The term ‘neuroethics’ is fairly new to the world of bioethics and neuroscience. This word/concept was formulated by a world history scholar, William Safire, in 2001. For a long period of time, scientists pointed to genetics as the main scientific challenge to our ethical, legal, and social practices and beliefs. Over time and through much research, it became apparent that genetics were much more complex and included interactions between genes and environment. Neuroscience does not only deal with genetic aspects, but also with biological features such as our minds and behaviors. It is shown that neuroscience includes genetic influences on behavior combined with environmental influences. Due to growth in the field of neuroscience, it can now be used to assess many areas of life other than scientific and medical uses. Such areas include education, business, politics, law, entertainment, and warfare. The aim of this paper is to analyze the role of neuroscience in everyday life and assess its effect on both individuals and society.
The evolution of brain imaging has caused large amounts of research in neuroethics to emerge. An example of this is regarding the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Questions that have been and are still being asked include, ‘What do we do when anatomical abnormalities or signs of disease are revealed in the course of scanning?’. The overarching ethical question in relation to MRIs is what should researchers do if this takes place, and should participants have the choice not to be informed of the findings? Another issue in the world of neuroethics is the use of predictive and diagnostic imaging for progressive diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. This type of testing is important for the creation of treatments for these diseases. When thinking about the ethical implications of this type of imaging, we must contemplate the benefits of knowledge with the burden this knowledge can bring. Other imaging methods such as PET scans have aided in the vast broadening of cognitive neuroscience. These types of imaging have shown that human functions such as cognition, emotion, joy, love, and fear are localizable in the brain. Recent brain imaging research has focused on analyzing results of trials and studying individual differences in brain activity. In past decades, there have been different focuses in imaging, but since 2000, imaging has been used for other purposes such as studying individual differences in personality and how it is shown in the brain. Other measurable traits include attitudes, tendency towards violence, personality, and abilities. An example of this is, the more aggressive someone’s behavior is, the higher the activation of the left amygdala is to angry faces. Most people have heard of lie detector testing; there is another way to know whether or not someone is lying using a functional MRI (fMRI) to test brain activity. An additional use of brain imaging is for neuromarketing. This can be useful in knowing how people respond to products, as well as the emotions and motivations of consumers. There have been ethical questions surrounding the privacy of brain imaging. This is due to the fact that in a sense, it can tell researchers about your thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and traits without giving a behavioral response. A general misunderstanding of neuroimaging poses a greater ethical challenge than the issue of mental privacy. This is valid in that protecting citizens is important; however, these imaging methods do not pose a threat to the participants.
Another area that has raised neuroethical awareness recently is brain enhancement. This can be described as interventions that make normal, healthy brains better. Brain enhancement contrasts with the treatment of patients with unhealthy or dysfunctional brains. In more recent years, people have started to utilize what was once used as clinal treatment to improve their lifestyles. One significant concern is that drugs made for long term psychological use provide profit motives to pharmaceutical companies. Therefore, the shift from only clinical use to use by healthy people will benefit these pharmaceutical companies. Safety is another ethical concern regarding brain enhancement. Most people believe that it is more important to restore a sick person’s health than it is to make an already healthy person better. Though there is not a lot of knowledge regarding the long-term safety of enhancement, there is also minimal knowledge about the long-term effects of many treatments for neuropsychiatric issues.
Cognitive enhancement has ethical questions such as if stimulants really work to enhance cognitive abilities. The research on this is fairly inconclusive due to the fact that studies have shown improvement in cognitive abilities, no change, and also impairment in cognitive abilities. One of the widely used drugs for cognitive enhancement is Adderall. This is seen on many college campuses, as students hope to enhance academic performance. Another new drug used for similar reasons is Modafinil. This helps people to control when they are tired, and allows people to stay awake and alert for many hours at a time. There are now companies that are creating drugs for the purpose of cognitive disorder treatment as well as for cognitive enhancement.
An additional type of enhancement is used to alter mood, personality, empathy, trust, aggression, and more. This type of enhancement is referred to as social-affective enhancement. This started with the integration of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, also known as SSRIs. These drugs help people who deal with depression and anxiety disorders. Not only do SSRIs help in a clinical setting, they have also been found to have more ‘cosmetic’ effects. A recent study found that SSRIs affect personality more than they affect depression. SSRIs also have been seen to be useful in criminal behavior matters due to their ability to encourage prosocial and law-abiding behavior. Other forms of social-affective enhancement include drugs used to increase libido in both men and women as well as the use of oxytocin and vasopressin to alter similar behaviors as SSRIs. There are also types of enhancement that are non-pharmacological. These include transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation. The use of these technologies is still in the trial-and-error stage; however, they have been researched to show enhancement of learning and memory. Other people seek out the help of medical professionals to aide them in enhancement. The ethical question here is whether or not physicians should promote the well-being of their patients beyond healing illness and alleviating suffering. This issue has been researched and shown that it is both morally and legally acceptable for doctors to do this for their patients.
When thinking about cognitive enhancement, two main issues arise. The first of these is regarding fairness. If a student is to take a cognitive enhancing drug to help their academic performance, this could be seen as unfair to those who do not take the drug. Similarly, to athletes taking steroids to enhance their performance, people who take exams while on a drug that enhances cognitive performance, may perform better. However, the point of many tests is to predict future performance. Therefore, as long as the test taker is continuing to use the drug it is not unfair, unless they took the drug simply to do better on the exam. Socioeconomic status is another element to consider. Many of these drugs are expensive, therefore eliminating the ability for those of lower socioeconomic status to access these drugs. The second issue that comes to mind with cognitive enhancement is freedom. When thinking of freedom, one of the main examples that comes to mind is the choice to use the drug or not. In the workplace, those who take the drug and perform better and produce more may be favored by their bosses, this can lead to other employees choosing to take the drug or risk being replaced by someone who will.
When thinking about the ethical implications of social-affective enhancement, issues concern the value of authenticity in our feelings about ourselves, our relationships, and our world. In a 2002 study performed by Fukuyama, worries came about that SSRIs inappropriately raise the self-esteem of the user, which undermines a crucial source of motivation in our lives. The ethics related to this question whether or not low self-esteem does in fact inspire people to strive for greatness or does it more commonly prevent people from reaching their goals? There are obvious benefits to social-affective enhancements, however, there are still disadvantages.
Neuroscience not only provides us with important knowledge about our brains, it also provides us with a new perspective of humanity. We view humans as moral creatures rather than machines, with parts working to make our bodies function. We are slowly shifting in this and it can be seen in how we now view addiction. We now know view addiction as a mental problem, not a result of a failed person. Similarly, to how we have shifted this view, if we were all to decrease our view of human actions as being physically caused, our moral stigma to these subjects would decrease. Many studies seem to show that neuroscience will in fact change our laws and ethics. The idea that humans are physical beings or ‘machines’ challenges religious beliefs that we are made up of a mind, body, and spirit. The more knowledge that comes to light about neuroscience shows that our mechanisms are simply our machine working. We as humans believe that we deserve protection from harm simply because we are human. When thinking of this, we can see that if we are no longer viewed as moral creatures, but physical ones, it would be hard to defend the statement that we should be protected from harm just for being human. New findings in neuroscience pose many new questions and perspectives regarding human life. Due to this, we may see a shift from the view of us as moral beings to viewing ourselves as a product of physicality.