Neuromarketing and the Battle for Your Brain

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We are constantly bending and being bent to the will of others—and neurotechnology may be enabling new methods for those seeking to bend others to their will. In 2021, Ahmed Shaheed, during his mandate as the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, presented the first-ever report on freedom of thought, which argued that “freedom of thought” should be interpreted to include the right not to reveal one’s thoughts nor to be penalized for them. He also recommended that freedom of thought include the right not to have our thoughts manipulated. But manipulation is a slippery concept. If ill-defined, an absolute prohibition on it could do more harm to human interactions than good.

About a decade ago, I went down a rabbit hole trying to untangle claims about philosophical and legal free will. The written debate goes back at least two thousand years, but neuroscientists have recently joined the fray by arguing that decision-making is hardwired in our brains. Punishment, they argue, cannot be justified by retributivism—an eye for an eye—because people are not morally culpable for their actions. I disagree and have sought in my own scholarship to explain why freedom of action is a freedom worth defending.

In a well-known 1971 essay titled “Freedom of Will and the Concept of a Person,” the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt describes what he calls a peculiar characteristic of humans—that we can form “second-order desires.” Besides our subconscious preferences, biases, and desires, we can also “want to have (or not to have) certain desires and motives.” Frankfurt calls this capacity for reflective self-evaluation of those biases and desires “higher-order volition.” We don’t have to be fully aware of our unconscious desires to engage in reflective self-evaluation. We might be completely unaware of some desires while being mistaken about others. Free will, he argues, is our capacity to form higher-order volitions, by recognizing certain desires as our own.


Photo-illustration: WIRED Staff; Getty Images



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