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Neuroethics is on the rise: centers specializing in neuroethics are opening at prestigious universities, national and international organizations in neuroethics are being formed, and mainstream philosophical and ethical associations are putting on conferences on neuroethics. Yet at the same time, many have major misgivings about the enterprise, because it is far from clear that neuroethics has a good definition, and it is far from clear that it has anything new to say. There is room for suspicion that it is just an opportunity for philosophers and ethicists to repackage theories they have been working on for a good long time already, and get new grant money and funding for it. Much of the work that has appeared on the subject so far has done little to allay such suspicions. So the publication of Neil Levy's book Neuroethics is an important marker in the growth of the field. Levy (a frequent contributor to Metapsychology) is a prolific author, and is main editor of the new journal Neuroethics [for full disclosure: I am on the International Advisory Board of Neuroethics]. Levy holds appointments at the James Martin 21st Century School at Oxford University, and at the University of Melbourne's Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. So the strength of this book is a good indicator of the possible strengths of this new field.
Levy starts off in his preface with a deflationary claim he calls the parity thesis, which says that, indeed, neuroethics is not a radically new field of study and is not qualitatively different from philosophical work on the intersection of philosophy and psychology. While this may seem a disappointment, it is really the most intellectually honest approach, and Levy alleviates the problem by highlighting the excitement of this new focus of interest at the intersection of philosophy and neuroscience, and emphasizing he believes that it can lead to important progress.
In the first chapter, Levy discusses the general relation between the mind and the brain, and argues against substance dualism. His argument is fairly standard, except that he brings in some cases of neurological disorders to make the case that the mind and the brain are not separable. It's a reasonable way of arguing against the problematic idea of an immaterial soul connected to the brain. He goes on to emphasize the distinction between different levels of understanding a person: we can explain actions and behavior at the level of the person or via a subpersonal explanation. He considers how to make this distinction, and how we can understand the self. He highlights the fact that in explaining what people do, we often need to explain behavior in terms of subpersonal processes of cognition and information processing, even for such simple actions as catching a ball. This distinction between understanding a person at the level of a person, and the subpersonal processes that go to enable the person's actions, is a crucial one, especially when we start to consider the person as an agent and his or her moral responsibility for actions. At this stage, Levy does not give readers much detail about how to draw the distinction.
Levy proceeds to argue that our ordinary concept of mind is additionally in error because rational reflection will lead us to acknowledge that our minds are not just in our heads, but is rather extended to any part of the world that is directly involved in our cognitive processes. Unfortunately, his main argument for this also uses a parity thesis: it would have been better to choose a different name. This parity thesis says that it is arbitrary and unjustified to say that the cognitive tools inside the head are mental but the ones outside the head that perform exactly the same function are not mental. Levy considers arguments against this view, which insist that the mind is in the head, strictly associated with the brain. I was slightly surprised that he did not spend more time addressing the more obvious alternative view that it is a mistake to think of the mind as having a physical location, or at to locate the mind more precisely than the person, because the mind is not an entity at all, and our talk of "the mind" is really just a way of talking; so, for example, if one says "I couldn't get that picture out of my mind," one simply means that one could not stop thinking of that picture. Levy ultimately assures readers that it does not much matter whether the mind extends beyond the environment of whether it is merely embedded in the environment. He says that the subsequent arguments in the book will only rely on a relatively weak claim, that "alterations of external props are [ceteris paribus] ethically on a par with alternations of the brain, to the precise extent to which our reasons for finding alterations of the brain problematic are transferable to alterations of the environment in which it is embedded" (p. 61).
One might wonder about Levy's tactic of placing these rather abstruse metaphysical considerations in the first chapter, especially when it seems that they are going to make rather little difference to the subsequent ethical debate. For one thing, these are difficult issues, and although his writing is admirably clear, it is still going to scare off some readers who do not have a particular interest in metaphysical debate. For another, while Levy is certainly right that substance dualism is an implausible view, and he may have a good argument for the extended mind, it remains a fact that most people in the USA and Western Europe still hold on to some (often unclear) concept of a soul, and it seems a problematic way to start one's ethical enterprise to begin with an assumption about the nature of mind with which most general readers will not agree. It would make more sense to bracket as much as possible the metaphysical debate about the nature of the mental. Levy does this largely with the extended mind thesis, but not with the dualism question. Of course, the nature of mind, and especially the nature of a person and the nature of action are all important when considering neuroethics, and at some point, one does have to address these metaphysical questions. Whether one addresses them at the start or later on in the enterprise is hardly a make-or-brake issue. Nevertheless, I find surprising Levy's decision to place these debates over dualism and the extended mind in the introductory chapter.
The following eight chapters address a variety of issues. Chapter 2 explores the ways we set out to change ourselves, especially our minds, and the moral differences between different approaches. Chapter 3 builds on this to address the debate over the ethics of enhancing treatments to improve oneself when one does not have a disorder, such as taking stimulants to improve one's concentration. Chapter 4 addresses the ethical permissibility of reading and controlling minds through neuroscientific knowledge and other methods. Chapter 5 examines how we can control our memories and the ways that new technology can make such manipulation more problematic. Chapter 6 discusses what we mean by self-control and how we hold people responsible for controlling themselves. Chapter 7 discusses how discoveries in neuroscience may shed light on the debate over free will. Chapter 8 examines the nature of self-deception and argues for the possibility of a strong form of self-deceiving. The final chapter shifts gears and looks at how discoveries from neuroscience may change our understanding of our ethical reasoning.
Levy shows a remarkable grasp of a wide range of literature from a number of disciplines, and brings them together with some elegance. He does not defend any Big Theory such as Utilitarianism or Existentialism. Rather, his approach is to generally to start from commonly accepted beliefs about ethics and examine carefully how the philosophical debates and neuroscientific findings affect those beliefs. He is not afraid to come to unpopular conclusions if he thinks they are rationally warranted. For example, he defends his view of the extended mind, and he also denies the distinction between treatment of medical conditions and enhancing normal conditions. His writing style is clear and his setting out of the scientific findings and philosophical debate should be accessible to people with only a moderate background in either. Given the diversity of topics of the book, Levy does well in weaving them together with various themes that run through the chapters. He has his first parity thesis, that neuroscience raises few genuinely new issues, but rather it complicates issues already raised in the existing psychology; this view plays itself out time and again. Furthermore, he also has a skeptical attitude towards ethical claims built on a distinction between the self and what is external to the self, and this too recurs in many chapters.
One stylistic problem is that chapters tend to lack summaries of their major points and arguments. This will probably not trouble professional philosophers who are used to this style, but other readers may well wish that at the start of each chapter he set out his main claims and his main arguments, and signposted each of these as he makes them. Since the book is explicitly aimed at an interdisciplinary audience, and may also be considered for use in upper level undergraduate course, this may be a concern for possible future editions of the book.
Quite often, the interesting scientific ideas Levy introduces into philosophical debates are not from neuroscience itself, but rather from other parts of psychology. A good example of this comes with his discussion of self-control, where he appeals to Roy Baumeister's theory of ego depletion, which says very roughly that we have a limited resource of self-control, and if we spend a great deal of effort preventing ourselves from performing one action, we will have much less ability to prevent ourselves from performing another tempting action in the same time frame. Levy points to some recent brain scanning experiments which lend some support to the ego depletion theory, but it would be a stretch to call it a neurological thesis. This is an interesting and promising suggestion that has played very little role in the existing philosophical discussion of the nature of addiction and the responsibility of addicts for their actions. It suggests that while Levy calls his book "Neuroethics," it is really about the relevance of much of current psychology to philosophical debate.
Occasionally, when Levy does focus on neuroscience, it is hard to see why he has included this discussion except for that the topic of the book has forced him to. That's to say, often the intersection of neuroscience and philosophy doesn't form a cohesive collection of ideas, and so to address a number of them takes him in a number of different directions in one chapter. This arguably occurs in the chapter on the neuroscience of free will, in which he devotes several pages to the skeptical views of psychologists Benjamin Libet and Daniel Wegner, who claim that free will does not exist. While Libet's arguments are based on brain science, Wegner's arguments are based on other psychological results, so he does not fit so well in a chapter explicitly devoted to neuroscience. Ultimately, he argues that in a sense, Libet and Wegner are right, but he gives a different, and entirely philosophical, as opposed to neuroscientific, argument. So he could have made his argument without ever mentioning them.
Levy's views concerning free will are especially worth mentioning here. He claims that decision-making does not have to be a conscious process, but consciousness matters when we are deciding whether to praise or blame people for their actions. Levy endorses our intuition that if people are not consciously aware of their actions, then they should not be blamed for them. He argues that conscious deliberation is typically much better, and is more likely to reflect our real selves. He then goes on to discuss how neuroscience does shed light on people with mental and neurological disorders should be held morally responsible for their actions. He discusses the inability of psychopaths to understand the moral harm they are causing, and the actions of people with Tourette Syndrome. In both cases, he argues that the agents have reduced responsibility for their actions. His work here is interesting, but the arguments go quickly, and he leaves a large range of other conditions undiscussed. There is much here that deserves careful consideration, and there is plenty of room for disagreement.
Exactly what the term 'neuroethics' means is still up for grabs, and there is plenty of interest how the debate is settled. Levy's book works well in establishing neuroethics as being worthy of careful philosophical discussion, with deep and interesting problems that can have major social implications. There is little discussion of the public policy debates relevant to neuroscience, and this would be more appropriate at the bioethics end of neuroethics. Levy's Neuroethics augers well for the philosophical side of this new field of study, and it should help to ensure that the work done in this area is philosophically rich.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.