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 weekends distractions. But ten days later, its still hotsee, 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 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.

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, Greenes 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. Theres a biology to bioethics, and the Presidents 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.


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Certainly there is no justification for the changes in the composition of the Bioethics Council. I have written aobut this and have referenced others blogger on the subject at:


I had not known about Kass' philosophy, but you make it clear that he is not as thoughtful as one would hope for one of his status. It seems clear that his philosophical stance can be refuted:

I am fairly sure that, using aversive therapy (such as was depicted in A Clockwork Orange) it would be possible to generate repugnance when reading Emily Dickinson; or using similar methods, to generate pleasure when reading about the Holocaust.

If Kass' philospophy is correct, then it would follow that we can change what is right and what is wrong by reconditioning our brains.

Obviously, no one can agree with that conclusion: there is no way to make the Holocaust right.

This whole thing is ridiculous. As soon as you try to implement policy regarding some scientific issue, you are politicizing it. Did people really think that Bush would appoint a council that was likely to make policy recommendations that he didn't want to implement? People are complaining because they don't like the recommendations of the council, not because they think it has been staffed inappropriately, or because it reached it's conclusions by some sort of illegitimate means (i.e. by arguing in favor of 'moral repugnance') In Blackburn's WashPost oped, she complained that people on the council didn't really consider endorsing therapeutic cloning. Well, did she ever really consider banning it? Of course not.

Kass doesn't argue that moral considerations are determined by moral repugnance, he just argues that we should pay attention to those emotions, since they are frequently telling us something important about the act in question, even if what that something is is not immediately evident.


I did some amateur meta studies on brain science, PTSD, and drug abuse.

My guess is that the Kass Comission is going to muddy the waters in support of drug prohibition.

The science is beginning to show that chronic drug use is caused by chronic pain. PTSD mostly.

The "moral intuitions" idea will be used to deny PTSD sufferers the pain relief they so obviously crave.

I mentioned to Jacob Sullum that the ban on pain relief and religious experience through LSD is a kind of religious rent seeking. The BGushies are getting very sophisticated.

The Bushies are getting very sophisticated.

You know it is lcky quantum mechanics is not yucky or we would really be screwed.

Personally I think surgery is yucky.

Was I glad the doctor who did a C section on my wife was not so constrained. You bet.

The yuck factor is not proof of anything except that eating decayed flesh crawling with maggots is not wise. The use of thosesame yucky maggots to clean wounds may be very wise.

Frankly, this research is irrelevant to serious moral thought.

Either there is, or is not, a moral order external to what we happen to think. If there isn't, it's always been obvious morality would amount to nothing more than biology. And if there is such an order, our business is to educate our moral impulses to conform to it.

BTW, if there is no moral order and the impulses are all there is, pointing it out is more than a little dangerous. There's no reason anyone "should" follow his biological impulses (and no reason he shouldn't, for that matter). If the impulses are it, nihilism is simply true. You might answer that if it's true it's true. And if there's a gun in the drawer next to where the buglar's standing, that's true too, and I doubt you'd point it out.

Then again, self-preservation is simply a biological impulse.

'"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.... 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.'

Interesting> Sounds JUST LIKE "if it feels good, d it" -- just the sort of secular-humanist-moral-relativist thinking BushCo rails against.

This is not the first administration to want scientific advisors whose views are compatible with their political philosophy. This is not the first administration to run big budget deficits. This administration has taken both of those habits to extremes. What they accomplished by this firing of May and Blackburn is to make credible claims by European scientific organizations that the Bush administration is a threat to scientific integrity. I won't go into claims by American organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, because they have a political component. Kass will in time wish that he had no part of this. Contextual analysis shows that this administration consistently shoots itself in the foot. I wouldn't worry too much about administration drug policies- that's rather like the conspiracy theories that Bush and Greenspan are trying to bankrupt social security and other safety nets. Truth is that they are oriented on the short term advertising issues. They are unable to conceptualize a long term goal on drug policy,m social security, etc.

amen !

By jim carter (not verified) on 13 Mar 2004 #permalink

There was nobody fired from the Council. There was nobody dismissed from the Council. These are lies. Much of the analysis of the changing composition from the council makes much of these lies, treating them rather as facts.

Both the members who left the Council left as their terms expired. Prof. May has issued a public letter stating it was his own intention to leave.

Dr. Blackburn may not have desired to go, but since she was there qua scientist, and the research she does is not relevant to the upcoming projects, she has no business being there.

It may be a bad choice not to replace her with a neuroscientist; but it would not be an unethical choice or a disingenuous one to replace a scientist qua scientist with an ethicist qua ethicist or a legal expert qua legal expert.

The campaign of careless repetition of easily discoverable falsehoods is shameful, irresponsible, and execrable. It dishonors an honorable man in Leon Kass.