Time to throw in the towel

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.

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.

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”.

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
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.

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.

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.

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
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”.

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.

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.

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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