Guest Post: What puts the ‘mental’ in mental illness?

Written by Anke Snoek

Macquarie University

I have a 3 year old who doesn’t eat. He seems not to be interested in food in general. We were offered many explanations for why he doesn’t eat and most specialists suspect a psychological source for his lack of appetite. But recently a friend suggested that maybe there is something wrong with the muscles in his mouth that makes it hard to swallow. I wondered: why didn’t I get offered more of these physical explanations as opposed to psychological ones? What makes ‘not eating’ almost by definition a mental disorder for most people? What other behaviour are we inclined to label as a mental disorder rather than staying open for other explanations? Continue reading

From Self-Interest to Morality: How Moral Progress Might Be Possible

One of the most stunning successes I have personally seen in my life is the emergence of the Effective Altruism movement. I remember when Will Crouch (now MacAskill) first presented 80 000 hours to our Graduate Discussion Group and Toby Ord was still a grad student. From their ideas a whole movement has emerged of brilliant young people galvanised into doing good. We are getting the brightest, best people of the current generation coming to Oxford to engage with the Centre for Effective Altruism. Almost every grad student I come across has some connection. Well done Will and Toby, and all those others who have contributed to establishing this movement

So I guess I should not have been surprised when during my visit to Harvard this week, a student contacted me from EA to give an ad hoc talk. I discovered there were cells all over the world and the movement had spread way beyond Oxford.

Anyway, I gave an impromptu talk and predictably there were many questions I could not answer satisfactorily. One the issues I covered was the need to create a new basic (or minimal) secular morality. This is necessary not only to decide what the goals of moral bioenhancement should be (my favourite current pet topic), but indeed how education should be revised and society ordered. Every society has a set of normative commitments. Ours are outdated, archaic and unfit for the challenges of a globalised, interconnected and technologically advanced world.

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Guest Post: Pervitin instead of coffee? Change in attitudes to cognitive enhancement in the 50’s and 60’s in Brazil  


Written by Marcelo de Araujo

State University of Rio de Janeiro

CNPq – The Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development

How does our attitude to drugs in general shape our reaction to “smart drugs” in particular? Ruairidh Battleday and Anna-Katharine Brem have recently published a systematic review of 24 studies on the effect of modafinil on healthy individuals. They concluded that “modafinil may well deserve the title of the first well-validated pharmaceutical ‘nootropic’ agent.”[1] This publication has rekindled the debate on the ethics of “smart drugs”. Of course further studies are necessary for a better assessment of the safety and efficacy of modafinil. But if modafinil, or some other drug, proves safe and effective in the future, are there reasons to oppose its widespread use in society?

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Less cooperation, please

Written by Joao Fabiano

Since the idea of enhancing human morality was proposed – and perhaps long before then – there has been a great deal of scientific research directly or indirectly inspired by the goal of improving human moral dispositions. Manipulations which result in increased levels of cooperation, prosociality or altruism are often seen as promising discoveries towards the path of developing moral enhancement technologies. The fact that increasing cooperation between individuals would be going in the wrong direction seems to be ignored. The problem moral enhancement proposes to fix is large-scale cooperation – cooperation between groups of individuals – not between individuals inside a group. Issues like global warming and nuclear disarmament arise primarily in the interaction between large groups of individuals, not in the interaction of individuals within the same group.

In actuality, humans already cooperate well inside small groups. We have evolved many emotional and cognitive mechanisms which enable us to function quite satisfactorily in the context of small cooperative groups such as the ones more frequently prominent in pharmacological research. Many have proposed local economies as the ideal design for producing sustainable management of common resources[1]. There is not that much room for improvement there.

On the other hand, when it comes to interactions between groups of different religions, nationalities and morals we can fail spectacularly. What’s more, our ability to cooperate well inside groups seems to be directly correlated with our inability for cooperation between groups. Continue reading

Guest Post: Must we throw out the brain with the bathwater? Marc Lewis on addiction

Written by Anke Snoek

Macquarie University

When neuroscience started to mingle into the debate on addiction and self-control, people aimed to use these insights to cause a paradigm shift in how we judge people struggling with addictions. People with addictions are not morally despicable or weak-willed, they end up addicted because drugs influence the brain in a certain way. Anyone with a brain can become addicted, regardless their morals. The hope was that this realisation would reduce the stigma that surrounds addiction. Unfortunately, the hoped for paradigm shift didn’t really happen, because most people interpreted this message as: people with addictions have deviant brains, and this view provides a reason to stigmatise them in a different way. Continue reading

The Ethics of Compulsory Chemical Castration: Is Non-Consensual Treatment Ever Permissible?

By Jonathan Pugh

Tory Grant, the justice minister for New South Wales (NSW) in Australia, has announced the establishment of a task force to investigate the potential for the increased use of anti-libidinal treatments (otherwise known as chemical castration) in the criminal justice system. Such treatments aim to reduce recidivism amongst sexual offenders by dramatically reducing the offender’s level of testosterone, essentially rendering them impotent. The treatment is reversible; its effects will stop when the treatment is ceased. Nonetheless, as I shall explain below, it has also been linked with a number of adverse side effects.

Currently, in New South Wales offenders can volunteer for this treatment, whilst courts in Victoria and Western Australia have the discretion to impose chemical castration as a condition of early release. However, Grant’s task force has been established to consider giving judges the power to impose compulsory chemical castration as a sentencing option. Notably though, New South Wales would not be the first jurisdiction to implement compulsory chemical castration in the criminal justice system. For instance, Florida and Poland also permit compulsory chemical castration of sex offenders.

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Brain in a Vat: 5 Challenges for the In Vitro Brain

Julian Savulescu


In Roald Dahl’s short story, William and Mary, William dies of cancer. But a novel procedure allows his brain, with one eye attached, to be kept functioning in a clear plastic vat. His wife convinces William’s neurosurgeon to allow her to take William (or rather his brain and eye) home with her.

When home, Mary places William in a prominent place in the sitting room from where he can survey all her actions. He had been a domineering and controlling husband. He forbade her to have a TV and to smoke. Now, Mary purchases a TV and takes up smoking, blowing smoke in the direction of William. She will punish him for his abuse and his brain may stay alive, utterly powerless, for up to 200 years.

This story was science fiction. But yesterday, the first step to creating the brain in a vat was reported in the US. Back in July 2013, scientists reported the first organ grown from stem cells: a liver. A kidney, heart and other organs have followed. The potential of these technologies to eventually provide replacement organs is also an opportunity to sweep away complex ethical issues: most obviously in avoiding the need for organ donation, but also in enhancing the ability to test drugs on lab grown organs before testing in humans- reducing the risk of harm to research participants, hopefully some day to a negligible amount.

Now, just 2 years later, the first brain has been grown in a laboratory. The organoid has been grown for 12 weeks, the equivalent of a 5 week old foetus.

Lead researcher Professor Rene Anand, from Ohio State University in the US,

“It not only looks like the developing brain, its diverse cell types express nearly all genes like a brain.”

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Is this really me? Parasites and other humans’ cells in our brains change our psychology

Many people are suspicious about being manipulated in their emotions, thoughts or behaviour by external influences, may those be drugs or advertising. However, it seems that – unbeknown to most of us – within our own bodies exist a considerable number of foreign entities. These entities can change our psychology to a surprisingly large degree. And they pursue their own interests – which do not necessarily coincide with ours.

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Ethics of the Minimally Conscious State: It’s Complicated

Last week I attended a conference on the science of consciousness in Helsinki. While there, I attended a very interesting session on the Minimally Conscious State (MCS). This is a state that follows severe brain damage. Those diagnosed as MCS are thought to have some kind of conscious mental life, unlike those in Vegetative State. If that is right – so say many bioethicists and scientists – then the moral implications are profound. But what kind of conscious mental life is a minimally conscious mental life? What kind of evidence can we muster for an answer to this question? And what is the moral significance of whatever answer we favor? One takeaway from the session (for me, at least): it’s complicated.

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What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There: Failure Modes on the Way to Global Cooperation

By Joao Fabiano and Diego Caleiro (UC Berkeley, Biological Anthropology)

From single-celled to pluricellular to multicellular organisms or from hunter-gatherers to the EU, the history NASA Flickrof evolutionary forces that resulted in human society is a history where cooperation has emerged at increasingly large scales. The major life transitions and, once human, the major cultural transitions have rearranged the fitness landscape of evolving entities in ways that increased the size of the largest existing coalitions. Notwithstanding, it seems that freewheeling evolution will not lead to satisfactory levels of global human cooperation in time to prevent severe risks. Nor it will lead to the preservation of human values in the long run; humans, human values, and human cooperation are in no way the end-point of evolutionary processes. Continue reading


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