Go with your Gut?

What ethical issues are raised when scientists decide to transfer human brain cells into monkey brains?

Mark Greene addressed this question in his paper Moral Issues of Human-Non-Human Primate Neural Grafting (Science, 2005). The paper was the product of a committee of professionals who came together to discuss the question and propose guidelines. Before the moral debate unfolded, Greene clarified “we unanimously rejected ethical objections grounded on unnaturalness.”

In other words, the committee was not going to accept that research is immoral just because it weirds people out. The reasoning here is this: unnaturalness is subjective. It’s all about what you’re used to!  Lots of things in our society are manmade – not natural – but we don’t think twice about them.  Cars, airplanes, MRIs and X-Rays, Advil, television and millions of other things that we encounter everyday would have seemed strange to anyone who lived before they were invented!

Greene’s premise makes sense. Just because something is unnatural doesn’t mean it is unethical. And the aversion we feel towards the unnatural does not prove that the unnatural is unethical. Does it follow that we should always ignore our instincts about the uncanny? What if we grew up on Dr. Moreau’s island? Would we like his strange beasts?

After searching to answer the questions at hand, I clicked on a news article that suggested that many of our moral notions are already present in us at birth. For example, our aversion to injustice might be just as natural of an instinct as our hunger for food. The article is titled ‘The Moral Life of Babies’ ( New York Times Magazine, 2010) Find it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09babies-t.html.

In the article, Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale writes:

“Babies probably have no conscious access to moral notions, no idea why certain acts are good or bad. They respond on a gut level. Indeed, if you watch the older babies during the experiments, they don’t act like impassive judges — they tend to smile and clap during good events and frown, shake their heads and look sad during the naughty events (remember the toddler who smacked the bad puppet). The babies’ experiences might be cognitively empty but emotionally intense, replete with strong feelings and strong desires. But this shouldn’t strike you as an altogether alien experience: while we adults possess the additional critical capacity of being able to consciously reason about morality, we’re not otherwise that different from babies — our moral feelings are often instinctive.”

Of course, whether or not we are born with innate morality is a controversial issue.  There are many sides to the argument, and we may never have empirical evidence to support one conclusion definitively.  I think I ended up with more questions than I started with in this post, but I just wanted to look at a possible counterargument to Greene’s premise.

If our instincts are moral, then why shouldn’t we listen to our ‘gut’ when we feel that something is uncanny or unnatural?



~ by marysciencewriting on February 24, 2012.

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