Bioethics Blogs

Happy 15th Birthday, Neuroethics!

[This post first appeared in the Neuroethics Blog on May 13, 2017:]

Fifteen years ago, on May 13, 2002, a two-day conference called “Neuroethics: Mapping the Field” began at the Presidio in San Francisco. And modern neuroethics was born. That conference was the first meeting to bring together a wide range of people who were, or would soon be, writing in “neuroethics;” it gave the new field substantial publicity; and, perhaps most importantly, it gave it a catchy name.

That birthdate could, of course, be debated. In his introduction to the proceedings of that conference, William Safire, a long-time columnist for the NEW YORK TIMES (among other things), gave neuroethics a longer history:

The first conference or meeting on this general subject was held back in the summer of 1816 in a cottage on Lake Geneva. Present were a couple of world-class poets, their mistresses, and their doctor. (Marcus)

Safire referred to the summer holiday of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley; Byron’s sometime mistress, Claire Clairmont; and Shelley’s then-mistress, later wife, known at the time as Mary Godwin and now remembered as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The historically cold and wet summer of 1816 (“the year without a summer”) led them to try writing ghost stories. Godwin succeeded brilliantly; her story eventually was published in 1818 as FRANKENSTEIN: OR, THE NEW PROMETHEUS.

Camillo Golgi, image courtesy of
Safire’s arresting opening gives neuroethics either too little history or too much. If, like Safire, one allows neuroethics to predate an understanding of the importance of the brain, early human literature – both religious and secular – show a keen interest in human desires and motivations.

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.