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The Ethics of Personal Identity

Why the merging of man and machine requires a new discussion of what defines us as human individuals

The Ethics of Personal Identity

Cover of the June 2016 issue of FifF Kommunikation

Imagine being treated for Parkinson’s disease (PD), finding your personality altered permanently for the rest of your life. Walter Glannon, Professor of Neuroethics, reports a case in which a patient with PD showed symptoms such as chaotic behaviour and even megalomania after having undergone Deep Brain Stimulation, DBS. In this treatment, the electrodes of a stimulating device are inserted into the patient's brain in a neurosurgical procedure to treat the symptoms of the disease if traditional medication is no longer effective. Of course, adverse effects would have disappeared if the device was switched off. But this would also have meant that symptoms return, resulting in permanent disability.

This specific incident is an extreme case. But it sets an example for the pressing questions that the advance in neurotechnology, particularly the merging of man and machine, confronts neuroscientists with: What are the ethical principles we should apply to the practical use of neurotechnology like DBS? And do we have to find a new definition for, or even legally protect, what is personal identity?

Stefan Rotter and Oliver Müller from the Bernstein Center Freiburg and the cluster of excellence BrainLinks-BrainTools have addressed such questions in the current issue of FIfF-Kommunikation – a periodical published by the Forum Informatikerinnen für Frieden und gesellschaftliche Verantwortung e.V. The current issue offers a multifaceted and sometimes critical discussion of different aspects of “Transhumanism.”

Transhumanism aims to deliver humanity into a “post-human condition” by means of technology capable of enhancing the physical, psychological and intellectual capacities of human beings. In a collection of contributions by different transhumanists, i.e. US presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan and German transhumanist Stefan Lorenz-Sorgner, the magazine offers an outlook on the current status of the movement, but also a warning about its limitations and the exuberating trust in omnipotent technology.

With their contribution, Stefan Rotter and Oliver Müller want to oppose the impression that current research conducted in Freiburg might be perceived as directed towards a state of transhumanism. They weigh in on the current state of neurotechnology, covering some of the most recent advances in devices that enable a two-way link between implantable technical components and the brain. Apart from treating the symptoms of certain disorders by stimulating certain regions of the brain in a controlled fashion, these devices are also used to extract signals that inform the controllers.

According Müller and Rotter, these new abilities require an evaluation of their ethical implications: What happens, if their application changes the behaviour or even the personality of the patient in an essential way? Do their positive effects justify taking this risk? And how do we have to adapt our notion of the responsibility of a physician or an engineer, if intelligent neuroprostheses ever-more autonomously interfere with brain activity?

The Freiburg researchers suggest that recording and understanding even “subtle changes” in personality as accurately as possible will be a necessary prerequisite to develop ethical criteria for the use of implantable devices. The philosophical basis is “personal identity” – which encompasses self-consciousness, the ability to assume responsibility, the ability to plan for one's own future. But their article is not only an objection to uninhibited transhumanism but also a call-to-action to the general public: It is for us to decide “whether there are pathways in this uncharted territory that we shall not pursue.”

The full article in German is available here: http://www.fiff.de/publikationen/fiff-kommunikation/fk-2016/fk-2016-2/fk-2016-2-content/fk-2-16-p36.pdf

The full article in English is available here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnsys.2017.00093

In another article, Oliver Müller provides a grassroots explanation of transhumanism, shedding a light on the philosophical foundations of the movement. The perception of humanity as a transitory state between two different forms of the human condition is nothing new. Even the idea that humanity holds their future in their own hand and is obliged to realize its possibility has a philosophical tradition. His article is available (in German as well) under the following link: http://www.fiff.de/publikationen/fiff-kommunikation/fk-2016/fk-2016-2/fk-2016-2-content/fk-2-16-p49.pdf

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