Moral dilemma: rescuing the miners, rescuing the babies:


On Crooked Timber, Ingrid Robeyns presents a tough moral calculus: if you can save 50% of a group of trapped miners with 100% certainty, knowing the remainder will die; or you can try to rescue all the miners, with a 50% chance that they'll all die, which would you choose (And then: what if they were babies, not miners?)

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Facebook's massive psychology experiment likely illegal


Researchers from Facebook, Cornell and UCSF published a paper describing a mass-scale experiment in which Facebook users' pages were manipulated to see if this could induce and spread certain emotional states.

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Cold Equations and Moral Hazard: science fiction considered harmful to the future

My latest Locus column is "Cold Equations and Moral Hazard", an essay about the way that our narratives about the future can pave the way for bad people to create, and benefit from, disasters. "If being in a lifeboat gives you the power to make everyone else shut the hell up and listen (or else), then wouldn’t it be awfully convenient if our ship were to go down?"

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Pope blasts capitalism


In a new Evangelii Gadium, Pope Francis has condemned doctrinaire capitalism, "deified markets," trickle-down economics, and the finance industry. He decried the growing gap between the rich and the poor, tax evasion by the wealthy, and characterized ruthless free-market economics as a killer that was inherently sinful.

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Call for papers: Robots, Risks and Opportunities


Michael sez, "We Robot, the conference in which roboticists, lawyers, philosophers and many others meet to try to work out how robots will fit into the society of the future, will be meeting in the University of Miami School of Law in Coral Gables Florida Apri 4-5, 2014. The Call for Papers just went up, with abstracts due Nov. 4. This is the place where people go to discuss whether robot diagnosticians should be trusted even if we can't understand the reasons for their choices, what limits we should put on battlefield drones, and whether law enforcement can be mechanized. Last year's conference also featured a presentation from one of the creators of Futurama."

Call for Papers – We Robot 2014: Risks & Opportunities – April 4 & 5 in Coral Gables, FL (Thanks, Michael!)

Placebos work, so how do we ethically use them?

The head of Harvard's placebo program is trying to figure out a good answer that question.

When the octopus says, "ouch"

Given that people are going around doing things like cutting off octopus limbs in order to understand their distributed neuron processing system, it's worth asking some questions about how octopuses perceive pain, as well. That's more complicated than you might think. As Katherine Harmon explains, it's likely that octopuses have some kind of awareness of when they're touching something unpleasant. But just how that works, and how similar it might be to the way we vertebrates understand "pain", is a big mystery.

A moving account of how hospitals negotiate complicated cases of patient rights

Yesterday, a story about human experimentation spurred an interesting discussion in the comments about patient rights — can somebody who is dying make the informed decision to accept a treatment that could lead to them dying sooner? At Scientific American today, an HIV doctor has written a moving account of dealing with a very similar question, as one of his patients made the choice to refuse food, and her family and doctors were faced with the task of deciding whether or not to feed her through a stomach tube.

Neurosurgeons at UC Davis censured after trying out probiotic treatments on brain cancer patients

The Sacramento Bee is reporting on a complicated story about last-ditch treatments and the ethics of human experimentation.

Glioblastomas are incredibly deadly brain cancers that usually kill the people diagnosed with them within 15 months. Two neurosurgeons at UC Davis ran across anecdotal evidence suggesting that glioblastoma patients who accidentally picked up infections after surgery sometimes lived much longer — one of the surgeons claims that a patient he knew of survived another 20 years.

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China says it will stop harvesting organs from prisoners

More than half of China's donated organs come from executed prisoners. The Chinese government now says it will begin phasing out that practice, starting in November. All new organ donors must volunteer. Of course, there's good reason to be skeptical of this announcement. As Smithsonian points out, the practice has already been illegal since 2006 with not much done to change it. Meanwhile, a harrowing 2011 investigative report by Ethan Gutmann in the Weekly Standard revealed a system that leaves plenty of room for "volunteer" loopholes.

Ethical questions for security experts


Alex Stamos's Defcon 21 presentation The White Hat’s Dilemma is a compelling and fascinating look at the ethical issues associated with information security work in the era of mass surveillance, cyberwar, and high-tech extortion and crime.

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Life, death, and the people we love the most

Margaret Pabst Battin is a philosopher and right-to-die activist who firmly believes that the concepts of autonomy and mercy demand that we, as a society, allow the sick, the old, and the infirm to decide, for themselves, how and when and where they will die. In 2008, her husband, Brooke Hopkins, barely survived a bicycle accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down, on a pacemaker, and frequently sick. At The New York Times Magazine, Robin Henig tells the moving, beautiful, and sad story of a couple struggling in real life with questions that had, previously, been mostly theoretical. At the heart of it is a big, messy question: What happens if you do, sometimes, really want to die ... but the people who love you aren't ready to let go just yet?

Why new cloned mice can help scientists treat lab animals more humanely

This week, scientists cloned a mouse from cells found in a drop of mouse blood. That's different from other cloned mice, whose creation relied on more invasive sampling from the liver, bone marrow, and lymph nodes (read: the original animal was euthanized). Cloning mice is valuable for scientific research — it's handy to have your subjects be as alike one another as possible. Now, scientists have a way to do that without having to kill the original mouse.

How an aborted fetus may have saved your life (and the lives of many other fetuses)

Cell culture lines are cells, taken from donor tissue, that have been divided and separated over and over and over — providing researchers with reliably identical "families" of cells that can be used to biomedical research. Some, like the now-famous HeLa line, are derived from cancerous tissue and replicate indefinitely. Others, like WI-38, will only divide a set number of times (in the case of WI-38, it's 50), but new cells can be frozen at any point and stored. When you thaw them out later, they'll pick back up dividing from the point in the 50-division cycle where they were when frozen.

WI-38 is a particularly important cell culture line. Used extensively in the development of vaccines, these are the cells that helped create the vaccine for Rubella, a disease that, just a few decades ago, used to kill and maim many fetuses whose mothers' became infected. Between 1962 and 1965, it's estimated that rubella infections caused 30,000 stillbirths and left 20,000 children with life-long disabilities.

But WI-38 is controversial. That's partly because the cells that founded the line came from the lung tissue of a fetus that was legally aborted during the fourth month of pregnancy by a woman in Sweden in 1962. At Nature News, Meredith Wadman has a fascinating long read about the moral and ethical issues surrounding WI-38. This isn't just about the abortion question. Also at issue: Did the fetus' mother consent to tissue donation? And are we okay with the fact that she and her family have never received compensation, despite the money that's been made off selling WI-38 cell cultures?

Medical Research: Cell Division by Meredith Wadman in Nature News

How markets allow people to violate their moral codes

Here's a press-release describing a paywalled paper in Science magazine, written by a pair of University of Bonn Economists. They conducted an experiment that showed how markets diffused responsibility for actions that ended up violating individual moral codes, so that people did things in market contexts that they had previously described as immoral when done individually.

"To study immoral outcomes, we studied whether people are willing to harm a third party in exchange to receiving money. Harming others in an intentional and unjustified way is typically considered unethical," says Prof. Falk. The animals involved in the study were so-called "surplus mice", raised in laboratories outside Germany. These mice are no longer needed for research purposes. Without the experiment, they would have all been killed. As a consequence of the study many hundreds of young mice that would otherwise all have died were saved. If a subject decided to save a mouse, the experimenters bought the animal. The saved mice are perfectly healthy and live under best possible lab conditions and medical care.

A subgroup of subjects decided between life and money in a non-market decision context (individual condition). This condition allows for eliciting moral standards held by individuals. The condition was compared to two market conditions in which either only one buyer and one seller (bilateral market) or a larger number of buyers and sellers (multilateral market) could trade with each other. If a market offer was accepted a trade was completed, resulting in the death of a mouse. Compared to the individual condition, a significantly higher number of subjects were willing to accept the killing of a mouse in both market conditions. This is the main result of the study. Thus markets result in an erosion of moral values. "In markets, people face several mechanisms that may lower their feelings of guilt and responsibility," explains Nora Szech. In market situations, people focus on competition and profits rather than on moral concerns. Guilt can be shared with other traders. In addition, people see that others violate moral norms as well.

"If I don't buy or sell, someone else will."

Markets Erode Moral Values (via Reddit)