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Broadening the debate on neurorights

2023-02-13

Awareness of the need for neurotechnology governance has led to calls for a new set of ‘neurorights.’ The neurorights proposal, however, has sparked a lively debate. In a new book several experts reflect on the challenges and promises of neurotechnologies and on existing and proposed regulatory frameworks. One suggestion is that the neurorights proposal would benefit from further reflection on the framing of problems and solutions and more active public engagement.

Arleen Salles
Arleen Salles, Senior Researcher

There is a lot of promise when it comes to brain-interface technology, in several contexts. Some of these technologies are invasive, others are not. Regardless, because these devices record brain activity and sometimes also modulates brain function, they also beg the question about the potential impact the technology could have on our different belief systems. And perhaps also our view of what it means to be human. In response to this challenge, scientists and neuroethicists have proposed a special set of ‘neurorights’ – a proposal that has generated a very lively debate.

The concerns raised in the context of neurorights range from whether articulating a new set of rights could undermine existing human rights, or lead to a kind of ‘rights inflation’. The other problem is related to how we can identify and address the conceptual ambiguities and the practical challenges that stem from a new set of brain-related rights. But there are other challenges. In a new book on the risks and challenges of neurotechnologies for human rights, Arleen Salles, a philosopher and neuroethicist from Uppsala University’s Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB) and, Neuroetica Buenos Aires points to two related issues that would benefit from more reflection: framing and engagement.

According to Arleen Salles, the claim that neurorights is the answer depends on how both the problem and the solution are framed. Framing affects how people interpret neurotechnologies, the challenges they raise, and the appropriateness of potential solutions. It is necessary to pay attention to how the neurorigths proposal is framed. Arleen Salles believes that there are two main reasons for this: First, the frame itself might not be justified: it may be the result of hype rather than of careful understanding of the issues. Second, the frame is often blind to the context where it is used. This means that it often fails to pay attention to the specific cultural, political and economic conditions that will shape how different people perceive the frame in different parts of the world, or even different parts of a country, region or city.

Why is that important? Arleen Salles argues that the discussion on how to regulate neurotechnology could benefit from a more granular understanding of what shapes our perception of both the neurotechnologies themselves, and the challenges they bring. And also help us assess the ‘appropriateness’ of the neurorights framework.

Reflection on framing leads to the need for engagement. In order to be able to regulate and manage the ethical aspects of emerging technologies, we need to understand what is at stake for the people whose rights we aim to protect. Arleen Salles argues that public and stakeholder engagement (richly understood) can help us understand the main issues better. However, that engagement needs to be meaningful, representing a variety of views to ensure that we get a diversity of inputs into decision-making processes.

Want to know more? Salles, A (2023) Some reflections on the neurorights debate. In The risks and challenges of neurotechnologies for human rights. Eds Marta Sosa Navarro, Salvador Dura-Bernal, Carla Maria Gulotta. (UNESCO, University of Milan-Bicocca, SUNY Downstate). ISBN 978-92-3-100567-1.

By Josepine Fernow

This text was orginally published on the Human Brain Project's Ethics Dialogues blog

Last modified: 2023-11-16