An Apologia for Neuroethics

I recently read with great interest this “Against Neuroethics” piece on the Mind Hacks blog, and will respond here:

There is much that we can do with neuroscience, its techniques and technological tools, but in each and every case, it is important to consider what should be done, given the attractiveness and limits of neuroscientific knowledge, socio-cultural realities, extant – and newly developing – moral constructs, and the potential to use any scientific and technological tool to evoke good or harm. At the fore is the need to regard neuroscience as a human endeavor. Therefore, we are responsible for the relative rightness and/or wrongness of the ways that neuroscientific knowledge and interventions are employed. Brain research and neurotechnology extend the boundaries of self-understanding, and may alter the way we view and treat both humans and non-human beings (e.g., animals, artificially intelligent machines, etc). Furthermore, neuroscience and neurotechnology provide means to control cognition, emotion, and behavior. While beneficent motives may drive the use of such capabilities, neuroscience is not enacted in a social vacuum, and thus, such interventions and manipulations are subject to the often-capricious influences of the market and political power. Accordingly, we must ask how these goods and resources will be employed, distributed, and what effect this will incur on individuals, groups, and society.

The field and practice of neuroethics is dedicated to such tasks.  Neuroethics entails two “traditions”: the “first tradition” represents multi-disciplinary studies of putative neural bases of moral cognition and behavior (viz. ‘neuromorality’ or better, perhaps ‘neuroecology’). Neuroethics in the second tradition is a form of bioethics, in that it addresses ethical issues arising in and from neuroscientific research and its applications in medicine, public life, and national defense. However, I opine that it is indeed a specialized  – and perhaps unique -branch of bioethics given the rapidly changing epistemic capital, persistent “hard problems,” and far-reaching implications of neuroscience.

I am fond of using the term “neurobioethics” in that I feel it conveys a more accurate description of what the field is – and should be. Neurobioethics conjoins the inter-disciplinary nature of bioethics, and axiomatically grounds the discourse to the naturalistic philosophy and ethics of biology. But it’s important to go beyond purely philosophical musings, and advance this construct into the practical realm. Neurobioethics addresses both the neurobiological substrates of morality, and fosters a neurocentric consideration for the moral concern and treatment of living organisms, that views consciousness, panience, and sentience as principal qualities upon which to base, initiate, and enact moral regard.

We cannot stop neuroscientific progress, nor should we. I have recently stated that it would be unwise and irresponsible to: “…ignore the gravitas of neuroscientific information, its impact upon society, the resultant ethical (and legal) situations that will arise, and the necessity to make moral decision about the ways neuroscience and its tools are employed.” In this light, I maintain that neuro(bio)ethics could serve to guide the scope and tenor of current neuroscientific research and applications, and ensure preparedness for the contingencies and consequences of neuroscientific advancements in the future.

  • For more on neuroethics, see: Racine, E. Pragmatic neuroethics: improving treatment and understanding of the mind-brain. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2010.
  • For even more on neuroethics, see: Levy, N.  Neuroethics: a new way of doing ethics. AJOB Neuroscience.2011; 2(2): 3-9.
  • For more on neuroethical issues concerning commutative and distributive justice, see: Giordano, J. Neuroethical issues in neurogenetic and neuro-implantation technology: the need for pragmatism and preparedness in practice and policy. Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, 2011. 4 (3) Article 4.
  • For more on the two “traditions,” see: Giordano, J. Neuroethics: interacting ‘traditions’ as a viable meta-ethics. AJOB Neuroscience. 2011; 2(2): 17-19.
  • For more on developing an emerging ethic, see: Jonas, H. The imperative of responsibility: in search of an ethics for the technological age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
  • For more on the neural basis of pain, see: Niebroj, L., D. Jadamus-Niebroj, and J. Giordano. Toward a moral grounding of pain medicine: consideration of neuroscience, reverence, beneficience, and autonomy. Pain Physician 2008; 11: 7-12.
  • For more on regard for consciousness and panience, see: Giordano, J., and J. Pedroni. The legacy of Albert Schweitzer’s virtue ethics within a contemporary philosophy of medicine. In: Reverence for life revisited: the legacy of Albert Schweitzer, eds D. Ives, and D. Valone. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars’ Press, 2007.
  • For historical insight into the concept of a “holistic” bioethics, see: Jahr, F.  Bio-Ethik: eine Umschau uber die ethischen Beziehungen des Menschen zu Tier und Pflanze. Kosmos, 1927: 2-4.

The views expressed in this blog are exclusively those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies and/or the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

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