Defendants’ personal, medical, and psychological history and diagnoses have long been introduced in court as mitigating factors at the sentencing phase of criminal trials. Information about defendants’ brain function has also increasingly been introduced. In principle, neuroscience can also play a role in assessing dangerousness and risk of recidivism. Such information—to date based on behavioral history and psychological examination—is used in sentencing and parole decisions. Brain imaging studies of murderers have distinguished between impulsive murders and those who planned their crimes, the latter being more likely to murder again.
Research on electronic brain enhancement conjures up frightening scenarios involving mind control and new breeds of cyborg. The dominant role of the American military in funding the most cutting edge research in this area does little to allay these worries. In the short term, however, the ethical concerns here are similar to those raised by the pharmacological enhancements discussed elsewhere on this site: safety, social effects, and philosophical conundrums involving personhood. Of course, the irreversible nature of some of the non-pharmacological interventions exacerbates these problems.
Two main cognitive systems have been targeted for pharmacological enhancement: attention and memory. Stimulant drugs such as methyphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine (Adderall) improve the attention of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and can also enhance attention in healthy people. Although these medications are ostensibly prescribed mainly for the treatment of ADD, sales figures suggest that they are not uncommonly used for enhancement. Campus surveys agree with this inference. Prescription stimulants are currently widely used by college students, many of whom obtain it from friends or campus dealers as a recreational drug and study aid.
The prenatal use of genetic tests to predict the future characteristics of fetuses, embryos, or as-yet unconceived offspring is one of the most controversial and interesting issues in human genetics. Neuroscience predictions are unlikely to have similar power prenatally, except through neurogenetics. It is possible that neuroimaging or other non-genetic neuroscience tests might be performed on a fetus during pregnancy. Structural MRI has been used as early as about 24 weeks to look for major brain malformations, following up on earlier suspicious sonograms.
Neuroethics with relation to genetics raises many questions, such as the neurological development of an embryo and whether or not it has the moral status of a human being. Determining this would determine if practices such as abortion and stem cell research. Human genetics also leads to genetic engineering, another area of ethics in which authenticity and autonomy are questioned.
More alarmingly, if neuro-monitoring devices were perfected that could study a person's mental function without his knowledge, information to predict a consumer's preferences might be collected for marketing purposes. Privacy regulation seems appropriate for the undisclosed monitoring in the latter example. Regulating the former seems less likely, although it might prove attractive if such neuroscience-enhanced market research proved too effective an aid to selling.
The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.
The abolitionist project is hugely ambitious but technically feasible. It is also instrumentally rational and morally urgent. The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved because they served the fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment. They will be replaced by a different sort of neural architecture - a motivational system based on heritable gradients of bliss. States of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. It is predicted that the world's last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.
This refers to the neuro-enhancement of mood. It relates to authenticity because mood enhancement has a direct effect on one's personality and thereby one's individuality. Having solely positive emotions programmed into us is arguably detrimental because many positive things have come out negative emotions as well.
Safety is a concern that is crucial to the assessment of the ethical, legal, and social implications of any neurotechnology—be it psychopharmacology brain stimulation or high-field MRI. As with privacy concerns, there are precedents that provide a framework for addressing safety-related concerns as well. Methodologies for assessing risk and for relating risk to benefit have already been developed and used for a wide variety of drugs and procedures within the clinical neurosciences and in other fields of medicine. This includes drugs and procedures intended purely for enhancement purposes.
A good condition to include when questioning the morality of neuro technology is the assumption that the technology is completely safe. Many arguments against technology is that it has too many procedural risks and side effects. However, if that were taken away, one can focus on whether it is permissible from an ethical standpoint.
Scientists and theologians have long struggled with the challenge of maintaining religious beliefs while accepting science's view of the natural world. The idea that there is somehow more to a person than their physical instantiation runs deep in the human psyche and is a central element in virtually all the world's religions. Neuroscience has begun to challenge this view, by showing that not only perception and motor control, but also character, consciousness and sense of spirituality may all be features of the machine.
The question about the unnaturalness of neuro-enhancement is connected to claims concerning its effects on authenticity. One of the central arguments against neuro-enhancement is that it threatens the authenticity of persons, or at least the authenticity of their minds' contents or their achievements. In other words, neuro-enhancement has been seen to violate the ideal of being true to oneself. Even though the ideal of authenticity is quite attractive, it requires further clarification which is often provided by appeals for natural and unnatural. However, the terms natural and unnatural are ambiguous, and thus in need of clarification in order to be useful in authenticity discussions.
Traditional ethical theory has centered on philosophical notions such as free-will, self-control, personal identity, and intention. These notions can be investigated from the perspective of brain function. Although the neuroscience of ethics today is far less developed than the ethics of neuroscience, and may not progress as quickly at first, it will be the area with truly profound implications for the way ethics, writ large, is approached in the 21st century.
What is it about the biological and neurological sciences that is so frightening? Fear of change? It was only 300 years ago that bathrooms were introduced. Change can be good. Fear of the unknown? We can imagine Martians, but that doesn't provoke ethicists to argue that we shouldn't try to land on Mars. Fear that new technology will be used for evil? We know what nuclear bombs can do, but we continue to build them. The fact is, the positive things that are occurring in laboratories far outweigh the tiny number of possible strange uses.