Neuroethics – A scientific perspective with uncertainties

Stanford defines neuroethics is an interdisciplinary research area that focuses on ethical issues raised by our increased and constantly improving understanding of the brain and our ability to monitor and influence it, as well as on ethical issues that emerge from our concomitant deepening understanding of the biological bases of agency and ethical decision-making.

Neuroethics focuses on ethical issues raised by our continually improving understanding of the brain, and by consequent improvements in our ability to monitor and influence brain function. Significant attention to neuroethics can be traced to 2002, when the Dana Foundation organized a meeting of neuroscientists, ethicists, and other thinkers, entitled Neuroethics: Mapping the Field. A participant at that meeting, columnist and wordsmith William Safire, is often credited with introducing and establishing the meaning of the term “neuroethics”, defining it as

the examination of what is right and wrong, good and bad about the treatment of, perfection of, or unwelcome invasion of and worrisome manipulation of the human brain.

Marcus 2002: 5

Sources: Brain facts

As the framers of the U.S. constitution were well aware, freedom is intimately linked with privacy: even being monitored is considered potentially “chilling” to the kinds of freedoms our society aims to protect. One type of freedom that has been championed in American jurisprudence is “the right to be let alone” (Warren and Brandeis 1890), to be free from government or other intrusion in our private lives.

In the past, mental privacy could be taken for granted: the first person accessibility of the contents of consciousness ensured that the contents of one’s mind remained hidden to the outside world, until and unless they were voluntarily disclosed. Instead, the battles for freedom of thought were waged at the borders where thought meets the outside world—in expression—and were won with the First Amendment’s protections for those freedoms. Over the last half century, technological advances have eroded or impinged upon many traditional realms of worldly privacy. Most of the avenues for expression can be (and increasingly are) monitored by third parties. It is tempting to think that the inner sanctum of the mind remains the last bastion of real privacy. [Reference]

These and other technologies were not even imagined a few decades ago, and it is likely that other future technologies will emerge which we cannot currently conceive of. If many neuroethical issues are closely tied to the capabilities of neurotechnologies, as I have argued, then we are unlikely to anticipate future technologies in enough detail to predict the constellation of neuroethical issues that they may give rise to. Neuroethics will have to grow as neuroscience does, adapting to novel ethical and technological challenges.


%d bloggers like this: