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Human Evolution, Reproduction, and MoralityReview - Human Evolution, Reproduction, and Morality
by Lewis Petrinovich
MIT Press, 1998
Review by Glenn Branch
Aug 5th 1999 (Volume 3, Issue 31)

It is not at all unusual - or unwelcome - for scientists to find themselves musing on the ethical presuppositions and implications of their professional activity. Few, however, are as committed to the endeavor as is the psychologist Lewis Petrinovich, whose ethical ruminations led him to compose his own summa bioethica in three volumes, of which Human Evolution, Reproduction, and Morality is the first. In its first half, Petrinovich expounds the basic principles - biological, psychological, and philosophical - of his project. In its second half, he considers the ethics of human reproduction, ranging from the familiar debates over contraception, abortion, and infanticide to the new issues arising from advances in reproductive technology.

Although there is no shortage of treatises on bioethics, what is distinctive about Human Evolution, Reproduction, and Morality, according to its author, is its multidisciplinary approach, invoking considerations from evolutionary biology, neurophysiology, and cognitive science. (Appropriately, Darwin's visage gazes grainily from the cover.) With befitting modesty Petrinovich disavows any claim to have pronounced the final word on any of his topics, but he is hopeful that his work will assist those who "want to frame a view of morality that respects the biological and cognitive nature of the human organism" (p. 3).

Anyone reading Human Evolution, Reproduction, and Morality will, however, have to be prepared for the occasional misspelling - "curretage" for "curettage" and "algorhythm" for "algorithm" are the two most egregious - and the frequently plonking style in which he writes, the jewel of which occurs on p. 135: "Attention should be directed to the concept of justice." As for its content, it consists largely of Petrinovich's summarization of the relevant literature, of which he obviously read copious amounts - the bibliography occupies no fewer than fourteen closely printed pages. Unfortunately, he is not particularly skilled at it; his exposition is frequently tedious, occasionally unclear, and sometimes erroneous.

The problem of unclarity is, unsurprisingly, at its worst in the purely philosophical discussions. For example, those who, like Petrinovich, assert the relevance of biology to ethics are frequently accused with committing the naturalistic fallacy, so it is entirely appropriate for Petrinovich to discuss the accusation, which he does in chapter 2. Now, in the writings of G. E. Moore, who named it, it is notoriously never quite clear what the naturalistic fallacy is supposed to be:

  1. attempting to define moral terms such as "good";
  2. attempting to define moral terms such as "good" in nonmoral terms;
  3. supposing that such definitions are informative if correct;
  4. deriving moral conclusions from nonmoral premises;
  5. identifying moral properties such as goodness with nonmoral properties;
and so on. Petrinovich, unhappily, follows Moore's bad example, characterizing the naturalistic fallacy sometimes as the claim that "the ought is determined by the is" and sometimes as the claim that "no moral statement can be deduced from empirical statements alone" (both quotes from p. 24). These are by no means equivalent. He consequently seems to vacillate between saying, on the one hand, that although the naturalistic fallacy is indeed fallacious he is innocent of it, and, on the other hand, that although he is guilty of the naturalistic fallacy it is not fallacious after all.

The profound lack of clarity that pervades Petrinovich's exposition extends even to his substantial proposals in bioethics. And while Petrinovich disarmingly admits that his philosophizing "might not meet the standards expected by philosophers of philosophers" (p. 310), its flaws are apparent to even the lay eye.

Take, for example, the moral centerpiece of the book, his view on abortion: "Abortion is morally permissible, and should be legal, at any time before birth" (p. 237). Insofar as there is any argument for the view, its premises seem to be, first, that personhood begins at birth, and second (and for the most part left implicit), that it is prima facie morally permissible to terminate the life of nonpersons.

Let me summarize Petrinovich's discussion of - I hesitate to say argument for - the first premise. He starts by rejecting, in my opinion rightly, the proposal to define personhood in terms of moral agency: the former is necessary but not sufficient for the latter; philosophers who have equated the two have overintellectualized personhood. He then rejects, again rightly, the proposal to define personhood in terms of membership in the species Homo sapiens, which is simultaneously too broad and too narrow. He also rejects the proposal to take personhood to start at the point of fetal viability on the grounds that viability is intrinsically vague. Without further ado, he asserts that "the point at which personhood begins is birth, and a series of critical events occur at that point which confer the public status of personhood on the neonate" (p. 199); "it is at the point of birth that the fetus becomes a recognizable, public entity that responds to members of the society, and it is here that social interactions begin" (p. 206).

There are several problems here. First, he is apparently arguing that personhood begins at birth because it is problematic to define personhood either in terms of moral agency or membership in Homo sapiens or as beginning at fetal viability. Yet these are not all of the possible alternatives. Second, his criterion for the beginning of personhood is ambiguous - or perhaps hybrid - between the biological criterion of birth (on which Jose Luis Bermudez's 1996 essay "The Moral Significance of Birth," Ethics 106:2, should be consulted) and the social criterion of availability for social interaction. The two criteria are not equivalent, as is shown by the existence of cultures - noted on p. 256 - in which infants are not considered persons until well after their birth. Third, although he thinks that only moral agents have rights (pp. 132-133), he says that because neonates are persons they are entitled to have their needs, interests, and welfare respected: if these entitlements are not rights, what are they? It is of no avail to appeal to the idea of the social contract, as Petrinovich tries to. If he means it literally, he is faced with the insurmountable objection that neonates are no more capable than fetuses of entering into contracts, while metaphor is unlikely to be helpful here. (On p. 151, referring to innate tendencies to maximize inclusive fitness, he writes, "It might seem strange to think of these biological factors in terms of social contracts." Indeed.)

Even granting the truth of the first premise, the argument still is not sound. For Petrinovich explicitly says that "the class of moral patients include such individuals as human mental defectives, the senile, very young children, fetuses, and most, if not all, nonhuman animals" (p. 130) and that "those with moral standing [clearly including, not clearly limited to, moral agents] have duties and responsibilities toward entities that have moral relevance, be they ecosystems or organisms that qualify as moral patients" (p. 131). If these duties toward moral patients include the duty (whether absolute or prima facie) not to terminate their lives - and Petrinovich provides no reason to think otherwise - then the second premise is false. Hence it is entirely possible to hold that although fetuses are not persons, it is morally impermissible (whether absolutely or prima facie) to end their lives nevertheless.

Perhaps the most interesting and original material in Human Evolution, Reproduction, and Morality was in chapter 7, which presents the results of studies conducted by Petrinovich and his colleagues in which undergraduate students - the laboratory animals de nos jours - were asked to react to the stock cases in ethics such as the Trolley Problem in various formulations. Ethicists are often loath to stir from their armchairs to see if their pontifications about our ordinary moral intuitions are in fact correct, so these studies are refreshing, even if their results are moderately unsurprising. Petrinovich attempted to control for cultural influences by conducting the studies in both California and Taiwan; I submit, however, that it would be desirable to see what folks in the ancestral environment - the !Kung San of the Kalahari or the Inuit of the Arctic or the Ache of Paraguay - have to say. After all, it was not in academia that the human mind evolved.

Glenn Branch received his BA in philosophy from Brandeis University and is presently on leave from the PhD program in philosophy at UCLA. Among his philosophical interests are the philosophy of mind, evolutionary psychology, and the scientific status of psychoanalysis.


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