Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Joshua May's "Neuroethics: Agency in the Age of Brain Science"

Joshua May is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is the author of Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind (2018) and co-editor of Agency in Mental Disorder (2022).

May applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Neuroethics: Agency in the Age of Brain Science, and reported the following:
Readers who open Neuroethics to page 99 will find themselves in the chapter on mental illness, which asks whether having a mental disorder excuses one from blame for unethical behavior. Consider the case of Eddie Ray Routh, a former marine who like many other veterans suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, among other afflictions. In 2013, at a shooting range in Texas, Routh killed two men, one of whom was military hero Chris Kyle (the subject of Clint Eastwood’s 2014 film American Sniper).

Such crimes are extremely rare among those with psychiatric disorders. But is blame inappropriate for these or other immoral actions—such as lying, cheating, and stealing—even if caused in part by a neurological condition?

Page 99 begins the argument that having a mental disorder does not by itself excuse immoral acts. We should adopt a more nuanced approach that takes into account that mental disorders present along a wide spectrum. Some people with PTSD exhibit great levels of agency and autonomy. Others don’t, or do so only occasionally. It depends on the individual and the circumstances—not on whether a diagnostic label is appropriate.

Mental illness is just one topic among others in the book, from free will to brain reading technologies. But the Page 99 Test works quite well, since this nuanced view is central to the book’s framework and overall message. Neuroethics urges us to approach all of neuroscience with nuance. Labeling someone with a neurological condition doesn’t tell us anything about their self-control, identity, or moral responsibility.

Instead, neuroscience increasingly demonstrates that the neurotypical and atypical are more alike than unalike. Neurotypical humans are frequently driven by automatic and unconscious processes that render us less free will than we tend to think (chapter 2). Even neuroscientists themselves can be found rationalizing questionable research practices (chapter 8). Ultimately, the neurotypical exhibit less agency than we often accord them, while patients with psychiatric conditions generally exhibit more agency (chapter 4). The same goes for addicts whose brains are manipulated by dopamine (chapter 5) and patients whose brains are manipulated by drugs and implants (chapter 3). Agency abounds in all of these cases, even if it ebbs and flows over time for the neurotypical and atypical alike.

Neurotechnologies are rapidly becoming more commonplace in medicine, law, and the marketplace. Brain stimulation and psychedelics are being used to treat mental disorders, including addiction and depression. Brain scans are being used in the courtroom to help determine guilt or innocence. And brain-computer interfaces, such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink, are being developed for ordinary consumer use. Neuroethics urges us to keep nuanced ethical analysis trained on these exciting and ominous advancements without alarmism or overhype.
Visit Josh May's website.

--Marshal Zeringue