Oxford Centre for Neuroethics

About the Centre

Funder: The Wellcome Trust

Project dates: 2008 - 2013

Neuroscience studies the brain and mind, and thereby some of the most profound aspects of human existence. In the last decade, advances in imaging and manipulating the brain have raised ethical challenges, particularly about the moral limits of the use of such technology, leading to the new discipline of neuroethics. The Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, led by experts from ethics, philosophy of mind, neuroscience, neurology, psychiatry and legal theory, was the first international centre in the UK dedicated to neuroethical research. The Oxford Centre for Neuroethics was funded through the Wellcome Trust’s Biomedical Ethics Strategic Awards programme, and hosted by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. This five-year funding stream added value to research by encouraging the development of new methodologies, interdisciplinary work, and the training of students and fellows. The award allowed us to establish neuroethical research in the UK, and to develop expertise from student level through PhD funding and supervision, upwards. One of only a handful of neuroethics centres in the world, and the first in the UK, the strong support and wealth of expertise of our collaborators, fellow investigators and advisory board enabled us to draw on the latest research in neuroscience, law, ethics and medicine.

Neuroscience has made enormous advances in recent years, challenging our traditional understanding of consciousness, responsibility, well-being and morality. Our newfound knowledge of the brain and the mind undermines previous beliefs about a number of areas of private and public life, including addiction and its treatment, criminal responsibility, the treatment of vegetative patients, medical decision making and the enhancement of normal human capacities. It also raises a new question: what are the moral limits of the use of such technology? Neuroethics is a new discipline, addressing these urgent issues.

Our Research

Neuroethics is arguably the most rapidly advancing and exciting field of research in biomedical ethics today because it addresses head-on the two most important subjects relevant to who we are and how we live: the brain and mind. The Centre's research will address the following questions:

1. Primary Neuroethical Research

I. Cognitive Enhancement

  •     What constitutes enhancement?
  •     Is enhancement morally permissable, even required, or is its pursuit morally hazardous?
  •     To the extent that enhancement is permissable, what would be the social and global effects of widespread use?

 II. Borderline Consciousness and Severe Neurological Impairment

  •     What would be adequate criteria for ascribing consciousness to severely brain-damaged patients?
  •     What is the moral significance of consciousness?

III. Free Will Moral Responsibility and Addiction

  •     Can neuroscientific knowledge increase our ability to attribute moral and criminal responsibility?
  •     How might self-control be strengthened?  

IV. The neuroscience of morality and decision-making

  •     Do these scientific findings show some normative beliefs and practices to be defective, and if so, can we develop ways of improving moral judgement?
  •     To the extent that it becomes possible to enhance or manipulate rationality or moral judgement, what ethical principles and contraints should govern such interventions?
2. Applied Neuroethics

In addition to the above primary research, the Centre will conduct applied research in other areas in light of input from practicing clinicians and scientists. We shall: (1) analyse technological advances as they occur; (2) respond to ethical issues arising from basic and clinical neuroscience.

Bio-Ethics Bites Podcast Series

The Wellcome Trust provided specific funding to the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics to enable David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton (of Philosophy Bites) to produce a podcast series of 10 interviews with leading influential thinkers on bio-ethics, titled ‘Bio-Ethics Bites’. This series of interviews, representing various ethical perspectives tackling controversial subjects arising out of recent scientific advances, is freely available. All 10 interviews are available at Oxford Podcasts.

  1. PATRICIA CHURCHLAND - What Neuroscience Can Tell Us About Morality (MP3)
  2. MOLLY CROCKETT - Brain chemistry and Moral Decision-Making (MP3)
  3. HANNA PICKARD - Responsibility and Personality Disorder (MP3)
  4. TIM LEWENS - Selling Organs (MP3)
  5. JONATHAN WOLFF - Political Bioethics (MP3) 
  6. NICK BOSTROM - Status-Quo Bias (MP3)
  7. ONORA O’NEILL  - Trust (MP3)
  8. PETER SINGER - Life and Death (MP3)  
  9. JEFF McMAHAN - Moral Status (MP3) 
  10. JULIAN SAVULESCU - Designer Babies (MP3) 

Key events & recordings

2014 Wellcome Lecture in Neuroethics

'Implicit Moral Attitudes' 30 October 2014

Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong of Duke University

Audio: http://media.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/neuro/MT14_WLN_WSA.mp3

2013 Wellcome Lectures in Neuroethics (double lecture)

27 November 2013

'Brain mechanisms of voluntary action: the implications for responsibility'
Prof. Patrick Haggard, University College London
No recording available.

'The irresponsible self: Self bias changes the way we see the world'
Prof. Glyn Humphreys, Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University

Audio: http://media.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/Neuro/MT13_WELL_GH.mp3

2011 Wellcome Lecture in Neuroethics

'Moral Enhancement? Evidence and Challenges' 18 November 2011
Dr Molly Crockett, University of Zürich
Audio: http://media.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/Neuro/Audio/Crocket.mp3

2011 2nd Annual Wellcome Lecture in Neuroethics

'New Imaging Evidence for the Neural Bases of Moral Sentiments, Prosocial and Antisocial Behavior', 18 January 2011
Professor Jorge Moll, Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience Unit, Director, D’Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR)
Audio: http://media.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/Neuro/Audio/Moll.mp3

2010 Special Lecture

'Should we consider trialling Deep Brain Stimulation as a treatment for addiction?', 29 October 2010
Professor Wayne Hall, Center for Clinical Research, University of Queensland
Audio: http://media.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/Neuro/Audio/Hall.mp3

2010 Conference: The Mechanisms of Self-Control: Lessons from Addiction

Loss of control over some aspects of behaviour is usually held to be a defining feature of addiction. But the loss of control envisaged is somewhat mysterious. The series of actions in which addicts engage in order to procure and consume their drug is not reflexive; should it nevertheless be properly seen as uncontrolled? What mechanisms are impaired in the addict’s behaviour, and how can those impairments illuminate normal agency? This conference will bring together leading thinkers in neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry and philosophy to explore and advance our understanding of the mechanisms of self-control and the way in which they are weakened in addiction.

Audio of each talk where possible can be found within the programme below. Video of the talk, courtesy of the Science Network, is available here.

Public Lecture: Steven Hyman (Provost, Harvard University) 'Meditations on Self-Control: Lessons from the Neurobiology of Addiction'
Podcast and video

George Ainslie (Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center) 'Money as MacGuffin: How Gambling Conjures Utility out of Thin Air'
Discussant: Pat Churchland (UCSD)

Kent Berridge (University of Michigan) 'Wanting and Liking: Phenomena for Addiction and Philosophy'
Discussant: Matthew Rushworth (University of Oxford)

Steve Pearce (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Mental Health Trust) and Hanna Pickard (University of Oxford) 'Addiction in Context: Philosophical Lessons from the Clinic'
Discussant: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Duke)

Natalie Gold (University of Edinburgh) 'Framing, Decision-Making and Self-Control'
Discussant: John Broome (University of Oxford)

Mark Muraven (SUNY Albany) 'Self-Control Failure: Depletion and Motivation'
Discussant: Owen Flanagan (Duke University)

Richard Holton (MIT) 'Finding Space for an Addict's Self-Control'
Discussant: Tim Bayne (University of Oxford)

2010 The Inaugural Wellcome Lecture in Neuroethics

'Meditations on Self-Control: Lessons from the Neurobiology of Addiction', 12 May 2010
Professor Steven Hyman, Provost, Harvard University
Podcast and video