Leveraging neurotechnological capability on the world stage: shifting equations of power, and the importance of cosmopolitan neuroethics

As Victor Pikov astutely noted in an earlier blog post, there are robust efforts to increase neurotechnology research, development (R&D), and production in China.  This is not incidental; neurotechnology renders considerable capability and potential to improve quality of life – both directly and indirectly. In the former sense by enhancing medical care and human performance, and in this regard one need only think of the ability to assess, discern and better diagnose neurological disorders by using neurogenetics, neuroproteomics, and various forms of neuroimaging, and the therapeutics made possible through selective neurotropic drugs, peripheral and central neural stimulating devices, transcranial magnetic and deep brain stimulation, and neuroprosthetics.   In the latter sense the benefits of neurotechnolgy are financial, achieved by neurotech companies and the national economies that profit from their revenues.


Therefore, it becomes important to consider how neurotechnology could be used to leverage economic – and socio-political – influence on the world stage. The old adage that “the one who controls the chips controls the game” is metaphorically appropriate in that efficient production of neurotechnologies can foster a presence in worldwide biotech markets, and the use of neurotechnologic devices in China (for example, conducting neuroscientific and neurotechnological research in Chinese medical institutes) can be attractive to global investment partners, due to the frequently reduced costs and time required to execute such studies. And given that much of the microcomputational circuitry used in neuroS&T (neuroscience and technology), irrespective of where it is made, is being increasingly produced in China, the adage may have literal validity, as well.


This steadily growing prominence of non-Western nations in the field of neuroS&T gives rise to a number of important considerations and concerns.  First, is that we are witnessing a shift in global economics, influence, and capabilities, and neurotechnology is a factor in the current and future re-balancing of this power equation. It’s no longer simply a case of “…the West and the rest”, but rather that non-Western countries such as China are becoming a scientific, technological and economic force to be reckoned with.


Second, the needs, desires, ideals and practices of Western societies may not be relevant or applicable to the ways that enterprises such as neuroS/T research, development, testing, evaluation (RDTE) and use are viewed and conducted in non-Western nations. This generates “who’s right?” scenarios that involve issues of what  and how the values and practices of a particular group of people can and should be regarded and responded to – a point raised by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and recently addressed by Alan Petersen of Monash University in Australia. For example, should a stance of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” be adopted, and if so, does this mean the employment of certain guidelines and regulations in the country that is involved in neurotech research and product development, and different guidelines and regulations for each and every country that utilizes such neuroS&T? Or could some uniform codes of research and use be viable in any and all situations – and if so, how might these codes be developed and articulated?


Third, technological and economic capabilities engender “cred and clout” at international bargaining tables, and so the social and professional values of those countries that are gaining and sustaining momentum in neurotechnological research and production will become ever more prominent, important, and therefore necessary to acknowledge.


Working in our group, Misti Andersen and Nick Fitz are studying these issues, and together with Daniel Howlader, are addressing how various philosophies and ethics inform national neurotechnology policies (in the USA, EU, and Asian nations, including China).  Collaborating with social theorist Roland Benedikter of Stanford University, we are examining how the shifting architectonics of biotechnological capability are affecting the philosophical and ethical Zeitgeist that characterizes the “new global shift” and its manifest effects in healthcare, public life and national security on the world stage.


These issues span from the scientific to the social, in that neuroscience can be employed to explore, define, and manipulate human nature, conduct, and norms, and neurotechnology provides the tool kit for neuroscientific research and its uses (or misuses).  Moreover, not every country that is dedicating efforts to neuroS&T maintains the same ethical standards for research and/or use that have become de rigueur  in the west.  How shall we engage those countries that do not strictly adhere to the Nuremburg Code, or Declarations of Geneva and Helsinki, yet generate products and devices capable of affecting the human predicament or condition (e.g.- by providing state-of-the-art treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders or performance enhancement), and in this way incur significant economic power in global markets? Should we adopt some form of moral interventionalism that would seek to enforce particular Western ethical standards upon the conduct of non-Western neurotechnological R&D, or do we posture toward more of an isolationist stance? And in the event, how would we then maneuver our neurotechnological  R&D to retain a viable presence on the global technological and economic map?


In this blog and elsewhere, I’ve claimed that it is exactly this scientific-to-social span of neurotechnological effect that necessitates programs dedicated to the ethical, legal and social issues inherent to neuroS/T.  But, as I mentioned in my earlier blog post, if neuroethics is to be globally relevant, then it must be sensitive to pluralist values, and cannot be either an implicit form of neuroscientific and technological imperialism, or succumb to ethical laissez faire.


A complete discussion of my take on the fundamental premises and precepts of the discipline and practice(s) of neuroethics is beyond the scope of this blog. But, one of the key points I believe is important to emphasize is that neuroethics must be grounded to a bio-psychosocial framework that recognizes the interaction and reciprocity of biology and the socio-cultural environment.


Culture is both a medium in which bio-psychosocial (e.g.- genetic, phenotypic, and environmental) variables are generated, and a forum that defines how such variables may be expressed. So, while our species certainly has a host of common biological features, we also differ – and these differences occur as a consequence of cultural factors,  and in contribution to socio-culturally patterns of cognitive and behavioral variability.


The “take home” message here is that our biological, psychological and social aspects manifest both commonalties and differences, and any meaningful ethics would need to take these factors into accord.  Philosopher Bernard Gert’s concept of “common morality” may be viable to some extent, but ethical values and systems also manifest distinctions in standpoint, and therefore ethics would need to at least acknowledge, if not frankly recognize these distinctions in perspective in a discursive way. This brings us back to MacIntyre’s question of “which rationality” should be used in approaching ethical issues and resolving ethical questions.


Perhaps it’s not so much a question of “either one form of rationality or another”, but rather more a position of “both/and” in these situations. If neuroethics is to authentically represent a naturalistic orientation to human cognition, emotion and behaviors, then I think that it’s vital to appreciate the ways that bio-psychosocial (viz.- cultural) differences are manifest, and in this appreciation, adopt an ethical approach that is more dialectical.  Thus, I’ve called for a cosmopolitan neuroethics that seeks to bring differing viewpoints to the discourse, and is not necessarily wedded to a particular theory or system, but instead is open to all, relative to the circumstances, benefits, burdens and harms that are in play and at stake.


Now, you might be thinking, “Isn’t cosmopolitan ethics a particular theory or system?” and to some extent you’d be right; but before we write off the term and concept as self-contradictory (i.e. an antinomy, something that cannot be “a” and at the same time claim “b”), let’s regard it more as a “way” of doing ethics that seeks complementarity in perspective, orientation and approach, so as to enable a richer, more complete discourse from which to foster synthetic solutions. This would allow us to move away from a “West and the rest” position, to more of a naturalist view of the human and human condition, that would be open to differing views and values, and would seek to define core concepts that could be employed in specific ethical situations and deliberations.


Neurotechnology can and likely will affect biological, socio-cultural, economic and political realities in numerous ways, and if we are to develop well-informed, ethically sound guidelines and policies that are best-suited to the complexity of these circumstances, then the need for an inclusive, cosmopolitan neuroethics becomes apparent. The really hard part is making it work.