Thursday, November 12, 2009

American Philosophical Association

After several years of ambivalance, I decided this year to not renew my dues to the APA. I'm not on the job market, I don't plan to go any APA meetings, and it provides no other useful services for me. As a department chair, I could do with plenty of help on the creation of outcomes assessment for philosophy courses, but so far as I can tell, the APA has done nothing useful on this front. I prefer to spend my money on other things.

Nevertheless, it makes me feel a little further removed from the mainstream of philosophy. I imagine I'll return to the fold in a few years.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Neuroethics at ASBH

Here's the program for Neuroethics at the ASBH meeting this year.

Neuroethics Affinity Group Agenda for October 16:

11:45 AM Welcome and Introductions

11:50 AM Announcements
NIH update - Chen
Brain Matters - Krahn
Penn Update - Powers
CBS Update - Ford
Other updates

12:10 PM Mini Presentations
Jayna Bonfini, Carnegie Mellon University, "Alice in Wonderland: Ethical and Social Implications of Adults with Autism in the Legal System."

John Z. Sadler, M.D., University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, "Neuroethics and the Philosophy of Psychiatry - A Natural Affinity."

12:20 PM Future Directions and Networking

12:40 PM Wrap-up

ASBH 2009
Neuroethics Sessions

Thursday, October 15

2:45 – 3:45 The President’s Council on Bioethics Panel Session (103)
“White Paper on Determining Death”: Where Does it Leave Us?

2:45 – 3:45 Severe Brain Injury and Sexuality Panel Session (104)

4:00 – 5:30 Vulnerability, Moral Experience and Paper Session (108)
Decision-Making: Clinical Ethics through the lens of Open-Uterine
Surgery to Repair Spina Bifida

Friday, October 16

11:45-12:45 Neuroethics Affinity Group (221)

1:00 – 2:30 Perspectives on Mental Illness Paper Session (226)
Understanding Suffering in Mental Illness: Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis

1:00 – 2:30 Molecules, Mind, and the Law: Workshop Session (227)
The Intersection of Free Will, Biologic Determinism, and Criminal Responsibility

1:00 – 2:30 Empirical Approaches to Morality Paper Session (229)
· Cognitive Science and the Myth of the Standard Body: Some Epistemological and Ethical Considerations
· Translating our Differences: Can Empirical Moral Psychology Help Us Understand (and Eventually Address) Our Normative Differences?
· Sexing the Brain: Gender and Autism
· Functional Neuroimaging, Free Will, and Privacy

2:45 – 3:45 Translating “Brain Death”: An American Philosophical Association Committee on Philosophy and Medicine Panel Panel Session (232)

2:45 – 3:45 Discourse on Enhancement and Disability Panel Session (233) Cognitive Enhancement: The Promise, the Perils, and the role of Medicine

8:00-10:00 Film: The English Surgeon (ES6) (About a brain surgeon in the Ukraine)

Sunday, October 18

11:00-12:00 Moral Responsibility and the Panel Session (419)
Neuroscience of Self-Governance

I'm especially interested in that last session on self-governance. Here's the line up for it.

Hilary Bok, PhD, Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics,
Baltimore, MD
Alisa Carse, PhD, Georgetown University, Washington, DC
Martha Farah, PhD, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Jordan Grafman, PhD, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and
Stroke, Bethesda, MD

With 4 speakers in an hour, it promises to be compressed.

I wish I could go. But the $400 registration plus travel and hotel costs is too rich for me.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


CFP: Madness & Literature
“Madness and Literature”
The Institute of Mental Health is hosting The 1st International Health Humanities Conference at The University of Nottingham, UK from Friday 6th to Sunday 8th AUGUST 2010.
More details at

Friday, August 28, 2009

Kant on mental disorder

Patrick Frierson
Kant on mental disorder. Part 1: An overview
History of Psychiatry 2009 20: 267-289
Kant on mental disorder. Part 2: Philosophical implications of Kant’s account
History of Psychiatry 2009 20: 290-310

I didn't even know that Kant had written anything directly on mental illness, so this pair of papers is especially welcome.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review of Scanlon's Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame

Forthcoming in Philosophy in Review. Vol. 29 no. 4. Pages 58-60.

T. M. Scanlon Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2008. Pp. 227. US$29.95 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-674-03178-4).

Following in the steps of What We Owe to Each Other (Harvard University Press 1999), this new, slimmer volume will garner plenty of attention in moral philosophy. It consists of four interconnected chapters, the last, on blame, substantially longer than the others, and an especially substantial contribution to the literature.

The first chapter criticizes the doctrine of double effect, arguing that it rests on a mistake about the role of intention in the permissibility of actions. The doctrine makes the following sort of contrast: in wartime, while it would be wrong to bomb an enemy with the intention of killing civilians in order to demoralize the populace in order to bring about a swifter end to the war, it would be morally permissible to bomb a military target such as a munitions factory, knowing that doing so would result in the deaths of an equal number of civilians. The contrast is between what we intend to achieve and what results from the foreseen but unintended effects of our actions. Scanlon holds that while the agent’s intentions may be relevant to the moral assessment of some actions, they are not directly relevant. Scanlon’s first criticism of the doctrine is that it is implausible to hold that the moral permissibility of a decision to bomb a munitions factory and thereby kill a number of civilians depends on one’s intentions. He argues that it is not the intention that matters directly in central cases, but rather what one does and whether one’s actions violate moral principles. He makes this argument by drawing a distinction between the deliberative use of a principle to decide whether an action is ethically permissible, and its critical use to assess how the agent made his or her decision. It is possible that a person’s (or organization’s) intentions will have an effect on how they carry out their actions, and how they would react in the case of changing circumstances. But when the action itself is fixed, and the effects of the action are known, then in assessing its morality, we need to look at the moral principles that apply. The distinction between intended effects and unintended but foreseen effects has no direct relevance, according to Scanlon.

The arguments in this first chapter are hardly conclusive, as they rest largely on unargued intuitions. Scanlon’s opponents can insist that how we understand what an agent did crucially depends on what her intentions were. Scanlon has not provided enough analysis of the concept of an action, or indeed of the sources of moral responsibility, to show his opponents’ view is incoherent. The main value of this first chapter lies in its statement of an alternative view, and Scanlon is right in saying that once one adopts that view, the claims of the doctrine of double effect look ‘bizarre’ when applied to familiar cases of trolley problems and of sacrificing one person to harvest her organs to save the lives of five other people. However, we also have strong intuitions that one’s intentions are relevant in assessing the permissibility of one’s actions, and Scanlon needs to show that his view has a place for these intuitions, in order to avoid having his own view look bizarre too.

The second chapter goes further in setting out an argument for his position. Scanlon agrees that intentions are indeed central in determining what action a person has performed, but he insists that it is the action and not the agent’s intent or understanding of morality that is crucial to the action’s permissibility. Scanlon provides an array of cases where he agrees that a person’s intentions make a difference, such as when a person who apparently does good is actually acting out of selfish or dishonorable motives. However, he argues that these cases can be explained by considering what he calls the ‘meaning’ of the actions. The meaning of an action does depend on the reason the agent did it, but it is not the same thing as the reason. One action can have different meanings for different people, but Scanlon emphasizes his view that the meaning is not purely subjective. People can be mistaken about the meaning of an action for them; they are not fixed by a person's emotions or beliefs, but instead depend on context. For example, Angela may regard Tom's action as a betrayal, but the actual meaning of Tom's action for Angela may in fact be different. To help explain his specialized conception of meaning here, Scanlon gives plenty of examples. Whether he succeeds in clarifying his concept of meaning is debatable.
The third chapter attempts to understand the idea that we should not treat people merely as a means to an end. Scanlon endorses a sense in which treating a person as an end can be used as a general criterion of moral rightness, but shows that this is different from the sense in which we generally mean that it is wrong to use people. He makes a strong case for this, and the chapter will be especially useful to those who work on the morality of using people.

The final chapter, on blame, draws on some distinctions from the prior chapters, but it largely stands alone. It not only has the most innovative and interesting claims of the book, but is also much clearer and supplies a stronger more sustained argument. On his view, blame is not simply an evaluative attitude or an emotion; rather, when one blames another, one judges her blameworthy and, crucially, takes one’s relationship with her to be impaired; one’s attitudes towards the blamed person change. To blame a person is not the converse of praising them; rather, it is closer to the converse of being grateful to another person. It follows, with some further argument, that it is reasonable to blame people for actions even in cases where they could not have done otherwise.

Paradigms of blaming on this account will be in cases where the blamer has a close personal relationship with the person she blames, and Scanlon focuses on blame in friendships and families. He spells out what dispositions are required for people in a good moral relationship. Yet it is possible to blame someone whom one has not met personally. To explain this fact, Scanlon holds that one has a relationship with everyone. Naturally, since one does not have a personal relationship with that person, the impairment in the relationship is different from the blame that occurs between close friends.

Scanlon argues that his account of blame explains several features. (a) Not every wrong action is blameworthy. For example, lack of ambition is a fault of character, but is not blameworthy in itself. (b) The blameworthiness of an action does directly depend on the intentions with which the action was performed, because the agent’s reasons constitute his attitude towards others. (c) We apply blame to young children differently, because of the inequality of the relationship between adults and children, in which adults are teaching the children to become good. Scanlon’s approach to blameworthiness is distinctive in focusing on the relationship between people, and particular actions are relevant insofar as they bear on those relationships. Indeed, blame can be independent of any particular blameworthy action. He acknowledges that this may be in tension with some common understanding of blame, but he argues that our ordinary intuitions are mixed, so no coherent theory can match them all.
People do not normally choose their characters, but since on Scanlon’s view our relationships with them are largely based on their character, this lack of choice does not mean that we should not blame them. The fact that a callous killer had a terrible childhood may alter the way we treat her, but it does not make her exempt from blame. Scanlon considers arguments that we should not hold people morally responsible for their actions when they lack choice about their nature, but maintains that such views rest on the idea that there is a real self that would be uncovered under the right circumstances, and he can make little sense of this. He emphasizes that we have to base our relationships with people on how they actually are, not how they might have been under different circumstances. Whatever the causes of their current attitudes, those are the ones that constitute their relations with other people.

One could retain many of Scanlon's insights about blaming but reject his claim that the change in relationship is partially constitutive; instead one could say that blaming expresses an evaluative attitude towards a person’s action that causes changes in our relationship with her.

Nevertheless, the great value of his proposal is his emphasis on the importance of relationships in understanding blaming. This brings ethics closer to addressing our everyday interactions with colleagues, friends and family. Scanlon’s writing style can make it difficult to pin down exactly how his arguments are meant to go or how they relate to other, well-known positions in this area, since he does not give much discussion of the relevant literature. Nevertheless, this book, and especially the chapter on blame, deserves and will repay careful study.

Christian Perring
Dowling College

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Recent popular media

This week there was an excellent show on BBC Radio 4 in their Mind Changers series, hosted by Claudia Hammond on David Rosenhan's famous Pseudo-Patient Study reported in "Being Sane in Insane Places." It features interviews with his colleagues and discussion about the implications and validity of the experiment.

I see next week there is a Radio 4 show on DSM-V, which promises to be interesting.

While on the topic of Radio 4, it's worth mentioning that All in the Mind remains the best (and maybe only) radio show about mental health in either the USA or the UK.

As the debate over the secrecy of the process of creating DSM-V heats up, Christopher Lane's recent piece in Slate, Bitterness, Compulsive Shopping, and Internet Addiction: The diagnostic madness of DSM-V, gives a quick summary.

If you search blogs and news for 'dsm-v' you'll find plenty of commentary. The Psychiatric Times blog has lots of helpful info.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ethics and Values in Contemporary Psychiatry

This one passed me by, but I just stumbled on it.

Ethics and Values in Contemporary Psychiatry
Harvard Review of Psychiatry, Volume 16 Issue 6 2008

Interesting ToC: in particular, I noted:
The Use of Palliative Sedation for Existential Distress: A Psychiatric Perspective Zev Schuman-Olivier; David H. Brendel; Marshall Forstein; Bruce H. Price Pages 339 – 351
Character Virtues in Psychiatric Practice Jennifer Radden; John Z. Sadler Pages 373 – 380
Off the Radar: Truth Telling in Psychiatry Nancy Nyquist Potter Pages 381 – 387

I look forward to reading the papers: unfortunately my college library only gets access to them when they are a year old, so I'll have to wait.