Fourth International School On Mind, Brain And Education

2009, August 1-5

Educational Neurosciences
and Ethics

Directors: Antonio M. Battro and Kurt W. Fischer
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani

Abstract: Bruno Della Chiesa

Linking Educational Neuroscience with (Global) Ethics, Morality, Philosophy and Religion?
Hideaki Koizumi, in his Concept of Brain-Science and Ethics article, clearly distinguishes two components within neuroethics: the ethical conduct of neuroscientific experimentation and research, and the rapidly developing discovery of the development of ethics in the brain. We will focus our attention on this second dimension, in a forward-looking perspective. To begin with, key concepts should be clearly defined (“ethics”, “morality”, and “goodness”, for instance, as pointed by Kurt Fischer), as well as the relationships between them. Starting from Zachary Stein’s “limits of self-objectification”, we’ll first address the themes he is identifying, according specific attention to
(1) the limits of the scope of “scientifically based interventions in order to preserve the integrity and autonomy of individuals”; what role we consider could and should be foreseen for neuroscience in education policies and practices, and why neuroscience (or any science) should enlighten but never replace ethics when it comes to policy decisions and/or to innovation in practice (the question of whether equity -“fair distribution” in Stein’s terms- is a genuinely pursued goal at the policy level or a mere incantation will also be briefly raised, to allow for further debate if so wished); and
(2) the potentially upcoming Copernican revolution in our self-perception and in our understanding of the nature of humanity: what does it mean to be “human”? Since, as Stein puts it, “the self-understanding of the species is at stake”, we’ll try to foresee the consequences that crucial discoveries to come could have in philosophical, political and social terms – and the relevance of such a revolution for education world-wide.
Esther Cho will relate our knowledge on mirror neurons with the capacity for non-native language learning. The discovery of mirror neurons is deemed to be one of the most significant breakthroughs in recent neuroscience that has the potential to radically transform interdisciplinary research. Mirror neurons provide a biological explanation not only for the contagiousness of yawns but also the contagiousness of tears and an innate propensity for empathy. Mirror neurons have also been found to play a key function in language development, as children first learn to utter words by repeated action and imitation. Taking into account this relationship between the relative activity of mirror neurons and capacity for empathy and language processing, she hypothesizes that those individuals with more (active) mirror neurons are likely to be more successful non-native language (NNL) learners. Learning a language does not involve simply perfecting native pronunciation and familiarizing oneself with its grammar, syntax and vocabulary. But, moreover, as language is both a direct product and tangible marker of a culture and people-group, the ideal NNL learner would possess an open, global mind that embraces and understands diverse “others.” In a similar vein, she further reasons that early bilinguals/multilinguals develop a more vigorous mirror neuron system that increases capacity for understanding of others.
Building upon this, Bruno della Chiesa and others will try to set the stage for the debate on ethical behavior (i.e., judgment and decision-making) and pave the ground for the following discussion led by Kurt Fischer and Christina Hinton where do “ethical differences between people” come from? Depending on the (scientifically-based or ideology-informed?) answer to this question, a great deal of assumptions, beliefs and representations could be shaken or even destroyed, thus leading to (in the best case) fascinating debates in the century to come, and/or (in the worst case) to tragic misuses of scientific authority and major conflicts (fueling what Huntington would have called “a clash of civilizations”?). In this context, the “old” controversy on universalism vs. relativism has to be revisited, starting from at least the 18th century Enlightenment philosophy (especially Rousseau and Kant). Moreover, ideologies and religions play a key role in this issue, and tackling philosophical and religious views on ethics cannot and should not be avoided. Hans Küng’s Foundation for Global Ethic (and the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic issued by the “Parliament of the World’s Religions, Chicago”, 1993) can prove more than useful here. We firmly believe that an international and intercultural debate on these issues is urgent and absolutely necessary, and in any event (long?) before neuroscientific findings on ethics in the brain start to revolutionize our self-perception and self-understanding as human beings. Having a critical look at approaches such as the ones of Michael Inzlicht et al. or of Joshua Greene et al. is healthy and fruitful (the opposition between ‘utilitarians’ and ‘deontologists’ may not be as relevant and ‘neutral’ as it seems, for instance). The initiative of the journal Mind, Brain, and Education to create a special section devoted to issues of ethics and neuroscience, as well as the launch of the internet Learn: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education hub are promising steps forward. There is probably more to be done, though. But then, we’ll be confronted with the delicate issue of popularizing complex issues in today’s world, through the narrow and over-simplifying prism of the media...