Alex McKeown

Alex is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Neuroscience, Ethics & Society team (NEUROSEC) and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and the Humanities (WEH), most recently working on the MRC Pathfinder project which aims to harness health informatics and data science to improve mental health outcomes. Alex’s current research focuses primarily on ethical issues in mental health big data, and ethics of early intervention. Alex also established and co-Chairs the Mental Health Data Ethics Leadership group with Prof. Ilina Singh. Previously, Alex worked on the ROADMAP project, an EU-wide consortium project which aimed to improve outcomes for people with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Prior to Oxford, Alex held teaching and research positions at the University of Bristol Centre for Ethics in Medicine, as well as research positions at University College London Medical School Research Department for Medical Education, and the University of East London Institute for Health and Human Development. Alex has also been a visiting tutor at the Yale University Summer Institute in Bioethics.

Alex has a PhD in Bioethics from the University of Bristol. His thesis focused on the philosophical, ethical, and social implications of human enhancement technologies. His thesis focused on the philosophical, ethical, and social implications of human enhancement technologies. Subsequently, via a Wellcome Trust Ethics and Society Small Grant, he took forward the conclusions of his thesis, examining the relation between human enhancement and public health, which remains a significant research interest. Alongside this Alex’s interests include neuroethics and neurotechnologies, ethics in psychiatry and mental health, ethics in dementia, ethics in artificial intelligence, philosophy of mind, philosophy of medicine, epistemology – in particular debates in realism and anti-realism, and interdisciplinary methodology in applied and empirical ethics.

Before returning to academia to take his PhD Alex spent three years working in patient advocacy and policy research in genetics, and prior to this he took a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Healthcare Ethics at the University of Leeds.


  • Just Policy? An Ethical Analysis of Early Intervention Policy Guidance.

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    Early intervention (EI) aims to identify children or families at risk of poor health, and take preventative measures at an early stage, when intervention is more likely to succeed. EI is concerned with the just distribution of “life chances,” so that all children are given fair opportunity to realize their potential and lead a good life; EI policy design, therefore, invokes ethical questions about the balance of responsibilities between the state, society, and individuals in addressing inequalities. We analyze a corpus of EI policy guidance to investigate explicit and implicit ethical arguments about who should be held morally responsible for safeguarding child health and well-being. We examine the implications of these claims and explore what it would mean to put the proposed policies into practice. We conclude with some remarks about the useful role that philosophical analysis can play in EI policy development.

  • Smarter Than Thou, Holier Than Thou: The Dynamic Interplay Between Cognitive and Moral Enhancement.

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    The debate about the desirability of using drugs to enhance human skills encompasses cognitive abilities such as memory and attention, and moral capacities such as emotional empathy and a sense of fairness. These two strands of literature in bioethics have grown relatively independent from each other, and an implicit framing assumption has emerged suggesting that apparently morally neutral cognitive capacities and paradigmatically moral capacities are distinct and vary independently of each other. Here, we identify key distinctions between competing accounts of cognitive enhancement and moral enhancement and argue that, despite the polarized nature of the bioethical debate, cognitive and moral capacities are intertwined. For example, moral behavior can be improved by enhancing “morally neutral” abilities such as attention span; and cognitive skills can be honed by means of socio-moral interaction. Further, cognitive skill is frequently assigned the abstract status of virtue and treated in the same way as more paradigmatically “moral” traits. We argue that the distinction between moral and cognitive enhancement is more apparent than real, since despite being nominally treated as distinct, cognitive and moral skills are frequently interdependent. As such we present evidence to support the claim that the enhancement of these two kinds of capacities cannot be clearly disaggregated from each other in the way that the theoretical poles of the debate in the literature suggest. We synthesize relevant scientific and bioethical literature and combine it with a line of analysis derived from Peter Hacker to show more clearly the terms of what can be said intelligibly about cognitive and moral skills and their enhancement. As a result of this analysis, we conclude that ethical questions in human bioenhancement are only fully intelligible at the level of persons imbued with feelings, thoughts, intentions, desires, values, and abilities, embedded within a particular social context, rather than at the level of pharmacological modulation of particular cognitive or affective capacities which, though conceptually distinguishable, in the embodied context of moral agency are profoundly intertwined.

  • Philosophical Bioethics in the Policy Arena: A Response to Open Peer Commentaries on “Just Policy? An Ethical Analysis of Early Intervention Policy Guidance”.

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  • Ethics of Early Intervention in Alzheimer’s Disease.

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    Alzheimer’s disease (AD) research, treatment, and prevention focus increasingly on developing personalized interventions based on personal genetic, biological, phenotypic data, for early intervention (EI) to limit harm. This approach has much to recommend it, but important ethical and philosophical challenges follow that should be considered, which we analyze here. We argue that advancing understanding of the causes of AD undermines the clarity of the distinction between primary and secondary prevention. This makes it increasingly unclear how primary and secondary categories can be appealed to as the basis for making judgements about what interventions are permissible, and for distinguishing between acceptably vs unacceptably early points in life to intervene. Timely efforts at prevention are vital for limiting harm from AD and given the logic of EI is that, in presence of risk, earlier is better, one might assume that earliest is best. This may or may not be the case; however, the permissibility of intervening in different ways at different stages of life is complex and turns on numerous contextual factors. We consider the particular ethical implications of intervening at different points in the life course, presenting a valuable resource for negotiating clinical and policy implications of EI in AD.

  • Ethical Issues in Consent for the Reuse of Data in Health Data Platforms.

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    Data platforms represent a new paradigm for carrying out health research. In the platform model, datasets are pooled for remote access and analysis, so novel insights for developing better stratified and/or personalised medicine approaches can be derived from their integration. If the integration of diverse datasets enables development of more accurate risk indicators, prognostic factors, or better treatments and interventions, this obviates the need for the sharing and reuse of data; and a platform-based approach is an appropriate model for facilitating this. Platform-based approaches thus require new thinking about consent. Here we defend an approach to meeting this challenge within the data platform model, grounded in: the notion of ‘reasonable expectations’ for the reuse of data; Waldron’s account of ‘integrity’ as a heuristic for managing disagreement about the ethical permissibility of the approach; and the element of the social contract that emphasises the importance of public engagement in embedding new norms of research consistent with changing technological realities. While a social contract approach may sound appealing, however, it is incoherent in the context at hand. We defend a way forward guided by that part of the social contract which requires public approval for the proposal and argue that we have moral reasons to endorse a wider presumption of data reuse. However, we show that the relationship in question is not recognisably contractual and that the social contract approach is therefore misleading in this context. We conclude stating four requirements on which the legitimacy of our proposal rests.