Jonathan Moreno presented a special lecture the 18th about “Mind Wars”, the military applications of neurotechnology. Here are some of my notes and comments inspired by this stimulating lecture.
Moreno made an interesting initial point: the history of bioethics can’t be understood without understanding the history of military medical research. Many of the practices and principles like informed consent were first developed in the context of US military research. One simple reason was that it was one of the first truly large scale collective research environments at a time where research was still largely done by individuals. Another aspect was the need for standardization to enable collaboration and consistent judgement across the military organization. As research organisations grew in the postwar eras the early bioethical approaches also expanded.
That is not to say the military demonstrated fine ethical sensibilities. There are plentiful examples of experiments done on soldiers and civilians (informed or not) that clearly breach any reasonable morality – from hallucinogen doping experiments over radiation exposure to questionable treatment programs for infectious diseases. A formal ethical code and careful box-ticking is no guarantee of sanity or actual ethical behavior.
Military or intelligence goals are also no protection against snake-oil. Many of the most amusing episodes in neurotechnology deal with attempts to harness psychic powers, often motivated by little more than fictional inspirations amplified by the Cold War fear that even if success looks unlikely it would be unacceptable to let the Other Side gain it. Here the nontrivial interface between science and the military often seem to have caused trouble: a military or intelligence officer considering something to be worth investigating may not have the scientific knowledge to judge its feasibility, but as soon as the possibility of investigation is raised, scientists are likely to at least accept the money to do it, reinforcing the appearance that there might be something there (the mere existence of a program can trigger other programs).
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.