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Ethical Contexts for the Future of Neuroethics
John R. Shook & James Giordano
To cite this article: John R. Shook & James Giordano (2019) Ethical Contexts for the Future of
Neuroethics, AJOB Neuroscience, 10:3, 134-136, DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2019.1632969
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/21507740.2019.1632969
Published online: 22 Jul 2019.
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with ones parents. While the Chinese do not reject
Brandts values, the relative weight they assign to these
values may differ substantially.
It is arguable whether or not the Chinese value sys-
tem is adaptive. But even if it were, it may nevertheless
provide a critical challenge to what may be an over-
emphasis on individual rights and autonomy. Garret
Hardin, in discussing the so-called tragedy of the
commons,observed that
Every new enclosure of the commons involves the
infringement of somebodys personal liberty cries of
rightsand freedomfill the air. But what does
freedommean? When men mutually agreed to pass laws
against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so.
Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free
only to bring on universal ruin. (Hardin 1968, 1248)
Sometimes personal liberty and self-driven choice
have to be regulated in order to provide freedom.
Those, like myself, who were enculturated in the West
may not understand Hardins point as deeply, on a
visceral level, as the average Chinese citizen.
Consequently, we may be less well off if we fail to
take on board her perspective.
I end with another of Hardins observations:
The morality of an act is a function of the state of the
system at the time it is performed. Using the commons as a
cesspool does not harm the general public under frontier
conditions, because there is no public; the same behavior in
a metropolis is unbearable. (Hardin 1968, 1245)
We are living in a world that is increasingly inter-
connected, where an increasing subset of resources can
no longer be treated as a commons. Food gathering
and land for waste disposal are but a few of the
examples of resources that must be tightly regulated
and controlled in order to ensure global well-being.
Given the state of the world and the size of popula-
tions, among other things, it is an open question
whether or not Chinas framework of values is the
best (even if imperfect) moral alternative under current
conditions. That being said, the point of this brief com-
mentary is not to articulate and defend the Chinese
framework of values. It is simply to make room on
the table for non-Western voices and, perhaps, to more
effectively heed Kellmeyer and colleaguescall for
greater perspectival diversity.
REFERENCES
Brandt, R. 1979. A theory of the good and the right. Oxford, UK:
Oxford University Press.
Bruckner, D. 2009. In defense of adaptive preferences.
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current and future environment for neuroethics. AJOB
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Ethical Contexts for the Future of
Neuroethics
John R. Shook, University at Buffalo
James Giordano, Georgetown University Medical Center
The state-of-the-fieldassessment titled Neuroethics at
15: The Current and Future Environment for
Neuroethics(Kellmeyer et al., for the Emerging Issues
Task Force, International Neuroethics Society 2019) high-
lights a variety of issues of an ethical character. This
assessments selectivity and relative constraint, within
the practical bounds of a short essay, could not be
avoided. Any number of possible and potentially antici-
patable social, legal, and moral concerns may come to
mind, and in light of this, its choice of representative
problems is both timely and helpful. The implications for
human welfare, and humanity itself, from advances in
brain sciences, neurotechnologies, and translational tech-
niques can be safely predicted to be deep and far-
Address correspondence to John R. Shook, Philosophy, University at Buffalo, 135 Park Hall, Buffalo, NY, USA. E-mail:
jshook@pragmatism.org
AJOB Neuroscience
134 ajob Neuroscience JulySeptember, Volume 10, Number 3, 2019
reaching; thus, the academic and applied activities of
neuroethics areand will continue to bedynamic and
increasing at an accelerating pace and widening scope.
In our view, an overlooked matter should be raised
and never allowed to fall into neglect, namely, the status
of ethics. We are not complaining that ethical worries are
omitted from this reportfar from it. Warnings about
potential violations of important moral values and
appeals to selected ethical ideals are presented in abun-
dance. But we would like to point out that an impartial
observer of current neuroethics could justifiably think
that the ethical environmentfor neuroethics, now and
for the foreseeable future, is hospitable to both Western
moral absolutism and tolerant moral relativism. If
viewed through a certain lens, the report might lend cre-
dence to the stage-setting roles played by these contrary
ethical standpoints. It gives due obeisance to underlying
valuessuch as human dignity, well-being, justice, per-
sonal autonomy, and personal privacy. Yet these values
only attain their full ethical meaning and paramount sta-
tus within particular nations as a consequence of ethical
deliberations upon events of the past 80 years (i.e., the
improbities and atrocities brought to light by the
Nuremberg DoctorsTrial) relative to Western philo-
sophical precepts of the last three centuries. Do these
deserve universal prioritization and overriding prece-
dence, among all the values and ideals promulgated by
ethical cultures around the world? One might regard
that question to be philosophically important without
imagining that neuroethics has anything at all do with
its answer. We disagree.
What then does neuroethics have to do with ethics?
Perhaps ethics can only be a significant part of the
demanding environment for neuroethics, requiring its
dutiful compliance. However, with respect to any tech-
nology-based endeavor in general, the iterative modifica-
tion and adaptation of the environment and the
organisms in it (including Homo sapiens) has become a
thoroughly human enterprise. Thus, the possibility that
ethics will be adjusted by neuroethics cannot be ruled
out in advance. We urge the view that this prospect is
not only possible, but inevitable. The grounds for this
view lie in neuroethics and its defining purpose.
At its core, neuroethics is an interdisciplinary field
for deliberations about (1) scientific investigations into
neurocognitive processes, particularly those involved
with capacities for sociality and morality, and (2) ethical,
legal, and social issues generated by brain research and
its varied applications. At first glance, a close relation-
ship between these tasks seems straightforward. The first
assignment is about the science of morality,while
the second addresses the morality of science.
Commonalities at this core of neuroethics are obvious:
science and morality (Farah 2012; Illes and Bird 2006;
Levy 2011). However, the objectives of science and ethics
are dissimilar, and the science of morality and the ethics
of science may not be compatible. Perhaps ethics has no
need of science while morality gets misunderstood by
science, according to the sorts of long-standing objections
raised by philosophy and theology. Ethical supervision
of science and technology with ethics has less opposition,
although proponents of fast progress often complain
about conservative restraints, and conservative propo-
nents frequently complain about hasty and liberal
engagements of science and technology.
Suspicions about agendas underlying neuroethics
grow on all sides. Is theorizing about morality to be
liberated by empirical science from philosophical and
theological conjecture? Scientific discoveries are revealing
significant facts about genetic, neurologic, and cognitive
processes of life, despite objections claiming that essences
of identity, mind, and soul are beyond the scope and
competence of science. While metaphysically anachronis-
tic, such protests are perennially devoted to important
values about human life, such as psychological and
moral norms. Living in a responsible and right manner
was never a matter waiting for sciences ethical instruc-
tion. What new agenda is actually served by regarding
humans only in terms of weights and measures? The
reduction of good judgment and moral rightness to brain
processes and behavioral consequences is the goal of
materialistic utilitarianism. Letting utilitarian criteria
supervise brain-related investigations and inventions
would allow rapid adoptions of technoscience in the
name of individual benefit and social betterment. Useful
innovation is about satisfying wants and needs from that
standpoint, and their reality and potency cannot be
denied. Human drives and desires have neurobiological
and psychological grounds that are more evident to sci-
entific view than changing perspectives of personal
rights or social justice. If the agenda is to comprehend
the person and the mind through understanding the
brain, will anything valuable be overlooked? Perhaps,
but what we believe cannotnor should notbe over-
looked is the way that assigning the study of morality to
neuroscience cannot guarantee that applications of
neuroscience will be ethical (Giordano and
Benedikter 2012).
A confusing scene of contentious agendas is not a
promising inauguration of a reputable academic field.
Critiques from many directions are questioning whether
neuroethics is a credible intellectual resource, or even a
coherent academic area (Conrad and De Vries 2011;
Vidal and Piperberg 2017). Dividing neuroethics into
independent areas of study, or distributing tasks of neu-
roethics among other disciplines might alleviate critical
worries. But we disagree that those concerns have hege-
monic cogency. The broad purview assigned to the field
of neuroethics provides ample room for discussions and
deliberations about humanitys technoscientific and eth-
ical future, keeping them in dialogue and dialectic rather
than discord. Neuroethics is needed now because ethical
implications for society raised by neuroscience and neu-
rotechnology cannot be an issue considered separately
from scientific implications of self-understanding as per-
sons bearing moral worth and dignity. No other field
Neuroethics at 15
JulySeptember, Volume 10, Number 3, 2019 ajob Neuroscience 135
among the humanities and social sciences, whether trad-
itionally disciplinary or newly interdisciplinary, is
designed to explore that convergence.
Neuroethics cannot avoid entanglements with mor-
ality, as intellectual progress implies a co-developing
relationship with the environing problematic conditions,
including ethics itself, which demand neuroethical
deliberation(s). The future ethical environment for neu-
roethics will be interestingly differentin no small part
due to the transformative work of neuroethics. The
assessment under discussion, Neuroethics at 15,
seems open to that likelihood. It acknowledges how
ethical values, including fundamental ideals, are not as
static as moral absolutists imagine: The ways in which
these values are understood and applied shift over
time(104). However, that observation by itself affords
insufficient guidance to the contemporary field of neu-
roethics, which in its currency and authenticity need
not or should not solely rely on ancient Greek, trad-
itional African, or medieval Chinese ideas about such
values. The way that neuroethics is largely aligned at
present with some other society and century does not
signal that ethics is safely aloof from the mire of rela-
tivism. Relativism is also on display in devout respect
shown for values that happen to be revered in (for
example) the America of late modernity. Why couldnt
neuroethics be guided toward respecting a different
sets of values from other contemporary cultures?
Absolutism is not achieved merely by proclaiming a
preference that the values of ones own society prevail
over values of other societies.
Ethical values shift and blend over time, exposing
both ethical absolutism and relativism as inadequate the-
ories. Short-term flexibility and long-term fluidity is a
sign of moral progress, not degeneration. Accordingly,
we commend this reports hopes for international con-
sensus and universal ethical standards, as long as those
inclusive ends are not pursued by hegemonic means
(Lanzilao et al. 2013; Lombera and Illes 2009). Still,
unavoidable questions will remain: What does neuro-
ethics have to do with that perennial philosophical quest
for a universal ethics? How should neuroethics conduct
its advisory work in the meantime? Perhaps neuroethics
could help advance consensus on global ethical princi-
ples, or neuroethics may have some special expertise for
discerning humanity-wide ethical rules irrespective of
culture or geopolitics (Shook and Giordano 2014). The
ethical environment for neuroethics will not acquire fur-
ther clarity until the full implications of neuroscience
and neuroethics for understanding morality
become clearer.
What does seem clear to us at present is this:
Interdisciplinary undertakings for embracing both sci-
ence and ethics through mutual dialogue and coordi-
nated deliberations are not efforts to be delayed or
dismissed. As we all look to survey the complex environ-
ment for neuroethics, we should agree that this relatively
new field is timely, necessary, and necessarily flexible.
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Conrad, E., and R. De Vries. 2011. Field of dreams: A social
history of neuroethics. In Advances in Medical Sociology 13:
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Farah, M. 2012. Neuroethics: The ethical, legal, and societal
impact of neuroscience. Annual Review of Psychology 63: 571591.
doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.093008.100438.
Giordano, J., and R. Benedikter. 2012. An earlyand
necessaryflight of the Owl of Minerva: Neuroscience,
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International Neuroethics Society. 2019. Neuroethics at 15: The
current and future environment for neuroethics. AJOB
Neuroscience 10(3): 104110.
Lanzilao, E., J. Shook, R. Benedikter, and J. Giordano. 2013.
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AJOB Neuroscience
136 ajob Neuroscience JulySeptember, Volume 10, Number 3, 2019
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