Vermelding onderdeel organisatie
April 23, 2014
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Moral and a-moral emotions in bioethics
Den Haag, Moral Emotions and Intuitions conference
Delft University of Technology
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• Some modern bio-conservatives (notably Leon Kass),
have argued that appeal to the “yuck factor” is
warranted in making decisions in bioethics
• This is because: if emotions are to be properly
considered in ethical decision-making, then disgust,
revulsion, and similar visceral emotions ought to be
taken into account.
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• But are emotions of disgust in bioethics on equal
ground with other emotions in guiding ethical decision-
• From my moral-realist perspective, in which rights
are grounded upon brute facts
• This depends upon determining whether there are
brute-fact-based rights involved, and whether
disgust is derived from, or impedes rights
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• I am not a bioconservative. I have argued that genetic
engineering, for instance, is ethically persmissible
(with some minor exceptions - where rights are
• See, 2007 "The Ethics of Genetic Engineering,"
Policy "White" Paper, Center for Inquiry,
Transnational. Published August 28, 2007.
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• But I oppose the patenting of unmodified genes. The
logic behind my argument is rights-based, whereas I
argue that the logic behind GMO-opponents is largely
based upon disgust or revulsion.
• Both rights and disgust provoke emotions, but they
are not equal, nor should they be considered
equally in decision-making about bioethics.
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• Recent research suggests that our responses to justice are hard-
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• If true, then a sense of justice seems biologically-determined, and
our emotional responses grounded in brute-facts:
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• Do our emotional responses about justice reflect grounded rights?
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• Is our sense of equality grounded in evolutionary truths hard-
wired in our brains?
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• In other words, is justice a real concept, grounded in biology, and
reflected in emotions?
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If so, then how should we balance emotions regarding justice with
other emotions? Are they all equal?
• My work on gene patenting provokes in my audiences an
emotional response, but it is not fear or disgust
• The typical response is anger. “you mean they own my
• I believe this is an appropriate and justified emotional
response to an incursion upon individual autonomy, or a
violation of a right to the “comkons by necssity”… or
spaces that cannot justly be owned.
• Disgust and revulsion over biological phenomena are, I
belive, rooted in fear.
• “Frankenfoods,” “test tube babies,” and genetic
manipulation of higher orgamnisms threaten our sense of
the biologically “normal” or expected. These are the
things of ancient and modern horros stories.
• We are disgusted because they frighten us, rather than
anger us. But we can look to horror stories to see the
conflict between fear and righteous anger, where rights
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Biology provokes different sorts of emotions, namely those described as
disgust, revulsion, and accounting for the “yuck factor” promoted by some
as a valid measure for ethical-decision making
Our responses to the biologically foreign or disturbing have long
been the source of topics for horror stories, and also seem
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The “Elephant Man”
Treated first as a freak
… only later as a man,
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Modern horror … “Dren”
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Modern horror “the Fly”
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Conflict between disgust and justice
In each of these true and fictional scenarios, we
are conflicted. Physical revulsion vs. justice.
Freaks, Joseph Merrick, Dren, Frankenstein’s monster
and Seth Brundle are all victims of our (or some)
Revulsion violates rights, and this is unjust.
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Conflict between disgust and justice
Fear of predators, like snakes, spiders, disease,
seem to be the bases for our biological sense of
So, is fear a good basis for ethical decision-making?
Perhaps, but not where it conflicts with rights.
Past injustices illustrate the dangers.
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• Not all emotions should be treated equally in ethical
decision-making in bioethics.
• While our emotional responses to injustice and fear
are grounded in brute-facts, rights should trump fear
• After all, spiders, snakes, and other monsters are often
not only harmless, but may themselves deserve rights.