Re: Ch. 2 - The Aging Brain
Okay, my initial reactions to Chapter 2:
1. Does anyone else feel some misgivings about Gazzaniga's statement on page 27: "In some horrendous sense, they are no longer even members of our species, if being a member requires one to pass basic mental tests of competency"? Now, clearly Gazzaniga himself feels edgy about this point of view, but at the same time he does very little to discredit it. It seems like one of those gut reactions he mentions, but doesn't it require some corrective? It seems like a potentially unfortunate statement, one that could easily be prevailed upon by those looking to justify what we might otherwise regard as unethical behavior. If nothing else, it requires a hard and fast criteria for what standards we'll apply to the question of a subject's humanity, and I'm not sure that Gazzaniga has at all equipped us to address that question. Dementia patients, the mentally handicapped, victims of neurological trauma, the profoundly stupid -- it isn't at all a hypothetical question to ask where we draw the line. And at some point we have to get back to the basic question of why the question of humanness should hinge on mental capacity at all.
2. The last issue brings us to a more general observation, which is that Gazzaniga's opinion seems to be heavily influenced by the assumption of normitive states. The fully developed dementia case is not a normative state, but should that fact of its deviation from the norm render it susceptible to a difference in moral status? Even if "some sublime inner state" is unavailable to the Alzheimer's patient, are we justified in regarding them as less
human? Eventually, the question has to be argued back to the point of who ought to be given the power to determine what are and are not the normative states, and how radically different a person must be to fall out of the protection of our ethical standards.
3. At least for the moment, Gazzaniga is right that "research on ageing that seeks eternal life is not the issue." (p. 30) The issue, it seems to me, is the control of life, and along with it, the control of death. Because, the more that evade the circumstances of a natural death, the more we're forced to consider the circumstances under which it is ethical to intentionally end life. What is a good
death? And by extension, what is an unethical life -- that is, when is it unethical to continue living, or stickier still, to allow someone to live?
4. Methodological complaint: is Gazzaniga going to make a habit of justifying his opinions by analogy to inanimate objects? In the last chapter it was Home Depot; in this chapter it's "Nelly" the car. Such analogies function by allowing us to see human subjects as mere objects -- that will presumably allow us to view them without irrational biases -- but doesn't ethics begin by assuming that humans are somehow distinct as a class of objects? There's a serious danger, I think, in confusing the issue with analogies like these.
5. I've brought this point up in the euthanasia poll, but I'll bring it up here again. If society has an obligation to "allow a dignified method for ending life for those with terminal or totally debilitating diseases" (p. 33), shouldn't it also allow suicide under all circumstances? What about physical impairment confers on the desire to die a moral or ethical status that is denied to the otherwise healthy person?
6. Finally, I wanted to raise the question of how Gazzaniga's discussion of intent in the previous chapter plays into his ethical considerations in this chapter. Are they consistent or even compatible? For example, if, neurologically speaking, a senile demential patient could be viewed as equivalent to an early stage of embryonic development, how difficult would it be to rationalize an argument for performing scientific experiments on patients with a certain degree of mental deteriation, with or without a "living will" type declaration?