Why we should listen to Michael Sandel before Julian Savulescu

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.


Players and Umpires

The BBC featured an interesting juxtaposition of reports today.

Immediately after a report on the importance of mental health for elite sportsmen (and presumably women) they critically analysed the quality of football refereeing.

Jonathan Trott has excused himself from the English cricket team. The coach has stated clearly that opposition teams should not publicly fault players from opposing sides because nobody knows another person’s hidden pain. It was a call for us to value the well-being of the individual over the glory of winning. No victory in an Ashes Test match is worth more than the health of an individual.

I think almost all of us who watch and guide school sport would say ‘amen’ to that sentiment. All of the school teachers and leaders, parents and supporters that I know care deeply about the students and see winning as a peripheral bonus. Of course we are proud of excellence and of course we strive for it. Coaches help students to stretch to achieve their best. This is true of the best school sport in Australia. Yet we do not want our players to use sledging to unsettle the opposition. And we do not want to mentally disable players.

Yet what of the mental health of umpires and referees? They encounter a far greater level of criticism than players. On the BBC report a prominent commentator said that referees who achieve 95% correct calls are ‘no good enough’. Surely an empirical study of a game of any kind would find that errors are inevitable. The individual can’t see everything from every angle all of the time.

At the elite level we can afford technology to improve the percentages of correct calls, but most of us have to recognise that the referee is doing his or her best and that mistakes will come. We just get on with it.

Let’s apply the same standard of care to our umpires and referees as we do to our elite athletes.

How is it that change works?

As a principal I am on a number of different committees that look at policies and procedures for a range of groups supporting independent education in NSW.

At one of these meeting recently we had a hot topic. Some colleagues and I had a point of view that we know was counter to some of our colleagues. When it came time for the debate I presented my case as reasonably as I could. Others with similar views also commented freely and clearly.  What surprised me in this case was that there was no formal reply.

My colleagues who hold a different view just listened respectfully. I suppose they had lobbied well and felt they didn’t need to comment. When it came time for the vote the opposing position won narrowly. That’s fine. We accepted the outcome and got on with business.

And yet I pondered on that dynamic.

The recent political cycle in Australia was all about personal theatre and little about policy. Gillard usurped Rudd. The Labor party imploded. Rudd usurped Gillard. Labor lost the election.

A significant range of policy debates descended into name calling. Politicians regularly said that there will be more money for education and that there should be more money for children with disabilities. The reality is that there is less money and that the promised extra dollars are planned for the distant future, in a period well beyond the next election cycle. Who can be sure it will ever eventuate? And who knows the facts? Can you find them in the papers?

So much of the front page media is about the impression that ‘x’ politician gives to ‘y’ or to the Australian public. So many news items appear to be about inference and suggestion. The Sydney a Morning Herald is giving more space now to structured comment on social trends.

As a principal I am a firm believer that education should be about both depth of knowledge and understanding, and access to breadth of experience. I am a believer in the importance of taxonomies and surveys of opinions and debates based on evidence.

This is what disappointed me in my meeting with my colleagues. A healthy society is based on decisions borne of the clash of well articulated arguments, not quiet political associations.

And in the press we need the top priority to be given to debate of policy and evidence, not inference and personal style. Sure, we need to know how personal style is used to mask the evidence. Rhetoric and image are immensely powerful. But please, can we make proper debate a priority?