A Conversation on the Neuroethics of War

Curtis Bell,  Senior Scientist Emeritus at Oregon Health and Science University, has recently circulated a document which he is promoting as a “Pledge by Neuroscientists to Refuse to Participate in the Application of Neuroscience to Violations of Basic Human Rights or International Law.”  The full pledge is reproduced below, and can be accessed here. While individuals may wish to sign the pledge, what we view as most important is to develop a conversation regarding the merits of what Curtis has suggested.  Specifically, while many responsible neuroscientists may agree with the overall sentiment, they may not agree with all aspects of the pledge as written.  Whether you agree or not, this issue merits feedback from members of the neuroscience community in general and the neuroethics community in particular.

Pledge by Neuroscientists to Refuse to Participate in the Application of Neuroscience to Violations of Basic Human Rights or International Law.

We are Neuroscientists who desire that our work be used to enhance human life rather than to diminish it. We are concerned with the possible use of Neuroscience for purposes that violate fundamental human rights and international law. We seek to create a culture within the field of Neuroscience in which contributions to such uses are unacceptable.

Thus, we oppose the application of Neuroscience to torture and other forms of coercive interrogation or manipulation that violate human rights and personhood. Such applications could include drugs that cause excessive pain, anxiety, or trust, and manipulations such as brain stimulation or inactivation.

Thus, we also oppose the application of Neuroscience to aggressive war. Aggressive war is illegal under international law, where it is defined as a war that is not in self defense. A government which engages in aggressive wars should not be provided with tools to engage more effectively in such wars. Neuroscience can and does provide such tools. Examples include drugs which enhance the effectiveness of soldiers on one side, drugs which damage the effectiveness of soldiers on the other side, and robots that move, perceive, and kill.

As Neuroscientists we therefore pledge:

a) To make ourselves aware of the potential applications of our own work and that of others to applications that violate basic human rights or international law such as torture and aggressive war.

b) To refuse to knowingly participate in the application of Neuroscience to violations of basic human rights or international law.


12 thoughts on “A Conversation on the Neuroethics of War

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  2. Here’s just one first-glance concern, among what I’m sure are many others …

    It seems that refusing to apply neuroscience to coercive interrogation techniques locks us out of the opportunity to humanize what is currently a necessarily barbarous process. Inasmuch as states cannot be dissuaded from using “enhanced interrogation” (pardon my pessimism, but I think it is not going entirely away anytime soon), I would rather see a detainee plied with oxytocin than waterboarded.

  3. Dr. Nadler suggests that Neuroscientists stay connected with those who practice coercive interrogation and help them in order to humanize such interrogation and make it less awful than it would otherwise be.

    It is worth pointing out that this same argument was made by psychologists who worked with the military interrogators at Guantanamo and elsewhere. They argued that their methods were more humane and that their presence was beneficial to those being questioned. This position was rejected however by a majority of the members of the American Psychological Association, who declared that psychologists may not work in settings where “…persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate)….”

    Similar arguments have gone on among Anthropologists regarding the participation of Anthropologists in the military’s Human Terrain System, and among physicians present during torture sessions.

    My own feeling is that participation in immoral and illegal actions legitimizes them.

  4. I certainly feel the force of the point that participating in immoral and illegal activity has a legitimizing effect.

    However, I’m not sure how that speaks to the objection I’ve raised. Given the opportunity to reduce the barbarity of a practice **whose existence we take for granted** (for the sake of example – I am not saying we must take violations of international law for granted in the real world!), it seems to me a case of obstinate rule-worship to cleave to the letter of the pledge in that case. It strikes me as analogous to refusing to act in the philosophers’ trolley problem – letting five people die instead of one because it’s immoral and illegal to act in a way that brings about the death of one person.

    Indeed, suppose for a minute that the APA’s resolution not to work with Geneva-violating interrogators left the military feeling that their only viable “enhanced interrogation” option, absent the assistance of psychologists, lay in gouging the eyes of detainees. Could we, in that case, really look upon the APA’s choice as an admirable one? Forgive my insistence on the pragmatic angle, but in that case I could not.

    These are hypothetical, contrary-to-fact examples, and in no way do I think the moral ambiguities they present reflect the issues as they stand today. But when committing to a rule that will guide one in unknown future cases, the tricky gray areas merit consideration.

    (By the by, I should disclaim that I am no doctor, just an intern. As my trajectory is more along the lines of philosophy and neurolaw than the actual practice of neuroscience, when I use the pronoun “we” it should go with a grain of salt.)

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  7. I’m glad to see some in neuroscience are concerned with ethics. I’m a victim of some weird unethical nonconsensual experimentation. Unfortunately, the internet has a lot of mythology about this and some claiming to be victims are fakes and/or passing on disinformation. I don’t know who’s behind it (I wouldn’t claim it’s the CIA or DoD since I have no proof of that) but most certainly it appears to be sanctioned by some in government. I took evidence of part of this (cyberstalking by people trained in NLP, violent threats, harassment, and constant hacking) to several law enforcement agencies and their attitude show just that. I have a case at the SAO in my state and it appears that not only are they stonewalling, but the “investigation” is a coverup for allowing access to the “harassers.”

    The experiments seem to involve the following: eyewitnessing of fake crimes or crimes committed with decoys or decoying; trauma and re-creation of past “traumatic” events to create stress and anxiety, stress and anxiety, something like epileptogenesis – that is, using the orchestrated harassment to make a victim more susceptible to seizures, seizure induction via unknown means, testing and looking into the victim’s opinions on religion, politics etc., expectation of modifications on the victim’s career, goals, political action, fake groups set up for victims that reinforce paranoia and aspects of personality disorders, and psychometric measurements.

    While I am positive that most in the neurosciences would be completely against this kind of experimentation, I am also convinced that there are very few people qualified to work on this kind of experiment. I ask that if anyone knows who might be involved or has any information about this, that they do their best to expose it. My health and well-being have been damaged, my child has also had some of the effects. We were “attacked” (with the seizure-like activity) at a time when I had quit working so I could defend my doctoral dissertation. Now that is hanging in the balance, we have zero funds and I’m not working. No one deserves this brutality and brain interference and those involved deserve to be exposed for the unethical frauds that they are. For the last year, I have had twitching, something like simple partial seizures, incomplete sleep, electric-like bodily sensations and complete exhausting as well as increasing ADD like symptoms. My internet continues to be rerouted and the SAO is playing stupid with me – stating that the logs from the ISP won’t show where the internet is going and telling other lies.

    At the moment I’m searching for a country that has stronger (enforced) laws against unethical human experimentation. Obviously the US sanctions it, regardless of who the source of the experiments is. Please help.

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