Jonathan Moreno began his career as a medical ethicist, helping doctors and families answer some of the most unanswerable questions in medicine:
“The typical question was, ‘Do we let grandma die now, or do we wait?’” remembers Moreno. “‘What does Uncle John really want? What was that thing he said that one time, about not wanting to live like this? And what did he really mean?’”
Moreno says finding the answers to those questions was “difficult.” Remarkably, he may be tackling even thornier issues today.
Moreno, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor in the departments of medical ethics and history and sociology of science, has spent the last decade investigating the ethics of warfare—everything from the testing of chemical and biological weapons to the U.S. military’s interest in neuroscience. He is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on ethics as related to such topics as brain research and national security and intelligence.
It’s an expertise Moreno found, he admits, somewhat by accident. In 1994, he was chosen to participate in a presidential commission investigating the U.S. government’s secret testing of biological and chemical weapons throughout the mid-20th Century. The appointment gave Moreno access to classified government documents, led to the publication of his first book, “Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans,” and turned his attention to subjects that, even now, most other medical ethicists won’t touch.
“A lot of people in the field didn’t realize that there was this whole other universe of issues and this whole history of the classified world—the world of intelligence and national security,” Moreno says.
His most recent book, “Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense,” explored how neuroscience could change modern warfare.
Q. You seem to be the only researcher doing what you do. Why is that?
A. I don’t know. Its importance seems pretty obvious to me, particularly the niche I’ve developed, which is bioethics in the history of national security research. Honestly, there’s nobody else out there. There are people who are interested in more specific areas, such as a colleague who is going to come and talk to my seminar this fall about the ethics of mass casualties and the ethics of chemical weapons exposures, and how you handle those ethically as a doctor. But nobody else has looked at the ethics and history of testing biological weapons, chemical weapons, atomic weapons, and now, neuroscience, brain research and national defense.
Q. After you served on the presidential commission on government testing of weapons, you wrote “Undue Risk.” What happened then?
A. I didn’t really know what to do after “Undue Risk.” I figured, ‘Well I got that off my chest. But this has no relevance anymore.’ I thought the Cold War was finished, and that nobody would be interested in weapons of mass destruction anymore.
Q. That obviously didn’t turn out to be the case.
A. No. it was unbelievable. It was an insane setup. Everything just fell right into what I do. I sit on all of these various committees now, like this one on cognitive science and the future of intelligence. And it occurred to me, all of these anti-science tendencies we’re seeing [in politics] really is unpatriotic, right? We need good science. ... The 21st century is at least partly going to be about asymmetric warfare, and, frankly, somebody with just some advanced training in biology can make something in his garage. They can’t make a nuclear weapon, but they could genetically modify an organism and spray it on every salad bar on I-95. It’s serious, and it’s just on my mind. It just shows how these science questions, these cultural questions, are just a part of the world we live in now. It’s something I wouldn’t have predicted. Really, when I did “Undue Risk,” I thought that was that.
Q. So if this stuff is so important, so relevant to national security, why aren’t more researchers looking into it?
A. I’m not really sure why. I think it’s partly because it’s kind of creepy. And to do it, you have to have an abiding interest not only in history and ethics but also in political science and political history, and you have to be very patient with yourself, because you have to learn something all the time. You have the intelligence system. You have to be willing to tread into complicated science areas where you don’t have any credentials in, like microbiology. It’s taken me a dozen years to develop an expertise and I’m not anywhere close to being done.
Q. You mentioned that your work is creepy. Does it effect you?
A. I’m lucky that I’m not a paranoid person. If I had those tendencies, I couldn’t do this. Sometimes people will ask me, especially now with the election coming up: ‘What’s the inside story?’ I tell them, there is no inside story. On the intelligence side, the more I learn about the way the world works, the more I’m amazed that it works at all. Nobody knows what the hell is going on. Nobody has the total picture. I have become much less of a conspiracy theorist than I could have been, because when you start looking at how things really happen, it’s like the one definition of history—it’s just one damn thing after another. Things just happen. People muddle through. Occasionally there’s somebody who has a lot of power and authority who sets up a program, but how it actually plays out is not usually in that person’s control.
Q. Has Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq spurred activity in the development of new weapons?
A. There is a hangover from the Cold War. In the area of biological agents, there is a worry about genetic modification—like, if you could hook up the Ebola virus to the flu, you could have people wandering around and infecting others for a while. There are some toxins, like Ricin, which comes from castor beans, that people are worried about. There’s continuing concern about radiation, dirty bombs, that kind of thing. But the new thing is neuroscience. That’s the new area. There’s so much going on in brain science. Penn is probably the most important place in the world for that. And what’s new is all this amazing stuff we’re learning about the brain. The question is, what are the implications for national defense, and what are the threats?
Q. It seems as though the brain is the final frontier in warfare.
A. Yes, the final frontier. And I’m not the only one to argue that the brain is where wars happen, particularly in wars where there is a terrorist element. If you feel defeated, you are defeated. Morale is critical. And in the case of terrorism, it’s not about the existential survival question the way it was during the Cold War, when the Soviets were going to blow us off the map. In terrorism it’s really about how threatened people feel.
Q. This is the ground you covered in “Mind Wars,” correct?
A. Yes, starting with a history of the government’s interest in behavior and the brain, dating to before the second world war, and then bringing it up to really modern neuroscience, and everything from brain-machine interaction to managing the input that a pilot is getting in a complicated battle zone, to new drugs that can keep people awake indefinitely. There are all kinds of things out there, all kinds of non-lethal weapons ideas—weapons that can, for instance, put people to sleep. It’s about controlling behavior, and ultimately gaining a greater understanding of the way the brain works. The question is whether it would be “mind control.” That’s one of the big philosophical questions. How far can we go? This is also really at the cutting edge of “enhancement.” Is there is a basic human nature that we’re violating? Is this wrong? Sammy Sosa—was that wrong? Sports, whether its biking or baseball, is just a case study into the larger question: Is there something about being human that we need to protect from these various ways of modifying ourselves?
Q. Do you have an opinion on that?
A. Well, to some extent, I feel I do. And in other ways I’m as confused as everyone else. I don’t think there is any reason why some of these things cannot enhance human dignity rather than undermine it. In bioethics, there is a group that believes there is something about human nature, and human dignity, that is being trampled upon by all of this. I’m not so sure. I think it’s case by case. There are also people who object to this, not on conservative grounds, but on far-left grounds, saying that, yes, there will be people that benefit from these things, but they will be the people in society who are already benefiting. Meanwhile, the others will be left behind—the poor and disadvantaged. I’m kind of a moderate on this. Some of these things will be fine. Other things aren’t so fine but we’ll have to make social arrangements for them.
Q. Is there a tipping point, you think, that will finally bring these issues to the forefront of public discourse?
A. The tipping point will be the brain. I think when we start with neural prosthetics—actually putting things into the brain, where you can, for example, get more downloadable memory in your brain. That will be it. That’s messing with the brain in a physical way, and that’s going to be the breaking point.
Originally published Sept. 6, 2007.
Originally published on September 6, 2007