Ethics in Neuroscience

The Guardian reports today that scientists have created a device capable of foretelling a person’s actions. This device is very interesting and has huge implications. The scientists who have created it are not claiming to be able to read minds but say that they have roughly a seventy percent accuracy for predicting short term actions based on brain activity.

The question that society immediately asks, as does Steven Spielberg in the sci-fi dud Minority Report, is: Is it ethical and/or practicable to judge a person’s likelihood of committing a crime? This is an ethical issue that society is going to have to face very soon as this technology is going to mature at a formidable pace and, like all technology, rapidly out pace society’s ability to comprehend it within the standard framework of ethics and morals. (Similarly, much of society today has little or no ability to relate so-called “digital” crimes to more traditional forms of theft, misrepresentation, harassment, etc. In the future society will learn to see computers as a normal part of life and “digital” crime will just be another mode of traditional crime and not seen as a special case outside of the morals of normal life.)

Let me pose four questions regarding the ability to “read someone’s mind.”

Question Number One: Can a person who intends to commit a crime spend time practicing with a mind reading device to learn how to “intend” to do one thing until the last minute and change their mind at the very last second? This would be a form of “gaming” the system. It might be feasible for a person who intends to mislead a mind reading device by, perhaps, convincing themselves that they won’t do something wrong until the very last second. Or, for organized crime or terrorists, one person could intend to have other people commit crimes but not inform a number of people as to what crime would be committed when or by whom so that an entire cell of people might be willing to commit a crime or act or terrorism but have no foreknowledge of the event circumventing the entire system.

Question Number Two: Does a mind reader take into account the intents of people who have convinced themselves that something is not unethical? Take, for example, all of the people who believe that anything that is available online for download is legally theirs for the taking even if someone previously stole it from someone else. Some of those people (or so I am told) actually believe that what they are doing is legal. If this is true then they do not believe that they are committing a crime. Along the same lines, many people do not believe that it is illegal or immoral to be involved with a crime if the initial crime is committed by someone else. For example: you hire a hitman to kill someone for you. Many people believe that the hitman is a murderer but believe that they, as the actual person instigating the killing, are not committing a crime.

Question Number Three: Do hardened criminals see what they do as a crime? Perhaps the average seasoned bank robber continues to feel that his or her actions are illegal but needs the money or enjoys the high. But what about serial killers? How many serial killers feel that they are going to commit a crime before they actually do it?

Question Number Four: The locked cookie jar scenario. You want cookies. You know you have no willpower to avoid cookies. You lock a cookie jar to keep yourself from eating cookies. You “intend” to attempt to break into the cookie jar but have barred yourself from doing so. Do you have cookie criminal intents? Is it wrong? Is it wrong even if it is you who stopped yourself from stealing a cookie? What if it was someone else who stopped you from stealing a cookie? Are you worse than the person who doesn’t intend to steal a cookie but does absentmindedly at the last second just because they were “there”? Are you a speeder who owes a traffic fine even if you bought a car with a limiter so that you couldn’t physically drive too fast even if you tried to do so?
Question Number Five: What about people – and how many people are like this – who intend to do something wrong some of the time but stop themselves before actually doing it? Maybe this brain reading device does not fall prey to this type of inaccuracy but it seems unlikely that it wouldn’t at least a fair portion of the time.

It seems to me that the nuances of the human intention is far too complex for any machine or even people themselves to express. Won’t criminals just learn to carry a “random crime generator” to allow them to make criminal decisions at the last possible second to remove the ability for intent even though their intent would be significantly greater than it would have been otherwise? If we, as society, cannot truly define intent then how can we judge a machines ability to live up to that non-existent standard?

Perhaps, as Americans, we have another reason to not desire to have a mind reading device used to judge our legal, moral and ethical intentions: “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…” – Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin in the United States’ Declaration of Independence. Any device, instigated by the government, that is designed to eliminate the capacity for citizens to ban together in an attempt to overthrow a corrupt government is not only in and of itself unethical but is in direct opposition to the very letter of the intent of the formation of our nation. Judging the “intent” of others, by the government, is an act of desperation and signifies a government that is no longer representing those that are governed and is solidly within the realm of totalitarianism. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Wilson, etc. would have gladly welcomed such tools into their arsenal of anti-libertarianism.

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