Owen Schaefer is a Research Assistant Professor at the Centre for Biomedical Ethics, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore. His research interests broadly cover ethical issues raised by the development of novel biotechnologies.
What excites you about philosophy?
The way philosophy can cut through the dross to reveal the essence of a problem. That sounds quite high-minded, but it’s actually very practically important for my own work in bioethics, such as problems in research ethics, reproduction, enhancement, etc. The tools of philosophy help me to see more precisely the contours of an issue, where the ethical tensions are, what are the sources of disagreement. Even just clarifying what is at stake, or what are the logical implications of various commitments or policies, I’ve found, can be quite useful in informing practice.
What are you working on right now?
We’re living in the era of Big Data; the massive increase in the volume and complexity of information about us that is being gathered, stored, shared and used for a wide range of purposes is astounding. It also raises a number of difficult ethical questions I’m looking at, particularly concerning how to responsibly govern Big Data when traditional mechanisms like consent or anonymization just aren’t going to cut it any more. One particular question is how to ensure, in the absence of consent, that certain uses of Big Data (particularly research) are meaningfully in the public’s interest. Defining that, exploring the appropriate bar of public good or benefit, requires careful ethical analysis. It’s also going to require engagement with the public’s own priorities and concerns, so I’m doing a lot more empirical research than I have before.
What is your least favorite type of fruit and why?
Durian. It’s probably the foulest-smelling and tasting edible product I have ever encountered. But in Southeast Asia, people seem to love it. Perhaps it’s like stinky cheese – which is wonderful for folks who became accustomed to it growing up, but revolting to many who didn’t have much exposure until later in life.
Name a trait, skill or characteristic that you have that others may not know about.
I’m a Christian, which sometimes surprised colleagues when I was studying for my degree (less so now). Perhaps it was surprising because I approach my work from mostly a secular perspective. While Christian bioethics is an important field, I think some version of publicly accessible reasons are important to advance for the sort of topics I engage with. But my faith is the main reason I’m committed to moral realism; it also makes me rather fatalistic and sceptical about free will (indeed, the evidence against free will seems overwhelming to me – biblical, theological, psychological, conceptual; only our intuitions seem to speak in favour of it, and I think there’s a good error theory for that).
What technology do you wish the human race could discover right now?
Safe, tasty and affordable clean meat. That is to say, meat that comprises actual animal cells, but was grown in a lab and not harvested from a living animal. I’m a pescatarian (a moral compromise), but I actually love the taste of meat from growing up with it. So I’d like to have my burger and eat it (ethically) too, as it were. The first in vitro burger has already been served, and there are a number of promising start-ups, but we need the trifecta of proven safety, good taste and reasonable cost before it’s viable and I can have steak again.
What’s your favorite quote?
I was always partial to this exchange form the classic Western, Unforgiven:
Will Munny: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he’s got, and everything he’ll have.”
The Schofield Kid: “Yeah, well, I guess he had it comin’.”
Will Munny: “We all got it comin’.”
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