New Study Evokes Debate Over the Ethics of Using Biological Markers to Predict, Preempt Harmful Activity
One of the “holy grails” of ponerology – and an achievement that will inevitably force us to confront extremely challenging ethical dilemmas – is an improved ability to predict harmful behavior before it happens.
Dr. Kent Kiehl of the Mind Research Network has been one of the more active researchers investigating what we can learn from brain imaging of psychopaths. And he and colleagues have recently published, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, a study entitled “Neuroprediction of future rearrest.”
The study involved having 96 soon-to-be-released male prisoners perform computer tasks that required quick decision-making and inhibition of impulsive responses, while their brains were observed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The researchers focused in on the brain region known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and found that, when controlling for other known risk factors, those prisoners with less ACC activity than their fellow study participants were about twice as likely to be rearrested within 4 years of release as those with higher ACC activity.
The question is, as we zero in on markers like this – whether they be certain anatomical or functional characteristics of the brain, particular genetic features or anything else – what is the most ethical way in which to use this knowledge?
On one hand, it could be considered highly unethical and dangerous to discriminate against, detain or punish anybody – even a previous offender – simply because they happen to exhibit particular biological markers if those markers have not expressed themselves in a specific behavior for which they are being criminally charged. Beginning to do so could open the door to frightening abuses by authorities.
Most of the commenters on the Daily Mail’s story about this study fell on this side of the issue and raised such concerns.
For example, “Dunnyveg” said:
“Actually, low IQ, high testosterone, and a record of previous convictions are the best indicators for recidivism; there is no need for fancy technology. But none of these absolve society from our time-honored principle of innocent until proven guilty. Talk about a potential totalitarian nightmare, this is it….”
“Still like technology gullible science fans? Little do you realise these are not to benefit you but to control you, all of it is too control and watch and report back and have you slaves to the system.”
“Well that fills the biggest gap left in achieving the full ’1984 infrastructure’ now they’re rolling out internet TVs that watch you and listen to you (and that some mugs are actually buying) – welcome to the world of ‘thought crime’ ….”
The very idea of predicting and preemptively acting to prevent crimes before they are committed reminds many of the brilliant Philip K. Dick story, later made into a movie by Steven Spielberg, “The Minority Report.”
On the Daily Mail article, “Jeff Pringle” commented:
“Minority Report anyone?”
And Nature began their story on the study with “In a twist that evokes the dystopian science fiction of writer Philip K. Dick…” and, later in the article, mentioned “The Minority Report.”
But, on the other hand, it could be considered unethical not to use our improving predictive ability if failing to do so allows offenders to cause harm and suffering to others that could have, with minimal collateral damage, been prevented. How would you feel if a loved one was harmed by a person who we knew ahead of time, based on various markers and indicators, had an extremely high likelihood of offending but did nothing to stop?
Some may take comfort in the fact that we can, for the moment, postpone fully grappling with these dilemmas. Our predictive ability based on markers like those in Kiehl’s study is still poor enough that it seems clearly unreasonable, at the present time, to base highly consequential legal actions on it alone. Even Kiehl himself concedes as much.
But as our knowledge and technology improve, there may well come a day when the gap between the pros and cons of applying them to predict and prevent crime narrows. Eventually, we may have to decide at exactly which threshold level of predictive reliability it becomes more unethical, even in the face of potential unintended consequences, to allow a person marked as extremely likely to cause harm to act freely than to take action to reduce the threat they pose. The decision about where to draw such a line could arouse furious debate.
One commenter on the Nature article, “Mitch Trachtenberg,” offered a nice middle ground where many of us, despite different viewpoints on the matter, may frequently find ourselves able to meet, when he said:
“This knowledge could be abused by someone refusing to release someone on parole or probation due to “unacceptable-ACC-levels.” But it could really be helpful if the results were used to get someone additional help or even monitoring. Helping people with problems controlling their impulses could be beneficial, and it would be great to have a way of discovering which people in our prison system might well be there for exactly that reason.”
Hopefully Mitch’s idea will prove prescient and we can find a way, at least much of the time, to use this knowledge and these tools in a compassionate way that aims to authentically help people, not just stigmatize or harass them. But it’s hard to imagine a future where we aren’t sometimes faced with incredibly difficult decisions about cases that just don’t allow for any easy middle ground where we can hide.
What are your thoughts on the subject?
How do you weigh the danger of authorities abusing these predictive abilities against the threat posed by individuals with biological markers associated with harming others?
What do you think is the most ethical way to deal with the dilemmas these predictive abilities may one day pose?
Let us know in the comments below.
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Tags: anterior cingulate cortex, biological markers, brain, brain imaging, brain scans, crime prediction, criminology, daily mail, ethics, fmri, kent kiehl, mind research network, nature, neuroprediction, philip k. dick, proceedings of the national academy of sciences, science fiction, steven spielberg, the minority report
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