The Anniversary of the First Neuroethics Conference (No, Not That One)

By Jonathan D. Moreno

Jonathan D. Moreno is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania where he is a Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) professor. At Penn he is also Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, of History and Sociology of Science, and of Philosophy.  His latest book is Impromptu Man: J.L. Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network (2014), which Amazon called a “#1 hot new release.”  Among his previous books are The Body Politic, which was named a Best Book of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews, Mind Wars (2012), and Undue Risk (2000).

The 15th anniversary of what is widely viewed as the first neuroethics conference, “Neuroethics: Mapping the Field” was celebrated in 2017. The meeting was held in San Francisco, organized by the University of California and Stanford, and sponsored by the Dana Foundation. Cerebrum, the journal that is published by the foundation, celebrated the anniversary by publishing short memoirs by some of the speakers, including my own. The feature was dubbed “The First Neuroethics Meeting.”

Except that it wasn’t. The first conference that was recognizably about neuroethics was held in Washington, D.C. under the auspices of a conservative think tank, and its 20th anniversary is in 2018. 

It does seem that the 2002 meeting was the first one to use the term neuroethics in its title. With the support of Dana’s president, William Safire, the program brought together many of those who are still leaders in the field. But the earlier one, sponsored by a Washington, D.C. think tank, the Ethics and Public Policy Center and held at the National Press Club, also featured some of those who are still prominent. They included Harvard’s Steven Hyman, later to be the first president of the International Neuroethics Society, Adrian Raine who was then at the University of Southern California, and the present author. But those we might today consider the usual suspects were in the minority. 

And this is where it gets interesting. 

William Bennett, former Director of the
Office of National Drug Control Policy.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia.)
Called “Neuroscience and the Human Spirit: Meeting the Challenges of Contemporary Brain Research,” the 1998 conference also featured some speakers who were prominent for other reasons, including Charles Krauthammer, William Bennett and Fred Goodwin. Krauthammer was and remains an influential political commentator. Bennett was President George H.W. Bush’s “drug czar” and would go on to be President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education. Fred Goodwin was formerly scientific director of the National Institute of Mental Health who had been involved in a controversy after he seemed to compare inner city youth to primates. It is fair to say that these and other participants, like the Ethics and Public Policy Center itself, were identified with socially conservative views or at least had annoyed liberals in various ways. 

The National Press Club event was reported in a Nature Neuroscience editorial, which called the conference “unusual,” which indeed it was, even pioneering. “Its purpose,” the editorial noted, “was to examine the extent to which modern brain research threatens traditional views of humanity, including the western religious tradition.” Among the topics addressed were free will, the implications of predicting behavior, and the evolution of religious and moral beliefs. Many of the speakers were deeply concerned about the ways that more knowledge about and control over the brain could compromise traditional ethical and social conventions. 

What in retrospect reads like the rationale for the field of neuroethics, Nature Neuroscience heartily endorsed the goals of the conference. “[T]here are compelling reasons for further discussion. Neuroscientists should recognize that their work may be construed as having deep and possibly disturbing implications, and that if they do not discuss these implications, others will do so on their behalf. The diversity of views expressed at the conference suggests that reconciliation is not imminent, but it will nevertheless be valuable to define the areas of agreement and disagreement more precisely. The EPPC has performed a useful service in promoting that goal.”

Judy Illes, former president of the
 International Neuroethics Society, presided
over the Washington Conference in 2017.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia.)
When neuroethics went self-conscious as an academic field after the Dana conference, its agenda was markedly different from that of the 1998 meeting. Not a single panel in San Francisco was devoted to the implications of modern brain science for religious faith, nor except indirectly to the effects on moral traditions. For the Ethics and Public Policy Center their conference was a one-off, but the center’s associates (many of whom are important figures in American conservative thought), no doubt regard the field’s themes as typical of left-wing academia in its exclusion of such concerns. 

Looking through a lens two decades later, the Washington conference foreshadowed the science ethics wars to come. It took place right around the time that the first papers were published reporting the isolation of human embryonic stem cells in a University of Wisconsin laboratory and two years before the election of George W. Bush. The bioethics culture wars had not yet erupted into public view through limits on federally supported stem cell research and a presidential bioethics council that was anathema to much of the scientific community. Yet “Neuroscience and the Human Spirit” demonstrated the serious interest among those popularly known as neoconservatives in the relationship between modern science and traditional values. 

Although it was finally stem cell research that became the focus of controversy and allegations of a “war on science” in the early 2000s, in a far more muted fashion neuroscience led the way. 

Want to cite this post?

Moreno, J. (2018). The Anniversary of the First Neuroethics Conference (No, Not That One). The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2018/02/the-anniversary-of-first-neuroethics.html

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