Neuroscience v. privacy? : a democratic perspective

In Sarah Richmond, Geraint Rees & Sarah J. L. Edwards (eds.), I Know What You're Thinking: Brain Imaging and Mental Privacy. Oxford University Press. pp. 205 (2012)
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Recent developments in neuroscience create new opportunities for understanding the human brain. The power to do good, however, is also the power to harm, so scientific advances inevitably foster as many dystopian fears as utopian hopes. For instance, neuroscience lends itself to the fear that people will be forced to reveal thoughts and feelings which they would not have chosen to reveal, and of which they may be unaware. It also lends itself to the worry that people will be encouraged to submit to medication or surgery which, even if otherwise beneficial, alters their brain in ways that undermine their identity and agency. As Kenneth Foster notes, neural implants can have surprising and unintended adverse effects, even when they help to mitigate the loss of bodily control associated with Parkinson’s disease, or help to provide hearing for children who would otherwise be profoundly deaf. While the risk of adverse outcomes are scarcely specific to neuroscience, he thinks that ‘These issues are perhaps more acute’ with the latter than with other medical interventions, ‘because they are intimately and fundamentally related to a person’s communication with the outside world’. [ 2006 196] Neuroscience, like genomic science, then, is likely to create new ways of harming people. Many of these will involve violations of privacy. However, these are unlikely fundamentally to challenge the reasons to value privacy, or our ability to protect it in the foreseeable future. Rather, I would suggest, the major threat to privacy comes from the difficulty of determining its nature and value and when, if ever, efforts to protect it are justified. So I will start by examining some threats to privacy, and their implications for neuroscience, before turning to philosophical problems in understanding the nature and value of privacy, and the practical consequences of those philosophical difficulties.

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Annabelle Lever
SciencesPo, Paris


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