Thursday, 5 January 2017

Attend our summer school on the Ethics of Family in Health- and Social Care!

One of my commitments is as active member and member of the steering group of an international network on family ethics research, headed by Marian Verkerk, Professor Ethics of Care of the University Medical Centre Groningen. The network has a forthcoming volume (to which I contribute two sections), edited by Marian, Hilde Lindemann and Janice McLaughlin, on Oxford University Press, with the preliminary title Where Families and Health Care Meet.

Another output is a new summer school, organised by the UMCG, on the broad topic of ethical complications and issues in health and social care due to various aspects of family and how patients and clients, as well as professionals, are inescapably embedded in webs of close personal relationships and the fact that society and institutions are all built on assumptions of such webs being in existence. The course is open to masters as well as PhD students and goes under the heading of What About the Family? Besides myself and Marian, the featured speakers/tutors include Ulrik Kihlbom (Uppsala University), Hilde Lindemann, Jamie Nelson (both Michigan State University), Veerle Provoost (University of Ghent), Jackie Leach Scully, Simon Woods (both Newcastle University) and Kristin Zeiler (Linköping University), and others yet to be confirmed members of our network from the universities of Göttingen and Lübeck.

Here is the course webpage. Below is a 2 page flyer that you are more than welcome to share in your networks and with whoever you think maybe interested. Hope to see you in Groningen in August!


Remembering Derek Parfit

Unexpectedly, Derek Parfit died on new year's day 2017, an event sending shock-waves throughout the global philosophy community, as he was no more than 74 years old. For you who don't know who he was, it can be summed up in terms of the most important moral philosopher of the 20th and, so far, the 21th century. With his book Reasons and Persons (Oxford UP, 1984), he single-handedly redrew the intellectual maps of normative ethics, philosophy of action and rationality, value theory and existential philosophy, partly by making intriguing revelations of how they interconnect, and demonstrating puzzles and challenges coming out of that, which a lion's share of the philosophy world is still grappling with in one way or the other. He followed that up with the monumental On What Matters, of which two volumes have been published and a third is rumoured to be on its way later this year. In 2014 Parfit was awarded the Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy, which I celebrated with this little parody piece of his distinctive writing style.

There's already a fair portion of good in memoriam pieces out there, featuring personal reminiscence, summaries of his life and works, as well as links to videos of his lectures. A nice listing can be found on Harvard University's (one of the top institutions to which Parfit was linked) memorial webpage.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Derek Parfit in person (and many bear witness of that this would indeed have been a pleasure), but his philosophical work has had a large impact on my own philosophical explorations, for what they're worth. When I started to attend the "higher seminar" in practical philosophy at Stockholm University in 1985, Reasons and Persons was on the reading list for a full term, and the seniors took turns introducing the different parts, sucking me and the other "youngsters" into sophisticated philosophical reasoning and argument on a level way above what we had ever experienced before. I choose, as a consequence, to write my B.A. thesis on a few pages of part 2 of the book, where Parfit defends what he calls the "Critical present aim theory" of practical reason or rational action, according to which certain individual desires may be irrational in themselves due to their very content. I was critical of Parfit's way of supporting "CP", as I found it putting the cart before the horse by invoking what to me looked like a fundamental moral conviction (that it's not justified to prefer suffering just because it occurs on certain weekdays) as its basis, which would be problematic in a question begging manner given Parfit's aim of using CP to support the idea of objective moral truths. But this was more importantly a formative experience of how well made philosophy will always be open to questioning if only you work hard enough on understanding its details – gaps for criticism are only absent when the work is marked by obscurity and ambiguity, and therefore you should never fear obvious openings for disagreement in your own work, they are unavoidable. Later, I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on the morality of abortion (in Swedish), and there both the discussion of personal identity over time, and (more importantly) the moral importance of future people came to provide very important input. These aspects of his work then continued to have an impact of my later work in bioethics, e.g., on embryo research, reproductive ethics and gene technology. Later, Parfit's musings over problems of collective action, value aggregation and the pragmatics of applying ethical theories in practice (part 1 of Reasons and Persons) added important context and basis for my contributions to public health ethics and the ethics of risk and precaution.

Now, it should be underlined, that Parfit's influence has never been that of a prophet – someone's whose teachings one accepts and then spends one's life as a follower of, working out the details with the assumption that the master's words must never be doubted. Parfit's strength was never the thesis, but the argument and its analysis – often leading to initially apparently clear positions falling apart into zillion variants, each of which in need of their own little set of arguments. When he pursued a substantive thesis, I often disagreed with him, albeit acknowledging much of the analytical landscape created to reach it. Parfit was a philosopher who ingeniously created intellectual context and complication for others to freely move about within. In that way, much of whatever I have ever managed to contribute to my own little corners of the vast world of philosophy wouldn't have been there for the picking, had it not been for the context of problematisation and complexity provided through Parfit's prior achievements. This, I'm convinced, is true of a great many other currently active philosophers as well. And I believe that this will continue to be the case for a fair amount of time ahead.


Wednesday, 4 January 2017

German Macchiarini-linked researchers Thorsten and Heike Walles bully blogger with libel threats to surpress information about their apparently irregular experimental transplant surgery

As you may imagine, the research ethical and misconduct scandal around Paolo Macchiarini's surgical experiments at the Karolinska Institutet (a radio summary is here, text ones are here and here) has been a big deal for anyone engaged in bio- and research ethics in Sweden the past year. But not only here, as Macchiarini has had many international links and seemingly hopped between employers and affiliations all over the place for many years, where he has inspired others to work with similar techniques as himself.

Now, some of these people and institutions apparently do all they can to wash their hands free of any Macchiarini-stains, attempting to suppress and silence any public mention of the past associations and stall potential inquiries, especially to impede them to stimulate big news media to take an interest. Possibly for short-sighted reasons of protecting reputation, but possibly also for the reason of preventing more in-depth investigations of research ethical breach, possible scientific misconduct or, as has happened in the Macchiarini case, violent crime. Actions taken usually include unwillingness to share relevant documentation with external inquirers, or refusal to answer their queries, thus undermining the basis for objective public reporting. Lately, however, some have escalated to aggressive legal actions against inquirers, in order to threat them with financial damage to have them stop reporting and even to withdraw already published material. The rationale of such actions is, of course, not to establish wrongdoing or actual libel (that would take years of legal procedure all the way up to the European court of human rights), but to strategically use the law to construct a financial threat that already at the preliminary investigation and  hearing phase undermines the practical possibility of further critical inquiry, as the very economic cost of the legal process itself (regardless of its outcome) will often be impossible to bear for independent inquirers. This, of course, adds to the reason of the tainted researcher to have the tooth paste back into the tube before Big Media gets a whiff, as those would have the financial muscle not to be liable to these kinds of bullying tactics.

Photo source:

A recent example is the German team of Thorsten Walles and Heike Walles (formerly Mertsching) at the university hospital of Wurzbürg, who have recently taken action against critical science blogger Leonid Schneider, who runs the blog For Better Science. Citing their fundamental legal right to be able to freely use their talents ( ≈ pursuit of happiness) – in this case meaning, having successful scientific careers, being able to have better salary, accrue research funds, get new jobs, etc. – they have demanded that Schneider stops reporting about their past experimental trachea transplants, and also won an emergency court injunction that threatens Schneider with jail unless he removes a section of a Macchiarini-report, where the link to the Walles-team is made explicit, and to pay the legal fees for the process leading up to this result. The court order has been made without any hearing of Schneider's side of things, and this is apparently (possibly) OK under German civil law, as he has the right to appeal (provided he can raise the money to pay a lawyer). Schneider has, of course, accepted the injunction and removed the paragraph awaiting an appeal, as can be viewed in this updated version of the original post (linked above), with the relevant section as screenshot here (double click to enlarge):

The original section (cashed here) looked like this (the removed paragraph highlighted by me):

The action has been discussed extensively in a Twitter thread, to be found here. There, among other things, it is made clear that the Walles trachea surgery experiments – like those of Macchiarini – have been retrospectively found to be against European regulation. Moreover, it seems that the information that the Walles so desperately want to be removed from public view is essentially already available for any curious German, through the book Patient meines Lebens – Von Ärzten, die alles wagen by prized journalist Bernard Albrecht, cited by Schneider in his blog post.

I can, of course, acknowledge the vested self-interest of the Walles to suppress publicity around their past Macchiarini-association, and the fact that they apparently have performed very similar type of irregular trachea surgery experiments as he did at the Karolinska. However, it is clear that there is an overwhelming public interest of having this information publicly available – not only in Germany, but internationally; for potential employers, funders and – not least – patients, who have every right to avoid the risk of consulting a doctor that may make them into guinea pigs in irregular experiments.

Had the Walles acted out of honest and honourabe scientific and medical professional motives, they would, of course, have seen to this themselves long ago, initiating and welcoming transparent inquiries and press reporting the very minute that the Macchiarini scandal emerged. Instead, they have done their best to blinker the public and has, ultimately, resorted to petty threats against those trying to make public the professional actions for which they are, without doubt, responsible and which there is an overwhelming public interest in having open to public view. This course of action, especially the court order to Schneider to censor his past posts, makes it highly likely that this is the path they will continue to thread. Leonid Schneider will undoubtedly do his best to fight back, but as the basis here is financial muscle, not moral or legal righteousness, it is unlikely that he will be able to (afford to) prevail, and the Walles of course know this. Here are the actions those who disapprove of this development can take to make their dishonourable actions moot:

1. Continuously report in social media about the Walles' legal bullying of Schneider (and others), taking every piece of news about the processes as a reason to recite the details of their Macchiarini-association, their experimental surgeries, etc., thus keeping this information in the public domain.

2. Link to existing cashed versions of the original reports. However, it is likely that the Walles will take action to have these scrubbed, so therefore it is also desirable to:

3. Reposting the original, uncensured blog posts on public Google+ and other pages, blogs, etc. I have done so here (uncensured Macchiarini post), and here (detailed post on the Walles history of human experimentation).