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: Zachary Stein
Harvard University. USA

The limits of self-objectification and other ethical issues in Mind, Brain, and Education
In the emerging field of Mind, Brain and Education (MBE), at least three complementary ethical themes are important. One concerns limiting the scope of certain possible scientifically based interventions in order to preserve the integrity and autonomy of individuals. Not all knowledge that can be used ought to be. The second theme concerns the fair distribution of benefits accruing from improvements of practice. Knowledge that is put to good use should be used to help everyone. Finally, the third theme concerns sensitivity to the effects of changing views about the nature of humanity wrought by advances in neuroscience and genetics. Responsibility is paramount because the self-understanding of the species is at stake.
(1): Genetic screening and behavior modification through drugs are only the most obvious red flags in an ever-growing list of scientifically based techniques that can affect educational outcomes. There must be limits on the extent to which scientists and educators can intrude upon people’s private lives and biological makeup. Even projects aimed at fostering collectively held values ought to stop short of transgressing the dignity and autonomy of individuals. Following Habermas (2003), we must be concerned about the limits of self-objectification and the instrumental attitudes fostered by scientific understandings of key mechanisms.
(2): Along with discourse about limiting the application of certain types of advances in MBE must come discourse about the fair distribution of potential benefits. Following Rawls (1971), we should recognize that the just distribution of educational goods will become a central issue as the field of MBE advances. We should be taking active steps to ensure that the advances and benefits of MBE will not be limited to improving the learning of a privileged few. Justice as fairness must be a guiding principle in efforts toward the scientifically based re-design of educational systems, making them both more equitable and more effective.
(3): Beyond these concerns about moving from research to practice we face concerns about the impact of conflicting views on the nature humanity. Following Sellars (2006), we should see that MBE is embroiled in an epochal conflict between the manifest image of humanity and an emerging and radical scientific image of humanity. The reconciliation of these two worldviews is a central task for any field looking to bring advances from neuroscience and genetics into the heart of society and culture. Moreover, debates about the self-understanding of the species impinge upon the self-understanding of individuals. Emerging conceptions of brainhood simultaneously threaten to dissolve key aspects of personal identity while liberating us from illusion and disease.