Loyola University Chicago

Department of Philosophy


Joe Vukov Interview

1. Your main areas of interest in philosophy/bioethics include philosophy of mind and neuroethics.  What got you interested in this area in the first place?  What made you decide to pursue scholarship in this area?

 My research projects in philosophy of mind and neuroethics both stem from my interest in consciousness and whether consciousness matters, morally speaking. In recent years, we have made great strides in understanding the brain. But there are important questions about consciousness we haven’t answered yet. We haven’t determined precisely how our conscious experiences (your experience of these words, for example) arise from the neural processes that underlie them. Moreover: it is not always clear how existing ethical frameworks can help us face issues arising from neuroscientific discoveries. For example, can our existing models of moral responsibility hold up to what neuroscience has discovered about the brains of some criminals?

 I started down my research path to explore questions like these. I am also drawn to philosophy of mind and neuroethics because both are thoroughly interdisciplinary. If we want to learn more about consciousness, and if we want to chart an ethical approach to the study of the mind, it’s not enough to enlist philosophers. Psychologists, neuroscientists, health care workers, clergy, lawyers, and others must also help. I am excited about my research, then, because it lets me work with dedicated people from a variety of backgrounds to address pressing ethical questions.

2. Could you tell us about one specific application of your interest, and how philosopher-ethicists are addressing it?  What are the main questions or concerns that are being raised surrounding that issue?

 Here’s one relevant application: the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by college students. Some college students use Ritalin, Adderall, or similar drugs not as a treatment for ADHD, but rather to improve their powers of concentration. You might think using prescription drugs in this way is perfectly permissible. Some ethicists would agree with you. Some ethicists, for example, argue that using Ritalin to become a better test-taker is not much different than using coffee to help you make it through finals. But other ethicists disagree. They argue that the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs can diminish a sense of personal achievement, something all of us hold dear. If you receive an A because you popped a pill, can you be proud of your achievement in the same way as if you aced the test using only your natural powers of concentration?

 Contemporary conversations about cognitive enhancement often track more familiar conversations about enhancement. Ethicists wonder whether and how we can distinguish enhancement from treatment. They wonder how enhancement could ever be fair, given that it would likely be more readily accessible to the wealthy and powerful than to the poor and vulnerable.

 But there are other ways in which the contemporary conversation about cognitive enhancement departs from more familiar conversations about enhancement. Cognitive enhancement, after all, is caught up in our identities in a way other forms of enhancement are not. A version of you who has artificially been made taller is still undeniably you. But it’s not so clear that a cognitively enhanced version of you would still be you, especially if the enhanced version had cognitive capacities far beyond those you have now. The upshot? We must approach cognitive enhancement more carefully and with more in mind than when we approach other kinds of human enhancement.

3. Some critics claim that science is value-neutral, and that it is the ethicist's job to consider the ethical issues associated with the science. What is your view on the connection between bioethics and science?  Do scientists have any obligations to society in conducting their research?

Human endeavors are rarely if ever value neutral. Whenever we do something, we are (at least) deciding that it is more valuable than something else. For example, when a scientist decides to pursue one research program over another, she is implicitly deciding that the former is more valuable than the latter. It is rare, moreover, that humans engage in a pursuit without hoping to achieve some goal. The reason I jog (when I have the time!) is that I want to be healthier. Likewise, the reason scientists work to cure diseases and expand human knowledge is that they see curing diseases and expanding human knowledge as valuable. Scientific research, in short, is always caught up in values, and because of that, I believe scientists have important obligations to society: scientists owe it to the rest of us to engage in research that works towards laudable ends using morally-justifiable means.

 That’s not to say all scientists should be bioethicists. That would be unfeasible. It would probably be undesirable. Rather, I believe bioethics and science should be carried out in tandem. Bioethicists can’t do their job well without learning from scientists about the most up-to-date scientific and biomedical research. Likewise, scientists can benefit from the perspective of ethicists: ethicists can help scientists recognize the normative context in which their research is embedded and see how values are in play in the decisions they make every day, from the direction of a research program to the methodology of a particular experiment. Research in science and bioethics should be symbiotic, the work of each informing and benefiting the work of the other.

4. You just moved to Chicago after spending years working and studying in New York City.  What is the biggest difference you have noted between Chicago and New York?  Is there anything about New York that you miss?  What do you like most about being in Chicago?

 I’m originally a Midwesterner (Minnesotan, specifically). So while I thoroughly enjoyed my time in New York, moving to Chicago has felt like a homecoming. The people, the culture, the devotion to teams other than the Yankees/Mets and Giants/Jets: it all feels very familiar. What are the differences between Chicago and New York? The biggest difference is the size. Chicago is a big city, of course, but there is room to breathe here.

 What do I miss about New York? Not the things you might expect: I loved going to the Met and MoMA and Central Park, of course. But when I think about what I miss most, it is the specific people, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, park benches, and subway stops that were part of my daily life there. I am excited, then, to find new places and meet new people in Chicago!

 So far, the thing I like most about my new city is the food. I love food, and Chicago is a great place to eat. Between the pizza, gyros, Italian beefs, and hot dogs, Chicago does my favorite foods very well. My wife, one-year-old son, and I also enjoy exploring new neighborhoods—we believe the best way to get to know a new city is by foot. So if you have any recommendations of places to explore, we will appreciate them!

5. Tell us about your upcoming courses at Loyola. What will you be teaching in spring 2017?  What other courses do you hope to teach down the road?

 In Spring 2017, I will be teaching Neuroethics (Phil 398: Seminar in Contemporary Philosophy). In this course, we will be considering cognitive enhancement as well as other ethical issues that have been raised by contemporary neuroscience. I am especially excited about this course as it will be run as a small seminar (only 15 students!). The course also has a fund associated with it, which will let us bring in several guest speakers and food for class sessions. If you are a philosophy major, you can register for this course in LOCUS. If you are not a philosophy major, LOCUS may not allow you to register, but you are still welcome! Just let me know you are interested, and we can work out the details of getting you enrolled. Finally, if you are a neuroscience minor or cognitive/behavioral neuroscience major, it may be possible for you to take this course for credit towards your degree. Again, just let me know you are interested, and we can work out the details!

 In the near future, I will also be teaching a course called Philosophy of Mind (Phil 387). This course will cover basic neuroethics as well as broader questions about consciousness, freedom, action, and responsibility. To explore these questions, we will be studying recent scientific research as well as historical and contemporary philosophical perspectives. I have been working with the Psychology Department and new cognitive/behavioral neuroscience major to develop this course, and am proud to report we will be offering it to psychology and neuroscience students for credit towards their majors. When studying something as complex as the mind, I’ve always found: the more perspectives, the better!

6. This is your first semester teaching at Loyola. What do you most like about being here so far?

Easy question: the people. I have been thoroughly impressed by how kind my colleagues are, how welcoming the Loyola community has been, and how top notch Loyola students are at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Every day, I get to have fascinating conversations with my colleagues and with the students in my classes and office. What could be better than that? Speaking of my office, I am on campus most days, and love it when people stop by. I enjoy catching up with former students and meeting new people. So please feel free to come see me at Crown 365 whenever you’d like