[Paleopsych] Slate: William Saletan: Drugstore Cowboys: The strange timidity of liberal bioethics

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William Saletan: Drugstore Cowboys: The strange timidity of liberal 
http://slate.msn.com/id/2116141/ et seq.
Posted Monday, April 4, 2005, at 12:09 AM PT

    Mike Gazzaniga taps a button, and five faces appear on the projection
    screen. Gazzaniga, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics,
    is keynoting a national bioethics convention at the University of
    Pennsylvania. One face on the screen belongs to the council's
    chairman, [23]Leon Kass. Another belongs to the director of Penn's
    Center for Bioethics, [24]Art Caplan. They represent, respectively,
    the conservative and liberal camps of American bioethics, which have
    been swept up in the larger war between Democrats and Republicans. A
    third face on the screen catches my eye: Pope John Paul II. The
    caption asks: "The pope, the rabbi, the scientist, and the
    bioethicist: who do you believe?"

    Four weeks ago, I was at a [25]very different bioethics conference in
    Rome. The speakers and attendees, mostly Catholic and conservative,
    were groping for a way to stop the oncoming train of
    embryo-destructive medical research. Their leader, John Paul, was
    dying of Parkinson's, one of the diseases such research would most
    plausibly have cured. As Gazzaniga speaks in Philadelphia on Friday
    morning, John Paul is in his last hours of life.

    The men onstage in Philadelphia, the liberals of bioethics, believe
    they are the future. They see the age of human self-transformation
    unfolding. Unlike the Luddites in Rome and Washington, they work with
    agencies and companies leading the revolution. Two of the conference's
    five underwriting sponsors are [26]pharmaceutical firms. The speakers
    in Philadelphia know the latest technologies: artificial eyes, memory
    detectors, implants that let you move a cursor just by willing it.
    They're armed with sci-fi icons: Jean-Luc Picard, The Terminator,
    Minority Report. They quote Freud and Lacan. They wear goatees,
    corduroys, funky blazers, designer frames. Some preach drug freedom.
    Others tell sex jokes.

    Gazzaniga, balding with a white fringe, is no hipster. But his
    proposal is brilliantly audacious: to turn bioethics inside out. Kass,
    the pope, and President Bush have been trying to restrict
    embryo-destructive research based on their versions of the ethics of
    biology. Gazzaniga wants to trump them with the biology of ethics. He
    clicks through studies and brain scans showing what he calls
    "emotional interference in moral reasoning." Unlike the chimp brain,
    the human brain is constantly "trying to figure out life's pattern,"
    he says. We rebel impulsively against harm to another person or to a
    fetus that looks like a baby. Only afterward do we "develop a theory"
    that translates that impulse into a principle. The independence of the
    principle is an illusion.

    Half an hour later, Greg Pence, a sleepy-eyed philosopher from the
    University of Alabama, administers a 15-minute bitch-slap to biotech
    critics. All medical progress has been opposed by religion, he says,
    and all opposition to biotechnology is religious. Anyone who denies
    this is just covering it up. All that crap about nature and
    authenticity is a ruse to control other people, and anyone who gives
    in to it is a sissy. We're "becoming bioethics wimps," he tells the
    assembled students. We've lost the "courage" to experiment on
    ourselves and make better babies.

    Something about Pence's tough-guy act sets off my B.S. detector. He
    says once you realize that human enhancement isn't intrinsically evil,
    "all the other questions are just how-to questions"--who goes first,
    who decides, how to do it safely, how to fund it. It's all just
    "calculation and adjustment," he says. Where's the courage in that? It
    sounds like accounting. In Pence's world, courage is for scientists.
    The bioethicists are the wimps. This becomes the pattern of the
    morning: To many of the liberals, bioethics is all about what we can't
    do. We can't draw lines between therapy and enhancement. We can't
    restrict a new technology, because we've already accepted an old
    technology it resembles. We can't defy scientists and industry,
    because they won't take us seriously. John Paul stood up to communism.
    These guys won't even stand up to Merck.

    Gazzaniga's argument would completely neuter the field. If biology
    explains ethics, how can ethics judge manipulations of biology?
    Gazzaniga thinks rules will remain: "It is not a good idea to kill
    because it is not a good idea to kill," he says. But what happens when
    the military figures out how to adjust brain chemistry so that
    soldiers think it is a good idea to kill? Change the biology, and
    you've changed the ethics. Gazzaniga says studies show a global
    consensus on right and wrong. But in the same speech, he ridicules the
    belief that an early human embryo is sacred. That belief is the basis
    on which Bush has restricted funding of embryonic stem cell research.
    Is it a product of Bush's biology? If so, how can Gazzaniga complain?
    And why should we care whether Gazzaniga's morality--his
    brain--differs from Bush's?

    I saw fiercer arguments among priests in Rome than I see here among
    the pluralists. On the screen, Gazzaniga projects a photo of Colin
    Powell next to a white dot representing an early embryo. He derides
    the idea that anyone could morally equate the dot with the person. He
    calls the dot a "hunk of cells" and says he'd be happy to harvest
    them. What about the embryo's potential to become a person? Gazzaniga
    shrugs that a Home Depot has the potential to make 30 houses, but if a
    Home Depot burns down, it isn't as though 30 houses have burned down.
    Nobody in the room challenges these superficial arguments and
    question-begging analogies.

    Not all the speakers march in lock step. Anjan Chatterjee, a shy
    Indian-American neurologist, warns that our winner-takes-all society
    is driving a culture of Ritalin and amphetamines that enables
    overwork, ruins mental and physical health, and will eventually force
    everyone to pop pills. But he sighs, "I don't have the imagination to
    think of a way that this is not going to happen." Like other liberal
    worriers, he speaks from doubt, not faith. Unsure of what must be, he
    is overwhelmed by what is.

    My favorite speaker, sociologist Paul Wolpe[29]*, comes off like a
    linebacker from Brooklyn. He's got a broad mind fortified by a very
    American confidence. He points out that biotech is shaking up
    political alignments: Some pro-lifers support embryonic stem cell
    research; some pro-choicers opposed the removal of Terri Schiavo's
    feeding tube. He explains conservative objections to brain
    enhancement: social modeling, the erosion of the work ethic, the
    evasion of deep problems through symptom relief. But Wolpe seems
    paralyzed by what he sees as America's commitment to individualism.
    You can express a bioethical viewpoint, but you can't impose it on
    others, he says. Why not? That's "the way we've decided" to treat
    moral questions, he says. How odd: a liberal straitjacket based on the
    authority of tradition.

    The morning wraps up, and we're off to a luncheon speech by Penn's
    president, Amy Gutmann. She sits down at my table and notices a book
    lying across from her. It's Gazzaniga's. She jots down its title:
    [30]The Ethical Brain. Proceeding to the podium, she alludes to the
    book with cocktail-party familiarity, says she's looking forward to
    reading it, and reflects on its implications. Her speech is about
    "sound-bite democracy," which she blames on blogs and mass media
    "polluting our public discourse." This she contrasts with the wise,
    careful "deliberative democracy" of "places like this." Gutmann
    repeats the buzzwords: blogs, mass media, wise, careful, deliberative.
    Her favorite sound bite is "sound bite." The professors and students
    applaud as she exits with a young man in a suit. A Penn official tells
    me excitedly who the young man is: Gutmann's speechwriter.

    Correction, April 5: This article originally said Paul Wolpe was a
    psychiatrist. According to the University of Pennsylvania [32]Web
    site, Wolpe is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and directs
    the Program in Psychiatry and Ethics at Penn's School of Medicine.
    However, he is not a psychiatrist. He is a sociologist. [33]Return to
    the corrected sentence.

    William Saletan is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of
    [34]Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War.
    posted April 11, 2005
    William Saletan

    [37]Natural-Born Killers
    Biotechnology and the unpleasant alternatives.
    posted April 4, 2005
    William Saletan

    [38]Drugstore Cowboys
    The strange timidity of liberal bioethics.
    posted April 4, 2005
    William Saletan

    [39]Deathbed Conversion
    The lesson of Tom DeLay's mortal hypocrisy.
    posted March 28, 2005
    William Saletan

    [40]Se Habla B.S.?
    The White House lies about Latinos and Social Security.
    posted March 24, 2005
    William Saletan


   23. http://www.bioethics.gov/about/kass.html
   24. http://bioethics.upenn.edu/people/?last=Caplan&first=Arthur
   25. http://slate.msn.com/id/2114733/
   26. http://www.bioethics.upenn.edu/nubc/sponsors.html
   27. http://slate.msn.com/id/2116141/#ContinueArticle
   28. http://ad.doubleclick.net/jump/slate.technology/slate;kw=slate;sz=300x250;ord=1234?
   29. http://slate.msn.com/id/2116141/#correct
   30. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/hfs.cgi/00/155926.ctl
   31. http://slate.msn.com/id/2116144/
   32. http://bioethics.upenn.edu/people/?last=Wolpe&first=Paul
   33. http://slate.msn.com/id/2116141/#my
   34. http://www.bearingright.com/
   35. http://slate.msn.com/
   36. http://slate.msn.com/id/2116333/
   37. http://slate.msn.com/id/2116144/
   38. http://slate.msn.com/id/2116141/
   39. http://slate.msn.com/id/2115879/
   40. http://slate.msn.com/id/2115261/


Natural-Born Killers - Biotechnology and the unpleasant alternatives. By 
William Saletan
Posted Monday, April 4, 2005, at 8:35 AM PT

    This is the second dispatch of a two-part series. To read the first
    dispatch, click [23]here.

    Friday afternoon's portion of the [24]bioethics conference at the
    University of Pennsylvania begins with a panel discussion moderated by
    Art Caplan, the gregarious director of Penn's Center for Bioethics.
    The participants repeat complaints we heard at lunch from Penn's
    president, Amy Gutmann, about the media's sound-bite culture. The
    panel is a self-caricature of academic diversity: both genders, two
    colors, several religions, a range of ages, one basic outlook. When
    Caplan asks about taking brain-enhancing drugs before a college exam,
    nobody at the table objects in principle.

    The conference breaks into smaller groups, and I head upstairs to hear
    a talk on cyborg technologies by Paul Wolpe, one of this morning's
    speakers. At first, Wolpe seems trapped in the liberal echo chamber.
    He cites the Terri Schiavo case as evidence of the power of illogic.
    People who opposed the removal of her feeding tube "were
    extraordinarily emotional," he says, whereas "the people who were for
    letting her make the decision, they were completely calm." But Wolpe,
    the son of a rabbi, recognizes the dogmas of his colleagues. He
    repudiates as an "incredible oversimplification" this morning's speech
    by philosopher Greg Pence dismissing moral objections to the
    alteration of humanity. Wolpe marvels at the prospect, through
    brain-wave monitors, of mind-to-mind communication between humans.
    Until now, such communication has occurred only between man and God,
    he tells the students. It's called prayer.

    An hour later, we board buses to hear Caplan's evening keynote lecture
    in a gorgeous wood-paneled [27]hall at Philadelphia's [28]College of
    Physicians. Caplan is incensed by Holocaust analogies in the Schiavo
    case. There's no comparison, he says. The gravest error of Nazi
    doctors in the concentration camps was rationalizing that "you can
    always sacrifice the few for the many." The Nazis thought some people
    posed intolerable economic burdens. "Those aren't factors that get
    much into American bioethical debates," he says. My eyebrows go up. In
    the Schiavo case, he continues, "Nobody has seriously proposed we
    should pull her feeding tube because she's a burden on the economic
    viability of the United States." Nobody? I've heard comments in that
    direction from two people at my own magazine.

    Caplan draws a wise lesson from the Nazi doctors: Beware the human
    weakness for moral rationalization. But part of that weakness is the
    illusion in each of us that we have escaped it. Caplan, for instance,
    is a utilitarian. In medical experiments under certain conditions,
    he's willing to sacrifice the few for the many. He thinks this
    philosophy is insulated from the Nazi-doctor mentality by a
    requirement of consent from those whose lives are risked. I think of
    the priests I met four weeks ago at a [29]bioethics conference in
    Rome. They would ask how many embryos consented to be destroyed for
    their stem cells, and how many fetuses for their tissue. But none of
    those priests is in this room. The only tough question comes from a
    student who wonders how the growing use of genetic tests to weed out
    marginally defective in vitro embryos differs from what the Nazis did.
    German eugenics was "government-based and coerced," Caplan explains.
    "We have a kind of eugenics, but it's individual choice." That doesn't
    make it right, he tells the student. "But that's what makes it

    Caplan, like Wolpe, strikes me as a mensch. As a fellow Jew, I trust
    him to take his own life before he'd do what the Nazi doctors did. But
    I don't trust utilitarianism, and this is what rattles me about many
    liberal bioethicists: They fear absolutism so much that they don't see
    its opposite, utilitarianism, as another ideology. They think
    subjecting everything to cost-benefit analysis is just common sense. I
    don't think an embryo is a person, but when I read about healthy
    embryos being weeded out by genetic tests just because they can't
    provide tissue for transplants or because they carry an unexpressed
    gene for deafness, I wonder where the hell we're going--and whether
    anyone other than the absolutists is paying attention.

    Just as I'm about to close my laptop and head back to Washington,
    Wolpe steps to the podium, and the lights dim. Up on the projection
    screen, horrifying images appear, one after the other. They aren't the
    work of the concentration camps. They're the work of nature, preserved
    downstairs in the College's [30]Mutter Museum. A two-headed fetus. A
    one-headed fetus with two bodies. "They are not excused; they are not
    explained. They are simply for you to see," Wolpe tells the students.
    This is the reality we can't stand to look at, he says--"the way our
    own embodiment can be perverted by nature."

    I head downstairs. There they are, suspended in jars in glass cases.
    Two fetuses wrapped in a hug that became a double-faced head. Another
    pair locked in a kiss that swallowed both faces. A twisted little
    mermaid whose abdomen disappears into a stump. Collapsed half-heads.
    Noses protruding where eyes should have been. A child's skeleton with
    a skull three times too big. They didn't all die in the womb.

    I think of John Paul II, riddled with Parkinson's and fever, a tube
    through his nose. A giant of history crumpled into a speechless form
    waiting to die. He told us to respect nature and human dignity. I wish
    I could respect what nature did to him. I wish I could see the human
    dignity in these jars. But I can't. I wrestle with the biotech
    liberals because I'm one of them. Nature can't always guide us. We
    will have to guide ourselves.

    William Saletan is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of
    [31]Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War.

    [34]People Watching
    News from the science and technology of humans.
    posted April 12, 2005
    William Saletan

    [35]Natural-Born Killers
    Biotechnology and the unpleasant alternatives.
    posted April 4, 2005
    William Saletan

    [36]Drugstore Cowboys
    The strange timidity of liberal bioethics.
    posted April 4, 2005
    William Saletan

    [37]Deathbed Conversion
    The lesson of Tom DeLay's mortal hypocrisy.
    posted March 28, 2005
    William Saletan

    Search for more [38]Human Nature in our archive.


   23. http://slate.msn.com/id/2116141/
   24. http://www.bioethics.upenn.edu/nubc/
   25. http://slate.msn.com/id/2116144/#ContinueArticle
   26. http://ad.doubleclick.net/jump/slate.homepage/slate;kw=slate;sz=300x250;ord=1234?
   27. http://www.collphyphil.org/virt_tour/rental_9.htm
   28. http://www.collphyphil.org/
   29. http://slate.msn.com/id/2114733/
   30. http://www.collphyphil.org/virt_tour/museum_8.htm
   31. http://www.bearingright.com/
   32. http://slate.msn.com/
   33. http://slate.msn.com/id/2116672/
   34. http://slate.msn.com/id/2116333/
   35. http://slate.msn.com/id/2116144/
   36. http://slate.msn.com/id/2116141/
   37. http://slate.msn.com/id/2115879/
   38. http://slate.msn.com/?id=3944&cp=2100253

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