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Mechanisms matter – not only in the brain

By Andreas Wolkenstein

This post is based off of a presentation given by the author at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the International Neuroethics Society.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs)1 are one example of emerging technologies that have rapidly advanced over the last years. And most probably, future developments will bring an enormous increase in quantity and quality of novel applications for medical and non-medical use. To illustrate this potential, just think of brain-to-brain interfaces (BTBIs)2 and potential fields of applications such as the military or communication.3,4

Advances in neuroscience and neurotechnology require an understanding of complex issues such as how the brain works, how to measure brain activity and to then transmit it securely, effectively and efficiently to electronical devices. Moreover, the science needs to be complemented by ethical reasoning about the implications neurotechnologies, such as BCIs, have. An increasing number of neuroethical articles have tackled important questions such as the impact of BCIs on agency5, autonomy6 and responsibility7. Together with a growing awareness of the ethical implications associated with the use of algorithms,8 this research highlights important considerations for the normative assessment of emerging neurotechnologies. Moreover, movements such as the Critical Neuroscience9,10 initiative raise the fundamental and general question whether neuroscientific discoveries are in fact the game-changer in many areas of our lives that many proponents in the debate have (at least initially) thought they are.

Political Mechanisms for Neuroethics

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However, science and ethics alone are not sufficient to adequately address emerging neurotechnologies. This body of knowledge needs to be complemented by knowledge about the actual mechanisms of politics or, more generally, collective decision-making, when it comes to the governance of emerging technologies. In other words, political philosophy as the discipline dealing, in a broad sense, with mechanisms and institutions of governance, needs to complement the scientific and the ethical efforts to advance neurotechnologies. Neuroethics could serve as an umbrella term where scientific development, ethical evaluation, and political governance are discussed. Why should we steer neuroethics in this direction?

The most important answer to this question is the need for ethicists to engage with the real world and its problems. Neuroethics cannot just be about self-made problems created by philosophers, without any attachment to the real world. Such a form of neuroethics would render it useless and eventually not worthy of support. Rather, neuroethics must be done with both eyes directed towards real problems of real people. This means, among other things, that questions of how to collectively deal with the ethical issues found in neuroethical work are part and parcel of this work. Here, political philosophy comes into play: it provides resources for understanding regulatory mechanisms available and how to shape institutions so that policymaking and regulation keep track of ethical issues. Yet, political philosophy digs even deeper by reflecting not just on the institutions within a given (democratic) society and how to improve these institutions: It also thinks about the social basis upon which institutions emerge. Thus, the most basic organization principles of societies are in the focus of political philosophy. For example, it is a matter of intense debate whether democratic, territorial societies, based on the idea of nation states, are well equipped to deal with and organize pressing communal and global issues. Emerging technologies are both communally and globally relevant and are thus affected by the particular form of political organization we favor.

Government Regulation or Self-Governance? 

After learning about the ethical implications of an emerging technology, ethicists often opt for one of two potential solutions (or a mix of these two)11. They either conclude their evaluations by pointing towards the need for governments to make laws. Or, alternatively, they promote self-governance mechanisms by which industries, businesses, and communities themselves bring about regulation. Both proposals, important as they are, face a number of criticisms.

The most pressing problem is that when making these suggestions, ethicists rarely have an eye towards the actual working mechanisms of the regulatory mechanisms proposed. Political philosophy, helps by offering insights into these working mechanisms. Is government regulation the place to go when it comes to rulemaking? Maybe, but then there is also rent-seeking, cronyism, and all sorts of distortions of the political process.12 These problems reveal that government regulation does not necessarily keep track of ethical demands. Rather, incentives such as money and power are often the drivers of governance. Self-governance mechanisms, by contrast, can be seen as detaching people from the rule-making process. People often oppose self-governance initiatives by pointing to the role governments and politics have in keeping these initiatives and the players in check. From this we can infer that there is something to a “political union” that matters to people and that cannot be easily realized by self-governance structures. Can we find a decision-making structure that keeps the advantages of both proposals while avoiding their respective pitfalls? Perhaps, but without a heavy dose of political philosophy (sometimes with a large portion of utopianism) we will not find out.

Now that we know why it is important to include political philosophy into neuroethics, we also might want to get an idea of what this endeavor looks like. If political reasoning is included in ethical work, it is typically an exploration of justice issues based on the work of John Rawls.13 Important insights have thus been generated over the last decades. However, exploring justice-matters is by no means all there is for politically interested neuroethicists to engage with. In the remainder of this post, I will now briefly mention three examples of political reasoning that addresses governance methods, institutions and, in a somewhat utopian fashion, the organization of the political realm. How these promising approaches fare in terms of regulating emerging technology remains the matter of future work – work that should be embraced by and included in the neuroethics community.

Experimental Governance, Non-Domination, and Polycentrism: Future Paths for Neuroethics

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First, within political science there is the idea of experimental governance that has been promoted to improve the quality of public policymaking.14 Experimental governance includes, among many other things, proposals such as sunset legislation.15 The idea is that when lawmakers pass a certain law, they should set an expiry date, say after five years, after which the law is evaluated in terms of whether the original goals have been met and whether unintended side-effects have occurred. One might also count the proposal that when a law is passed, another needs to be revoked, as a procedural element to keep the number and quality of regulations constantly in check and balance. The implication for technology governance is rather straightforward: Why not experiment with neurotechnology regulation by setting sunset clauses?

Second, within political philosophy there is the prominent idea of Neo-Republicanism.16 Neo-Republicans stand in the tradition of political thought that cares about citizens’ engagement with the res publica, the public sphere. They promote the idea of freedom as non-domination, requiring of political orders to prevent arbitrary exercise of power. Various accounts of how a neo-republican society should look like exist, most prominently put forward by scholars like Philipp Pettit and Frank Lovett. They outline a more or less concrete set of institutions that realize and secure the idea of freedom as non-domination. In Pettit’s account, for example, this means that societies should have a mixed constitution and means for contestation. The overall aim of these institutions is to give citizens individual and effective control over the policymaking process. The implications of Neo-Republicanism for the governance of technologies have yet to be explored. What can be expected, though, are new channels for citizens to actually voice their opinions regarding novel technologies. 

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Finally, consider the somewhat utopian, but nonetheless serious idea of polycentric policymaking. The term “polycentrism” expresses the idea that rulemaking and political authority is spread across a plurality of rulemaking institutions, some of which overlap. There are many differing accounts of what polycentrism looks like, what it implies and how it can be realized. One of the first suggestions was put forward by Belgian economist Paul-Emile de Puydt and his work on panarchy.17 Panarchy makes governments completely virtual by de-territorializing them. Citizens can easily change the “government” they want to join by subscribing to them, rather than moving to another part of the earth.18 Contemporary Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Reiner Eichenberger propose what they call “functional, overlapping, competing jurisdictions (FOCJ)”.19 FCOJs are designed to match the political task at hand (e.g. providing security or education) which results in various geographic extensions of such jurisdictions.20 They see this theory as way to reform the European Union.21 Other models with the polycentric tradition include the idea of Charter Cities22 (Paul Romer) or the broader idea of a Polycentric Democracy23 (Julian Müller).

All these theories differ greatly. However, they all share the idea that policymaking and the underlying organization of policymaking institutions should be somewhat freed, either from the current territorial boundaries or from the current order of jurisdictions. And they agree that these institutions should benefit from competitive rulemaking. Individuals thus have more effective control over the processes by which publicly relevant issues are decided upon. It is hard to predict how polycentrism deals with the governance of emerging technologies. However, we might expect a much more experimental approach to governance issues and a shift away from precautionary thinking to a much more innovation-friendly policy that is sensitive to ethical preferences.

Mechanisms matter – not only in the brain. If neuroethics includes theories of political order, decision-making institutions and technology governance mechanisms, it will go beyond merely exploring ethical worries regarding neurotechnologies. Whether the theories mentioned above work, and if so, how they work, remains to be seen. It is certainly a promising and inspiring area of scholarship to understand neuroethics in its political dimensions.


Andreas Wolkenstein is currently researcher at the Institute of Ethics, History and Theory of Medicine at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) München (Germany). His work focuses on the ethical and political implications of emerging (neuro-)technologies. He is also interested in medical ethics and bioethics generally, particularly in the ethics of Artificial Intelligence. His personal website can be found here.

  1. McFarland, D. J., & Wolpaw, J. R. (2017). EEG-based brain-computer interfaces. Current Opinion in Biomedical Engineering, 4, 194-200. 
  2. BTBIs are devices where one brain’s activity is not transmitted to an external technical device, but to another brain. BTBIs thus enable communication from one brain to another without using traditional means of communication such as language or gesture. See Stocco, A., Prat, C. S., Losey, D. M., Cronin, J. A., Wu, J., Abernethy, J. A., & Rao, R. P. (2015). Playing 20 Questions with the Mind: Collaborative Problem Solving by Humans Using a Brain-to-Brain Interface. PLOS ONE, 10(9), e0137303. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137303, or Jiang, L., Stocco, A., Losey, D. M., Abernethy, J. A., Prat, C. S., & Rao, R. P. N. (2018). BrainNet: A multi-person brain-to-brain interface for direct collaboration between brains. arXiv. Retrieved from 
  3. Hildt, E. (2015). What will this do to me and my brain? Ethical issues in brain-to-brain interfacing. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 9(Article 17), 1-4. doi:0.3389/fnsys.2015.00017 
  4. Trimper, J. B., Wolpe, P. R., & Rommelfanger, K. S. (2014). When “I” becomes “We”: ethical implications of emerging brain-to-brain interfacing technologies. Frontiers in Neuroengineering, 7(Article 4), 1-4. doi:10.3389/fneng.2014.00004 
  5. Steinert, S., Bublitz, C., Jox, R., & Friedrich, O. (2019). Doing Things with Thoughts: Brain-Computer Interfaces and Disembodied Agency. Philosophy & Technology, 32(3), 457-482. doi:10.1007/s13347-018-0308-4 
  6. Friedrich, O., Racine, E., Steinert, S., Pömsl, J., & Jox, R. J. (2018). An Analysis of the Impact of Brain-Computer Interfaces on Autonomy. Neuroethics. doi:10.1007/s12152-018-9364-9 
  7. Bublitz, C., Wolkenstein, A., Jox, R. J., & Friedrich, O. (2019). Legal liabilities of BCI-users: Responsibility gaps at the intersection of mind and machine? International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 65, 101399. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2018.10.002 
  8. Wolkenstein, A., Jox, R. J., & Friedrich, O. (2018). Brain-Computer Interfaces: Lessons to Be Learned from the Ethics of Algorithms. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 27(4), 635-646. doi:10.1017/S0963180118000130 
  9. Choudhury, S., Nagel, S. K., & Slaby, J. (2009). Critical Neuroscience: Linking Neuroscience and Society through Critical Practice. BioSocieties, 4(1), 61-77. doi:10.1017/s1745855209006437 
  10. Slaby, J., & Choudhury, S. (2012). Proposal for a critical neuroscience. In S. Choudhury & J. Slaby (Eds.), Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience (pp. 29-51). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. 
  11. Bublitz et al. discuss both of these solutions, see Bublitz, C., Wolkenstein, A., Jox, R. J., & Friedrich, O. (2019). Legal liabilities of BCI-users: Responsibility gaps at the intersection of mind and machine? International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 65, 101399. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2018.10.002. 
  12. Thierer, A., & Skorup, B. (2013). A history of cronyism and capture in the information technology sector. Journal of Technology Law & Policy, 18(1), 131-195. 
  13. See the discussion in Dubljevic, V. (2019). Neuroethics, Justice and Autonomy: Public Reason in the Cognitive Enhancement Debate. Heidelberg: Springer. 
  14. Sabel, C. F., & Zeitlin, J. (Eds.). (2010). Experimentalist governance in the European Union. Towards a new architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  15. For an overview see Veit, S., & Jantz, B. (2013). Sunset Legislation: Theoretical Reflections and International Experiences. In A. Alemanno, F. den Butter, A. Nijsen, & J. Torriti (Eds.), Better Business Regulation in a Risk Society. New York: Springer. 
  16. Lovett, F., & Pettit, P. (2009). Neorepublicanism: A Normative and Institutional Research Program. Annual Review of Political Science, 12(1), 11-29. doi:10.1146/annurev.polisci.12.040907.120952 
  17. de Puydt, P.-É. (1860). Panarchie. Revue Trimestrielle, 27, 222-246. 
  18. Tucker, A., & de Bellis, G. P. (Eds.). (2016). Panarchy. Political theories of non-territorial states. New York and London: Routledge. 
  19. Frey, B., & Eichenberger, R. (1999). The new democratic federalism for Europe. Functional, overlapping and competing jurisdictions. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited. 
  20. Frey, B. (2001). A Utopia? Government without territorial monopoly. The Independent Review, VI(1), 99-112. 
  21. Eichenberger, R., & Frey, B. S. (2006). Functional, Overlapping and Competing Jurisdictions (FOCJ): A Complement and Alternative to Today’s Federalism. In E. Ahmad & G. Brosio (Eds.), Handbook of Fiscal Federalism (pp. 154-181). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. 
  22. Freiman, C. (2013). Cosmopolitanism Within Borders: On Behalf of Charter Cities. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 30(1), 40-52. doi:10.1111/japp.12008
    23 Müller, J. F. (2019). Political Pluralism, Disagreement and Justice. The Case for Polycentric Democracy. London: Routledge.
  23. Müller, J. F. (2019). Political Pluralism, Disagreement and Justice. The Case for Polycentric Democracy. London: Routledge.

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Wolkenstein, A. (2020).  Mechanisms Matter – Not Only in the Brain. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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