Neuroscience & Ethics – An Uncomfortable Mix

In a recent NY Times article William Egginton discusses the fascinating relationship between science and morality. In particular he references those whose political and personal moral agenda seek to make any abortion illegal, to request that neuroscientists explain when a human fetus first feels pain.

He refers to a 2005 review of clinical research conducted by the Journal of the AMA to conclude “evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.” Egginton, a professor of humanities, expands the topic into one that has engaged philosophers for centuries–what constitutes “personhood”. Descartes wrote of the “reflective” nature of human consciousness found in adult humans as necessary for perceiving pain. While many have found fault with this notion (apparently he had no problem with experimentation on animals) it ultimately raises the question–should science be used to understand questions of morality anyway?

Egginton quotes Immanuel Kant who argued that science can tell us nothing about the nature of God, immortality of the soul, the origin of human freedom etc. He goes on to note “the basic liberties of Americans should not be dependent on the changing opinions of science.” What he is saying is that we need to respect the advances of science in an ongoing attempt to understand the physical world around us. Deep problems arise when science is then “used” to support moral, religious and political agendas.

Is it ironic that some of the same people who seek the assistance of science to declare that all abortion is murder of a sentient human being, deny the undeniable–that evolution is not a theory but the real nature of life on this planet.

To pick and choose how science supports ethical and moral beliefs opens a Pandora’s box which then taints the achievements and ongoing value of science itself.

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