The advancement of technology constantly presents new challenges and dilemmas as new ways of doing things emerge. What used to be science fiction might now become science fact; as ‘brain readers’ loom on the horizon, ethics are being challenged when applications of such technology are considered. This essay will discuss the ethical challenges posed by technology and the degree to which such dilemmas are justified. As a means of doing so, it will filter the dilemmas through ethical lenses.
Ethical Implications of Brain Scan Technology
Technology that can decipher people’s intentions is being proposed and developed. This raises a number of ethical dilemmas as to the impact of such an innovation. First and foremost, the most obvious ethical consideration is whether it is actually right to invade the deep recesses of the mind. One suggested application for this technology is to assist in the ‘interrogation of criminals and terrorists’, perhaps culminating in the ultimate form of crime prevention– before it is actually committed (re minority report). In this regard, the technology presents ethical questions at to whether a perceived thought or intention constitutes a crime in itself. Charging someone with an offence on such grounds would suggest that thought and action are one and the same.
The article made reference to the fact that brain scanning technology could be used to improve the lives of people with disabilities. It could be argued that having the technology to do so and not acting upon it would be unethical. At face value, this suggests that the technology has the potential to benefit those with disabilities by improving their standard of living. However, there are wider issues at stake. One knock-on effect of the technology may be a reduction in human contact, in that the technology may be used as a substitute for one-to-one contact with others, with society abandoning the disabled/infirm to the care of machines. (Wood & Ball, 2006)
Looking beyond the stated application of the technology in the article, there may be ethical implications, should the technology become widely available or should it be applied for other purposes. Computers were once the sole preserve of government and the scientific community but, have now filtered down to the general population. Could the same be said about the technology discussed in the article? In this regard, should a mass produced ‘brain scanner’ become available one day, the effects upon society would be considerable. Furthermore, whilst the technology’s application could be considered beneficial to society (reduction in crime, improved standard of living for the disabled), it has the potential to be used for less noble causes, such as personal gain.
Organisations/individuals could use the technology as a means of marketing/research to name just a few applications. Thus it has the potential to be applied for personal gain. Generally, the ethical implications of such technology centres on a person’s right to privacy and the degree to which technology infringes upon such rights. When this is considered in conjunction with the possibility of biometric identity cards, increased surveillance and the computerisation of health records onto a single national database, current technology presents a number of ethical challenges to the way which we live our lives.
Utilitarian View of Brain Scan Technology
By applying utilitarianism to the suggested implications, a framework is provided for deciding whether or not this type of brain scanning technology is ethical. Utilitarianists believe in maximising the happiness of society, so from that perspective, this technology could be considered to be ethical. The detection and prevention of crime, would nullify the threat to society. By being protected from harm, the level of happiness in society would be maintained. Happiness would have decreased had a crime been committed. In this case, the discomfort felt by the individual who may not have as yet committed a crime is justified when the well-being of society as whole is considered.
Using such a framework, it could be argued that the majority of law-abiding citizens would have little to fear and that it is only a small minority who would be adversely affected by the technology. Therefore, using the technology as a crime- prevention tool would appear to be justified from a utilitarian point of view. The issue of privacy is over-ridden by the benefits to society, if a future atrocity could be prevented.
Focusing upon the consequences of the technology from the perspective of utilitarianism; if technology could be used to reduce crime, which is a major cause of unhappiness, technology is ethical and should be implemented when possible. On this basis, the ethical dilemma posed by invading people’s privacy is somewhat weak when considering the possible consequences. In addition to sacrificing privacy for the ‘greater good’, utilitarianists may also immolate the liberty of an individual here or there. In the future, the technology discussed in the article may allow the authorities to apprehend ‘criminals’ before they have committed a crime, which, whilst unfortunate for the individual, preserves the wellbeing and stability of the masses. Utilitarianism dictates that as long as the happiness of the majority is maintained or increased, the use of such technology is ethical.
Overall, the ethical implications of this technology, which may affect aspects of the lives of individuals such as their privacy, are not sufficient grounds to abandon its development from a utilitarian point of view. Utilitarianists would argue that the positive consequences of the technology which specifically benefit the majority outweigh any objections which individuals may have. In this respect, the utilitarian argument in favour of brain scanning technology also applies to that of identity cards, in that it is society in general which will benefit. The argument is strengthened by the possibility of improving the happiness of people with disabilities. However, should this result in a lack of human contact, would that make this technology less ethical? Utilitarianism is concerned with attaining happiness for the maximum number of people; if the technology is able to empower those with disabilities and allow them to live more independently and thus potentially happier lives, it must be deemed to be ethical.
Deontological Theory Applied to the Ethical Dilemmas
Deontologists place importance upon an act and intention rather than consequences as well as emphasising the role of duty. Deontological theory suggests that individuals have certain rights which cannot be sacrificed for the greater good. Privacy is one such right and individual rights should not be regarded as a means to an end, even if the end is increased security. Therefore, from a deontological point of view, the threat to privacy is a substantial ethical consideration and one which will cause considerable concern. The ethical implications are increased if such scans are acquired without the subject’s consent. It would violate the tenet that people are not a means to an end but an end in themselves.
Whilst utilitarianism sanctions the punishment of individuals if their future conduct may jeopardise the wellbeing of the masses, the deontological theory does not believe that thoughts are cause enough for such actions. Deontologists believe in the rationality of humanity and that people are capable of acting appropriately. Therefore, the ethical implications of a technology which could lead to pre-emptive punishments would have grave implications for any deontological theorists. Deontologists would be particularly concerned at the possibility that thought or intention may be given as having as significant a bearing as an act itself. To them, the theory that a certain kind of brain activity automatically suggests a crime will be committed is fallacious, as it does not take into consideration our capacity for rational decision making. As Johnson (2003) states when discussing deontological theory:
The capacity for rational decision making is the most important feature of human beings. Each of us has this capacity; each of us can make choices, choices about what we will do, and what kind of person we will become. No one else can or should make these choices for us (Johnson 2003).
This implies that within each one of us lies the ability to act in a certain way; harbouring an intention does not necessarily mean a person will act it out. Furthermore, by branding a person as guilty of a crime simply because a thought may have passed through his or her head, however fleetingly, disempowers the individuals by removing their ability to make choices as to whether to act upon it or not. (Johnson 2003)
Disregarding the potentially negative consequences of the technology, the opportunity to enrich the lives of those otherwise less able represents a positive application. The question of whether technology would lead to less human contact and to isolation is not as much of a concern to a deontological theorist. Because individuals should have the right to choose whether they wish to adopt such technology, they should also be allowed to decide whether this may negatively impact upon their lives. People’s rights must be respected. They must not be overridden and second- guessed. Focusing upon the consequences is not part of the deontologist’s mandate.
Comparison of the Strengths and Weaknesses of the Implications of Using the two Ethical Theories
The previous two sections assessed the validity of the ethical implications from the perspective of two ethical theories, namely utilitarianism and deontology. The author believes that it would be appropriate to compare the viewpoints of the theories with each other in order to gain an insight into the relative strengths and weaknesses of the implications.
The ethical dilemma posed by the technology is determined by the implications of its use. Examining these within the framework provided by the two theories suggests that, ethically, technology presents both utilitarianism and deontology with a dilemma and cause for concern. Analysis suggests that the dilemma centres on the application of technology rather than the technology itself. Utilitarianism appears to view potential applications more positively and regards the implications and overall dilemma as weaker than deontology. Deontologists, whilst emphasising the rights of the individual, recognise that, potentially, the applications may impact upon the liberty of individuals. Thus, they may place greater importance upon the implications and the dilemma as a whole.
This essay has attempted to identify the ethical implications of the development of a technological procedure which may be able to interpret brain signals, thus ‘reading’ peoples minds and intentions. These implications which, from the basis of an overall ethical dilemma, have then been applied to two important ethical theories to determine the strength or validity of the dilemma. The ethical implications raised at the beginning of this document, whilst general in nature, differ in their importance depending on the ethical framework used to access their strengths and weaknesses. Deontology appears to give the implications greater credence than utilitarianism, mainly due to the importance placed on individuals’ rights and their capacity to act in the correct manner. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, emphasises maximising happiness for the majority of people. The implications of the technology do not threaten this viewpoint. As such, the implications of the technology are stronger if one is using a deontological criterion for assessment and weaker from a utilitarian point of view.
In the opinion of the author, utilitarianism places too much importance on the happiness of the majority, at the expense of the individual and is keen to forsake such liberties as privacy and consent. Furthermore, the ease with which one can justify pre-emptive action against those who may, or may not, be harbouring unsavoury thoughts on the basis of a machine’s interpretation of brain activity is worrying to say the least. Any technology which provides the opportunity to do so presents an ethical dilemma which sits uncomfortably with a deontological outlook and, most likely, the majority of people.
Johnson, D.G., (2000), Computer Ethics, 3rd Edition, Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-083699-0, Printed in the USA.
Wood, D. & Ball, K., eds, (2006), A Report on the Surveillance Society: A Public Discussion Document, <http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/library/data_ protection/practical_application/surveillance_society_public_discussion_document_06.pdf>, last accessed on 12/03/2007.