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Editor’s note: How can we make a difference? The perils of heroism
  1. J Savulescu
  1. Correspondence to:
 Julian Savulescu
 Department of Philosophy, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK;

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When bioethicists work together, and bioethics societies contribute to policy formation, we shall have learned from the Olivieri affair.

Francoise Baylis asks where were the heroes in the Olivieri affair?1

There is definitely something to be said for heroism. There is the obvious good that heroes do. Plucking the baby from the burning building. Crossing enemy lines to destroy a heavy water project that would have spelt the creation of a Nazi atomic bomb.

There is also the inspiration heroes give to all of us to be better people, even if not nearly so brave as them: and life is generally dull and colourless—where would we (and Hollywood) be without heroes.

Heroism, however, has costs. Some attempts fall short, causing damage and injury to many in their wake. Such attempts at heroism often stem from narcissistic striving for personal glory. And there are the costs to the hero—death, injury, bankruptcy, long nightmarish struggles through investigations and trials. I only know two people personally who have been heroes in bioethics, or actually, who are medical professionals who have taken a heroic stand on a controversial ethical issue. In both cases, their heroism has exacted an enormous personal cost. Baylis praises the heroes and supporters of Dr Nancy Olivieri: Professor Arthur Shafer, Dr Helen Chan, Dr John Dick, Dr Peter Durie, Dr Brenda Gallie, Dr David Nathan, and Sir David Weatherall. She rightly stresses, however, the personal and professional costs to many of these heroes.

Heroism requires practical wisdom, courage, altruism, and luck. It is, as Baylis rightly notes, supererogatory. There are good reasons to praise those rare individuals who are true heroes. But no one should be expected to be a hero. No one should be blamed for failing to be a hero. To fail to be a hero is not to be a coward. It is to be an ordinary person or even a very good person.

How can we as bioethicists make a difference if we are not heroes? We should rightly admire and praise those who are the rare heroes in bioethics. Francoise Baylis makes, however, a more important point in her article. To change things as individuals is difficult, risky, and demanding, but together, we can benefit from each others’ insights, support, and reputations. We need more solidarity and collegiality. We should be able to call on colleagues to support us, to write and act jointly for some moral cause. Bioethics organisations should not simply function to run conferences and other junkets but should serve as a resource for collective and effective action.

When I worked as a registrar in an emergency department, I often consulted others about difficult decisions before I acted. This was one of the great benefits of the emergency room. Bioethics is often a solitary enterprise where bioethicists are expected to be final experts or to be able to provide the right answer in a priestly tradition. Practical ethics should be about sharing responsibility and collective action. Someone must finally lead or act, but there is too little collegial support of each other in bioethics. We should draw more on collections of expertise in institutes, organisations, list servers, and other groups of experts. Baylis describes as science fiction individual bioethicists being galvanised into collective action to write academic articles, and contribute to public debate and government policy. She dreams of bioethics societies contributing to policy formation and influencing practice. To realise these dreams is to learn from the Olivieri affair.

When bioethicists work together, and bioethics societies contribute to policy formation, we shall have learned from the Olivieri affair.


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