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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What if nothing is sacred? Politics and bioethics without sanctity

Over on my Academia.edu page, I've uploaded a copy of my paper "What if nothing is sacred? Politics and bioethics without sanctity".I delivered a version of this paper at a conference in Melbourne last year, and also at last year's Australasian Association of Philosophy conference in Canberra. I was approached on behalf of Australian Humanist as to whether they could publish the paper, and I agreed. As a result it has previously appeared in last year's (southern hemisphere) Spring issue.

Unlike Jonathan Haidt, whose views I discuss at some length, I'm not a fan of taking into account ideas of sanctity and the like - ideas that are the stock in trade of social conservatives - when developing public policy. I especially resist such ideas for the development of bioethical principles and rules. However, I agree with Haidt that current political debate is too Manichaean - with warring political tribes demonising each other. Do check out the whole paper if this interests you, but it builds to the following conclusion:

Often it is assumed that restrictions on legitimate public policy considerations operate unfairly against conservative thinkers, and especially against religious conservatives. Up to a point, that is understandable: it is most likely to be religious conservatives who will attempt to bring concepts of spiritual or metaphysical harm, and perhaps of a literal and supernatural sanctity, into public policy – and all of the reasons for secular government stand against their being allowed to succeed (again see Freedom of Religion and the Secular State).

But it is worth acknowledging that left-wing thinkers can also elevate their favourite objects, ideas, symbols, beliefs, causes, and so on, into something of extreme value – if not viewed as literally sacred, nonetheless considered beyond criticism, questioning, satire, or levity – while treating other objects, ideas, etc., as equivalent to blasphemy or pollution, something to be met with loathing and disgust.

We can see this in contemporary debates over genetic technologies, where, as it appears to me, a mental association that they make with past eugenics movements drives some well-intentioned people on the Left to extremes of hostility. You may be able to think of other examples.

Haidt’s work raises issues that go well beyond those to do with bioethics, and examining them any further would need to await another occasion. Still, I leave you with the thought that we can all lapse into taking extreme, dogmatic, even authoritarian, attitudes to opponents and their ideas. We can display closure to evidence, engage in uncharitable and hyperbolic attacks on others, and excuse behaviour from our allies that would move us to outrage if it came from opponents.

Self-interrogation about these things is a worthwhile discipline, I suggest. It may be a counter to the worst tendencies in contemporary debate over politics and culture.

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