The Editor’s Pick for our June 2019 issue is Jonathan Kaplan’s paper, “Self-Care as Self-Blame Redux: Stress as Personal and Political.” Kaplan’s article opens up an entirely new and clearly important topic for bioethicists: the concept and role of ‘self-care.’ It takes up popular imperatives to take care of oneself as care suggestions and considers them through a bioethical lens. Kaplan’s essay can be read as a strikingly original contribution to the exciting and growing new literature critiquing ‘healthism,’ placing self-care in the bioethical terrain.
The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance is a provocatively framed collection of essays dealing with a variety of epistemic issues related to the concept of ignorance. The first three essays in the volume have to do with the nature of ignorance itself. Le Morvan and Peels’ contribution provides an overview of some relevant literature, and distinguishes between two views on the nature of ignorance, which they call the Standard View and the New View. In both cases, ignorance is conceived of as a lack or absence of something; what distinguishes the two views is the issue of what is lacking. On the Standard View, the ignorant agent lacks knowledge, whereas on the New View, they lack true belief. Nottelmann and Brogaard, in their respective essays, consider different ways in which we might classify ignorance. Nottelmann outlines three dimensions along which we might classify a type of ignorance: first, the kind of thing about which the epistemic subject is ignorant, such as a fact, the existence of an entity, or the answer to a question; second, the degree of ignorance the subject displays, for instance, in practical ignorance; and last, the order of ignorance, since it is possible to be meta-ignorant – a point that is made by Medina, both in his contribution to this collection and in his earlier (2012) book on the subject. Brogaard’s essay can be seen as further clarifying the first of these dimensions, arguing on the basis of linguistic analysis that there are three types of ignorance: ignorance of facts, subject matter, and how to perform a particular activity. This linguistic analysis, however, has implications for the kind of thing that ignorance is, since it ultimately speaks against the Standard View in arguing for a difference between ignorance and a lack of knowledge.
The next several essays in the volume connect ignorance to other epistemic concepts. Olsson and Proietti consider treatments of ignorance and doubt in several possible worlds frameworks, ultimately concluding that ignorance and doubt are not simply negations of knowledge and belief, respectively. Blome-Tillmann, taking the Standard View as background, extends contextualism about knowledge to contextualism about ignorance. This allows him to provide an interesting contextualist response to standard skeptical arguments, say about the existence of the external world. Brown’s essay discusses two versions of an objection to anti-intellectualism which argues that it leaves us more ignorant than we would ordinarily take ourselves to be. On the anti-intellectualist view, a difference in stakes between hearer and speaker can undermine knowledge transmission through testimony; Brown argues that, even though there can be some conflicts, our frequent reliance on testimony and memory as sources of knowledge should not lead us to reject anti-intellectualism. Another interesting essay by Pritchard considers cases in which being ignorant has epistemic value. For instance, being ignorant of a misleading defeater might help us gain further true beliefs.
The editorial framing, however, of the last three essays is curious:
We have included these essays, even though they are not confined to the epistemic dimensions of ignorance. This is because religious epistemology is typically part of epistemology, the epistemology of race has interesting things to say on collective ignorance in its relation to individual ignorance, and group belief and group knowledge have recently become big issues in epistemology (9).
What this seems to mean is that these final three essays, as with much of the epistemology of ignorance literature they draw on (at the very least, the Fricker and Medina draw on that literature), incorporate the social and political dimensions of ignorance. That is, they discuss ignorance as it occurs in our non-ideal world, and as it is produced in agents who are all socially situated in some way. But the acknowledgement of such traditions and bodies of work in epistemology is in tension with the initial, and indeed motivating, claims of the book. The first sentence of the book’s back blurb is, “Ignorance is a neglected issue in philosophy.” In light of the Fricker and Medina essays, this seems obviously false, given the rich contributions by philosophers of race and gender to the development of epistemologies of ignorance. In their introduction to the volume, the editors make a more precise claim—though still one that bears further consideration—that epistemologists have hardly paid attention to ignorance, as they acknowledge that areas of philosophy other than epistemology have dealt with the issue of ignorance. The one exception they note within epistemology is in the area of radical skepticism (1). Given, however, that Linda Martín Alcoff’s contribution to the collection Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance (2007) provides a typology of existing arguments in the epistemology of ignorance, the claim, even, that it has been neglected in epistemology is puzzling.
Before drawing out the issues with the framing of this volume, I should note that none of this should be taken as a criticism of its individual essays, as contributions to epistemology, and to the epistemology of ignorance in particular. I think that there might have been some cases in which greater (or some) consideration of the more explicitly social literature might have been beneficial, however, and we might see this as a missed opportunity. For instance, the several essays discussing classifications of ignorance tend to consider it primarily as an absence or lack of something, where the nature of the thing lacking is up for disagreement. But those writing on ignorance in the philosophy of race tradition often write about it as something produced or cultivated. It might have been helpful to see how this would play a role in the taxonomies of ignorance discussed in some of the earlier essays in the volume. Similarly, the work on epistemic value might also have considered ways in which being racially ignorant could potentially have epistemic as well as social benefits, for instance, by allowing agents to take advantage of knowledge-granting opportunities that they might cede if they were more socially responsible.
To return to the initial editorial claim, though, that epistemology has generally ignored the phenomenon of ignorance, note that it could be interpreted in several different ways. It could mean that the well-developed literature in epistemologies of ignorance that draws from the philosophy of race has generally been ignored by a lot of mainstream epistemologists. This seems true (and to the detriment of much of mainstream epistemology), but, given that most of the essays in the book do not engage with this literature either, it is not clear that this is what the editors meant. Moreover, there seems to be some general inattentiveness to the potential social impact of this work. The front cover art, entitled “Spring’s Landfall” features a pink-clad young woman, blindfolded, attempting, it seems, to row a flower-filled boat with two sticks through a field. Ignorance, illustrated, is feminine, hapless, and blinded.
Instead, there seem to be two other ways in which this claim could be interpreted. One is that “epistemologists” refers to epistemologists whose work does not consider the social situatedness of agents. So this would exclude those who work on epistemology in a way that is fundamentally attentive to factors such as gender, race, or disability. Second, there is the possibility that the editors themselves are ignorant of the fact that the literature on epistemology and ignorance is substantial, despite its lack of inclusion in many anthologies and collections. Both of these interpretations are disappointing, but provide interesting case studies for applications of epistemologies of ignorance. So I will use the tools from the Fricker and Medina essays in the volume to analyze this.
In the first case, in which epistemology is construed in such a way that it excludes many philosophers who would self-describe as epistemologists, we might wonder whether there is a kind of hermeneutical marginalization. As Fricker’s essay describes such a situation, we might think that “some social groups have less than a fair crack at contributing to the shared pool of concepts and interpretive tropes that we use to make generally shareable sense of our social experiences” (163).
It might be difficult to make the case that groups of philosophers working on ignorance from particular non-mainstream perspectives are sufficiently cohesive to count as social groups. But we might also note that a lot of work done in anti-oppressive philosophy generally is done by people who experience at least some form of oppression, whether it be in terms of gender identity, race, or disability. But if such work is not counted as epistemology proper, then we have a situation in which, say, feminist epistemology does not have a fair crack at contributing to the shared pool of epistemic concepts that we use to engage in dialogue about the nature of knowledge.
This seems to be detrimental to members of social groups whose lived experience is better captured by the tools of feminist epistemologies, and those other excluded epistemologies of ignorance. It can also serve to signal to those interested in doing that kind of work that such pursuits are less inherently philosophical, or perhaps that considering epistemic practices that are more familiar to them is a question of ethics rather than epistemology. But it also seems epistemically detrimental to the philosophical community as a whole, since the hermeneutical resources for talking about epistemology generally are unequally distributed among its members.
The second situation, in which working epistemologists can be unaware of the extent of the literature on epistemologies of ignorance, might also be a case study, perhaps as a case of meta-ignorance. But we might also worry about the extent to which such meta-ignorance might be structurally reinforced. Meta-ignorance is extremely similar to the higher-order ignorance that Nottelmann considers (54-5), but as Medina describes it, is often associated with privilege and a lack of epistemic friction. Not only is it ignorance at the object level, but it is also ignorance of one’s own epistemic limitations (183). Moreoever, meta-ignorance is not always culpable. It might be culpable if it is also active ignorance, meaning ignorance that resists correction. This might be a matter of individual epistemic vice or bad faith, but can also be structurally produced, as Charles Mills notes in writing about white ignorance. As such, it might be worth considering what structural factors might contribute to the marginalization of particular bodies of philosophical literature.
In general, this book collects together some well-formulated and clear essays on the various epistemic topics related to ignorance. Its principal problem is not the quality of its contributions, but its motivating conceit. It purports to fill a gap in the epistemic literature, though it is not clear that the identified gap exists. Also, claiming that there is such a gap can contribute to the marginalization of philosophical work written by philosophers from underrepresented groups. But at the very least, the claim that there is such a gap allows for an interesting application of the conceptual tools of the epistemic literature that the editorial framing largely neglects.
University of Victoria
Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Medina, José. 2012. The Epistemology of Resistance. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Sullivan, Shannon, and Nancy Tuana (Eds.) 2007. Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
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.
Dalla Lana School of Public Health
Bridgepoint Collaboratory for Research and Innovation
Lunenfeld Tanenbaum Research Institute, Sinai Health Systems
University of Toronto
Our Editor’s Pick for our December 2018 issue is Alison Reiheld’s paper, “Rightly or for Ill: The Ethics of Individual Memory.” This paper takes up a rich issue that has yet to receive significant philosophical attention: the ethics of memory. The paper asks questions such as: when are we morally blameworthy or praiseworthy for remembering, forgetting, or encoding a memory in a specific way, and what are the ethical principles that should govern our practices of remembering and forgetting? By understanding remembering and forgetting as constructive activities involving agency and choices, Reiheld examines and answers these questions with admirable philosophical clarity.
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
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
The final chapters explain and describe how
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
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
Washington University in St. Louis
St. Louis, MO
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.
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
“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.
Director of External Affairs
British Pregnancy Advisory Service
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
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
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.
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.
European University Institute
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.
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
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.