Overview of the field

 

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The term “neuroethics” was used to some extent within the European medical and philosophical communities to refer both to the neurological basis of moral cognition, and to those issues and problems arising from the research and clinical practices of neurology and psychiatry. Recently, this term has been revived by the NY Times’ journalist William Safire at a 2002 Dana Foundation conference addressing the conceptual and realistic intersection of these ideas and their applications. Subsequently “neuroethics” has joined the vocabulary not only of neuroscientists, but of intellectuals and even the public, in general. In many ways, this term bespeaks a new worldview, one that acknowledges that we are facing what Thomas Kuhn called an epistemic “crisis”: a time of change based upon a mass-effect of new knowledge. Previously accepted ideas about the function of the nervous system, brain and concept(s) of mind are being abandoned in favor of new notions and novel ways of thinking. But what of lessons learned? The questions of neuroscience are those that address how we know, what we are, and thus, the very nature of being and understanding. The technological advances that have allowed much of this inquiry have progressed with ardent strides. Yet, as so very often, the philosophical premises and ethical instantiations that guide the use of this technology and allow prudent applications in medicine and society lag arduously behind. Thus, neuroethics as a field, though somewhat incipient, has developed a canon that seeks to identify the humanistic importance of neuroscientific inquiry, both epistemologically and in application. Scientific developments in neuroscience have been most influential in generating potentially contentious issues. Key questions include: what is the direction of neuroscientific inquiry? How has such progress established our current neuroscientific epistemology? How do these developments affect clinical realms of neurology, neurosurgery and psychiatry? Philosophical issues have both guided such neuroscientific inquiry and are essential to understanding the complex intersection of neuroscientific progress and ethical domains of research, medical practice and the social impact of these enterprises. Many foundational questions and problems arise that reflect what may be a paradigmatic shift in our contemporary epistemology. For example: What is neurophilosophy? What are different conceptions of neurophilosophy and its main issues? Does it cover all areas of philosophy that are influenced by developments in neurosciences? Can these areas be mapped? What is or should be the relationship between philosophy and neurosciences? How can philosophy be of help to neuroscience? What is the nature of the human condition and human person? What makes me act responsibly? What is my particular character? What makes me unique? What constitutes this “I”, the “self”? And under what conditions does it continue to be the same self? If behavior is the outcome of neuronal processes, what role is left for free will? Is there a danger that neuroscience will make the idea of free will obsolete? How would that affect the way we assign accountability and responsibility? These questions are foundational to the ethical issues inherent to progress in basic and clinical applications of neuroscience. While some of these issues remain speculative, others are firmly established in the reality of the present. The question, therefore, is how to define and discuss these issues in an attempt to elucidate foci of conflict, reconcile disparities and approach dilemmas in such a way that may allow for ethical balance to keep pace with scientific progress. Issues generated from the conflation of neuroscientific development(s) and philosophical premises include the ongoing debate as to whether particular interventions represent treatment(s) or enhancement(s), the use or misuse of neurogenetic and neuroimaging data, moral ambiguities surrounding the use of neural allo- and xenotransplantation, and ethical dilemmas arising within the contexts of neuroscientific policy, clinical practice and the scope and tenor of current and future research directions.

 

 

 

 

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