BIOETHICS AND THE BRAIN
by Virginia Postrel • Mar 9, 2004 at 10:57 pm
Blogging on Corante's The Loom, Carl Zimmer calls attention to yet another flaw in the Kass Commission's anti-scientific approach to its subject:
Kass stumbled on another count, one that I think speaks to a profound problem with the council and one that I havent read much comment on. Kass claimed that Blackburn had to be replaced because the council will now be focusing on neuroscience, rather than reproduction and genetics, Blackburn's areas of expertise. If thats true, then the council is not ready for a shift to the brain. If the Bush administration wanted to beef up the council's neuroscience credentials, surely they would have replaced Blackburn and May with neuroscientists. They did not. In fact, the council as it's now constituted has only one member who does research on neuroscience.
Even more troubling, though, is the indifference the council has shown to what neuroscience tells us about bioethics itself.
Kass has written in the past about how we should base our moral judgments in part on what he calls "the wisdom of repugnance." In other words, the feeling you get in your bones that something is wrong is a reliable guide to what really is wrong. The Council on Bioethics embraces Kass's philosophy. They have declared that happiness exists to let us recognize what is good in life, while real anger and sadness reveal to us what is evil and unjust. "Emotional flourishing of human beings in this world requires that feelings jibe with the truth of things, both as effect and as cause," they write. By extension, repugnance is a good guide for making decisions about bioethics. If cloning gives you the creeps, its wrong.
But what exactly produces those creeps? In recent years neuroscientists and psychologists have made huge strides in understanding both emotions and moral judgments. They've scanned people's brains as they decide whether things are right or wrong; they've looked at the brain's neurochemistry, and they've gotten insights from the brains of animals and the fossils of ancient hominids as well. And their conclusions seriously undermine the philosophy of the council.
Read the whole post and its links. Of course, this irreverently materialist approach to the brain is exactly what we can expect the Kass Commission to attack next. Get ready to hear about how authentic human beings don't take Prozac.