April 22, 2024

Does neuroethics have a future?

What is the half-life of ethical specialties? Following recent speculation about the future of bioethics, it seems to be getting shorter.

What is the half-life of ethical specialties?
Following recent speculation about the future of bioethics, it seems to be getting
shorter. Tom Stafford, the popular author of Mind Hacks
(2004) and the mindhacks website, has questioned
whether neuroethics deserves to be a distinct discipline. “Neuroethics is an unnecessary
phrase which covers a hodge-podge of ethical concerns for psychology researchers
and broader societal concerns over the application of findings from the cognitive

He was commenting on a discussion paper
issued by the British Psychological Society
listing some important ethical
issues in research into cognitive neuroscience. These include applications of fMRI,
respect for autonomy, lie detection, neuromarketing, the persuasive power of brain
scan imagery and cognitive enhancement. (NB – all topics covered in BioEdge from
time to time.) All of these are adequately dealt with by moral philosophy or medical
ethics, writes Stafford.

Leading neuroethicists responded immediately.

Neil Levy,
editor of the newish journal Neuroethics, an academic at the University of Melbourne,
commented,  “Saying that we don’t need
neuroethics is a bit like saying we don’t need psychiatry because there is already
medicine and psychology and cognitive neuroscience.”

Professor Martha
, of the University of Pennsylvania, was delighted to join the debate.
“Are the issues of neuroethics different in kind from the issues of bioethics, philosophy
or sociology of science? The answer is of course no; every issue has relevant precedents,
so nothing is ever really new. Is there a core question or approach that unifies
all of neuroethics? Again no; the issues and methods are quite varied. But most
of the precedents are distant enough from the neuroethical issues, and a sufficiently
dense web of relations exists among those issues, that giving the field its own
name is not entirely gratuitous.”

Another member of the editorial board of Neuroethics,
James  Giordano, of Georgetown University,
weighed in as
. Rather confusingly, he disagreed with Stafford, but prefers the
term “neurobioethics” because it describes the field more accurately.

How long the field will last is anyone’s guess.
As Zach Hall,
a neuroscientist who was the first head of the California Institute for Regenerative
Medicine, told a conference earlier this year, neuroethics is a broad church: “Neuroethics
is not simply a matter for the ethicists or the neuroprofessionals, but involves
politicians, religious leaders, public policy experts—even columnists from leading
newspapers. The issues are simply too important to be left to the experts, and we
know the experts are often wrong.”

Michael Cook