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Neuroethics: The Brain Sciences Pose Ethical - and Philosophical - Conundrums
Dr. Farah is Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences and Director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society; Dr. Moreno is David and Lyn Silfen University Professor and Professor of Medical Ethics and of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.
Neuroethics is a relatively new area within the larger field of bioethics. It is concerned with the social, legal, and ethical dilemmas that the rapidly-evolving brain sciences can cause. Some of the most significant advances in neuroscience, along with highly sophisticated new brain imaging technologies like functional MRIs (fMRI), expand our understanding of human cognition and emotion.
Fields such as education, business, politics, law, entertainment and national security – all of which require understanding, assessing, predicting, controlling, or improving human behavior – all benefit from what we know about how the brain works.(1) But the ever-expanding applications of neuroscience bring a growing set of ethical dilemmas. Should brain images be used to assess the guilt of criminal defendants? Should wakefulness-promoting drugs be used to enable workers or students to function all day and all night? Is it OK to manipulate the neural systems underlying trust to enhance interrogation of hostile informants?
To understand the nature and scope of neuroethics, it is necessary to first talk about the most ethically-significant new uses of neuroscience. We’ll begin with examples of how neuroscience is being used in several important fields, and then discuss the ethical issues raised by these applications.
New Roles for Neuroscience in Society
Criminal Justice and LawNeuroscience can be applied to many, if not all, of the same areas of law to which psychology has already been applied.(2) Defendants’ personal, medical and psychological histories and diagnoses have long been introduced in court, often as evidence that the accused person deserves greater leniency in his or her sentencing. Information about defendants’ brain function from brain imaging studies have also been introduced at the sentencing phase.(3)
One recent landmark Supreme Court decision concerning lifetime imprisonment of minors referred to the results of neuroscience research on the differences between adolescent and adult brains. The findings changed the ruling on the defendant’s sentence.(5) Brain imaging studies of murderers have distinguished between impulsive murderers and those who planned their crimes, with the latter being more likely to murder again.(6)
“Chemical castration” is another example of how neuroscience can pose legal and ethical issues. It refers to the practice of prescribing anti-androgen drugs to sex offenders to reduce testosterone levels. This practice of “therapeutic justice” also extends to anger management classes, parenting classes, treatment for drug dependence.(7)(8)
Some have also used fMRI to measure the likely truthfulness of statements,(9)(10) somewhat like a modern day “lie detector,” although these methods still are not admitted as evidence in court.(11)(12) A different type of brain-based lie detection, based on electrical activity (event-related potentials, or ERPs) has been admitted as evidence in the U.S. and in India,(13) where it has already helped convict at least two defendants of murder.(14)