February 26, 2024

The virtues and the vices of the outrageous  

A Norwegian bioethicist, Anna Smajdor, recently set out a case for “Whole Body Gestational Donation” – using the wombs of brain-dead women as surrogate mothers – in a leading journal. The response was predictable. As she commented afterwards:

“I was called a misogynist, a Nazi, an evil scientist, a science illiterate, a far-right extremist, a far-left extremist, and much more. Amidst this sound and fury, it seems that it is more fun to embark on a witch hunt than to grapple seriously with questions about what happens to us if and when we become brain dead.”

Her purpose, she explained, was not to advance this as a serious proposal, but to play with the idea and see how far assumptions about surrogacy and organ donation could take her.

The editor of the journal in which her proposal appeared, Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, has used the controversy to explain why outrageous proposals have a place in bioethics. Daniel Sulmasy insists that he is not a fan of “whole body gestational donation”, but he contends that “such arguments can contribute to ethics (and to bioethics in particular) either by fostering more rapid progress in the field or by stimulating defenders of the moral status quo to deepen the arguments that justify the commonly accepted positions that these arguments challenge.”

Smajdor’s article was one of three challenges to conventional wisdom. The other two were equally controversial one. One proposed a welfare-funded sex doula program, on the assumption that sexual pleasure is a fundamental human right even for physically or mentally disabled people. The other asks whether vegans should have children – and answer No. “After all, humans will suffer in life, and having children is not necessary for a good life. Thus vegans, and probably vegetarians as well, should not have children.”

Sulmasy believes that being outrageous is not necessarily a virtue. “Philosophers might pose outrageous positions simply to shock and grab attention. Such motives spring from cynicism and nihilism. One can do ethics unethically. The posing of outrageous arguments never ought to spring from such motives.”