– I am a UK-based independent researcher, author and critical thinker with a predominantly Dutch-American background in the earth & life sciences (as well as in tourism & hospitality and a few other areas). I have been the target of a lot of unusual activity for over a decade.
I thought that this would have major consequences for Facebook.
I was wrong. People just shrugged. They made fusses over Starbucks instead.
So Facebook took it further and further. It meddled in the US elections. It meddled in the UK’s Brexit referendum (the Cambridge Analytica scandal). Its boss gave governments the finger by not showing up for hearings. It paid kids to give it access to their entire digital lives.
And now this. Can you still justify using Facebook (and Instagram, and WhatsApp)?
Anyone who still uses Facebook in spite of that company’s highly unethical practices, such as meddling in the US elections and mood manipulation experiments without the users’ consent, has to look at himself or herself in the mirror and ask questions. There are other platforms that allow people to stay in touch with friends and family, if that is why he or she uses Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg’s failure to show up recently as part of an international inquiry showed contempt.
Facebook had been aware that an update to its Android app that let it collect records of users’ calls and texts would be controversial. “To mitigate any bad PR, Facebook planned to make it as hard as possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features,” Mr Collins wrote.
Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.
We are in the midst of two great ethical debates: marriage equality and assisted dying. The results of the marriage equality postal survey will be announced on November 15; meanwhile, the Victorian parliament is this week debating a new law to allow doctor-assisted dying in the last year of life.
What is striking is the volume of the respective public debates. Everyone is talking about marriage equality; very few are discussing assisted dying.
Given that the ethics of assisted dying are more complex than marriage equality, and what happens in Victoria is likely to provide a template for other states, why is it receiving so much less attention?
How fear of death affects public debate
Public ethical debates are fuelled by emotion and psychological biases on both sides. In the case of assisted dying, most of us are not like Epicurus: we fear death. We hate talking about it.
Despite the fact that polls show that 73% of Australians favour assisted dying, it is not clear whether the legislation will pass, although the mood seems to be leaning slightly in favour: 40 out of 87 MPs in the Legislative Assembly told the Herald Sun they would vote yes.
So, there should be an enormous impetus to show MPs the level of public support. But it has been rather muted. Perhaps for similar reasons we post photos of weddings on Facebook, but not funerals: both are important, but only one makes good dinner party conversation.
Terror management theory, evolution and social signalling
Our fear of death might even be linked to our love of marriage, according to terror management theory (TMT). Neuroscientist Claudia Aguirre writes:
When we’re faced with the idea of death, people defensively turn to things they believe will shield them from death, literal or otherwise. Thinking about death also motivates people to indiscriminately uphold and defend their cultural world views, whatever those may be.
TMT has been linked to our development of regulation and rituals around sex.
So, a fundamental commitment to marriage being between a man and a woman may be more of an immovable foundation on which group membership is based to guard against our shared fear of death than an ethical position that can be defended or rebutted on rational grounds.
While fear suppresses talk about dying, marriage equality involves sex. People are intensely interested in love and sex. And sex has been more important than death in evolutionary terms.
As evolved animals, we were only here to survive long enough to reproduce. Reproduction is evolution’s goal, and so practices around its rituals and norms are hugely important in evolutionary and religious terms.
Religions and societies seek to control reproduction. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, sex was to occur within marriage between one man and one woman. Death at an old age is of much less evolutionary significance.
We are social animals, motivated to support our in-group and reject out-group members. Tribalism can help explain our devotion to football teams, for example. We have developed social signalling to show our group which side we are on and maintain trust.
Add to that a status quo bias, and public debates where the topic in question is seen to express something foundational about ourselves can become little more than cheering for our own team.
Anchoring is a psychological bias that means we evaluate how good or bad something is relative to the anchor of existing examples.
In the UK, the 2013 same-sex marriage legislation was fairly uncontroversial. One reason could be that civil partnerships – same-sex marriage in all but name – were created back in 2004. Each step in the UK’s progress towards marriage equality was a short step from the previous state of being.
In contrast, the Australian campaign against same-sex marriage portrays the choice as a paradigm shift in our culture, extending far beyond marriage. Former prime minister Tony Abbott linked the debate to political correctness, gender fluidity and even the date of Australia Day, saying:
This isn’t just about marriage … there are lots and lots of implications here and we’ve got to think them through before we take this big leap into … the dark.
A better approach
For assisted dying to be an appropriate activity for medicine, we should show that death can be an appropriate therapeutic end and in a patient’s best interests. That is, that their life is no longer worth living.
That is an extremely difficult case to prove, and I haven’t seen any good arguments for how to evaluate that. Why wouldn’t we just go on what a competent person says? If a suffering person believes they’re better off dead, they’re probably right.
But here is another way to think about it. The Victorian legislation will provide assistance only to those in the last year of life from a physical illness. They are effectively in the process of dying.
One major objection to the assisted dying bill is that we don’t need it because good palliative care is sufficient. Relief of suffering is very important, and more should be spent on end-of-life planning and palliative care.
But this objection is complicated for several reasons. If palliative care is outstanding, people won’t request assistance in dying. So there is no need to ban it.
More importantly, while palliative care may be able to control pain and suffering, it cannot do everything.
Together with colleagues at Barwon Health and Oxford University, we surveyed 382 people from the general population and 100 attendees at an advance care planning clinic, where people think about and express their values relating to end-of-life care. We didn’t ask them about assisted dying, but we did ask them to rank four factors at the end of life: pain relief, dignity, independence and living as long as possible.
The highest proportion of both groups ranked the relief of pain and suffering as the most important value, followed by maintaining dignity and remaining independent.
Living as long as possible was ranked as most important by the lowest proportion of participants – only 4% of palliative care patients and 2.6% of the general population (30–35% regarded this as either not important or not very important).
People care not only about pain relief, but also about dignity and independence at the end of life. These are much more subjective and less amenable to control by palliative care. So while palliative care can address part of what people care about, it may not be able to address all their values.
Moreover, people can already shorten their lives by more than a year for any medical condition, or no medical condition at all, by refusing to eat and drink by mouth. It takes around ten days to die of thirst. Such people could be given palliative care to relieve their suffering during this period of suicide.
But surely the Victorian law offers a better way to die? As with the palliative care, this kind of death does not provide the dignified death, or the independence, that people value.
As distressing as public debate on heartfelt, emotive issues like assisted dying and marriage equality can be, it is an important collective exercise. Like many other people, I thought the marriage equality survey was a waste of money. But on reflection, this idea maybe misplaced. When the views of one part of the community are deemed politically incorrect and suppressed, they foment, then erupt in a Brexit or a Trump.
Debate is vitally important to democracy. What we should hope is that people engage in these debates with their heads, not their hearts. It will take considerable effort on both sides to overcome the psychological obstacles to finding the most fair and reasonable policy.
As Epicurus also said:
The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.
Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics, Visiting Professor in Biomedical Ethics, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and Distinguished Visiting Professor in Law, Melbourne University, University of Oxford
Tuna is one of the most ubiquitous seafoods. It can be eaten from a can or as high-end sashimi and in many forms in between. But some species are over-fished and some fishing methods are unsustainable. How do you know which type of tuna you’re eating?
Some tuna is certified as sustainably caught by groups such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) that set standards for sustainable fishing. But these certifications are only good if they are credible.
In late August, several media outlets published stories about On the Hook, a new campaign by a consortium of retailers and academics who have taken issue with some fishing practices allowed by the MSC. As a university professor whose research focuses on private seafood governance, including certifications and traceability, and fisheries policy, I am deeply familiar with the issues at hand. I support the campaign, but don’t stand to gain from the outcome.
The Western and Central Pacific skipjack tuna fishery is one of the world’s biggest. Some of the tuna caught here carries the MSC’s blue label, identifying it as the best environmental choice for consumers. But the same boats making that sustainable catch may also use unsustainable methods to catch unsustainable fish on the same day.
The On the Hook coalition sees this as at odds with the MSC certification, as do I. Yes, sustainable and unsustainable fish can be separated; there are people on board whose sole job is to do this. But rewarding fishermen for their sustainable catch, while allowing them to fish unsustainably, dupes consumers into supporting companies that take part in bad behaviour.
Does sorting work?
The On the Hook campaign singles out one fishery in particular: the “purse seine” fishery in the tropical western Pacific Ocean. This fishery covers the waters of eight island nations, including Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Under the Nauru Agreement, these nations, usually referred to as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), collectively control access to about one quarter of the world’s tuna supply.
Fishermen can use nets to catch free-swimming adult tuna and earn MSC certification for their catch. But these same fishermen can also use fish aggregating devices (FADs) — instruments that attract all kinds of marine life, including adult tuna, juvenile tuna and hundreds of species of sharks, turtles and other fish — to net their catch. Fishing on FADs is faster and less costly, but these devices are associated with high levels of bycatch, one of the main sustainability concerns in many fisheries. Fishing on FDAs does not earn MSC certification.
Under normal operations, the fishermen use both methods. “Compartmentalization” is a technique that allows the unsustainable portion of the fish to be separated on board the vessel from the sustainable portion. This is supposed to provide assurance to consumers that they are making a sustainable choice. Yet the negative environmental impacts connected to FAD fishing operations should surely also be considered in an MSC assessment. Currently, this does not happen.
Compartmentalization remains necessary because there isn’t enough of an economic advantage for companies to make only sustainable catches. It costs fishermen more to fish sustainably because they have to find the tuna, instead of waiting for it to come to the FAD.
A fleet using both methods can be part of a higher value premium market and earn financial security from the high volume, yet unsustainable, fishery. If purse-seining tuna vessels need to subsidize their sustainable fishing with unsustainable practices, then MSC certification has not provided the incentive it set out to.
A holistic fishery
Millions of tonnes of tuna have been fished from the waters of the Western and Central Pacific fishery. But the countries controlling these waters have not benefited to a large extent, mostly due to a lack of cooperation in bargaining for benefits, which allowed distant nations to exploit the fishery.
In the past decade, these Pacific Island states have increased their bargaining power in regional negotiations by implementing a scheme that controls the number of boats that can enter their waters. Under the program, called the vessel day scheme (VDS), these countries can now charge higher fees to boats that want access.
For example, PNA countries used to extract between three per cent and six per cent of the value of tuna fishery in their waters. Since their bargaining power has increased, they can now extract more than 14 per cent of the value, and this number is likely to continue to rise.
This is no small accomplishment for these Pacific Island nations, and other coastal state collectives are now trying to emulate their success. But this does not mean that all of the practices they allow are commendable, including those that are not representative of the “best environmental choice” in seafood.
On my Facebook feed, a colleague recently commented: “A Pacific Islander owned sustainably certified fishery is the wrong target.”
Let me clear up this misconception. The On the Hook campaign is not targeting the PNA, but the MSC. It would like the MSC to delay the recertification — authorized by the accreditation body in September — of the PNA fishery until the compartmentalization practice has been addressed. The fishery needs to be considered holistically.
For example, the MSC could specify that to earn a certification, a boat cannot fish sustainably and unsustainably on the same fishing trip. Consumer dollars should not be supporting the very practices the MSC condemns.
Another colleague remarked that because the PNA is challenging big industry, the On the Hook campaign might benefit big industry and hurt the PNA. In fact, it is the same boats, the same fleet, the same companies that are fishing MSC-certified tuna and on FADs.
My colleagues also worry that the campaign calls into question the credibility of the MSC label. But this has actually become commonplace, with many groups pointing at examples of certified fisheries that are not sustainable. For example, the WWF has recommended that seafood buyers should stay away from MSC-certified Mexican tuna.
I would argue that the MSC is tarnishing itself by normalizing the practice of compartmentalization. It is no longer clear that fish carrying the MSC label offer the best environmental choice. Many Canadian fisheries, like lobster, herring, and Atlantic redfish, are MSC-certified. The faltering credibility of the MSC is a major risk for Canadian fish harvesters who rely on the MSC label to communicate their good fishing practices.
Additionally, Canadian consumers who are used to searching for the blue MSC check mark when they shop for seafood can no longer do so thinking that the logo conveys accurate information. Consumers need to know that the waters are muddy, that seafood sustainability is a moving target, and that it is not easy to make the right choice when standing in the aisle at the supermarket.
Governments and businesses need to make that choice easier for consumers. And they could start by dealing with compartmentalization in the PNA fishery — and elsewhere.
The PNA countries could also make demands. They could allow access rights only to vessels that agree to drop the practice of compartmentalization and that are transparent about their fishing practices.
More than anything, the MSC needs to take a good look at itself and remember what it is supposed to represent — the best environmental choice — not consumer confusion.
The IAPG (International Association for Promoting Geoethics) organizes/supports five sessions on geoethics at the Resources Future Generations – RFG 2018 Conference (Vancouver, 16-21 June 2018) under the Theme “Resources and Society: Social & Ethical Values”.
In my essay “We need to talk about this” I mention that I have on occasion been shocked by a certain brand of callousness that I have seen (too) often in Britain (both in the media and in real life). Here is one example of what I mean.
You can only justify such occurrences by applying a tweaked form of utilitarian reasoning. One person was suffering, but “wasn’t really harmed” and the number of people who were enjoying what was being done to George Cheese was greater than 1, hence these occurrences “increased overall happiness”.
The fact that utilitarianism was associated with the higher classes may have given this type of reasoning or events an unfortunate aura of “cleverness”. It could also explain why anyone who condemns the sort of things that were being done to George Cheese is seen by some as “naïve” and “not quite with it”.
Utilitarianism also attached little importance to individual persons’ rights. It would have stopped short from, say, stabbing someone like George Cheese as opposed to setting his clothes on fire and stuffing him into the trunk/boot of a car. This is the kind of background, I think, that enabled Simon Wright to say “It did not go too far.”
In reality, abuse targets like George don’t get to LIVE. All they are allowed to do is wait for their natural deaths. George Cheese said “FUCK THAT!” and stood up for himself in the only way he had left.
I hope to see class actions in every country that uses the English version of Facebook because this is most definitely not right. No amount of word-twisting by Facebook (or the researchers) can cover up that no users ever consented to this kind of experiment being carried out on them.
In addition, the university researchers involved in the study should be investigated and disciplined. If they were in my employ, I would sack them instantly.
They have damaged the scientific reputation of their universities and, in my view, do not belong in academia. I trust that Cornell University and the University of California will take the appropriate steps.
On the other hand, these researchers are highlighting a serious danger that lurks behind social media, but it does not appear that this was the motivation for their unforgivable conduct.