Bioethics of–and in–the Brain

When George Bush quietly dismissed two members of his Council on Bioethics on the last Friday in February, he probably assumed the news would get buried under the weekend’s distractions. But ten days later, it’s still hot—see, for example, two articles in Slate, and an editorial in the Washington Post, as well as Chris Mooney’s ongoing coverage at his blog. Bush failed to appreciate just how obvious the politics were behind the move. The two dismissed members (bioethicist William May and biochemist Elizabeth Blackburn) have been critical of the Administration. Their replacements (two political scientists and a surgeon) have spoken out before about abortion and stem cell research, in perfect alignment with the Administration. Bush also failed to appreciate just how exasperated scientists and non-scientists alike are becoming at the way his administration distorts science in the service of politics (see this report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which came out shortly before the bioethics flap). And finally, Bush failed to appreciate that Blackburn would not discreetly slink away. Instead, she fired off a fierce attack on the council, accusing them of misrepresenting the science behind stem cell research and other hot-button issues in order to hype non-existent dangers.

The chairman of the council, Leon Kass, failed as well when he tried to calm things down last Wednesday. He claimed that the shuffling had nothing to do with politics, and that he knew nothing about the personal of his new council members. Reporters have pointed out the many opportunities when Kass almost certainly did learn about those views.

But Kass stumbled on another count, one that I think speaks to a profound problem with the council and one that I haven’t 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 that’s 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, it’s 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.

In the April issue of Discover, I have an article about one of the leaders in this new field of "neuro-morality," a philospher-neuroscientist named Joshua Greene at Princeton University. Greene argues that feeling that something is right or wrong isn’t the same as recognizing that two and two make four, or that the sky is blue. It feels the same only because our brains respond to certain situations with emotional reactions that happen so fast we aren’t aware of them. We are wired to get angry at deception and cruelty; even the thought of harming another person can trigger intense emotional reactions. These "moral intuitions" are ancient evolutionary adaptations, which exist in simpler versions in our primate relatives.

When our ancestors stood upright and got big brains, Greene argues, these moral intuitions became more elaborate. They probably helped hominids survive, by preventing violence and deception from destroying small bands of hunter-gatherers who depended on each other to find food and raise children. But evolution is not a reliable guide for figuring out how to lead our lives today. Just because moral intuitions may be the product of natural selection doesn’t mean they are right or wrong, any more than feathers or tails are right or wrong.

Jonathan Cohen, Greene’s coauthor (and boss and at Princeton), was invited to speak to the council at a public meeting in January. He suggested that we need to understand that moral intuitions are not automatically moral truths–particularly when they’re applied to complicated ethical quandaries about science and technology that our ancestors never had to confront. It was good of the council to invite Cohen, but judging from their comments after Cohen’s talk, the message didn’t really take. The wisdom of repugnance seems to be still in charge.

That’s too bad, because understanding our moral intuitions is crucial to making sound decisions about cloning, stem cells, giving psychiatric drugs to children, and all the other issues the council is charged to consider. The neurobiology of moral judgments promises to reveal why these issues are such political flashpoints, by showing how each side in these debates becomes utterly convinced that the right choice is as obvious as the color of the sky. There’s a biology to bioethics, and the President’s council needs to understand it.

UPDATE: Welcome to readers clicking through from the National Review Online link. Rameh Ponnuru’s objections to this post are rather scatter-shot–he suggests that the “wisdom of repugnance” is not the philosophy of the council–or it is in the case of a couple people who don’t agree with the Administration on a couple points–or it’s not. In the interest of clarity, please note the quotations I offered above on the nature of emotions. These come from “Beyond Therapy,” the book-length report published by the council. In these passages and elsewhere, “moral realism” as it’s known, is an underlying assumption. This is of course, a consensus statement and not the opinion of a monolithic entity, but it’s the document that people will look at as the council’s stance. (It was Blackburn’s objections to “Beyond Therapy” that appear to have gotten her in big trouble, judging from her post-dismissal comments.) And if you look over the transcripts of Cohen’s presentation, the comments of several members are consistent with a desire to see in Cohen’s work that idea that moral intuitions are faithful guides to moral truths.