Deep Brain Stimulation Through the “Lens of Agency”: Clarifying Threats to Personal Identity from Neurological Intervention
This paper explores the impacts of neurological intervention on selfhood with reference to recipients’ claims about changes to their self-understanding following Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) for treatment of Parkinson’s Disease. In the neuroethics literature, patients’ claims such as: “I don’t feel like myself anymore” and “I feel like a machine”, are often understood as expressing threats to identity. In this paper I argue that framing debates in terms of a possible threat to identity—whether for or against the proposition, is mistaken and occludes what is ethically salient in changes from DBS. Rather, by adopting a relational narrative approach to identity and autonomy, I show that the ethically salient issue from DBS is impacts on autonomous agency—whether one’s actions and beliefs are one’s own, and how DBS may hinder, or foster, embodied, relational autonomy competences. This approach recognizes that if sufficiently significant, impacts on autonomy competences may pose a threat to one’s ability to contribute to the process of authoring one’s own life and so pose a threat to identity formation. I argue this approach resolves the confusion in the literature about whether and how DBS threatens identity and provides a complex picture of how DBS may affect selfhood by disrupting narrative identity formation and revision, distorting agency and/or undermining autonomy.