Your Brain on Ethics

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Biology 202
2006 Book Commentaries
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Your Brain on Ethics

Claude Heffron

In his book The Ethical Brain, neuroethicist Michael Gazzaniga explores a variety of contemporary topics in neurobiology including the ethical issues of the human life-span, brain enhancement, freewill, personal responsibility, moral beliefs and the legal applications of those subjects. Overall, his views were fairly consistent with my own as well as those discussed in class. I particularly liked the way he explored the legal and societal context within which this scientific evidence functions, rather than just discussing the evidence in isolation. Another notable quality of Gazzaniga's work is his willingness to point out his personal conflict over some of the scientific beliefs he holds.

In the first major section, on defining life and death, Gazzinga frames the moral debate about abortion in more solid scientific terms. He argues that "life" begins when a fetus is about six months old because before this time, it does not have a nervous system that is capable of sustaining itself. Gazzaniga qualifies this statement by expressing doubt about his willingness to apply his definition of life to his own child. I am not certain when a person's "I-function" develops, but it seems that this process would logically correspond with the development of the nervous system, making Gazzaniga's view consistent with our class discussion on life and death. His view cannot be entirely in line with any discussion on this issue because in such a heated debate I don't think a definite conclusion can be drawn about when life starts and ends, but I do think many would agree that awareness is a key component to being defined as a living being. This part of the book reminded me of the example discussed in class about a chicken with its head cut off. The chicken will still run and move around because severing the nervous system removes any inhibitions which might cause it to remain stationary. The chicken is still acting, but to me it is not truly alive because it is not experiencing awareness in the same way that it would were its nervous system intact. Gazzaniga is careful to explain that consciousness or awareness in a baby is certainly different from that of an adult, but he still argues that a nervous system is a prerequisite for being categorized as alive.

Gazzaniga goes on to discuss stem cell research in terms of life and death. He makes a distinction between potential life and a cluster of cells, noting that one cannot confer living status on something just because it could potentially be living. As a result, he believes that stem cells research and cloning are morally acceptable because context is key and "it is the dynamics between genes and environment that make a human being" (Gazzaniga 18), not genetic material alone. This issue did not come up in class, so I can only extrapolate from the discussion of life and death that most people would agree with Gazzaniga here as well. If it is widely believed that "life" does not start until one has some ability to experience the world, it flows logically that any group of cells that is not yet at this stage is not truly alive, and using these cells for constructive purposes is fine in ethical terms. Again, this is my view on the stem cell research controvery as well. I found this section of the book particularly interesting because of its relevance to contemporary debate about abortion and stem cell research. If there were universal agreement on the scientific basis for life and death, the debate would not exist. Furthermore, if the universally agreed upon data was similar to that which Gazzaniga presents, great scientific advances could be made and restrictions on abortion might be lifted.

For lack of space, I am not going to discuss the second section of the book on brain enhancement, and am skipping to the third part entitled "Free Will, Personal Responsibility, and the Law." This was by far my favorite part of the book as it pertained to behavior in legal settings, including criminal behavior, and the behavior of jurors. Gazzaniga draws an interesting distinction between brains and people, describing brains as automatic devices and people as agents who are responsible for their actions. I think this is much like the distinction made in class of the I-function as a separate part of the nervous system, just with different words. The nervous system may carry out certain behaviors spontaneously, but the I-function, the aware human being, is held responsible for said behaviors. Here Gazzaniga emphasizes the complimentary effects of nature and nurture in shaping human behavior, consistent with the class debate over brain equaling behavior, which concluded that both nature and nurture are significant factors influencing human behavior. In his discussion of free will, Gazzaniga's argument again parallels discussion of the I-function when he describes the lapse time between a subject acting and knowing that he is acting as "our brains know our decisions before we become conscious of them" (Gazzaniga 92). On criminal behavior, Gazzaniga notes that many criminals who repeatedly commit violent acts have antisocial personality disorder which influences the structure of the brain, making it different from "normal" brains. I was extremely satisfied to read this because it is consistent with many of my personal beliefs about criminal behavior. He does suggest, however, that in spite of such abnormalities, criminals can choose to inhibit their behavior, but many do not. Gazzaniga's finding that the rate of aggressive behavior among criminals is equal to that of the normal population is a point with which I disagree. Some say that misrepresented accounts of criminal behavior or underreporting are likely to contribute to findings such as this, which I believe skew evidence that could potentially prove vast differences in between the brains of violent criminals and the rest of the population. Gazzaniga does not believe that having a a brain disorder should mean people are not held responsible for their actions. I understand his point here but I feel that it is difficult for people who do not experience brain disorders to draw conclusions about how much people with such abnormalities experience things. The emphasis in this chapter is that brains are predetermined organs, and that people, or the I-function is free to make choices. I agree with this to an extent, but have observed great inconsistencies in how much people claim to and appear to be able to control their own behavior, making this statement questionable for me.

I found this book really interesting and quite consistent with the explanations given for similar phenomenon in class, though Gazzaniga sometimes calls the same things by a different name. I would recommend this book to anyone but particularly to someone who was unlikely to agree with the views represented, such as those pertaining to life and death and criminal behavior. While I really enjoyed reading the book, the fact that my views were so consistent with those represented only caused me to confirm my outlook and did not challenge me to reevaluate it or think of things in different terms. Gazzaniga does an excellent job breaking down complex ideas into manageable units so that anyone who reads The Ethical Brain can get a great deal out of it. It provides really sound evidence to support and expand upon topics we touched upon in class and I found that by reading it I was able to gain a better understanding of the more complex issues we discussed in class than I would have through class discussion alone.

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