Colourful images of brain scans tend to dominate the science sections of the popular media, and it is now fashionable to affix ‘neuro’ to most words of English. But there is a predictable grumpy backlash. The philosopher Roger Scruton finds the recent wave of neuroscience rather distasteful. It is all merely (in a phrase he borrows from Raymond Tallis*) ‘neurotrash’–which wonderfully evokes lurid synthetic pop manufactured in some disco den in Berlin (is Neuropop–or God forbid, the Neurovision–the next step?). Although Scruton makes a cursory reference to some arguments against current neuroscience**, it seems clear enough that what provokes his outrage isn’t some philosophical disagreement. It is that this new wave of neuroscience–or if you prefer, neurotrash–is just so obnoxiously vulgar.
On the 4th of January 2006, the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (better known to his countrymen as ‘Arik’) suffered a massive stroke at his vast Sycamore Ranch. He was placed under induced coma from which he never recovered consciousness. The hero of the Yom Kippur war, the villain of the massacres in Qibya and Sabra and Shatila, has since been occupying a bed in the Tel Hashomer hospital, in a permanent vegetative state. A doctor has said that his brain is ‘the size of a grapefruit’—only the brain stem remains, maintaining vegetative functions. Beyond that, ‘there is nothing, just fluid’. Earlier this month, Sharon was driven back to the Sycamore ranch, for the first time since the stroke. He was later taken back to the hospital, but the idea seems to be that in time he will be moved there permanently. It is said that keeping Sharon alive in this way costs the Israeli taxpayer something around $400,000 a year.
It would take a miracle for Sharon to recover – which is just to say that he will never regain consciousness. One day, perhaps soon, perhaps in many years, his heart will finally stop beating, and he will be interned in a grave in some state ceremony. In one sense, this will be the second time that Sharon has died. But in another sense, Sharon will never really die.
Might there be a universal moral code? When we look around, we everywhere find bitter and seemingly interminable moral disagreements about abortion, or euthanasia, or animal rights, or social justice, and many other issues, not to mention the vast gulfs that separate the moral outlooks of different cultures. The idea that there is a universal moral code can thus sound farfetched. Yet the Harvard psychologists Marc Hauser, and several other scientists, have recently claimed that, contrary to appearances, there really is a universal moral code, and that this scientific discovery should change the way we think about ethics (see here, and here for a longer piece by John Mikhail. Hauser’s views are spelled out at length in his book Moral Minds.). Is this really so?
Stephen Hawking made some headlines when he recently argued that although it’s highly probable that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, it would be a grave mistake to try to actively try to establish contact with other intelligent beings. Reflection on our own history, on how European explorers dealt with technologically less advanced cultures they encountered, suggests that an encounter with technologically superior alien is likely to lead to a catastrophic outcome to us humans. So we should keep a low profile: enthusiastically sending signals to outer space (including statements by Kurt Waldheim!) is fatally foolish, and is also embarrassing, as it casts some doubt on our claim to be an intelligent life form.
Over at the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert discusses some new books on the policy implications of so-called 'positive psychology'. Positive psychologists set out to use scientific methods to study, not suffering, depression and psychopatholoy, but the good things in life: what makes people happy, and what doesn't. The most remarkable set of findings of this growing body of research is that many of the things that we expect would make us happy — or unhappy — don't really, or not in the way we believe. For example, winning the lottery has a very short lasting positive effect on people's happiness levels; being seriously handicapped in a car accident only a short lasting negative effect. And above a certain level, economic growth and material wealth do not seem to have much of an effect on people's happiness or 'subjective well-being'. What are the policy implications? In one of the books discussed, Derek Bok makes suggestions that would make people on both the left and right unhappy (though probably not for very long). He concludes that relentlessly aiming at economic growth is a waste of time — but similarly that we should not worry much about growing inequality. It does not make people at the bottom of the scale unhappier, so why care about it?
Some of us know Professor Robert George as the ultraconservative Catholic bioethicist from Princeton. It could hardly be said that his writings have dominated discussion in contemporary ethics. It is thus slightly surprising to find out, in recent profile in the New York Times, that Professor George is a thinker of immense influence—the mastermind of the conservative side of the culture wars in the US, having the ear of rightwing political leaders and religious authorities, even of TV commentators. What is Robert George’s exciting new idea? There is nothing terribly surprising about his views. He is of course vehemently opposed to abortion, stem cell research, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage. What is supposed to be exciting is that he claims to demonstrate the truth of these familiar conservative views using natural reason alone. Finally conservatives can conclusively prove that liberals are dead wrong, and they don’t even need to mention tradition and religion. Well, Professor George’s arguments might have awed George W. Bush, but on inspection they turn out less than impressive.
disagree about very many things, but they broadly agree on how it is we should
disagree: by finding flaws in the reasoning that leads others to a contrary
conclusion, by putting forward arguments of our own, and so forth. The thought
(perhaps the illusion) is that through this process of critical discussion, we
will gradually approach the truth, the truth about what it is we ought to do.
Another assumption, and perhaps a greater illusion, is that all of this intense
debate will also eventually influence what people actually do—that it will
improve policy and practice.
When the ethical implication of some scientific or technological advance are debated, it is common for someone to remark that it’s a waste of time to debate whether this technology should be pursued—it will be developed anyway, won’t it, and if we want to spend our time fruitfully, we should ask, not whether this technology should be developed or used, but how it might be best used. I have occasionally been tempted by this line of thought myself, but on reflection, it’s rather puzzling. I’d like to try to get a bit clearer about it.
Both within and outside ethics, people often worry about disagreements that are purely about value. Suppose that you and I completely agree about all the empirical facts about some case, yet you think that it’s absolutely forbidden to do something and I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. It can seem hard to see how we could ever resolve our disagreement. If after I have carefully considered the case, and still see nothing wrong, what could you possibly say that would make me see things in a different light?
Things are often a bit more complicated than this. For example, even if we agree on all the empirical facts, our moral disagreement might be due to disagreement about some metaphysical matter—say, about whether a foetus is a person. Metaphysical disagreements are also extremely hard to resolve. Then there is the old point that the way we frame factual matters, or the way we interpret some empirical evidence, might itself be shaped by our values.
Anyway, this is a common worry. But when it comes to many heated disagreements about scientific or technological advances, this worry seems to me to get the situation exactly backwards.