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The Ethical BrainReview - The Ethical Brain
by Michael S. Gazzaniga
Dana Press, 2005
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D.
Aug 22nd 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 34)

In The Ethical Brain, Michael S. Gazzaniga teaches us something about making informed decisions in settings where our personal sense of right and wrong does not seem to provide an unequivocal answer. The guiding theme of his book is what Gazzaniga calls Neuroethics, the notion that knowledge of the brain's functioning and organizational structure can ground our views of controversial issues as well as inform our decisions on the appropriate course of action. In defining Neuroethics, Gazzaniga presents readers with timely and important issues, explores the multifaceted claims that render them controversial, and applies his training in neuroscience to craft a solution that is based on scientific evidence and reason rather than dogma. If knowledge of neuroscience cannot assist him in formulating a reasonable answer, he draws attention to what he considers to be the limitations (either current or long-standing) of such knowledge. Even when he has an answer, Gazzaniga is always respectful of all points of view. In doing so, he highlights another interesting theme of this book, which is its recognition that ethical matters are generally multi-layered, they have divisive ramifications and, often, there are no universally satisfactory or pleasing answers for the dilemmas they pose.

Among the issues that Gazzaniga selects for his intellectual explorations are those that involve the determination of the beginning and end of human life, the consequences of genetic engineering for individuals and societies, the disagreement between deterministic and free-will accounts of human actions, and the potential conflict between the use of brain-imaging techniques and individuals' right to privacy. Gazzaniga translates each issue into questions which go to the core of the debate. For instance, with respect to our objective ability to determine the beginning and end of human life, he asks the following: When should we consider an embryo or a fetus to be a human being? In the aging brain, can we clearly differentiate between loss of cognitive functioning and absence of consciousness? Is the end of consciousness in persons afflicted by dementia a valid parameter for ending lifesaving treatments? He then considers whether neuroscience can help answer some of these questions. Here Gazzaniga is very skillful at ruling out doomsday scenarios manufactured to limit useful scientific research.

Not surprisingly, readers who expect Gazzaniga to provide an answer to each of the selected conundrums will be unhappy with the book. On the other hand, readers who are looking for ways in which they can enrich their understanding of controversial issues will be captivated by the reading. For the latter audience, there may be a sense that the discussion provided for each dilemma is no more than a quick examination of the surface of an ocean of ideas and facts. Yet, this is consistent with the overall goal of the book, which is not to indoctrinate, but to unfold the layers of thought behind controversial issues. The Ethical Brain makes readers ponder ideas that they may have encountered in the media or in other settings, and it gives them the opportunity to decide for themselves. What is truly intriguing about the book is that it provides readers a window into the thinking of a respected neuroscientist who is sincerely concerned with finding fair solutions to ethical problems. Fairness is not an elusive concept here. It simply refers to solutions that not are built on dogmas but on the unbiased fruits of scientific labor. As such, the book can be thought of as a springboard for readers' in-depth explorations of some issues that they may find particularly captivating or simply close to home.

Among the many issues selected by Gazzaniga, the chapter devoted to the dilemma of whether societies should permit genetic engineering of offspring is a paradigmatic example of his scientifically grounded argumentation. As soon as he asks this question, he acknowledges two aspects of the dilemma it poses that are frequently ignored by the general public: Is there a feasible way of identifying genes connected to complex forms of cognition and behavior? For instance, can "intelligence genes" be found? If so, are "intelligence genes" sufficiently good predictors of the cognition and behavior of grown-up individuals? Gazzaniga argues that the preceding questions must receive a positive answer before one can ask whether parents should be allowed to select specific traits for their offspring. Not surprisingly, the answer he provides to each of these questions is not unidirectional or dogmatic but thought-provoking and, to some extent, inconclusive.

Although all the different sections of the book are equally well thought-out, the chapter titled "My brain made me do it!" emerges as one of the most compelling. Here, Gazzaniga addresses the controversial issue of determinism versus free will and discusses how scientific knowledge of brain structures and functioning can shape our interpretation of human actions. For instance, he asks whether brain abnormalities can justify a criminal action (e.g., killing). His answer highlights the limits of neuroscience to inform decisions regarding the notion of personal responsibility. Similar limitations are underscored by the chapter on brain imaging techniques as tools for capturing something as elusive as human thought in an effort to determine the culpability of an individual or his/her future behavior as a consumer. On the other hand, the chapter on eyewitness testimony and the unreliability of memory points out that neuroscience can indeed inform decisions regarding potential ethical conundrums, and that ignoring its evidence can have harmful consequences on the ethical fiber of our society. For instance, neuroscience can make a relevant contribution to the debate regarding the role of human testimony in the courts by questioning the "fairness" of a criminal justice system that relies on testimonial evidence.

Throughout the book, Gazzaniga displays an optimistic view of human nature's capacity to "understand what is ultimately good for the species and what is not" (p.54) and he should be praised for it. He believes, as many of us do, that what makes us human is the ability to think and act freely. As a byproduct of autonomous thinking and action, scientific inquiry should be similarly free from constraints. I hope that his view is not an overestimation of the capacity of the human species to stop activities that may cause harm not only to a selected few but also to the entire species. There are just too many instances of scientific findings that have been manipulated in the name of selfish interests at the expense of the common good (e.g., Exxon Mobile's public relations campaign questioning evidence of global warming) or simply discarded because they do not fit prevailing religious dogmas (e.g., Darwinism vs. Intelligent Design). Yet, it appears that the danger is less likely to result from abuses by the scientific community than from individuals who exploit evidence uncovered by science.

Taken as a whole, The Ethical Brain is an exercise in rationality and a fascinating read that will stimulate thinking and, at times, give readers a few laughs. Although they will not always agree with Gazzaniga's position, readers will be unable to dismiss his rational approach to controversial issues. Does Neuroethics have a future? I hope so for our own sake.

 

2005 Maura Pilotti

 

Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Dowling College, New York.


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