Neuroethics: Agency in the Age of Brain Science

Joshua May
Oxford University Press, £19.99

The latest advances in brain science raise fascinating ethical conundrums, which Joshua May elegantly navigates. To explore the question of whether we have free will, May gives a thorough introduction to the human brain. What we know about the brain doesn’t always match how we experience consciousness: the mind is a collection of parts that act together like a single entity. This leads to an important reminder that conscious, reflective choice has less of a role in guiding our behaviour than we like to think. There is, however, no simple relationship between consciousness and free will.

These discussions raise challenging questions about agency and accountability. For example, does having a mental disorder make someone less responsible, even for the most extreme crimes? People with a mental illness are sometimes thought to lack fully fledged freedom and responsibility, but May argues that this doesn’t automatically reduce a person’s agency. Sometimes agency can even be enhanced. Anxiety, while often unpleasant, can cause people to be more alert to threats facing themselves and others.

May’s nuanced approach draws the conclusion that we should focus on a person’s symptoms and circumstances, not on whether they are classed as neurotypical or disordered. Although psychiatric illness can diminish agency, it’s not categorically different from neurotypical life. We all lie on a cognitive continuum.

This wide-ranging book also examines the ethics of how we use neuroscience technologies. In particular, should we use neuroscience in court? Advances in brain imaging raise the possibility of exploring in court whether a suspect recognises information linked to the crime, for example. Despite the limitations of current technologies, May argues that evidence from neuroscience is often just as good as other types of evidence currently accepted by law. Therefore, he believes that we should generally welcome the introduction of neuroscience in the courtroom.

Neuroethics explores complex concepts in a way that is accessible to students and non-experts. It is accompanied by online resources, including materials designed for undergraduate courses.  

Dr Rebecca Nesbit