Julian Savulescu’s Posts

The Disunity of Utilitarian Psychology: Runaway Trolleys vs. Distant Strangers

Guy Kahane**, Jim A.C. Everett**,

Brian D. Earp, Lucius Caviola, Nadira Faber, Molly Crockett,

and Julian Savulescu

Last week, we invited people to find out “How Utilitarian Are You?” by filling out our newly published Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. The scale was widely shared – even by Peter Singer (who scored predictably highly). The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale does a pretty good job of measuring how well people’s views match up with “classical” utilitarians (think Bentham and Singer), which is the form of utilitarianism we used to anchor the scale. But that’s not all it does. It also teases apart two different dimensions of utilitarian thinking, tracking two ways in which utilitarianism departs from common-sense morality. Our new research recently published in Psychological Review links these two factors to distinct components of human psychology.

The first peculiar aspect of utilitarianism is that it places no constraints whatsoever on the maximization of aggregate well-being. If torturing an innocent person would lead to more good overall, then utilitarianism, in contrast to commonsense morality, requires that the person be tortured. This is what we call instrumental harm: the idea that we are permitted (and even required) to instrumentally use, severely harm, or even kill innocent people to promote the greater good.

The second way that utilitarianism diverges from common-sense morality is by requiring us to impartially maximize the well-being of all sentient beings on the planet in such a way that “[e]ach is to count for one and none for more than one” (Bentham, 1789/1983), not privileging compatriots, family members, or ourselves over strangers – or even enemies. This can be called the positive dimension of utilitarianism, or impartial beneficence.

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How Utilitarian Are You? Measure on The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale

Blog Authors: Julian Savulescu, Brian D. Earp, Jim A.C. Everett, Nadira Faber, and Guy Kahane

This blog reports on the paper, Kahane G, Everett J, Earp BD, Caviola L,  Faber N, Crockett MJ, Savulescu J, Beyond Sacrificial Harm: A Two Dimensional Model of Utilitarian Decision-Making, Psychological Review [open access]

How Utilitarian are you? Answer these 9 questions to find out…

If you enjoyed taking our ‘How Utilitarian Are You?’ test,  read our new blog post discussing how we developed it, what it shows, and why it’s important

Utilitarianism is one of the oldest and most influential theories about what the right thing to do is. It says that the right act is the one which has the best consequences. In the first formulation by Jeremy Bentham, hedonistic utilitarianism, the right act is the one which maximises happiness and minimises suffering. Richard Hare and Peter Singer made preference utilitarianism famous: the right act is the one which maximises satisfaction of preferences.

Utilitarianism was a novel egalitarian theory when it was developed in the 1700s. It was a radical departure from authoritarian, aristocratic or otherwise hierarchical ways of thinking, positing that each person’s happiness and suffering was to count the same. In stark contrast to the social norms of the day, utilitarianism held that the happiness of the pauper is just as important as the happiness of the Prince or the Pope.

Utilitarianism has fallen into disrepute. It is now equated with Machiavellianism: the end justifies the means, whatever those ends may be. It is also seen as coldly calculating, or else simplistically pragmatic. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described it as a morality appropriate for shop keepers. Recently it has even been portrayed a doctrine for psychopaths. Pope Paul II put it succinctly in 1995:

“Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of ‘things’ and not of ‘persons,’ a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used.”

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Womb Transplants and Child-Centred Surrogacy


Julian Savulescu

Womb transplants are again in the news as Richard Paulson, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), said there was no reason to believe that the treatment could not work for transgender women at recent conference in Texas.

The ethical issues of performing a womb transplant for a transgender women are substantially the same as the issues facing ciswomen.

The most important ethical consideration in the UK for a womb transplant is distributive justice. Limited health care resources should not be used for womb transplants because there are more cost effective methods of assisted reproduction available. However if an individual wishes to use their own funds for such a procedure, they should be made aware of the risks (which are very significant), and the alternatives, such as surrogacy.

The best interests of the future child is another critical consideration. The moral status of the fetus is a topic of much debate. However, even if we consider abortion to be acceptable, and deny that the fetus has a moral status that accords it its own interests, in cases where the mother plans to carry the pregnancy to term, the fetus represents the future child who does of course have interests (albeit that they are to be weighed against the mother’s own interests, and that the mother is responsible for making decisions on their behalf).

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Blade Runner 2049, Parfit and Identity

Julian Savulescu


Contains spoilers for both Blade Runner films. This is a longer version of a shorter piece without spoilers, Blade Runner 2049: Identity, Humanity, and Discrimination, in Pursuit 

Blade Runner 2049, like the original, is about identity, humanity and discrimination.

Identity and Humanity

In both films, bioengineered humans are known as replicants.  Blade Runners “retire” or kill these replicants when they are a threat to society. In the original, Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) has all the memories and feelings of a human and believes himself to be a human, only at the end to discover he is a replicant. In the sequel, K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant but comes to believe (falsely) that he is Deckard’s child. In Blade Runner 2049, we are left to watch K dying, realising his memories were implanted by Deckard’s daughter.

In both films we are left wondering what difference there is between a human and a replicant. In the original, rogue replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) saves Deckard’s life (as Deckard was trying to kill him) and delivers famous “Tears in the Rain” speech:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

Roy comes across as more human than the humans in the film. Indeed, in a preceding scene, a thorn or spike appears through his hand reminiscent of Christ, whose own identity as fully human and fully divine has puzzled Theologians for two millenia.

Both films challenge what it is to be human. In 2049, K believes the child of Deckard might have a soul because it was born.

Who are we?

The films both raise fundamental questions about personal identity: who are we? What fundamentally defines the existence of a person from one moment to the next? In both films, there is the suggestion that the biological mass, the body, is not what matters but the mind. In the original, bioengineered Roy seems as human as Deckard, as human as someone could be. In 2049, the idea is extended further still: K’s girlfriend Joi is an AI but seems as real as the other characters and her death is equally tragic.

Derek Parfit died in January this year. He was the world’s most famous moral philosopher (and his favourite film was another Ridley Scott classic, The Duellists). One of his famous ideas is that “identity” is not what matters. He articulated this in his masterpiece, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984). According to Parfit, what matters is psychological continuity and connectedness, that is, the unity of our mental states.

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Cross Post: Sex Versus Death: Why Marriage Equality Provokes More Heated Debate Than Assisted Dying

Written by Julian Savulescu

A version of this article has been published by The Conversation

Epicurus wrote: “Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist. ”

We are in the midst of two great ethical debates: marriage equality and assistance in dying. The great plebescite is ongoing and the Victorian parliament is debating a new law to allow assistance in dying in the last year of life.

A search of Victorian paper “The Age” reveals about 2400 results for “marriage equality” and only about 1700 for assisted dying related terms. But even more striking is the difference in the strength of the feelings they have embodied: despite the fact that one of these topics is literally a life and death matter, the same-sex marriage debate has been far more polarizing. Continue reading

Flu Vaccination for Kids: a Moral Obligation?

Written by Ben Bambery and Julian Savulescu

Rosie Anderson, aged 8, died from influenza infection last Friday the 15th of September. Her tragic death followed the recent death of young father, Ben Ihlow, aged 30, who died suddenly on Father’s Day this year, also from influenza infection.

Contrary to public perception, “the flu” is a deadly disease. In Victoria this year, at least 97 people have lost their lives to influenza. The majority of these deaths are amongst the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to severe disease, but as made painfully clear by Rosie and Ben’s deaths, the flu kills young people too. Continue reading

Cross Post: UK Gene Editing Breakthrough Could Land an Aussie in Jail for 15 Years: Here’s Why Our Laws Need to Catch Up

Written by Dr  Research Fellow in Biomedical Ethics, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, and Professor  Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics,Visiting Professor in Biomedical Ethics, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and Distinguished Visiting Professor in Law, Melbourne University, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation


One of the greatest mysteries in life is why only about one in three embryos formed naturally ever go on to produce a baby. Most miscarry. By genetically engineering human embryos, scientists in the UK have identified a key gene in enabling embryos to develop.

Kathy Niakan, of the Francis Crick Institute in London, led a team which used gene editing technique CRISPR to investigate the role of a particular gene in the development of embryos. The study could potentially lead to better understanding of miscarriage, and hopefully prevention of it, and improve treatment of infertility.

However, this ground-breaking research would be illegal in Australia. Scientists doing this in Australia could be imprisoned. It’s time to review Australia’s laws in this area, which are 15 years old. Continue reading

Hard lessons: learning from the Charlie Gard case

by Dominic Wilkinson and Julian Savulescu


On the 24th July 2017, the long-running, deeply tragic and emotionally fraught case of Charlie Gard reached its sad conclusion (Box 1). Following further medical assessment of the infant, Charlie’s parents and doctors finally reached agreement that continuing medical treatment was not in Charlie’s best interests. It is expected that life support will be withdrawn in the days ahead.

Over the course of multiple hearings at different levels of the court in both London and Strasbourg, the Charlie Gard case has raised a number of vexed ethical questions (Box 2). The important role of practical ethics in cases like this is to help clarify the key concepts, identify central ethical questions, separate them from questions of scientific fact and subject arguments to critical scrutiny. We have disagreed about the right course of action for Charlie Gard,1 2 but we agree on the key ethical principles as well as the role of ethical analysis and the importance of robust and informed debate. Ethics is not about personal opinion – but about argument, reasons, and rational reflection. While the lasting ramifications of the case for medical treatment decisions in children are yet to become apparent, we here outline some of the potential lessons. Continue reading

The ethics of treatment for Charlie Gard: resources for students/media

by Dominic Wilkinson and Julian Savulescu


The case of Charlie Gard has reached its sad conclusion. However, it continues to attract intense public attention. It raises a number of challenging and important ethical questions.

The role of Practical Ethics in cases like this is to help clarify the key concepts, identify central ethical questions, separate them from questions of scientific fact and subject arguments to critical scrutiny. We have disagreed about the right course of action for Charlie Gard, but agree on the role of ethical analysis and the importance of robust and informed debate. Ethics is not about personal opinion – but about argument, reasons, and rational reflection.

We have collected together below some of the materials on the Charlie Gard case that we and others have written as well as some relevant resources from our earlier work. We will update this page as more material becomes available. (*Updated 10/11/17) Continue reading

Cross Post: Speaking with: Julian Savulescu on the ethics of genetic modification in humans

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Could genetic engineering one day allow parents to have designer babies?
Tatiana Vdb/flickr, CC BY

William Isdale, University of Melbourne

What if humans are genetically unfit to overcome challenges like climate change and the growing inequality that looks set to define our future?

Julian Savulescu, visiting professor at Monash University and Uehiro professor of Practical Ethics at Oxford University, argues that modifying the biological traits of humans should be part of the solution to secure a safe and desirable future.

The University of Melbourne’s William Isdale spoke to Julian Savulescu about what aspects of humanity could be altered by genetic modifications and why it might one day actually be considered unethical to withhold genetic enhancements that could have an overwhelmingly positive effect on a child’s life. Continue reading


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