Work/Life Balance APA Member Interview: Owen Schaefer

APA Member Interview: Owen Schaefer

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’.”


This section of the APA Blog is designed to get to know our fellow philosophers a little better. We’re including profiles of APA members that spotlight what captures their interest not only inside the office, but also outside of it. We’d love for you to be a part of it, so please contact us via the interview nomination form here to nominate yourself or a friend.

Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.

Skye Cleary
Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.


  1. Owen wrote, “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. ”

    A related question is…

    Once the tools for building and managing Big Data are fully developed, what do we do about those who will use Big Data without any concern for any ethical issues?

    Put another way, is it ethical to build vastly powerful technologies that will inevitably be used to cause harm on a massive scale? As example, do we really think that the Chinese or Russian governments are going to worry about the ethical limitations of Big Data use? Do we really think that American corporations aren’t going to push such technologies right up to and beyond the edge of the law?

    Does there come a point where the scale of a technology becomes itself unethical? If the potential for harm is great enough, do the benefits really matter?

    In regards to meat, it seems we are always looking for hi-tech solutions to low-tech problems. The taste for meat fades away naturally over time, and eventually reaches the point where a slab of steak on one’s plate would induce barfing. Obviously, at that point not eating meat becomes effortless.

    That said, I do agree that vast populations are unlikely to want to be this patient, and so factory meat cells are surely better than the current status quo.

    Finally, if it is true there is no free will, how does one choose to be Christian, or anything else?

    That asked, I would have to disclose that I experience the lack of free will in my own theological life. I was born and raised Catholic and come from many generations of Catholics, but I left the Church 50 years ago. I’m no longer an ideological Catholic to any meaningful degree, but…

    I have a thoroughly incurable interest in the kinds of topics that Catholics address themselves to, and appear to not have the ability to turn that interest off. As example, I spent literally years trying to engage Catholic academics on a group blog, even though they rarely published my comments. Such an activity made no sense at all, was a thoroughly illogical waste of time, but I truly had no choice about it.

    Musicians have a concept that may apply here. Once a musician has mastered their instrument, they often report that it’s more like the music is playing them than the other way around. I get that, because I experience writing and philosophy in much that way. It’s kind of like I perform the same mechanical function as my computer keyboard, merely transcribing data from someplace beyond me on to the Internuts.

  2. I have gotten a little skeptical about the human mind being able to fully grasp concepts like this, but I go back and forth on the matter of free will.

    I do not like the idea that free will is related to a state of undecided-ness. If we make a decision before hand are our actions less free? To a degree actions seem more free decided beforehand since our actions are more likely to be separated from momentary impulses, but then again are those impulses us or are our decisions us? Even in the former case, then undecided-ness seems unrelated to free will.

    So let’s look at what would be an obvious violation of free will, ie someone magically taking over our body and making us do something we did not want to do. From this perspective free will is when our decisions arise internally from who we are rather than from external force.

    But who are we but the results of externally produced parts and external influences (yes we have some internal machinery but it reacts to the outside is my point)? Is a gun to our head so much different than subtle pressure over the years? What if it is a pressure we chose? Well being woken by a large screech from an animal seems like against our free will, but setting an alarm clock, producing the same effect, seems like a free choice.

    Perhaps then free will is becoming who we want to be then, or shaping our lives as we want it. This I think agrees with the traditional Christian emphasis on the unfreeness of following sinful desires opposed to the free choice of God. That is in God we become the self that we truly want to be. This elevates conscious desire over unconscious feelings which can be problematic since I think the two concepts are often more intermixed, however this does give us a way to reason about times when our conscious desire clearly opposes a biological or subconsciously rooted mental complex like addiction and mental illness. I have my own personal reasons for preferring this distinction, however knowing this preference makes me a little suspicious of it.

    A bigger complication is who is the “we” that wants? Without full understanding of ourselves can we really know what we want? And is this person we are not shaped by our decisions (even if our decisions are a post facto justification of our actions, the memory of the decision remains and is encoded into our neural pathways)? And what about the influences on our birth and formation? Is there a destiny based on our birth and environment? Does that oppose free will?

    In the end I like this conception of free will, that it is becoming who we want to be, but I am not fully satisfied with it or at least with my reasoning about it. Sometimes I lean more towards our free will being a matter of becoming who we were meant to be but that seems like a step too far from the intuitive meaning of the words.

    Of course the lack of satisfaction is okay I think. In the end our full understanding is not required for life and our decisions. Indeed, our lack of understanding makes the inner space of the mind another world to explore.

  3. Good comments John, thanks. I particularly liked the “who is the we that wants” question you posed.

    Well, we are all in the process of becoming dead, whatever that is. I suspect that is who and where we truly want to be as well.

    It seems that free will is just a matter of scale. I have the choice of what to have for lunch, and it seems silly and unproductive to claim otherwise. But on anything important, on that which really matters, we are likely better described as riders on the bus, and not the bus driver.


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