OUC-WEH Joint Double Seminar

Rethinking “Disease”: A Fresh Diagnosis and a New Philosophical Treatment

Jointly organised by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities

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Venue: Colin Matthew Room, Radcliffe Humanities, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Woodstock Rd, Oxford

Speaker: Russell Powell

Abstract: Despite several decades of debate, the concept of disease remains hotly contested. The debate is typically cast as one between naturalism and normativism, with a hybrid view that combines elements of each staked out in between. In light of a number of widely discussed problems with existing accounts, some theorists argue that the concept of disease is beyond repair and thus recommend eliminating it in a wide range of practical medical contexts. Any attempt to reframe the ‘disease’ discussion should not only answer the more basic skeptical challenge, but it should also include a meta-methodological critique guided by our pragmatic expectations of what the disease concept ought to do given that medical diagnosis is woven into a complex network of healthcare institutions. In this paper, I attempt such a reframing, arguing that while prevailing accounts do not suffer from the particular defects that prominent critics have identified, they do suffer from other deficits—and this leads me to propose an amended hybrid view that not only places objectivist approaches to disease on stronger theoretical footing, but also satisfies the institutional-ethical desiderata of a concept of disease in human medicine. Nevertheless, I do not advocate a procrustean approach to “disease.” Instead, I recommend disease concept pluralism between medical and biological sciences in order to allow the concept to serve the different epistemic and institutional goals of these respective disciplines.

Russell Powell is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University. Prior to joining BU, he was a Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. He received his PhD in Philosophy and M.S. in Evolutionary Biology from Duke University, and his Juris Doctor from New York University School of Law. Russell specializes in the philosophy of biological and biomedical science, focusing on conceptual and methodological problems in evolutionary theory, the ethical dimensions of emerging biosciences, and intersections between ethics and philosophy of science more broadly. His book The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory (Oxford University Press, 2018), co-authored with Allen Buchanan, is due out in May. He is currently finishing up another book titled Contingency and Convergence: Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind (MIT Press), which is slated to come out in the fall. Before returning to philosophy, Russell worked as an attorney of the global law firm Skadden, Arps LLP, where he practiced complex pharmaceutical liability litigation.

Minds Without Spines: Toward a More Comprehensive Animal Ethics

Speaker: Irina Mikhalevich

Abstract: Invertebrate animals account for approximately 95% of all extant species and an astounding 99.9% of all animals on Earth, ranging from the sessile and brainless sea sponge to social-learners such as bumblebees and flexible problem-solvers like the common octopus. Despite this diversity, these animals are commonly lumped together as a group and subsequently excluded from subject-centered moral consideration and legal protections. This is likely due to a range of cognitive biases (such as biases in favor of more attractive, larger, longer lived, less numerous, and less disgust-provoking animals), false empirical judgments (such as the belief that very small brains cannot support cognition or consciousness), and unjustified moral anxieties (such as the concern that extending moral consideration to invertebrates threatens to make morality overly demanding). Recent developments in comparative cognition research, however, indicate the presence of sophisticated cognitive abilities and emotion-like states in many invertebrates, and neuroethology is beginning to reveal how the tiny brains of these animals can give rise to cognition and, perhaps, consciousness. At the same time, conceptual and methodological problems in animal cognition science result in significant uncertainties about the presence of complex cognition in animals generally and invertebrates in particular, and it is unclear how these scientific uncertainties should affect our ethical analyses. Perhaps even more fundamentally, studies of invertebrate cognition may prompt us to rethink vertebrate-centric approaches to moral standing, including some of its operative assumptions about the behavioral indicators of pain and the relevance of pain states to moral standing. This talk lays the foundation for a more comprehensive, inclusive, and scientifically engaged animal ethics – one that responds both to the novel scientific evidence and to the philosophical challenges that confront the scientific study of these ‘alien’ minds on Earth. 

Irina Mikhalevich is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Her work lies at the intersection of the philosophy of science, the philosophy of cognitive science, and ethics, with a focus on the nature and science of animal minds. In her research, she examines conceptual and methodological problems in comparative (animal) cognition science and their implications for the treatment of nonhuman animals. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University in 2014 under the supervision of Alisa Bokulich and Colin Allen (Pittsburgh), following which she held the McDonnell Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology (PNP) Program at Washington University in St. Louis and a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.

Booking: required. https://bookwhen.com/uehiro 

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