Neuroethics goes global

February 12, 2019

The complicated meaning, powerful assumptions, and boundless hopes about what can be revealed through neuroscience have made this discipline a national funding priority around the globe. A growing cohort of large-scale brain research initiatives aim to unravel the mysteries of the basis of feelings, thinking, and ultimately the mind. Questions formerly in the domain of the philosophical world have become part and parcel to neuroscience.

Just as science has so clearly become a global enterprise, ethics must keep pace. Cultural misunderstandings have nontrivial consequences for the scientific enterprise. Gaps in understanding negatively impact opportunities for collaboration and sharing, ultimately slowing scientific advancement. Too narrow of a view on science can limit our ability to reap the benefits of discoveries and, perhaps most damning for science, can result in a failure to anticipate and recognize the full consequences and risks of research.

To date, neuroethics discussions have been dominated by Western influences. However, the rapid neuroscientific development in East Asia in particular and the not-so-gradual relocation of a number of cutting-edge research projects from the West to East Asia, has made it clear that exploration and understanding of the ethics and cultural values informing research will be critical in engaging science as a collaborative global enterprise.

The Neuroethics Workgroup of the International Brain Initiative is comprised of members of each of the existing and emerging large-scale brain research initiatives. Leveraging the fellowship of the IBI and using an intentional culturally aware approach to guide its work, the Neuroethics Workgroup completes rapid deliverables in the near (within one year) and short-term (within two years).

With the inaugural 2017 summit, leading scientists, ethicists, and humanist co-created a universal list of neuroethics questions, Neuroethics Questions for Neuroscientists (NeQN) that should be addressed by scientists in each brain project. These NeQN were published in Neuron in 2018 and can be found here.

The neuroethics questions themselves were not necessarily unfamiliar neuroethics questions; however, these NEQN were designed to be adapted and informed by the cultural values and frameworks of each country.

The 2018 meeting served as a workshop, where each of the brain projects discussed why and how they will integrate neuroethics into their brain projects with particular recognition of the five questions from the 2018 Neuroethics Questions for Neuroscientists (NeQN) featured in Neuron. The product is the first neuroethics special issue in a high impact neuroscience journal.

Each perspective offers topics and context for their engagement with and practice of neuroethics. The issue features the seven existing and emerging large-scale brain research projects organized in alphabetical order.

The Australian Brain Alliance describes how neuroethics has been integrated into their research ethos as featured in their public outreach and advocacy efforts as well as their explorations in the public domains such as neurolaw and industry. A key component for the Australian project is diversity and inclusion, and there is a particular interest in engaging brain health with vulnerable Indigenous populations in Australia.

The Canadian Brain Research Strategy paper illustrates the rich historical efforts in pioneering neuroethics and future plans of a national collaboration to carefully consider public discourse and patient engagement as they pursue deeper knowledge of the how the brain learns, remembers, and adapts. A fundamental recognition of the neuroethics backbone of the Canadian project is that “The powerful ability of the brain to change or rewire itself in response to experience is the foundation of human identity.”

The China Brain Project discusses potential models for important public outreach campaigns and the balance of considering traditional Chinese culture and philosophy, particularly in the areas of brain death, conceptualizations of personhood and individual rights, and stigma for mental illness. The authors describe commitments for integrating neuroethics as the China Brain Project is being designed.

The EU Human Brain Project outlines its bold leadership and addresses the conceptual and philosophical issues of neuroethics and the implementation of philosophical insights as an iterative process for neuroscience research. A project with an extremely sophisticated neuroethics infrastructure, this paper provides examples of managing issues related to the moral status of engineered entities, how interventions could impact autonomy and agency, and dual use.

The Japan Brain/MINDS paper describes plans to reinvigorate historical efforts in neuroethics leadership as it expands the scope of its research and launches Japan Brain/MINDS Beyond. In particular, the project will integrate neuroethics to address issues related to privacy and data collection as well as in considering stigma and biological models of psychiatric disease.

The Korea Brain Initiative paper nicely demonstrates how advocacy for neuroscience and neuroethics at the government and policy levels go hand in hand. As Korea aims to advance its neuroscience community, the Korean government has seen neuroethics as integral to neuroscientists’ development. The Korea Brain Initiative is exploring ethical issues related to “intelligent” brain technologies, brain banking, cognitive enhancement, and neural privacy in the milieu of traditional and contemporary cultural traditions in Korea.

The US BRAIN Initiative outlines its efforts in building an infrastructure for neuroethics in research and policy and for funding research as it plans its roadmap for the next phase of BRAIN to 2025. Example of ethical issues that arise from the project’s goals of understanding neural circuitry include the moral relevance and status of ex vivo brain tissue and organoids as well as unique ethical concerns around informed consent in brain recording and stimulation in humans.

Each project illustrates that neuroethics is important regardless of the scope and methodologies inherent in its research goals and demonstrates the utility of the NeQNs for today’s and future scientists within and beyond the large-scale neuroscience research projects.

Karen Rommelfanger

PhD, Director, Neuroethics Program Emory Center for Ethics, Co-chair International Brain Initiative Neuroethics Workgroup


Larger and smaller sized ethics

January 29, 2019

Pär SegerdahlEthics can be about big, almost religious questions. Should scientists be allowed to harvest stem cells from human embryos and then destroy the embryos? Ethics can also be about narrower, almost professional issues. How should the development of embryonic stem cell lines be regulated? The latter question is similar to the question: How should the aircraft industry be regulated?

Larger and smaller ethics can have difficulties understanding each other, even though they often need to talk. For example, larger ethics can be suspicious of medical research and the pharmaceutical industry, and overlook how meticulously responsible they most often are. And how rigorously supervised they are, as the aircraft industry. Neither the drug nor the aircraft industry can be carefree about safety issues!

Smaller ethics can also be suspicious of larger ethics. Medical research and industry, with their professional attitudes, can experience larger ethical questions as being as vague and distant as nebulae. This fact, that larger and smaller ethics have difficulties even hearing each other, creates the need for a simpler, more sincerely questioning attitude, which never settles within any limits, whether they are narrower or wider. Remember that even larger perspectives often degenerate into regulations of how people should think. They shrink.

Medical research and industry need regulation, it is as important as the safety work in the aircraft industry. However, we need also to think big about human life and life in general. In order to keep ethics alive, a beginner’s attitude is needed, constantly renewed sincerity. Does it sound difficult? All we need to do is to ask the questions we really wonder about, instead of hiding them behind a confident facade.

Nothing could be easier. The question is if we dare. The sincerest questions open up the biggest perspectives.

Pär Segerdahl

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The human being is not only a category

January 9, 2019

Pär SegerdahlWe often use words as categories, as names of classes of things or individuals in the world. Humans and animals. Englishmen and Germans. Capitalists and Communists. Christians and Muslims. I want to highlight a difficulty we may encounter if we try to handle the problem of human violence from such an outward looking perspective.

Something that easily happens is that we start looking for the ideal subcategory of humans, whom we cannot accuse of any violence. If we only found a truly peaceful group of humans, somewhere in the world, we could generalize it to all humanity. We could create an evidence-based humanity, finally living peacefully. We could wipe out the problem of violence! However, where do we find the nonviolent humans who, on scientific grounds, could guide the rest of humanity to peace?

One problem here is that if we find some peaceful humans, perhaps on the British Isles, or in the Himalayas, then we must convert all other humans on the surface of this planet to the peaceful category. That does not sound promising! On the contrary, it sounds like a recipe for war.

Already the search for evidence seems violent, since it will repeat not just one, but all accusations of violence that ever were directed at groups of people. After all, there are:

  • violent Christians
  • violent Muslims
  • violent Capitalists
  • violent Anti-Capitalists
  • violent Germans
  • violent Englishmen

Moreover, there are violent trombonists. We also know that there are violent democrats, as well as violent anti-democrats. Lately we have been surprised to learn that even Buddhists can persecute humans and burn down temples and mosques. How about that! Even Buddhists are violent. The project to create an evidence-based, peaceful humanity seems hopeless.

However, let us turn this around. After all, we are all humans:

  • Christians are humans
  • Muslims are humans
  • Capitalists are humans
  • Anti-Capitalists are humans
  • Germans are humans
  • Englishmen are humans

Trombonists are humans, as are democrats, anti-democrats and Buddhists. We are all humans. Does it not sound hopeful when we acknowledge the fact that we are all humans? It certainly does sound full of promise. But why?

Is it perhaps because we stop opposing humans and instead speak more grandiosely about the human as one big universal category? I do not think so. After all, the problem was, from the beginning, that there are:

  • violent humans

It is not difficult to distrust the human as a universal category. Would it not be best if the human simply disappeared from this overburdened planet? Is it not horrible that we are all these humans, intruding on nature? In fact, there are those who propose that we should transgress the human category and become post-human. As though the solution were an unborn category.

No, the hope we felt emerged, I think, precisely because we stopped talking about human beings as a category. Notice the word we humans. What does it mean to talk about us humans? I think it means that we no longer speak of the human as a category in the world, not even grandiosely as a universal category. Rather, the human is, more intimately, “all of us,” “you and me,” “each one of us.”

When we talk about the human from within, we do not accuse the human as a worldly category to be violent. Rather, we see the violence in ourselves. I see it in me; you see it in you. We see the violence in each one of us; we see it in all of us. The responsibility thereby naturally becomes our own human responsibility. That is where the hope we felt emanated, I believe. It came from the internal perspective on the human. This nearness to ourselves made acknowledging that we are all humans sound full of promise.

I stop here. I just wanted to remind you of the fact that the human being is not only a worldly category with which to calculate and experiment. The category of the human can make us blind to ourselves as intimately alive, and thereby to the violence in us and to our responsibility for it.

I just hope this reminder did not trigger further violence: “What!? Are you suggesting that the problem lies in me? How impudent! Please, don’t include me in your pathetic we.”

Pär Segerdahl

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Dangers of moral words

December 11, 2018

Pär SegerdahlThe philosopher Bernard Williams distinguished between thick ethical concepts such as “brave” and “brutal,” which have both descriptive and evaluative content, and thin ethical concepts such as “right” and “wrong,” which are purely evaluative. “Murder” and “exploitation” are thick ethical concepts that sometimes play a central role in ethical debate. They have descriptive content combined with a negative evaluation: murder and exploitation are wrong.

This duality of thick moral words, their descriptive/normative Janus face, makes them an impelling part of the vocabulary of most, if not all, ideological movements. If you oppose X, and can demonstrate that X, in fact, involves murder or exploitation (descriptive aspect), then you have immediately demonstrated that X must be opposed (normative aspect). Thick ethical concepts are often used in conflictual situations to legitimize violent actions against people who are described as intriguing, murderous, exploitive, and much else. Since the words are taken to describe reality as it is, such bad individuals must be watched over and, if necessary, acted against.

Thick moral words thus easily lend themselves to functioning as ideological firearms. Their descriptive aspect allows taking aim. Their evaluative aspect says, “Fire!” I want to mention three further dangers of thick ethical concepts.

Dogmatism. The first is that it is difficult to raise questions about their applicability, since it can appear as if you questioned the evaluative component. Let us say that you raise the question if embryo destruction really constitutes murder. In the eyes of those who take this description for reality, you appear like a treacherous person who shrewdly argues that murder might be right! Simply raising the question, no matter how open-mindedly you do it, places you in the firing line. Your very open-mindedness speaks against you: “Murder is not something to be open-minded about!”

Righteousness. A second troublesome feature is that thick ethical concepts produce instant goodness in any ideological movement. Any ideology is on the right side, regardless of which side it is on, since it fights for what its moral vocabulary unites with the good, and fights against what its vocabulary unites with the bad. Any ideology has the right and the duty to act resolutely against what its dualistic vocabulary picks out as impermissible features of reality. – Which side for peace are you on?

Suffering. A third problem is that thick moral words produce suffering in the form of gnawing suspicions and fears. Since we are not omniscient, there is much we do not know, for example, about embryonic stem cell research. Thick ethical concepts here tend to appear in our heads as stand-ins for reality. They appear in the form of an inner voice that tells us what stem cell research is. This is not a purely descriptive “is,” but a double-edged one, for what the voice in the head says the research is can be a nightmarish, “It is murder.” Since we are ignorant of much, but not of our anxiety, we cannot shake off the worrying double-edged concepts that spin in the head. They seem validated by the gnawing anxiety they produce, and we suffer without end, caught in a whirlpool of thick descriptive/normative moral language.

In pointing out dangers of thick moral words, I am not questioning their descriptive or evaluative content. Murder is a reality and it is a serious crime; the same is true of exploitation. I am just pointing out that the dual nature of thick moral words can turn our heads. Moral language can make us violent, dogmatic, righteous, and anxious about issues that perhaps exist mainly in our descriptions of reality.

I think most of us have fallen into such dark pits.

Pär Segerdahl

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Contemplative conversations

November 19, 2018

Pär SegerdahlWhen we face new sensitive and worrying issues, there is an instinctive reaction: this must be debated! But is debate always the right way, if we want to take human concerns seriously?

That some are worried about new research and technology, is a fact. That others are not worried, is also a fact. Suppose these people handle their differences by debating with each other. What happens?

What happens is that they leave the actual world, which varies as much as people are different, and end up in a universal world of rational reasons. Those who worry must argue for their concerns: All sensible people should feel worried! Those who are not worried must provide weighty counter-arguments: No sensible person should feel worried!

Debate thus creates an either/or conflict from what was only a difference. Polarization increases the fear, which amplifies the desire to be absolutely right. Everyone wants to own the uniquely compelling reason that everyone should obey. But since we are different, the debate becomes a vertiginous hall of mirrors. It multiplies exaggerated world images in which we lose ourselves and each other.

The worry itself, as trembling human fact, is forgotten. The only thing that engages us is the weighty reason for, or against, being worried. The only thing that interests us is what everyone should feel. Is that taking human concerns seriously? Is it taking ourselves seriously?

If a child is worried, we do not ask the child to argue for its worries, and we do not comfort the child by refuting it. We take care of the child; we take care of its worries, as compassionate parents.

I play with the idea that we and our societies would be in better shape if we more often avoided the absolute world of reasons. Through its universality, it appears, of course, like a utopia of peace and unity among rational beings. In fact, it often creates polarization and perplexes us with its exaggerated images of the world. Arguing for the right cause in debate is perhaps not always as noble as we take it to be.

We are, more often than we think, like children. That is, we are human. Therefore, we need, more often than we think, to take care of ourselves. As compassionate parents. That is another instinct, which could characterize conversations about sensitive issues.

We need to take care of ourselves. But how? What is the alternative to debate? For want of better words: contemplative conversations. Or, if you want: considerate conversations. Rather than polarizing, such an open spirit welcomes us all, with our actual differences.

Perhaps that is how we become adults with regard to the task of living well with each other. By tenderly taking care of ourselves as children.

Pär Segerdahl

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Intellectual asceticism

August 7, 2018

Pär SegerdahlWe dismiss the magician’s claim to be in touch with the spirit world. We dismiss the priest’s claim to be in touch with the divine. We do not believe in supernatural contact with a purer world beyond this one!

Nevertheless, similar claims permeate our enlightened rationalist tradition. Even philosophers promised contact with a purer sphere. The difference is that they described the pure sphere in intellectual terms. The promised control of “concepts,” “categories,” “principles” and so on. They lived, like monks and magicians, as ascetics. They sought power over life itself, but they did it through intellectual self-discipline.

If you want to think about asceticism as a trait of our philosophical tradition, you may want to take a look at an article I wrote: Intellectual asceticism and hatred of the human, the animal, and the material.

In the article, I try to show that philosophy’s infamous anthropocentrism is illusory. Philosophers never idealized the human. They idealized something much more exclusive. They idealized the ascetically purified intellect.

Pär Segerdahl

Segerdahl, P. 2018. Intellectual asceticism and hatred of the human, the animal, and the material. Nordic Wittgenstein Review 7 (1): 43-58. DOI 10.15845/nwr.v7i1.3494

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Can neuroscience and moral education be united?

June 4, 2018

Daniel Pallarés DomínguezPeople have started to talk about neuroeducation, but what is it? Is it just another example of the fashion of adding the prefix neuro- to the social sciences, like neuroethics, neuropolitics, neuromarketing and neurolaw?

Those who remain sceptical consider it a mistake to link neuroscience with education. However, for some authors, neuroscience can provide useful knowledge about the brain, and they see neuroeducation as a young field of study with many possibilities.

From its birth in the decade of the brain (1990), neuroeducation has been understood as an interdisciplinary field that studies developmental learning processes in the human brain. It is one of the last social neurosciences to be born. It has the progressive aim of improving learning-teaching methodologies by applying the results of neuroscientific research.

Neuroscientific research already plays an important role in education. Taking into account the neural bases of human learning, neuroeducation looks not only for theoretical knowledge but also for practical implications, such as new teaching methodologies, and it reviews classical assumptions about learning and studies disorders of learning. Neuroeducation studies offer possibilities such as early detection of special learning needs or even monitoring and comparing different teaching methodologies implemented in school.

Although neuroeducation primarily focuses on disorders of learning, especially in mathematics and language (dyscalculia and dyslexia), can it be extended to other areas? If neuroscience can shed light on the development of ethics in the brain, can such explorations form the basis of a new form of neuroeducation, moral neuroeducation, which studies the learning or development of ethics?

Before introducing a new term (moral neuroeducation), prudence and critical discussion are needed. First, what would the goal of moral neuroeducation be? Should it consider moral disorders in the brain or just immoral behaviours? Second, neuroscientific knowledge is used in neuroeducation to help design practices that allow more efficient teaching to better develop students’ intellectual potentials throughout their training process. Should this be the goal also of moral neuroeducation? Should we strive for greater efficiency in teaching ethics? If so, what is the ethical competence we should try to develop in students?

It seems that we still need a critical and philosophical approach to the promising union of neuroscience and moral education. In my postdoctoral project, Neuroethical Bases for Moral Neuroeducation, I will contribute to developing such an approach.

Daniel Pallarés Domínguez

My postdoctoral research at the Centre for Research Ethics and Bioethics (CRB) is linked to a research project funded by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness in Spain. That project is entitled, Moral Neuroeducation for Applied Ethics [FFI2016-76753-C2-2-P], and is led by Domingo García-Marzá.

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