The End of Morality

Part 2 of 2

In the grandiosely titled article “The End of Morality,” published in the July/August Discover, Kristin Ohlson writes of brain experiments not unlike those I wrote about yesterday in “Toward a Brain-Based Theory of Beauty.” Researchers placed subjects in functional MRI scanners, gave them moral dilemmas to think about, and mapped the areas of the brain that lit up during the experiment.

The similarities between the two articles end there. Where the studiers of beauty went no further than asserting what could rightfully be asserted, that there was a correlation between perceptions of beauty and certain areas of brain activity, the studiers of morality marched right past correlation into causation:  “You have these gut reactions and they feel authoritative, like the voice of God or your conscience.  But these instincts are not commands from a higher power.  They are just emotions hardwired into the brain as we evolved.”  Where the beauty study interacted with centuries of thinkers and thoughts about beauty, the studiers of morality are ready to discredit “that inner voice we’ve listened to for tens of thousands of years.”

Ohlson and the researchers she quotes seem to fall into the reductionism of believing that the brain is “all there is,” that there is nothing above or behind what happens in the brain that causes it to behave as it does. She writes of “morality . . . as a neurological phenomenon,” of the “underlying biology” and the “biological roots of moral choice,” failing to see that there may be something underlying the underlying biology, something that can’t be measured in a scanner. Joshua Greene, one of the morality researchers, asserts that “There is no single moral faculty; there’s just a dynamic interplay between top-down control processes and automatic emotional control in the brain.”

The hubris is almost breathtaking:  the article’s headline reads, “Neuroscience offers new ways to approach such moral questions, allowing logic to triumph over deep-rooted instinct.”

This type of reductionistic, naturalistic, materialistic, mechanistic thinking, with its implied determinism, conveys a stunted view of humanity that will diminish our perception of human dignity if we allow it. As Christians — indeed, as humans — we must resist falling prey to this sort of selective memory which remembers that we are dust, but forgets that we received life from the breath of God.


(Postscript:  In all fairness, the two articles that I described were quite different.  The first was a formal scientific study in a scholarly journal, the second an article written by a freelance writer for a popular magazine that has to sell copy to survive.  This fact does not affect my central point, however, which is that the reductionism embodied in the second article — and in so much of the literature surrounding particular fields of research — is false, prevalent, and will diminish our understanding of human dignity if we follow it.)

Beauty and the Brain


Part 1 of 2

A close family member of mine is in a rehab hospital, struggling to overcome a brain injury.  This has naturally led me to reflect again on the nature of our brains, the ineffable complexity of this organ that has the consistency of grape jelly, how our brains are related to who we are as humans, what makes a person a person, free will, and the efforts various scientists, philosophers, and ethicists have made to arrive at a conclusion to these questions.  There is a fascinating body of research related to brain function, some of it disquieting (just as it is disquieting to look into our own souls, it can be so to look into our own brains), much of it disappointingly reductionistic.  Too much of the literature surrounding the research draws unwarranted conclusions from the results of experiments, proclaiming triumphantly that “this shows that what we thought were complex and uniquely human functions really turn out to be just the result of these neurons firing in response to those hormones which evolved in response to such-and-such showing that there’s nothing really special about us after all and that free will is an illusion . . .”  Religious devotion, marital fidelity, sexual preferences, altruism — all of these and more have been explained away by unjustifiably materialistic, reductionistic, and usually evolutionary conclusions drawn from observations of brain function.  In the process, human freedom and dignity are maligned.

When I saw this article entitled “Toward a Brain-Based Theory of Beauty,” I thought for sure that I was in store for more of the same triumphant debunking of something — the ability to appreciate beauty — that is unique to humans.  I was pleasantly surprised to find otherwise.  In the study, participants looked at paintings or listened to musical excerpts while lying in a functional MRI scanner.  They were asked to judge each one as “beautiful,” “indifferent,” or “ugly,” and the parts of their brains that lit up with each response were mapped out.  The researchers found that the same part of the cerebral cortex was activated by the perception of both visual and auditory beauty.  In their discussion, the researchers then actually interacted with some philosophical thought on the subject of beauty, before arriving at the conclusion that “Beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies that correlates with activity in the mOFC [a certain part of the brain] by the intervention of the senses.”

Here, it seems to me, is brain research done aright, brain research which respects human dignity.  There are no wild speculations, no debunking, no assumption that “what we’ve observed is the whole story.”  Instead there is humility (“We emphasize that our theory is tentative”), respect for historical human experience and thought outside of science, and the acknowledgement that there is more to beauty than what can be seen with a functional MRI scanner.  This stands in stark contrast to a recent article from Discover magazine with the grandiose title “The End of Morality,” which we will take a look at tomorrow.

The Myth of Crossing Species Boundaries


Before beginning this series on Crossing Species Boundaries, I would like to mention my serendipitous oversight in last week’s blog. Due to the hubbub of everyday life, and unlike most weeks, I did not have a chance to read all of my fellow bloggers blogs…

Gary Elkins discussed “Cybrid-gate in the UK,” where he more than adequately articulated the current policies concerning human-animal hybrid research.

Gary’s presentation offers a good look into how some scientists continue doing this research under the radar, while recognizing that researchers can create human-animal hybrids in full accord with the stipulations set forth. I commend this to you for a view of current policy on this issue.

Now for some introductory thoughts:

Throughout history and cultures there has been a strange fascination with this idea of human-animal hybrids. Many of the great ancient writers and poets spoke of such mythical creatures: the Menotaur, Medusa, The Sirens, et al.

In more recent fiction (last 100 years or so) we see the same: The Fly, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and, a more recent film, Splice (I didn’t see it either). These are—of course—just a handful of the myriad examples.

These are depicted as having some kind of command over the rest of mankind.

In the days of old they were god-men—powerful aberrations that incite fear in those who see them. The Sirens, at the sound of their voices, rendered man mad. Medusa’s victims, at her mere sight, would turn to stone.

The Fly evokes a more animal sentiment; the insect, with which the mad scientist crossed, begins to gradually diminish his humanity, much like a metamorphosis. Such is the case with Dr. Moreau’s Beast-folk after his death; they forget his laws and fall prey to their own instincts.

While the ancient mythological writings reflected their religion (or vice versa), it is also important to remember that the pieces of recent fiction were written in a historical-cultural context that reverberated the fears caused by the scientific-medical possibilities at hand.


Next week, we will discuss the context that made these fictional fears, so real.




Two Cheers for Transhumanism?

In response to last week’s blog, someone asked about my view of transhumanism and how it relates to Genesis 6: 1-4, the mysterious passage about the ‘sons of God’ and the ‘Nephilim.’  While I claim no expertise in Old Testament interpretation, I am aware that there are several explanations of this passage.  As indicated by one source, the ‘sons of God’ could be angels, or royalty, or simply a reference to pious men (see The Expositor’s Bible Commentary).

Regardless of the identity of the sons of God or the Nephilim, perhaps the key verse to consider is Genesis 6:3, where the Lord declares, “My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal…” (Apparently, as a general rule of thumb, the average lifespan will be “a hundred and twenty years”).  In contrast to Scripture, a key tenet of transhumanism is the belief that human mortality may be optional and the only obstacle to immortality is inadequate technology.

As described by Celia DeaneDrummond and Peter Manley Scott in Future Perfect,

“The goal of transhumanism is to download the contents of human consciousness onto a vast computer network and… achieve a kind of disembodied yet intelligent immortality… This will constitute an evolutionary advance… that could lead to immortality – that is, immortal intelligent life in a machine that gets constant back-ups.”

Much could be said about transhumanism’s view of human nature and the advances in technology that give rise to utopian notions of humanity’s future.  But I find it worthy to note that transhumanists share an interest in a theme that is also central to the Christian faith – that our hope is in God’s gift of immortality through Jesus Christ!  As Paul writes, “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life (Romans 2:7, NIV).”  And again, “For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.  When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’ (1 Corinthians 15:53).”

Two cheers for transhumanism?  Well, I think transhumanism is correct in observing that our bodies are defective and that immortality would be a good thing to achieve.  However, given that transhumanism’s presuppositions are not in line with Scripture (e.g., their view of human nature, the causes of human imperfection, and the nature of what happens at death), I view the movement as flawed.

*In next week’s blog, I will continue to examine some of the tenets of transhumanism.

Safe Passage

I came across this description of the duties of a physician, from an 1858 lecture to medical students:  diagnosis, treatment, the relief of symptoms, and the provision of safe passage.

The provision of safe passage struck me as a concept we would do well to rehabilitate.  It is an evocative phrase:  protecting and helping someone on a long voyage.  That is generally not how we are taught to think about death in medical school.  Death is failure!  It is a cliff, a precipice to be avoided, rather than a voyage that everyone ultimately has to make.  We have a tendency to approach the precipice in one of three ways:  most often, we try to keep the dying patient from falling over the edge, wrapping them up and pulling them back  from the brink with ventilator hoses and feeding tubes and intravenous drips and every heroically inappropriate medical intervention and test we can conceive of;  or we realize that there’s nothing we can do, so we abandon them;  or, increasingly, in the name of “compassion,” we push them over the edge with physician-assisted suicide.  What a difference it could make if, instead of treating death as a precipice from which we attempt to keep a patient indefinitely, we understood death as a voyage each person will have to make.  What a difference if, instead of being trained to stave off the inevitable at any cost, doctors were trained to recognize — and to help patients recognize — when the voyage is approaching, how to help patients to prepare for it, and how to help them to make it a “safe passage,” a good death for them and their families.


Crossing Species Boundaries

Recently I have been reading a book entitled “Genetics: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy,” which offers a survey of various topics/issues in articles written by a broad spectrum of authors. Though the book is a bit dated (new research has been published since 2005) many of the reflections are still poignant.

One particular article has been on my mind as of late: “Crossing Species Boundaries,” written by Jason Scott Robert and Francoise Baylis. What they set out to establish in this piece is not a well-polished perspective on why or why not interspecies hybrids or chimeras from human materials should be made. So don’t get too excited.

However, they do have a number of insights as to the way we think about these things. In so doing, they offer a brief survey of some the current views and issues that arise, which have me thinking that…

I am going to begin a series that will address some of the latest topics, questions and ethical concerns that are associated with this issue–crossing species boundaries. With any luck this will offer more time and space to address the issue thoroughly.

Here are some topics I am thinking about addressing: recent developments/research, human nature, and the human species.

If you have any other ideas surrounding this issue that you think ought to be discussed, feel free to leave a comment.

What’s in a name?

Interacting with students often reminds me of the importance of some very basic things.  Recently I was reminded of the importance of defining the terms we use in bioethics.  In reading reviews of case studies by some of my online students I saw how their unquestioning acceptance of definitions influences how they think.

The terms involved were “abortion” and “passive euthanasia” and the definitions were from a textbook by Lewis Vaughn that we use in the course.  Vaughn’s text, which I reviewed in the summer 2011 edition of Ethics & Medicine, is generally good at representing a wide spectrum of views on current issues in bioethics, but sometimes some less objective things slip in.

Abortion was defined as “the intentional termination of a pregnancy through drugs or surgery”, which sounds pretty straightforward.  From the way a student was using the definition in a case review I realized that the definition would include and equate abortion with such things as the induction of labor for the delivery of a healthy term infant or a C-section to save the life of an infant in distress.  The fact that an abortion is a termination of pregnancy that includes the intentional ending of the life of the fetus was left out.  That part of the definition makes a big difference.

Passive euthanasia was defined as “allowing someone to die by not doing something that would prolong life.”  That is how James Rachels defined passive euthanasia in his classic defense of active euthanasia that was based on there being no moral distinction between active and passive euthanasia.  What that definition leaves out is the idea that any euthanasia involves the intent to end another person’s life.  This definition of passive euthanasia includes all the times we allow a person to die by choosing not to initiate or continue any possible life-prolonging treatment, but there is a significant difference between allowing a person to die of his or her disease when treatment has become more of a burden than a benefit and doing something with the intent of causing the person to die.  Intending another person’s death is the key to what is wrong with euthanasia and leaving that out of the definition makes a big difference.

What’s in a name?  The difference between right and wrong.

Cybrid-gate in the UK

In last week’s blog (July 26), I highlighted an article from Wired magazine (August 2011) titled “Extreme Science”  in which Wired explores seven “shocking experiments” that scientists could learn from if they were willing to set aside their ethical concerns.  One experiment involves cross-breeding humans with chimpanzees in order to better understand human development.

What I find fascinating about all of this is that the Wired article was written as if unethical experiments don’t occur; as if, in reality, scientists are guided by a moral compass.  But are they?  Just 2 days before I wrote my blog, The Daily Mail (a British publication) reported that over a 3-year span scientists “have created more than 150 human-animal hybrid embryos in British laboratories.”  So, what Wired posed as a hypothetical thought experiment was already happening (albeit secretly) in the UK.

According to The Daily Mail, “155 ‘admixed’ embryos, containing both human and animal genetic material, have been created since the introduction of the 2008 Human Fertilization Embryology Act.  This legalized the creation of a variety of hybrids, including an animal egg fertilized by a human sperm; ‘cybrids’, in which a human nucleus is implanted into an animal cell; and ‘chimeras’, in which human cells are mixed with animal embryos.”

The Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 2008, Section 4A, contains some of the following prohibitions:

“(1) No person shall place in a woman –

(a) a human admixed embryo,

(b) any other embryo that is not a human embryo, or

(c) any gametes other than human gametes.

(2) No person shall –

(a) mix human gametes with animal gametes,

(b) bring about the creation of a human admixed embryo, or

(c) keep or use a human admixed embryo…”

So far, so good.  Or so I thought.  The Act continues:  It is illegal to do #2 above (i.e., mix human gametes) “except in pursuance of a license.

In other words, it is still possible, with government authorization, to mix human gametes with animal gametes to create an admixed embryo.  The only restriction, according to the Act, is that the admixed embryo cannot be kept or used after the first 14 days of its existence.  Indeed, it is also possible, according to the wording of the Act, to create an admixed embryo, store it (i.e., freeze it) over a period of time, and then at some future point do research on it, as long as it is not allowed to live beyond 14 days.

(To view The Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 2008, go to:

But the story’s intrigue deepens.  The creation of the cybrids” in the UK was apparently done in secret.  As noted in a recent Christian Medical Fellowship blog (July 26): “there seems to be a murky mix of confusion and secrecy from which the true facts and figures are difficult to extract.”  But why the secrecy if research was being done within the guidelines of The Human Fertilization and Embryology Act?

Furthermore, the research was not carefully documented.  It is less than clear the exact numbers of cybrids that were created.  The Christian Medical Fellowship reports that, “According to The Independent “many more cybrid embryos were created – 278.  That large number is naturally of concern, but also of concern is that the numbers don’t match the figure of 155 released last week.  The Government has avoided answering that question.  Moreover, if all funding (apparently) stopped in 2010 and the licence was revoked from the only researcher, when were these 155 (or 278) embryos created?  Were they all created before 2010?  Or are they still being created?  If so, by whom?”

In other words, in spite of government oversight, an assortment of so-called “ethical guidelines,” and the best intentions of scientists, it’s less than obvious that research is done within any firm restrictions.  The CMF concludes that “the glaring discrepancies in the figures issued by The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority shows it is not fit for purpose when it comes to regulating the scientists.  It is incapable of keeping accurate records and is unable to keep on top of what is going on in research, either with embryos or eggs.”

I ended last week’s blog with the following observation:  “Humans have also demonstrated a natural tendency to push the moral envelope, to give priority to what can be done over what should be done.  Time will tell whether experiments that are now considered unethical will one day be the norm.”  Apparently we no longer need to wait for “time” to make this announcement.

Readings on Perspectives on Animals

I find that often my readings will reinforce each other in remarkable ways. Sometimes a book that I read just recently will inform the book that I am currently reading, allowing me to see the arguments from a different perspective.

I am currently reading through A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy by Wesley J. Smith. I’ve read Smith’s Culture of Death, and will occasionally read his blog, Second Hand Smoke. Smith is well-known for his work against assisted suicide and euthanasia. However, in reporting on current events, Smith covers everything from stem cells to euthanasia to organ donation to healthcare. In his latest book his addresses the animal rights movement. The underlying theme in is work is the idea of human exceptionalism, or to put it another way, he addresses the cultural trend towards various forms of de-humanization. Smith has done much of his work in the public square engaging in politics, forums, and the media. His writing is meant to be provocative, and can at times put off the academic who is used to reading more tempered (sometimes tempered to a fault) materials. However, I can respect the reason why he writes the way he does, because, in reality, some things should shock us that just don’t anymore.

The byline to A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy is “the Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement.” And, indeed, there is a cost to putting animals’ rights on par with humans’ rights. Contrary what most people believe, this doesn’t elevate animals to a higher moral status as much as it de-elevates humans to a lower moral status. Thus far Smith has made a very clear distinction between animal welfare which is something we should be concerned about, and animal rights, which he contends is a slippery slope towards de-humanization.  Using Biblical language, this is the difference between being stewards over God’s creation and caring for what he has placed under our authority, and denying the image of God in man (and possibly idolizing the created thing rather than the creator).

Interestingly, I had recently read through God in the Dock, a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis on theology and ethics. The book is edited by Walter Hooper who discusses in his preface his diligent efforts of recovering the essays from magazines and publications. Many of these essays were in what Hooper calls “ephemeral publications,” so often the topics are addressing a particular issue of the day. However, I found that these essays provide a wealth of wisdom on topics that are surprisingly relevant to us today in 2010. This is most likely because Lewis was addressing timely issues with timeless truths.

There were several essays that cover topics important to bioethics questions. If you have not had a chance to read them, you can find some of Lewis’ essays here. Two essays that were particularly helpful regarding the moral status of animals and our obligations to them are “The Pains of Animals” and “Vivisection.”

“The Pains of Animals” is an interaction between C.E.M Joad, head of the department of Philosophy at the University of London, and Lewis over his chapter in The Problem of Pain on animal pain.  Joad is trying to reconcile the issue of animal pain before the Fall. He takes issue with Lewis’ explanation that animals have sentience but not consciousness because it does not follow, to Joad, that an all-good God would allow “creatures who are not morally sinful” to experience pain. He also takes issue with the idea that animals do not have a conscience because they seem to have memory. The rest of his essay wrestles with the implications of animals having a soul.

Lewis’ patient response is helpful for framing a Biblical view of the moral worth of animals. His first comment is that if God is good, “then the appearance of divine cruelty in the animal world must be a false appearance.”  He makes no claim to know the reality behind the false appearance.

Lewis then proceeds to patiently and clearly address Joad’s specific issues which I think are helpful in articulating concerns with animal pain, but does not leave it there. He also addresses how we feel when we see animals in pain. He deals with pity for the poor animal and what we do with those feelings of pity.

Lewis’ other essay, “Vivisection” addresses a debate on whether it is appropriate to experiment on live animals, including surgical experimentation. He begins by addressing the rhetoric of pity on both sides of the debate – the poor animal, or relieving human suffering. He criticizes this rhetoric for not really addressing whether the issue is right or wrong as much as competing to see which one is emotionally weightier. Today we see this rhetorical approach used in many areas of bioethics, such as the embryonic stem cell debate and in the current animal rights movements. By identifying this tactic, he is able to move beyond this and approach the topic at hand, is vivisection morally wrong?

For the rest of the essay, Lewis addresses the hinge of the issue: “Now vivisection can only be defended by showing it to be right that one species should suffer in order that another species should be happier.” Lewis essentially addresses the issue from the perspective of virtue ethics.  He comes down hard on the typical vivisectionist because cruelty without pity is morally base, but is careful to outline the Christian perspective that animals are not morally equivalent to man, and refers to the use of animals in sacrifice. He draws a careful balance here that I think is very helpful to think through.

Overall, this book and these essays provide an interesting perspective on animals and our moral responsibility to them. I have not finished A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy, so I may have to post a review once I am done or make an addendum to my statements here, but thus far, I have benefited from reading about the issue from two different authors, with two different tones, from two different backgrounds, writing on current events in two different time periods.

I Pledge Myself

I asked several young doctors who have completed medical school in the last 5-10 years which oath they took upon graduation.  No one could remember, and some weren’t sure whether they took an oath at all.  Really, an oath of any kind is out of place in a culture that doesn’t value making a statement that binds oneself.  There is very little agreement on what theory of medical practice to which one might adhere.  One of my professors mentioned in her Hippocratic Oath lecture that the prohibition against giving “a woman a pessary to cause an abortion” was not really a prohibition against performing abortions.   In the days following World War II, the Physician’s Oath of the World Medical Association pledged “even under threat, I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity.”  Today, the American Medical Association, a WMA member, recognizes there is disagreement on the usefulness of the Hippocratic Oath, states that it’s Principles of Ethics define behavior but are not laws, and notes that regulatory agencies—which do not administer oaths—have the real means to respond to physician behavior.

Albert Jonsen, et. al’s Clinical Ethics: A Practical Approach to Ethical Decisions in Clinical Medicine states that “physicians must avoid exploitation of patients for their own profit or reputation.”  It’s hard to understand how such a platitude is to play out in the real world if physicians do not pledge themselves to it.  I heard a doctor once refer to the lucrative nature of a pulmonology specialty as “the gravy train.”  Many frame their practice in terms of which procedures bring in income.  This seems odd; because according to this model, the absence of illness is a business failure.  As Maimonides would say, “the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children.”