaning that they should be understood in the context of our relations with other members of the moral community, making them responsive to the particular aspects of these relations (83). The additional five elements she discusses include reflective self-examination, intentional self-direction, moral attention, prudential judgment and appropriate extension of moral concern. Vallor makes a distinction between the first four elements and the latter three, arguing that the first four enable practical wisdom and the latter three complete or conclude it.

Additionally, Vallor presents a list of technomoral virtues that she argues answers the ‘what’ of technomoral virtue. She emphasises that these technomoral virtues should not be understood as radically ‘new’ virtues that somehow resulted from our living with new technologies, but rather as virtues understood in the context of the particular ways in which they are cultivated in the 21st century. For instance, one could consider that the meaning of ‘bravery’ in war has not remained fixed since Homer’s time, but has changed according to the development of technologies of war, signifying different kinds of cultivation for a hoplite and for a jetfighter pilot. As MacIntyre argued, different historical periods and contexts have brought about different heuristics of virtue (MacIntyre 2007, 118), which thereby also implied different theories of virtue. Vallor lists twelve virtues that she argues are of particular relevance for our contemporary human condition in the context of sociotechnical opacity: honesty, self-control, humility, justice, courage, empathy, care, civility, flexibility, perspective, magnanimity, and technomoral wisdom (120). For each of these virtues, Vallor aims to find common ‘roots’ amongst the Aristotelian, Buddhist and Confucian virtue ethics traditions and to clarify their particular relevance in relation with new and emerging technologies. We might illustrate her approach through a discussion of self-control (123). Under the heading of this technomoral virtue, Vallor subsumes Aristotle’s virtue of temperance, the Buddhist virtue of right desire and the Confucian virtue of self-discipline. She contextualises the significance of this technomoral virtue in relation to technology, by discussing how ICTs create an environment in which people are constantly primed and distracted.

In Part III of her book, Vallor presents three illuminating case studies of paradigmatic contemporary technologies – social media, surveillance technology, robotics, human enhancement technology – and evaluates these using her virtue ethics of technology approach. Vallor introduces each case by means of a short historical narrative about the technology in question and relates it to relevant scholarly critiques. She then discusses each technology by invoking relevant technomoral virtues. Accordingly, she offers solutions based on the discussion, usually in terms of what virtues should be cultivated in what way. To illustrate: for her analysis of social media (159) she first discusses the rise of social media in contemporary society and some of the problems it brought according to a number of scholars, for instance with regard to anxiety and loneliness of children and privacy concerns. Second, she analyses social media by discussing the virtues of self-control (social media being addictive), empathy (social media generating less face-to-face contact and attention), humility, honesty and perspective (social media shaping distortions of information) and civility (social media individualising the common good). Thirdly, she presents three ways of dealing with the problems she describes: (1) paying attention to the cultivation of character and not merely to progressing technology, (2) creating better spaces for technomoral education and (3) recognising and promoting individuals and groups who show leadership in promoting technomoral virtues.

Due to its originality, clarity and appealing style, Vallor’s book will be a very useful resource for STEM students, scholars and practitioners who want to engage with normative ethics and for ethicists of technology who want to investigate the ethical issues of new and emerging technologies from a virtue ethics perspective. Nevertheless, I will raise two points of critique. First, I believe there is an issue with the conceptual coherence employed throughout the work. Even though this might well be justified with recourse to the pragmatic aims of the book (Vallor 2017, 214), it invokes uncertainty for the reader as to what is actually claimed. For instance, the term “virtue” itself seems to be deployed rather loosely. Vallor sometimes invokes the commonly used definitions of virtue as “excellence”, “stable trait” (17) and “disposition” (18). However, she also discusses virtue as “discerning skill” (37) in her treatment of Aristotelian ethics, and as “recognition” (126) in her treatment of the technomoral virtue of humility.

I believe that this lack of conceptual coherence points at three problems in the book. First, Vallor does not present any philosophical anthropology even though she argues that virtue ethics theories are all based on a “conception of what human beings are generally like” (44). In contrast, one of Aristotle’s primary concerns in the Nicomachean Ethics seems to be to establish the basic concepts of a philosophical anthropology. He thereby made sure to distinguish virtue (arête) from skill (technê), and state (hexis) from capacity (dunamis), and also to distinguish the virtues of character, corresponding to the non-rational part of the soul that obeys reason, from the virtues of the intellect, corresponding to the part of the soul that has reason. Vallor both accidentally identifies virtue with skill and makes no distinction between the virtues of character and of the intellect, even though some of the technomoral virtues are ambiguously positioned as ‘in-betweens’. For instance, she defines honesty as “an exemplary respect for truth, along with the practical expertise to express that respect appropriately in technosocial contexts” (122). How are we to understand this virtue? Does it correspond with a virtue of the intellect that Aristotle denotes as understanding (nous), or does it correspond with some rhetoric skill (technê), or with some mix between the two?

Certainly, one might argue that such conceptual rigour as Aristotle deploys is actually undesirable in constructing a pragmatic outline for a virtue ethics of technology. However, this leads me to a second problem, namely the fairly uncritical conceptual conflation between terms that are used in different virtue ethics traditions. Others have already offered critiques of the book based on concerns in comparative philosophy (Curzer 2017, Mcrae 2017), arguing that for instance some Buddhist ethical concepts are wrongly interpreted or that the doctrine of the mean essentially differs between the three traditions that Vallor draws from. I will not argue along these lines and I find Vallor’s reply fairly convincing, in which she states that she intends to draw from different traditions as sources of “moral imagination about the virtues” (Vallor 2017, 309). However, I argue that in providing “a broad conceptual footing for a new global ethic” (Vallor 2017, 315), greater conceptual coherence within the confines of Vallor’s framework could be expected. Such conceptual coherence would involve a critical discussion of not only the common ground but also of the conflicts between the different virtue ethics traditions as they are appropriated. Sometimes, I believe, this also will have to involve ‘choosing sides’, and being upfront about this. For instance, if justice is to be a virtue to be incorporated in the conceptual footing of a global ethic, the clear difference between the Confucian notion of justice based on the extension of fatherly rule in the household and Aristotle’s notion of justice based on distribution between equals in the polis should be acknowledged. Though Vallor acknowledges that justice is the virtue that is “perhaps the broadest and most varied in its interpretations” (127), she clearly aligns herself with the Aristotelian interpretation and thereby to a significant extent against the Confucian one. Brushing over this difference is not a case of respecting different cultural traditions, but disregarding differences in conceptualisations of justice.

This brings me to the third problem, according to which I find myself in disagreement with Vallor. Even though she argues in agreement with Nussbaum that the “core meaning of a virtue such as wisdom, courage, or justice is fixed by reference to some enduring domain of human experience”, she nonetheless argues, that “as with all taxonomies of virtue, ours remains subject to open-ended elaboration and revision” (119). On the one hand, she argues this to be the case because the virtues have to evolve according to the technosocial conditions of a certain historical period. How would this fit with the earlier statement, if not pertaining to a change in ‘core meaning’? If their meanings would be fixed, it seems unclear how we can end up with different conceptualisations of the virtues. On the other hand, Vallor seems to suggest that a list of all technomoral virtues would be practically inexhaustible. I also cannot agree with this statement, both because different historical versions of virtue ethics have provided exhaustive lists of the virtues (cf. MacIntyre 2007), and because this somehow suggests that we can arbitrarily come up with new human dispositions that should be designated as virtues because they fit the conventional wisdom of a certain epoch. Instead, I believe that every ‘version’ of virtue ethics departs from a philosophical anthropology that is itself bounded by the being of human beings. Just as we can deliberate for instance about what constitutes a ‘sense’ and at the same time do not see the list of ‘human senses’ as open-ended or inexhaustible, so we can deliberate about what constitutes a virtue without recognising an open-ended list of virtues. Rather, the virtues have to be supported by a certain account of the being of human beings, for instance by relating temperance to the modes of being of pleasure and pain. Different lists of the virtue indeed exist, but they are not inexhaustible and they are not properly speaking open-ended and ‘open to revision’, because to revise the list implies revising the philosophical anthropology that underlies it.

My critique pertaining to the conceptual coherence of Vallor’s work is by no means a criticism of the overall significance and usefulness of the book, but rather points at a readership (i.e. virtue theorists) that will find less resources in the book than it might hope for. A similar concern brings me to a second point of critique, though this suggests a potential avenue for future research rather than something that could have been done differently in the current book. That is, Vallor’s book does not offer us new insights into the phenomenon of technological mediation that is central to the field of philosophy of technology. This is somewhat surprising given that she dedicates a whole section to “virtue ethics and philosophy of technology” (23). In that section, she mentions for example Hans Jonas as an important philosopher in this regard, who indeed in his work on technology points at the importance of the virtues (Jonas 1973, 37). We should note, in this regard, that Jonas ultimately wanted to question the changing nature of human action (praxis) (Jonas 1973, 31). In other words, he saw a need for investigating the ways in which praxis itself changes in the modern epoch1, not merely how the virtues gain a different significations in different technological contexts. However, the reader will find out that Vallor mostly wants to put her approach in line with contemporary philosophy of technology, rather than to contribute to it.

Even though Vallor acknowledges the dual character of the central concern of her book, namely to consider what we can do to live well with technologies and what technologies do to us, the emphasis in Technology and the Virtues clearly lies on the first aspect. A clue to Vallor’s limited emphasis on technological mediation of praxis can be gained from her discussion of the challenge posed to virtue ethics by moral psychology. She discusses the argument that is related to the famous Milgram experiments in which “research subjects were asked to ‘punish’ a screaming ‘victim’ with realistic (but simulated) shocks at the polite request of an experimenter” (Merritt et al., 2010)2. Moral psychologists argue that experiments like this one show “that the difference between good conduct and bad appears to reside in the situation more than in the person” (Merritt et al. 2010, 357 – emphasis added). This is conceived as an attack on the notion of human character that is central to virtue ethics, because our character allegedly should enable us to act morally right in a consistent manner. One can start to criticise this interpretation of the findings by arguing that the concept of “situation” is black-boxed in this approach and that the particular context of the experiment is left un-examined. However, Vallor takes another approach to defend virtue ethics, arguing that her approach holds because virtue is “by definition exemplary rather than typical” (Vallor 2016, 22). The fact that a small minority of research subjects refrained from following the requests of the experimenter is seen as decisive for acknowledging the correctness of virtue ethics. In other words, the agency of the human subjects who resisted the request for engaging in the experiment is taken as a reflection of a categorical form of their strength of character that in turn proves the validity of a virtue ethics approach.

This defence seems to be unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. First, the claim that virtue is cultivated by means of following the practices of exemplary figures does not entail that virtue is by definition exemplary rather than typical. Instead, virtue ethics traditions allow for different degrees in virtuous character (hence, having a degree of virtuous character is typical), in which exemplary members of a certain moral community display the highest degrees. Particular groups or communities can consist of mostly vicious or mostly virtuous people, or can be mixed. Second, different experiments in moral psychology show different levels of “virtuous behaviour” (Merritt et al. 2010, 356-357), understood as consistency in engagement in particular actions, which implies that someone whose virtuous character enables her to cope with one challenging moral setting might be unable to cope with another, depending on the context. This does not mean that such a person’s character is not ‘virtuous’, but instead that whether the degree to which her virtuous character is sufficiently cultivated to deal with a particular situation depends in part on the situation, or is mediated by the situation, and not merely by the agent’s character. If we accept this claim, moral psychologists seem to be at least to some extent warranted in drawing their conclusions. Third, the supposed warrant that a minority of people will be able to deal with situations like the one presented in this experiment, which – importantly – is not technosocially opaque (people are aware of the way in which their actions conducted through technologies have certain consequences) is one that no moral philosophy can be satisfied with and especially not one that introduces the additional factor of technosocial opacity. In a world of technosocial opacity, the virtuous conduct of a small minority is not sufficient for safeguarding the flourishing of humanity; and can even less be expected given the greater complexity and opacity as compared to the Milgram experiment. For instance, we can consider whether a person who is not a digital native with the highest degree of virtuous character would be sufficiently capable of dealing with the novel setting of ubiquitous digital technologies. The answer would probably be negative.

Nonetheless, this does not disqualify the project of constructing a virtue ethics of technology. Rather, it shows that technomoral virtues are co-shaped by both people’s characters and by ‘settings’. A philosopher of technology would criticise the conclusions drawn by moral psychologists on the basis that the factor of technological mediation is fully ‘black-boxed’ by sketching the concept of ‘setting’ as something that is somehow separated from a person. Instead, she would argue that on the one hand ‘setting’ – in contrast to what Vallor argues – should be taken seriously, but that on the other hand the concept of setting should be turned into a concept of technological mediation. Especially in the case of the Milgram experiment, the factor of technological mediation seems important for understanding the ‘situation’. The technology of an electronic system being triggered by a voltage lever constitutes a process of what one might designate as ‘distancing’: the research subject does not simply ‘hurt’ a victim, but seemingly hurts the victim in a mediated way, through a device that presents no feedback with regard to the severity of the harm and in an architecture that separates the research subject from the victim and thereby creates a moral distance between them. Such an interpretation is warranted by some recent discussions of the Milgram experiment. For instance, Haslam et al. (2014) argue that the setup of the experiment, which included aspects like its “location, the appearance and behaviour of the experimenter, and the technical apparatus” (Haslam et al. 2014, 275 – emphasis added) mediated the interpretation of research participants of their actions as taking place in the context of the paradigm of scientific research.

Hence, Vallor seems to emphasise the side of human agency in her book, while not delving into the side of technological mediation of human practices. This tendency can be observed in the solutions she puts forward for problems posed by technology, be-it “improved technomoral education”(204), “cultivating technomoral humility” (207) or cultivating “renewed technomoral courage” (218). More importantly, it can be observed in the almost complete absence of discussions of technology in the elaboration of the core elements of technical practice that cultivates the virtues. Exactly with regard to these conditions, which to some extent sketch the outlines of a theory of practice, Hans Jonas’ question of the changing nature of human action could have come to the fore. For instance, if ‘relational understanding’ is a condition for having practices that cultivate the relevant technomoral virtues, how could we theorise the way that emerging technologies mediate this condition? Knowing this would be of crucial importance for designing systems that are conducive for virtuous practices, setting up education for engineers engaging in technical practices, and so forth.

Notwithstanding the abovementioned two points of critique, Technology and the Virtues represents a very important and timely turn in the field of ethics of technology. It provides the reader with a vast amount of resources to engage with ethics in practices of technology development and challenges us to think about the importance of the cultivation of the right kinds of technical practices in the 21st century, in order to live well with emerging technologies. As Vallor (2017) herself indicates, her book is a first, firm step in an academic journey that connects the virtue ethics tradition with philosophy and ethics of technology. For future research, it could be worth delving into the important distinction made by Aristotle between the virtues and the technai, the crafts; especially in the context of Heidegger’s (1977) highly influential critique of technology that, as for instance Wolff shows (Wolff 2008), draws heavily from Aristotle discussion of the virtues. This might draw discussions of technological mediation in philosophy of technology and virtue ethics closer together. Also, on a more practical note, it might be worth considering how Vallor’s approach could contribute to an ethical design approach such as value sensitive design (Friedman and Kahn 2002), in order to make it responsive to the development of the right kind of technical practices that cultivate the virtues.

Endnotes

1 This is a topic taken up by philosophers of technology such as Ihde (1990) and Verbeek (2005).
2 Even though the ‘victim’ was an actor who had to pretend that he was hurt by the simulated electric shocks, the experimental setup was sufficiently convincing for the participants to be conceived as being real. The overall outcome of this experiment was that 33 out of 40 research subjects continued the experiment after initial protests of the victim and that 26 of them continued through agonised screaming and a final unresponsive silence.

Wessel Reijers

European University Institute

Florence, Italy

References

Coeckelbergh, M. (2012) ‘Care Robots, Virtual Virtue and the Best Possible Life’, in Brey, P., Briggle, A., and Spence, E. (eds) The Good Life in a Technological Age. New York: Routledge.

Curzer, H. J. (2017) ‘Yesterday’s Virtue Ethicists Meet Tomorrow’s High Tech: A Critical Response to Technology and the Virtues by Shannon Vallor’, Philosophy and Technology. Philosophy & Technology, 31(2), pp. 283–292. doi: 10.1007/s13347-017-0269-z.

Ess, C. (2009) Digital Media Ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Friedman, B. and Kahn, P. (2002) ‘Value sensitive design: Theory and methods’, University of Washington Technical, (December), pp. 1–8. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2007.08.009.

Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D. and Birney, M. E. (2014) ‘Nothing by mere authority: Evidence that in an experimental analogue of the milgram paradigm participants are motivated not by orders but by appeals to science’, Journal of Social Issues, 70(3), pp. 473–488. doi: 10.1111/josi.12072.

Heidegger, M. (1977) The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Graland Publishing, Inc.

Ihde, D. (1990) Technology and the Lifeworld. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. doi: 10.1049/et:20060114.

Jonas, H. (1973) ‘Technology and Responsibility: Reflections on the New Tasks of Ethics’, Social Research, 40(1), pp. 31–54.

MacIntyre, A. (2007) After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Third Edit. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. doi: 10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004.

Mcrae, E. (2017) ‘Finding a Place for Buddhismin the Ethics of the Future: Comments on Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting’, Philosophy and Technology. Philosophy & Technology, Advance On. doi: 10.1007/s13347-017-0287-x.

Merritt, M. W., Doris, J. M. and Harman, G. (2010) ‘Chapter 11: Character’, in Doris, J. M. (ed.) The Moral Psychology Handbook, pp. 1–504. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199582143.001.0001.

Wolff, E. (2008) ‘Aspects of Technicity in Heidegger’s Early Philosophy: Rereading Aristotle’s Techné and Hexis’, Research in Phenomenology, 38, pp. 317–357.

Vallor, S. (2016) Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vallor, S. (2017) ‘Technology and the Virtues : a Response to My Critics’, Philosophy and Technology, 31(2), pp. 305–316. doi: 10.1007/s13347-017-0289-8.

Verbeek, P.-P. (2005) What things do; philosophical reflections on technology, agency, and design. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press.

Book Reviews

John S. Haller Jr., Shadow Medicine: The Placebo in Conventional and Alternative Therapies, Columbia University Press, 2014

Placebos are much discussed in both the medical and philosophy of medicine literatures. Once narrowly defined as inert “sugar pills,” (Holman 2015), they now are now most often taken to be “treatments that appear similar to experimental treatments, but that lack their characteristic components” (Howick et. al. 2013). In addition to their use in the control groups of many clinical trials, placebos are also now widely recognized by medical practitioners to be powerful therapies in themselves, often outperforming conventional drug therapies in these studies.

Given this, I find Haller’s book, which is divided into six chapters, “Evidence Based Medicine,” “Postmodernist Medicine,” “The Powerful Placebo,” “Politics of Healing,” “Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s Challenge,” “Reassessment,” an introduction and an appendix, to be interesting, yet difficult to interpret with regard to his main thesis. As far as I can tell, Haller’s central claim is that, given the currently available evidence, we should understand complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments to be placebos rather than actual treatments. In Haller’s view, CAM is an “opinion-based system,” which is “not unlike faith healing,” (p. 82) and is concerned not with mechanisms of action, but rather solely with patient outcomes. CAM is thus contrasted in the book with evidence based medicine (EBM), which Haller argues relies on scientific evidence (in particular the randomized controlled trial, or RCT) rather than personal belief and is concerned not just with whether or not a treatment works, but also with how it does. On his view, EBM is thus “rationalist” while CAM is “empiricist.”

This characterization of EBM vs. CAM, while central is the book, is problematic. In contrast to what Haller asserts, it is a hallmark of EBM that it is explicitly not concerned with mechanistic evidence. That is exactly the power (or the pitfall) of the much celebrated RCT. RCTs are designed to tell us whether or not a treatment works, not how it does (Kennedy and Malanowski 2018). On the EBM paradigm, mechanistic reasoning is considered to be a far inferior form of evidence to randomized trials, and in some cases is not even considered to be evidence at all. It seems fair to say, then, that both EBM and CAM are primarily concerned with therapeutic effectiveness and patient outcomes, rather than with mechanisms of action. (As an aside, this should mean that, contra to what many CAM practitioners argue, the RCT should in fact be a reliable method for testing the effectiveness of CAM therapies. On the other hand, this means that EBM practitioners cannot dismiss CAM treatments as “sham,” merely on the basis of the lack of a mechanistic explanation that describes how such therapies, such as homeopathy. By its own lights, EBM argues that mechanisms either don’t matter or don’t matter much. Instead, what matters in medicine is whether or a not a treatment is a) safe and b) effective.) The same, it seems, can be said of CAM, but this important similarity between EBM and CAM seems to escape Haller’s notice.

Further, in some parts of the book, Haller seems to contrast “placebos” with actual treatments, while in other parts, he seems to acknowledge that placebos are treatments. On the one hand, he claims that the placebo is “a product of postmodernist medicine,” which he describes a reaction to and against reductionist scientific medicine, because it interjects “subjectivity, uncertainty and ambiguity into the clinical encounter” (63). This seems to suggest that the way placebos work cannot (or at least should not) be understood scientifically. On the other hand, however, Haller argues that placebos are “real,” in that they “affect patients physiologically as well as psychologically. They alter blood pressure, heart, respiratory rate, and even body temperature” (73).

This tension, between the old view of placebos as inert and the newer view that acknowledges that they can be efficacious (and testable) treatments in themselves is certainly an issue well worth exploring – and Haller should be commended for doing so. The book could be much clearer, however, in exactly what it is arguing. Is the claim that placebos can and should be used in medicine (broadly construed so as to include both EBM and CAM)? Or is it that CAM shouldn’t be understood as medicine, properly construed, because it relies on a placebo effect” that cannot be scientifically measured or verified? Or is it that “Western science needs to advance beyond the current reductionist model to some blending of the subjective and social aspects of healing that includes the placebo?” (p. 157) Should or should not placebos be considered as potentially efficacious treatments in either CAM or EBM? And is this something that can be objectively decided? These questions, while hovering under the surface in the book are neither clearly explicated nor adequately answered.

The book does do a good job of giving a thorough history of the evidence based medicine movement and the advent and subsequent widespread acceptance of the randomized controlled trial (in the first chapter), as well as the history of homeopathy (in chapter 5). Readers interested in these topics will find a helpful resource here. For a more complete philosophical and medical exploration of placebos, however, they will likely need to look elsewhere.

Ashley Graham Kennedy

Florida Atlantic University

Boca Raton, FL

 

References

Holman, Bennett. (2015) “Why Sugar Pills are not Placebos” Philosophy of Science, 82 (December 2015) pp. 1330– 1343.

Howick J, Friedemann C, Tsakok M, Watson R, Tsakok T, et al. (2013) Are Treatments More Effective than Placebos? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62599

Kennedy, Ashley and Sarah Malanowski. (2018) “Mechanistic reasoning and informed consent.” Bioethics p. 1-7.

Book Reviews

Victoria Pitts-Taylor, The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics, Duke University Press, 2016

The brain matters. Says the opening line from Victoria Pitts-Taylor’s The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics. On the face of it, the human brain matters inasmuch as it is the body’s central information processing organ; the CEO that presides over many of our executive bodily functions. But the brain matters beyond the ways in which it has biologically evolved and currently processes information. The brain also matters in social thought, as neuroscientific research has historically informed widespread perceptions of certain bodies and persons at the social and institutional level. Moreover, the brain is embodied, and bodies accrue social and political meanings beyond what they represent at the level of scientific interest. Pitts-Taylor takes this interplay between science and culture as her starting point, and she investigates the entanglement of brains and bodies with cultures and ideologies (1).

The project of Pitts-Taylor’s book can be broadly situated at the crossroads of feminist theory, neuroscience, philosophy of biology, social epistemology, and queer and disability theory. In the introduction, she limns the broad historical architecture of this varied, interdisciplinary locale. For much of 20th century thought, the brain and the mind had been separately conceptualized as objects of philosophical and scientific inquiry. The brain belonged to the body, for the most part, while the mind was conceived as an epiphenomenal happening of its own. Toward the end of the century, however, such conceptual distinctions began to seriously weaken, as the boundaries between philosophy, cognitive science, and neuroscience started to erode. Soon, the brain and the mind coalesced into a biological whole, and a new conception of the mind as both embodied and deeply social came into prominence among some researchers in the neurobiological sciences. At this juncture, the mind/brain, with its deeply social profile and underpinnings, was no longer regarded as biologically fixed. Instead, the brain was now understood as “the product of embodied experience,” as “the foundation for (and reflected in) social structures,” and as “subject to intervention and transformation” (5).

The Brain’s Body follows in this lineage of naturalistic questioning into, among other things, the mindedness of the body, the bio-materiality of cognition, and the situatedness of cognizing bodies in material cultures. In the spirit of critical rebelliousness, however, Pitts-Taylor’s book turns this lineage on itself, animating its critique and commentary by calling the cultural situatedness of this tradition itself into question. If the brain, qua the object of study, is plastic and can be socially influenced, should we not, qua theorists of the embodied brain, also heed and problematize the ways that such influences configure into our theorizing about the brain and the body? Pitts-Taylor thinks that we should! But this means that our theorizing about the brain is itself deeply plastic and impressionable, and thus open to the influence of social and ideological structures. Pitts-Taylor’s book, in a nutshell, is concerned with this concentric interplay of brains, bodies, and power structures. In a view that the book persuasively argues for, this interdependence is not merely symbolic, but also extends into the ways in which material structures are configured, including the literal structure of the brain. As such, and as the subtitle of the work suggests, “the book is concerned with the corporeal politics of the brain and the neurobiological body,”(5) wherein the interplay of discourse and ideology manifests not merely through symbolisms and at the level of representations, but also in the corporeality of the world around us.

Along these lines, Chapter 1 offers a discussion of the phenomenon of plasticity. The concept of neural plasticity, which refers to the ability of our brains to change and be changed, captures an exciting reprieve from the orthodoxy of neurodeterminism and biological reductionism. But, with the advancement of various forms of biotechnology, plasticity research also now holds potential for different modes of biogovernance and pharmaceutical intervention into contemporary life.1 As such, plasticity is a condition that has to be reckoned with, especially at this late stage of capitalism, where any possibility for modification and transformation is often concomitantly also regarded as a possibility for commercial control. For Pitts-Taylor, confronting such possibilities brings two questions to the fore.

First, is it possible to extract the neural essence of plasticity from its representations in everyday and scientific discourse? For flat-footed social constructionists, this is an impossible task, since the world is nothing but a concatenation of representational acts, and such acts are ideologically inflected through and through.2As such, searching for true objectivity, somewhere out there in the really real world, is fundamentally misguided since ‘objectivity’ is merely a conceptual device that we employ in the service of making sense of our chaotic experiences. This is unconvincing for Pitts-Taylor, and rightly so, because such accounts neglect an important question about how meanings are materialized into matter, or “how they literally modify brains and body-subjects, and, conversely, how they are touched by what they represent” (20). It is undeniably true that our concepts have meaning insofar as we attribute meanings to them. But we are also materially embedded beings, and concept use takes place on this material terrain, populated with things, people, relationships, etc. In other words, our concepts draw on this materiality and in turn shape it. As theorists of the mind and the world, we therefore have to be alert to this interplay and interaction, and the progressive and oppressive possibilities that it entails.

Second, what is the relationship between plasticity and agency? In what sense, asks Pitts-Taylor, is the plastic brain a work, and to whose agency does this work belong? Popular science tells us that the potential of plasticity truly belongs to us; that we are masters of our own neural domain, as it were.3 But as culturally situated agents, many of our actions bear the imprint of cultural influences. The plastic brain is thus no exception to such forms of cultural inscription. But given that cultures are repositories of social and political meanings, this means that the plastic brain is susceptible to the influence of meanings generated by way of social hierarchies and political inequalities. Consequently, the plastic brain can be regarded as a site of both individual and social agency. Such forms of agency are coconstitutively performed in the world, in social practices of relating to others, making use of various tools, interacting with institutions, developing an identity, and so on. The plastic brain, in other words, does not singly represent either the inscriptions of culture or the imprint of nature. Rather, the biosocial plastic brain represents both, as a “configuration of matter and meaning that achieves itself in entanglement with the world” (35).

Chapter 2 pushes this analysis further, and explores the ways in which variegated and discrepant materialities, as they are experienced in and through our different bodies, produce and result in discrepant ways of embodied perceiving and cognizing. The mind is inextricable from the physical body, as has been suggested by embodied theorists of cognition.4 Along similar lines, feminist epistemologists tell us that the body-subject is the vantage point of knowledge, wherein the situated character of knowledge gives rise to differentiated, intersecting, multiple, and even conflicting epistemic truths. Conjoined with such claims is the further claim from disability studies that not only do different bodies afford access to different truths, but that “environments and social investments affect how well bodies and worlds come together” (53). As such, there is no universal direction of fit between embodied minds and the world, for bodies and embodied subjects come in a variety of shapes, colours, abilities, genders, and orientations.  Much of the discussion of Chapter 2 is an attempt at impressing this point on embodied cognition theories, some of whose interlocutors theorize the relationship between brain, body, and world as fundamental to cognition, but also simultaneously understate the importance of bodily differences to embodied cognizing.

Chapter 3 examines and appraises the most dominant model of mirror neurons, according to which mirroring is embodied simulation and serves as the universal basis for empathy and intersubjectivity. In her discussion, Pitts-Taylor calls into question the basic assumptions of this model, especially the commonplace presumption that we are naturally empathic beings and that sociality arises out of our inborn ability to empathize with conspecifics.5 It is in the service of justifying such assumptions that mind reading theories are often proposed and defended. As Pitts-Taylor argues, however, such accounts often understate the role that difference and conflict play in our social interactions. In the absence of a discussion of such complexities, the account that we ultimately get from mind reading theories is a “caricature of sociality,” (83) which in everyday life is often experienced through clashes of perspective, differences of judgment, and non-coordinated action. Take racialization, for example, and the consistently mistaken (and deadly) association between Blackness and criminality among police officers in the United States. What goes wrong with our natural ability to understand the actions of another when, at a traffic stop, a police officer mistakes a wallet for a gun, as a Black man reaches into his pocket to produce ID and is subsequently shot and killed by an officer of law? As Pitts-Taylor asks, can mainstream theories of mind make sense of such an injustice, whose proportions are undoubtedly systemic and institutional, but that arises out of conflicts that are fundamental to how differently situated agents experience the world?6

In Chapter 4, Pitts-Taylor finishes by offering a critique of the standard heteronormative articulations of kinship in the neurobiological sciences. Kinship is a highly contested phenomenon, and how we make sense of this phenomenon will inform almost every aspect of our social lives. Accordingly, the discussion of this chapter draws on many of the themes from earlier in the book. To orient this discussion, Pitts-Taylor contrasts two construals of kinship. On the social constructivist account, culture dictates the rules for kinship, not biology, and thus kinship can be variously rescripted to enable alternative modes of relatedness. Conversely, on the genetic account, kinship evolves out of sexually dimorphic biologies in the service of reproductive imperatives. The biogenetic account is blatantly reductionist and heteronormative; the social constructivists are thereby justified in their criticism of the conclusions that this model’s assumptions invariably terminate in. That said, an understanding of kinship, in Pitts-Taylor’s view, has to also address “the body’s capacities for generating intercorporeal bonds,” wherein affective bonds are not merely rooted in cultural discourse but are also felt, embodied, and biological (98). To motivate such an account, Pitts-Taylor turns toward queer articulations of affective attachment. Such forms of attachment, as queer theorists have claimed, demonstrate the reality of felt, material bonds that cannot be incorporated into the traditional heteronormative script, thereby calling into question the supposed universalism of traditional reproductive narratives. More importantly, however, what such forms of queer kinship attest to are the actionable possibilities for queering nature, as only partially highlighted in the embodiment of queer affect.

In short, what such possibilities attest to is the fact that nature is not fixed and immutable. To the contrary, nature is constantly changing and deeply susceptible to alterations of various sort, and how we make sense of its ability to configure and reconfigure itself matters. Such forms of understanding matter not because of their symbolic and representational significance, but in the very literal sense of the term,insofar as meanings are materialized, and, correlatively, insofar as matter can only be represented through meaningful constructs. In this way, matter and meaning are much more intimately bound up than either constructivists or reductionists have hitherto acknowledged.

Disagreements can abound about the role of culture and biology in the development of the human subject, especially in the context of understanding the interplay of brain, body, and the world. Pitts-Taylor’s book is an attempt to reckon with some of these disagreements, but also to draw attention to and warn against a common tendency among theorists to generalize from privileged standpoints. The zeal with which philosophers and scientists often search for the ideal and the normative, in Pitts-Taylor’s analysis, brings forth ‘onto-epistemological’ problems that theorists of the brain have to confront. At the epistemic level, when science and philosophy ignore experiential heterogeneity, they stymie their own ambitions, since the study of such differences holds intriguing potentials for a richer understanding of the relationship between brain, body, and the world. More importantly, however, real people are harmed when the multiplicity of experience is erased in the name of universal ideals; people whose existences, relationships, and identities will never seem to merit interest, unless they begin to interfere with the normative, in which case they become problems in need of management. As such problems begin to garner intellectual interest, however, they become objects of institutional analysis and understanding; aberrations and anomalies to make scientific sense of; topics of social and political debate; fiscal issues that raise questions about private and public spending; perturbations in the status quo, and so on. Thus, spring into existence whole methodologies, tools, policies, programmes, and institutions for the study of differences, which have now been repackaged as issues, and for which we need solutions before we can reassert the authority of our normative visions. But why not recognize these differences for what they are? Why not acknowledge that they matter, at both the level of everyday experience and in abstract theorizing about persons and their minds? Why not recognize that persons essentially develop out of such differences, instead of proposing theories that understate the essentiality of different ways of being?

Personhood, a notion whose meaning I work out in (Shafiei, forthcoming), is fundamentally social and socialized. None of us are born persons; rather we acquire this status through participating in various forms of social communication, exchange, cohabitation, and connection.7 Furthermore, I maintain that persons constitute and are constituted through cultures. At their core, cultures are material repositories of different social meanings, and they comprise everything from institutions, norms, values, and interpretive frameworks to social media, fads, advertisements, cuisine, etc. In my view, it is only through our interactions with cultures, cultural techné, and the ideologies embedded therein that we become persons, which is a social designation that tracks and refers to our various social entitlements, commitments, statuses, and so on. However, social statuses and entitlements are differentially attributed among different persons. As I see it, this is because social meanings differently attach to different aspects of our material identities, including our bodies. These differences, however, should never be erased, or at least should not be erased in the name of universal ideals. The social meanings that attach to such differences, on the other hand, can be contested and challenged, but that is because these differences are sites of social contestation, confrontation, debate, and development. In other words, it is on the fault lines of these differences where persons acquire a sense of identity, where cultures arise and evolve, and where we organize toward various ends. In short, these differences are key to how we identify as social beings, whose practices are worldly and culturally embedded. That is to say, these differences are fundamental to who we are as persons and how we self-identify. In her book, Pitts-Taylor doesn’t quite make this strong claim, and perhaps we can identify this as a philosophical limitation of her account. Nonetheless, her analysis hits an important target in raising suspicions about the emphasis that, in scientific and philosophical theorizing, is often placed on the undifferentiated and the normative. If our social theories do not attend to the fundamental differences that are constitutive of personhood, and thereby of cultures, they will seem flat and uninformative as theories of social life and experience.

In The Brain’s Body, Pitts-Taylor addresses the limitations of current conceptions of the social brain when it comes to accounting for such fundamental differences; specifically the different ways in which brains and bodies are materialized in different cultures, through different abilities, in accordance with contrasting ways of life, and under the influence of different social and ideological forces. As Pitts-Taylor points out, ‘brain knowledge’ shapes what we think brains are, but brain knowledge informs practices that literally shape our brains, bodies, and the world around us.8 As such, attending to the ways in which ‘difference’ is conceptualized in scientific and philosophical discussions of the brain is a way of intervening into what matters and what does not, and not just at the level of scientific representation, but at the level of actual material influence and development. Pitts-Taylor’s analysis offers some extremely useful tools for carrying out such acts of intervention meaningfully, and perhaps even efficaciously, especially given the historical moment that we presently occupy. For those of us whose theoretical interests are enmeshed in broader projects of social and political justice, this work is an essential read. For others, this work contains some intriguing claims about the relationship between science and politics, and what can happen when the tools of the scientist are responsibly employed. All in all, this work constitutes an important contribution to ongoing conversations in the neurobiological sciences, philosophy of mind, feminist theory, social epistemology, queer theory, disability studies, and other interrelated areas of inquiry.

Keyvan Shafiei

Georgetown University

Washington, DC

 

References

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press, 2007.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” In Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, edited by Sue-Ellen Case, 270-82. JHU Press, 1990.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” Routledge, 1993.

Crockett, Molly. Beware Neuro-Bunk. TED Presentation (2012). https://www.ted.com/talks/molly_crockett_beware_neuro_bunk?language=en

Dayan, Colin. The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. Princeton University Press, 2011.

Diamond, Adele, and Kathleen Lee. “Interventions Shown to Aid Executive Function Development in Children 4-12 Years Old.” Science 333, no. 6045 (2011): 959-64.

Huebner, Bryce. “The Interdependence and Emptiness of Whiteness.” In Buddhism and Whiteness, edited by George Yancy and Emily Mcrae. Lexington Books, forthcoming.

Pitts-Taylor, Victoria. “The Neurocultures Manifesto.” Social Text/Periscope (2012). https://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/neurocultures-manifesto/.

Shafiei, Keyvan. Behind Enemy Lines: The Harms of Hyper Incarceration. Doctoral Dissertation. Georgetown University, in prep.

Schwartz, Jeffrey, and Sharon Begley.The Mind and the Brain: Neural Plasticity and the Power of Mental Force. HarperCollins, 2002.

Spaulding, Shannon. “Do I See What I see? How Social Differences Influence Mindreading.”Synthese 195, issue 9 (2018): 4009-4030.

 

Endnotes

1 In recent years, for instance, there has been an uptick in spending on programmes targeted at improving executive function development among children ages 4-12 years old. See especially the work of Adele Diamond and colleagues on the nature and aims of such programmes.

2 Judith Butler, for instance, is one prominent proponent of such a view. See Butler (Butler, 1990) and (Butler, 1993) for a discussion of her performativity theory of embodied agency. In recent years, this view has been criticized by some scholars, such as Karan Barad (Barad, 2007), for treating the material body as for the most part passive. In the context of such critique, Barad proposes a view called agential realism, according to which matter, including biological matter, is an active participant in the processes of its own materialization.

3 The work of Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley (Schwartz and Begley, 2002), on the possibility of self-directed neuroplasticity, stands out here. A quick Google search, however, reveals many other recent publications on the possibility of rewiring your brain, some of whose authors also sometimes promise the possibility of a better life as a result. In other words, the research on plasticity has in some contexts alloyed itself with the self-help industry. For a critique of this proliferating body of scholarship, see the work of Molly Crocket on neuro-bunk.

4 It should be noted, of course, that the embodied cognition programme is still relatively new in the cognitive sciences, and the full implications of the challenge that such views present to cognitivism is a matter of much dispute. See Wilson (Wilson, 2002) and Spaulding (Spaulding, 2012) for an overview of the different approaches to the embodiment debate.

5 It is worth mentioning that in recent years the hype around mirror neurons has abated, and the consensus has now shifted on what kinds of neurons they really are and whether they have a specific evolutionary function when it comes to imitation and understanding. See, among others, Cecilia Heyes’s recent work on the development and function of mirror neurons

6 Along these lines, Shannon Spaulding has recently (Spaulding, 2018) argued that such theories should be able to make sense of the ubiquity of deep everyday disagreements in social interactions. See also Huebner (Huebner, forthcoming) on the ways in which difference-perception informs our practices of racial categorization, which in turn inform our normative appraisals of social status, which then feed back into the perception of salient and non-salient differences.

7 In my work, specifically, I explore the ways in which persons are institutionally made and unmade, especially in the culture of the criminal justice system in the United States, and through institutions like mass incarceration. See also Colin Dayan (Dayan, 2017) for a discussion of very similar themes.

8 See also Pitts-Taylor (Pitts-Taylor, 2012a) on this point.

 

 

Book Reviews

Inmaculada de Melo-Martin, Rethinking Reprogenetics, Oxford University Press, 2016

Rethinking Reprogenetics: Enhancing Ethical Analyses of Reprogenetic Technologies is a compact, rigorously argued volume that packs quite a punch. Inmaculada de Melo-Martin aims to provide a crucial corrective to the analyses of bioethicists who have taken to cheerleading the development and use of reprogenetic technologies1 (p.7). She argues that they should instead carefully evaluate the goals that particular nations want to achieve by means of reprogenetic technologies and consider whether there is warrant for the trust placed in social institutions to address the unexpected consequences of the use of those technologies.

To realize those two aims, de Melo-Martin incisively dissects bioethics analyses that uncritically espouse reprogenetic technologies. She exposes their disconnect from scientific facts about human biology and gene function (de Melo-Martin has a Master’s degree Biology, with a concentration in molecular genetics). She also demonstrates that those analyses either do not take seriously or overlook the harms, risks and uncertainties associated with the use of reprogenetic technologies for women as well as the children who are the ‘product’ of those technologies. Additionally, she makes the case that such bioethics analyses betray a lack of understanding of the moral and socio-political complexities of the use of reprogenetic technologies in gendered, ableist, racist, and classist societies.

Following the introductory chapter, de Melo-Martin carefully explains what currently available reprogenetic technologies can do. Then, in Chapters 3 to 8, she outlines and critiques the arguments made by proponents of reprogenetic technologies, specifically, Nicolas Agar, Allen Buchanan, Nick Bostrom, David DeGrazaia, Ronald Green, John Harris, Guy Kahane, John Robertson, Julian Savulescu, and Lee Silver. de Melo-Martin states that her critique has three prongs. First, it is informed by a scientifically accurate understanding of human biology and the science underlying reprogenetic technologies as well as its potential, risks, harms, benefits and uncertainties. Second, it is attentive to the ways in which the development and use of those technologies is gendered, and third, it recognizes that normative concerns and social contexts shape, and, in turn, are configured by science and technology. As part of her evaluation of bioethics analyses that uncritically endorse the use of reprogenetic technologies, in Chapter Seven, de Melo-Martin argues in some detail that technologies in general are value laden. Proponents of reprogenetics appear to assume that the use of technologies can be value neutral.

In the final chapter of the volume, de Melo-Martin provides her readers with an alternative to bioethical analyses that ignore relevant particulars. She provides the outlines of a bioethical analysis of reprogenetic technologies that is sophisticated in its attention to the complex socio-political and ethical issues that shape the development and use of those technologies.

Chapter Four is a fine example of de Melo-Martin accurately presenting her opponent’s position and then skillfully exposing its errors and omissions. One of the arguments that she examines in this chapter contends that the use of reprogenetic technologies by individuals to have a child of a particular sex2 falls under the umbrella of procreative liberty and thus there should be a strong presumption against societal interference. de Melo-Martin makes the case that her opponent is not justified in making that claim because he has not provided evidence that the activity at issue is crucial for advancing the value that the right is meant to protect. Her larger point is that rights-based claims cannot be grounded merely on the intensity of the desire of individuals to affect a particular end, and that instead they must be based on the value relevant to the right invoked.

de Melo-Martin also finds wanting arguments that assert that parents have a moral obligation to have the (genetically) most perfect offspring possible. While such arguments are ostensibly addressed to parents, their target is primarily women of reproductive age. To state the obvious, those arguments in effect amount to a moral mandate of sorts to (a particular group of) women to lie back and think of the ‘higher good’ and permit their bodies to be subject to reprogenetic technologies. There is more than just sexism at work there. Given that in many nations, including the US, the use of reproductive technologies (coupled with genetic diagnosis) is available primarily to women of a certain class and given the racial disparity with respect to access to medical intervention, the exhortation to produce the (genetically) best possible children takes on a very morally troubling hue. It is also worrisome given the ethically reprehensible history and current practices of many nations with regards to the reproductive rights of persons with disabilities. de Melo-Martin points out that bioethicists err when they propose that all women should have access to those technologies as the solution to those problems. They overlook a host of larger complex moral and socio-political questions. One such issue is the ethical and political warrant (nationally and internationally) for the use of scarce medical and scientific resources to attempt to use genetic engineering to ‘create’ children with enhanced cognitive capacities. Availability of adequate nutrition, clean water, medical and preventative care, stable and safe home environments and communities, and education are some of the factors that play a crucial role in determining academic performance of children (as does the mother’s health and general well-being prior to and during pregnancy as well as postnatally). Of course, the use of reprogenetic technologies by socially privileged individuals to realize their desire to have children with whom they share genetic material must not be accepted unquestioningly either. While that desire is conceptualized as a purely biological urge, and thus, not considered a fruitful subject of discussion, it is a socially constructed and sanctioned desire. She rightly contends that societies must interrogate that desire and the socio-political contexts that produce it.

de Melo-Martin is warranted in castigating bioethicists who theorize about the ethics of reprogenetics without taking the trouble to educate themselves about, among other things, the mechanics of sexual reproduction (such as meiotic recombination, which IVF leaves untouched), the complicated relationship between genes and other cellular “machinery”, and the complex, entangled relationship between genes, environmental factors, and phenotypes. Moreover, such bioethicists fail their profession in an important regard when they present genetic engineering as the solution to alcoholism, antisocial personality disorder, memory, intelligence enhancement, or substance addiction. There is no simple genetic fix for such problems because they are the product of a complex, complicated mix of biological and social factors. The failure of (some) bioethicists to familiarize themselves with the basic science of human biology, including gene function, even though they write about them is confounding. Such off-target bioethics recklessly veer into the realm of science fiction. de Melo-Martin contends those flawed analyses can have serious ethical and political consequences if they are used by institutions or nations to inform policy decisions or formulate regulations that govern research and use. If the uncertainties associated with the use of reprogenetic technologies are not acknowledged or if the attendant harms and risks are glossed over, they will not adequately protect women or the children they conceive using them.

By critiquing this flawed sub-strain of bioethics, de Melo-Martin, in effect, raises the larger question: how do such papers see publication daylight in mainstream bioethics journals? Clearly, at least some of the responsibility lies with the wider bioethics community involved in the review and editorial process. However, some of the blame must be placed at the door of researchers who permit the media to exaggerate the promise of their projects in the hopes of drumming up public support that translates into funding dollars.

Perhaps the most compelling feature of Rethinking Reprogenetics is that it is a demand for scientifically accurate and socio-politically engaged bioethical analyses about the use of reprogenetic technologies so that the public can engage in informed deliberations about funding such research and the use of the technologies and techniques they produce. Those normative decisions should not be left to scientists, bioethicists, or policy makers. While de Melo-Martin has argued that the public should be involved in making those decisions, she would be warranted in going further and arguing that in democracies the public discussions and decision-making should be particularly attentive and responsive to the concerns of the groups that would be disproportionately affected by the decisions and which have developed critical analyses of the dominant cultural narratives that assert that women are under a biological imperative to reproduce, there is a responsibility to have the (genetically) best possible children, and scarce medical and scientific resources should be devoted to the development and use of reprogenetic technologies.

Rethinking Reprogenetics will be of considerable interests to any academic audience concerned about the use of genetic technologies (or techniques) for the purposes of genetic diagnosis (or engineering) or the use of reproductive technologies. Moreover, it has relevance for policymakers, IRBs, researchers and the public in general. However, to reach the general public, a title that would easily convey to laypersons the subject of the volume would have been desirable.

All in all, given the many virtues of Rethinking Reprogenetics, the volume as a whole or at least chapters from it should be standard reading for undergraduate or graduate bioethics courses. Sections of it could also be used in ethics courses as an accessible and engaging model of careful ethics analysis.

Zahra Meghani

The University of Rhode Island

Kingston, Rhode Island

Endnotes

1 I.e., in-vitro fertilization (ivf) employed in conjunction with genetic tools that are focused on reproduction rather than research (p.19).
2 For considerations unrelated to sex-linked mutations.

Book Reviews

Kevin C. Elliott, Daniel Steel, eds. Current Controversies in Values and Science, Routledge, 2017

As a general claim, most philosophers of science accept that science is not value-free. The disagreements lie in the proverbial details. The essays in Current Controversies in Values and Science, edited by Kevin Elliott and Daniel Steel focus on such details. Like other volumes in the Routledge Current Controversies in Philosophy’s series, this one asks ten well-known philosophers of science to engage with various questions. Each question receives roughly positive and negative responses, though the authors’ nuanced answers make clear that the contrasting views also involve significant agreement.

The first question asks whether we can distinguish epistemic from non-epistemic values.  Hugh Lacey argues that such methodological distinction is not only possible but also desirable. For him, different attitudes are appropriate regarding scientific theories and attention to these different attitudes demonstrates the importance of the distinction. Epistemic– or rather cognitive– values are those that allow us to evaluate how well a scientific theory provides understanding of a particular phenomenon. Non-epistemic values, and in particular social values, on the other hand, allow us to evaluate social arrangements and social institutions and practices. Only cognitive values, Lacey contends, are relevant to deciding whether a theory is impartially held of a set of phenomena.  But scientific theories can be more than just impartially held. They can also be adopted, i.e., used as basis for further research, or endorsed, i.e., used to inform decision-making. According to Lacey, non-cognitive values are relevant to the justification of the attitudes of adopting and endorsing, even if they do not play a proper role in impartially holding a theory.

Phyllis Rooney agrees that a general methodological distinction between epistemic or cognitive values and non-epistemic ones is possible, but she questions the usefulness of a sharp distinction.  Her contention is that rather than a strict delineation, we find a “robust borderlands area” between epistemic and non-epistemic values. Rooney questions the sharpness of an epistemic/non-epistemic values distinction on various grounds. First, she argues, philosophers disagree even about what values count as epistemic or cognitive.  This is so, she points out, because science has a multiplicity of legitimate goals, and what one takes to be scientific inquiry’s primary goal(s) will affect what counts as an epistemic value. Second, non-epistemic values are hardly a uniform group, but more importantly, the use of some of those values, e.g., feminist values, has clearly contributed to the development of epistemically sound theories.

Although at first sight it might appear that Lacey and Rooney defend opposing sides, the disagreements are more a question of emphasis. For Lacey, the distinction between epistemic/non-epistemic values is important because a failure to make such delineation effectively gives scientists more authority in policy decisions than they should have. Rooney is however concerned that drawing that distinction risks inappropriately delegitimizing the use of some non-epistemic values when conducting research while legitimizing the use of some epistemic values that depend on people’s judgments about what the primary goal of science might be. Both agree that non-epistemic values can and should play very significant roles in scientific inquiry.

The second question tackled in the collection concerns whether science must be committed to prioritizing epistemic over non-epistemic values.  Daniel Steel argues for a qualified priority of epistemic concerns in science. He offers two arguments for his position. First, science, he contends, has an immediate aim, which is to advance knowledge. Second, a rejection of the priority of epistemic values can lead to what he calls the “Ibsen predicament,” wherein attempts to promote a valued social aim can lead to corrupted science. Steel claims that only maintaining the priority of epistemic values can protect us against this outcome.

Matthew Brown presents the opposing view and argues that we should reject any strong version of the priority of epistemic values thesis. He presents three arguments to defend his claim. First, epistemic and non-epistemic considerations are too entangled in scientific inquiry to make talk of prioritization meaningful. Second, non-epistemic values can be defended with good reasons and epistemic values can lead to wishful thinking just as non-epistemic values can. Third, epistemic standards are context and historically dependent. They can be reevaluated in the course of inquiry. For Brown, rejecting the epistemic priority thesis has an added benefit. It forces scientists to consider the social consequences of their work because they have to consider trade-offs between epistemic and non-epistemic values.

In spite of the contrasting answers, it is not clear that Steel’s and Brown’s positions are significantly different. Perhaps as earlier, the differences are more a matter of emphasis. Clearly, neither Brown– as he explicitly says–nor anyone else Steel mentions in his essay think that epistemic considerations are unimportant or that scientists should accept scientific claims on the bases of non-epistemic values alone. It seems that Brown is more concerned with ensuring that scientists take their responsibilities regarding the social consequences of scientific inquiry seriously, and he worries that the fetishization of epistemic values can detract from this. Steel seems to fear that a failure to prioritize epistemic values can result in scientific theories driven by ideological interests. It is not clear, however, that his Ibsen predicament makes the case he wants to make. It does not seem that Dr. Stockman faces a conflict between epistemic and non-epistemic values, but one between various non-epistemic values: to protect the town’s livelihood or to risk some people’s health. There is no need to deny the results of the study. The conclusion of the study, i.e., that the baths are contaminated, do not mandate a particular policy action. To believe that it does, is to misunderstand the role of science in policymaking.

If the previous authors seem to disagree mostly on the details, Heather Douglas and Gregor Betz disagree on their answer to the question they are addressing: whether the argument from inductive risk justifies incorporating non-epistemic values in scientific reasoning. Indeed, Douglas and Betz agree on much of the details but differ on what follows from them. For Douglas, because most science is inescapably uncertain, scientists must make value judgments about the consequences of error. This is so, she argues, if science is to be useful for policymaking. Hence, scientists not only incorporate value judgments when making scientific claims, they have a duty to do so because of the authority that science has. In her view, the existence of inductive risks justify scientists using non-epistemic value judgments in scientific reasoning.

Betz, on the other hand, agrees that much socially relevant science is uncertain and that scientific evidence should inform public policy. He rejects the need for scientists to close the uncertainty gap by making non-epistemic value judgments. For him, scientists can deal with uncertainty by disclosing it to policy makers in various ways: spelling out the consequences of all the alternatives; altering the conceptual framework used for their research; quantifying the uncertainties in terms of probabilities; and by making the non-epistemic value judgments transparent.  Moreover, for Betz it is ethically inappropriate for scientists to incorporate non-epistemic value judgments. In democratic societies, that is the job of policy makers not of scientists.

Both authors believe their arguments have implications for the value-free ideal of science, i.e., the ideal that scientists ought to refrain from incorporating non-epistemic value judgments in scientific reasoning. For Douglas, the existence of inductive risks and the duty that scientists have to offer informative policy advice undermine the value-free ideal. For Betz, the fact that scientists can offer informative scientific claims without the need to incorporate non-epistemic value judgments vindicates the ideal. However, one can agree with Betz that the inductive risk argument is insufficient to undermine the value-free ideal and still reject such an ideal because non-epistemic values are incorporated in many other ways in scientific reasoning (de Melo-Martin and Intemann 2016).

The fourth question focuses on whether the social value management ideal espoused by Longino can incorporate all epistemically beneficial diversity while also excluding problematic moral and political points of views. Kristina Rolin argues that such is the case. Although she recognizes that Longino was particularly concerned with diversity of values because of its epistemic benefits, Rolin contends that the social management ideal could include other types of epistemically beneficial diversity, such as diversity of standpoints, theoretical approaches, or research strategies. She further argues that although the social management ideal requires that scientific communities share some standard of evaluation for transformative criticisms to arise, such requirement need not exclude a diversity of views. This is so because the share standard requirement should be interpreted in a thin way, allowing for the incorporation of diverse points of views. This does not mean that anything goes. For Rolin, the tempered equality and the uptake criteria espoused by the social value management model serve to exclude inappropriate values, such as sexist and racist ones, from consideration.

Kristen Intemann recognizes the important contributions of the social value management model towards advancing the aims of feminist philosophy of science but argues that it is insufficient. For her, the type of diversity that the model calls for, i.e., diversity of values and interests, and the role that values play in advancing objectivity are too limited. Because the context in which research happens makes certain points of view or certain values more likely to be represented or heard, the mechanisms used by the social value management model to exclude them will actually fail to do so. What we need, Intemann argues, is not value management but the explicit endorsement of social justice values. Endorsing such values will exclude sexist and racist values from consideration when making science.

Like in some of the previous chapters, the differences between viewpoints presented here are not substantive. The different answers are again more the result of attending to different aspects of the question. Rolin is concerned with defending the social value management ideal against claims that it does not allow for appropriate types of diversity and that it is too inclusive, thus allowing the incorporation of problematic values. Intemann is concerned with advancing the aims of feminist philosophy of science and in that respect she finds the social value management wanting because it fails to attend to social diversity and does not have mechanisms to exclude values that are inconsistent for feminist values.

The final question in the volume focuses on the type of research funding system that would best serve values of social justice and democracy. James Robert Brown and Julian Reiss agree that much is wrong with the status quo, but they arrive at different conclusions regarding this question. For Brown, the influence of commercial interests in science is problematic because of their corrupting effects and the skewing of the research agenda. He believes that the best way to address both problems is to socialize medical research, that is, to fund it primarily by taxes. A socialized research system would do away with IP rights, such as patents, and would result, he believes, in financially disinterested researchers who could impartially conduct research. More importantly, it would allow researchers to expand the range of options to consider when addressing medical problems.

For Reiss the problems with commercialized research are not so much the result of the influence of private funding but of not enough free market. He agrees with Brown about eliminating patents, but in his case is because patents involve a kind of market interventionism that stifles competition. Similarly, he rejects drug regulation by government bodies such as the FDA. From an epistemic point of view, Reiss argues, the lack of clear and judicially enforceable evidentiary standards gives the FDA reasons to set the bar too high, thus leading to the inappropriate exclusion of some drugs. Moreover, the FDA takes away individuals’ ability to decide how much risk they are willing to accept from certain medications. For Reiss, a true free market would give companies an incentive to produce the best products possible and would allow citizens to make decisions about how to trade off risks and benefits.

What research funding system can best promote research integrity and a socially responsive research agenda is ultimately an empirical question. Nonetheless, perhaps Brown has too much faith in the ability of public institutions to achieve these goals and underestimates the value of private funding. On the other hand, Reiss seems to have too much faith in the good workings of a free market for biomedical research and underestimates the many ways in which power differentials and unjust social conditions can make it difficult for citizens to be appropriately informed and easier for drug companies to try to game the system.

Many things speak in favor of Current Controversies in Values and Science. Although the questions addressed are not the only relevant issues in debates about values and science, they are significant ones. Moreover, the authors included are some of the main protagonists in these debates. The fact that the authors of contrasting positions engage each other makes the essays more appealing and relevant. Even when the disagreements between authors are minor, differences in emphasis and concerns are significant when approaching debates about the relationships between non-epistemic values and science. Anyone interested in such issues would gain greatly from reading this volume.

Inmaculada de Melo-Martín

Division of Medical Ethics

Weill Cornell Medicine—Cornell University

New York, NY

References

de Melo-Martín, I and Intemann, K. The Risk of Using Inductive Risk to Challenge the Value-Free Ideal, Philosophy of Science, 83 (2016): 500–520.