Neuroethics: the delicate balance of neuroscience and morality

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How can we create frameworks of practical moral reasoning in the absence of free will? Can neuroscience research shed light on how we make moral judgements? What are the general implications of neuroscience research itself? How can we differentiate between the study of the mind or the brain to begin with? In the current development of neuroscience research, scenarios have changed. Researchers are beginning to uncover a new knowledge about personal identity, emotions, awareness, and free will. All of these are key pieces in the understanding of the puzzle of the mind human. These issues that seemed to be alien to science are now exposed in the scenario of Neuroethics, the ethical issues brought upon by neuroscience as well as the neuroscience of ethics itself. As presented by Kathinka Evers, principal investigator of the Center for Research in Ethics and Bioethics from the University of Uppsala, we can investigate a slew of questions that born in this interface between the sciences of the human spirit and the natural sciences in her book “Neuroetica.” It should be remembered, in the face of this reconciliation between science and ethics, that there have been challenges and struggles to write on neuroethics. Understanding “the analysis of the concepts involved in practical moral reasoning “(p 21), and the first, according to Robert Hooke, as “knowledge of natural things, and of all useful arts, manufactures, and mechanical practices, artifacts and experimental inventions “(p.22), it’s easy to come to incorrect conclusions on these ethical issues.

Fortunately, through history not all modern thinkers have seen science in this way. As Evers points out, in accordance with philosopher Francis Bacon’s views of science, the study well-organized and detailed in nature, science should be much more than the mere school search for knowledge. The sciences have to fulfill a fundamental function, namely: to allow human beings to improve their life on earth (p.21); objective that would be difficult to achieve if it were insisted on keep excluded the philosophical, political, moral and metaphysical that are born in their same this particular case, within the neurosciences.

Now, although the ethical problems initially raised in neuroscience referred to the practice and use of brain imaging technologies, neuropharmacology or the interests of research and sponsors of this, currently neuroscientific research itself is also concentrated in the construction of “adequate theoretical foundations that are required to be able to deal appropriately with the problems of application “(p.28). This establishes a distinction clear between an applied neuroethics and a theoretical neuroethics, concerned about the capacity that could have the science of nature to improve our understanding of moral thinking. We can determine whether the former is really important for the latter by considering both concerns as part of a greater question, that is, if human consciousness can to be addressed or not in biological terms.

It should be mentioned that any attempt to expose the complete set of ideas that go through neuroethics and the development of these would be foolish. We can still refer to a small, but representative, set that begins with the idea of unifying different levels and types of knowledge, taking both the techniques and the methodologies of each discipline, in order to build bridges. Fragile as they may be, they would allow the flow of the knowledge of the neurosciences to other sciences and disciplines, integrating in turn, this knowledge in the conception that have human beings of himself. It resonates through the world and morality in a shared theoretical framework (p.30 and p.57). The materialism position may respond, aptly illustrated and proposed in chemistry by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in 1953 and extended by neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changueux, to the neuroscience of the present. It may be that far from any naive reductionism and dualism (ontological), we can assume the brain as “a plastic, projective organ and narrative, which results from a sociocultural, biological symbiosis that appeared in the course of evolution … ” (p 69), judging emotion as the characteristic mark of consciousness from an evolutionary perspective.

Following, you can expose an idea pretty striking, a neurophilosophical model of the free agency that tries to answer how even though Free will is or can be: “1) a construction of the brain, 2) causally determined, or 3) initiated unconsciously “(p.80), it is not something” illusory .” As Evers argues, first, the fact that free will be a construction of the brain not necessarily means that it is an illusion, and that perhaps if it is an illusion it will be for other reasons (p.86); second, “causality is a prerequisite for the free agency “(p.88), otherwise the behavior would be totally random, in addition, causal determinism does not imply an invariable and necessary relationship between cause and effect, to the extent that this relationship can be variable and contingent; third, although the processes non-conscious appear to be far from control aware, the relationship and influence between both are “To a certain extent mutual, and not unilateral” (p.104). Of course, to understand the development and integration of each argument to think of free will as “The ability to acquire a causal power, combined with the ability to influence the use of said power ” (p.107), you need to read chapter II of the book, where Evers makes use of different authors (Changueux, Le Doux, Libet, Freeman, Churchland, Pinker, Blakemore, Pylyshyn, among others) to recreate the scenario in which situates all this discussion and each one of his ideas.

Finally, we note the normative relevance of the neurosciences according to the understanding of the neural bases of development of thinking and moral behavior. We can mention four innate tendencies closely related that appeared in the evolution: 1) self-interest, 2) the desire to control and security, 3) the dissociation of what can be considered unpleasant or threatening, 4) selective sympathy. Regarding the latter, the author risks saying that the human being is a xenophobe with natural empathy insofar as it is “empathic by virtue of [your] understanding of a relatively large set of creatures; but […] nice so much more narrow and selective towards the restricted group [in which born or has chosen to join] “(page 132). Although understanding (empathy) can be extended to broad groups (i.e. foreigners), the affective bond that unites human beings is restricted to their group more close. There’s an indifference to the foreigner or the which is considered different.

Keeping in mind these innate preferences, there’s no doubt about the difficult situation of current moral discussions. It becomes a priority then, to establish a diagnosis in neurobiological terms to be able intervene human behavior, recognizing that the structure of the brain determines to some degree the social behavior, moral dispositions and the type of society that is created, although the latter has an influence on brain development (p.149). At the same time, we can pose the question about the scientific responsibility of neuroscience at the socio-political level in terms of its adequacy (formulation of real problems), conceptual clarity, and application of methods and techniques without forgetting the origins and interests. Making it clear what a finding or fact (if it is) of neuroscience is not can give off categorical imperatives. A duty can be universal because of knowing that you have an innate preference does not follow that it is okay or that it must conceive this fact as good or bad.

In short, “Neuroethics” is an excellent introduction for both the unnoticed reader and for professionals from different areas of health (Psychology, Psychiatry, Neuropsychology, Medicine) and other professionals such as philosophers, lawyers and politicians, concerned about the participation of neurosciences in the understanding of the mind, the behavior, socio-cultural organizations, mental health, education, but first of all in the perception of human existence and its future. It may be “A Critique of the Neuroscientific reason,” a clear demarcation of the limits of this knowledge and its uses in society, a judgment by the other disciplines, to the extent that knowledge about the brain seems to give to neuroscientists certain power to expand their ideas beyond the laboratory, expanding their horizons and its explanatory power in domains already mentioned. It’s sometimes quite assertive when plotting new research paths, other times. But other times it’s about attacking different fields of knowledge by not knowing the limits of its frame of reference and in the impossibility to purge the investigations carried out of their own cognitive biases. That would respond more to the interests of certain ideologies than to the objective to improve human life on earth.