Time to throw in the towel

The ideas of a well-established bioethicist are so weird that it makes one despair of bioethics itself.
Michael Cook | Sep 8 2008 | comment  



Julian SavulescuIf you thought Peter Singer, now a professor at Princeton University, was Australia’s gift to world bioethics, then I have news for you. One of his PhD students, now a professor at Oxford, Julian Savulescu, is leaving him in the dust.

While Singer is famed for supporting animal liberation, infanticide, euthanasia, and so on, Savulescu has broken new ground. A youthful 44, he has been at Oxford since 2002 as the head of something called the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

His postal address may be an ivory tower but he gets down and dirty with “practical ethics”. He argues trenchantly for performance enhancing drugs in sport, genetic screening, early abortion, late-term abortion, sex-selective abortion, embryonic stem cell research, hybrid embryos, saviour siblings, therapeutic cloning, reproductive cloning, genetic engineering of children for higher IQs, eugenics, and organ markets. For starters.

What is more, the sporty, good-looking, energetic Professor Savulescu has been fabulously successful in securing funding to promote his theories. He recently received a £800,000 (A$1.7 million) grant to investigate the ethics of tinkering with the brain. In short, to quote Oxford University, Julian Savulescu is internationally recognized as “a world-class bioethicist”.

And back home in his native Melbourne, he is a minor media celebrity. A couple of years ago he even addressed the National Press Club. This gives great weight to his views on abortion. The state of Victoria is in the middle of a heated debate over the legalisation of abortion. The government supports it, but is studying how far to go. Should it merely decriminalise it? Should it legalise “a woman's choice” up to 24 weeks? Should it legalise abortion at any stage in a pregnancy? There is no doubt about where Savulescu stands: "Abortion is a legitimate way for people to control the number of children they have,” he said the other day.

Which provokes me to suggest something even more radical than his outlandish theories. After several years of reviewing the theories of Savulescu and his colleagues, I'm fed up. It’s time to abolish bioethics and bioethicists. What we need is plain vanilla ethics.

That sexy little prefix “bio” has become a Kevlar vest for so-called experts who couldn’t score a job in the philosophy department of Monty Python’s University of Wooloomooloo. Because there is no agreement about what bioethics is, about what areas it should cover, or about its fundamental principles, just about anyone can dub themselves a bioethicist. And just about anyone does.

The word “bioethics” was only coined in the 60s or 70s. Forty years on, we have progressive bioethics, conservative bioethics, global bioethics, feminist bioethics, Islamic bioethics, Catholic bioethics, utilitarian bioethics, deontological bioethics, dignatarian bioethics (my favourite), and so on. Bioethics, as most of the real experts quietly agree, is a field in crisis. Jonathan Moreno, one of America’s leading bioethicists, has spoken of “a crisis of identity” and questioned “the survival of bioethics as we have known it”.

The point is, what makes the theories of bioethicists like Julian Savulescu’s credible? Are they consistent with common sense, with human nature, with sound public policy? Why should we believe them rather than television evangelists or New Age gurus? The problem is broader than Savulescu or Singer. A growing number of influential bioethicists are defending bizarre theories in leading journals and getting funding to bring them into mainstream debate.

It might interest Victorian parliamentarians, for instance, to know that Savulescu has a shadow life as a New Age guru who gushes about the loopy theory of transhumanism. "People have predicted there'll be a huge spike in computing power and artificial intelligence,” he told a newspaper not long ago. "At some point this century people could upload into machines." You can read all about it in his upcoming book, “Enhancement of Human Beings”.

My hunch is that Savulescu’s prestige is based on the cachet of his Oxford appointment and his prodigious capacity for work. Not on his ideas. Far from being sophisticated and profound, all of Savulescu’s arguments run on the same rails. Why shouldn’t we do transgressive action X? he demands. X hurts no one. X is an expression of autonomy. X is my right. Do you object that X is against human nature? No such thing, buddy. Therefore, X is ethical. Let us, then, be courageously transgressive.

It’s all very logical. And it steamrollers common sense.

I confess that I have not read all of the articles in Professor Savulescu’s 21-page curriculum vitae, but I suspect that 90 per cent of them follow this playbook.

As confirmation of this, I sampled his views on apotemnophilia, a psychiatric condition whose sufferers are obsessed with a desire to amputate perfectly healthy limbs. True bioethicists love this sort of weirdness. What does Savulescu have to say? It comes straight from his playbook: “Thus not only might amputation be permissible in some situations, it might be desirable. While it is a tragedy for nearly all of us to lose a limb, there might be good reasons for certain rare individuals to choose this fate. We must be open to such radical possibilities.”

Now, if Professor Savulescu were a mere philosopher, rather than an Oxford Bioethicist, he would be laughed offstage. To paraphrase George Orwell, some ideas are so stupid that only a bioethicist could promote them. Professor Savulescu certainly has a high IQ, but more than logic is needed to pontificate about apotemnophilia, or abortion, for that matter. You need common sense, a breadth of experience and a deep and sympathetic appreciation of human nature. In short, you need to be a plain vanilla ethicist.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet and the bioethics newsletter BioEdge




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