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Archive for the ‘neuroethics’ Category

I’d like to direct you to a post by Benoit Hardy-Vallée, a U of Toronto philosopher of science interested in neuroethics and neuroeconomics. It is a nice discussion of the Knobe Effect, supported by a good list of references.

Take a look at some of the other posts as well, and subscribe to his RSS feed. Any blog that has a quote by Imre Lakatos as its motto has to be good, and this blog is of very high caliber indeed…

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The law faculty of Arizona State University hosted a conference on the topic of neuroethics and neurolaw, and kindly uploaded audio of the speaker’s presentations. Most are accompanied by PowerPoint presentations you can download as PDFs.

These two give particularly good overviews:

  • Emily Murphy, Authenticity, Bluffing, and the Privacy of Human Thought: Ethical Issues in Brain Scanning
  • Gary Marchant, Brain Scanning in the Courts:  The Story So Far [ed: gives lots of US case law]

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Two things occupying places of distinction on this blog’s tag cloud, neuroethics and open access, come together at the excellent ScholarlyCommons@Penn, a repository for scholars papers. There you can find neuroethics publications authored by researchers at Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, dating back to 1996.

The repository is very well designed, and exactly the sort of thing to encourage neuroethics scholars to archive their own work. Compare it with, say, the mix of Recent Publications mentioned or made available by the Program in Neuroethics (Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics), or the raw list of publications offered by the Neuroethics Research Unit (Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal).

In addition to superb publication information on each paper’s download page, the SC@P repository is organized by research unit and – better still – even has RSS feeds and email alerts to notify you when papers of interest are archived. I’ve already popped the feeds for bioethics and law into my Google Reader…

Kudos to the Penn Libraries and to participating Penn scholars for this resource. Here’s hoping other universities and research units follow suit.

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To add to the collection, an interesting pair of webcasts from the Dana Foundation:

While I was at the foundation website, I spotted a sensibly titled new volume joining the small library of authoritative neuroethics surveys.

  • Walter Glannon. Defining Right and Wrong in Brain Science: Essential Readings in Neuroethics (Dana Press).

I was surprised by the price: just $10.85 CAN. It and Neuroscience and the Law have absurdly low prices for academic texts, so Dana Press is obviously keen to spread knowledge of these disciplines. Good for them – perhaps they might be persuaded to make them open access?

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Ronald Bailey at Reason Magazine quotes a passage from Adam Smith’s 1759 text, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and finds remarkable similarities with what modern neuroscience has to say about altruism.

It’s nice to see the Enlightenment making itself known in the press, but he goes a bit far when he says:

Now neuroscience is confirming Smith’s insights into the neural bases of human morality.

No. There is a difference between 18th century moral psychology and neuroethics.

Smith had no insights into the neural or biological bases of human morality. He was interested in the human experience of sympathy, its frailties as a product of our imagination, its causes and effects, and the way we judge the propriety of passions felt by other people. Like most armchair treatments of human nature, his overlaid a conceptual analysis upon a mix of introspective and behavioural observations.

The philosophically interesting stuff happens when Smith makes a connection between innate moral feelings and moral rules. In addition to suggesting our natural sentiments bias our judgements, he argues that moral sentiments create generalizable moral rules.

It is thus that the general rules of morality are formed. They are ultimately founded upon experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and propriety, approve, or disapprove of.

What is agreeable to our moral faculties, is fit, and right, and proper to be done; the contrary wrong, unfit, and improper. The sentiments which they approve of, are graceful and becoming: the contrary, ungraceful and unbecoming. The very words, right, wrong, fit, improper, graceful, unbecoming, mean only what pleases or displeases those faculties.

This view conjoins moral naturalism with moral realism, but it relies on moral sentiments being infallible products of divine origin.

A more thorough treatment of moral psychology, one which which posited a specific ‘moral sense’, can be found in Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).

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Kudos to Thomas at Brain Ethics for reminding me of a case before the Austrian courts, which – contrary to the 2005 ruling about a chimp in Brazil – has now decided a chimp is not a legal person.

He says,

What I find particularly interesting is that whether or not we have a reason to reserve basic rights to humans, an increasingly stronger scientific literature demonstrates a huge similarity in mental functions between humans and non-human primates as well as mammals.

In the coming days, I’ll try to find a link to news items and commentary with more information about the decision.

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Hopping on the moral psychology press is this Washington Post article, If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural. It leads with a short description of research on volunteers by Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman that showed why generosity feels satisfying: it involves the same region of the brain which responds to sex and food.

Here’s their paper:

The Post’s story is a light survey of modern moral psychology, and includes interviews from Jean Decety (empathy), Antonio Damasio (moral decision-making), Adrian Raine (crime as mental illness), Joshua Greene (intuitions and biological origins of moral philosophy) and Marc Hauser (morality is innate like language).

It also does a decent job of stirring up the set of worries created by this research, and – like every other piece I’ve read in the press – doesn’t know where to go with them:

Psychopaths often feel no empathy or remorse. Without that awareness, people relying exclusively on reasoning seem to find it harder to sort their way through moral thickets. Does that mean they should be held to different standards of accountability?

Particularly nice is this quote from Cohen, who wrestles with how we should respond to learning about moral intuitions:

It is comforting to think your moral intuitions are reliable and you can trust them. But if my analysis is right, your intuitions are not trustworthy. Once you realize why you have the intuitions you have, it puts a burden on you.

Moral obligations about moral feelings. Wonderful.
Postscipt:

More recent work on altruism can be found here…

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