As our society becomes more technologically advanced, new

University of Pennsylvania
Michael P. Donnelly, Jr.
Heidi Fisher
James Lambert
April 14, 2007
Ethics Essay
As our society becomes more technologically advanced, new possibilities present
themselves and these ethical dilemmas compound. New advances in neuroscience, in
particular, are fraught with ethical dilemmas and warrant advanced study. The use of
functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scanning technology as a lie-detector
device is a prime example of biotechnology that could have serious ethical ramifications. In
this post 9/11 world, our country has become increasingly concerned with the threat of
terrorism, perhaps even willing to trade certain rights of privacy for greater security. The
prospect of fMRI technology potentially offers the state a tool that could be used to counter
terrorism. This technology could be used to interrogate suspected terrorists and effectively
penetrate their efforts to deceive, resist, or even remain silent. Thus, the question of
individual rights versus that of the community emerges. Is it worth violating the most basic
expectation of privacy, that which we attach to our own thoughts and memory, to achieve
an end of national security that itself might save others from death and injury?
This new technology poses unique challenges for the legal system, as it seeks to
balance individual rights such as privacy with the community’s welfare. A new, potentially
more accurate means of discovering the truth might help minimize the likelihood of
convicting innocent people and allow the state to better use its scarce resources in virtually
all aspects of law enforcement. Thus, a strictly utilitarian analysis might support its use,
effectively and efficiently promoting public safety. What then of our traditional reliance
upon a jury to determine the question of guilt and innocence? O. Carter Snead, a former
advisor to the President’s council on bioethics, argues that fMRI effectively preempts the
role of the jury. Evidence, scientific and otherwise, is meant to help the jury make an
informed decision, rather than make the decision for them. The use of this technology could
eliminate the human aspect of the legal process, denying the defendant the right to be
judged by a jury of his/her peers. Furthermore, the use of fMRI as a lie-detector would
violate the right to escape self-incrimination granted by the Fifth Amendment if viewed as
compulsory. The very existence and use in court of fMRI would render it compulsory, for
there would be a built in bias against any suspect that chose not submit to it. If we have
the right to avoid self-incrimination, do we not also have the right to our private thoughts
and memories? Yet surely some are likely to maintain that such a tool is no more intrusive
than a blood sample or fingerprint.
Finding the truth deserves great priority, but the means must be just. What do we lose
when the state penetrates our innermost thoughts, feelings, and memories? Our minds are
particularly sacred to us, for our thoughts make up our very consciousness and define who
we are. This intrusion, on the innocent as well as the guilty, should not be condoned in the
pursuit of truth. If this technology is ever to be used by the government or in a legal
system, it needs to be subjected to regulation that limits it application and recognize those
rights and capacities that define our humanity.