The bioethics of revenge

Is there a bioethical angle to the killing of Osama bin Laden on Sunday? There is not much scope for analysing targeted assassination in terms of the well-known principles of health care ethics. Justice, giving each his due? Possibly, but who defined what was due? Informed consent? Um, a bit of a problem there. Beneficence? Towards a terrorist? Non-malificence? In war? 

But what if the killing were something that the US government is neurophysiologically programmed to do? Scientific American took this lead and highlighted the evolutionary value of revenge. It interviewed evopsychologist Michael McCullough, of the University of Miami, and author of the 2008 book Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. Dr McCullough believes that revenge is an evolved instinct “designed” to deter others from imposing harms after they have already harmed us. He feels that the killing of Osama could possibly be described as biologically-determined revenge. Whatever it is, it is not “justice”:

"You'll hear people say things that sound right: it's to "balance the scales," or "right a wrong," or "serve justice," but those don't really meet the level of achieving a function that biology cares about."

In the profusion of articles this week, other writers reminded their readers that revenge was, to a certain extent, biologically determined. In the Wall Street Journal, columnist Jonah Lehrer reminded readers that  “we are engineered to get pleasure from punishing those who deserve to be punished”. This claim is supported by a 2004 paper in the journal Science which showed that revenge is literally sweet. Swiss scientists used brain scans to show that revenge activitates a region of the brain called the dorsal striatum which is involved in feelings of enjoyment or satisfaction.

So there you have it. Knocking off Osama bin Laden may not have been an ethical decision at all, but one which was determined by atavistic impulses in the brain more suited for speak-brandishing cave-dwellers than civilised soldiers.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | bioethics, neuroscience, Osama bin Laden

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