neuroethics

Making Ourselves Better

Written by Stephen Rainey

Human beings are sometimes seen as uniquely capable of enacting life plans and controlling our environment. Take technology, for instance; with it we make the world around us yield to our desires in various ways. Communication technologies, and global transport, for example, have the effect of practically shrinking a vast world, making hitherto impossible coordination possible among a global population. This contributes to a view of human-as-maker, or ‘homo faber‘. But taking such a view can risk minimising human interests that ought not to be ignored.

Homo faber is a future-oriented, adaptable, rational animal, whose efforts are aligned with her interests when she creates technology that enables a stable counteraction of natural circumstance. Whereas animals are typically seen to have well adapted responses to their environment, honed through generations of adaptation, human beings appear to have instead a general and adaptable skill that can emancipate them from material, external circumstances. We are bad at running away from danger, for instance, but good at building barriers to obviate the need to run. The protections this general, adaptable skill offer are inherently future-facing: humans seem to seek not to react to, but to control the environment.

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Neurointerventions, Disrespectful Messages, and the Right to be Listened to

Written by Gabriel De Marco

Neurointerventions can be roughly described as treatments or procedures that act directly on the physical properties of the brain in order to affect the subject’s psychological characteristics. The ethics of using neurointerventions can be quite complicated, and much of the discussion has revolved around the use of neurointerventions to improve the moral character of the subjects. Within this debate, there is a sub-debate concerning the use of enhancement techniques on criminal offenders. For instance, some jurisdictions make use of chemical castration, intended to reduce the subjects’ level of testosterone in order to reduce the likelihood of further sexual offenses. One particularly thorny question regards the use of neurointerventions on offenders without their consent. Here, I focus on just one version of one objection to the use of non-consensual neurocorrectives (NNs).

According to one style of objection, NNs are always impermissible because they express a disrespectful message. To be clear, the style objection I consider does not appeal to the potential consequences of expressing this message; rather, it relies on the claim that there is something intrinsic to the expression of such a message that gives us a reason (or reasons) for not performing an action that would express this message. For the use of non-consensual neurocorrectives, this reason (or set of reasons) is strong enough to make NNs impermissible. The particular version of this objection that I focus on claims that the disrespectful message is that the offender does not have a right to be listened to.

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Better Living Through Neurotechnology

Written by Stephen Rainey

If ‘neurotechnology’ isn’t a glamour area for researchers yet, it’s not far off. Technologies centred upon reading the brain are rapidly being developed. Among the claims made of such neurotechnologies are that some can provide special access to normally hidden representations of consciousness. Through recording, processing, and making operational brain signals we are promised greater understanding of our own brain processes. Since every conscious process is thought to be enacted, or subserved, or realised by a neural process, we get greater understanding of our consciousness.

Besides understanding, these technologies provide opportunities for cognitive optimisation and enhancement too. By getting a handle on our obscure cognitive processes, we can get the chance to manipulate them. By representing our own consciousness to ourselves, through a neurofeedback device for instance, we can try to monitor and alter the processes we witness, changing our minds in a very literal sense.

This looks like some kind of technological mind-reading, and perhaps too good to be true. Is neurotechnology overclaiming its prospects? Maybe more pressingly, is it understating its difficulties? Continue reading

Reversibility, Colds, and Neurosurgery

By Jonny Pugh

This blog was originally published on the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog

 

Happy new year to readers of the blog!

I always approach the new year with some trepidation. This is not just due to the terrible weather, or even my resolution to take more exercise (unfortunately in the aforementioned terrible weather). Instead, I approach January with a sense of dread because it is always when I seem to come down with the common cold.

In my recent research, I have been interested in the nature and moral significance of reversibility, and the common cold is an interesting case study of this concept. In this blog, I will use this example to very briefly preview a couple of points that I make in a forthcoming open access article about reversibility in the context of psychiatric neurosurgery. You can read the open access paper here.

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Moral Responsibility and Interventions

Written by Gabriel De Marco

Consider a story about Joe, Louie, and Dr. White. Joe is a gambling man and has been for much of his life. In his late twenties, Joe began to gamble occasionally and after a while, he decided that he would embrace this practice of gambling. Although Joe gambles fairly often, he has his limits, and can often resist the desire to gamble.

Louie, on the other hand, is a frugal family man. With his wife, he has been saving money over the last year so that they can take their kids to Disneyland. Dr. White, an evil neurosurgeon who detests the thought of children enjoying themselves at Disneyland, wants to stop this trip. So, Dr. White designs and executes a plan. One night, while Louie is sleeping, Dr. White uses his fancy neuroscientific methods to make Louie more like Joe. He implants in Louie a strong desire to gamble, as well as further attitudes that will help Louie embrace this desire, such that Louie, for example, now values the thrill of gambling, and he desires that his gambling desires are the ones that lead him to action. In order to increase chances of success, Dr. White also significantly weakens some of Louie’s competing attitudes, like some of his family values, or his attitudes towards frugality. When Joe wakes up the next morning, he feels this strong desire to gamble, and although he finds it strange that it has come out of the blue, he fully embraces it (as much as Joe embraces his own gambling desires), having recognized that it lines up with some of his other attitudes about his desires (which were also implanted). Later in the day, while he is “out running errands,” Louie swings by a casino, bets the money he has been saving for the trip, and loses it. “Great success” thinks Dr. White. Since his goal of preventing some children’s joy at Disneyland has been achieved, he turns Louie back into his old self after Louie goes to sleep.

This story is similar to stories sometimes found in the debate about freedom and moral responsibility, though I will focus on moral responsibility. Intuitively, Louie is not morally responsible for gambling away these savings; or, at the very least, he is significantly less responsible for doing so than someone like Joe would be for doing something similar. If we want to make sense of these different judgments about Louie and Joe’s responsibility, we are going to need to find some difference between them that can explain why Louie is, at least, less responsible than regular Joe.

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Cross Post: Fresh Urgency in Mapping Out Ethics of Brain Organoid Research

File 20181120 161641 npf87x.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Written by Julian Koplin, University of Melbourne and

Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 

Researchers have grown groups of brain cells in the lab –
known as ‘organoids’ – that produce brain waves resembling
those found in premature infants.
from www.shutterstock.com

 

Scientists have become increasingly adept at creating brain organoids – which are essentially miniature human brains grown in the laboratory from stem cells.

Although brain organoid research might seem outlandish, it serves an important moral purpose. Among other benefits, it promises to help us understand early brain development and neurodevelopmental disorders such as microcephaly, autism and schizophrenia.

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UK Supreme Court Decision Means Patients No Longer Forced to Live

By Mackenzie Graham

On July 30, The UK’s Supreme Court ruled that there is no requirement to obtain court approval before withdrawing clinically assisted nutrition and hydration (CANH), when there is agreement between physicians and the family that this is in the best interests of the patient.

In the judgement, Lady Black writes:

“If the provisions of the MCA [Mental Capacity Act] 2005 are followed and the relevant guidance observed, and if there is agreement upon what is in the best interests of the patient, the patient may be treated in accordance with that agreement without application to the court.”

Until now, requests to withdraw CANH needed to be heard by the Court of Protection to determine if withdrawing treatment was in the patient’s best interest. In addition to being emotionally difficult for families, this is a time-consuming and expensive process, and often results in the patient dying before a judgement is rendered.

I think this decision has much to be said in its favour. First, it means that when there is agreement that continued treatment is no longer in the best interests of a patient with a prolonged disorder of consciousness, these patients are no longer being ‘forced to live’ until the Court affirms that being allowed to die is in their best interests. In many cases, court decisions take months, meaning that a patient is forced to be kept alive, against their best interests and the wishes of their family. Making the decision to withdraw care from a loved one is highly distressing, and this is likely further compounded by the burden and distraction of court proceedings.

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Pain for Ethicists: What is the Affective Dimension of Pain?

This is my first post in a series highlighting current pain science that is relevant to philosophers writing about well-being and ethics.  My work on this topic has been supported by the W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics, the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, as well as a generous grant from Effective Altruism Grants

There have been numerous published cases in the scientific literature of patients who, for various reasons, report feeling pain but not finding the pain unpleasant. As Daniel Dennett noted in his seminal paper “Why You Can’t Make A Computer That Feels Pain,” these reports seem to be at odds with some of our most basic intuitions about pain, in particular the conjunction of our intuitions that ‘‘a pain is something we mind’’ and ‘‘we know when we are having a pain.’’ Dennett was discussing the effects of morphine, but similar dissociations have been reported in patients who undergo cingulotomies to treat terminal cancer pain and in extremely rare cases called “pain asymbolia” involving damage to the insula cortex. Continue reading

Addiction, Desire, and The Polluted Environment – Richard Holton’s 2nd Uehiro Lecture

By Jonathan Pugh

 

In the second of his three Uehiro lectures on the theme of ‘illness and the social self’, Richard Holton turned to the moral questions raised by addiction. In the first half of the lecture, he outlined an account of addictive behaviour according to which addictive substances disrupt the link between wanting and liking. In the second half of the lecture, he discusses the implications of this account for the moral significance of preferences, and for how we might structure environments to avoid triggering addictive desires.

 

You can find a recording of the lecture here

 

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Video Series: Tom Douglas Defends the Chemical Castration of Sex Offenders

The Minister of Justice in the UK wants to dramatically increase the use of chemical castration in sex offenders to reduce their risk of reoffending.Dr Tom Douglas (University of Oxford) argues that offering chemical castration to sex offenders might be a better option than current practices to prevent sex offenders from reoffending (e.g. incarceration), and responds to concerns about coercion and interfering in sex offenders’ mental states (e.g. by changing their desires).

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