Against Neuroethics

The BPS has published a discussion paper on “Neuroethics”. Neuroethics is an unnecessary phrase which covers a hodge-podge of ethical concerns for psychology researchers and broader societal concerns over the application of findings from the cognitive neurosciences.

The paper, prepared by the impressive team of Carl Senior, Patrick Haggard and John Oates, is mostly a discussion of the particular ethical issues that might arise from research using cognitive neuroscience techniques such as fMRI. Overall, it seems to me that all of the substantive ethical issues mentioned by the paper are treated at length by existing moral philosophy (and in particular by medical ethics). It is not clear that psychology and neurosciences have anything to add, which should be a first clue that the idea of “neuroethics” is inherently dubious.

A particularly revealing moment is the authors’ discussion of the evidence showing that people are more likely to believe an explanation when it is presented alongside a picture of a brain scan (McCabe & Castel, 2008 – covered on Mind Hacks here). This, for the authors of the discussion paper, raises the spectre of BPS members having “undue influence” by accompanying their explanations with pictures of brain scans.

In light of the persuasive power of brain scan imagery its use to illustrate any fact should be restricted as much as possible. Brain scan imagery should not be included on recruitment posters for participation in experiments

Here, the authors seem to have been affected by a peculiar version of the very effect they are warning against! They treat influence due to brain imagery as somehow exceptional, in the same way that people in the experiments treat explanations using brain imagery as somehow exceptional. Consider how the argument would look if it was a prescription against accompanying your communications with partcular phrases, or with offers of financial rewards. The way explanations are phrased affects how often they are believed – that does not mean psychologists should not try to be persuasive, nor that they are wrangling the minds of the public in an exceptional way if they are. There is evidence that monetary rewards, like brain imagery, can distort people’s judgement (see, e.g., Hsee, Zhang & Zhang, 2003) – the BPS has not recommended that members can’t pay people to participate in experiments.

It is part of normal cognitive function to be affected by the environment, and there are many quirks about the way we humans are affected by the exact content and structure of the environment. Examples of that influence are not automatically examples of “undue influence”, regardless of whether they involve brain imagery or not.

There are genuine ethical issues which are peculiar to cognitive neuroscience, but our duty to attend to these is better served by seeing brain related issues in the context of general ethics, rather than pandering to the kind of exceptionalism that the phrase “neuroethics” encourages.

A discussion paper: neuroethics and the british psychological society research ethics code

Hsee, C. K., Yu, F., Zhang, J., & Zhang, Y. (2003). Medium maximization. Journal of Consumer Research, 1–14.

McCabe, D. P., & Castel, A. D. (2008). Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition, 107(1), 343-352. doi:16/j.cognition.2007.07.017

7 Comments

  1. Neil
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 3:02 am | Permalink

    Full disclosure: I am the editor of the journal *Neuroethics*. Might all the topics that neuroethicists talk about be talked about by people in other fields? Absolutely. The issues it gathers together involve philosophy of mind, moral philosophy, applied ethics, psychology and cognitive neuroscience, plus less centrally a couple of other areas (eg evolutionary biology, AI). So we could divide up the discussion between specialists in these fields. But what you get then is people who know a lot about X talking about something that requires expertise in X and Y (and quite possible Z as well). Let’s get ad hominem for an illustration. Patrick Haggard is an excellent scientist, whose work on the lateralized readiness potential I admire. But he thinks that that gives him standing to make claims about free will. Problem is, while he knows a lot about the readiness potential he knows dick about free will. Unsurprisingly, his claims are, well, dumb. We make progress on the issues when we get people who make a serious effort to learn all the relevant fields. You can’t do the applied ethics without some grasp of what its object actually does. You can’t do the philosophy without a strong grasp of the relevant literature. Saying that we don’t need neuroethics is a bit like saying we don’t need psychiatry because there is already medicine and psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

  2. tom
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Neil – would it be fair to say that, while I think the term “neuroethics” encourages exceptionalism and ignorance of other fields, you argue that, on the contrary, the idea of neuroethics is essential to bring together the disciplines needed to address the ethical issues of psychology and neuroscience research?

    This seems a totally respectable position, but – of course! – I retain a fondness for my original position also ;-)

    My suspicion is there isn’t an a priori correct answer on this, but that the proof will be in the pudding of how people use and respond to the idea of neuroethics. I didn’t find this specific example – the BPS discussion paper – illuminating, but maybe I need to pick up your journal instead. I’m very ready to take reading recommendations.

  3. Neil
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    In my 2007 book, I argued against exceptionalism (if I understand your use of the term). I argued that we ought to be concerned with the factors that affect the unfair distribution of cognitive powers, but that the most important factor, now and for the foreseeable future, was poverty. So neuroethics ought to be concerned with political issues, I argued. Let me give you some examples of first-class work in neuroethics (broadly conceived). Adina Roskies responses to Max Coltheart in the journal *Philosophy of Science* – one of a series of papers by her on the interpretation of fMRI evidence – is wonderful. Roskies has PhDs in both neuroscience and philosophy. There are a number of excellent contributions by philosophers to the interpretation of the evidence of Libet and his successors (like Haggard) and it’s relevance to free will. Tim Bayne’s forthcoming paper in a volume edited by Richqrd Swinburne is exemplary. There is some excellent work on psychiatric dysfunction, especially delusions, which should be mentioned. My journal has a forthcoming symposium on Lisa Bertolotti’s book on the topic. My own work, for instance on weakness of the will, is driven by empirical data. All this work requires a serious engagement with both the relevant science and philosophical sophistication. It therefore requires an investment of time and effort, and hence specialization.

  4. Martha Farah
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Oh boy, two of my favorite scholars arguing about my favorite field – this is great and I can’t resist joining in!

    What’s in a name? Tom’s skepticism about neuroethics seems partly a reaction to the name, because a new label seems to imply that the subject matter is new. Or at least a coherent set of issues rather than a “hodge-podge.”

    Here is my own view: Neuroscience is finally making some headway in understanding the human mind, and this has resulted in new applications of neuroscience to all kinds of nonmedical problems, from advertizing to lie detection. It has also encouraged a more materialist view of our selves. These developments raise lots of interesting ethical and social issues. If people want a new label for the study of these issues, what the heck. I have never liked neologisms much (they sound too Madison Avenue for my taste — infomercial, metrosexual) but “neuroethics” caught on and at least it’s shorter than “ethical-legal-and-social-issues-raised-by-neuroscience.”

    Are the issues of neuroethics different in kind from the issues of bioethics, philosophy or sociology of science? The answer is of course no; every issue has relevant precedents, so nothing is ever really new. Is there a core question or approach that unifies all of neuroethics? Again no; the issues and methods are quite varied. But most of the precedents are distant enough from the neuroethical issues, and a sufficiently dense web of relations exists among those issues, that giving the field its own name is not entirely gratuitous.

    I like the fact that neuroethics has coalesced enough, as a field, that I can find lots of colleagues with common interests at the International Neuroethics Society meetings, and that there are journals like Neil’s with a concentration of good new work in this area. But I also think we risk cutting the field off from the wider intellectual world when we set ourselves apart with a label like “neuroethics.” As Tom says, the proof will be in the pudding.

    In the meantime, Tom, I have another reading suggestion for you – which I’ll put in the mail on Monday! (It’s a book, called “Neuroethics: An Introduction with Readings.”)

  5. tom
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Some related thoughts posted on my personal blog (I thought I’d spare mindhacks.com readers!), http://idiolect.org.uk/notes/?p=1538

    martha & neil – I am looking forward to doing some more reading and finding out how that pudding tastes!

  6. Posted July 17, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I am a totally unqualified person, in fact I’m a journalist. This discussion is fascinating. I notice a backlash against MRI scans of the brain and have been wondering why and wherefore. Perhaps @Martha has the key: “It has also encouraged a more materialist view of our selves.” More materialist than what, I wonder? Are there mental health professionals who think that the self/mind/psyche is immaterial, and merely hovers in the vicinity of the brain? I also notice that brain scans don’t show ego, id, anima, dark side, subconscious…

    • Sophia
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:48 am | Permalink

      As a journalist with an interest in science, you may carry an unfair burden of sharing the insights of science with the general public. Therefore, I felt the least I could do in return was answer some of your questions.

      1. The ongoing backlash against fMRI-based studies in neuroscience likely has something to do with the strength of authors’ convictions not matching the strength of their evidence. Neuroscience papers–and, more often, their interpretations by the media–sometimes contain grandiose claims based on what ought to be considered a very crude technology. While it is certainly an exciting development, neural imaging has yet to realize the spatial and temporal resolution necessary to make much of what we discover.

      2. While there are surely mental health professionals that believe in an immortal soul, these beliefs are not derived from scientific evidence. Their opinions on the subject, therefore, must be taken with a grain of salt.

      3. As for the id and the like, we will never find them in the brain because they are a product of our language and have no basis in empirical reality. It is important to remember that the usefulness of an abstraction has no bearing on whether or not it actually has a material basis. In this example, we succumb to the fallacy of believing we have found an explanation for something by simply giving it a name!

      I hope this is helpful to you.


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