September 9th 2017

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COVER STORY Our unsafe schools are putting students at risk

EDITORIAL Turnbull needs a circuit breaker or he's a goner

CANBERRA OBSERVED 'What's the question?' is the crucial question

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Beijing applauds jailing of Hong Kong activists

NATIONAL AFFAIRS The economic agenda Australia needs won't come from Mal or Bill

MARRIAGE AND FAMILY Child-support payments and parental alienation

MARRIAGE AND LAW NSW Law Society spruiks for same-sex marriage

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Germany's energy plan: a disaster in the making

MUSIC Monetising the muse: 'Frugal comfort' would be welcome

CINEMA Logan Lucky: Southern fried robbery

BOOK REVIEW Serious Bioethics salted with humour




CANBERRA OBSERVED Love may be love, but certainly consequences are consequences

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Serious Bioethics salted with humour

News Weekly, September 9, 2017

THE GREAT HUMAN DIGNITY HEIST: How Bioethicists Are Trashing the Foundations of Western Civilisation

by Michael Cook


Connor Court, Redland Bay
Paperback: 254 pages
Price: AUD$29.59

Reviewed by Margaret Somerville


First some background.

Let’s start with Michael Cook’s condensed bio, which gives you a hint of his wicked sense of humour, which, as I will explain, is highly relevant to the impact that his book, The Great Human Dignity Heist: How Bioethicists Are Trashing the Foundations of Western Civilisation, will have:

“Michael Cook likes bad puns, bushwalking and black coffee. He did a BA at Harvard University in the U.S., where it was good for networking, but moved to Sydney where it wasn’t. He also did a PhD on an obscure corner of Australian literature. He has worked as a book editor and magazine editor and has published articles in magazines and newspapers in the U.S., the UK and Australia. Currently he is the editor of BioEdge, a newsletter about bioethics, and MercatorNet. He also writes a bioethics column for Australasian Science.”

Michael Cook is a rare and possibly unique journalist in that he specialises in covering bioethics. He is a superb writer and editor: indeed, it’s hard not to be envious of his mastery of language, metaphors, and analogies. Such feelings are counteracted, however, by the fact that he gives so generously of his time and skills to help others not nearly so talented, and that he is one of the most humble and self-effacing people one could ever meet.

Cook is editor of the website MercatorNet, which identifies its mission as “Navigating Modern Complexities” and articulates its aims as:

To promote human dignity as the foundation of bioethics.

To promote evidence-based ethics in medicine.

To show that medical excellence is not possible without ethical principles.

To provide high-quality, up-to-date information.

To facilitate the participation of health professionals in policy debates.

It’s an extraordinary agenda, but so important, as so many of our most fundamental values are being challenged by decision making in relation to the new science and its use in medicine.

Cook also edits BioEdge, a weekly newsletter which speaks about cutting-edge bioethical issues from around the world. It’s an indispensable read for anyone working in an area to which bioethics is relevant. I am always amused when I receive an email from an eminent academic, as I did recently from a highly acclaimed American intensive-care medical specialist and researcher who publishes in journals such as The New England Journal of Medicine, telling me I should look at this wonderful weekly ethics update called BioEdge, which he had just discovered.

The Great Human Dignity Heist is a collection of Michael Cook’s writings that show how the concept of dignity has been hijacked so that instead of functioning to uphold respect for human life and protect all human beings, it is being used to justify the completely opposite outcome. For example, take the pro-physician-assisted suicide, pro-euthanasia strategy of promoting “death with dignity”, which amounts to a proposal that “I will respect your dignity by putting you out of your undignified state by giving you a lethal injection or helping you to kill yourself”.

Cook writes that respecting human dignity is essential to protect the voiceless and defenceless. He explains, correctly, that we all have dignity simply because we are human, and we all deserve the protections and have the rights that respecting our dignity entails. In other words, dignity comes with being a “human being”, regardless of whether we are also a “human doing”: that is, regardless of our incapacities or disabilities, or, very importantly, whether or not others see us as having dignity. Pro-euthanasia “dying with dignity” proponents see dignity as being conferred by others and, therefore, able to be lost.

The section on euthanasia, with a touch of black humour entitled “Slip Slidin’ Away”, includes pieces with such evocative titles as “Life? I’m not really into it any more”, which is a quote from a healthy 24-year-old Belgian woman who wanted euthanasia. In another context, Cook has described elderly people using such reasoning to explain why they wanted euthanasia, as “dying of terminal boredom”.

Cook also quotes the insight of Dianne Coleman of lobby group Not Dead Yet, for people with disabilities, “that pity can be more dangerous [in terms of people being killed] than a mad doctor in a nursing home” because of the widespread assumption that death is better than life with a disability.

And, because it’s so relevant to the euthanasia debate currently raging in Australia, it’s worth mentioning that Cook reminds us to look to our history through human memory, for instance, to the origins of the Nazi euthanasia program, in deciding whether to legalise euthanasia. He quotes a medical consultant to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, Dr Leo Alexander, who said: “It is important to realise that the infinitely small wedged-in lever from which this entire trend of mind [that euthanasia was ethically acceptable in medicine] received its impetus was the attitude toward the non-rehabilitable sick” (p56). That attitude was that these sick people were disposable (“of no use to the state”) and that it was a benefit to them and a kind act to put them out of their misery.

Importantly, the contributions in Dignity Heist on the topic of euthanasia will also provide readers from among the general public with persuasive responses to the pro-euthanasia advocates’ contention that there are no moral differences between natural death and inflicted death (killing) for people who are “going to die anyway”.

In memorable, often amusing, sometimes shocking anecdotes and short articles covering a very wide range of topics, Cook powerfully shows us where we are in regard to shared, foundational societal values and that we are headed for a moral abyss, as individuals and societies, unless we stop sleep-walking into our moral future. He explains that among the culprits for this state of affairs is a combination of mind, body and world-altering science and technology, on the one hand, and the secular society’s priesthood, utilitarian bioethicists and their moral relativist “gourmet ice-cream flavour bioethics”, on the other. He proposes that we abolish this bioethics and these bioethicists, whom he labels “the miserabilists”, and that what we need is common sense, “plain vanilla ethics and ethicists”.

You will laugh out loud at some of Cook’s metaphors, analogies and language and be strongly tempted to slot them into your own conversations. Their number and originality are legion. I was tempted to go through the book and collect them all to share with readers of this review, but it would take far too long to do so.

The Great Human Dignity Heist will also give you an unlimited scope of stunning dinner party ripostes, with topics ranging from what “common humanity” requires of each of us and how we might find meaning in suffering, to the ethics of torture and voluntary cannibalism.

Cook asks and answers such provocative and thought-provoking questions as: Is cannibalism wrong between consenting adults? Should depriving a goldfish of fishy companions be a crime, as it is in Switzerland?

In speaking of psychologist Stephen Pinker’s denigration of human dignity, he remarks: “Dialoguing with Pinker about human dignity is rather like discussing the chemistry of H2O with someone who doesn’t believe in oxygen. … Denigrating human dignity is a brain wave without a future.”

Cook’s use of wry humour and astute, easily understood language is not just an enjoyable incidental feature of The Great Dignity Heist, but a major contribution to public debate of ethical issues. It will make what he says memorable to the average citizen and will give them the words to say what they believe. So many people say to me: “I know what I believe, but I don’t know how to say it.” In this book Michael Cook gives you the words you need and can use.

Thoughts that came to my mind on reading The Great Human Dignity Heist ranged from the need to question the ethics of bioethicists to whether academics are fulfilling their duties to inform the general public in a way that enables real people to navigate the major “moral disruption” that Western democratic societies are currently going through.

Just as our physical ecosystem can be irreversibly damaged, so can our metaphysical or moral ecosystem. It consists of the shared values, beliefs, principles, attitudes, stories, and so on, that form the glue that binds us together as a society. One way to view Dignity Heist is as a compilation of warnings about threats to our moral ecosystem and of ways in which we might counter these.

Here’s how Michael Cook ends the Forward to The Great Human Dignity Heist:

“As medicine and technology progress, we need answers to the ethical, social, legal, philosophical dilemmas they create. So we will always need bioethics and bioethicists. But we cannot delegate our future to them. We have to think things through for ourselves. That’s what I have done in the brief essays in this book, which have been selected from my contributions over the years to a number of newspapers and magazines in Australia, the United States and Britain. I hope they encourage you to question the ‘experts’.”

This is a serious and important yet easy-to-read book that, without preaching, will inform the general public on serious and important ethical issues. Anyone interested in what is happening in our 21st-century “moral ecosystem”, and that should be everyone, must read this book.

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