Ethical Issues in Neuroscience

Progress in science and technology today is so fast and so complex, societies and their governments are struggling to keep up. A daylong session on neuroethics Tuesday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) raised more questions than answers, but it also brought home hard the necessity for answers.

How do we use what we have learned and will learn about the brain? To change the minds of our nation’s enemies? To predict and detain those of us who might become serial killers? To add neuromachines to soldiers’ brains that keep them alert all night?

“We tend to underplay the impact that our fields have on society,” said Michael Swetman of the Potomac Institute, the other co-sponsor of the event, but science and technology “are the single most important driver of change in the world.”  In our time, we are undergoing a revolution in communications technology, living longer, and developing nanotechnologies and neurotechnologies, each a development that “could change everything,” he said. In addition, the rate of change in all these areas, with leaps coming in 12-18 month intervals, is lapping the rate of change in policies to deal with the “fallout of change,” he said.

For example, if we were to develop effective devices that cured illness or improved mental skills by reading brain activity or even piecing together thoughts, it might be illegal for a person with high security clearance to ever use them. Because they know state secrets, tapping into their brains could be considered a security breach. They never consented to giving up this chance at health or enhancement; even so, should we ban them from it for life?

The morning was spent discussing issues of neuroethics in defense. In the afternoon, we turned to promoting and teaching standards in the field. Discussion of ethics should happen concurrently with learning about the subject, said panelist James Giordano, chief of the neuroethics studies program at Georgetown. And university level is too late: “What once was learned in the first year of college is now in the curriculum of many high schools. We need to address neuroscience and neuroethics at the level of the high-school student.”

In terms of social and political policy, “We needed to start to think about the ethics of neuro 20 years ago,” Swetman said. “It’s time we started to develop doctrine,” starting with statements of belief we can agree on about the neuro-world. Similar to “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” perhaps we might agree that “Everyone has the right to keep their thoughts private” or “Everyone has the right to refuse enhancement” (or not). When we can agree on the doctrine, we can better write and judge laws and regulations that govern such technology.

“This workshop is the first step,” Swetman said. “We need to be moving to the second step.”

I saw most of the event via webcast; those attending also participated in two small-group sessions where they talked about what they thought of the topics. The webcasts are available on the Potomac Institute’s site. (The agenda and panelist’s biographies – PDF)

—Nicky Penttila

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