Bio-Ethics Bites

Bio-Ethics Bites

The Wellcome Trust has provided specific funding to the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics to enable David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton (of Philosophy Bites) to produce a podcast series of 10 interviews with leading influential thinkers on bio-ethics, titled ‘Bio-Ethics Bites’. This series of interviews, representing various ethical perspectives tackling controversial subjects arising out of recent scientific advances, is freely available. All 10 interviews are now available below and iTunes U.

PATRICIA CHURCHLAND - What Neuroscience Can Tell Us About Morality (MP3)

What can science tell us about morality? Many philosophers would say, ‘nothing at all’. Facts don’t imply values, they say. you need further argument to move from facts about us and about the world to conclusions about what we ought to do. For example, most humans are altruistic - they genuinely care about the well-being of friends and family and to a lesser extent even of strangers – they’ll give money to charity to help people they’ve never even met. Suppose science gives us a compelling scientific explanation for why we’re altruistic. Does that tell us whether we should be altruistic?

MOLLY CROCKETT - Brain chemistry and Moral Decision-Making (MP3)

A train is out of control, heading towards 5 people who face certain death. You are on a footbridge next to a large man. If you push him onto the rail you can stop the train and save the 5 lives, at the expense of one. There is no other way to save the 5 people. What would you do? Dr. Crockett's research has shown that the answers given to this question is strongly affected by levels of serotonin.

HANNA PICKARD - Responsibility and Personality Disorder (MP3)

If someone caught me shoplifting, and I was later diagnosed with kleptomania, should I be held responsible? Should I be blamed? There’s a growing body of knowledge in psychiatry and neuroscience about why people think and behave the way they do. And according to one school of thought, as our knowledge expands, so the space for responsibility contracts. Hanna Pickard is not from that school. She believes we can, at one and the same time, diagnose a disorder and hold the person with that disorder responsible.

TIM LEWENS - Selling Organs (MP3)

Every day people die in hospitals because there aren’t enough organs available for transplant. In most countries of the world – though not all – it is illegal to sell organs. Governments insist that the motive for donating organs has to be altruistic, it can’t be financial reward. The idea of being able to sell body parts makes many people uneasy. But is it time for a policy change: should we be permitted to flog one of our kidneys on ebay, say, for $10,000. If not, why not? Tim Lewens is a Cambridge philosopher and a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

JONATHAN WOLFF - Political Bioethics (MP3) 

What drugs should be available on the NHS? Why should they be available, and who should have access to them? What are the social determinants of overall health beyond individual doctor- patient relationships? Jonathan Wolff, Professor of Philosophy at UCL and member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics discusses political bioethics, population level bioethics and distribution of resources.

NICK BOSTROM - Status-Quo Bias (MP3)

Suppose a genetic engineering breakthrough made it simple, safe and cheap to increase peoples’ intelligence. Nonetheless, if you asked the averagely-intelligent person on the Clapham Omnibus whether we should tamper with our genes to boost our brains, he or she might recoil at the notion. Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, suspects that this reaction may be a result of what he calls ‘status-quo bias’.

ONORA O’NEILL  - Trust (MP3)

Radically new techniques are opening up exciting possibilities for those working in health care – for psychiatrists, doctors, surgeons: the option to clone human beings, to give just one example. Who should determine what is allowed and what prohibited? And what sort of consent should doctors have to have from patients before treatment. Is the trend towards consent forms helpful? Or should we trust doctors to make good decisions for us. For many years now, philosopher Onora O’Neill, formerly principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, has been thinking about the issue of ‘trust’: trust is vital in most areas of human interaction – but nowhere more so than in health and medicine.

PETER SINGER - Life and Death (MP3)  

If a patient decides she doesn’t want to live any longer, should she be allowed to die? Should she be allowed to kill herself? If a patient is no person to decide – perhaps she’s in a coma – then should somebody else be able to decide to kill her? Who? Is there a moral difference between killing and allowing someone to die? And is the role of the doctor always to prolong life? Peter Singer, of Princeton University, is one of the world’s leading bio-ethicists, and has been reflecting on life and death issues for four decades.

JEFF McMAHAN - Moral Status (MP3) 

A stone on the beach, we assume, has no moral status. We can kick or hammer the stone, and we have done the stone no harm. Typical adult human beings do have moral status. We shouldn’t, without a very good reason, kick a man or woman. Often, contentious moral issues, such as embryo research, or abortion, or whether to turn off a life-support machine, turn on disagreement about moral status. So the key questions are, who or what has moral status, and why? Jeff McMahan, of Rutgers University, has spent years trying to unravel the answers.

JULIAN SAVULESCU - Designer Babies (MP3) 

The term ‘designer baby’ is usually used in a pejorative sense – to conjure up some dystopian Brave New World. There are already ways to affect what kind of children you have – most obviously by choosing the partner to have them with. But there are others too: a pregnant mother can improve her baby’s prospects by not smoking, for instance. With advances in genetics, however, there will soon be radical new methods to select or influence the characteristics of your progeny: not just physical characteristics, like height or eye colour, but intellectual capacities, and capacities linked to morality – such as how empathetic the child will be. The big question is how much freedom parents should have to make such selections. Julian Savulescu of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, believes that if we can genetically alter the next generation, not only should we be free to do so, it may even turn out that in some circumstances we have an obligation to go ahead and do it.

About the interviewers

David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton co-host Philosophy Bites, a philosophy podcast consisting of a series of 15 minute interviews with top philosophers giving a brief introduction to an area of their work (see: This philosophy podcast has had over 8 million downloads to-date. Julian Savulescu’s podcast interview ‘the Yuk Factor‘ on Philosophy Bites received 25,000 downloads in its first week, above the average for this very popular service. Dave Edmonds has also conducted special podcast interviews with research members of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, talking about their areas of interest, which are available at: [link to relevant Uehiro website page]. David Edmonds also produces a very popular Radio 4 programme on Experimental Ethics, presented by Professor Janet Radcliffe-Richards (Consultant Researcher and Distinguished Research Fellow of the Uehiro Centre).