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Neuroethics is most commonly understood to be the bioethics subcategory concerned with neuroscience and neurotechnology. However, some philosophers, ethicists, and scientists have increasingly stressed the possibility that neuroscience can shed light on wider ethical questions.
Rees and Rose (as cited in "References" on page 9) claim neuroethics is a neologism that emerged only at the beginning of the 21st century, largely through the work of ethicists and philosophers. They state that neuroethics addresses concerns about the effects neuroscience and neurotechnology will have on other aspects of human life: namely "personal responsibility", law, and justice. Further, they claim that neuroethical problems will become real by the 2020s.
What is the scope of neuroethics?
Not surprisingly, no specific definition of neuroethics is universally accepted.
According to the Web of Science, the term was probably coined by A.A. Pontius in a 1993 Psychological Reports paper on moral development.
Writer William Safire defined it as "the field of philosophy that discusses the rights and wrongs of the treatment of, or enhancement of, the human brain."
If neuroethics is understood in this way, a typical question investigated by the field might be: What is the difference between treating a humanneurological disease and simply enhancing the human brain? Another such question might be: Is it fair for the wealthy to have access to neurotechnology, while the poor do not? Neuroethical problems could complement or compound ethical issues raised by genomics, genetics, and human genetic engineering (see Gattaca argument).
However, Dartmouth College Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Director Michael Gazzaniga argues that definitions such as Safire's are inadequate, since knowledge of brain mechanisms can illuminate a broad range of ethical questions. Gazzaniga states that "neuroethics is more than just bioethics for the brain." In his book The Ethical Brain , he defines the field as: "the examination of how we want to deal with the social issues of disaease, normality, mortality, lifestyle, and the philosophy of living informed by our understanding of underlying brain mechanisms" (Gazzaniga's emphasis).
Gazzaniga puts this view succinctly by stating that "It is—or should be—an effort to come up with a brain-based philosophy of life."
Two categories of problems
Neuroethical problems can be divided into two categories, which roughly correspond to the narrower and broader understandings of the field offered by Safire and Gazzaniga, respectively. There are problems that result from engineering advancement, and those that result from philosophical (including scientific) advancement. Relevant advances in engineering include the development of functional neuroimaging, psychopharmacology, brain implants, and brain-machine interfaces. Philosophical advancement includes the biological study of ancient questions about the human person, relating to behavior, personality, and consciousness.
Important activity in 2002 and 2003
The years 2002 and 2003 saw significant development of neuroethics as a subject of wide discussion. Judy Illes of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics claimed the neuroethical discipline "emerged formally" sometime in 2002 or 2003, though she actually dates its development to 1989. Regardless of whether this is true, it is undeniable that neuroethics rose to new relevance during the early 21st century. Indeed, four major neuroethics conferences occurred in the year 2002 alone:
- The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the journal Neuron conducted a meeting in January 2002
- The Center for Bioethics ) and the Center for Neuroscience held a conference in February 2002.
- The Royal Institution of London conducted a conference in March 2002|March.
- A conference was conducted in May 2002 by the Dana Foundation.
- Gazzaniga, M. S. (2005). The Ethical Brain. The Dana Press.
- Illes, J. (2003, October 24). Neuroethics in a new era of neuroimaging. In American journal of neuroradiology, 24, 1739 – 1741.
- Rees, D. & Rose, S. (2004). New brain sciences: perils and prospects. Cambridge University Press.
- "NeuroPolitics", an entry on NeuroWiki
- Neuroscience, Identity and Society Seminar Series UK Further links, research papers and news can be found on the background pages.
- Neuroethics & Law Blog