A framework to Systematize Positions in Neuroethics Saskia Nagel & Nicolas Neubauer

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  • Introduction
  • During the last few decades, progress in neuroscience has advanced rapidly: Imaging techniques have been improved in terms of temporal as well as spatial resolution, providing us with ever increasing amounts of data about the brain. Sophisticated analysis tools have achieved big successes in turning these data into valuable information, and work in modelling has led to the creation of theories linking this information back to actual brain processes. Finally, we are entering an age where even manipulation of the brain on physical, chemical and physiological levels becomes possible.
  • All this promises to change some of the basic concepts we have about ourselves. How do we deal with these changes? How does our idea of man change? How do we want to define the borders between desirable technical progress and uncontrollable inhuman developments?
  • Dilemma 1: How much do we want to allow such manipulations? Should we reserve it for extreme cases, or maybe not use it at all? Or shouldn’t we rather go and enjoy the benefits of modern technology?
  • Discussion: Reality has shown that if there is a drug which makes us perform better, feel better, we will want to take it – it just looks better for us to have it than not to have it. On the other hand, extending our capabilities beyond the norm seems unnatural, and dangerous both concretely (e.g., unpredictable long term effects) and in more abstract ways (e.g. concerning our idea of man).
  • Possible opinions range from a completely restrictive position rejecting any use of psychopharmacological means to an extremely liberal one, embracing all possible uses. Some cases are commonly accepted to be justified occasions for psychopharmacological treatment (like Alzheimer’s Disease or heavy psychoses and neuroses), just as there are other cases which a majority would judge illegitimate (doping children for better performance at school). The actual controversies emerge in border cases. A central point is the notion of “normality”. Restoring or establishing normality (“treatment”) would be considered legitimate by many positions; the differences between these positions then stem from their different definitions of normality (see box). In everyday life, actual positions are typically located somewhere between a liberal form of “treatment only” position and positions favouring slight enhancements.
  • Axis 1.1: Availability of Existing Means
  • Positions on this axis range from “no intervention for anyone” through “only treatment, but no enhancement” with increasingly liberal definitions of treatment to “enhancement for everyone”.
  • Personhood is a fundamental concept in our idea of man. It relates to the legal aspects of being human as it is closely tied to the awarding of rights. There is wide consent about the need to protect persons, which, however, results in heated debates about the exact definition. Neuroscience may bring up border cases where persons need to be protected; at the same time, its subject is the analysis and potential manipulation of the very foundation of personhood: the brain.
  • In the near future, technology may enable us to perform surgeries to change certain aspects of personality. Phineas Gage is a prominent example of personality change through physical manipulation of the brain. Let us construct a thought experiment: Imagine Phineas Gage would live today and we were able to restore his original identity through psychosurgery.
  • Dilemma: Would we want to justify such an intervention? Would he want such an intervention, and who is “he”, Phineas Cage before or after the accident? What if the new Phineas refuses the treatment although we can be sure the “old” one would have been happy to take that chance?
  • Discussion: These questions are extreme variants of classical issues in medicine related to the notion of ”Informed Consent”. Particularly in the complex context of medical treatments, the point in time when a person is allowed to be responsible for himself is hard to assess. In his brain-lesioned state, Phineas Gage is – just like before – self-conscious and rational, so there is no reason to take away personal rights from him.
  • Intuitively, we would argue in favour of restoring his old personality because this is the one that has been Gage’s natural state in the absence of injury. However, one might argue that changing Gage’s personality on purpose (an intervention which is not based on concrete medical needs but on a potentially biased view on desirable and un-desirable properties) is ethically questionable. Even though we said that we favoured such treatment because it restores the original, would we really consider such a restoration if we subjectively judged the new person to be nicer? Particularly when the “new” Gage rejects such a treatment, who would be in a justified position to proceed never-theless? If we favoured an intervention, we would either have to find arguments why the new Gage cannot be considered a “full” person, or drop our principle of the patients’ self-determination and define reasons that override it.
  • If we come to a point where it may be considered ethical to alter someone’s personality against their will (for example, by reducing their personal rights by doubting their full rationality) it is only a short step from restoring Gage’s old state to manipulating persons without brain damage, but with undesired behaviour. The legalization of court-ordered intervention on the level of the central nervous system could be a consequence.
  • Axis 2.1: Persistence of Personhood
  • Positions range from standpoints insisting on personal rights for even severely impaired people through opinions legitimating denial of such rights in certain cases to a position that would even override “full” persons’ wills in order to establish “desirable” behaviour.
  • Third Case – Privacy
  • Within the neurosciences there is a rapid emergence of brain imaging techniques enabling us to take detailed pictures of the brain. Methods like CT, MRI, fMRI and PET have a widespread impact on neuroscience. Let us construct a third case and imagine a future scenario where our ability to make definitive statements about individual brain states and to map such brain states onto mental states has advanced. Thinkable applications lie in investigations in criminology, identification of traumata in psychotherapy, or even every-day private use.
  • Recently, there has been an example of using EEG techniques to improve reliability in lie detection (“brain fingerprinting”). In the study (Farwell 2001), a certain signal indicating strong affective response was evaluated. This was combined with the presentation of seemingly irrelevant pictures. Some of these pictures, however, showed scenes or objects that were present at the scene of the crime. A suspect’s connection to a crime would then be judged by the measured responses to those pictures who are only meaningful to someone involved.
  • Dilemma 1: Is it acceptable to invade a person’s (potentially even subconscious) mental states?
  • Discussion: The continuum of potential positions seems to resemble the “Liberty of Denial” axis found in the first case: The question is how strongly the freedom of the individual to refuse an intervention is weighted in relation to the potential social benefits of a forced application. Concretely, it is the individual’s privacy which is at stake, compared to the interest of prosecution or other causes presumed worthy.
  • Axis 3.1: Estimation of Privacy
  • Positions on this axis range from standpoints favouring the absolute value of mental privacy to those which rank higher the potential social benefits of invading it in certain cases.
  • The Generalized Framework
  • The goal: Find a minimal set of axes which still provides enough expressive power to locate the relevant different positions in our “opinion space”:
  • Acknowledgements
  • This work was part of the Study Project
  • “MINI – Mechanisms in Neuropsychological Issues” in the Cognitive Science Master Program at the University of Osnabrück.
  • References
  • Berlin, I. (1969): Two concepts of liberty. In Four essays on liberty, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Damasio, A. (1994): Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, New York, NY: Avon Books
  • Farah, M. (2002): Emerging ethical issues in neuroscience. Nature Neuroscience, 5, 1123-1129.
  • Farwell, L. A. and Smith, S. S. (2001): Using Brain MERMER Testing to Detect Concealed Knowledge Despite Efforts to Conceal. Journal of Forensic Sciences 46, 1:1-9.
  • Fukuyama, F. (2002): Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux.
  • Illes, J. & Raffin, T.M. (2002): Neuroethics: Emerging new discipline in the study of brain and cognition. Brain and Cognition, 50, pp. 341-344.
  • Illes, J., Kirschen, M. & Gabrieli, J.D.E. (2002): Emerging trends in fMRI: Ethical implications for research and clinical medicine. Orlando, FL: Society for Neuroscience.
  • Marcus, Steven J. (ed.) (2002): Neuroethics: Mapping the Field. Distributed for the Dana Press. 367.
  • Wrye, S. (2002): Written comments to the president’s council on bioethics concerning mind enhancing technologies and drugs. Available from the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE).
  • How do we set criteria about what is normal and what is not in lights of new accomplishments in psychopharmacology and psychosurgery? Shortly, how can we distinguish between good and bad when confronted with many qualitatively new options?
  • The field of Neuroethics is concerned with the resulting ethical implications. We propose a frame-work to systematize the questions and positions in this context. We discuss three concrete cases around the topics of treatment/enhancement, personhood and privacy. For each case, we identify a set of axes along which standpoints may vary. We generalize the particular axes of each case and arrive at a three-dimensional coordinate system spanned by the axes of “Liberty of Denial”, “Liberty of Use” and “Scepticism”. With this, we hope to provide a common language simplifying interdisciplinary dialogue and communication with the public.
  • Dilemma 2: What about pressures concerning such interventions? Should they remain voluntary, is that possible at all? Or are there cases where people should be forced to use drugs?
  • Discussion: This dilemma is concerned with the freedom not to take certain substances. One end of a potential spectrum would be the principle that no one may ever be forced to take drugs against their will. On the other end, we would locate positions that justify forced drug use under certain circumstances (hormonal preparates for sexual criminals would be a prominent example).
  • There are more subtle pressures than legally enforced drug use, however. This leads again to a continuum of graded positions between the two extremes. To take up again the case of ADHD, the freedom of the individual to reject Ritalin is not reduced by legal standards, but by social pressures exercised by schools, parents, or doctors.
  • In the professional world, there might as well arise situations where rejecting to enhance one’s performance can result in negative consequences. In such cases, one can imagine (at least) two different positions. One which will recognize the relevance of implicit pressures and therefore actively fight such pressures to keep up individual freedom, while the other position might find it sufficient to protect individuals from explicit pressure.
  • Axis 1.2: Liberty of Denial
  • Positions on this axis range from complete rejection of forced use through different positions concerning implicit pressures to the acceptance of explicit pressure.
  • First Case – Treatment/Enhancement
  • Dilemma 2: How much should we trust such kind of findings? Discussion: This question deals with the attitude towards the trustworthiness of claims produced by technological progress in the neurosciences. Critics of any kind of technology that promises a link between physiological data and mental states could argue by the complexity or the transcendental nature of the brain that any such measures are doomed to fail. Proponents of such technology would stress the reliability of scientific findings validated by numerous means. Between those two extremes, we can imagine positions that acknowledge the benefit of modern scientific methods, but still are aware of their relativity. In our case, what the EEG tests even in the ideal case is only if the subject has been at the scene of the crime, not if he/she is the criminal. Such subtleties may seem obvious now, but there is a risk they escape the public’s notice when there is an important-looking machine promising simple answers.
  • More generally, whether the questions that are at the basis of neuroscientific experiments make sense is not provable in a mathematical way but depends on the prevailing valid paradigms. On the other hand, of course, this is the way of scientific progress and should not hinder us to embrace new technologies today. Still, embracing new technologies is one thing – trusting them so blindly as to rely on them in fundamental societal processes like prosecution is another. So there is plenty of space between the two extremes for a differentiated location of various positions.
  • Axis 3.2: Scepticism
  • Positions on this axis range from positions rejecting any validity of brain-reading techniques through different shades of sceptical positions to such which credulously embrace these techniques.
  • Scepticism
  • The general amount of trust towards scientific achieve-ments.
  • Positions on this axis range from complete rejection to credulous embracement. The axis we defined in the privacy case (Axis 3.1) within the field of brain reading can also be found in the field of treatment/enhancement: Of course, it is completely reasonable to ask in how far psychopharma-cological drugs might help or maybe harm and also how secure one can be when taking the drug.
  • Similarly, one may question the reliability of findings implying a reduced concept of personality. Again, one could, for example, stress the importance to scrutinize scientific results when deriving dramatic consequences for individuals.
  • Liberty of Use
  • The availability of new achievements to the public.
  • This became particularly evident in the case of treatment and enhancement (Axis 1.1) as it already is a practical concern how much liberty to grant to people concerning the use of drugs. Positions in general range from complete freedom to complete restriction.
  • In the case of privacy, we can imagine a point in time where mind-reading tools could practically be made available to the public. Would we then embrace a development where anyone can use tools like this in their private life?
  • In the case of personhood, the liberty of individuals to take the consequences of an altered personality might be rephrased as a legitimate claim. While there is no “usage” in the actual sense, the liberty to live through states of mental change might be considered a positive right as well.
  • Liberty of Denial
  • The most central issue: The autonomy of the individual faced with the societal impacts of neuroscientific findings.
  • Opinions range from absolute priority of personal rights to the relativization of these rights compared to other values. The autonomy to reject neuroscientific interventions (Axis 1.2) is a clear instance of this continuum. The privacy issue (Axis 3.1) deals with a similar question. The “Persistence of Personhood” axis (Axis 2.1) may seem a bit further away from the general axis than the two previous ones. But what is common to all of them is their concern with the question of the power of society to interfere with individual decisions.
  • Are our axes correct? Do we need less, other or additional axes? Are axes the right format at all?
  • Review other subdomains of neuroethics (concerning, e.g., “neuromarketing”, implications for education, or military usage) and test the applicability of our model.
  • Fill coordinate system with content.
  • Concrete applications have to be regarded with extreme caution. Our system is not intended to promote stereotyped thinking, neither do we want to implicitly encourage relativism: Not every position in our space can be accepted – a conclusion which might falsely arise from the neutrality of points in a space.
  • Outlook
  • Excursus: Positive and Negative Liberty
  • A central finding is the existence of two independent concepts of liberty. Such a distinction is well-known in the political sciences. Isaiah Berlin introduced “Two concepts of liberty” (1969) – positive and negative liberty.
  • Positive Liberty is equivalent to what we called “Liberty of Use”: It is a “liberty to” – speak freely, get health care, access existing resources at free will.
  • Negative Liberty equals our “Liberty of Denial”: It is a “liberty not to” – follow common norms, embrace supposed advantages, have your private life influenced by authorities in general.
  • One consequence of this parallel is the possibility to transfer Berlin’s findings to our domain, e.g., the conflict between the two liberties: Too much positive liberty may result in a restriction of negative liberty. Positive liberty easily leads to a situation where access to some resource gets such high priority that social pressures arise that make it hard for individuals to realize their negative liberty and reject the resource. Concerning our first case, the recent abundant prescription of Ritalin to school kids (representing a positive liberty) creates an atmosphere in which the choice of parents in border cases (the negative liberty to refuse behaviour-altering drugs) is restricted.
  • The notion of normality plays a central role in ethical con-siderations concerning new possible interventions.
  • If we consider the norm the to be way we are and whatever happens to us, there is no way in which medical procedures could move us towards normality. We might say normal is how we are in the absence of dramatic external influences; then restoring a person’s mental state after a traumatic experience becomes justified treatment. However, what about children born with ADHD? If we assume their untreated state to be normal, curing their disease would not be considered as treatment. There are, however, people who do agree that the norm should be the criterion, but who do not agree that ADHD should not be treated. Thus, we might further generalize our notion of normality and say that normality is defined by the species’ average.
  • Excursus: What is normal?
  • This implies that all measures aiming to establish a species-typical state would be considered as treatment, while measures aiming to improve an individual’s state beyond the species average would then be considered as enhancement.
  • Allowing treatment and rejecting enhancement is a common position, and there is a range of actual positions spanned by this, depending on the definition of normality applied. There are also positions that encourage enhancement. We strive to achieve above-average performance in different fields by so many means (like good education, special diets, meditation), proponents of such positions argue that it is not obvious why the goal of self-improvement should be illegitimate in the case of neuro-pharmacology.
  • Second Case – Personality
  • The growing ability to manipulate brain function can be used to treat dysfunctions of the brain in case of (mental) illnesses as well as to enhance the brain processes of healthy individuals. One example becoming increasingly important, especially in US schools and colleges, is the usage of psychopharmacology against attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Treatment with methylphenidate as psychopharmacological interventions is used as a study aid as it helps focussing on topics by increasing the activity of dopamine. These stimulants now are used by many more people than there are people having the disorder for which they were developed.

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