May 18, 2024

bioethics and the Boston Marathon bombings

Hi there,

Every dramatic event in the headlines seems to have a link to bioethics. This is also true of the Boston Marathon bombings. In this issue we report that researchers at Boston University are eager to see the results of an autopsy of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the alleged bomber who was shot dead by police. As a one-time boxing champion, he could have been tipped over the edge by brain damage from his sport.

The researchers were prudent enough to admit that neuroscience may not be able to explain the atrocity completely. However, is this an example of the increasing tendency of neuroscience to seek determinist explanations for human behaviour? For instance, a recent article in Neuroethics claims that conservatives are more associated with “the dark triad” of human behaviour: Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy. For instance, conservatives may be hard-wired to endorse the use of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the war on terrorism.

But is this really a useful way of analysing decision-making? Taken to extremes, could we say that both Muslim terrorists and CIA torturers have been driven to these extremes by their genes, or by faulty circuits in their brains. But if that is true, perhaps democracy and altruism are all determined by our neurons as well. The room for individual agency and free will seems to be shrinking.

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Michael Cook
Was Tamerlan Tsarnaev responsible for his actions?