Plan Ahead: Doctor-Assisted Suicide – A Two-Part Lecture Series on the Ethical Foundations

There is a very timely two-part lecture series coming up at the Institute of Practical Philosophy at Vancouver Island University in April:

  • Is Doctor Assisted Suicide Acceptable? Thursday, April 7th, 4-5:30pm, Bldg. 200, Rm. 203 (Theatre), VIU
  • How Should We Move Forward? Thursday, April 21st, 4-5:30, Bldg. 200, Rm. 203 (Theatre), VIU

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For more information, see the Institute of Practical Philosophy Events page.

A brief report from Dr. Laura Shanner’s IPP talk

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Dr Laura Shanner is a wonderful public speaker.

At her IPP talk on October 22, she covered a gamut of topics, from public policy to personal responsibility, and painted a picture of epidemology that showed we were unprepared in Canada for the SARS outbreaks of the early nougthies, a remnant of public health legislation that was and is often outdated.

She covered some basic terminology to explain outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics, and went over historical examples, such as the Black Plague pandemic in Europe, and more recent ones such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. She also gave some estimates over how large a pandemic might need to be before its ripple effect throughout a population could bring life as we know to a halt. (The answer: Initially not that large, on the order of 15-20% of people affected directly, with a much larger, secondary ripple effect that spreads out and causes much greater disruption.)

A recurring theme throughout her presentation was the need to prepare NOW, rather than having to apply some form of ‘lifeboat ethics’ at the time of a major event, when ethical choices about who might receive treatment and who might not will always result in outcomes that are far less than ideal. Lifeboat ethics are always an exercise in tragic choices, in her words.

Dr Shanner also brought home some excellent points about how our own brains get in the way of being prepared, for an array of different reasons, such as our tendency not to pay heed to probabilistic predictions, being in denial of what might happen or what is happening around us (the latter witnessed during in the Ebola outbreak), and so forth.

Since the SARS outbreak, a whole body of work has sprung up that purports to provide ethical guidelines for public health preparedness and that outlines a framework for steps to take in reaction to events. She used these a couple of specific articles to go over some examples, and these articles turn out to be available online:

The response taken by public health officials needs to be effective, proportional, necessary, infringes on individuals as little as possible and can be justified publicly (in the Childress version). Upshur’s article has a similar framework that also includes the notion of reciprocity–how health care workers can be expect to be treated in return for potentially putting their lives on the line. Upshur also specifically invokes John Sutart Mill’s harm principle to help qualify how a public health response might need be formed.

There was much, much more discussed at Dr Shanner’s IPP talk, and I cannot go into all of it here. She started out with a disclaimer that she did not want to be alarmist, but the message in the end was clear: There is a great deal of work left to be done in the public health policy arena before we can consider ourselves well prepared, not just in developing nations, but also in those places that are considered reasonably well off, such as Canada.

Dinner at Asteras on Wesley Street after the talk was equally excellent, and a lively conversation continued until almost 9 PM. Overall, a wonderful evening and one that more than lived up to the expectations of an IPP talk!

Plan Ahead

There are a couple of very interesting talks coming up at the Institute of Practical Philosophy at Vancouver Island University.

The first one is “Measles, Ebola and you: Ethics in the Age of Traveling Illnesses” by Dr. Laura Shanner on Thursday October 22nd:

Screenshot 2015-10-18 at 19.39.51 - Laura Shanner

The next one is “Will the Real Science Please Stand Up?” on November 12 by a graduate of the VIU philosophy programme, Evan Westre. For more information, see IPP Events.

Hegel, Traffic Signs, and Swiss Cheese: A Synthesis

File under whimsical expressions of philosophical thought.

Even though I was born in Switzerland and lived there until my teens, I have never driven much in Switzerland and after some twenty-seven years away, the rules of the road are somewhat unheimlich, both familiar and unfamiliar at once.

Case in point: Whilst driving on Swiss roads, you often see this sign:

‘You are required to carry a slice of cheese in your pocket at all times’

After about a week of encountering these signs on the road, a notion reluctantly forms in your mind that these signs are somehow important, even if you don’t quite know how. Presumably, official street signs exists to denote meaning of some sort related to the rules of the road and, if you are driving down roads that bear these signs, it might be necessary to know what they mean at some point.

Thesis: Minds like to find meaning where meaning seems to loom large, or so says the later Wittgenstein. A first stab at the nebulous purpose of these street signs yields the thesis that you are required to carry a slice of cheese in your pocket at all times. This is less absurd than it seems at first, because the signs at face value do indeed seem to contain a slice of cheese in the center and we are in Switzerland, a place where cows and dairy are so ubiquitous and ingrained in the national consciousness that you cannot imagine life without them. If you are diagnosed with lactose intolerance in Switzerland, for example, the official guidance you receive is to substitute the milk in your coffee with cream diluted in water, since cream contains less lactose. The thought of avoiding dairy altogether is foreign. In short, it’s not unthinkable that some token homage to cows and their tinkling cow bells is required at times.

Antithesis: Still, our original thesis seems lacking. For starters, no one in our car ever seems to carry a slice of cheese and we have yet to encounter any consequences as a result. By itself, this observation is not antithetical to our original idea, since there are other road signs that are of no consequence to us. For example, in the Bernese Highlands, we often encounter road signs indicating when mass takes place in the local churches, but we do not attend any of them, to no apparent ill effect. The antithesis is revealed when a local versed in the rules of the road enters the scene to explain: These signs indicate that you are on a Hauptstrasse or main road and that you have the right of way. The signs often go together with a shark tooth pattern painted onto the road that delineates the main road from a side road (Nebenstrasse). This new explanation immediately makes sense and actually solves a problem: Our interpretation of the right of way had been oscillating uneasily between hesitation and insistence. Knowing when you have the right of way is decidedly helpful.

Synthesis: As explanations go, there is a problem, though: The antithesis is exceedingly boring. Knowing that the sign means you have the right of way is important, but pragmatically anticlimactic. It just won’t do. Similarly, the sign is hardly intuitive outside the hurly-burly of its semiotic context, as it fails to indicate its meaning to foreigners. Its warm, yellow center diamond, contrasted against the simple clean shape of the black surround seems to promise … more.

So how can we combine our now defunct cheese slice thesis and the anticlimactic antithesis to form something new? Simple, when I am on a main road, I am the big cheese. Je suis le fromage grand, the right of way is mine.

We are satisfied. In the three senses of aufgehoben at play in Hegel’s dialectic, our original thesis was negated, as you are not required to keep a slice of cheese in your pocket whilst driving on certain roads in Switzerland; the cheese slice thesis was also preserved in the apparent contradiction that is part of the dialectic, since a part of the idea continues to live on in the notion of being the big cheese and having the right of way; and finally, our understanding was sublated, since we arrived at a new understanding of Swiss road signs that is not contained in either the thesis or the antithesis alone.

Big Data and the Surveillance of Everything: Issues


This is the final part of a three part series based on a talk given for the Institute of Practical Philosophy at Vancouver Island University in April 2015. 

 The series includes:

Part 1 – Introduction to big data
Part 2 – Examples of using big data
Part 3 – Unpacking (some of) the issues …

The views expressed in this series are my own. 

Unpacking (some of) the issues …

In the second part of this series, we talked about examples of how big data can be used, from credit card fraud to government surveillance. In this third and final part, let’s change gears again and look at some of the issues surrounding big data and the surveillance of everything.

Living with big data

“A surveillance society is not only inevitable, it’s worse. It’s irresistible”–Jeff Jonas

Originally made in 2011, this quote is now stale. In 2015, we are talking about a future that has already happened, and we are perhaps only now realizing that what has happened is much more invasive than we could have anticipated. The examples given here would not be possible at this scale without big data technology and they aren’t futuristic examples; they exist here and now.

Technology is changing the world, perhaps much faster than you and I can adapt. Change in this case is not about new gadgets but about a fundamental change to many facets of our lives. And yet, many of our privacy laws were written before the big data revolution. Just because you can get the data legally, does not mean it is ethical to do so if outmoded and outdated privacy laws are essentially lagging behind. The example of Target’s targeted marketing indicates even the company itself realized at some point that what it was doing was bordering on creepy. Legal yes, but also borderline Orwellian.

So why is a surveillance society irresistible? Simple:

Companies know if they can extract more insight from data faster than their competitors, they’re going to win–Bill McColl

These companies might counter any claims about becoming Big Brother by saying that they are really just creating a better internet experience for you, the consumer who prefers relevant ads related to your interests. Similarly, for governments, there is a competitive national security advantage if they gain better insights before other nations or hostile groups.

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Big Data and the Surveillance of Everything: Examples


This is the second part of a three part series based on a talk given for the Institute of Practical Philosophy at Vancouver Island University in April 2015.   The series includes:

Part 1 – Introduction to big data
Part 2 – Examples of using big data
Part 3 – Unpacking (some of) the issues …

The views expressed in this series are my own. 

Examples of using big data

In the first part of this series, you were introduced to some of the technical background that makes the field of big data possible. Consider now examples that include an application of big data analytics in one form or another. The examples covered here include:

  • Credit card fraud
  • Prenatal monitoring
  • Targeted marketing
  • Government surveillance

There are many other examples as well, some of which you have already seem, but these examples here serve to show you the range and breadth of big data applications, which will become important when we start unpacking some of the issues surrounding big data in the final part of the series.

Credit card fraud

Credit card fraud is a good example of a perishable insight: Credit card companies buy systems to detect that what you are doing is out of the ordinary before you even finish and they will stop you if you think there is fraud involved. These companies typically know your habits and behavioural patterns better than even your close family might.

It is somewhat disingenuous to say “they will stop you,” given that ‘you’ in this case is someone else engaging in credit card fraud with your information. It sounds more sinister than it actually is. But think about the speed at which this decision making process must happen: Most credit card transactions complete in 10 seconds or less, starting from a slow merchant terminal that first has to make a connection with a host system. Your in-progress transaction has to make it to the analytics system, the system needs to determine whether or not your transaction is out of the ordinary and then has to make a decision on the fly about whether or not to let the transaction go through. If the transaction is deemed fraudulent, a stop instruction has to be issued before the transaction completes. All you get is this 10 second window; once the transaction is completed, it is too late to stop any potential fraudster. Also, you cannot flag legitimate transactions as fraudulent or your customers will hate you and will eventually move to your nearest competitor if you aggravate them enough. These are very advanced, multi-million dollar systems to combat fraud that are fine-tuned so as not to interfere with your daily life by knowing exactly what it is that you usually do.

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Big Data and the Surveillance of Everything: Introduction


We are re-publishing this series of articles by Dr. Richers by popular demand!

This is the first part of a three part series based on a talk given for the Institute of Practical Philosophy at Vancouver Island University in April 2015.  The series includes:

Part 1 – Introduction to big data
Part 2 – Examples of using big data
Part 3 – Unpacking (some of) the issues …

The views expressed in this series are my own. 

Why talk about big data?

The topic of big data captures many of the issues we are faced with in a time of rapid technological change. In the examples shown here, some might immediately strike you as good applications of technology–they help human beings lead better lives–but others look like they infringe on basic rights without any recourse. Details about your life are now available to an extent that might make anyone concerned with individual privacy queasy. It is this range of issues surrounding big data, the presence of both good and bad issues, which makes the topic of big data such an interesting starting point.

Big data and the habitual surveillance of our lives were interesting topics in themselves before all the commotion surrounding Bill C-51 started in Canada. Proposed mass surveillance legislation like Bill C-51 would not be possible without the technology underlying big data. Around the globe, legislation like Bill C-51 fits into the framework of a larger trend that changes or even undermines some of the basic notions of what it means to have individual privacy. Bill C-51 is very likely to become law in Canada, but the discussion of this trend is not dictated by the passage of any one set of laws. It is a conversation about individual privacy which we have only just begun. 

There is also a practical aspect to all of this: Big data is not some magical black box but a very specific technology. This post covers just enough of the technology to give you an idea of how it might work and why big data lets you do things that older technology even just a few short years ago did not. Overall, the message is this: Something has fundamentally changed in the last ten years and we are very unlikely to ever go back. So the question becomes: How do we cope with this change?

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