Bookbag: NEUROSCI 267/PSY 278/PHIL 353/ETHICS 269

Neuroethics
Writer: 
June 6, 2017

THE CATALYST: At the turn of the decade, Scott Huettel, professor of psychology and neuroscience, was pitching a course on neuroethics, the new field that merges neuroscience and ethics so that, in the wake of substantial advances in understanding how the brain works, we know what we should do with this information. When Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, now a philosophy professor at the university, joined Duke in 2010, it was an obvious opportunity. “We argued from the outset that you couldn’t really do this material justice unless you had two people coming from different areas, and each was willing to converse and learn the other person’s area,” says Huettel. Duke, already in the midst of a team-teaching initiative at the time, agreed, and the class was born.”

THE GIST: The course begins by introducing the concept of neuroethics and background on its subcomponents, but it soon delves into specific inquiries: Are psychopaths responsible for their actions? Should neuroscience be fair game in marketing strategies? Huettel and Sinnott-Armstrong typically alternate lectures, but the non-lecturer will still join the class, sitting somewhere in the Link classroom in Perkins Library. The non-lecturer is able to be more inquisitive— and provide a more critical view of the other’s side—than in a one-professor course. “I might interrupt ten times in the course of seventy-five minutes,” says Sinnott-Armstrong: During a Huettel lecture, he might want to expound on the ethical background of an issue, or chime in when he finds the science “creepy and mysterious.” The goal is to make sure more of the lesson gets retained, which the professors check by sprinkling ungraded quizzes throughout each class.

ASSIGNMENT LIST: The field’s recent rapid development makes for interesting reading. Almost all of the papers consumed and discussed in the course are within the last decade. Classes can include lectures, games, and discussions, with the debate going beyond the professors—tables frequently get shuffled around to break the forty-person class into small groups for further conversation. The course has no prerequisites. However, the professors note that for students lacking the full background needed for a particular lecture, they’ll recommend relevant Coursera lectures— from Duke’s catalogue of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)—as a starting point. (Based on how confident students feel, they can watch “[at] double- time, single-time, or twice.”)

THE TWIST: This past spring semester, in line with the collaborative, interdisciplinary nature of the subject matter, Huettel and Sinnott-Armstrong allowed the students to cowrite their final papers. The aim of having multiple viewpoints is to ensure that students realize they’re merely scratching the surface. “There’s only one thing worse than a neuroscientist who thinks they know philosophy, and that’s a philosopher who thinks they know neuroscience,” says Sinnott-Armstrong, laughing. “You don’t want these students to leave thinking they’ve mastered all the topics.”

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.