Latest entries

Package-Deal Ethics

First published in The Hedgehog Review, Vol. 19. No. 3 (Autumn 2017)

Ready, aim, fire, kill. A single shot was all it took. Every morning of his adult life, Gail Gerlach, a fifty-six-year-old plumber from Spokane, Washington, would strap on the holster of his 9mm handgun before going to work. But on March 25, 2013, he wouldn’t just carry the gun; he would use it.

Brendon Kaluza-Graham was a twenty-seven-year-old convicted car thief. He must have thought this would be an easy one. Gerlach had left his vehicle idling in his driveway—a 1997 Chevrolet Suburban jammed full of his tools and supplies. All Kaluza-Graham had to do was jump in, slam the door, and take off. The rush, the thrill of it all. As he drove off, he probably thought he’d got away with it until…crack…a bullet shot from at least forty yards away pierced the rear window and struck him in the back of the head. Killed instantly, he slumped over the wheel. The vehicle lurched on for two blocks before finally careering into a garage.

In court, Gerlach pleaded self-defense to a manslaughter charge. Even though Kaluza-Graham was driving away from Gerlach, he claimed to have been “in imminent danger of substantial bodily injury to himself.” Eventually, the jury found Gerlach innocent (and subsequently reimbursed more than $220,000 for legal bills and expert witnesses), but not all were celebrating the outcome. “He had hopes and dreams,” said Ann Kaluza, Kaluza-Graham’s grandmother, but “was made into a poster boy for the angst of the community, a sacrificial lamb. That’s not right.” Another friend of the dead man’s family gave his interpretation: “I’m worried that the community hears it’s OK to shoot someone. His perceived threat was reality. They said that was good enough to shoot someone.”

Gail Gerlach is not only an outspoken gun advocate but also a passionate antiabortion activist. As an avowed Reagan conservative, he cannot fathom how a society that prohibits prostitution, class A drugs, even driving without a seatbelt, can tolerate the killing of an unborn child. He belongs to the lobbying group Pro Life Rocks. In one Internet post, he gave passionate expression to his views: “It is a human right to have life, and no one’s right to take it away at any stage.… No one would be safe if we can not [sic] protect the right to life.” Continue reading

Human Rights – all things being equal

First published by Standpoint, November 2017

If you wander into any Waterstones and scan the shelves for books about equality what you’re going to find are countless books about policy. You’ll find books by gurus like Antony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty or Joseph Stiglitz proposing wealth taxes. You’ll find development economics books like Poor Economics or Why Nations Fail about why inclusive institutions are the answer to global poverty. You’ll find ambitious politicians laying out ideas about how to boost equality of opportunity for children. Or if books about human rights catch your eye, when you pull them down and read them without buying them (conditional, if you have integrity, upon not smudging coffee across the pages), you are going to learn about how well or badly different countries are doing in relation to the Universal Declaration of 1948. What you’re less likely to find are books about the fundamental basis of equality. Why should organically different people be treated in the same way? Whence do we derive human rights?

Enter Jeremy Waldron, one of the most prominent political and legal philosophers working today. Professor at New York University, and previously Chichele Professor at Oxford, until now Waldron’s scholarship has also been preoccupied with policy questions — explorations of the kind of constitutional structures that make for a fair and workable society; investigations of political accountability, the nature of party opposition, the division of powers and the limit of the power of law enforcement (his treatment of the question of whether torture is ever justified has become a set text for undergraduates). But in this book, One Another’s Equals (originally his prestigious Gifford Lectures) Waldron turns from the implications of equality to a treatment of its foundation. Continue reading

Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

First published by New Statesman, 17th August 2017

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite. Continue reading

Family is key to breaking the reoffending cycle

First published 8th September 2017 on The Spectator’s Coffee House

Lord Farmer’s Review on prison reform, launched this week at the Centre for Social Justice think tank, is ground-breaking for a number of reasons. For starters, it gets family. In an incontestably broad consultation, comprising hundreds and hundreds of interviews with prisoners across Britain, the resounding message that came back was about family. ‘If I don’t see my family I will lose them, if I lose them what have I got left?’, one prisoner told Lord Farmer. The statistics bear this out: the odds of reoffending are 39 per cent lower for prisoners who receive family visits than for those who don’t. To be left bereft by the family sucks away the motivation so critical to rehabilitation.

As for the families themselves, Lord Farmer highlights the hidden sentence served by the estimated 200,000 children affected by imprisonment. Against the backdrop of shocking levels of family breakdown among the poorest, imprisonment presents yet another form of it, with the absence of a typically male parent putting children at risk. ‘The one thing I fear most is my son moving into the kind of life I have led’, a prisoner reported, and he is right to fear it: 63 per cent of prisoners’ sons going on to reoffend. Continue reading

What we must learn from the tragic case of Charlie Gard

First published on The Spectator‘s Coffee House blog, 2nd August 2017

I teach bioethics, and the abiding temptation is always to design classes around rare, fiendishly complex cases. That’s how you grab the attention of bored undergraduates; the fodder you throw to budding lawyers. You jump from Tony Bland to Terry Schiavo to Karen Ann Quinlan. You ask your students to put themselves in the shoes of the respective decision-makers. What would you have done? What factors would you have considered? How would you have applied the relevant principles?

It seems hasty, callous even, to reflect upon the shadow that will be cast by the Charlie Gard case. But the scale of the public outcry, the pitch of the debate, means we must think now about the future. What might the fall-out be? What consequences can we envisage? What ramifications are possible? And what must we prevent from happening?

First, who will trust their doctors again? When paediatricians at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) next inform parents that nothing more can be done, who will believe them? Communications broke down between GOSH and Charlie’s parents; can it be restored for the rest of us? Patients will inevitably be more suspicious: what are the medics not telling me? Who is making the decision about rationing of certain treatments, and why? Why is NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) not approving a particular treatment I’m holding out hope for? Why not wait for more positive doctors to come out of the woodwork from America?

Distrust of doctors could be compounded by distrust of judges. I live between the U.S. and the U.K, and the aspect of the Charlie Gard case that most shocked people in America was the spectre of the state infringing upon decisions that belong properly to the family. Why shouldn’t Chris Gard and Connie Yates have been given the chance to chase a miracle? Given the devastating prognosis, why should parents not be free to fail? Why should it not be for them to decide the best interests of the child?

If there is a spectrum between parental rights on one side and state intervention on the other, what will happen when there is a more serious case concerning competent parents where the courts do have to weigh in on the best interests? We have to beware of the massive counter-reactions that occur in policy because extreme cases can make for bad policy.

An even greater risk is that we exacerbate a culture of ‘vitalism’ – a commitment to maintaining life at all costs, to strain officiously to keep alive, as the Victorian Arthur Clough put it. In his bestselling bookBeing Mortal, American surgeon Atul Gawande throws into relief how extraordinary scientific advances in the twentieth century have shaped our expectations about medicine. At the same time as those advances have made for extended life expectancy, and improved the quality of life of so many older people, they have increasingly stopped us from reckoning with the reality of what it means to be human.

Continue reading

In defence of offence

First published on The Spectator‘s Coffee House blog on 20th July 2017

On Tuesday the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) announced a crackdown on gender stereotyping. Adverts suggesting men are useless around the house – racing out of the door, leaving the stove bubbling over and the dishes unwashed – could be censored because they ‘reinforce and perpetuate traditional gender roles.’ Images of beautiful mothers mopping spotless floors will be able to be banned.

How do the ASA define gender stereotypes? ‘Gender stereotypes relate to body image, objectification, sexualisation, gender characteristics and roles, and mocking people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.’ Well, that’s pretty much everyone. The ASA will have the power to make billboards bare. For as far as my own body image is concerned, I don’t need to see a gorgeous half-clad model sweating with a six-pack to be mortally offended. I feel mocked simply by seeing an advert with someone vaguely within range of their BMI. Continue reading

A Christian Movie that Embarrasses Christianity

First published in The Hedgehog Review, September 2nd, 2016

ben-hur_2016_posterThe new Ben-Hur is bad. As scathing reviews have noted, this implausible remake is treacly, pietistic and rushed. Replete with gooey flashbacks and clunky transitions, it begins with the famous chariot race, just in case we didn’t think the central Ben-Hur-Messala relationship would climax there.

The clunky dialogue is dependably risible: Upon hearing Jesus preach, Judah remarks, “Love your enemies? That’s very progressive.” The male leads appear to be unaware that, despite the film’s location, they are not acting in in a nativity play. Deservedly, the film is on track to be a financial failure of epic proportions, costing a whopping $100 million but grossing a meager $11.4 million on its opening weekend.

I, too, disliked the new Ben-Hur, but not simply because it is bad. Nor can I put my objection down entirely to my man crush on the late, great Charlton Heston or my nostalgia for the 1959 masterpiece. The bigger problem is that it’s another movie made by Christians that fails to do justice to their faith. Continue reading

What’s Pro-Life About an AR-15?

First published by The American Conservative, March 3, 2016

I’d only been in the U.S. for about six months when it arrived in the mail, slipping out of the Kroger coupons. I unfolded the full-page advert to find a series of amazing offers, but the one that really caught my eye was a CM15 .223 Rem AR Semi-Auto Rifle with Red Dot Sight. Awesome. Also on display was an impressive array of sub-compact semi-auto handguns. “Revenge” scopes, “defender” shotguns, speed pumps—an embarrassment of weaponry. guns

Fantastic, I thought. My wife Holly and I had been invited to a costume party, and now I could go as a Navy SEAL! One of these toy guns would be perfect. I’d never seen replicas like them. They were sleek, menacing, and unlike those you find in the UK, they didn’t have the annoying orange tips on the end so everyone knew they were fakes.

But then I look more closely. There was a problem. These “guns” were prohibitively expensive. At first glance I had thought the CM15 .223 Rem AR Semi-Auto Rifle was retailing at $6.99, very affordable for purposes of a costume party. But when I looked more closely, I saw that there was an additional “99” on the end. Continue reading

A truly liberal society would tolerate the Anglican church’s views on sexuality


First published by The Spectator on-line on 20th January 2016

Given how apocalyptic the predictions were, Anglicanism’s make-or-break meeting about issues of human sexuality last week proved something of a damp squib. The Anglican Communion was supposed to be rent asunder. Upheaval was imminent. Schism was certain. Conservative African Archbishops were going to be tripping over their cassocks in the rush for the door. In the end, however, unity prevailed and the status quo was (boringly) upheld as the 36 primates gathered here together voted overwhelmingly to stick to the church’s traditional view of marriage. Nothing really changed: Anglican HQ merely recognised formally the break its American division has been boasting about for over a decade. So the summit ended not with a bang but with a whimper.

It is surprising, then, that the whimper has occasioned such a hue and cry. On Thursday the Labour shadow cabinet minister and former Anglican priest, Chris Bryant, declared he had left the Church of England for good. The Church’s decision will one day ‘seem [as] wrong as supporting slavery’ he tweeted. On Saturday the Times published a full-blown invective. The Church has no right, the editorial claimed, to maintain its traditional doctrine of marriage.

The outcry is indicative of a profound shift. Institutions founded on certain precepts to which its members are expected to subscribe shouldn’t be allowed to act on them if those precepts don’t square with a prevailing agenda. Back in 2013 advocates for same-sex marriage argued that the church’s beliefs about sexuality shouldn’t be imposed on the rest of society. That makes sense. But now the church is being told it shouldn’t hold those beliefs at all. Continue reading

In a culture that abuses its elders, this assisted dying bill would be a disaster

ParliamentFirst published in The Guardian online Thursday 10 September 2015

The most tragic repercussion of ageism is older people seeing themselves as a burden: a burden on their family, a burden on society, a burden on the communities they have forged or the institutions they built. In an ageist society, older people have arrived at a sense that they are a drain on resources, on family coffers, on the wealth of the state they paid into throughout their working lives.

This was the incidental but perhaps key finding of a 2011 review I led into the problems facing older age groups. Continue reading