May 18, 2024

New kid on ethics block challenges bioethics

Neuroethics subverts long-accepted views of human nature

It is hard to believe that bioethics as a discipline has existed only for about 40 years. It is even harder to accept that its glory days are already over and that the really exciting issues are in the brand spanking new field of neuroethics. This is the challenge set down by the editor of the new journal Neuroethics, Neil Levy, in his first editorial. "Biomedical knowledge promised, and still promises, to transform our understanding of life," he writes. "Neuroscientific knowledge promises to transform our understanding of something yet more intimate: of what it means to be a thinking being."

As he describes it, neuroethics is certainly more philosophical and speculative than bioethics, which is in danger of withering into a dry calculus of procedures and protocols. Levy says that neuroethics will investigate questions like: what is the nature of morality? What explains losses of self-control? When are beliefs justified? How should knowledge be pursued? And at this point, his neuroethicist colleagues seems to be giving thoroughly materialistic and utilitarian answers to these questions.

Levy highlights three major areas of inquiry for this burgeoning discipline: rationality, autonomy and morality. The tentative state of play is as follows. Our rationality is extremely limited, as we are governed by automatic mental processes; we rely upon heuristics and mental biases to make sense of the world; and we are pervasively subject to confirmation bias. Our autonomy is illusory, as we have little power to govern our behaviour by our judgement and our self-control is easily exhausted. Finally, our moral sense is not rational, but swamped by raw emotion. It is doubtful that moral argument can lead to moral progress.

In short, neuroethics is a radical discipline which will be deployed to deconstruct mankind’s treasured illusions – and to offer new answers to "some of our oldest and deepest puzzles". One example of novelties to come is a paper by bioethicist Julian Savulescu and his colleague Anders Sandberg on latter-day love potions. Tackling the vexing problem of divorce, they prescribe "biological interventions" and neuroenhancement. They conclude: "Love is one of the fundamental aspects of human existence. It is to a large part biologically determined. We should use our growing knowledge of the neuroscience of love to enhance the quality of love by biological manipulation." Stay tuned for future developments. ~ Neuroethics, March