S Matthew Liao
Director of the Center for Bioethics
Arthur Zitrin Professor of Bioethics
Dr. Matthew Liao uses the tools of philosophy to study and examine the ramifications of novel biomedical innovations.
A speaker at TEDxCERN, Dr. Liao discussed whether it is ethical for someone to erase certain aspects of their memories and how doing so might affect that individual's identity. He has also given a TED talk in New York and been featured in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and other numerous media outlets.
The author and editor of four books, Dr. Liao provides the academic community with a collection of human rights essays. In The Right to be Loved, he explores the philosophical foundations underpinning children's right to be loved, and proposes that we reconceptualize our policies concerning adoptions so that individuals who are not romantically linked can co-adopt a child together.
Dr. Liao provides students with an education grounded in a broad conception of bioethics encompassing both medical and environmental ethics. He offers students the opportunity to explore the intersection of human rights practice with central domains of public health and regularly teaches normative theory and neuroethics. His courses address how the rightness or wrongness of an act is determined and ethical issues arising out of new medical technologies such as embryonic stem cell research, cloning, artificial reproduction, and genetic engineering; ethical issues raised by the development and use of neuroscientific technologies such as the ethics of erasing traumatic memories; the ethics of mood and cognitive enhancements; and moral and legal implications of "mind-reading" technologies for brain privacy.
To learn more about Dr. Liao and his work, visit his website and blog.
AB, Politics (Magna Cum Laude), Princeton University, Princeton, NJDPhil, Philosophy, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
Honors and awards
Outstanding Academic Title, The Right to Be Loved, Choice Review (2016)TEDx Speaker at CERN, Geneva, Switzerland (2015)TEDx Speaker, New York, NY (2013)Humanities Grant Initiative, NYU (2011)Big Think Delphi Fellow (2011)
Areas of research and study
The Place of Philosophy in Bioethics TodayBlumenthal-Barby, J., Aas, S., Brudney, D., Flanigan, J., Liao, S. M., London, A., Sumner, W., & Savulescu, J. (n.d.).
Journal titleAmerican Journal of Bioethics
Page(s)10-21AbstractIn some views, philosophy’s glory days in bioethics are over. While philosophers were especially important in the early days of the field, so the argument goes, the majority of the work in bioethics today involves the “simple” application of existing philosophical principles or concepts, as well as empirical work in bioethics. Here, we address this view head on and ask: What is the role of philosophy in bioethics today? This paper has three specific aims: (1) to respond to skeptics and make the case that philosophy and philosophers still have a very important and meaningful role to play in contemporary bioethics, (2) to discuss some of the current challenges to the meaningful integration of philosophy and bioethics, and (3) to make suggestions for what needs to happen in order for the two fields to stay richly connected. We outline how bioethics center directors, funders, and philosopher bioethicists can help.
Ethics review of big data research: What should stay and what should be reformed?
A critique of some recent victim-centered theories of nonconsequentialismLiao, S. M., & Barry, C. (n.d.).
Journal titleLaw and Philosophy
Page(s)503-526AbstractRecently, Gerhard Øverland and Alec Walen have developed novel and interesting theories of nonconsequentialism. Unlike other nonconsequentialist theories such as the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE), each of their theories denies that an agent’s mental states are (fundamentally) relevant for determining how stringent their moral reasons are against harming others. Instead, Øverland and Walen seek to distinguish morally between instances of harming in terms of the circumstances of the people who will be harmed, rather than in features of the agent doing the harming. In this paper, we argue that these theories yield counterintuitive verdicts across a broad range of cases that other nonconsequentialist theories (including the DDE) handle with relative ease. We also argue that Walen’s recent attempt to reformulate this type of theory so that it does not have such implications is unsuccessful.
Ethics of artificial intelligence
The moral status and rights of artificial intelligenceLiao, S. M. (n.d.). In Ethics of Artificial Intelligence.
Page(s)480-503AbstractAs AIs acquire greater capacities, the issue of whether AIs would acquire greater moral status becomes salient. This chapter sketches a theory of moral status and considers what kind of moral status an AI could have. Among other things, the chapter argues that AIs that are alive, conscious, or sentient, or those that can feel pain, have desires, and have rational or moral agency should have the same kind of moral status as entities that have the same kind of intrinsic properties. It also proposes that a sufficient condition for an AI to have human-level moral status and be a rightsholder is when an AI has the physical basis for moral agency. This chapter also considers what kind of rights a rightsholding AI could have and how AIs could have greater than human-level moral status.
Designing humans: A human rights approachLiao, S. M. (n.d.).
Page(s)98-104AbstractAdvances in genomic technologies such as CRISPR‐Cas9, mitochondrial replacement techniques, and in vitro gametogenesis may soon give us more precise and efficient tools to have children with certain traits such as beauty, intelligence, and athleticism. In this paper, I propose a new approach to the ethics of reproductive genetic engineering, a human rights approach. This approach relies on two claims that have certain, independent plausibility: (a) human beings have equal moral status, and (b) human beings have human rights to the fundamental conditions for pursuing a good life. I first argue that the human rights approach gives us a lower bound of when reproductive genetic engineering would be permissible. I then compare this approach with other approaches such as the libertarian, perfectionist, and life worth living approaches. Against these approaches, I argue that the human rights approach offers a novel, and more plausible, way of assessing the ethics of reproductive genetic engineering.
Current controversies in bioethics
Do mitochondrial replacement techniques affect qualitative or numerical identity?Matthew Liao, S. (n.d.).
Page(s)20-26AbstractMitochondrial replacement techniques (MRTs), known in the popular media as ’three-parent’ or ’three-person’ IVFs, have the potential to enable women with mitochondrial diseases to have children who are genetically related to them but without such diseases. In the debate regarding whether MRTs should be made available, an issue that has garnered considerable attention is whether MRTs affect the characteristics of an existing individual or whether they result in the creation of a new individual, given that MRTs involve the genetic manipulation of the germline. In other words, do MRTs affect the qualitative identity or the numerical identity of the resulting child? For instance, a group of panelists on behalf of the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has claimed that MRTs affect only the qualitative identity of the resulting child, while the Working Group of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCOB) has argued that MRTs would create a numerically distinct individual. In this article, I shall argue that MRTs do create a new and numerically distinct individual. Since my explanation is different from the NCOB’s explanation, I shall also offer reasons why my explanation is preferable to the NCOB’s explanation.
Neuroscience and Ethics: Assessing Greene's Epistemic Debunking Argument Against DeontologyLiao, S. M. (n.d.).
Journal titleExperimental Psychology
Page(s)82-92AbstractA number of people believe that results from neuroscience have the potential to settle seemingly intractable debates concerning the nature, practice, and reliability of moral judgments. In particular, Joshua Greene has argued that evidence from neuroscience can be used to advance the long-standing debate between consequentialism and deontology. This paper first argues that charitably interpreted, Greene's neuroscientific evidence can contribute to substantive ethical discussions by being part of an epistemic debunking argument. It then argues that taken as an epistemic debunking argument, Greene's argument falls short in undermining deontological judgments. Lastly, it proposes that accepting Greene's methodology at face value, neuroimaging results may in fact call into question the reliability of consequentialist judgments. The upshot is that Greene's empirical results do not undermine deontology and that Greene's project points toward a way by which empirical evidence such as neuroscientific evidence can play a role in normative debates.
Précis for The Right to Be LovedLiao, S. M. (n.d.).
Journal titlePhilosophy and Phenomenological Research
The ethics of memory modificationLiao, S. M. (n.d.). In The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Memory.
Are Intuitions Heuristics?Liao, S. M. (n.d.). In Moral brains.
Biological Parenting as a Human RightLiao, S. M. (n.d.).
Journal titleJournal of Moral Philosophy
Page(s)652-668AbstractDo biological parents have the right to parent their own biological children? It might seem obvious that the answer is yes, but the philosophical justification for this right is uncertain. In recent years, there has been a flurry of philosophical activity aimed at providing fresh justifications for this right. In this paper, I shall propose a new answer, namely, the right to parent one's own biological children is a human right. I call this the human rights account of parental rights and I shall explain how this account is better than these other alternatives.
Health (care) and human rights: a fundamental conditions approachLiao, S. M. (n.d.).
Journal titleTheoretical Medicine and Bioethics
Page(s)259-274AbstractMany international declarations state that human beings have a human right to health care. However, is there a human right to health care? What grounds this right, and who has the corresponding duties to promote this right? Elsewhere, I have argued that human beings have human rights to the fundamental conditions for pursuing a good life. Drawing on this fundamental conditions approach of human rights, I offer a novel way of grounding a human right to health care.
Human Rights and PublicLiao, S. M. (n.d.). In Oxford Handbook on Public Health Ethics.
Moral brains: the neuroscience of moralityLiao, S. M. (n.d.).
Morality and Neuroscience: Past and FutureLiao, S. M. (n.d.). In Moral brains.
The Closeness Problem and the Doctrine of Double Effect: A Way ForwardLiao, S. M. (n.d.).
Journal titleCriminal Law and Philosophy
Page(s)849-863AbstractA major challenge to the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE) is the concern that an agent’s intention can be identified in such a fine-grained way as to eliminate an intention to harm from a putative example of an intended harm, and yet, the resulting case appears to be a case of impermissibility. This is the so-called “closeness problem.” Many people believe that one can address the closeness problem by adopting Warren Quinn’s version of the DDE, call it DDE*, which distinguishes between harmful direct agency and harmful indirect agency. In this paper, I first argue that Quinn’s DDE* is just as vulnerable to the closeness problem as the DDE is. Second, some might think that what we should therefore do is give up on intentions altogether and move towards some kind of non-state-of-mind, victim-based deontology. I shall argue against this move and explain why intentions are indispensable to an adequate nonconsequentialist theory. Finally, I shall propose a new way of answering the closeness problem.
The Grounds of Ancillary Care Duties
Human Rights as Fundamental Conditions for a Good Life
Philosophical foundations of human rightsCruft, R., Renzo, M., & Liao, S. M. (n.d.). (First edition.).
The Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights: An Overview
The Right to be LovedLiao, S. M. (n.d.).
EditorialMatthew Liao, S. (n.d.).
Journal titleJournal of Moral Philosophy