Neuroscience and Technology in National Security, Intelligence and Defense: The Right Measure of Knowledge…The Right Measure of Action.

I keenly read recent posts on the NeuroLaw Blog and the Manitoban, and I greatly appreciate these groups’ interest in, and illustration of our work.  Our intent is not to advocate the use of a particular neuroscientific technique or technology (neuroS/T) in national security, intelligence and defense (NSID), but rather to illustrate that any and all ethical address and analysis must begin with and proceed from fact(s).  The fact is that neuroS/T, like any science and technology (S/T), can and will be used in service of NSID agendas, not only by the United States, but by other nation states and individual actors with aims that are not aligned with the values of the USA and its allies. This finding arises from our ongoing work in surveillance of the field and the way(s) that neuroS/T is – and potentially can be – used and misused.  It is from this reality that we promote a stance of preparedness and an ethic of responsible intent and action.

Fundamental to this stance is an ongoing commitment to studying the ways that neuroS/T can be employed in NSID; but we emphasize the need for an equally strong commitment to invest in ethico-legal studies that are explicitly intended and designed to address the realities of this field, its contingencies and consequences, and from such authentic representation and analyses, develop guidelines, direct engagement, and inform policy and laws that govern the conduct, scope and tenor of research and its applications (both domestically, and on the world stage).  That’s quite an effort, and may amount to evoking a sea-change, but given the trend toward revivifying US “Big Science” incentives, inclusive of the brain sciences, and the increasing advancement of neuroS/T worldwide, we believe that such investment of time, effort and funding is important, necessary and urgent. And we call for more than  “drop in the bucket” fiscal support of such efforts, if a sea-change is to occur.

In many recent blogs, our work is juxtaposed with that of Dr Curtis Bell, and I think that this juxtaposition does not accurately represent our respective positions.  I applaud Dr Bell’s efforts, and each and all of those neuroscientists who commit to a petition that expresses their moral compass and convictions.  I whole-heartedly support Dr Bell and those signatories whose actions evidence their perspectives and commitment, and I urge strong moral prudence in the use of any and all neuroS/T in NSID (and any other applications in the public domain). Where Dr Bell and I differ is not in our mutual call for moral and ethical probity, but rather in the type and nature of the actions assumed to uphold this position. Dr Bell has stated that “…it’s not enough just to study the issue of ethics.” He’s right; and I argue against any exercises of mental onanism and ethical navel-gazing. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, mere reflection without action is an empty endeavour and a waste of time. But frank and critical reflection must precede action, if action is to be apt, balanced and judicious. Thus, I call for some – but certainly not all – neuroscientists and neuroethicists to be actively involved in the discussion and debate, as informed, experienced experts at those tables where guidelines and policies are made, to work proactively to provide lenses and voices to report what neuroscience can and cannot do, and to be participatory in the formulation of directives that shape and govern the ways that neuroS/T should – and should not – be utilised.

I worry that there will not be adequate or sufficient representation of the community at the discussion and decision tables, and that the guidance of neuroS/T will thus be less than completely and/or accurately informed, both as regards the science and its ethico-legal and social implications. If a researcher does not want to be involved in NSID studies, it is easy to do so – simply do not respond to RFPs.  However, if a neuroscientist does not wish her/his work to be used or even misused, then what….don’t publish? Nonsense, of course, but the reality is that the days of ivory tower restriction and siloing are long gone given the advent of online publishing, and open access, creative commons, and internet dissemination of information.  Thus, results are “out there” and rapidly and easily available, and we, as neuroscientists and neuroethicists, cannot passively dictate who, how and in what ways the information we release is used, misued, or even frankly abused for ends that are inconsistent with the aims and ends of our intent. Perhaps, more than ever before, this openness of scientific knowledge, techniques and technologies demands a greater, proactive, and ongoing responsibility of scientists (and ethicists) in steering the ways that science – and ethico-legal issues and frameworks – are communicated, regarded, and appropriated.

So then, how are we, as a community, to effect a difference and engage in the steerage and possible trajectories of our work?  It is in this light, and in both 1) acknowledgment of the (scary) fact that neuroscientific research and its outcomes and products can and are being viewed by various groups with nefarious intent, and 2) with respect to our need to assume a moral high ground – both as a community of scientists and ethicists, and as representative of our field(s) as a public good for the public good, that I advocate participatory engagement of neuroscientists and neuroethicists in the discourse.   Dr Bell and I do not disagree; our respective input offers complementary flavours to provide necessary balance to a provocative brew of science, ethics and public involvement. I envision this not as an “either/or”, but as a “both/and” set of approaches, which I think are needed so as to be cooperatively and reciprocally supportive of technically sound, and morally strict direction of neuroS/T research and use.

Until we can actively assert a consensus on what neuroscience has shown, and what it means for the human condition, human ecology and human predicament, we are wise to be attentive to the realities of that ecology and predicament, and be prepared for the ways that the knowledge and tools of this field can be employed to affect power over others. Michel Foucault saw this potential, as did Hans Lenk, Hans Jonas, Jurgen Habermas, Martin Heidegger, and Herbert Marcuse, and we should not ignore their insight and wisdom, but rather, must take their erudition as a call to actively enter, engage and affect the scope, tenor and trajectory of the discourse and its outcomes.

I am fond of using the Thomistic perspective on the Aristotelian notion of “practical wisdom”, which asserts: Recta ratio speculabilium; recta ratio agibilium – “the right measure of knowledge to compel the right measure of actions”.  Indeed, human conflict, the capacity for cruelty and the use of the newest knowledge and capability in conflict and war is written in our history.  Aristotle recognized this, as did Aquinas, Foucault, Jonas, and many others.  We do as well. It is in this recognition that we invoke neuroethics in its two traditions as a human endeavour for human endeavour, and hope that what we learn about the brain, morality and human ecology can be leveraged in ways that afford practical wisdom from our bio-psychosocial past and present to guide our future. It is to these ends that our group remains dedicated and involved, and to which we invoke those in the community of neuroscientists and neuroethicists with similar interests to participate under the guidance of their own moral compass.

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