Bioethics Blogs

Considering How Neuroscience Could Influence Moral Decisions

Resuming its consideration of ethical issues generated by neuroscience research, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) turned its attention Tuesday morning to the potential implications of what advances in neuroscience might mean for ethics and moral decision-making.

The session featured Joshua D. Greene, Ph.D., the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and Alfred R. Mele, Ph.D., William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University

Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., Chair of the Bioethics Commission, asked them to consider “how, if at all, does neuroscience alter or revolutionize, as some have claimed, our understanding of ethics?”

Greene argued from the perspective that neuroscience could affect how we see moral decision-making and could impact law and our notions of responsibility. He referred to studies that show that when people are exposed to research showing the extent to which brain functions are controlled by biological functions, their decisions about moral issues, such as punishment, change.

“If you just expose people to neuroscience information that gives people the idea that we are ultimately physical systems, people become less punitive and less retributive,” he said. More broadly, he thinks such research shows that “understanding that the brain is ultimately a physical system can change who we think we are.”

Mele was skeptical about how much neuroscience research ultimately reveals about moral behavior. He particularly took issue with researchers who present evidence of biological processes occurring in the brain that precede human awareness of a particular decision or action and claim it as proof that humans do not, in fact, have free will.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.