Thursday, July 19, 2012

Kathinka Evers: On 'Responsible Neuroethics' and Neuro-rubbish

In March 2012, Roger Scruton published an article in The Spectator entitled ‘Brain Drain,’ in which he lamented the fact that traditionally humanistic disciplines are increasingly taking neuroscientific findings into account. He characterized the phenomenon as one of “neuroenvy,” - with humanists simply jumping onto the neuroscience bandwagon - and argued that when scholars in the humanities “add the prefix ‘neuro’ to their studies, we should expect their researches to be nonsense.” [1] My first thought was, ‘Oh, for the love of…’
Actually, we prefer the term 'neuro-rubbish.'

Fortunately, just as I was shaking my head over Scruton’s article, I came across a response by Swedish philosopher Pär Segerdahl, who cited his colleague, Kathinka Evers, as someone whose work serves as a perfect counterexample to Scruton’s point of view. Segerdahl described Evers as a philosopher committed to “a responsible form of neuroethics: one that does not translate ethics into neuro-jargon, but sees neuroscientific findings about the brain as a philosophical challenge to understand and clarify, very often in opposition to the temptation of jargon.” [2] Needless to say, I was intrigued.

Less drama, more research.
Picture via
Evers is a senior researcher at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics at Uppsala University, and focuses on the neural basis of consciousness. She recently published a book entitled Neuroethics: When Matter Awakens in French (2009) and Spanish (2011), and is currently working on an English edition of the text. She draws on her research to defend what she sees as a richer conception of neuroethics, and to present her hopes for future developments in the field. As I turned to her work, I wondered, ‘Can her position provide an adequate response to Scruton’s critical point of view?”

Evers is a strong proponent of what she identifies as ‘fundamental’ neuroethics. Broadly speaking, the discipline of neuroethics can be divided into two parts: ‘fundamental’ and ‘applied’ neuroethics. ‘Fundamental’ neuroethics aims to understand how brain structures shape the nature of human morality. ‘Applied’ neuroethics examines the ethical implications of technological advances and clinical practices within the neurosciences. Evers argues that fundamental neuroethics has generally been underrepresented in the field, despite the fact that it “provides applied neuroethics with the theoretical foundations needed to address ethical problems of applying neurological science.” [4]

Standing in strong opposition to Scruton, Evers believes that a theoretically well-grounded mode of neuroethics is certainly possible. When asked about the ‘Brain Drain’ article, she remarked, “contemporary neuroscience can enrich numerous areas of social science. But the reverse is also true. The brain is largely the result of socio-cultural influences. Understanding the brain also involves understanding its embodiment in a social context. The social and neurobiological perspectives dynamically interact in our development of a deeper understanding of the human mind, of consciousness, and of human identity.” [5] For Evers, neuroethics must be undertaken in the spirit of "joint responsibility," involving, in order:
  1. Empirical research
  2. Philosophical analysis of key concepts (e.g. 'consciousness')
  3. Evaluation of concrete ethical issues concerning technological applications and clinical practices [6]
On these grounds, I believe that Evers undoubtedly provides a level-headed and compelling response to Scruton’s treatment of ‘neuro-disciplines.’

However, I would like to press Evers on two points. First, while it is true that the term ‘neuroethics’ is typically used to refer to the narrower sub-discipline of applied neuroethics, many of the issues she hopes to emphasize - including consciousness, personal identity and moral judgment - are, in fact, being studied in a systematic way, albeit under different disciplinary headings, i.e.,  ‘philosophy of mind’ and ‘moral psychology.’ For example, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Moral Psychology is a standard in contemporary philosophy and discusses topics ranging from  the evolution of morality to neuroscientific analyses of a number of brain disorders. Rather than suggest that fundamental neuroethics is undervalued, then, Evers’ criticism should focus on the need for more substantive dialogue between scholars focusing on philosophy of mind, moral psychology, and neuroethics, respectively.

Second, I would like to put pressure on Evers’ suggestion that fundamental neuroethics constitutes a necessary foundation for applied neuroethical analysis. Of course, as philosophers and scientists, we aim to arrive at sound theories of the brain and the mind, at accounts of consciousness and free will, and so on. But these theories and the ethical implications of technological and clinical developments are not as conditionally related as Evers suggests they are. Rather, they are and ought to be pursued in parallel: we can, for example, study the neural structures underpinning human sexuality while also considering the potentially harmful implications that projected neuro-technological interventions may have on our understanding of certain sexual disorders. [6] For this reason, I disagree with Evers’ statement that “ethical discussions can precede neither scientific nor philosophical interpretation.” [5]

That said, I believe Evers would be well-situated to address some of the fears regarding advancement in neuroscience and neuroethics – fears that almost certainly underlie positions such as the one Scruton presents in ‘Brain Drain.’ As Evers has noted, “it is not uncommon for philosophers to take a rather defensive position against neuroscientific attempts to enter philosophical domains.” [4] I agree, and suggest that the next question to be addressed is, ‘Why? Why do so many philosophers and non-philosophers have such an adverse reaction to neuroscience?’ Genuinely understanding the nature of these fears would be a valuable step towards introducing these thinkers to the Great Brain Debate.


Want to cite this post?
Hass, J. (2012). Kathinka Evers: On 'Responsible Neuroethics' and Neuro-rubbish. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

[1] Scruton, R., "Brain Drain" in The Spectator, March 17, 2012.
[2] Segerdahl, P., 'Can Neuroscience Modernize Human Self-Understanding, 'The Ethics Blog, May 17, 2012.
[3] Evers, K. 'Towards a Philosophy for Neuroethics," in Science and Society, Vol. 8, 2007, 48.
[4] Segerdahl, P., 'Interview with Kathinka Evers, 'The Ethics Blog, June 5, 2012.
[5] Evers, K., 'Neuroethics: A Philosophical Challenge," in American Journal of Bioethics Vol. 5 (2), March/April 2005, 31.
[6]Gupta, Kristina. 2012. Protecting Sexual Diversity: Rethinking the Use of Neurotechnological Interventions to Alter Sexuality. AJOB Neuroscience, 3(3): 24 - 28.


Kristina Gupta said...

Thanks Julia!

Like pretty much anything else, "neurohumanities" can be done poorly or well. On the poor side, I think we've both read articles where x scholar claims the following: my favorite 18th or 19th century philosopher talked about the mind this way; his description is supported by contemporary neuroscience/cognitive science, therefore he is the best philosopher ever.

Thank you for offering Kathinka Evers' work as an example of neurohumanities done well!


Anonymous said...

Firstly, can I ask why it is that those who call themselves Ethicists are almost always opposed to any decent ethics.

Secondly, you simply do not explain how Evers really responds to Scruton's point. All I see above are some vague, radically materialistic assumptions noted.

Jason Shepard said...

As someone who thinks that empirical research (including empirical research in neuroscience) can help answer philosophically interesting questions, I am at the same time sympathetic to Scruton's points.

As I see it, Scruton's two main points are: (1)In many cases, when we turn to empirical work in neuroscience, we are simply forgetting the philosophical question. When doing neuroscience, we are actually answering different questions, and we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that we are answering the same questions. (2) Often time when we try to directly answer the questions of e.g., philosophy, with neuroscience what results is bad philosophy.

I actually fully agree with both of these points. But in spite of my agreement with both of these points, I still think empirical work (including work in neuroscience) can help answer philosophically interesting questions. How is this?!

Well, even if neuroscience is not answering the same questions as philosophy poses, this does not mean neuroscience is not answering questions related to the philosophical questions. And it is possible that, in some cases, the nature of these relations is such that an answer to the empirical question can help inform an answer to the philosophical question. But the exact nature of the relation between the empirical data and the philosophical theory requires philosophical theorizing to establish. And this philosophical theorizing is rarely obvious or straightforward and nearly always very contentions.

Julia Haas said...

Thanks, Kristina!

Julia Haas said...

To our Anonymous Poster,

I'm more than happy to address your concerns, but it'll be easier to do so one by one.

Regarding your first point, can I ask you how you would define 'decent ethics'?