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The Neurological Turn: Top-Down or Bottom-Up? (April 2023): Neuroethics: What’s Left of Being Right?

By Heidi Storl

Neuroethics: What’s Left of Being Right?

The neuroscientific approach to mind, brain, and human ways of being is here to stay. Whether the paradigm adopted is bottom up, top down, or some combination of both remains to be seen. Regardless, a final consideration will be what should be done with the vast amount of neuroscientific data that has accumulated. This is not a question about how to best approach the data to gain maximum descriptive, explanatory, and predictive powers; rather, it is a question that is more normative in nature. In light of tremendous theoretical and technological innovation, how do we best proceed ethically

Though futuristic speculations are not new—consider various historical and current forms of transhumanism—they have taken on new urgency considering the successes of translational neuroscience, technologies involving brain computer interfaces, and advances in neurocomputationally informed artificial intelligence.  Such feats of ontological engineering raise a question: If we can do X, should we? The technological imperative that has driven so much of science may be in need of revision, or, if nothing else, review. If we are able to tinker at some fundamental level with the core aspects of what it is to be human, should we?

Answering this question is certainly beyond the scope of this essay, but finding an answer is motivated by works such as Vigor: Neuroeconomics of Movement Control, by Reza Shadmehr and Alaa Ahmed. Shadmehr and Ahmed address very intriguing puzzles regarding human values, agency, and volitional control. In the early 1600s Descartes, too, was intrigued by these questions, and promptly assigned their answers to the unique “free will” of the “immaterial mind.” Shadmehr and Ahmed provide brain-based evidence of causally efficacious links among movement, value, and volition. If their hypotheses are confirmed, we may soon be able to predict choices by measuring, for example, saccadic eye movement. This, of course, would raise significant questions regarding the nature of human choice, autonomy, and self-determination. Although these concepts may become nothing more than useful fictions, the larger impact of this revelation will fundamentally shift our understanding of who we are and what we do. Additional insight into the latter possibility can be found in Chris Willmott’s Biological Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility: Insights from Genetics and Neuroscience.

The plausibility of human autonomy and related ethical consequences are discussed ever more frequently in the literature. Two journals, Neuroethics and Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics, capture many cutting-edge considerations related to both reductive and nonreductive approaches to neuroscientific and neurophilosophical findings. Neuroethics: Anticipating the Future, edited by Judy Illes in association with Sharmin Hossain, is a worthwhile follow-up to The Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics, edited by Illes and Barbara Sahakian. In addition, Neil Levy offers excellent forays into the entangled questions of moral self, agency, and responsibility in Neuroethics and his more recent Consciousness and Moral Responsibility. Finally, the triad consisting of neuroscience, neurophilosophy, and neuroethics has been an ongoing area of interest in the work of Walter Glannon. His Bioethics and the Brain is an early exploration of both the neuroscience of ethics and the ethics of neuroscience and it focuses on, according to the introduction, “the clinical neurosciences of psychiatry, neurology, and neurosurgery.” Glannon’s Brain, Body, and Mind: Neuroethics with a Human Face addresses questions regarding the ethics involved in cognitive enhancement, brain regeneration, and criminal responsibility. In this text Glannon highlights the importance of some of the broader metaphysical and epistemological aspects of things discussed earlier in this essay and draws out the larger moral and ethical implications thereof, concluding that “we should recognize the limits of neuroscience in explaining moral behavior and be cautious in trying to derive any normative conclusions from empirical facts about the brain” (from chapter 4). Glannon’s Neural Prosthetics: Neuroscientific and Philosophical Aspects of Changing the Brain is a more tightly focused work but with broad interdisciplinary appeal. It focuses on neural prosthetics as therapeutic interventions, not as cognitive enhancements. Glannon carefully considers the moral and ethical foundations and ramifications of various sensory prosthetics and also looks at brain-computer interfaces and neurostimulation. In the penultimate chapter Glannon cautions the reader that though some neural prosthetics “can decode the neural correlates of the mental acts necessary to move objects or communicate [they cannot decode] the content of these acts. This content is not located in the brain but is an emergent feature of it.” However, Glannon also considers whether “a transition from a completely natural brain, to a partly natural and partly artificial brain, and then to a completely artificial brain [would] result in descendants who would be conceptually distinct from humans.” Glannon considers this an open question. Finally, Glannon’s recent The Ethics of Consciousness focuses on the neurobiological underpinning of various forms of normal and aberrant conscious awareness and resultant qualities of experience and degrees of responsibility. This text raises subtle questions regarding the qualitative character of experience and how it may impact decisions regarding moral and ethical culpability. 

Works Cited