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Column: Foreign Intel

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Today's Bioethicists Are the Furthest Thing from Ethical

by Michael Cook

From my university days I remember a rude joke about the land of Crocodile Dundee. Question: "What's the smallest book in the world?" Answer: "The history of Australian philosophy." (I used to chortle at this, too—until I met the author of a 250-page history of Australian philosophy with very fine print.) But you shouldn't laugh at Australian philosophy nowadays; you should weep.

I don't know what it is about Australia—perhaps it's something in the beer—but the best-known Aussie philosophers are loopy bioethicists. Ah, you say, he's talking about Peter Singer, who was once called by The New Yorker the most influential philosopher of our time because of his writings on animal liberation and utilitarianism. But, no, I have in mind one of Singer's PhD students, Julian Savulescu.

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If you thought Peter Singer was bad news, take a deep breath. Savulescu is worse. And to add to your distress, he has been a full professor at Oxford University since 2002 as the head of something called the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. Since "Practical Ethics" is the name of one of Singer's most famous books, it is immediately obvious whose side the centre is on. And to quote Oxford University, Savulescu is internationally recognized as "a world-class bioethicist." And a very well funded one, too. He recently received a grant of £800,000 ($1.7 million) to investigate the ethics of tinkering with the brain.

Savulescu's postal address may be an ivory tower but he gets down and dirty with bioethics. 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, savior siblings, therapeutic cloning, reproductive cloning, genetic engineering of children for higher IQs, eugenics, and organ markets. For starters.

Lest you think that sniping at Australian bioethicists is a niche sport, like curling or synchronized swimming, note that Savulescu is a big player in world bioethics circles. He used to be the editor of The Journal of Medical Ethics, a leading British professional journal. His successor, co-editor John Harris, is a radical libertarian and much like Savulescu. Other like-minded bioethicists edit the journals Bioethics and The American Journal of Bioethics. None of Savulescu's proposals would be out of place in any of these journals.

In fact, the problem is broader than Savulescu or Singer. Growing numbers of influential bioethicists are defending bizarre theories in leading journals and getting funding to bring them into mainstream debate.

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

In fact, the word "bioethics" was only coined in the early 1970s. Forty years on, we have no coherent discipline, but an ever-expanding,
motley collection of theories: progressive bioethics, con-servative bioethics, global bioethics, feminist bioethics, Islamic bioethics, Catholic bioethics, utilitarian bioethics, deontological bioethics, dignitarian bioethics (my favorite), and on and on. Jonathan Moreno, an American bioethicist, has spoken of "a crisis of identity" for the field. Indeed, there is no agreement about what bioethics is, what areas it should cover, or what its fundamental principles are.

Yet, 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. Just about anyone can dub himself a bioethicist. And just about anyone does—while often garnering for himself the kind of funding, influence, and prestige that Savulescu has received.

The point is, what gives the theories of bioethicists such as Julian Savulescu any claim to credibility? Are they consistent with common sense, with human nature, or with sound public policy? Hardly. 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."

Why should a bioethicist such as this have more credibility than a televangelist or New Age guru? Actually, Savulescu also 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 [in] this century people could upload into machines." You can read all about it in his upcoming book, Enhancement of Human Beings.

It's all very logical. And it steamrollers common sense. As confirmation of this, I sampled Savulescu's views on apotemnophilia, a psychiatric condition whose sufferers are obsessed with a desire to amputate perfectly healthy limbs. What does Savulescu have to say? Here it is, 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 off the stage. To paraphrase George Orwell, some ideas are so stupid that only a bioethicist could promote them. But he is able to promote them because the term "bioethicist" carries far more weight than it deserves. It suggests wisdom and specialized expertise. And so professional bioethicists often shape, where they do not dictate, public policies. They sit on hospital committees that pull plugs from dying patients. They write op-ed articles in newspapers that sway public opinion.

They are seen as experts, as highly intelligent mandarins. But more than intelligence is needed to pontificate about apotemnophilia, or abortion, or euthanasia. 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. •

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