When medical ethicist Julian Savulescu spoke on the BBC program Hard Talk he openly explained his presuppositions at the commencement. I respect this as it enables me, as a listener, to understand the foundations that he counts as important.
He said that human beings are not ‘designed’ and not meant to be happy. We are the result of blind forces.
He then argued, on this basis, that athletes should be able to take performance enhancing substances, and that it is ethical to select characteristics in your child that will enhance his/her chances in life.
I was surprised by his casual surety that this is the correct path for humanity. There are many places on earth that don’t yet have access to electricity or clean water. The idea that there is an ethical imperative to invest in technologies that provide designer children would seem to be just another way to empower the already powerful. Aside from other ethical issues, do we want to provide another whole layer of entitlement?
I can’t see the ‘trickle down’ goodness here.
And as a principal of a College that adores the girls with ‘disabilities’ in our Transition class, do we want to design away future generations? Aaarghh! These young women are marvellous. Unequivocally marvellous. I think it was Theroux who said ‘If I see someone coming to “do good” to me, I run the other way. I run the other way from your “good”, Dr Savulescu.
But there is a greater problem for me in the work of Michael Savulescu. He has adopted a doctrinaire approach to his ethics and yet he wants to speak strongly into the public space. Keith Ward outlines six main philosophical approaches to the Universe: Theism, Materialism, Monism, Emergent Materialism, Dualism and Idealism. Savulescu speaks in the public space as if the argument is decided: Materialism wins. He then constructs his ethical position on this basis.
Michael Sandel, in my view, has a far healthier and inclusive approach. He doesn’t wipe the other five views off the table in the first sentence. Sandel’s book Justice is excellent because it canvasses and respects a range of ethical views before he gives his own.
I am a Christian, so thus a Theist, and I believe strongly that in the public space we should have a ‘tent of meeting’ where people from different faith and philosophical bases are allowed to have a voice.
I wish to voice my concern at any view that commences with a ‘We now know’ approach to its philosophy. The ‘progress metaphor’ is very powerful. The assumption is that only people who belong to my philosophy should have a voice. It is increasingly the case that there are people from non-faith positions who take this approach.
I also challenge the view that people with a religious conviction are all closed. It is my understanding of, and belief in Jesus, that is the reason why I hold that the public space should have many voices. I am far from alone in the church in this regard.
Sandel rightly challenges the type of presupposition that Materialism is the new unassailable truth. It is worth quoting in length.
Of course people should offer reasons when engaged in public deliberation. What else would public deliberation consist of, if not offering reasons? The question is, what sorts of reasons are relevant? And I think it’s a caricature of arguments that may derive from faith traditions to assume that they always and only take the form of dogmatic assertion or invocation of scripture or revelation. There are rich traditions of reason-giving moral discourse internal to the various faith traditions: Christian, Jewish–The Talmudic tradition–Confucian, Islamic. So of course it’s true that some adherents of religious faiths offer dogmatic assertion rather than reasoned argument, but that’s not unique to those who come from faith traditions. They have no monopoly on dogma. Public discourse is rife with dogmatic assertions, unreasoned assertions, that come from purely secular sources. So I think the distinction we should make is that public deliberation and arguments about justice should be reasoned and should not involve dogmatic assertion. But the distinction between reasoned and dogmatic public deliberation does not correspond to the distinction between public deliberation that draws on religious sources and public deliberation which is purely secular. I think that’s an entirely false analogy.