Re: Ch. 1 - Conferring Moral Status on an Embryo
First: my reactions to chapter 1; then, some response to Chris.
1. I was mildly disappointed at the way in which Gazzaniga approaches the actual ethical issues themselves. I have two general qualms, and I hope that they're not characteristic of the whole book. The first is his tendency to simply give his opinion without really fleshing out the reasons he settled on that opinion. The bulk of the chapter is devoted to fleshing out the problems, which I can appreciate, and while he was up front in the preface that he wouldn't always have answers, that isn't what's happening here. He's giving answers to the questions -- at least those posed so far -- but he makes almost no attempt to let the outsider see inside those answers. That may not be a problem is you already agree with his opinion, but it doesn't leave much room for debate. The second qualm is that he falls back a great deal on what he assumes to be common sense. When he says that "we all seem to be in general agreement," he implies that general agreement is sufficient to stand in the place of ethical analysis; when he says that something is "patently absurd," he assumes that we know why. But in dealing with the moral status of embryos, he's broaching a subject in which a great many people don't
see how certain assumptions are "patently absurd," and it seems to me that there's no way out of the conflict until both sides of the dispute can agree on the basic terms.
2. Just about any ethical question, and particularly that of when to confer moral status, depends on a question that Gazzaniga hasn't yet addressed: that of what aspect of humanity warrants moral status. This is, at root, a question of value, and I don't see much consideration of value in Gazzaniga's analysis. It seems to me that this may be the result of the misperception that we all basically agree on what's important, and Gazzaniga may feel that he can leave the basic values unspoken on the assumption that we all know what they are. But, for example, with the potentiality argument, there may be the assumption that human value lies in, say, social value, such that the potential of an embryo to become a contributing part of society underlies the whole argument. The continuity argument may, for some, arise from seeing human value as a function of the soul, and telling such people that there is no evidence for a soul is less likely to change their minds than it is to convince them that humans aren't really worth so much after all. Without determining what makes humanity valuable -- and therefore, worth defending -- no ethical determination is possible.
3. There is a likely example of the naturalistic fallacy in chapter 1: it occurs when Gazzaniga writes, "So if we use IVF to create embryos and then implant only a select few, aren't we doing what nature does?" This seems intended to excuse IVF by saying that, because it happens in nature, it cannot be wrong. But nature is not an ethical construct -- the basic assumption of ethics is that we do not naturally act as we ought, and that we have to examine our conduct in order to determine the best way to behave. After all, nature gives us all sorts of examples of cannibalism, incest, infanticide, and so on, but we do not assume a priori
their ethical worth.
4. Gazzaniga raises the interesting question of intent, but I think he deals with it too simplisitically. He assumes, for one thing, that intent is a widely accepted ethical foundation. That isn't true -- there are ethical thinkers and cultures who say that the ethical value of any given outcome is distinct from the intent that drove it, such that the accidental death of a person is just a bad as if that person had been murdered, judged in itself. Gazzaniga' reference to the legal system isn't terribly useful, I'd say, for the same reason that his appeal isn't terribly useful -- the legal system may have some significant ethical parallels, but it is not, itself, constructed to produce ethics. In the matter of conferring moral status, intent is problematic at least in that there are so many normal pregnancies which are, in fact, unintentional -- intent is only of so much use in pregnancy, and it not necessarily the normative state.
5. Getting to the crux of Gazzaniga's intent argument, he writes, "Does a clump of cells take on a different character if I have no intention ever to let it develop?" His answer, somewhat frustratingly, is simply, "I think not." But I think an analogy will illustrate that his answer isn't necessarily as obvious as it seems to be -- we assign characters based on intent all the time, and Gazzaniga hasn't yet offered a reason why we shouldn't premise ethical decisions on those characters. For example, imagine that an organization earmarks a certain sum of money to purchase medicines for sick people who might otherwise have no access to treatment. Now imagine that the president of the organization, who is totally within his legal
rights, routes that money to another project -- for clarity's sake, let's say to the construction of a casino. It seems to me that most people would say that the change in plans is unethical -- if not acutely so, then at least generally. Nor does it seem likely to me that Gazzaniga would stick to his negation in were the point pressed -- after all, he has motioned towards the "greater good" argument that underlies a great deal of scientific research. Stem cell research stands to help a great many people -- I doubt that Gazzaniga would say that the intent to use stem cells to produce cancer treatments, say, is without ethical content.