May 18, 2024

Oxford bioethics centre comes under fire

David Oderberg launches salvo for “massive dissonance” with ideals of Japanese funder.

 A UK philosopher has made a stinging attack on Julian Savulescu’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University. In an address to students at Oxford Professor David Oderberg, of the University of Reading, says that it should be radically reformed or closed. Dr Savulescu is the founding director of the centre, which has nurtured a utilitarian and libertarian view of bioethics.

"Radical reform would require a complete reorientation of its approach to bioethics. It should cease being a mouthpiece for biotechnology and should abandon scientism as its fundamental ideology or dogma. It should bring all sides within its borders, including the significant minority of bioethicists who are opposed to the general trend of bioethics and many of its specific ideas," said Dr Oderberg. His talk is to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Human Life Review, an American publication.

He also suggests that the Uehiro Foundation be informed that it is funding an enterprise whose work is "completely at odds" with the Uehiro ethic. Although there is limited information in English about the Japan-based Uehiro Foundation, it is closely associated with the Jissen Rinri Koseikai, or Practical Morality and Pureness of Heart Association. Its ideas, though "rather vague and woolly", seem similar to those promoted by Christian or other natural law theorists and quite different to the extremist views of the Oxford group it supports. It is possible, says Dr Oderberg, that millions of dollars "have been taken under false pretenses".

It is not difficult to give examples of "massive dissonance" between funder and funded. Practical Ethics for Our Time, a book by Eijo Uehiro, the son of the founder of the foundation, criticises "technological quick fixes for our man-made consumerist problems". But Professor Savulescu, says Dr Oderberg, advocates, amongst other things, "abortion at all stages; abortion following sex selection; embryonic-stem-cell research and other experimentation on embryos; the creation of human-animal hybrids; designer babies and so-called savior siblings; therapeutic and reproductive cloning; the use of drugs in sport; the sale of organs; eugenics; and pretty much any form of genetic engineering that meets either an autonomy criterion or a utilitarian criterion".


3 thoughts on “Oxford bioethics centre comes under fire

  1. Prof Jones writes:

    > An account of ‘ethics’ which thinks that subtle
    > human problems can be resolved with the
    > application of basic ‘logic’ is both naive
    > and dangerous.

    How interesting that Prof Jones appears to argue for ethics to be illogical in preference to being logical.

    I write as an untrained member of the public with nothing more than ‘O’ levels and probably have a different insight to the usual community here.

    Prof Jones is right that today’s discussions in bioethics do seem to argue strongly for personal autonomy. However rich the philosophical traditions involved in reaching their conclusions, some people do not like the idea that Profs Jones, Oderberg, or anyone else, including a democratic majority, might interfere with choices they make about their own minds and bodies.

    Those who do not like such interference see this as the fundamental bedrock in bioethics sine qua non; others may be happy to submit their bodies for the time being.

    Prof Jones is also right that logic based on personal autonomy alone leaves many questions unanswered. For example, if one believes in absolute personal autonomy how should one help a person who appears to be in need, but is unable to express his or her autonomous personal wishes? And when a person’s autonomous will changes, is it the past, present, or sometimes easily predictable future will that matters most? And what about when it has been manipulated by exterior forces?

    I am sure the Uehiro Centre will answer its critics, but in the mean-time my little voice supports it.

  2. It is difficult to evaluate Prof Oderberg’s address without seeing it in full. Nevertheless I agree that it is regrettable that much of what is called ‘bioethics’ is little more than the application of utilitarian and libertarian ideas to biomedicine. This underrepresents the available intellectual resources found in philosophy departments even within the United Kingdom and certainly internationally. While philosophy departments explore virtue theory, communitarianism, existentialism, feminism, marxism (which is having a revival – in a more self-critical form), the philosophy of science, the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of psychology, intention, and emotion, and the meaning of death, and more besides, dicsussions in ‘bioethics’ are often limited to autonomy, informed consent, consequence and little else. There are exceptions but Prof Oderberg is right to see utilitarian and libertarian approaches as ubiquitous in bioethics.

    I will not comment on the extent to which Prof Savulescu or the Oxford Uehrio Centre currently draw on the richer philosophical tradition. This is a challenge for all in bioethics. It should be easier in Oxford with its great wealth of resaources in philosophy, theology and the humanities, but bringing these together is still a formidable challenge.

    Darren Reynolds talks of ‘ethics based on logic’, but ethics must be based not only on reason (which is broader than ‘logic’) but also on human nature and the needs and fullfilment of human nature (which is rich and multi-faceted). An account of ‘ethics’ which thinks that subtle human problems can be resolved with the application of basic ‘logic’ is both naive and dangerous.

    What is needed is neither ‘scientism’ nor ‘bioluddism’ but sustained reflection on the human condition – and for this intellectual project the engagement of a variety of voices, experiences, and academic disciplines is essential.

  3. The two positions given in the last paragraph are not contradictory. It is perfectly possible to be compassionate, to recognise the man-made nature of many of life’s problems and the links with consumerism, and yet to accept that man can also make the solutions.

    To argue that the former precludes the latter is to argue that because fire can kill, we should extinguish all fire forever rather than have buckets of water, sprinkler systems and the like.

    The Oxford Uehiro Centre should be congratulated for boldly arguing for ethics based on logic rather than allowing a democratic majority to enforce its opinions on the minority through oppression. If, indeed, the bioluddites are a majority, which might not even be the case.

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