Advances in our understanding of the brain – and subsequently, in our understanding of how to manipulate it—are raising profound moral and ethical questions going into the 21st century. How do we evaluate our course of action in the brain sciences in a morally principled and responsible way?
In his lecture, “Autonomy and the History of American Bioethics” at Santa Clara in May 2009, Bioethicist Albert Jonsen explained that we are facing unchartered ethical territory in the field of neuroscience which previous bioethical frameworks are ill equipped to handle.
“Neuroscience is a rapidly evolving field in which anatomy, physiology, chemistry, genetics, neurology, psychology and psychiatry, have united…The brain sciences can chart the intricate cellular changes that affect and reflect behavior. They can go further to pinpoint where and how thought, affection and action arise and respond to environment and external stimuli…
“Bioethics has simply not caught up with this rapidly expanding field of study. Although philosophers have reflected on the meaning of mind and consciousness, in light of neuroscience, they rarely engage the ethical implications of advances in the neurosciences.”
Progress in the field of neuroscience and our understanding of the brain is indeed raising important new ethical questions.
To what extent should we take advantage of technologies to manipulate our brains to achieve certain ends, like a happy mood or a more efficient, focused mind? Is it ethical to use cognitive enhancing drugs to perform better in school or in the workplace? Or to take medication to dim or erase traumatic memories to feel less depressed? How are technological advances changing the way in which we can dictate our own human experience, and how can we handle this power ethically and responsibly?
The field of Neuroethics, a term coined by William Safire, is an emerging field of ethical study that seeks to examine “what is right and wrong, good and bad about the treatment of, perfection of, or unwelcome invasions of and worrisome manipulation of the human brain.” Michael Gazzaniga, author of The Ethical Brain, defines the field more broadly: “Neuroethics is the examination of how we want to deal with the social issues of disease, normality, mortality, lifestyle, and the philosophy of living informed by our understand of underlying brain mechanisms.”
Look for postings on these topics under “Neuroethics” and “Cognitive Enhancement” to explore these ideas in more detail.
To listen to his Albert Jonsen’s full talk “Autonomy and the History of American Bioethics”, click here
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