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

Anorexia Nervosa and Deep Brain Stimulation: Philosophical Analysis of Potential Mechanisms

By Hannah Maslen, Jonathan Pugh and Julian Savulescu


According to the NHS, the number of hospital admissions across the UK for teenagers with eating disorders has nearly doubled in the last three years. In a previous post, we discussed some ethical issues relating to the use of deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat anorexia nervosa (AN). Although the trials of this potential treatment are still in very early, investigational stages (and may not necessarily become an approved treatment), the invasive nature of the intervention and the vulnerability of the potential patients are such that anticipatory ethical analysis is warranted. In this post, we show how different possible mechanisms of intervention raise different questions for philosophers to address. The prospect of intervening directly in the brain prompts exploration of the relationships between a patient’s various mental phenomena, autonomy and identity. Continue reading

Stopping the innocent from pleading guilty

Written by Dr John Danaher.

Dr Danaher is a Lecturer in Law at NUI Galway. His research interests include neuroscience and law, human enhancement, and the ethics of artificial intelligence.

A version of this post was previously published here.

Somebody recently sent me a link to an article by Jed Radoff entitled “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty”. Radoff’s article is an indictment of the plea-bargaining system currently in operation in the US. Unsurprisingly given its title, it argues that the current system of plea bargaining encourages innocent people to plead guilty, and that something must be done to prevent this from happening.

I recently published a paper addressing the same problem. The gist of its argument is that I think that it may be possible to use a certain type of brain-based lie detection — the P300 Concealed Information Test (P300 CIT) — to rectify some of the problems inherent in systems of plea bargaining. The word “possible” is important here. I don’t believe that the technology is currently ready to be used in this way – I think further field testing needs to take place – but I don’t think the technology is as far away as some people might believe either.

What I find interesting is that, despite this, there is considerable resistance to the use of the P300 CIT in academic and legal circles. Some of that resistance stems from unwarranted fealty to the status quo, and some stems from legitimate concerns about potential abuses of the technology (miscarriages of justice etc.). I try to overcome some of this resistance by suggesting that the P300 CIT might be better than other proposed methods for resolving existing abuses of power within the system. Hence my focus on plea-bargaining and the innocence problem.

Anyway, in what follows I’ll try to give a basic outline of my argument. As ever, for the detail, you’ll have to read the original paper. Continue reading

‘Competitive Altruism’ – Why attractive women are the most successful fundraisers

By Nadira Faber

Why do humans help others even when it is costly and nothing is to be expected in return? This question has not only developed into a classic in different empirical disciplines, but is also of high interest for fundraisers like charities who would like to know how to increase donations.

A study recently publish in Current Biology gives interesting real-life evidence for why people help that might sound like a paradox at first: ‘competitive altruism’.

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