Interview: Ira Bedzow

Dr. Ira Bedzow is the director of the Biomedical Ethics and Humanities program at New York Medical College. He will serve as a panelist for a session taking place on the first day of the INS annual meeting, 'Linking Social Justice and Brain Injuries Through Theology.'

What is your current position and field of research?

I’m the director of the Biomedical Ethics and Humanities program at New York Medical College. I run a masters program, a certificate program in the medical school, and I'm also involved in the MD ethics curriculum as well as certain interprofessional ethics curriculum.

My teaching really looks at two things. The first is the ethical implications of biotechnology and healthcare policy from a societal and organizational perspective. My second area of focus is how medical professionals can internalize and create a professional identity that takes into consideration their personal goals and values, as well as professional expectations that the profession demands of them.

What are some neuroethical issues in your field of research?

From the biotechnology side, it’s rather straightforward. As biotechnology changes, so does our understanding of the relationship between mind and body, or mind and brain, as well as our conceptions of how the brain works — is there something even called the mind? That has a lot of implications with regards to personal identity, concepts of free will, understanding of moral development, and our categories and definitions of life and death.

From the organizational side, neuroethics plays an interesting role in how the neuroscience of bias, heuristics, and decision making affects hospital policies and clinical practice. Once you understand those biases and thinking processes, you can see how they affect organizational culture, policies and decisions — as well as how they can be utilized to change organizational culture, decision-making and policies. Ultimately, it’s recognizing the types of traps you fall into.

Why are these neuroethical issues important/applicable to the wider world?

You can’t look at society or organizations reified to the point where it entirely imposes upon individuals within the organization or society. There’s always gonna be that back and forth; otherwise society can’t change. So, how do you look at how a person’s environment shapes how they think? And — if you were able to change the way people think — how could you then change their environment? Although it’s not the only background to use, neuroethics is a really good frame of reference to understand how decisions are made. These ideas are playing out with regards to racial, religious, and cultural bias, with regards to sex and gender bias, and in all aspects of our society.

What role do you think theology can play in social justice approaches to neuroscience?

I think one of the challenges that contemporary philosophy has in a multicultural environment is that it accepts it’s own grounding premises without consideration. That’s very difficult to do today in a number of respects. The world in general just doesn't think things are obvious anymore, and there are many cultures that may not share these grounding premises.

For example, we all may think that definitions of death are obvious. The President's Council on Bioethics –– appointed by President George W. Bush –– wrote a white paper on brain death, we have brain death statutes in basically every state, and hospitals have brain death criteria. Therefore, it’s quite a ubiquitous assumption that we all understand what brain death is and how it's the definition or the criteria for death. When people are suffering from a traumatic brain injury, we can use a social justice perspective to recognize how this view of brain death fits with the need for organs and for the proper resources and utilization of resources in hospitals. And then you hear in the news all the time: “Who are these people that disagree? Why do they disagree? Do they have any moral foundation for this, or any metaphysical foundation for this? Or are they just being religious?” So here’s a good crux example that really plays into the way religion and theology, when taken seriously, can force us to think through that which we take for granted.

For example, even if science provides empirical data, the manner in which you interpret that data comes with philosophical criteria and implications. The choice to be completely reductionist works in the scientific method, but does not necessarily hold true in all areas of social life. I’m not saying it's wrong, but I’m saying it shouldn't be accepted without examination –– especially in areas of life and death. Definitions of death are philosophically and socially grounded. Criteria to determine death and tests which see if the criteria are met are scientific and medical. We should critically analyze when we are being reductionist, when we’re accepting things on face value, and when we’re not. Religion makes bioethicists really clarify and articulate what they actually mean as opposed to taking things for granted.

What aspects of the annual meeting are you excited about?

It’s my first time attending, and I’m very excited about it. Neuroethics is a big part of what I do, but it’s more tangential. I’m not studying neuroethics for the sake of neuroethics, but for the sake of all these other things. By attending this annual meeting of the International Neuroethics Society and meeting people who look at neuroethics as their primary field of study, I’m going to learn a lot. I’m really excited to see not only what I don’t know, but also what else is out there that I’m not even aware of yet.

What got you into neuroethics?

How I got into neuroethics was really because of a change of language in the literature. I’m primarily an ethicist and I study virtue theory, which examines not simply how to make decisions, but how making certain decisions over time and enacting those decisions changes how you identify yourself. For a long time, this was an intersection between ethics and moral psychology. However, psychology itself became much more neuroscience-oriented as time went by. Because it became more invested in the language of neuroscience and less psychology, neuroethics became a great frame or lens to look at things; so it became an additional tool in my toolbox. I didn’t get rid of psychology, but now I have two tools: social psychology and neuroethics.

Our Digital Future: Building Networks Across Neuroscience, Technology and Ethics

The 2020 Annual Meeting of the International Neuroethics Society (INS) will convene virtually on Thursday and Friday, October 22-23, 2020. Sessions will address the many areas in which brain technologies and data concerning the brain are developed, deployed, utilized and regulated. We hope you will attend!


Created with images by Joshua Rawson-Harris - "find more at @joshrh19 (Instagram)" • Edwin Andrade - "untitled image" • Charles Forerunner - "meeting near a transparent glass" • David Clode - "Thanks guys."