Who Gets to Be a Person?

Ethics in the news blog of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

The question of who gets to be a person is one of those old but never outdated classics in philosophy. Throughout history, philosophers have discussed which human beings are persons, when human beings start to be persons, when they are no longer the same person, and whether non-human beings can be persons – and the discussion continues.

The task of defining the concept of a person can be approached from a purely ontological angle, by looking at what kind of entities exist in the world. There are those beings we want to call persons – what unites them and what separates them from non-persons? This ontological project has, at least at first sight, nothing to do with how the world should be and purely with how it is.

But many moral practices are connected to this concept. Persons deserve praise and blame, they should not be experimented on without their consent, they can make promises, they should be respected. The status of personhood is connected to a moral status. Because of the properties persons have they deserve to be treated and can act in a certain way. Personhood is what can be called a thick concept. It combines descriptive and normative dimensions. To be a person one must meet certain descriptive conditions. But being a person also comes with a distinctive moral status.


The Authentic Liar

Ethics in the news blog of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. A modified version of this post is forthcoming in Think.

Authenticity is a popular ideal. Particularly in the western world, authenticity has developed into a prevailing ideal since its rise in Modernity. The search for authenticity is a common trope in film and literature, countless self-help books advise us how to become more authentic, and marketing and politics have long discovered authenticity as a useful label to sell goods and candidates.

Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are recent examples of politicians who presented themselves and were perceived by many as particularly authentic. At the same time, both are known for not taking the truth too seriously, if not for being notorious liars. This seems like a contradiction. Can you be an authentic liar? Figures like Johnson and Trump can prompt us to reconsider and clarify what we mean by a concept like authenticity as well as how we should relate to ourselves and express ourselves to others.


Simulate Your True Self

Ethics in the news blog of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. A modified version of this post is forthcoming in Think.

One of the most common reoccurring philosophical thought experiments in movies must be the simulation theory. The Matrix, The Truman Show, and Inception are only three of countless movies following the trope of “What if reality is a simulation?”. The most recent addition is Don’t Worry Darling by Olivia Wilde. In this movie, the main character Alice discovers that her idyllic 1950s-style housewife life in the company town of Victory, California, is a simulation. Some of the inhabitants of Victory (most men) are aware of this, such as her husband Jack who forced her into the simulation. Others (most women) share Alice’s unawareness. In the course of the movie, Alice’s memories of her real life return, and she manages to escape the simulation. This blog post is part of a series of articles in which Hazem Zohny, Mette Høeg, and I explore ethical issues connected to the simulation theory through the example of Don’t Worry Darling.

One question we may ask is whether living in a simulation, with a simulated and potentially altered body and mind, would entail giving up your true self or if you could come closer to it by freeing yourself from the constraints of reality. What does it mean to be true to yourself in a simulated world? Can you be real in a fake world with a fake body and fake memories? And would there be any value in trying to be authentic in a simulation?


Track Thyself? Personal Information Technology and the Ethics of Self-knowledge

Ethics in the news blog of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

The ancient Greek injunction "Know Thyself" inscribed at the temple of Delphi represents just one among many instances where we are encouraged to pursue self-knowledge. Socrates argued that "examining myself and others is the greatest good" and according to Kant moral self-cognition is "the First Command of all Duties to Oneself". Moreover, the pursuit of self-knowledge and how it helps us to become wiser, better, and happier is such a common theme in popular culture that you can find numerous lists online of the 10, 15, or 39 best movies and books on self-knowledge. The pursuit of self-knowledge is traditionally understood as a matter of introspection, of looking inward. But in the last decades, it is external devices that have promised us insight into who we are, from phones to watches to health trackers.


Bitesize ethics: Authenticity and neurointerventions

Bitesize ethics talk at the Festival of Arguments organized by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

In this bitesize ethics talk, we’ll ask what does it mean to be authentic and can I be authentic if I change myself through neurointerventions? 

Advancements in neuroscience, -pharmacology, -technology, and -surgery led to the development of new and powerful means to change ourselves. Psychopharmaceuticals like Prozac or Ritalin can enhance our mood or levels of concentration, Deep Brain Stimulation can target specific brain areas to reduce tremors or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and drugs like Propranolol may be able to modify our memories. The potential to manipulate the brain in order to change personality, mood, memory, and other features of the self has raised concerns about authenticity. What does it mean to be authentic and can I be authentic if I change myself through neurointerventions?