When “neuro” met “ethics”

June 13, 2017

Pär SegerdahlTwo short words increasingly often appear in combination with names of professional fields and scientific disciplines: neuro and ethics. Here are some examples: Neuromusicology, neurolaw, neuropedagogy. Bioethics, nursing ethics, business ethics.

Neuro… typically signifies that neuroscience sheds light on the subject matter of the discipline with which it combines. It can illuminate what happens in the brain when we listen to music (neuromusicology). What happens in the brain when witnesses recall events or when judges evaluate the evidence (neurolaw). What happens in children’s brains when they study mathematics (neuropedagogy).

…ethics (sometimes, ethics of…) typically signifies that the discipline it combines with gives rise to its own ethical problems, requiring ethical reflection and unique ethical guidelines. Even war is said to require its own ethics of war!

In the 1970s, these two words, neuro and ethics, finally met and formed neuroethics. The result is an ambiguous meeting between two short but very expansive words. Which of the two words made the advance? Where is the emphasis? What sheds light on what?

At first, ethics got the emphasis. Neuroethics was, simply, the ethics of neuroscience, just as nursing ethics is the ethics of nursing. Soon, however, neuro demonstrated its expansive power. Today, neuroethics is not only the “ethics of neuroscience,” but also the “neuroscience of ethics”: neuroscience can illuminate what happens in the brain when we face ethical dilemmas. The emphasis thus changes back and forth between neuroethics and neuroethics.

The advances of these two words, and their final meeting in neuroethics, reflects, of course, the expansive power of neuroscience and ethics. Why are these research areas so expansive? Partly because the brain is involved in everything we do. And because all we do can give rise to ethical issues. The meeting between neuro… and …ethics was almost inevitable.

What did the meeting result in? In a single discipline, neuroethics? Or in two distinct disciplines, neuroethics and neuroethics, which just happen to be spelt the same way, but should be kept separate?

As far as I understand, the aim is to keep neuroethics together as one interdisciplinary field, with a two-way dialogue between an “ethics of neuroscience” and a “neuroscience of ethics.” This seems wise. It would be difficult to keep apart what was almost predetermined to meet and combine. Neuroethics would immediately try to shed its neuroscientific light on neuroethics. And neuroethics would be just as quick to develop ethical views on neuroethics. The wisest option appears to be dialogue, accepting a meeting that appears inevitable.

An interesting article in Bioethics, authored by Eric Racine together with, among others, Michele Farisco at CRB, occasions my thoughts in this post. The subject matter of the article is neuroethics: the neuroscience of ethics. Neuroethics is associated with rather grandiose claims. It has been claimed that neuroscience can support a better theory of ethics. That it can provide the basis for a universal ethical theory that transcends political and cultural divides. That it can develop a brain-based ethics. That it can reveal the mechanisms underlying moral judgments. Perhaps neuroscience will soon solve moral dilemmas and transform ethics!

These pretentions have stimulated careless over-interpretation of neuroscientific experiments. They have also provoked rash dismissal of neuroethics and its relevance to ethics. The purpose of the article is to support a more moderate and deliberate approach, through a number of methodological guideposts for the neuroscience of ethics. These include conceptual and normative transparency, scientific validity, interdisciplinary methods, and balanced interpretation of results.

In view of this critical perspective on hyped neuroscientific claims, one could define the article as a neuroethical article on neuroethics. Following the linguistic pattern that I described above, the article is an example of neuroethics-ethics. No, this will not do! We cannot use these two expansive words to specify in neurotic detail who currently happens to advance into whose field.

I choose to describe the article, simply, as a neuroethical paper on neuroethics. I want to see it as an example of the dialogue that can unite neuroethics as an interdisciplinary field.

Pär Segerdahl

Racine, E., Dubljevic´, V., Jox, R. J., Baertschi, B., Christensen, J. F., Farisco, M., Jotterand, F., Kahane, G., Müller, S. (2017). “Can neuroscience contribute to practical ethics? A critical review and discussion of the methodological and translational challenges of the neuroscience of ethics.” Bioethics 31: 328-337.

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Research is not a magical practice

May 16, 2017

Pär SegerdahlWhy does hearing about research sometimes scare us in a vertiginous way? I mean the feeling that researchers sometimes dig too deeply, that they see through what should not be seen through, that they manipulate the fundamental conditions of life.

It does not have to concern GMOs or embryonic stem cell research. During a period, I wrote about studies of human conversation. When I told people that I was working on conversation analysis, I could get the reaction: “Oh no, now I dare not talk to you, because you’ll probably see through everything I say and judge how well I’m actually talking.”

Why do we react in such a way? As if researchers saw through the surface of life, as through a thin veil, and gained power over life by mastering its hidden mechanisms.

My impression is that we, in these reactions, interpret research as a form of magic. Magic is a cross-border activity. The magician is in contact with “the other side”: with the powers that control life. By communicating with these hidden powers, the magician can achieve power over life. That is at least often the attitude in magical practices.

Is this how we view research when it scares us in a dizzying way? We think in terms of a boundary between life and its hidden conditions; a boundary that researchers transgress to gain power over life. Research then appears transgressive in a vertiginous way. We interpret it as a magical practice, as a digging into the most basic conditions of life.

The farmer who wants to control the water level in the field by digging ditches, however, is not a magician who communicates with hidden forces. Digging ditches gives you ordinary power in life: it gives control of the water level. I would like to say that research is more like digging ditches to control the water level than like engaging in magic to control life itself. Certainly, research gives power and control – but in life, not over “life itself.”

This does not mean that research does not need to be regulated; digging ditches probably needs regulation too.

The magical aura of charismatic researchers sometimes seduces us. We think they are close to the solution of “the riddle” and give them a free hand… We must be careful not to give research work a magical interpretation.

Pär Segerdahl

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Fear of the unknown produces ghosts

April 26, 2017

Pär SegerdahlWhat really can start feverish thought activity is facing an unclear threat. We do not really see what it is, so we fill the contours ourselves. At the seminar this week, we discussed what I think was such a case. A woman decided to test if she possibly had calcium deficiency. To her surprise, the doctor informed her that she suffered from a disease, osteoporosis, characterized by increased risk of bone fractures.

She already had experienced the problem. A hug could hurt her ribs and she had broken a shoulder when pushing the car. However, she felt no fear until she was informed that she suffered from a disease that meant increased risk of bone fracture.

I do not mean she had no reason to be worried. However, her worries seem to have become nightmarish.

Presumably, she already understood that she had to be careful in some situations. However, she interpreted the “risk factor” that she was informed about as an invisible threat. It is like a ghost, she says. She began to compare her body with a house where the foundation dissolves; a house which might therefore collapse. She began to experience great danger in every activity.

Many who are diagnosed with osteoporosis do not get fractures. If you get fractures, they do not have to be serious. However, the risk of fractures is greater in this group and if you get a hip fracture, that is a big problem. The woman in the example, however, imagined her “risk factor” as a ghost that constantly haunted her.

I now wonder: Are ethical debates sometimes are about similar ghost images? Most of us do not really know what embryo research is, for example, it seems vaguely uncanny. When we hear about it, we fill the contours: the embryo is a small human. Immediately, the research appears nightmarish and absolute limits must be drawn. Otherwise, we end up on a slippery slope where human life might degenerate, as the woman imagined her body might collapse.

I also wonder: If debates sometimes are about feverishly produced ghost images, how should we handle these ghosts? With information? But it was information that produced the ghosts. With persistent logical counter arguments? But the ghosts are in the feverish reasoning. Should we really continue to fill the contours of these images, as if we corrected bad sketches? Is it not taking ghosts too seriously? Is it not like trying to wake up yourself in a dream?

Everything started with the unclear threat. The rest were dreamlike consequences. We probably need to reflect more cautiously on the original situation where we experienced the first vague threat. Why did we react as did? We need to treat the problem in its more moderate beginning, before it developed its nightmarish dimensions.

This is not to say that we have no reason to be concerned.

Pär Segerdahl

Reventlow, S., Hvas, A. C., Tulinius, C. 2001. “In really great danger.” The concept of risk in general practice. Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care 19: 71-75

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Trusting yourself

April 18, 2017

Pär SegerdahlTrusting yourself, what does it mean? It can of course mean thinking that you always know best, trusting your strength to prevail over whoever and whatever you may meet in life.

There is another form of trust in yourself, where you trust your uncertainty rather than your certainty. You respond to your uncertainty not by accusing yourself, but by taking a deep breath and saying: this is difficult. I would not be so uncertain if it was not for the fact that I have come across something that truly requires caution, reflection, and long-term investigation.

It sounds humble when Socrates says that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing. Or when it is said that wisdom lies in the recognition that one is not wise. In a sense, it is humble. However, this form of humility also exhibits self-reliance. One is uncertain not because one is unusually stupid but because some things are unusually difficult. Life sometimes surpasses the intellect.

People who trust their uncertainty express it as honest questions, instead of hiding it behind clever arguments and theses. When they express their uncertainty as questions, their work can begin. The uncertainty is then their only certainty. It shows them there is something worthy of investigation. It shows them the way, through sincere questions and rejections of premature solutions.

Sometimes weakness is a strength. Socrates relied on it. Researching persons do.

Pär Segerdahl

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Sliding down along the slippery slope

April 11, 2017

Pär SegerdahlDebates on euthanasia, abortion or embryonic stem cell research frequently invoke slippery slope arguments. Here is an example of such reasoning:

Legalizing physician-assisted suicide (PAS) at the end of life pushes healthcare morality in a dangerous direction. Soon, PAS may be practiced even on people who are not at the end of life and who do not request it. Even if this does not happen, the general population’s trust in healthcare will erode. Therefore, PAS must be forbidden.

Reasoning about the future is important. We need to assess consequences of allowing new practices. However, how do we assess the future in a credible way?

In an article in Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy, Gert Helgesson, Niels Lynøe and Niklas Juth argue that many slippery slope arguments are not empirically substantiated, but are based on value-impregnated factual assumptions. Anyone who considers PAS absolutely wrong considers it as a fatal step in a dangerous direction. Therefore, it is assumed that taking such a step will be followed by further steps in the same dangerous direction. If you chose the wrong path, you end up further and further away in the wrong direction. It seems inevitable that a first step is followed by a second step…

The problem is that this prophesying is based on the original moral interpretation. Anyone who is not convinced of the fatality of a “first” step does not have a tendency to see it as a “first step” with an inherent tendency to lead to a “second step” and finally to disaster.

Thinking in terms of the slippery slope can sometimes be experienced as if you yourself were on the slippery slope. Your thoughts slide toward the daunting precipice. Perhaps the article by Helgesson, Lynøe and Juth contains an analysis of this phenomenon. The slippery slope has become a vicious circle where the prophesying of disastrous consequences is steered by the moral interpretation that one defends with reference to the slippery slope.

Slippery slope arguments are not wrong in themselves. Sometimes development is on a slippery slope. However, this form of reasoning requires caution, for sometimes it is our thoughts that slide down along the slippery slope.

And that can have consequences.

Pär Segerdahl

Helgesson, G., Lynøe, N., Juth, N. 2017. Value-impregnated factual Claims and slippery slope arguments. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 20: 147-150.

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Stem cells: unique biobank material?

March 7, 2017

Pär SegerdahlStem cells are perhaps not what first springs to mind as biobank material. Yet, even stem cells can be biobank material and there are biobanks that focus on stem cells. The use of this biobank material, however, has some unique features.

Stem cell researchers process not only data from human material. The material itself is “processed” and sometimes transplanted to research participants. Commercializing stem cell research moreover implies that cells derived from donated human tissue appear in products on a market. This gives rise to ethical and legal questions.

Does the law allow patenting cell lines derived from human donated material? Is buying and selling such material lawful? Another issue concerns research participants’ right to withdraw their consent at any time. Human embryonic stem cell research uses stem cells from donated spare embryos from IVF treatment. How far does embryo donors’ right to withdraw consent stretch? Must transplanted devices with matured cells be removed from research participants, if the embryo donor withdraws consent? Moreover, assuming that researchers share stem cell lines with companies, are these companies willing to invest in the development of stem cell products if embryo donors may withdraw their consent at any time?

Another difficulty is the purpose to which embryo donors are asked to consent. According to the law, human embryos can be donated only for research purposes (or to other IVF patients). Yet, medical research loses its meaning if results cannot be commercialized. It cannot then reach patients. It is important to inform donors about this broader context of embryo donation. Does that information imply that the consent becomes broader than has support in the law? Or is there support since embryos are not used in product development, only derived material?

The answers to these questions probably depend on whether one can distinguish between donated embryos and cell material derived from embryos (using various inventions). This raises also more philosophical questions about how to view embryos, stem cell lines, matured cells, and human tissue.

Pär Segerdahl

An earlier version of this text was published in Biobank perspectives.

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Not just facts, ideas are also needed

February 8, 2017

Pär SegerdahlWhen fraudulent “academic” journals publish articles without proper peer review. When websites online spread fake information. When politicians talk about alternative facts. Then undeniably, one feels a need for a general tightening up.

A possible problem in this reaction is that we castrate ourselves. That we don’t dare to propose and discuss ideas about the situation we are in. That we don’t dare to think, interpret and analyze. Because we fear being found guilty of error and of contributing to the scandalous inflation of facts and truths.

We hide ourselves in a gray armor of objectivity. In order not to resemble what we react to.

But why do these tendencies occur now? Is it about the internet? Is it about neglected groups of citizens? Is it about economic and political shifts in power?

In order to understand this complex situation and act wisely, we need not just facts but also good questions, thoughts, interpretations and analyses of the situation. If we take that task seriously, we also take relevant facts seriously when we discuss the ideas.

If we react with hypercorrection, with an armor of correctness, we risk repressing our questions about how we should think about our situation. We repress our uncertainty: the motive for thinking, interpreting and analyzing.

Pär Segerdahl

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