Neuroethics, public relations, and the need for answers

New technologies present ethical questions that the PR industry must be ready to face - and explain to others.

Image via Tej3478 / Wikimedia Commons; Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Cropped and resized from original
Image via Tej3478 / Wikimedia Commons; Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Cropped and resized from original

The field of ethics often considers emerging technologies. PR pros should also be aware of how these new technologies are changing our field – you don’t have to work for the health care industry to need knowledge of new technology and the ethical questions it brings. The nature of technological changes is so widespread that the entire public relations industry will soon be expected to communicate about these issues. Just as social media was once a new tactic that spanned all sectors of public relations, new developments in biotech will also touch the entire communication industry. Artificial intelligence and new technologies present ethical and bioethical questions that we will all soon face.

Bioethics is generally defined as the study of ethical issues associated with biology. Over the last five years, biological research and medical research have experienced exponential growth in new information, new theories, and new ideas. Bioethics can be subdivided into disability ethics, disaster ethics, genetic ethics, neuroethics, reproductive ethics, and research ethics. These fields include ethical issues areas such as eugenics, end of life, cloning, euthanasia, transhumanism, human dignity, mental health, stem cells, nanotechnology, animal rights, and so on. As our scientific knowledge expands, the public relations industry is faced with a plethora of ethical issues that demand a logical approach to finding answers, rather than just a discussion of the philosophical aspects of the issue, so that we can advise our clients and managements.

Advances in neuroethics illustrate some of these ethical questions. With recent research and techniques, neurology has seen an explosion of new information relating to the brain, mind, consciousness, and emotions. This new information raises ethical questions in several areas:

Brain to computer interfaces are now possible
Who should be eligible for this technology? What are the criteria? Where does the cost for this new technology come from? Who controls the technology and who has access to alter and maintain the interface?

MRI, EEG, and MEG techniques and equipment are accurate enough to begin giving indications as to what people are thinking
Who should receive these scans and why? What about privacy issues? For instance, if a terrorist’s thought pattern indicated an imminent explosion, is it ethical for government agents to intercept the scan to prevent a great loss of life, such as the Boston marathon bombing? And, how would you communicate about that choice if you were in government relations?

In the future, reading a person's thoughts might help many severely disabled people communicate
But, once a person's thoughts can be read, even recorded, there are numerous legal and ethical questions to be answered. Where can mapped thoughts and data be used? Who decides where and how a person's private thoughts can be used? Who has access to that data? How secure and unalterable is the data storage?

Brain mapping and artificial intelligence (AI) indicate we will be able to put a person's very mind into a machine to preserve the person's identity
There are tremendous moral and ethical issues here. How will this technology be prevented from being used with evil intent? Again, who and what is the process used to select a person for everlasting mind and personality mapping? Is it more worthwhile to preserve the identity of an Albert Einstein, so that breakthrough physics can be studied? Is it more worthwhile to preserve the identity of a 9/11 bomber, so that terrorism can be prevented?

Intelligence can be enhanced and memories can be altered
Should memories be altered? If intelligence is enhanced, are aptitude tests, such as LSAT, MCAT, or GRE still valid? And, when should memories be altered or even erased? For example, a wounded soldier could be relieved of severe PTSD. Again, who should choose and how, who would bear the cost, and when is any associated risk acceptable?

Rapid advances in neurology, computers, and physics together can bring us great benefits. But there are no laws of physics, computer brain mapping, or medical techniques that can resolve ethical questions. There is even discussion of robots being programmed to make life and death decisions. Who programs ethics and morals into these robots? What guidelines would they use? Who will a robot save first: those with most severe injuries or those with greater chances of survival? The young or the aged?

We are already starting to address these questions. For example: Where does your client/CEO stand on the NFL’s use of RFID technology in tandem with virtual reality devices to monitor every aspect a players position and physical status leading to reams of data on each NFL player? Having this data could help prevent concussions or other injuries. But what about the privacy concerns of the individual player or the team who owns the data? What are the implications for children and teens playing football? Does your philanthropic initiative to local schools support what a parent could argue an invasion of their child's privacy?

With so many questions of ethics arising, it will be wise for comms pros to study ethical reasoning, not to just leave the discussion and decisions to philosophers or legal counsel. Real world answers that involve communicating values and priorities are needed. Personal ethics alone will not be enough to obtain these answers.  Basing ethics on principles is one way to provide a framework to reach logical, reasoned answers to these complex questions. It is imperative that training to reach reasoned logical answers to these ethical questions be inserted into the communication field.

Shannon Bowen, Ph.D., researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and the board of directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference. Her column will focus on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at

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