Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Michael S. Gazzaniga: The Ethical Brain

My review will appear in Practical Philosophy.

Michael S. Gazzaniga
The Ethical Brain
Washington, DC: Dana Press, 2005, pp. xix + 201
ISBN: 1932594019 (hb), US$25

Michael S. Gazzaniga, a world-renowned cognitive neuroscientist, was invited to join the physicians, philosophers, and others who sit on the U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics. That experience inspired him to write this book. Gazzaniga wishes to convince us that the new brain science will help solve the ancient perplexities of the philosophers. Unwittingly, he also demonstrates that, even in our hi-tech, bio-tech world, it is worthwhile for writers to acquaint themselves with the relevant philosophical literature before publishing pronouncements on ethical matters.

The book deals with a number of problems in ethics, including the moral status of embryos and euthanasia; brain enhancement via eugenics, training, and drugs; free will and moral responsibility; and the search for a universal ethics. Although his writing is sometimes disappointing when judged by the high standards set by the great science popularizers of our day such as Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould, Gazzaniga reviews the neuroscientific background of each of these topics with a reasonable degree of success.

As I have indicated, Gazzaniga’s application of his scientific knowledge to the questions at hand is not always entirely convincing. He tells us that since a fourteen day old embryo lacks a brain, it should not be granted human status. Unfortunately, so little argumentation is offered for this thesis that one can only wonder whether, if he had specialized in nephrology, Gazzaniga would recognize the humanity of embryos only after they had developed kidneys.

The chapter on the “Aging Brain” offers some useful information regarding the process of mental deterioration that comes with aging. However, when Gazzaniga tries to score a point against philosophers who write about dementia and euthanasia but have “never walked the neurology wards” (pg. 30), he ends up attacking a straw-man; the example he cites involves a relatively highly functional Alzheimer patient whose condition he conflates with “end-state” dementia.

The chapters on brain enhancement contain some very interesting scientific material. Once again, Gazzaniga’s philosophical insights are rather limited. He suggests that we stop worrying since people are generally good at adapting to new technologies. He seems to be unconcerned about the issue of how such new technologies may serve to radically widen the social and cultural gap between the rich (who will be able to avail themselves of artificial brain enhancement) and the poor (who most likely will not).

I found Gazzaniga’s discussion of “Free Will, Personal Responsibility, and the Law” to be the strongest section of his book. That is not to say that it is philosophically informed. How can someone write about this topic today without, so it seems, even being aware of the work of Harry Frankfurt? Fortunately, Gazzaniga devotes most of the discussion to explanations of recent research on the limitations of human memory and the latest developments in lie-detection technology. He makes a strong case that, given what is now known about human memory, the legal system should rethink its traditional reliance on eye-witness testimony. Anyone who deals with the analysis of personal narratives — including philosophical practitioners — would be well advised to take his message to heart.

The final section of the book, “The Nature of Moral Beliefs and the Concept of Universal Ethics”, is philosophically the weakest. Gazzaniga appears here as a na├»ve son of the Enlightenment: science will complete the unfinished business left by religion and philosophy and finally offer humanity a universal basis for ethics. The idea is that all human brains are genetically “hard-wired” for certain universal moral tendencies, and although these values are diffracted and distorted by the lenses of different cultural environments, they remain discoverable by the scientific method. In fact, they have already been partially uncovered by a study of ethical decision-making done via a website questionnaire. Unfortunately, Gazzaniga never asks himself why ethical predispositions, apparently formed by an evolutionary process that took place against the backdrop of prehistoric life in the African grasslands, would remain particularly functional in the twenty-first century. It is not immediately obvious that Stone Age ethics can handle issues such as artificial brain enhancement and the use of neural scanners for lie-detection. It is also a bit embarrassing that someone so celebrated for his experimental work does not realize that surveys run on the Internet tell us very little about “universal human nature.” Even if the respondents come from far-flung lands and subscribe to various different religions, they all belong to the global elite of people who have Internet access, are fluent readers of English, and are sufficiently computer literate to stumble upon and participate in an online survey.

Berel Dov Lerner

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