Building a better world with bioethics
ACU graduate and Fulbright scholar Dr Xavier Symons uses philosophical reasoning to solve real-world ethical dilemmas.
Bioethicist Xavier Symons is well aware of the potential pitfalls of a career in philosophy. Like all scholars of philosophical disciplines, he spends much of his time pondering some of life’s fundamental questions: What ought we to do with our lives? Do we all have a right to health? How do we make the world a better place?
“Dealing with ultimate questions is really what drew me to philosophy, and I think it comes down to the desire to create a better world by helping people to think more deeply and more ethically,” says Dr Symons, an ACU PhD graduate and 2020 Fulbright scholar.
“But when you make the decision to pursue philosophy as a lifetime occupation or profession, there’s always the danger that you end up dwelling in the world of ideas. So I think it’s really important to find ways to ground yourself and look for balance.”
The answers to deep philosophical questions often lie in thought and exploration, but they can also be found in unexpected places.
While living in Melbourne, Dr Symons spent time volunteering through his local parish. He helped in nursing homes for the elderly, soup kitchens for the homeless and disadvantaged, and long-term care facilities for people living with disability or dementia.
“I think that caring for people who are in their later years of life or are perhaps a little more dependent, it teaches you that we’re all vulnerable and we’re all in need of support in different ways,” he says.
“When you interact with people who are facing certain challenges, you learn about vulnerability in a very real way. You learn about human nature and you learn about yourself, so it’s very grounding and it can help you to find a good balance.”
These experiences have also influenced the issues Dr Symons explores in his research.
In early 2020, having completed his PhD in the ethics of healthcare rationing and taken on a research and teaching position at the University of Notre Dame, he was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Future Scholarship.
The research grant will take him to Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute for Ethics – arguably the world’s leading bioethics institute – where he’ll explore the ethics of dementia and focus on issues identified in the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.
“I’ll be looking at how we can optimise care for people with advanced forms of dementia like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, and I think that was inspired by working in nursing homes and seeing the challenges people face when they’re experiencing advanced cognitive decline,” Dr Symons says.
“It really is quite heartbreaking, but at the same time I think there’s something to be said for the idea that even when people are suffering the most severe forms of dementia, there’s always a personality that lasts and continues.
“I think we need to recognise and respect that, and that means making sure our care is the same as we would provide to any other human being. I think that’s a very positive step in providing dignified care for those who are in aged care homes.”
An inquiring mind
As a high-school student at Redfield College in Dural, a semi-rural suburb in Sydney’s northwest, the young Xavier Symons was already engaging with philosophical questions.
Guided by teachers who ran philosophy and theology courses as part of the school’s curriculum, and a school chaplain with a PhD in philosophy, he was lucky enough to participate in intellectually rigorous dialogue at a young age.
“I was interested in philosophy and I had a lot of people around me who fostered my interest,” he says. “I think philosophy is suited to a certain temperament – people who tend to be quite deep thinkers and who are interested in ultimate questions – and I just happened to have that temperament.”
Dr Symons went on to study at the University of Sydney, engaging with the work of a broad array of philosophers: Foucault, Bachelard and Kierkegaard, to name a few. He explored the work of Aquinas, Scotus and Ockham in his master’s thesis, before transferring to ACU for his doctoral program.
He was drawn to bioethics “by chance” when a friend asked him to contribute to BioEdge, an online bioethics newsletter, and continued to pursue bioethics as an area of specialisation because “it has very clear and real-world applications”.
“I think the pandemic has highlighted that bioethics is more relevant now than ever, and that really motivates me; the realisation that my work has important practical implications to public policy, and the fact that we’re dealing with the basic values of our civilisation,” says Dr Symons, a research fellow at ACU’s Plunkett Centre for Ethics.
“Whatever people think on debates to do with vaccines or healthcare rationing, or abortion and euthanasia, or human enhancement and genomes, these issues really do cut to the heart of who we are.
“I find that fascinating, and I think that as philosophers and ethicists, we can help to foster a more respectful society by making thoughtful contributions to all of these debates.”
Speaking to the public
On top of an impressive track record of high-quality publications for his academic work, Dr Symons is a prolific contributor to ethical debates in mainstream media.
In recent years, he has been published widely in news outlets on topics including euthanasia, abortion, healthcare rationing, disability, conscientious objection and drug policy.
His output comes amidst calls for scholars from all disciplines to share their ideas and research with a wider audience.
For some academics, this is not easy, requiring them to unlearn everything they know about communicating their work.
Dr Symons sees the value in public engagement; however, he believes there is “room for diversity amongst academics”.
“There surely is a place for a theoretical physicist to spend 40 years in a laboratory, producing very niche publications on some problem in the fundamentals of physics,” he says.
“At the same time, we do need people who make all that wonderful knowledge and depth of analysis that you find in academia available to the public.”
He sees it as his role to encourage people to use critical thinking and reasoning in discussions about all topics – big and small.
“It’s a bit of a passion of mine to find a better way of conducting ethical debates, and I think it’s important that bioethicists take the ideas they see in philosophy that are relevant to social issues, and help people to understand those ideas,” Dr Symons says.
“We’re in difficult times, where even something as banal as wearing a face mask becomes a culture war. If we can all learn to be a bit more open-minded and to think more deeply and ethically, I think we would live in a more respectful and harmonious society.”
Dr Xavier Symons was the winner of the Research or Scholarship Award in ACU’s Alumni Awards 2020.