Interview: Adriana Gini, neuroradiologist and bioethicist
Religion & Liberty Online

Interview: Adriana Gini, neuroradiologist and bioethicist

The market place is very complicated and intricate in terms of decision making processes and human relationships. We have to start thinking in terms of multiple layers, multiple dimensions and an astonishing level of complexity when making sense of human beings and their moral behavior.

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Is moral enhancement of the entrepreneur possible? That’s the question Michael Severance, operations manager for Istituto Acton (the Acton Institute’s Rome office) recently posed to Dr. Adriana Gini, a neuroradiologist at San Camillo-Forlanini Medical Centre in Rome and an expert bioethicist at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum. Dr. Gini recently led Istituto Acton’s monthly Campus Martius seminar “Moral Enhancement: Back to the Future” and offers some further insight on her topic. An audio recording of her seminar is available on the Istituto Acton home page.

Michael Severance: Dr. Gini, thank you for taking time to explain your views on the fascinating subject of moral enhancement. Most of us have heard of various forms of “physical” enhancement, as with genetic splicing for disease prevention, pre-selection of human embryos to produce “savior siblings” and mixing chemical cocktails to improve the physical endurance of our organs…In what way are the two types of enhancement – physical and moral – related, if at all? Or is this just a play on words?

Adriana Gini: The association between the word “moral” to the type of life we live, the decisions we make, our efforts and struggles to improve society and ourselves is perfectly natural. In fact, morality depends on our acts and our acts are the expression of what we are as human beings. Our behavior, as moral agents, is quite complex and, no doubt, involves our physicality. Nonetheless, a pure physical/neuronal explanation of morality -with no reference to a more comprehensive knowledge of the human person- is rather hazardous. As such, the term “moral enhancement” does not have an immediate, direct connection to some forms of genetic, pharmacological or biotechnological enhancement, unlike the ones targeted at cognitive enhancement.

MS: From an Acton perspective, it is interesting to know if there is some type of “competition” or “economic” factor driving neurological science in the direction of improving the human moral condition. What is at the bottom of all this? For example, is the real inspiration to improve human action found in creating a competitive edge in intelligence within the marketplace? Some might find it hard to believe that secular science is really interested in fostering moral excellence for its own sake in its laboratories. Much less so in its lab rats and guinea pigs!

AG: According to some authors, as with Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Centre for Practical Ethics and head of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, contemporary research aimed at enhancing human cognition will result in an economic improvement (cf. Chap. 1.4 of Enhancing Human Capacities edited by Dr. Savulescu). In other words, better people make for better jobs, and in the end, better, more productive societies – in an economic sense. However, Savulescu’s claim is that such enhancement might also lead to a greater world of evil action. For example, we can use drugs or other biotechnological means to improve our mental abilities, but sometimes also to our detriment: smarter terrorists mean fiercer terrorist attacks with the mental enhancement to fabricate more powerful, more intelligent weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, in Savulescu’s opinion, any means to morally enhance the human species in terms of cognitive enhancement should only progress alongside research on moral enhancement. No one really knows, however, how to improve the human species morally by biotechnological means alone, since morality is not purely “biological”…, although there are certainly biological correlations to human moral behavior.

MS: In your area of neurological research, we must readdress the age old mind-body problem. Thomas Aquinas often referred to the “intermingling” of the material and immaterial in the case of human moral action. Surely there is some truth to the point that the physical makeup of our bodies influences the decisions taken by our minds and acts of the will. Maybe you can give us some practical examples of hormones that may affect the brain and, in the end, human choice.

AG: I agree, and St. Thomas Aquinas had the most unified “neurological vision of the brain” in the Middle Ages. Regarding the hormones that affect the brain, oxytocin is one of them: it is produced by the hypothalamus and stored in the posterior pituitary, a midline structure at the base of our brain. Its role in human labor and lactation is well known. More recently, it has been shown that oxytocin may affect our behavior. In particular, it seems to increase trust, generosity, empathy and reduces fear.

On a related note, I recently saw a video that links genetic predispositions to virtues and vices of human sexuality. For example, scientists claim to have discovered a “monogamy gene” for those who tend toward marital commitment and a “cheating gene” for those who tend toward the opposite moral sphere. Yet studies seemed inconclusive and present many exceptions. At any rate, scientists make it sound as if our physical predisposition manifests itself in behavioral mechanisms. Are we really that animalistic?

First of all, we are humans, with vices and virtues. Genes have a role, and they play it too! However, no single gene will ever explain the “complexity” of our ethical behavior, whether this has to do with the type and quality of our relationships with others or with other aspects of our moral lives. The influence genes have on a few pathological conditions has been studied – such as dangerous aggressiveness and related profound immoral behavior. But the role of such genes and their familiarity is only partly understood.

MS: If I could peek into a genetics laboratory today, I am sure I would find scientists hard at work searching for a new “entrepreneur gene”, or at least one linked to the virtue of “prudential risk tasking”, the lack of which leads to the vices “rash decision making” and eventually “material excess” and “greed”. I imagine some corrupt men on Wall Street are looking for a way to scientifically explain some of their follies, and even profit from it. A discovery, might mean creating more intelligent and morally enhanced CEOs, better entrepreneurs in general, and, perhaps, a panacea to prevent future economic disasters based on immoral actions. Is their any such gene linked to this form moral enhancement?

AG: You are on to something. The search for a “morality” gene or genes is already taking place. It will continue in labs and outside of labs. In fact, functional MRI studies of the brain have been used to investigate moral judgment since 2001 (cf. research conducted by Harvard University’s Dr. Joshua Green and Dr. Marc Hauser). Such studies are aimed at understanding a possible universal basis of moral cognition and behavior. Something similar, for language, was proposed by MIT’s Dr. Noam Chomsky [a philosopher who laid out a breakthrough cognitivist approach to linguistics, introducing a new paradigm for human language and the mind].

MS: Fascinating. Can you explain more?

AG: Proponents of this theory claim that if a person’s moral behavior can be analyzed via functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, while taking on specific moral tasks, we can probably conclude that we have found a way to look at the “biology” of moral judgment. A direct correlation could also be made between the results of the imaging studies and the person’s genetic make up: in this case, we could assume that ethical science and genetic moral enhancement are possible….Some scientists have actually advocated the use of oxytocin to produce greater empathy in men and create a more balanced sense of risk and judgment in them.. Nonetheless, a business man, who takes many risks and makes many daily big decisions, is more than is his own genes or hormones, while obviously in need of them! One sure thing is the more we study human behavior, the more realize just how complex action and moral decision making can be, as is in fact the business world. The market place is very complicated and intricate in terms of decision making processes and human relationships. We have to start thinking in terms of multiple layers, multiple dimensions and an astonishing level of complexity when making sense of human beings and their moral behavior. A “planned science of moral behavior”, much akin to a “planned economy”, would not necessarily work if aiming at producing better entrepreneurs.

Michael Severance

Michael Severance earned his B.A. in philosophy and humane letters from the University of San Francisco, where he also studied at the university's St. Ignatius Institute, a great books program. He then pursued his linguistic studies in Salamanca, Spain where he obtained his Advanced Diploma in Spanish from Spain's Ministry of Education before obtaining his M.A. in Philosophy and Modern Languages from the University of Oxford. While living in Italy, Michael has worked in various professional capacities in religious journalism, public relations, marketing, fundraising, as well as property redevelopment and management. As Istituto Acton's Operations Manager, Michael is responsible for helping to organize international conferences, increase private funding, as well as expand networking opportunities and relations among European businesses, media and religious communities, while managing the day-to-day operations of the Rome office.