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Ethical Brain: Chapter 1 
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Post Ethical Brain: Chapter 1
This thread is for discussing Ch. 1 - Conferring Moral Status on an Embryo. You can post within this framework or create your own threads. ::122

Edited by: Chris OConnor  at: 11/1/05 12:31 am



Fri Sep 30, 2005 3:45 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - Conferring Moral Status on an Embryo
To me this chapter deals with something that has frustrated me endlessly. Most people seem to want to believe everything is black and white, right or wrong, good or bad, positive or negative. Well this just isn't the case in the real world.

Usually it is the fundamentalist Christian that argues for binary options. They tend to insist on the all-or-nothing position. From what I've seen of Gazzaniga's book, he will be pulling the carpet right out from under these peoples feet. Life is full of gray areas where we have to think quickly and critically and even then we never really know if we made the best decision.

The Bible, and specifically the 10 Commandments, spells out the rules of the game. Killing is always wrong. But then the author gives an example of how a mother might have to suffocate and kill her own baby in order to cease the babies crying. If she allows the baby to cry the Nazi's, who are fast approaching, will hear the baby and come and shoot the entire family that is in hiding.

How does God allow for such scenarios? Are there Amendments to the 10 Commandments when things get tricky? Again, life is full of gray areas and we all have to try to clear our minds of dogma, wipe the slate clean, and make sound decisions based on empirical evidence.




Tue Oct 04, 2005 12:04 am
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Post 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.




Fri Oct 07, 2005 1:53 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - Conferring Moral Status on an Embryo
Chris OConnor: Usually it is the fundamentalist Christian that argues for binary options.

Sigh. Always back to religion.

But then the author gives an example of how a mother might have to suffocate and kill her own baby in order to cease the babies crying. If she allows the baby to cry the Nazi's, who are fast approaching, will hear the baby and come and shoot the entire family that is in hiding.

I don't know of very many fundamentalist Christians who would argue that the ethical response to this question is black and white. In fact, I think that most of them would eventually come to the same conclusion that I have -- that even if a greater good is served by smothering the baby, it's still wrong to do so. That doesn't mean that I or anyone else would advise that you let everyone be shot by the Nazis, but you can disapprove of an act and still say that it's the best practical course of action.

In fact, I'd say that you're more likely to find inaction advised by straightforward philosophical ethicists. Kant, for instance, would likely say that if it's ever wrong to kill an infant, then it's wrong in that situation as well, and should be avoided, even if it subjects others to evil. And as long as we treat ethics as a purely individual decision, then Kant is likely right -- the evil that faces the family in hiding is not the direct result of the mother's decision to allow her child to live, but rather the result of the decisions of the approaching Nazis.

How does God allow for such scenarios?

What do you really hope to achieve by asking that question? Either everyone will agree, or you'll raise another one of those arguments that serves almost no purpose but to piss people off (mostly you and Mr. P).

Again, life is full of gray areas and we all have to try to clear our minds of dogma, wipe the slate clean, and make sound decisions based on empirical evidence.

Wiping away dogma is a good idea, but you can't make ethical decisions on empirical evidence alone. Value always plays a role, and value is not an explicitly rational basis for anything.




Fri Oct 07, 2005 2:00 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - Conferring Moral Status on an Embryo
Mad

Quote:
Sigh. Always back to religion.
This is a freethinker community. This entire chapter is indirectly about religion.

Chris

Edited by: Chris OConnor  at: 10/9/05 10:33 pm



Fri Oct 07, 2005 3:11 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - Conferring Moral Status on an Embryo
A quick note for everyone involved in this discussion. Please, let's keep this civil and on topic. The posts I just deleted shouldn't exist anywhere in this community, but especially not in a book forum. Common sense tells us why this isn't in our best interest.

Chris




Sun Oct 09, 2005 9:36 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - Conferring Moral Status on an Embryo
Oooh...I wonder what I missed after my post...

Maybe we are all fortunate I indeed missed it...

Mr. P.

The one thing of which I am positive is that there is much of which to be negative - Mr. P.

The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart...Scorsese's "Mean Streets"

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Post Re: Ch. 1 - Conferring Moral Status on an Embryo
Quote:
MadArchitect: Sigh. Always back to religion.


Not only is religion relevant in this discussion, but the author himself has pointed to religion on a few occasions already. Mentioning the different beliefs he had as a Catholic with that of a Protestant next door, religious beliefs being the hardest to change, and some religious viewpoints of the continuity argument.

Edited by: GOD defiles Reason at: 10/10/05 9:05 am



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Post Re: Ch. 1 - Conferring Moral Status on an Embryo
GdR, under other circumstances, it wouldn't bother me that religion came up so quickly in this discussion. And I would be glad to discuss that topic on most occasions. I've discussed religion to no end on this forum, and would have continued to discuss it with the same regularity if my forays into that topic hadn't been met with criticism recently. If the others in this forum are willing to reopen that can of worms, that's fine by me, but it doesn't always seem to me that their posts are fully in line with what they claim to want for this forum.

(That, incidentally, is one reason that I was none too excited about the five nominations we were given to vote on. They all had very obvious inroads into religious debate, and I had thought it fairly unanimous that we wanted to take a break from religious topics. That doesn't seem to be the case.)

As it stands, I've provided at least five comments that would allow us to look at this topic from a secular point of view -- a point of view that I would think would seem particularly attractive to a community built around the idea of looking at books from a non-religious point of view. So we can bat around the minimal religious implications in this chapter all day if you guys would like, or we can move on and discuss it from the point of view of a secular ethics.




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Post Re: Ch. 1 - Conferring Moral Status on an Embryo
So, not only do we have a theist in an atheist community going around shooting down ideas that would advance Secular Humanism, AND takes every oportunity to try to prevent atheist from talking about religion, but also one who moves into the current book discussion forum to use those same tactics to dominate the dialogue here.

You KNOW this author is directly refering to irrational religious beliefs in the preface of this book. And he's continuing that premise in the 1st chapter (along with atheists and agnostics). To say otherwise would be deliberately dishonest.

And for someone to initiate a Bible study thread in an atheist community and then say that he is reluctant to talk about religion is also deliberate dishonesty.




Mon Oct 10, 2005 11:23 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - Conferring Moral Status on an Embryo
Interesting observations GDR!

:)

Mr. P.

The one thing of which I am positive is that there is much of which to be negative - Mr. P.

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Post Re: Ethical Brain: Chapter 1
Was anyone else surprised at that idea that most contries have similar definitions of brain death? I would have thought that there would have been some religious/cultural differences between societies.




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Post Re: Ch. 1 - Conferring Moral Status on an Embryo
Mad - 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.

Thank you! I struggled with this chapter and how to articulate what I didn't like about it. I had the same idea, but my margin notes are not nearly as articulate and what you have written above. you have really hit the nail on the head.




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Post bickering
I agree with tarav here. Bickering is boring. Everyone has a right to their point of view, and there's no need to bash theists *or* atheists.

Michael




Thu Dec 01, 2005 10:15 pm
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