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Two Questions for Peter Zuk

El Dr. Peter Zuk es research fellow en el Brain Bioethics Lab del Centro de Bioética de la Facultad de Medicina de Harvard. Investiga la relación entre las concepciones de la mente, los valores, la persona humana en la historia de la filosofia para abordar cuestiones como la naturaleza de la objetividad moral, el bienestar, el sentido y sus manifestaciones en los debates sobre las neurotecnologias emergentes. Aprovechando su visita a nuestro grupo (dictó una conferencia junto con el doctor Gabriel Lazaro Munoz) le hicimos dos preguntas que responde abajo (texto en inglés).

(1) What is your area of research within Neuroethics and what is it about that topic that deserves special attention?

I’m interested most fundamentally in the relationship between mind and value. Since this is an issue that runs through philosophy’s entire history, I derive a good deal of inspiration from accounts of the relationship given by philosophers of the past. My own approach to the issue is to see how far we can get explaining value (ethical and otherwise) in terms of our conscious mental life, without explaining it away as the product of “merely” subjective whims about which rational reflection is pointless or impossible. I think instead that we can in fact find a great deal of structure in our mental life that allows us to explain value in terms of our affective or emotional responses without being forced to say that just any affective or emotional response, even really nasty ones, get to figure in determining ethical values.

Neuroethics is a natural field in which to situate issues like this one. Many of the concepts that figure prominently in neuroethics—autonomy, identity, authenticity, welfare, mental integrity, and others too numerous to list—depend very clearly on consciousness, particularly sentiments or emotional states. And not only that; these sentiments or emotions on which they depend seem to be innately value-involving in that they have a built-in positive or negative valence. It is from this, I would submit, that the ethical significance of these concepts ultimately derives. Technologies that influence our mental states, on this picture, are therefore influencing the enabling conditions of some of the most important moral phenomena in our individual and communal lives.

(2) How is the topic generally discussed and what is missing in the discussion?

Some of the discussions around these concepts in relation to neurotechnologies would, I think, benefit from greater attention to the sorts of foundational axiological issues about the mind-value relationship that I touched on above—and not only my way of approaching the relationship, but alternative conceptions of what the relationship amounts to as well. Going deep in this way strikes me as the best way to resolve debates, or failing that, to at least stake out the different competing positions as clearly as possible.

I don’t, however, intend this emphasis to preclude the kind of empirical neuroethics work that has become increasingly prominent in the field, in which various stakeholders (e.g., patients, researcher participants, caregivers, clinical and scientific experts) are asked via social-scientific methods about neurotechnologies and the ethical questions they raise. To the contrary, I find this kind of work very helpful in thinking through normative questions about what ought to be done.

I’ll explain why by situating empirical neuroethics in relation to Rawls’ method of wide reflective equilibrium, which is seen by many in the philosophy world as the standard approach in ethical theory these days. Rawls’ idea is that in doing ethical theory, we need to work back and forth between different levels of reflection: considered ethical judgments (whether particular or general), ethical principles that make sense of and systematize these judgments, and (sufficiently) independent background views that impact the plausibility of the principles (Rawls’ big examples of this are our accounts of what persons are and our views about the role of ethics/morality in society). Ethical theory, on the Rawlsian picture, is about balancing and coherently interrelating the considerations at these different levels in order to reach equilibrium or stability in our overall ethical outlook.

Empirical neuroethics work is highly relevant to utilizing this method to articulate normative ethical views about neurotechnologies. It does this by giving us a better understanding of how emerging neurotechnologies are developed and used, the impacts they have, and the choice situations they create for different actors. And this broadens our ethical vision by giving us new and sometimes radically unfamiliar examples to have considered judgments about. That can in turn put pressure on our principles or (transitively) background theories, leading us to productively revise them (though we also have the option to let our judgments about new phenomena instead be shaped by principles we find especially plausibility).

Thinking about the relationship between empirical and normative neuroethics in this way, it seems to me, has the potential to bring greater clarity about the value of empirical work and the practical relevance of normative work. The social-scientific and philosophical wings of neuroethics enliven one another and, when combined, help us arrive at a comprehensive picture of emerging neurotechnologies and their value.


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