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Press: Can experimenting on philosophers be ethical?

29 September 2023

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THE London Review of Books has a thought-provoking discussion of the ethics of medical experimentation on utilitarian philosophers. It is 50 years since Peter Singer published Animal Liberation Now, and the issue of a new and expanded edition prompts Lorna Finlayson to observe that “Singer rarely talks about killing or experimenting on ‘normal’ philosophy professors like himself: it seems there is always someone else ahead in the queue — primates, babies, disabled people.

“If advances could be made that would significantly improve treatment for Parkinson’s patients by experimenting on Australian philosophers, would that be justified? Singer, not averse to biting bullets, might agree to his own hypothetical sacrifice if utility demanded it. But ‘unfortunately’ (as he puts it at one point in Animal Liberation Now), there are ‘many intellectually disabled human beings’, some of them not even loved by anyone (so, no one to create disutility by grieving for them). Setting this aside, it’s hard to see any properly utilitarian basis for saying that it is worse to experiment on a philosophy professor than on a profoundly disabled person. Suffering is suffering.

“Does the philosopher bring more joy to the world? That is far from a given. Most philosophers seem to be fairly unhappy, and many produce work that contributes net negative utility to those who (usually under duress) read it.”


THIS is not the only enjoyable bounce on a fashionable philosopher in the papers: Bryan Appleyard reviewed Daniel Dennett’s autobiography, I’ve Been Thinking (Allen Lane), in The Sunday Times last week: “Daniel Dennett was one member of an early-21st-century group known as the Four Horsemen. . . God was the problem, they said. Religion would destroy us. Their primary selling point was 9/11, an attack perpetrated by Islamists, religious psychos. Their secondary one was supposedly religion in general. . .

“The Horsemen were an intellectually vain bunch and none more so than their philosopher king, Dennett. This book is his autobiography. And we should all be grateful. ‘There are lessons to be learned,’ he claims, ‘from how I handled my own education and how I became such a good thinker.’ He tells us that another philosopher said: ‘Dan believes modesty is a virtue to be reserved for special occasions.’ Judging by this book I would guess that there never has been such an occasion in Dennett’s 81 years.”


THE Associated Press (AP) carried an interesting story about the part played by the Vatican in the Second World War: what did Pope Pius XII know about the Holocaust, and when did he know it? (Comment, 15 July 2022).

A letter has emerged from the Vatican archives showing that Fr Lothar Koenig, a German Jesuit, had written to Pius’s secretary, a fellow German Jesuit, to say that the Nazis were killing up to 6000 people a day from just one town in occupied Poland. This letter was dated 14 December 1942, and the AP’s lead says that “The documentation undercuts the Holy See’s argument that it couldn’t verify diplomatic reports of Nazi atrocities to denounce them.”

The assumption in all this is that, as soon as he knew what was going on, he should have denounced it.

It is worth noting, then, the arguments against speaking out. The researcher who found the letter, Giovanni Coco, noted that “Koenig also urged the Holy See to not make public what he was revealing because he feared for his own life and the lives of the resistance sources who had provided the intelligence.”

At this point, I remembered a correspondence that I found in the National Archives, where I have been researching my mother’s work as a code-breaker during the war. In 1941 and 1942, the British and the Russians collaborated to attack the German army’s low-grade codes. As a result, they were well aware of the civilian massacres, mostly of Jews, perpetrated by the SS and others in occupied territory. (They also had information about the concentration camps, from Enigma, which they were determined not ever to release.)

As early as October 1942, however, Victor Cavendish Bentinck, of the Foreign Office, agreed with “C”, Stewart Menzies, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, that a lawyer in his department should collect “intercepted police messages between S. S. brigades, etc. and Headquarters. These have in the past contained accounts of wholesale executions, etc.”

But there was no question of making this information public. That would have told the Germans that their messages were being read, and they would switch to a more secure system, such as Enigma. Instead, it was hoarded for the war-crimes trials that the nascent United Nations was already envisaging.

The case against Pope Pius’s silence is rather different from the charge that, as soon as the Allies knew what was happening in Auschwitz, they should have bombed the place flat to save all the Jews who had not yet been sent there. The Pope, as Stalin might have observed, had no bombers. He could do nothing but speak out. And what this shows is that the Vatican was not alone in counting the cost of speaking out — nor necessarily wrong.

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