April 5, 2007
Morality and the Mind
William Saletan writing at Slate.com has an interesting piece on the brain and morality. He writes,
Imagine that killers have invaded your neighborhood. They're in your house, and you and your neighbors are hiding in the cellar. Your baby starts to cry. If you had to press your hand over the baby's face till it stopped fighting—if you had to smother it to save everyone else—would you do it?
If you're normal, you wouldn't, according to a study published last week in Nature. But if part of your brain were damaged—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—you would. In the study, people were given hypothetical dilemmas: Would you throw a fatally injured person off a lifeboat to save everyone else? Would you kill a healthy hostage? Most normal people said no. Most people with VMPC damage said yes. . . .
The article discusses why people may be making these different choices. It then concludes with a rather frightening discussion concerning controlling those choices:
Five years ago, in a government report, scientists proposed using microscopic technology to screen the brains of soldiers for emotional interference. Today, the Neurotechnology Industry Organization is lobbying for a federal initiative to study the ethics as well as the mechanics of brain science. "Right now, we're discovering the seat of morality," warns NIO President Zack Lynch. "In 10 to 15 years, we'll have the technologies to manipulate it."
But there's the other catch: Once technology manipulates ethics, ethics can no longer judge technology. Nor can human nature discredit the mentality that shapes human nature. In a utilitarian world, what's neurologically fit is utilitarianism. It'll become the norm, the standard of right and wrong. Sure, a few mental relics of our primate ancestry will be lost. But it'll be worth it. I think.
More Fun Ways to Increase Organ Donation
If you were thinking educational efforts or presumed consent laws, think again, South Carolina has another potential answer to the organ shortage (no need for those scary half-human donors), we can use prisoners. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that South Carolina's state legislature is considering a bill that encourages organ donations from prisoners by cutting time (180 days) off their prison sentence. The AP reports:
A state Senate panel on Thursday endorsed creating an organ-and-tissue donation program for inmates. But legislators postponed debate on a measure to reduce the sentences of participating prisoners, citing concern that federal law may not allow it.
"I think it's imperative that we go all out and see what we can do," said the bills' chief sponsor, Democratic Sen. Ralph Anderson. "I would like to see us get enough donors that people are no longer dying."
The proposal approved by the Senate Corrections and Penology Subcommittee would set up a volunteer donor program in prisons to teach inmates about the need for donors. But lawmakers want legal advice before acting on a bill that would shave up to 180 days off a prison sentence for inmates who donate.
South Carolina advocates for organ donations said the policy would be the first in the nation.
Federal law makes it illegal to give organ donors "valuable consideration." Lawmakers want to know whether the term could apply to time off of prison sentences. . . .
Some further thoughts from the Daily Kos webblog
April 2, 2007
Tomorrow night's Frontline, "So Much So Fast" looks worth watching:
When he was 29 years old, Stephen Heywood was diagnosed with ALS -- also called Lou Gehrig's disease -- and told he had two to five years to live. But Stephen and his family refused to accept the doctors' death sentence. So Much So Fast follows the Heywoods' passionate, acerbic, and relentlessly hopeful reaction to a disease that transforms their lives. Stephen's older brother, Jamie, starts a foundation dedicated to finding a cure through fast-paced guerrilla science that attracts both praise and controversy. Stephen gets married and he and his wife, Wendy, have a son. They confront the encroaching paralysis of ALS with a mix of courage and humor, and, surrounded by friends and family, upend the clichés of their situation. From Oscar-nominated (Troublesome Creek) filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, So Much So Fast tells a haunting story of one family's unexpected answers to some of life's biggest questions.
Government Health Care
Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly posts an interesting question about government and its involvement in the health care system. He refers to a recent LA Times article by Chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths Betsy McCaughey discusses favorably the VA health system. Mr. Drum focuses on the use of computer physician (CPOE), which involves "a doctor enters the prescription at a computer terminal instead of scribbling it on a pad. The computer identifies incorrect doses or a medication that conflicts with other meds the patient is taking. If the computer sounds an alarm, the physician has to override it." Not surprisingly, hospitals in many countries have adopted this technology but the article not in the United States with the exception of the VA. This lack of adoption causes Mr. Drum to ask:
Question for the free market crowd: if you oppose national healthcare because you think it will reduce the pace of medical innovation, how do you explain this? Why is it that the VA and the national healthcare systems in Europe have all adopted this plainly useful innovation but American hospitals mostly haven't?