Five Key Questions for Neuroethics

(1)   Morality. What light do the sciences of the mind shed on the nature of morality and on how human beings make moral judgments? Some psychologists (for instance, Jonathan Haidt) have suggested that the most plausible explanation of the available data suggests some kind of subjectivism, according to which moral judgments are the projection of our sentiments onto the world. Properly assessing this claim requires philosophical expertise. Researchers at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics have shown that while Haidt’s view is not untenable, it is consistent with a view of morality as objective. Nevertheless, there remains a great deal to be learned about the nature of morality and how it is implemented in the human brain from empirical research.

(2)   Freedom and responsibility. Might neuroscience show that human beings cannot be responsible for their behaviours? Some famous experiments by Benjamin Libet, and more recent variations, have been taken by many to show that this is the case. Libet claimed that our consciousness of our decisions lagged behind our actions, and that therefore our decisions did not cause our behaviour. More recent experiments have shown that it is possible to predict behaviour before subjects make up their minds. Members of the centre have devoted considerable time to an assessment of these experiments. They have shown that the experimental results are consistent with all the major theories of free will and moral responsibility. However, some of our members believe that neuroscience has provided new knowledge about how freedom can be lost in particular cases.

(3)   Human enhancement. One of the most exciting and potentially revolutionary applications of the sciences of the mind is in the enhancement of human cognition and affective capacities. We might be able to make ourselves more intelligent, better able to produce and to appreciate art, even more loving. Is this a power we want, or does it carry with it unacceptable risks? Members of the centre have shown that many of the main arguments against enhancement can be countered; nevertheless there are deep problems remaining, with regard to distributive justice, coercion, and the nature of human beings.

(4)   Consciousness. The nature and role of consciousness remains mysterious to science. It is also at the centre of ethical debate, concerning, especially, the withdrawal of life-support from patients diagnosed as in the persistent vegetative state. Recent scientific work appears to demonstrate that some of these patients have glimmerings of consciousness. Members of the centre have worked with scientists studying consciousness, to better appreciate the significance and limits of the scientific work. They have also published widely on the moral significance of consciousness for our status as beings with a right to life.

(5)   Psychopathology. Understanding mental illness raises many philosophical and ethical questions. There are questions concerning the very existence of mental illness, concerning the pathologization of ordinary states (of sadness, for instance, or lack of sexual interest), of the ability of the mentally ill to consent to treatment or to refuse it, of the extent to which mental illness can excuse immoral behaviour. There also fascinating questions concerning how the mental dysfunction sheds light on normal mental functioning (for instance, concerning ordinary weakness of the will and self-deception). Members of the centre are engaged in ongoing research on all these questions.