Author: Erik Parens

Utilitarianism’s Missing Dimensions

In 2001, Joshua Greene and colleagues published a report in Science that helped turn a once-obscure philosophical conundrum involving trolleys into a topic of conversation at scientific conferences, philosophical meetings, and dinner tables across the globe. The report used fMRI technology to probe what is going on in the brains of research subjects when they are faced with hypothetical ethical dilemmas represented by two classic scenarios. In one, subjects are asked if they would be willing to pull a lever to divert a trolley onto a track on which one person is standing, if doing so would prevent the death of five people standing on the track of the trolley’s current trajectory. In scenarios like this one, where there is no direct physical contact between the person taking the action and the person being sacrificed, most subjects say it would be ethically appropriate to sacrifice one to save five. In the second scenario, subjects are asked if it would be appropriate to push a strange man off a footbridge onto a track, if his death …

Giving Genes Their Due, But Not More

A review of Behaving: What’s Genetic, What’s Not, and Why Should We Care? by Kenneth B. Schaffner. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2016), 304 pages. No one gets anxious about using genetics to help explain a medical disease like cancer or heart disease. But using genetics to help explain a normal behavior like aggression, or a psychiatric disorder like depression, can be an entirely different story. At first blush, this difference in response to using genetics to explain different features of the same animal seems odd. After all, it’s not as if medical geneticists, on the one hand, and behavioral and psychiatric geneticists, on the other, employ different research methods. The difference, of course, is that the behavioral and psychiatric geneticists investigate features of ourselves that we take to be central to our humanity: our ways of acting and being in the world. To use genetics to try to explain those features elicits the anxious question, is human behavior genetically determined? Few people have been thinking about that question for as long, or with as much devotion …