October 1, 2022

Neuroscientists face ethical dilemmas over military use

American neuroscientists should be worried about how their research will be used by the US military, according to an article in PLoS Biology (March 20) by bioethicists Jonathan Moreno and Michael N. Tennison.

 

Should American neuroscientists be worried about how their research will be used by the US military? An article in PLoS Biology (March 20) by bioethicists Jonathan Moreno and Michael N. Tennison points out that hundred of million of dollars of research funding is being given to neuroscientists in the hope of enhancing the capabilities of soldiers, enabling better lie detection and better interrogation techniques and other cutting-edge military applications. They face dilemmas like those experienced by nuclear scientists who saw that their research was being used to create weapons of mass destruction. 

“Technology doesn’t care what it’s used for,” Moreno told ABC News. “It’s our ingenuity and the way we apply the technology, which does raise an interesting problem for scientists.”

Defence funding opens up a number of specific ethical issues. One is whether military research is conducted with the consent of subjects. As Dr Moreno points out:

“If a warfighter is allowed no autonomous freedom to accept or decline an enhancement intervention, and the intervention in question is as invasive as remote brain control, then the ethical implications are immense. As Peter W. Singer has observed, ‘the Pentagon’s real-world record with things like the aboveground testing of atomic bombs, Agent Orange, and Gulf War syndrome certainly doesn’t inspire the greatest confidence among the first generation of soldiers involved [in human enhancement]’”

Another is whether brain-reading technologies will be used ethically.

“Legally required brain scans arguably violate ‘the guarantee against self-incrimination’ because they differ from acceptable forms of bodily evidence, such as fingerprints or blood samples, in an important way: they are not simply physical, hard evidence, but evidence that is intimately linked to the defendant’s mind.”

However, Moreno and Tennison do not recommend that neuroscientists cut their ties with the military establishment. It would be better if they worked from within to influence policy.

“Bifurcating public science from national security may only drive the same research underground, undermining its current public accountability. Thus, it would be impractical to try to circumvent the ethical problems simply by cutting ties between science and national defense.”

Michael Cook
neuroethics
warfare