Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Report from the Society for Disability Studies: Bringing Ethics, Bioethics, and Disability Studies Together

By Jennifer C. Sarrett, MEd, MA

Jennifer Sarrett is a 2013 recipient of the Emory Center for Ethics Neuroethics Travel Award. She is also a doctoral candidate at Emory University’s Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts working on her dissertation which compares parental and professional experiences of autism in Atlanta, GA and Kerala, India as well as the ethical issues that arise when engaging in international, autism-related work.

From June 26 - 29, 2013, the Society for Disability Studies (SDS) held their annual conference in Orlando, Florida. SDS is the primary scholarly association for the field of Disability Studies, which is an academic field of study exploring the meanings and implications of normativity, disability, and community. As with other identity-based fields of studies, including Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, and African-American Studies, the Society for Disability Studies thinks about difference and works to expose and eradicate stigma and inequality related to people who identify as disabled. This particular field of identity-based work is closely related to Bio- and Neuroethics, as differences in minds and bodies present medical and scientific concerns to physicians, researchers, and scholars.

At SDS this year, I presented a paper titled “The Ethics of Studying Autism Across Cultures,” which is based on my research fieldwork. My dissertation looks at how culture influences parental and professional experiences of autism in Atlanta, GA and Kerala, India with the aim of developing guidelines for future scholars, interventionists, or advocates embarking on international work on autism and related disabilities. Because of many of the ethical issues I came across in my studies and research, my work extends to thinking about autism within current models of human rights and critically examining contemporary and historical ways of talking about and treating people on the autism spectrum. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Perceptions of Animals

Dr. Frans de Waal
By Frans de Waal, Ph.D.

Frans de Waal is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University and the Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He is also a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences and a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board. His research focuses on primate social behavior, including conflict resolution, cooperation, inequality aversion, and food-sharing. 

At a recent workshop on "Beastly Morality" (April 5, 2013, Emory Ethics Center), which drew participants from all over the country, I asked an innocent question. We had about sixty scholars presenting or listening to academic papers on the human-animal relationship or the place of animals in literature, and I asked how many of them worked with animals on a daily basis. The answer: no one.

It was a naive question, because if I had expected half of them to say that they did work with animals, these same academics would probably be writing on something totally different, such as the behavior of animals, their treatment by us, or their intelligence. That's what I do, being a scientist. We rarely write about anything that cannot be observed or measured, and so we assume it must be the same for everybody else. But if one's focus is how Thomas Aquinas viewed animals, the definition of personhood, or the moral status of animals in Medieval Japan -- all of which were topics at the workshop -- first-hand knowledge of animals is hardly required.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

(Hypothetical) Crimes Against Neural Art

We would expect that if there was any moral outrage to have over the treatment of cultured neural tissue, it would occur in an art gallery. Something about an art gallery sensitizes us to the well-being of critters we might not usually care about - as in the case of Garnet Hertz's Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot (a three wheeled robot about half the size of R2D2, driven by a Madagascar hissing cockroach) - and to cry out over events that we might otherwise willfully ignore or even accept as routine - as in Guillermo Vargas's infamous “You Are What You Read,” (where a starving dog was taken off the street and brought into a gallery) [1].  Instead, when neural tissue is given a robotic body and placed on display (sometimes remotely) in an art gallery, most responses seem to focus on the ambiguous nature of the works.  Artist Stephane Dumas wrote, referring to MEArt (a drawing robot controlled by a culture of rat brain cells), that “the public can experience the drawing activity and at the same time sense the presence of its remote initiator, the brain [2],” implying a felt mental presence associated with the biological components of the work.  However, Dr. Stuart Bunt, one of the scientists who worked on Fish and Chips (a precursor to MEArt that used tissue taken from fish rather than rats), wrote that “many viewers of Fish and Chips embodied it with impossible sentience and feared it unnecessarily [3],” indicating that the attributed mental life (and implied moral obligations towards it) was an illusion constructed by the framing of the piece. This contradiction between the audience and creator's interpretation of these pieces is reflected in Dumas's assertion that embodied neural bioart (here referring to Silent Barrage, which featured a distributed robotic body that audience members could walk through) “is a work in progress that raises more questions about the relationship between neural mechanisms and creative consciousness than it answers [2].”  This ambiguity is even praised by artist Paul Vanouse, who states that “MEArt's creators have cleverly designed their thought-provoking apparatus to maximize cognitive dissonance [4],” while Emma McRae describes MEArt as an example of one of “an infinite multiplicity of agencies [5]” that don't fit into well established categories, which  humans must learn to share the world with [6].

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Intervening in the brain: with what benefit?

By Hannah Maslen, DPhil and Julian Savulescu, PhD

Hannah Maslen is based at the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford

Julian Savulescu is Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford and the Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. He is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board.

Novel neurotechnologies
Last week, Nuffield Council on Bioethics released its report entitled Novel neurotechnologies: intervening in the brain. The aim of the report is to provide a reflective assessment of the ethical and social issues raised by the development and use of new brain intervention technologies. The technologies that the report examines include transcranial brain stimulation, deep brain stimulation, brain-computer interfaces and neural stem cell therapies. Having constructed and defended an ethical framework to navigate the ethical and social concerns raised by novel neurotechnologies, the report proceeds to discuss 1) the care of the patients and participants undergoing interventions, 2) what makes research and innovation in neurotechnologies responsible research and innovation, and 3) how novel neurotechnologies should be regulated.