What happened to the old science of morality?


Hi there,

Just one month ago, the Edge Foundation sponsored a fascinating seminar on “the new science of morality”. The big names of neuro-morality attended, including Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, and Marc Hauser. Reporters from leading newspapers came as well and spread the word.

One of these luminaries, Marc Hauser, led a symposium on how thinking about morality as an evolved system of neurological rules could be used to make the world a better place, make governments work better, improve corporate governance, law, the internet, and so on.

Unfortunately, as we report below, Marc Hauser is now caught up in his own moral conundrum. His employer, Harvard University, has admitted that he was guilty of eight instances of academic misconduct. The nature of these offences is not altogether clear, but they seem to involve faking data for his work on animal cognition.

Speaking personally, I have always had reservations about neuro-morality. Reducing ethics to genetics and neurology eliminates free will and radically changes the nature of what it means to be human.

Academic misconduct is not exactly a hanging offence. However, if Hauser’s new science is true, rational morality consists of following arbitrary social conventions. It is a bit unsettling to learn that a prophet of an ethical revolution has been ignoring the fairly basic conventions of academic research. It will be interesting to see how the new science of morality develops from here.

Cheers,

Michael Cook
Editor

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a fool-proof test for Alzheimer’s


Hi there,

Earlier this week researchers announced in the Archives of Neurology that a spinal fluid test can provide an Alzheimer’s prognosis which is 100% accurate. The reputation of spinal taps is only marginally better than appendicectomies without anaesthetic, but experts say that they are safe and not especially painful. In fact, when drugs are developed to slow or cure Alzheimer’s they foresee that brain scans or spinal taps will be as routine as colonoscopies or mammograms.

I wonder how ageing baby boomers will react to this news when they’ve had a chance to absorb it? They are certainly interested. I noticed that the New York Times report rocketed to the top of the “most read” articles on its site.

Will people with a positive diagnosis feel pressured to take an early flight into the Great Beyond before they become too burdensome for their families? Fanciful? I don’t think so. At the moment, well over 90% of pregnant women who test positive for Down syndrome terminate their child. If they fear that life with a disabled child will be purgatory, what about life with a parent disabled by Alzheimer’s?

Is a new era about to begin? Leave your comments.

Cheers,

Michael Cook
Editor

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Making compulsory euthanasia look good


Hi there,

Way down at the bottom of the newsletter is a brief article from Australia. It’s a YouTube clip from “The Gruen Transfer”, a popular TV show about the world of advertising agencies. One of its features is “The Pitch” in which two agencies compete to create ad for unsellable products. In the past these have included whale meat, tourism in Baghdad, an invasion of New Zealand, bottled urine, child labour, housing built in the shadow of a nuclear reactor and so on. You get the idea: good taste and deference to conventional pieties are not high on the producers’ shopping list.

Recently “The Pitch” featured two advertisements for compulsory euthanasia. The agencies came up with two slogans: “Compulsory euthanasia at 80. The issue is very much alive” and “Australasia for euthanasia: let’s all go by 80”. The amazing thing was how persuasive they were. They pulled at the heartstrings and just for a moment made me feel that popping a Peaceful Pill was the decent thing to do.

Check them out.

Cheers,
Michael Cook
Editor

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the new science of morality


Hi there,

One area that we would like to cover more thoroughly in BioEdge is how some bioethicists are adapting their ethics to scientific developments. For thousands of years, it has been thought that some actions, like murder or adultery, were inherently bad. Now the new field of evolutionary psychology has “discovered” that good and evil are written into our genetic code and evolutionary history.

Obviously this upsets the applecart of religion, but not only that. A growing number of people – the transhumanists -- believe that their destiny is to transcend evolution. Presumably, then, they would transcend outmoded morality, too. From what I have read of the theorists of neuroethics, we can look forward to revolutionary proposals in bioethics.

Is this something to look forward to? Or to dread? Leave your comments on this week’s article about a conference on the new science of morality.

Cheers,
Michael Cook
Editor

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Barbarous anatomy classes


Hi there,

There is an argument to be made that contemporary bioethics grew out of the ashes of the Nazi regime. A number of Nazi doctors who collaborated in the atrocities in concentration camps were executed. But others, less well known, used Nazi inhumanity to advance their research agenda. 

An article in a recent issue of the journal Science highlights the use anatomists in Germany and Austria made of executed political prisoners in teaching and research. (See article below). Dr Hermann Stieve, for instance, was a famous professor at the University of Berlin and the Berlin Charité Hospital. He took advantage of the executions to study the female reproductive system, showing a barbaric indifference to the prisoners’ humanity. “What the best and brightest did was see the imprisonment and beheading of human beings as opportunities,” observes a scholar who has studied Stieve’s career.

There is always a great danger of misusing analogies with the Nazis. In many ways their corruption and depravity were unique. But human nature doesn’t change and doctors today still face temptations to objectify patients, to dismiss patient consent, and to place achievement above ethics. “Never forget” is advice bioethicists should take to heart as well.

Michael Cook
Editor

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When living wills won’t do


June 17, 2010 

Hi there,

The lead story in today’s newsletter is quite startling. A British man who became a quadriplegic in a motorcycle accident appeared to be in a permanent vegetative state. But then doctors discovered that he was fully conscious, evn though he was only able to communicate with his eyes. “I'm glad he's alive and didn't make a living will,” says his father.

The BBC has made a documentary about this. We have posted a link to a YouTube video with the first half of the program. Check it out.

You will have to go to the website to see the video. While you are there, become a Facebook “fan” of BioEdge. We’ve found that this is an effective way of promoting the website and getting other readers. We appreciate your help.

Cheers,

Michael Cook

Editor

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Helpful hints in the healthcare rationing debate


July 9, 2010 

Hi there,

One of the really cool things about being a journalist is that you need not actually know very much. You just report what other people said and did in a more or less colourful way. In fact, as a famous British war correspondent once pointed out, “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” and “tout pardonner” makes dull copy.

Of course, one needs to comprehend something, especially in bioethics, where some -- all actually -- of the issues are so thorny and controversial. But I frankly confess to being baffled by the angry American debate over healthcare rationing. Is it being thrifty or is it violating human rights?

I am grateful to Jacob M. Appel, who writes for a sterling bioethical journal called The Huffington Post, for enlightening me. In a recent contribution he makes the argument for rationing in the starkest possible terms: let’s unplug patients in a permanent vegetative state. Caring for them costs too much. (See below.)

When it is framed in such black and white terms, it is not difficult for me to make up my mind – at least at the outer margins of the debate. I doubt that the Obama Administration will be using Mr Appel as a consultant, but at least I now see what is at stake. So thanks, Jacob.

What do you think? Make a comment.

Cheers,

Michael Cook

Editor

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Can we please have our laws back?


Hi there,

I hope that you will be generous enough to allow me to indulge one of my pet peeves. Until 2008, for several years, there were fierce debates in the UK, the US, Australia and elsewhere about the morality of research on human embryos.

Eminent scientists around the world appeared on the media and before parliamentary committees demanding funding for their research into human embryonic stem cells. Without it, they declared, sick children will die. Squelch your ethical qualms about destroying human embryos and we will deliver cures and miracle drugs. Most governments listened. They changed the laws.

What has happened? An interview with Harvard scientist George Q. Daley in the latest issue of Nature Medicine gives some insight. In 2007, scientists discovered a new way of creating cells which were functionally equivalent to embryonic stem cells. It was ethically non-controversial because it destroyed no embryos. Within weeks Daley and many others abandoned their embryos and set to work on induced pluripotent stem cells. But the laws still allow them to destroy those embryos.

In other words, governments and the public were scammed. They traded convictions for cures and they lost both. The anguish and desperation were just bargaining chips. I feel that stem cell scientists owe us an apology.

What do you think?

Cheers,

Michael Cook

Editor

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India’s looming commercial surrogacy


Hi there!

One reason to keep tabs on developments in bioethics in the UK, the US and Australia is that arguments which convince us are recycled and used in places like India, Thailand and Singapore. These countries have high-quality medical technology, but unsophisticated bioethics. As a consequence they tend to adopt a utilitarian ethic without a robust debate informed by a more metaphysical tradition and by respect for human rights.

One example of this is a bill being considered by India’s parliament which will legalise commercial surrogacy. The groundwork was laid by a report written by the India Law Commission last year. It was fairly sketchy and very liberal. But the bill ignored its key point – that surrogacy should not be commercialised. If the bill passes in its present form, poor Indian women will be exploited as wombs for hire. The provisions of the bill which protect the rights of these unfortunate women do not inspire confidence.

Judging from comments from Indian IVF clinics, commercial surrogacy will be a bonanza for them. A world-wide market for surrogate mothers, especially for gay couples, is opening up as adoption becomes more and more difficult and they expect many clients. It is hard to describe this as anything other than contemptible colonialism.

I wish bioethicists elsewhere would give this dangerous and ill-conceived legislation a big raspberry.

Cheers,
Michael Cook
Editor

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A bioethical telenovela from Argentina


June 18, 2010 

Hi there!

I realise quite keenly and lament the fact that BioEdge’s coverage of the world of bioethics is biased towards the English-speaking world. I have a smattering of other languages, but it is impossible to scan the media in Czech, or Danish, or Chinese. So, help! If you feel that something is worth reporting outside of the Anglosphere, please pass it on.

At least we managed to pick up a fascinating story from Argentina which mixes power politics, media magnates, a billion-dollar inheritance, human rights, dark secrets and genetic testing. The adopted heirs of a leading Argentine leading media group have been forced to give DNA samples to see if they are the children of los desaparecidos, victims of the military junta which executed left-wing foes and adopted out their babies.

Should they be forced by a specially-tailored law to know the truth about themselves, especially since their obscure origin may have nothing to do with los desaparecidos? Lots of room for discussion here – and for a film script.

Cheers,
Michael Cook
Editor

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