Moral Clarity: The Book

Neiman:  I began to write this book on November 3, 2004. I had come back to the States to give a series of lectures on my last book, which is on the subject of evil, and I had timed those lectures to coincide with what I thought would be the celebration of the end of the Bush administration. As you can imagine, on November 3, 2004, as I sat there drinking four double espressos, trying to get myself off the floor enough to talk about evil, I felt particularly disturbed about the fact that people claimed they had voted against the Democrats because the Democrats were lacking in moral clarity or they didn’t have moral values. I think particularly looked at from abroad, although most Americans now see it that way, an administration that’s re-instituted torture, lied its way in to a war for which it can’t even provide for the soldiers who are losing limbs and mental health there, is hard to define as being morally clear or having strong moral values, but it seemed to me that I had two choices. One was to say, “Okay. All the people who voted that way have simply been bamboozled by talk about values and their real interests lie elsewhere,” or I could examine what the faults on my own progressive side were and to say, “What have we been doing wrong?”  And I think that it’s true that secular progressives in particular have had trouble with moral language so I decided the thing that I could best or most helpfully do really for my country as somebody with philosophical skills was to write a book reclaiming moral language for progressive purposes.

Question: How did conservatives hijack morality?

Neiman:  I think they did it in a number of ways. After the ‘60s, the left was properly concerned I think that we had been too theoretical, too ideological and that it was- part of the reason why the left had failed in the United States was that we hadn’t been pragmatic enough, and all of that was true but the direction that the left turned in was I think fatal. Instead of talking about ideas they talked about interests, and what you had then was an interest-based politics which took what might have been the greatest achievement of the civil rights movement, which was to convince many people--  And I grew up in Atlanta. I was a child in the middle of the civil rights movement so it’s a big part of my background is the belief that good people of whatever background need to stand up together for universal rights because there was an old song that said all men are slaves until our brothers are free. That’s what I grew up believing, all of that, also symbolized by many of the civil rights leaders, Bob Moses, who said this is not about black versus white people; it’s about rational versus irrational people. Instead of that spirit which animated the early civil rights movement, people began to think that politics was about interest groups, it was about black rights, it was about women’s rights, it was about gay rights, it was about, as you see the mess that we are in now. And I think it was a terrible mistake because it took us back to the sort of tribal politics that are actually pre Socratic where what everybody believes is the bottom line is my group wants power over your group. This is not in the end a direction that can mobilize or inspire anyone but it’s the direction that the left went in. The right, on the other hand, went off to build think tanks and it was very interesting. You had all kinds of businessmen funding people to read Plato and Aristotle.  It’s quite extraordinary that you had an anti-intellectual movement on the left and an intellectual turn on the right and they had- they were thinking in long terms and they took over. Again that’s a simplified view of what I think happened but it’s a piece of what I think went wrong when you have conservatives--   And this is an international question by the way; it’s not simply a national question. You see the same thing happening in Europe. Conservatives are using the language of universal values that the left is no longer able to use without these horrible quotation marks, scare quotes. I think another factor played a huge role, which is in 1989 even those of us who hadn’t been communists and who had been distinguishing for a long time between what we called real existing socialism, which was not socialism as one wanted it to be. I think the collapse of the Soviet Union made painfully clear to people who had been wanting to avoid that that things in real existing socialism were even worse than we had suspected so that it was easy to take the line--  Many people who shared ideals that we shared and had been willing to fight and die for them had actually wound up committing genuine crimes and, if that’s the outcome of people who are willing to live and die for ideals, maybe the world will be better off if we did nothing. I think it was an understandable conclusion, not a correct conclusion. I think we’re still reeling from that conclusion. We’re now talking about it. This is 18 years ago. It’s not very long that we’ve had to rethink things. We’re still in a process of rethinking and I’m hoping to contribute to that.

Susan Neiman discusses her new book, Moral Clarity.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
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