Regina Rini, New York University

The Way Forward: Mapping Brains and Finding Direction

According to a recent report in the New York Times, the United States government will soon announce plans to fund the Brain Activity Map. Modelled on the highly successful Human Genome Project, the Brain Activity Map is an effort to identify functional networks of neurons, possibly leading to a full understanding of how mental processes like perception and memory are physically distributed in the brain. The scientific and medical potentials, perhaps including new treatment of conditions like schizophrenia or autism, are fantastic. By developing monitoring techniques like calcium imaging, nanoparticle sensor detection, or synthetic-DNA chemical recording, neuroscientists hope to be able to trace the paths traveled by our thoughts and memories. Yet before setting off on this cartographic adventure, perhaps we ought first stop, and remind ourselves where we already are.

In a 2012 Neuron paper proposing the Brain Activity Map, a group of leading scientists briefly acknowledge some ethical worries, including “issues of mind-control, discrimination, health disparities, unintended short- and long-term toxicities…” This is a reasonable, if somewhat eclectic, list of concerns. But I would like to add one more. Brain-mapping, like gene-mapping, risks making us overconfident in our self-understanding. The better we come to understand our brains, the more tempting it will be to assume we understand our selves.

Think for a moment about the history of major advances in human-directed science: Darwinism, psychoanalytics, behaviourism, sociobiology, cybernetics, genomics. With each progression has come a deluge of sweeping assertions about the new completeness of our self-understanding, followed later by a far quieter admission that whatever else we may be, we are also mysteries. In the worst moments, our fleeting certitude fuelled attempts to reorganize societies along purportedly scientific lines, from racist eugenics to disastrous Marxist utopianism. Even when spared catastrophic miscalculation, we’ve still suffered coarsening reductions in public debate about human nature, where hopes and commitments were temporarily replaced by operant reinforcements or behavioural phenotypes.

The point here is not to deny the reality of scientific descriptions of humanity, nor to retreat into a neo-Romantic induced ignorance. The point is simply to sound a warning, to jot a note to ourselves in this relatively sober moment, before the allure of the scientifically novel begins to blindingly illuminate our horizons. Maps are awesomely seductive bearers of information, so simply compact and so seemingly complete. Mapped brains will be more potent still, enfolding the vanity of portraiture in the certainty of topography.

I’m aware that what I am articulating is not so much an argument as an anxiety. I have no simple take-home message to offer, no action plan or policy recommendation. Certainly we should not attempt to stop the sort of research offered by the Brain Activity Map. Rather, we should support it, fund it, train our children to carry it forward. The potential benefits, to theoretical knowledge and human well-being, are incredible. But there are costs, or at least risks. It would be best to reach first for a bit of preventive humility, a dash of recognition that there are limits on the self-understanding of even such an expert auto-empiricizer as homo sapiens. In Franz Joseph Gall’s original phrenological map, the brain area for Circumspection and Forethought was located right next to the brain area for Vanity.

Facebook Crime and Punishment

Two recent court cases in America highlight the difficulties we face in making ethical sense of social media and individual identity. The cases are quite different – one involves the denial of access to social media, while the others requires its use – but each raises seemingly unresolvable questions about the relation between our internet presences and ourselves.

In Portland, 26-year-old nursing assistant Nai Mai Chao has been convicted of invasion of privacy, for posting to Facebook photographs of patients at the nursing home where she worked. The patients were photographed, without their knowledge, on bedpans and in other embarrassing postures. Chao and her friends evidently wrote mocking comments on the Facebook post. One patient reportedly felt “humiliated” when told about the photograph’s public circulation; he died three months later. As a result of the case, Chao lost her nursing license, has been barred from similar employment, and spent eight days in prison. And she is prohibited from accessing Facebook.

Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Mark Byron was found in contempt of a Domestic Violence Civil Protection Order, after posting to his Facebook wall that his estranged wife was an “evil, vindictive woman” and allowing his friends to write abusive and threatening comments about her. Although Elizabeth Byron could not directly access Mark Byron’s wall (they are not Facebook ‘friends’), mutual contacts alerted her to the posts. The court then ruled that Mark Bryon’s comments were “clearly intended to be mentally abusive”, found him in contempt, and gave him a choice. He could accept jail time, or post an apology – one written for him by the magistrate – on his Facebook wall every single day for one month. Byron chose the latter.

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Can Olympics costs be ethically justified?

I am not a consequentialist, and so I am generally not prone to applying utility-maximization tests to every policy. Yet even I found my greatest-good-for-the-great-number buttons pressed by the news this week that the British government will invest £41million in opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics. This comes on top of £40m the organizers had already budgeted for the ceremonies – and over £1 billion the government expects to spend on security costs.

My initial impulse, for this post, was to play the contrarian and devise an argument to justify the additional £41m ceremony expenditure. I can see two almost-plausible arguments here. The first is a directly consequentialist sort: an extravagant, televised Olympics will attract future tourists to London, bringing revenue to the government and job-creation to its citizens. But this relies on a flimsy empirical assumption. Perhaps a fancy ceremony can create buzz for a city not yet widely visited (Barcelona seems to have done well in this sense, and perhaps Beijing will ultimately benefit from its 2008 extravaganza). But could this plausibly be true of London? There is much debate over whether the Olympics in their entirety will be a net economic gain for the UK. Setting that aside, the idea that an extra £41m on the ceremonies (amid a total Olympic budget close to £10billion) will make much positive difference seems exceedingly implausible. (There’s a helpful discussion of general Olympic funding issues here. )

A second almost-plausible argument has something to do with national pride. Like people everywhere, many British people find personal value in their connection to the nation, and to its public stature. Almost no one expects the London Olympics opening to rival that of Beijing, but surely it matters to many that the ceremony not be a threadbare embarrassment. Perhaps, then, the additional funds are justified. To the extent that national pride contributes to individual identities, and to the extent that this contribution is conducive to individual wellbeing, then even an additional £41m may be money well spent.

Perhaps. But the form of this argument invites comparisons. Are there other ways £41m could contribute to the welbeing of Britons? Perhaps by mitigating spending cuts? By undergirding social service programs? The pro argument here must be that the ceremony expenditure provides either a unique or an especially welfare-multiplying value for money. Is it the case that the national pride stirred by well-executed ceremonies would contribute substantially more to individual wellbeing than some other use of the funds? That seems unclear, at best.

Public expenditure debate has a tendency to trigger utility-calculating impulses, even in non-consequentialists like me. I happen to think that such impulses must often be constrained by certain non-consequentialist principles (call them deontological if you like). But it’s not clear to me that there is any such principle relevant to this case. Therefore, at a time when public sector pensions are being unwound and social services are being cut, it appears difficult to provide an ethical justification for such a large expense on such an ultimately unimportant thing. But perhaps I have missed something here. A question for readers: do you see any grounds, consequentialist or otherwise, to ethically justify the additional £41m of Olympic ceremony public spending?

Prize After Death

On Friday, Dr. Ralph Steinman died. On Monday, he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

This posed a problem for the Nobel committee. Per the award foundation’s bylaws, prizes may not be awarded posthumously. The committee met in emergency session, and resolved to avoid the heartless option of rescinding the dead man’s prize.

This seems a very sensible choice, in a situation whose details could have been designed by a philosopher to test the principles animating the ban on posthumous awards. Apparently Dr. Steinman died only hours before the committee met on Friday to award the prize to him (and to two other researchers, for their work on the immune system). The committee decided that, since it had not learned of Dr. Steinman’s death at the time of the selection, it had made a good faith effort to abide by the rule requiring recipients to live. (The demanding philosopher asks: so, if someone had rushed to call and inform the committee immediately after Dr. Steinman’s death, they would not have awarded it to him? Then, does the merit of an individual Nobel depend in part on the alacrity with which one’s survivors communicate one’s death? But we’ll leave such irritating queries to the side.) Still, two matters of ethical interest remain.

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Enhanced Consequentialism: Up, Up… and Away?

Last week Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal featured a fun, and genuinely thought-provoking, cartoon. Click below to see the cartoon at FULL SIZE, then come back to hear my take on it:


Poor Superman, trapped in a spiral of consequentialist logic! If one really is as powerful as Superman, then it’s no use pleading for a bit of “me time” on the grounds that one’s individual decisions don’t make that much of a difference. For Superman, it really is true that “every second of quibbling is another dead baby.” Even if we let Superman assign a little more value to his own interests and projects (such as fighting criminals) than to those of everyone else, his preferences still completely disappear in the consequentialist calculus. He might find a life of turbine-operation incredibly miserable, but the loss of good to others if he stops is just astronomically large.

Fine, you’ll say: consequentialism makes outrageous demands of comic book characters. So what? Well, I’m about to argue, the rest of us may soon become much more like Superman in this regard – and if you’re a consequentialist, you don’t get a (moral) choice in the matter.

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A Reflection on Confronting Evil

The New York state legislature has nearly approved a bill endorsing same-sex marriage, finally bringing the state in line with such bastions of extravagant liberalism as Argentina, Nepal, and Iowa. Taking to the airwaves in the tradition of Father Charles Coughlin, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan declared the legislation an “ominous threat”. Same-sex marriage is “detrimental for the common good,” said the Archbishop; it violates “the natural law that’s embedded in every man and woman”.

This post is not about gay marriage; I will not present a positive argument for the moral necessity of marriage equality. Similarly, I will not write a post about the moral necessity of racial integration in public education, or about the moral necessity of women’s suffrage. The mere raising of such issues, in a context of argument, implies an open question about the simple human dignity of the people affected. My starting point is that marriage equality is such an issue. My question, instead, is this: how we are we to deal with those among us most responsible for our collective failure to decisively conclude this argument, the very existence of which is morally repugnant?

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Strauss-Kahn, Schwarzenegger, and the Failure of Public Discourse

First came Strauss-Kahn. Then Schwarzenegger. And now Goodwin. Three powerful men, all married, all accused of sexual impropriety. Cue the inevitable trend pieces in the press: why do influential men cheat? But something is wrong here: one of these does not belong. The accusations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn – that he sexually assaulted a housekeeper at his Manhattan luxury hotel – are vastly different from those confronting Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sir Fred Goodwin. The fact that our media culture seems incapable of properly distinguishing rape from simple adultery suggests a failure of moral sensitivity, and perhaps a triumph of prurient gossip-mongering over sincere ethical concern.

TRIGGER WARNING: if you experience discussion of sexual assault as potentially traumatizing, it may be best to read no further.

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