Possible Starting Points for 
Exploration and Discussion

Part 1

Weeks 1 & 2: Introduction to Cognitive Liberty & Neuroethics, and Philosophical Issues

What is cognitive liberty?

Is it a right?

Can it ever be legitimately infringed upon?

Is absolute cognitive liberty possible, or can it only be relative?

·        Can one increase the level of one’s freedom?

·        Why is cognitive liberty an important topic for discussion?

·        What is freedom?

·        What is cognition?

·        Are some freedoms more important than others (i.e., can they be hierarchically ordered)?

o       If so, which ones and why?

o       How can we deal with apparently conflicting freedoms and conflicting notions of freedom?

o       Does a conflict imply that one is wrong?

o       If not, what does that suggest about the nature of the concept of ‘freedom’?

·        Is paternalism ever merited?

·        Could ‘too much’ freedom be bad for society?

·        What about people who claim that they don’t want or need to be freedom – can we take such a position seriously?

·        How does cognitive liberty relate to other freedoms?

·        Consider the possible beneficial uses and negative misuses of technologies that:

o       Read the brain

o       Alter the chemical composition of the brain

o       Alter genetic material to create ‘ideal’ children

o       Track individuals via implant chips

o       Record all public actions on videotape

o       Detect when one is lying 

·        Cognitive liberty and of religion are guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution: do they rely upon freedom of thought? Can they exist without it?

·        What do you understand by the terms ‘ideology’ and ‘hegemony’?

o       Why is it so difficult to see the ideologies one follows?

o       Why are other people’s ideological positions so easy to see?

o       Is it possible to step outside of ideology? Why?

·        What is a right?

o       Are there such things as natural rights?

·        What is the difference between positive and negative freedom?

o       How can the promotion of one type over the other lead to problems?

·        To what extend do / should children have cognitive liberty rights?

o       One is considered an adult at 18 years of age – would this be an appropriate age to confer cognitive liberty rights upon an individual?

Week 3  Food for Thought: Input & Output 

·        Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: “Everyone has the right to the freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

o       What is the difference between having an opinion and expressing it?

o       What is the difference between thought and speech?

·        Are there times when one needs to limit freedom of speech?

o       Can it ever be taken too far?

·        What are the pros and cons of limiting what one may say?

·        “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech” – Benjamin Franklin. Discuss.

·        How has / will the internet affect our ability to communicate?

·        Is cognitive liberty protected by the constitution? Why or why not?

·        Are there limits to cognitive liberty?

·        What are the possible consequences of intentionally limiting cognitive liberty?

·        Is it possible to harm someone with words? Is there, for example, a difference between speech that invokes hatred and speech that incites violence against a group?

o       Is it justifiably possible to distinguish between ‘hate speech’ and government or military talk of an ‘enemy’ that must be ‘terminated’?

o       Could a speech that incites a riot at a protest against horrific conditions be justified?

·        If speech is an action, why might (and can) it be considered different from other activities?

o       Does cognitive liberty differ in scope and application from freedom of expression?

·        Can one choose, under particular circumstances, to give up one’s right to cognitive liberty regarding particular matters? How about one’s freedom of thought?

·        Censorship: Who determines who and what gets censored?

o       Can we be certain that their opinion is correct?

o       Where do the power relations lie in censorship situations?

o       Are movie censors the horrible monsters they are employed to protect us from becoming?

o       What do you think of the current trend of editing the violent scenes out of children’s cartoons (such as the old Tom and Jerry cartoons? Is D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover a work of literature, or of obscenity?)

·        Is censorship always explicit (that is, are we always aware of what is being censored and what is not)?

·        When does criticism become indistinguishable from censorship?

·        Should there be a limit to how offensive social satire may be?


  Week 4:  Manufacturing Content I: Freedom and the Classroom (Academic and Intellectual Freedom)

·        What is academic freedom?

·        Is academic freedom guaranteed by the constitution?

o       Is it an explicit or derived right, and if so, what does this mean for academic freedom?

o       What’s the difference and significance, if any?

·        Why is academic freedom important to the educational project?

o       Who is education for, and why do we attend educational institutions? What is education?

o       Are the positions expounded by post secondary institutions infallible?

·        Consider the terms ‘school’, ‘scholar’, scholastic’, ‘scholasticism’–we still make use of these words:

o       To what do they refer?

o       What is their history?

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and th’ earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets, and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation:
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.

(“An Anatomy of the World” lines 205-18 [c. 1612] by John Donne)


o       The ‘new philosophy’ to which Donne refers is that of the scientific revolution, led by such figures as Copernicus and Galileo, which, for the first time, was criticizing the rule of the Church and its claim to infallible knowledge. Why was this new movement so disturbing to the scholastics? Why did these philosophers disdain the schoolmen and their endeavors? Is the earth the center of the universe?

·        Interesting case study: the Creationism vs. Darwinism debate in schools.

o       Ought one system to be taught to the exclusion of the other? Why?

o       What about other views?

o       What is the definition of ‘theory’?

·        The famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell (who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950) had his teaching position at City College, New York revoked by a judicial decision in 1940.  Why?  Would he be allowed to teach now?

·        In 1995, Lynne Cheney, the current vice-president’s wife, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman founded the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (which claims to be “the largest private source of support for higher education’’).  This organization recently released a list of academics considered to be a “weak link” in the War on Terrorism for holding dissenting or non-conforming opinions. Consider the implications.

·        Is academic freedom strictly a concern for instructors, or do students have the same privileges? Have you ever experienced a situation in which your opinion was compromised by a professor with whom you did not agree?


Week 5:   Manufacturing Content II: The Construction of Social Meaning

  • What is ‘social meaning’?
    • Does it differ from individual meaning?
      • If so, how?


  • What are the major sources of ‘new’ information (i.e. input) that serve to construct social meaning in your culture?
    • Who benefits from the dissemination of this information?
    • Is this dissemination limited or unlimited in each of these sources?
  • Is it possible to escape a particular ideology?
  • Is it possible to escape ideology?
    • If your answers to the above two questions are different, why?
  • How do some ideologies manage to remain invisible to those who live by, through, and for them?
    • What techniques can be used to raise public awareness or consciousness of ideologies that are pervasive yet – from your ideological stance – not in the best interest of society?
      • That is, how can the invisible be rendered visible? – Consider various shifts in public consciousness over issues in the past (e.g. civil rights, women’s suffrage)
      • What is a ‘detournement’? (Look it up on the web if you are unfamiliar with the term).
    • Does it take a majority to cause a shift in popular consciusness, or is the critical mass much lower?
  • How much of your personal belief system (‘reality model’) is based on facts you know to be correct or true, and how much of it is based on what you have heard to be true (including from what you consider to be reliable sources)?
  • TV Turnoff Week is held from April 22nd to 28th every year. Could you survive a week without television?
    • Try it as an experiment.
    • Try the experiments McGrane posed his students in “The Zen TV Experiment” (see reading list).
  • Why do television comedies rely so frequently on laugh tracks?
    • Are the things we find funny culture-bound, or universal?
    • Do you laugh because the laugh track tells you to do so?
  • Are you defined by your clothing, or is it an expression of you?
    • Have you ever paid for an item of clothing that turns you into a free commercial for a company?
    • Are the majority of “Calvin Klein” tee-shirts made by Calvin Klein, or are they simply tee-shirts with a CK logo printed on them, manufactured by a licenced nobody?
    • Have you ever asked to be paid for advertising a company on your body?
    • Why won’t most males wear dresses in public (in America or Europe)?

Week 6:   Consuming Thoughts: The Mass Media

·        The dissemination of ideas requires freedom of the press (in its various forms, to be referred to as ‘media’ here).

o       Is the media as free as it is supposed to be?

o       Who owns the various media outlets in your town or city? Is your campus paper independent?

o       What, if any, is the importance of maintaining independent media outlets?

·        Noam Chomsky explains (in Manufacturing Consent [video?]) that the New York Times’ archives are so highly regarded that people use the when researching historical matters, and that these archives are thus a key resource for ‘writing history.’ The New York Times announces that it contains “All the news that’s fit to print.”

o       What are the implications of a history based on archives from the New York Times?

o       What is history (cf. Foucault)?


·        What happens when the major media outlets present a united (or near-united) front on a political issue?


·        Can the media decide which party will form the next government? 

·        Can democracy coexist with highly influential media outlets (especially if they tend to lean towards one position)?

·        One of the criticisms repeatedly made against the communist regimes of the last century is that such governments control, and thus limit, the freedom of the media, feeding their populations with a diet of self-aggrandizing propaganda, falsely shaping the people’s world-view.

o       Can the media truly be free under capitalism?

o       Should there be laws limiting the amount of control one person or group may have over the media? 

·        Some people maintain that the internet has the potential to subvert the popular media by presenting a far wider range of opinion.

o       Have you ever explored any independent media websites?

o       How can you know whose opinion to trust (in either mainstream or independent media)? 

·        Why do most television and radio stations exist – for the pleasure of providing the public with quality programming, or as a means for earning money for their stockholders and employees?

o       How significant is advertising to these forms of media?

o       Does the same apply to the print media?

o       What happened in 1997 when Ellen Degeneres announced that she would be playing the first openly gay lead character on American television? Which companies were involved? Why? What does this imply about ‘freedom’ of such media? 

·        Open your favorite magazine. Count the number of pages devoted to advertising and compare this number with the quantity of written content (and related photos –perhaps count those showing branded products under both categories). What page is the index on? The first article? Would you normally read the advertisements, do you glimpse past them, or ignore them completely? Might there be any subliminal effects?

  Discussion Questions (Weeks 7-12)