Bioethics Blogs

Shrewder speculation: the challenge of doing anticipatory ethics well

by Dr. Hannah Maslen 
Hannah Maslen is a Research Fellow in Ethics at the Oxford Martin School and the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. She currently works on the Oxford Martin Programme on Mind and Machine, where she examines the ethical, legal, and social implications of various brain intervention and interface technologies, from brain stimulation devices to virtual reality. 

In its Gray Matters report, the United States Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues underscored the importance of integrating ethics and neuroscience early and throughout the research endeavor. In particular, the Commission declared: 

“As we anticipate personal and societal implications of using such technologies, ethical considerations must be further deliberated.  

Executed well, ethics integration is an iterative and reflective process that enhances both scientific and ethical rigor.” 

What is required to execute ethics integration well? How can philosophers make sure that their work has a constructive role to play in shaping research and policy-making?

In a recent talk at the International Neuroethics Society Annual Meeting, I reflected on this, and on the proper place of anticipation in the work that philosophers and neuroethicists do in relation to technological advance. Anticipating, speculating and keeping ahead of the technological curve are all laudable aims. It is crucial that likely problems and potential solutions are identified ahead of time, to minimize harm and avoid knee-jerk policy reactions. Keeping a step ahead inevitably requires all involved to make predictions about the way a technology will develop and about its likely mechanisms and effects. Indeed, philosophers will sometimes take leave from discussion of an actual emerging or prototype technology and extrapolate to consider the ethical challenges that its hypothetical future versions might present to society in the near future.

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.