Philosopher Julian Savulescu, Doctor Honoris Causa: Trading Liberty for Common Good


by Stefana Totorcea

On may 27th, 2014, the Center for Research in Applied Ethics (CCEA) of the Philosophy Department within the University of Bucharest awarded the title of Doctor Honoris Causa to Julian Savulescu, an Australian philosopher of Romanian origins.

On May 27th, CCEA, the only Romanian higher education institution specialized in ethics-related studies, organized Dr Savulescu’s conference entitled “Neuroethics: Moral Enhancement”. On May 28th, students were expected at the round table “Uehiro. What Is It? Cooperation Perspectives with CCEA”. Uehiro Center of Applied Ethics from Oxford University, is led by professor Savulescu.

At the same time, “Dilema veche” (“The Old Dilemma”) cultural magazine dedicated its weekly issue, which was published in cooperation with the CCEA, to “Old and New Moral Dilemmas”.

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The attention dedicated to Prof. Julian Savulescu’s work by two respected institutions of Romanian science and culture is quite surprising, given his position in the contemporary ethics landscape.

In an interview, Julian Savulescu, the son of a Romanian lawyer who emigrated to Australia after the Second World War, says he studied and practised medicine, but was captivated by the thinking of Australian utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. Then he gave up his career as a neurologist and, at a time when the academic debate was focused on euthanasia, he wrote a doctoral thesis in bioethics under Peter Singer’s scientific guidance. The subject of the thesis: „Good reasons to die”.

Peter Singer is one of the most controversial contemporary ethicists.  For instance, here is an excerpt from his most important work, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics: „…we should recognize that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being’s life”. He argues that a fetus can neither suffer, nor feel satisfaction and therefore it cannot have preferences – that’s why his mother’s preferences should have priority. It is one of the arguments supporting abortion despite the fact that the argument itself recognizes the human quality of the aborted child.

Materialist thinking, relative and impersonal morality

Julian Savulescu says that science and technology have made our contemporary world evolve tremendously, so that the old moral concepts have become too restrictive and obsolete. They need to be adjusted to the new realities, which means they should evolve together with the world. He names this adjustment “moral enhancement”.

We can find “newer and newer ways of being moral”, he says in the recent interview granted to Dilema veche Romanian magazine. In fact, this doesn’t mean a new way of accomplishing a well-established moral precept, but redefining moral concepts and considering that a man acts morally according to the redefined concept. The philosopher admits that there are no guarantees that these enhancements won’t be wrongly used.

In the interview, just as in all his papers, one can find many axiomatic assertions for which one can hardly find definitive justifications. For example, by adopting the opinion that “we have not been created by a god or supreme designer”, he infers that “our moral impulses are limited”; such an explanation can be inferred starting from axioms in a theist thinking system, where an infinite creator creates beings with infinite characters. But it cannot be demonstrated in a thinking system which lacks any reference to such a creator.

Another unjustified assertion is the one firmly denying the whole altruistic effort visible through the entire human civilization: “People are not psychologically configured  for sacrifice and cooperation”. The entire social and community structure of every historical or contemporary human culture shows exactly the opposite, despite obvious isolated events proving lack of sacrifice and refusal of cooperation. These are usually being marginalized in comparison with an ideal behavioural model and are being constantly corrected and rebuked. In fact, the author needs exactly such a premise to build on it a whole system proposing the replacement of structures which he wants changed and which he presents as non-viable: “We are not morally prepared for the future we built for ourselves (…) The world is changing fast – we must try and understand this and adapt”.

The illusion that liberal eugenics is freely chosen and beneficial

Essentially, Julian Savulescu continues Darwin’s legacy. “We are products of blind evolution”, he says in a TEDx conference. He proposes the obligation to help create a world where people have a better life. He describes it as our “impersonal obligation to the future”.

For example, this makes him support the parents’ “moral obligation” to test and genetically select their children, in order to give birth only to the most intelligent, while the rest should not be given the chance to develop or they may even be aborted.

It is the old Nazi ideal of selection on racial criteria, arguing the “Arian” race is better than other – except that the criterion for eugenics is redefined as intelligence instead of race (which is just as misleading as the race when it comes to circumscribe the whole complexity of a person).

No wonder the philosopher has made himself a name as a eugenicist in certain circles. He does not reject eugenics, he just re-interprets it. In an interview granted to, he says: “Our society already applies eugenics when it tests pregnant women’s babies for Down Syndrome. What was wrong with the Nazi eugenics was that it was involuntary, it wasn’t oriented towards those people’s benefit (…). Liberal eugenics is oriented towards people’s benefit, who are voluntarily tested so that they may have healthy children”.

Here the discourse parts with logic again. Eugenics applied to mothers who volunteer to detect the possibility of Down Syndrome does not primarily affect mothers, but the babies thus tested and whose voluntary agreement is never required. Liberal eugenics is nothing but involuntary eugenics selectively respecting the requirement of the subject’s free will. When it is about a mother and her child, liberal eugenics only requires the mother’s agreement, not also the child’s. By this, liberal eugenics considers that it respects the persons’ right to chose, when in fact it only respects the mother’s right to chose, not also the baby’s.

Redefining ethical norms is not a problem restricted to academic debate. Neither is one that respects today’s unanimous status-quo. Since there are no criteria to limit redefining, one can get anywhere. For example, Julian Savulescu was the one who approved for publication in the Journal of Medical Ethicspaper signed by bioethicists Alberto Giublini and Francesca Minerva, in which they argue in favour of infanticide, which they call “after-birth abortion”.  Personally, Savulescu pronounces himself against the concept, but he has also declared that his colleagues’ arguments were worth being published.

Against the doctors’ right to conscientious objection

The professor also supports making public policies based on his ideas: “We should make genetic engineering into public benefit” ( Julian Savulescu proposes withdrawal of the right to practice for medical doctors who do as their conscience tells them and deny to patients certain services, like abortion or euthanasia. He thinks they are selfish and act according to their own interest and not in the “public interest”. In his article, Conscientious Objection in Medicine, published in the prestigious British Medical Journal, he writes:

Deeply held religious beliefs may conflict with some aspects of medical practice. But doctors cannot make moral judgments on behalf of patients. Shakespeare wrote that “Conscience is but a word cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe” (Richard III V.iv.1.7). A doctors’ conscience has little place in the delivery of modern medical care. What should be provided to patients is defined by the law and consideration of the just distribution of finite medical resources, which requires a reasonable conception of the patient’s good and the patient’s informed desires (…)

According to his view, doctors have no will, no opinions and no freedom and are slaves of the one who pays them, which is none other than the state, which state should force them into doing things they don’t want to.  Again, of the two persons involved in the medical act (doctor and patient), only one is being taken into consideration when the morality and justification of an action are being evaluated.

Euthanasia with the purpose of organ donation

In the article “Death Fiction and Taking Organs from the Living”, Savulescu writes:

Imagine you could save 6 lives with a drop of your blood. Would you have a moral obligation to donate a drop of blood to save six people’s lives? It seems that if any sort of moral obligation exists, you have a moral obligation to save six lives with just a pinprick of your blood.

But every day people do far worse than failing to give a drop of blood to save 6 lives. They choose to bury or burn their organs after their death, rather than save 6 lives with these organs. And it would cost them nothing to give those organs after their death. Our failure to give our organs to those who need them is among the greatest moral failures of our lives. At zero cost to themselves, not even having to endure a pinprick, many people choose to destroy their lifesaving organs after their death.

(…) The most pressing ethical concern is how we can encourage more people to consent to donate their organs, and how we can make sure that those who want to donate their organs are able to.

So it is in one way surprising that a Melbourne intensive care physician, Jim Tibballs, is reported as criticising current organ donation guidelines on the grounds that donors are not actually dead at the time that organs are removed. (…)

Tibballs claims that current legal standards of death – either brain death or cardiac death – are not being met. He claims that organs are being taken from people who are dying rather than dead. Whether or not this is true, there is no dispute on one issue: organs are not being taken from people who would have lived if their organs had not been taken.

The ethics of organ transplantation have been dominated by one rule – that organs may only be removed from patients who are dead. – the dead donor rule. In the 1960s it was recognised that some patients could be kept ‘alive’ with machines in intensive care after all functions of their brain had been irreversibly lost. Death was redefined to enable organs to be taken from people whose brains were irreversibly and profoundly damaged, Such people were defined as “brain dead.”

What counts as the precise moment of death is arbitrarily determined. This is because death is gradual process with organs dying at different rates. And, within a certain range, it does not matter morally where we draw the line. So for this reason, death is defined differently in different places. In Australia, the legal definition involves death of the brainstem, which is necessary for vital functions. In the US, it is death of the whole brain. The Japanese do not use the concept of brain death at all.

When we recognise the “fiction” of defining the precise moment of death, or that it is a definitional issue of drawing a line in a process for sake of some purpose, we can identify one way to increase the supply of organs. Change the definition of death again. (…) We could move the definitional point of death slightly earlier into the dying process (…).

But there is another more radical way to increase the supply of organs. We could abandon the dead donor rule. We could for example, allow organs to be taken from people who are not brain dead, but who have suffered such severe injury that they would be permanently unconscious, like Terry Schiavo, who would be allowed to die anyway by removal of their medical treatment. (…)

A patient whose life support is being removed because their prognosis is extremely poor cannot be harmed by donating their organs (as long as it is ensured that they do not suffer). If they would have wanted to donate their organs, we should do what we can to respect their wishes.

We should do whatever we ethically can to stop people burying and burning the most valuable human resource. At very least, we should allow the morally virtuous to give their organs just as they wish.

Here, again, of the two parties involved, the dying person and the possible beneficiaries, one (the dying one) has one’s freedom and right to opinion annulled and is being blamed that he or she does not want to help the others by deciding to die faster.

Paradoxically, this logic does not apply when it comes to the mother’s life. It only applies when it’s about her or the father’s comfort – in case of abortion by request. In that case Julian Savulescu does not detect as an ethical emergency the need to convince the mothers/parents/society to help continue the child’s life, who is being sacrificed on the altar of some adults’ wishes.

Related post: Corinna Delkeskamp-Hayes: “Value Talk Kills Christianity”

The ultimate consequence

This anti-person ethics meets Marxism in its preoccupation for the common good and in the fact that it considers man as recyclable material which should be subject to perpetual optimization and update, just like any other last-generation machine. This machine ultimately has an obligation to upgrade itself in the direction required by its contemporary society. The upgrade pre-supposes adopting the new ethics and rejecting personal beliefs and personal freedom as obsolete concepts.

Julian Savulescu pushes to their last consequence all the controversial options that the law allows in the present secular world, characterized by some as “post-Christian” but which should really be named according to what it is in fact: a post-freedom world.

Indeed, if one allows killing babies in the womb, why not allowing it after they are born?

If you allow selecting pregnancies by genetic testing, in order to eliminate children with risk of Down Sydrome, why not select children also by other criteria, such as intelligence or… fair hair? Although we must say that Savulescu does not agree with such a criterion as fair hair, since he doesn’t see any use for it to create a better society.

Furthermore, since we agree to harvest organs from unrecoverable patients and since we have already changed the definition of death to accommodate our need to recycle organs for the common good, why not be completely open about this and also promote killing of terminally ill patients so that we be able to use organs as viable as possible? Why wait to remove their life support, which can affect “the harvest”, instead of killing them for a noble purpose?

To make the society accept more easily the annullment of individual freedom, Julian Savulescu needs to redefine one more thing: the human person. This must be redefined so as to get a status as close as that of an object. Because there is no need to grant personal freedom to an object. Objects don’t have the right to opinion. A living object, but no more than an object:

…we are but a series of cells who get activated. This also includes morality. Behaviour and moral experience are born out of the brain’s electrical activity. In its turn, this appears due to chemical reactions. One can therefore say that morality is just a chemical reaction (“Dilema veche” interview).

Related post: Beyond Values: Bioethics Critically Reconsidered – Herman Tristram Engelhardt, Jr.

The choice made by the University of Bucharest and by “Dilema veche” cultural magazine is quite stunning. Of course Julian Savulescu’s name is linked to one of the world’s greatest universities, of course he is of Romanian origins, of course he is famous. But doesn’t it matter what he stands for?

Ironically, just a few days before his becoming a Doctor Honoris Causa of the University of Bucharest, two far more renowned international bioethicists came to Romania: H. Tristram Engelhardt Jr. and Corinna Delkeskamp-Hayes. Their presence here has been met with deafening silence – a silence which cannot be explained just by the fact that the seminary in which they participated was held in the city of Bistrita instead of Bucharest. H. Tristam Engelhardt Jr. is one of the founders of bioethics and main editor of the magazines “Journal of Medicine and Philosophy”and “Christian Bioethics”.

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