Human Nature

Drugstore Cowboys

The strange timidity of liberal bioethics.

Mike Gazzaniga taps a button, and five faces appear on the projection screen. Gazzaniga, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, is keynoting a national bioethics convention at the University of Pennsylvania. One face on the screen belongs to the council’s chairman, Leon Kass. Another belongs to the director of Penn’s Center for Bioethics, Art Caplan. They represent, respectively, the conservative and liberal camps of American bioethics, which have been swept up in the larger war between Democrats and Republicans. A third face on the screen catches my eye: Pope John Paul II. The caption asks: “The pope, the rabbi, the scientist, and the bioethicist: who do you believe?”

Four weeks ago, I was at a very different bioethics conference in Rome. The speakers and attendees, mostly Catholic and conservative, were groping for a way to stop the oncoming train of embryo-destructive medical research. Their leader, John Paul, was dying of Parkinson’s, one of the diseases such research would most plausibly have cured. As Gazzaniga speaks in Philadelphia on Friday morning, John Paul is in his last hours of life.

The men onstage in Philadelphia, the liberals of bioethics, believe they are the future. They see the age of human self-transformation unfolding. Unlike the Luddites in Rome and Washington, they work with agencies and companies leading the revolution. Two of the conference’s five underwriting sponsors are pharmaceutical firms. The speakers in Philadelphia know the latest technologies: artificial eyes, memory detectors, implants that let you move a cursor just by willing it. They’re armed with sci-fi icons: Jean-Luc Picard, The Terminator, Minority Report. They quote Freud and Lacan. They wear goatees, corduroys, funky blazers, designer frames. Some preach drug freedom. Others tell sex jokes.

Gazzaniga, balding with a white fringe, is no hipster. But his proposal is brilliantly audacious: to turn bioethics inside out. Kass, the pope, and President Bush have been trying to restrict embryo-destructive research based on their versions of the ethics of biology. Gazzaniga wants to trump them with the biology of ethics. He clicks through studies and brain scans showing what he calls “emotional interference in moral reasoning.” Unlike the chimp brain, the human brain is constantly “trying to figure out life’s pattern,” he says. We rebel impulsively against harm to another person or to a fetus that looks like a baby. Only afterward do we “develop a theory” that translates that impulse into a principle. The independence of the principle is an illusion.

Half an hour later, Greg Pence, a sleepy-eyed philosopher from the University of Alabama, administers a 15-minute bitch-slap to biotech critics. All medical progress has been opposed by religion, he says, and all opposition to biotechnology is religious. Anyone who denies this is just covering it up. All that crap about nature and authenticity is a ruse to control other people, and anyone who gives in to it is a sissy. We’re “becoming bioethics wimps,” he tells the assembled students. We’ve lost the “courage” to experiment on ourselves and make better babies.

Something about Pence’s tough-guy act sets off my B.S. detector. He says once you realize that human enhancement isn’t intrinsically evil, “all the other questions are just how-to questions”—who goes first, who decides, how to do it safely, how to fund it. It’s all just “calculation and adjustment,” he says. Where’s the courage in that? It sounds like accounting. In Pence’s world, courage is for scientists. The bioethicists are the wimps. This becomes the pattern of the morning: To many of the liberals, bioethics is all about what we can’t do. We can’t draw lines between therapy and enhancement. We can’t restrict a new technology, because we’ve already accepted an old technology it resembles. We can’t defy scientists and industry, because they won’t take us seriously. John Paul stood up to communism. These guys won’t even stand up to Merck.

Gazzaniga’s argument would completely neuter the field. If biology explains ethics, how can ethics judge manipulations of biology? Gazzaniga thinks rules will remain: “It is not a good idea to kill because it is not a good idea to kill,” he says. But what happens when the military figures out how to adjust brain chemistry so that soldiers think it is a good idea to kill? Change the biology, and you’ve changed the ethics. Gazzaniga says studies show a global consensus on right and wrong. But in the same speech, he ridicules the belief that an early human embryo is sacred. That belief is the basis on which Bush has restricted funding of embryonic stem cell research. Is it a product of Bush’s biology? If so, how can Gazzaniga complain? And why should we care whether Gazzaniga’s morality—his brain—differs from Bush’s?

I saw fiercer arguments among priests in Rome than I see here among the pluralists. On the screen, Gazzaniga projects a photo of Colin Powell next to a white dot representing an early embryo. He derides the idea that anyone could morally equate the dot with the person. He calls the dot a “hunk of cells” and says he’d be happy to harvest them. What about the embryo’s potential to become a person? Gazzaniga shrugs that a Home Depot has the potential to make 30 houses, but if a Home Depot burns down, it isn’t as though 30 houses have burned down. Nobody in the room challenges these superficial arguments and question-begging analogies.

Not all the speakers march in lock step. Anjan Chatterjee, a shy Indian-American neurologist, warns that our winner-takes-all society is driving a culture of Ritalin and amphetamines that enables overwork, ruins mental and physical health, and will eventually force everyone to pop pills. But he sighs, “I don’t have the imagination to think of a way that this is not going to happen.” Like other liberal worriers, he speaks from doubt, not faith. Unsure of what must be, he is overwhelmed by what is.

My favorite speaker, sociologist Paul Wolpe *, comes off like a linebacker from Brooklyn. He’s got a broad mind fortified by a very American confidence. He points out that biotech is shaking up political alignments: Some pro-lifers support embryonic stem cell research; some pro-choicers opposed the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube. He explains conservative objections to brain enhancement: social modeling, the erosion of the work ethic, the evasion of deep problems through symptom relief. But Wolpe seems paralyzed by what he sees as America’s commitment to individualism. You can express a bioethical viewpoint, but you can’t impose it on others, he says. Why not? That’s “the way we’ve decided” to treat moral questions, he says. How odd: a liberal straitjacket based on the authority of tradition.

The morning wraps up, and we’re off to a luncheon speech by Penn’s president, Amy Gutmann. She sits down at my table and notices a book lying across from her. It’s Gazzaniga’s. She jots down its title: The Ethical Brain. Proceeding to the podium, she alludes to the book with cocktail-party familiarity, says she’s looking forward to reading it, and reflects on its implications. Her speech is about “sound-bite democracy,” which she blames on blogs and mass media “polluting our public discourse.” This she contrasts with the wise, careful “deliberative democracy” of “places like this.” Gutmann repeats the buzzwords: blogs, mass media, wise, careful, deliberative. Her favorite sound bite is “sound bite.” The professors and students applaud as she exits with a young man in a suit. A Penn official tells me excitedly who the young man is: Gutmann’s speechwriter.

This is the first dispatch of a two-part series. To read the second dispatch, click here. Correction, April 5: This article originally said Paul Wolpe was a psychiatrist. According to the University of Pennsylvania Web site, Wolpe is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and directs the Program in Psychiatry and Ethics at Penn’s School of Medicine. However, he is not a psychiatrist. He is a sociologist. Return to the corrected sentence.