The Nuffield Council on bioethics is running a consultation on the ethics of new brain technologies: specifically they mention neurostimulation and neural stem cell therapy. Neurostimulation includes transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) which typically requires nothing more than putting on a special cap or set of electrodes; and deep brain stimulation (DBS) where the electrodes are surgically inserted into the brain.
All of these are existing technologies which are already in use to varying degrees, and the consultation is prudently geared towards gathering real experience. But of course we can range a bit more freely than that, and it raises an interesting general question: what new crimes can we now commit?
Disappointingly it actually seems that there aren’t many really new neurocrimes; most of the candidates turn out to be variations or extensions of the old ones. Even where there is an element of novelty there’s often a strong analogy which allows us to transpose an existing moral framework to the new conditions (not that that necessarily means that there are easy or uncontroversial answers to the questions, of course).
I think I’ve said before, for example, that TMS seems to hold out the prospect of something analogous to the trade in illicit drugs. An unscrupulous neurologist could surely sell wonderful experiences produced by neural stimulation and might well be able to create a dependency which could be exploited for money and general blackmail. The main difference here is that the crucial lever is control of the technology rather than control of the substance, but that is a relatively small matter which has some blurry edges anyway.
It’s possible the new technologies might also be able to enhance your brain – if they allow better concentration or recall of information, for example. There is apparently some evidence that TMS might be capable of improving your exam scores. That clearly opens up a question as to whether enhanced performance in an exam, produced by neural stimulation, is cheating; and the wider question of whether easier access to TMS by wealthier citizens would build in a politically unacceptable advantage for those who are already privileged. So far as I know there’s no current drug or regime which automatically and reliably boosts academic performance; nevertheless, the issues are essentially the same as those which arise in the case of various other forms of exam cheating, or over access to superior educational facilities. There may be a new aspect to the problem here in that traditional approaches generally rest on the idea that each person has a genuine inherent level of ability; this may become less clear. If a quick shot of TMS through the skull boosts your performance for the next hour only, we might see things one way; whereas if wearing a set of electrodes helps you study and acquire permanently better understanding, we might be more inclined to think it is legitimate in at least some respects. Moreover a boost which can be represented as therapeutic, correcting a deficit rather than providing an enhancement, is far more likely to be deemed acceptable. All in all, we haven’t got anything much more than new twists on existing questions.
There is likely to be some scope for improperly influencing the behaviour of others through neural techniques, but this has clear parallels in hypnotism, confidence trickery, and other persuasive techniques; again there’s nothing completely novel here. Indeed, it could be argued that many con tricks and feats of conjuring rest on exploiting neurological quirks as it is.
To steal information from someone’s brain is morally not fundamentally different from stealing it out of their diary; and to injure someone by destroying a mental faculty broadly resembles physical injury – the two may indeed go together in many cases.
So what is new? I think if there is fresh scope for evil-doing it is probably to be found in the manipulation of personality and identity. Even here the path is not untrodden, with a substantial history of attempts to modify the personality through drugs or leucotomy; but there is now at least a prospect, albeit still some way off, of far better and more precise tools. As with cosmetic surgery, we might expect the modification of personality to be limited to cases where it has a therapeutic value, together with a range of elective cases over which there might be some argument. The novel thing here is that many cases would require consent; but unlike a nose job, personality modification attacks the basis of consent.
Consider an absurd example in which subject A seeks modification to achieve greater courage and maturity; having achieved both, the improved A now disapproves of the idea of personality modification and insists the changes constitute an injury which must be reversed; once they are reversed, A, with the old personality, wants them done again.
It could be worse; since personality and identity are linked, the new A might take a different line and insist that the changes made in the brain he inhabits were effectively the murder of an older self. This would be as bad a crime as old-fashioned killing, but now it’s no good reversing the changes because that amounts to a further murder, and it could be argued that the restored A is in fact not the original come back, but a third person who merely resembles the original; a kind of belated twin. A’s brother might sue all the new personalities on the basis that none of them has any more rights to the property and body of the original than a squatter in someone’s house.
In circumstances like these there might be a lobby for the view that personality modification should be subject to a blanket ban, in rather the same way that society generally bans us from editing out undesirable personalities with a gun – even our own.
Of course there is in principle another novel crime we might be able to commit: the removal of someone’s qualia, their inward subjective experience. This has often been contemplated in the philosophical literature (it is remarkable how many of the most popular thought-experiments in philosophy of mind – whose devotees generally seem the mildest and most enlightened of people – involve atrocious crimes); perhaps now it can become real. The crime would be undetectable since the ineffable qualities it removes could never be mentioned by the victim; the snag is that since there could be no way of measuring our success it’s probably impossible to devise or test the required diabolical apparatus…