Monday, January 02, 2006

Nation article on neuroethics

Neuroethics is slowly beginning to get some attention from the non-academic press. One of the persons responsible for this emerging interest is Martha Farah who has written a number of papers on neuroethics. (Find them here at her homepage.) She has also been instrumental in establishing the Neuroethics Centre at the University of Pennsylvania which has an informative webpage. Recently, she has been named an action editor at the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, charged with the task of including papers on neuroethics in the journal.

In the January 9 issue of the journal The Nation Kathryn Schulz has a piece on neuroethics where she interviews Farah and Neuroethics Centre director Arthur Caplan. The article focuses on the two most basic ethical problems that neuroscientific research raises. (1) Implications of insights into brain function. Can the ability to probe people's brains be misused? (As Thomas mentions below, neuroimaging could possibly become a mandatory part of job interviews.) Should our understanding of agency change the legal system? (2) Neuroenhancement. When we come to understand the molecular processes governing the brain this knowledge could potentially be used to change the way people's brains work. This possibility is of course already a reality, with psychopharmacology leading the race, but it will continue to grow in importance. Who should have access to such enhancing drugs and surgery? What part of our mind and personality should be exempt from outside meddling?

In the last part of the article Schulz raises a third ethical problem which has received somewhat less attention. Being a liberal or progressive journal, The Nation is prone to see technological fixes as more dubious than more basic social changes. However, the idea of changing people through social changes pressuposes a plastic idea of the brain: People's values can be changes through their environment. Opposed to this view is "human nature" contention that we are born with a specific set of cognitive faculties that are only malleable to a very small degree. This old nature vs. nuture question is alive and well and concerns our very self-image: What is a human being? Neuroethics should be encouraged to take up such basic philosophical question as well.


Schulz, K. (2006): Brave neuro world: The ethics of the new brain science. The Nation (January 9, 2006).


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