International Panel Explores Neuroethics

by Dan Gordon

November, 2005

Like the ocean across which the conversation took place, “The Ethical Brain: The First Trans-Atlantic Discussion on Neuroethics” raised a sea of questions regarding the role of neuroscience research in society.

Plumbing the depths during the Sept. 27 videoconference were Michael Gazzaniga of Dartmouth University, Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins University, Colin Blakemore of Oxford University, and Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas in London. British Broadcasting Corp. Science Correspondent Christine McGourty and Dana Foundation Chairman William Safire moderated.

About 75 guests in Washington and more than 40 in London attended, representing various scientific, governmental, and academic organizations.

Questions addressed controversies ranging from stem cells and when moral status should be conferred on an embryo to privacy when neuroscience is used to answer legal or insurance questions.

Another question had to do with the ethics of pills that could enhance cognitive performance. Fox voiced concern that such pills could substitute for real learning, and McHugh said they would debase one aim of education: to build character, not just knowledge.

However, despite caveats about the potential for abuse and the risk of unequal access, Blakemore and Gazzaniga spoke up in support of such enhancement. Gazzaniga drew a distinction between athletes who take performance-enhancing drugs—which he said breaks a social contract—and students taking a pill for individual enhancement.

The latter comment raised eyebrows among some audience members.

“I was surprised that there was a disconnect between the cognitive enhancement and the physical, steroid enhancement,” said Benjamin Walker, an assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University. “As an educator I see that in an academic sense you make a contract between yourself and the other people in the class.”

On the question of whether an ethical code is hard-wired in the brain, panelists drew distinctions. Gazzaniga suggested that our brains have a set of moral circuits.

“There seems to be something in us that puts the brakes on our behaving in a particular way,” he said. “Maybe the real function of the brain is to make social judgments.”

Blakemore, however, said correlates in the brain having to do with behavior do not prove that the brain causes ethical behavior. Fox argued that drawing connections diminishes what it means to be human.

“It actually does make us rather functionaries of our biology rather than the authors of our own destiny,” Fox said.

Audience members pronounced the debate lively and interesting, especially because it spanned an ocean.

“It can reinforce our views or [we can] hear our views challenged,” said Ruth Metzel, a senior at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Annandale, Va., who attended with other members of her neurobiology class. “I was excited by the breadth of experts.”

Walker appreciated that even those experts still had questions.

“What I took from it was the idea that science doesn’t necessarily have all the answers,” Walker said. “The same kernels of some of the questions we have are still there.”


Paul McHugh speaks at the Dana Center in Washington during the trans-Atlantic neuroethics videoconference Sept. 27. Joining him in Washington were Michael Gazzaniga and moderator William Safire; visible on a platform at the Dana Centre in London are panelists Colin Blakemore, left, and Claire Fox.


The Webcast of “The Ethical Brain: The First Trans-Atlantic Discussion on Neuroethics” is now available via and