Neuroscience studies the brain and mind, and thereby some of the most profound aspects of human existence. In the last decade, advances in imaging and manipulating the brain have raised ethical challenges, particularly about the moral limits of the use of such technology, leading to the new discipline of neuroethics. The Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, led by experts from ethics, philosophy of mind, neuroscience, neurology, psychiatry and legal theory, was the first international centre in the UK dedicated to neuroethical research. The Oxford Centre for Neuroethics was funded through the Wellcome Trust’s Biomedical Ethics Strategic Awards programme, and hosted by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. This five-year funding stream added value to research by encouraging the development of new methodologies, interdisciplinary work, and the training of students and fellows. The award allowed us to establish neuroethical research in the UK, and to develop expertise from student level through PhD funding and supervision, upwards. One of only a handful of neuroethics centres in the world, and the first in the UK, the strong support and wealth of expertise of our collaborators, fellow investigators and advisory board enabled us to draw on the latest research in neuroscience, law, ethics and medicine.
Neuroscience has made enormous advances in recent years, challenging our traditional understanding of consciousness, responsibility, well-being and morality. Our newfound knowledge of the brain and the mind undermines previous beliefs about a number of areas of private and public life, including addiction and its treatment, criminal responsibility, the treatment of vegetative patients, medical decision making and the enhancement of normal human capacities. It also raises a new question: what are the moral limits of the use of such technology? Neuroethics is a new discipline, addressing these urgent issues.
Neuroethics is arguably the most rapidly advancing and exciting field of research in biomedical ethics today because it addresses head-on the two most important subjects relevant to who we are and how we live: the brain and mind. The Centre's research will address the following questions:
1. Primary Neuroethical Research
I. Cognitive Enhancement
- What constitutes enhancement?
- Is enhancement morally permissable, even required, or is its pursuit morally hazardous?
- To the extent that enhancement is permissable, what would be the social and global effects of widespread use?
II. Borderline Consciousness and Severe Neurological Impairment
- What would be adequate criteria for ascribing consciousness to severely brain-damaged patients?
- What is the moral significance of consciousness?
III. Free Will Moral Responsibility and Addiction
- Can neuroscientific knowledge increase our ability to attribute moral and criminal responsibility?
- How might self-control be strengthened?
IV. The neuroscience of morality and decision-making
- Do these scientific findings show some normative beliefs and practices to be defective, and if so, can we develop ways of improving moral judgement?
- To the extent that it becomes possible to enhance or manipulate rationality or moral judgement, what ethical principles and contraints should govern such interventions?
2. Applied Neuroethics
In addition to the above primary research, the Centre will conduct applied research in other areas in light of input from practicing clinicians and scientists. We shall: (1) analyse technological advances as they occur; (2) respond to ethical issues arising from basic and clinical neuroscience.