Competing Perspectives in Neuroethics

new-ins-logoThe Friday morning panel at the International Neuroethics Society (INS) annual meeting invited four speakers from four backgrounds–medicine, law, social sciences, and philosophy–to discuss the competing perspectives in neuroethics. Each panelist gave a short presentation on how their discipline approaches neuroethics, but the heart of the discussion came in the question and answer session with the audience where they delved into the opportunities and pitfalls of having such a highly diverse field.

Because it’s a relatively new field with impressive disciplinary diversity, there is no defined career path for a neuroethicist. A graduate student looking to pursue a neuroethics career earnestly asked the panel how he should do so, since many established in the field had rather circuitous paths to the profession.

Paul Appelbaum, a psychiatrist and expert on legal and ethical issues in medicine and psychiatry, said he understood the frustration and the desire to want structure and clarity, but that to expect those things of this rapidly evolving field is “maybe not reasonable.” But in terms of creating an academic base, he recommended training in bioethics, neuroscience, and methods (conceptual and empirical) that neuroethics uses.

Ilina Singh, a professor of neuroethics and society with a background in philosophy and psychiatry, emphasized that to thrive in neuroethics, one needs to understand the science and have contact with scientists. And while she didn’t dispute the need for specialized training, she questioned how cash-strapped universities could pay for this training, and why neuroscience students should consider these classes when many just want to get through school and into labs.

Perhaps an even bigger question is: How can a common curriculum be developed when countries vary so widely in laws, values, and environments? Can neuroethics be international and not just Anglo-centric?

The panelists seemed to think yes, but it’s certainly not straightforward. A repeated theme throughout the discussion was that there are many parts that form a whole in neuroethics, and when taking a global view, people must respect cultural differences. Philosopher Tom Buller noted that the scientific worldview is only one worldview; it’s not accepted by a large portion of the world’s population. Several panelists and audience members called out the need to include religious perspectives in ongoing discussions, particularly in the context of what it means to be a person. Buller said that he would have added a theologian to this panel.

Regarding research, Appelbaum said that challenges and methods in neuroscience are similar regardless of location, but the answers may not be the same based on cultural and environmental differences.

And Buller drew attention to the need for neuroethics to be international in terms of fair distribution of funding, saying that we cannot have haves and have-nots with resources such as expensive technology—a sentiment also shared the evening before at the INS public talk on the ethics of emerging technology.

Despite the ongoing challenges of creating a universal neuroethics dialogue, panelists lauded the efforts of the International Neuroethics Society and similar forums where diverse groups can come together to learn from one another.

“We can still learn a whole lot and be open to critiques,” said Dana Alliance member and panel moderator Eric Racine.

–Ann L. Whitman

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