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 human...do 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.