Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

"Liberal" bioethics, er, "neuroethics"

I just came across an article by Michael Gazzaniga in an old (April 8, 2005) issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Entitled "The Thoughtful Distinction Between Embryo and Human," the article purports to bring Gazzaniga’s expertise in neuroscience and "neuroethics" to bear on the vexed and vexing debate over what the President’s Council on Bioethics has called "therapeutic cloning." Gazzaniga, one of the "liberals" on the President’s Council, left me unimpressed, not by his scientific ability (which I’m incompetent to judge) but by his capacity for philosophy (which I am competent to judge, though Brian Leiter, I’m sure, would disagree).

Another way of putting it is that I am impressed by his moral obtuseness. He writes constantly of the question of when "society should confer moral status on an embryo," as if the moral status of anything depended solely upon a social judgment. (O.K., he’s a simple-minded conventionalist or positivist, not exactly a sophisticated position.) But of course, Gazzaniga isn’t really trading on his philosophical sophistication, but upon the authority conferred by his scientific expertise.

This troubles me for the following reason. In the article, he proudly reports the following contribution to one of the Bioethics Council’s discussions:

I made an analogy comparing embryos created for stem cell research to a Home Depot. You don’t walk into a Home Depot and see 30 houses. You see materials that need architects, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers to create a house.... A fertilized embryo is not human--it needs a uterus, and at least six months of gestation and development, growth and neuron formation, and cell duplication to become a human. To give an embryo created for biomedical research the same status even as one created for in vitro fertilization, let alone one created naturally, is patently absurd. When a Home Depot burns down, the headline in the paper is not "30 Houses Burn Down." It is "Home Depot Burned Down."

We can take these "non-human" building materials, he seems to imply, and do whatever we want with them. It is scientifically impossible to say, in any way, shape, or form, when (or even perhaps if) it has a "soul."

What matters for Gazzaniga in assessing the potentiality of an embryo is "intention" of the human creator:

If we create cells for research purposes, and never intend to create a we have the moral responsibility to grow those other embryos into human beings? Of course not.

But then he goes on to argue that "intention arguments are inherently nonsensical," because we are simply hard-wired to attribute intentions, which are merely "personal beliefs," not scientific descriptions of the things to which we attribute intentions. If you separate these "personal beliefs" about "intentions" from our consideration of "these clumps of cells," what you’re left with is a clump of cells. Not a human being or a potential human being. A clump of cells with any potential we wish to give it, receptive to any intention we might have. Building materials at the Home Depot. "O brave new world that has such people in’t!"

Update: Peter Lawler offers this interesting comment on Gazzaniga:

He’s a great neuroscientist. You might remember his book being mentioned in
I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS, and the neuroscientist professor who’s initially (and in an open-minded way) impressed with Charlotte is apparently based on him. The two great influences on Tom Wolfe are Mike and another member of the Council, the psychiatrist Paul McHugh (a wonderful man), who cured Wolfe of his depression and provided the story about the cats that opens the book. Paul is a very empirical, common sensical psychological Thomist physician.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Gazzaniga:"A fertilized embryo is not human . . ."

That is what pro-slavery people said about my people. America had a war over such thinking.

Gazzaniga is advocating slavery. Where slaves in the past were distinguished by skin color, nationality, language or some other justification, the true owner of the DNA in question is merely underage. But Gazzaniga is consistent with the true distinguishing feature of slavery; no moral problem with ownership of another person’s DNA.

Gazzaniga would make slavery intellectually acceptable again.

You think that is bad?

W.F. Buckley interviewed Michael Gazzaniga on the nature of illegal drugs.

The conclusion was - no problem. Buckley was sympathetic to that conclusion.

Of course to your typical leftie there is nothing wrong with a governent price support program. Which is why lefties are among the strongest supporters of the Government’s Cocaine Price Support and Terrorist and Gang Finance Program.


Given the ratio of miscarriages to births God must like killing humans - a lot.

Of course if you are Jewish - no problem. It ain’t human ’til it leaves the womb. Of course a lot of people have the idea that if it is Jewish it is not human after it leaves the womb.

Which of course makes it impossible for a Jewish abortion to be a crime.


Well this argument (abortion) has been going on for 2,500 years. I don’t expect a solution any time soon. You either have the ugliness of legal abortion or the ugliness of a black market.

All we have to do is look at drug prohibition to see the good a black market can do.

When do people magicly become human or a person worthy of rights? Is it when a child is extracted from there mothers womb? There is no science in this concept, it is just a statement of classifaction. Some how magicly a fetus becomes a human person once it pops out of the vagina or is taken by c- section? When did I become me? It had to happen some time. What the left would have you believe is that there is no distictive time in pregnancy that you can undoubtably classify an embryo or fetus as a person.(All developmental stages, but the question is development of what? Homo sapien sapien. The left is defining embryos merely by function, but what is functioning? Some thing has to exist before you can define whether or not it is functioning properly. They are confusing function with existance.) When do we begin? We all had to begin at some time, otherwise we would not be here. Is there one exact point in time in wich I did not exist? There is only one action in the universe at one point in time that I can say that I was not, then all of the sudden I was. It was when my parents had sexual intercourse, just like in sex ed, a sperm traveled through the filopian tube and stuck itself into my mothers egg. If this one event had not occured I would not be writting this paragraph. If any thing had happened to that embryo such as not implanting itself in the lining of the uterus, I would not be here. If any thing had happened to that embryo from the point of conception until now I would have died somehow. It is all a matter of how you view reality. Is an embryo a potential person? Or is an embryo a person with potential? Which came first the chicken or the egg?

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