The Idea of the Senpo Sugihara Asian Bioethics Centre

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.

Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel

Eubios Ethics Institute Newsletter 4 (November, 1994) 72-73.
General updated information on the Senpo Sugihara Asian Bioethics Centre

I want to share with other members of the Eubios family the current status of planning for the Senpo Sugihara Asian Bioethics Center. We have a small group working on this here in Israel, developing plans in close consultation with Darryl Macer in Japan. We have begun to form an international Board with Masahiro Morioka and Jayapaul Azariah (at present). I'll list some of the main points in the present stage of thinking. Nothing here is final. We hope you will send your reactions, and suggestions:

1. We hope to name the Center in Honour of Senpo Sugihara who was Japanese Consul in 1941, in Kovno, Lithuania. He saved thousands of Jews from the advancing Germans by issuing them visas to Japan when the supposedly "ethical" nations of the "democratic" west had closed their doors to Jews. Mr. Sugihara symbolizes the highest form of ethics, for he saved the Jews by disobeying his supervisors in the Foreign Ministry, putting morality above his personal career future. He also symbolizes Asian-Israeli cooperation.

2. A campus in Israel with General Asian cooperation. We have now begun to approach Israeli Universities to attempt to make a "match" with a Japanese university or government body. An existing university is needed to allow for credit and degree-granting authorization.But students from other universities around the world should also be able to study with us, for credit at their home universities.

3. Pan-Asian Bioethical Cooperation. Participation is obviously not restricted to Israel or Japan but open to people from all over the world, especially Asia. We hope the Center will eventually include many linked campuses all over the Asian continent and islands. Let's make this a true pan-Asian effort.

4. A New Kind of University Studies: Science, medicine and technology are changing the world so that people educated in the old super specialized disciplines are becoming unable to respond intelligently to the ethical, philosophical and spiritual questions, the bioethical question, to which the new realities are demanding answers. We want the center's work to be integrated intimately with degree studies which will be:
a. Interdisciplinary, breaking the narrow academic super-specializations which are only a recent 19th and 20th century phenomenon anyway.
b. Student initiated. Groups of students will have maximum autonomy in choosing their research projects. Although lectures are important, they are no less important than the active intellectual work of the students. The professors job is to guide, encourage, criticize and evaluate the students' work.
c. Cross-cultural. Students and professors will come from all over Asia (with a smaller number from elsewhere) creating intimate contact among many cultures, religions, spiritual traditions, and secular scientists and philosophers as well. We hope to have degree programmes in bioethics. There should also be room for students from other disciplines to engage in interdisciplinary cross-cultural exploration of the bioethical implications of one's field. To take one simplified example: a student coming from mathematics might explore bioethical implications of chaos theory or of the statistical nature of quantum physics. Is the world, including genetics and ecology(1) basically random? Or are apparently random processes really the expression of a deeper, unknown, perhaps spiritual reality as was suggested both by Western philosophers, like Berkeley and Eastern mystics? To make progress the student may explore philosophy, theology, Eastern religion, etc., arriving at hypotheses about the meaning of life to be debated intensively with physicians, nurses and hospital ethicists. We shall thus develop a truly interdisciplinary and cross-cultural bioethics.

5. Foundational Research in Bioethics. Research in the ethics of the health sciences, ecology and the new genetics lead quickly to foundational bioethical questions. Are "autonomy", "justice", and the like unquestionable axioms, or are there more basic values than these? Is or should there be a universal ethics for all human beings, or mightn't human experience be richer if we encourage each people to develop it's own ethics in it's own land, in accordance with Enlightened Tribalism (to be outlined in Sect. 7 below)? Is molecular biology revealing things about life which will change basic principles of ethics? One might have expected these questions to be answered by philosophy, which was once a deep interdisciplinary activity. But philosophy, having become so super- specialized that Aristotle scholars and philosophers of mathematics cannot even understand one another, risks disqualifying itself from its once great vocation. Our Asian Bioethics Center must create interdisciplinary research teams who will deeply explore foundational questions armed with sources ranging from the latest issue of Nature Genetics to ancient Hebrew and Sanskrit prophetic and mystical texts.

6. Is there an Asian Bioethics? There is a myth that Israel is a totally Western country and Judaism a totally western religion. In fact we Jews have much connections to Asia. Israel is, of course, part of the Asian continent geographically. Our Scriptures were written in Asia. Among Israeli Jews in 1991, 1895.6 thousand had Israeli, Asian and African born fathers as opposed to 610.9 thousand from European or American born fathers (2) . Many argue that many from our Lost Ten Tribes intermixed with Asian peoples (3,4). Ancient connections between Israeli, Islamic, West Asian prophesy and East Asian mysticism have yet to receive full scholarly examination.

Some of the western features of Judaism are in my opinion an accretion due to the hundreds of years when the Ashkenasi segment of our population were in European and American exile. But personally I believe that the basic sources of Israeli bioethics, Scripture, Kabbalistic mysticism and the less Aristotelian elements in Maimonides' philosophy are founded on some of the same concepts which such proponents of Asian ethics as Sakamoto (5) and Becker (6,7) , have been advocating. Among them are humility, and seeing the person or patient as a psychophysical whole.

In the last issue of EEIN, Masahiro Morioka quoted an American bioethicist who said that although ancient Japanese culture differs from modern American culture, and said modern Japanese culture is just like modern American culture. The same is often said of "modern Israeli culture". But I don't believe there is any such thing as "modern culture" except what is portrayed in news media, or in quick answers which people may give to some surveys. But people think otherwise when they search their souls deeply. Indeed when a crisis leads people all over the world to examine the purpose and meaning of their lives they often turn for guidance to sources which originated in Asia: Hebrew Scriptures, Islamic Koran, Buddhism, etc. This also includes Christianity which originated in Asia but which has not yet been clarified from Greek, Roman and European accretions.

But all this has to be explored in a spirit of free inquiry. At our Asian Bioethics Center "Asian ethics" must not be a dogma or a slogan but a question to be investigated openly by participants including secular and Christian universalists(8) as well as others who disagree with the view I represent. Together we shall become wiser.

7. Can there be an enlightened tribalism? This too must not be a dogma but a topic for free investigation. To what extent should each people be encouraged to develop its own ethic in its own land? Is bioethical tribalism compatible with international cooperation in ecology, infectious disease control and the like? Need we all have the same definition of "the beginning of life", "brain death", etc., or is it healthy that each culture has its own definition? May one nation violate the sovereignty of another to protect human rights? Or should humanitarian non-violent intervention be permitted but not military and police? These and other aspects of the "universalism versus tribalism" debate will likely be hot issues for enquiry in the Asian Bioethics Centre.

8. Kibbutz-style living. A spirit of equality, simplicity and togetherness can lead to more intense understanding and cooperative enquiry than can the usual formal conference appearances. We imagine that kibbutz-like living, including eating in a common dining hall can foster this spirit for some of the longer-term members of the center. Some of us also want to work together, hopefully in simple, healthy physical work like construction or agriculture to carry intense intellectual activity right into the workplace. In my opinion the simplest agricultural work, with intimate contact with nature can help provide the "distance" and perspective necessary for relating bioethically to a world in which nature is going to be revolutionarily changed.

Not everyone however, is inclined or suited to kibbutz-style living or combining intellectual activity with physical work. Our Center must not preach a single approach dogmatically but make room for a variety of approaches to life. Nor need there be lifetime membership as in Israeli kibbutzim. People may come for a few years, in Israeli kibbutzim. People may come for weeks or even days. Indeed the opportunity for a unique working and studying holiday in nature may be an inexpensive way to attract distinguished visiting scholars.

9. Let's build it ourselves. Too many buildings are designed by architects who don't understand the people who will use the building. Too many builders bring in bulldozers to make the landscape fit the building plans rather than making the building harmonize with the environment. Let's start off with house trailers, shacks or tents, get to know the local ecology for a year or two, decide together how we want the place to be, and build it with our own hands (discussing bioethics as we carry the bricks).

10. Planning it together. None of these ideas is final. Indeed an institution with true academic freedom must avoid all dogmatism and seek understanding among many different viewpoints. I have expressed my personal views and I am personally most interested in Asian bioethical thought. But other members of the Center will naturally question anything like Asian centrism and seek a more global perspective. Also, while I am personally most interested in spiritual and philosophical foundations of bioethics, Masahiro Morioka has correctly pointed out to me that I do not sufficiently stress the importance of contributions from social sciences, politics, economics, social psychology and natural science. This must be a truly joint effort and not just the conception of one man or clique. We need your thoughts, criticism, suggestions. Please send comments to Darryl Macer for publication in the Journal or directly to me:

(1) Some implications of chaos theory for ecology are discussed by Judson, O.P. The rise of the individual-based model in ecology. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 9:9-14 (1994).
(2) Statistical Annual for Israel, Central Bureau of Statistics, 1993.
(3) Recent research into Lost Tribe presence in China, India, etc. is discussed in Avihail, A. and Brin, A. The Lost Tribes in Assyria Jerusalem, "Amishav" 1985.
(4) Teshima, I. The Ancient Jewish Diaspora in Japan. Tokyo Bible Seminary, 1971.
(5) Sakamoto, H. Japanese philosophical thought. The Japan Foundation Newsletter 27(2): 11-16 (September, 1993).
(6) Becker, C. Japanese traditional world view and science. Nichibunken Newsletter15: 1-2 (August, 1993).
(7) Becker, C. What can Japan offer to bioethics? A response to Dr. Macer. Nichibunken Newsletter18: 1-6 (1994).
(8) Macer, D. "Universal Bioethics" in Macer, D. Bioethics for the People by the People,Christchurch and Tsukuba, Eubios Ethics Institute, 1994.

Paper by F.J. Leavitt, "Neshama and Inochi as bases for Israeli-Japanese bioethical communication," pp.62-77 in Bioethics for the People by the People,Christchurch and Tsukuba, Eubios Ethics Institute, 1994.
Back to Eubios Ethics Institute
Back to EEIN