Neuroethics, qu’est que c’est?

I’ll admit that it may seem odd, or perhaps even unnecessary, to begin a post on a neuroethics blog to query the meaning of neuroethics. Although barely into its 8th year as an academicized field of study, the area of inquiry called “neuroethics” has developed a professional society, an academic journal devoted to issues that fall within the bioethics-neuroscience scope, another bearing its namesake, books (e.g., here, here, here, and here), and a few blogs (e.g., here & here) — including this one. Although the Dana Foundation’s “Neuroethics: Mapping the Field” conference is often credited as jump-starting neuroethics, it appears others have being ‘doing neuro-ethics’ well before the conference took shape (see, for instance, Gillett and also Churchland).

In an influential paper, Adina Roskies attempted to define neuroethics by demarcating the “ethics of neuroscience” from the “neuroscience of ethics”(Roskies does note, however, that these two aims can be pursued independently but also tend to affect one another). Roskies original account described the ethics of neuroscience as being somewhat akin to what has been a traditional focus of bioethics research, namely, the ethics of something, e.g., conducting neuroscience research with humans, the ethics of neurotechnology (e.g. deep-brain stimulation) and guidelines for research and clinical practice. The neuroscience of ethics focuses on how philosophical notions of free will, identity and other aspects of moral cognition can be explored through understanding how the brain works. Perhaps a simplistic explanation, since the paper was published in 2002 Roskies’ conception has had an impact on how neuroethics has taken shape.

In a recent journal club we posed the existential question to attendees (the vast majority of whom are working at a research group in which the term “neuroethics” appears in the title) and asked people to come with a dictionary-type definition of neuroethics. We used a recent review paper by George Northoff to springboard our discussion, one in which he poses the “What is neuroethics?” question. In his paper, Northoff argues that “we need to consider the theoretical and methodological issues in order to develop neuroethics as a distinct discipline, which as such can be distinguished from both philosophy/ethics and neuroscience.”

Our discussion focused on several areas, namely what is a field defined by, and is it worthwhile to even speak of neuroethics as a ‘distinct discipline’, as Northoff proposed. The latter has been debated before, for instance in an exchange between Erik Parens and Josephine Johnston, and Eric Racine. Before we got down to discussing definitions, we noted a few important points. First, fields, or disciplines, in general aren’t well defined. Philosophy, for one, has been in existence for thousands of years and there is still significant disagreement on what philosophy is, or what ‘doing philosophy’ means (and recent proponents of X-Phi have challenged this further). Second, we questioned whether a field is defined by its approach. Although many disciplines are indeed organized around an approach (e.g., the neuroimaging community, the neurophysiology community) there are many cases where approaches or certain methods overlap, such as using particular research tools in both social psychology, moral psychology, and public health.

Definitions of neuroethics that were brought to the table were diverse. Some included the definition coined by the late William Safire, some resembled “bioethics for the brain” (ala Glannon), others focused on how neuroscience can provide insight into our human relationships, and one person was, well, not concerned. Although we didn’t, or really expect to, arrive at a conclusive definition, the reflective exercise had us think about the field in which we are participating, whether neuroethics, as it currently stands suffers from breadth and not depth, and ultimately it made some of us (well, me at the very least) really think about what it means “to do” neuroethics.

Still, the ethical and social implications of brain science are real, and its impact will be felt by all members of society, and so its focus should not only be shaped by those who have the ability to have these type of privileged discussions in academic centres.  Public engagement is critical, and I sincerely welcome readers thoughts on what I have written about in this post, keeping in mind that this discussion needs to be extended well beyond the space of the world-wide web.


4 thoughts on “Neuroethics, qu’est que c’est?

  1. “the ethical and social implications of brain science are real, and its impact will be felt by all members of society, and so its focus should not only be shaped by those who have the ability to have these type of privileged discussions in academic centres”

    You raise an important point, and it’s something I’m currently grappling with as I go through my comps on the doctoral path. This is a problem common to many esoteric fields of study and it seems that a few things can be said generally when it comes to defining fields, identifying experts, and engaging the public in these discussions.

    These fields seem to be defined largely by the kinds of questions that are asked by those individuals who identify themselves as researching in the field. The journal editors and reviewers have a role to play in defining what kinds of topics “count” in, say, neuroethics or ethics more generally. Professors in departments “suggest” what is worthwhile to pursue in terms of grad work. And those individuals who are interested in quite different topics, though they might insist they ought to be included in the field proper, are often ignored or “guided” into the mainstream by their profs, peers, and the need to publish. The definition of the field, seen from this perspective, is never adequately defined in a short descriptive manner, but requires a socialization into that field for a fuller, more accurate articulation. All this shifts over time. Neuroethics, like any esoteric field of study, is not reducible to some essential set of questions or subject matters.

    As far as engaging the public goes, it seems to be generally accomplished primarily (or exclusively) on terms generated by experts, who are themselves identified by the positions they hold as set out above. The kinds of questions the public are asked to consider are stipulated by experts, and will largely be drawn from a list of their pet projects, as those are seen as the most definitive of the field. The style of engagement will also be determined by the experts, making it very difficult to generate meaningful conversation and input. When the public “goes astray”, insisting that the kinds of concerns they have are not being adequately addressed by experts, their concerns are often “explained away” by the experts themselves. Laypersons, it is said, just don’t have the expertise to understand what is really at stake. They just don’t get it, so the story goes.

    There are some good writers out there tackling these issues in Science and Technology Studies, such as Collins, Wynne and Jasanoff (among others). They describe these kinds of issues in detail, and raise the question whether this is how things ought to be. I think it’s a good question. One you are definitely right to ask at a point early in the development of the field.

    Great post!

  2. Thanks Jason – there is much food for thought here. I’ll take a look those authors you recommended. The ‘funding’ issue looms in my mind as well, in particular as a graduate student and where I look to for funding. For instance, my research may fall under the neuroscience umbrella so it would be appropriate to apply to funding bodies that evaluate neuroscience proposals. However my methods and epistemological approach may qualitative and post-modern, so a neuroscience agency may not be the best group to evaluate my research. Additionally, my research question may be one that is more common to bioethics so a philosophy or social sciences/humanities group may be more appropriate; keeping in mind, of course, that the availability of bioethics funding agencies is slim, with significantly more limited funding than broader domains such as neuroscience or medicine. In the funding case having defined boundaries definitely would make it easier, but then again, such is the nature of interdisciplinary thinking.

  3. Daniel – that’s a beautiful summary of our wandering discussion. I was happy that you brought the “What is Neuroethics?” question and Northoff’s paper to the journal club. Having an opportunity to speak about the meaning of the field in which we work gave me a sense of where my emerging definitions fit in with others’. I think it is worthwhile to come back to this question periodically.

  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention Neuroethics, qu’est que c’est? « Neuroethics at the Core --

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