Australian Utilitarianism Diminishing the Hippocratic Oath

By Philip Burcham
Philip Burcham
Philip Burcham
Phil Burcham is an associate professor in the School of Medicine and Pharmacology at the University of Western Australia. Burcham has over three decades of experience in pharmacology and toxicology, completing postdoctoral work in molecular toxicology at Vanderbilt University in the USA. His research interests mainly focus on acrolein and he is currently looking at identifying novel drugs that block acrolein toxicity. Burcham serves on the editorial boards of Toxicological Sciences and Biochemical Pharmacology, and was a foundation member of the Toxicology subsection of Faculty 1000 (Biology).
January 30, 2022Updated: January 30, 2022


Assuming we still aspire to live in societies governed by rational standards, we must try to explain the strange reluctance of political and public health elites to acknowledge the harm COVID-19 vaccines have inflicted on many ordinary Australians.

Why has an entire section of society embraced the idea that it is OK to throw some unfortunate individuals under the societal bus in the interests of pursuing such abstract goals as “public health” or “herd immunity.”

How these lofty but intangible objectives trumped traditional concerns to minimise individual harm caused by medical interventions is a question needing an answer.

Originally, the medical community and the world drew sustenance from long-standing principles of medical ethics that trace back to the ancient Hippocratic affirmation, “First, do no harm.”

In the interests of promoting a humane healthcare ecosystem, when developing new drugs, it was thought essential to pursue two goals simultaneously—maximising benefits for those afflicted by disease on the one hand and minimising drug-related harms on the other.

Of course, because humans are flawed beings who rarely live up to their professed ideals, the history of medicine contains many unfortunate episodes in which these two goals were poorly balanced.

Nevertheless, a shared commitment to the equal importance of each objective forged an ethically coherent environment that permitted gradual improvements in standards of medical care as well as the safety and effectiveness of drugs.

Fundamentally, these advancements were underpinned by the belief that because there is something special about humans, the life of each individual matters.

The well-being of humans falling prey to the harmful effects of medicines was as worthy of effort and attention as that of patients suffering from whatever disease drugs were intended to alleviate.

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A father covers the face of his son as he receives a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in Balgowlah in Sydney, Australia, on Jan. 11, 2022. (Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

These beliefs also placed a high premium on consent. Although society might have an interest in promoting such intangible measures as “public health,” it was recognised that since the harmful side-effects of drugs are first experienced by solitary persons, not societies, individuals should have the final say in whether they wished to receive new drug treatments.

During the tumultuous 1970s, this traditional way of thinking was challenged by a radically different outlook which emerged in Australia and slowly began reshaping the healthcare environment.

It involved a small but vocal cluster of philosophers wanting to overturn the traditional conviction that humans are something special.

Sometimes known somewhat pejoratively as “Australian Utilitarianism,” the movement established itself first in public universities under the leadership of outspoken thinkers such as Helga Kuhse, Peter Singer, and others.

The movement soon became our most potent national export—Australian-trained academics holding these views now hold prominent professorial chairs in some of the world’s top universities.

Of course, traditional utilitarianism is a tradition within Western philosophy that emphasises the maximisation of human happiness as the ideal route to the good life.

But in the hands of radical Aussie thinkers seeking to uproot traditional value systems, utilitarian ethics received a major make-over.

Taking a very Greco-Roman turn, the mere possession of “utility”—how useful a person is perceived to be to society as a whole—became the preferred yardstick used by elites to measure the value of individuals.

Some worried that this new outlook might provide a philosophical justification for official disregard for the disabled and medically imperfect.

Indeed, older readers may recall how, during the 70s and 80s, the leading advocates of Australian Utilitarianism enjoyed ready access to the public broadcaster’s media platforms.

They seemed to go out of their way to shock and offend traditional sensibilities by advocating the medicalised slaying of the genetically imperfect unborn, disabled newborns, or elderly frail.

Since Australian Utilitarianism put the ending of sub-perfect lives at the front and centre of its priorities, it remained to be seen whether this outlook possessed the spiritual and intellectual resources needed to take drug-induced harm seriously.

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Small groups of demonstrators representing both sides of the abortion issue gathered in front of the Supreme Court in Washington on Nov. 29, 1989, as the justices heard arguments in two abortion cases. (Greg Gibson/AFP via Getty Images)

Australian Utilitarianism’s Attack on Tradition

The main “big idea” at the heart of Australian Utilitarianism was the belief that cultural assumptions concerning “human specialness” were grounded within religious convictions that had passed their use-by date.

Many Australians stopped going to church in the 60s, the philosophers argued, so why retain cultural practices based on cast-off beliefs?

Hence, activist thinkers within this movement began working to decrease the “Judeo-Christian cultural inheritance” by recovering lifestyle practices and attitudes that prevailed in the pre-Christian Greco-Roman world.

The unvarnished title was chosen for a 2002 book containing essays by leaders of this school, “Unsanctifying Human Life,” reveals much about their ambitions: They wanted to cut humanity down to size by stripping away the cultural remnants of 2000 years of religiously-informed efforts to “consecrate” or “sanctify” human existence.

Although it promoted itself under the banner of progressivism, this aspect of Australian Utilitarianism possibly concealed a regressive, backward-looking tendency.

By invoking a “Golden Age” that was 2000 years in the past—namely a primitive world lacking any deep commitment to the value of human life or anything resembling the medical accoutrements of modern life such as clean hospitals, antibiotics, or ambulances—Australian Utilitarianism sowed the seeds of the crisis of trust in healthcare institutions that blossomed during the COVID-era.

Another strand to this story concerns how this movement energised a broad legislative agenda within parliaments centred upon elevating the “moral status” of “nonhuman animals.”

The traditional belief in the “specialness of humans,” they claimed, was achieved at the expense of other species. We must instead return to pre-Christian ways of treating animals, the argument ran.

This involved another sleight of hand because Australian Utilitarianism ignored the actual realities experienced by animals in ancient Greco-Roman cultures.

Roman arenas were frequently packed with bloodthirsty fans cheering for the slaughter of elephants, primates, and tigers by sword-bearing gladiators—a reality that fits uncomfortably with the glib assumption that a world free of the belief that humans are something special is great for animals.

No doubt some changes were elicited by Prof. Singer’s followers during the 80s and subsequent decades were welcomed as they facilitated a critical re-evaluation of some iffy practices involving animals in agriculture, zoos, and entertainment venues.

Australian Utilitarianism’s Impact on Toxicology Studies

Unfortunately, however, as we are in the process of learning, Australian Utilitarianism had a distinct downside since it tended to adopt an unfriendly posture towards some important scientific disciplines.

Few invited more disdain than toxicology, the branch of science that grew in importance after the thalidomide disaster of the early 60s. The thalidomide epidemic of birth defects was a shocking consequence of human greed which rushed a poorly tested drug onto the market.

In response to the birth of thousands of permanently injured infants, toxicology sprung into maturity—new scientific journals and learned societies were established, together with toxicology departments and degree programs in universities.

Yet from the perspective of the emerging Australian Utilitarianism, toxicology was a bit suspect.

Its conviction that new drugs and chemicals should be thoroughly tested for safety in rodents such as rats and mice before unleashing them on humans was unacceptable because such practices rested upon “speciesist” assumptions. Only a prejudiced mind considers humans morally superior to rats or mice.

In keeping with the new outlook, beginning around the mid-80s, Australian state governments began passing laws that sharply curtailed the use of rodents in toxicology research.

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A female laboratory assistant with a pair of mice that have been injected with an extract of tuberculosis as part of research to find an immunising agent for the disease in New York, in 1949. (FPG/Getty Images)

By the time I returned to Australia in 1993 after postdoctoral toxicology training abroad, I was dismayed to find that half a dozen or so inspirational scientists who had formed the nucleus of the discipline of toxicology in Australian universities in the 80s had prematurely ended their academic careers.

Most privately blamed the new regulatory regime, which made animal-based toxicology research impossible, as their main reason for calling it quits.

An entire generation of toxicology leadership evaporated within universities, an outcome that was disastrous for the training of future scientists and students.

The resulting academic vacuum remains today, ensuring our universities are shockingly weak in scientific expertise and educational endeavours focussed on understanding and minimising the harmful impact of chemical substances on individual humans or populations.

It’s not the whole story, of course, but the unrivalled dominance of Australian Utilitarianism among our intellectual elites might explain why so few public officials seem concerned by the toxic effects mRNA vaccines are clearly exerting in some unfortunate Aussies.

If the reigning worldview can’t sustain rigorous scientific thinking about harmful substances in universities, negative ramifications for ordinary Aussies may well follow.

As sad as I am to say it, indifference toward vaccine-induced harm is likely to remain as Australian as football, meat pies, kangaroos, and Holden cars for the foreseeable future.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.