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Michael Cook: Where are the ethics in brazen bioethics?

by Michael CookThe Age
November 22nd, 2004

They're grabbing headlines, but do these "experts" say anything worth listening to, asks Michael Cook.

For a small country, Australia punches above its weight in bioethics. There's Peter Singer, now at Princeton, one of the most prestigious universities in the US. He has become world famous as a theoretician of animal rights and advocate of infanticide for disabled babies.

There's Philip Nitschke, the poster boy of the world euthanasia movement now that his American counterpart, Jack Kervorkian, is rattling the bars of a Michigan prison.

And there's Julian Savulescu, the Uehiro professor of applied ethics at Oxford, who recently returned home to tell Australian parents that they have a moral obligation to genetically modify their children. An obligation, mind you, not just a nice idea.

"If you're going to have a child, you should have the best child you can," Savulescu told a crowd at Melbourne University the other day.

He endorses the use of genetic engineering to select and even to design children to have a greater likelihood of longevity, health, abilities, beauty and a sunny temperament.

Savulescu insists that this isn't Nazi eugenics, because Nazi eugenics was "a state-imposed vision".

He's wrong, of course. Eugenics is eugenics is eugenics. Eugenics means that people are bred like cattle to get the best genetic traits. And this is what Savulescu is advocating. He simply wants to achieve it through free-market, libertarian eugenics rather than through old-fashioned command economy eugenics. And as everyone in a globalised world realises, the libertarian approach has been far more effective at changing public preferences than Nazism or communism.

Savulescu is becoming a celebrity, but more for his brazen cheek in mentioning the unmentionable and trampling ancient taboos underfoot than for the depth of his arguments. His reasoning can accommodate any behaviour you want, as long as you make a freely chosen rational decision and accept the consequences. Stay tuned for further instalments.

But rather than bat the shuttlecock of human genetic engineering back and forth across an ethical net, I'd simply like to ask what credentials Savulescu possesses to give him such prominence in the Melbourne media. Isn't it a bit unfair to the rest of Australia's fruitcakes to invite him to give public lectures? They have loopy ideas too. Why isn't anyone interviewing them?

The answer, of course, is that Julian Savulescu works at Oxford and is a bioethicist. But do these two qualifications really guarantee his credibility as a minor guru when he pays us a visit?

Only if you still suffer from cultural cringe. Oxford, ancient Oxford, the Oxford of postcards and poetry, radiates 800 years of scholarship. Savulescu, however, works in a new Oxford, a competitive, funding-hungry Oxford. A Japanese benefactor offered the new Oxford a generous endowment to create the Uehiro chair in "applied ethics" - a code word for the philosophy of Peter Singer. Oxford took the Japanese shilling and hired one of Singer's most distinguished disciples, despite the fact that even among bioethicists Singer is regarded as weird and narrow.

So wipe the Oxford glaze off Savulescu's outrageous proposals. Pretend that he teaches at the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside. How sensible do they sound now?

Nor does working as a bioethicist make you a font of wisdom. In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that calling yourself a bioethicist is not necessarily an advance on qualifications in astrology.

The word "bioethics" was invented by American academics as recently as 1970. The new field metastasised quickly, invading medicine, ecology and sociology as well as traditional philosophy. But unlike sharp-edged disciplines such as physics or mathematics, the goals, methods and boundaries of bioethics are as murky as the bottom of the Yarra.

A couple of weeks ago, for instance, an article in the world's leading medical journal, The Lancet, called bioethics a "bankrupt" discipline. Professor Roger Cooter, of University College London, wrote that "hardly wet behind the ears, bioethics seems destined for a short lifespan". He argues that some US bioethics centres have been funded by pharmaceutical companies; that it has a narrow and old-fashioned notion of ethics; and that bioethicists themselves can't even agree how it started or what it means. And Cooter is by no means alone in his assessment.

Let's be fair to Savulescu. He has been unswervingly consistent in promoting his libertarian views. He is highly logical, writes lucidly and works like a demon. He stands boldly in the open, inviting his foes to snipe at him.

But none of these virtues qualifies him to be a guide for Australians and their bioethical dilemmas.

They only qualify him to be yet another eccentric tenant of an English ivory tower.

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