Bioethics Blogs

Neuroethics: Responsibilities at the Intersection of Brain Science and Society



The term “neuroethics”, although first coined to describe ethical issues of neurology and the brain sciences, has obtained broader meaning and use. Cognitive scientist and philosopher Adina Roskies has claimed that the field addresses both the “neuroscience of ethics “and the “ethics of neuroscience”. Let’s delve into the first, and leave the second for later…and for a bit of balance. I think that the “neuroscience of ethics” is a somewhat inaccurate description. I offer that what’s really being studied are the structures and functions of the brain that are involved in the ways that moral thoughts (including emotions) are developed and processed, and how these are engaged in various actions in different environmental circumstances and situations. Our group refers to this as “neuro-ecology”: not to add yet another “neuro-neologism” to the fray, but to more accurately describe both the ways that these neural processes function – and what the field is dedicated to studying.

What is becoming clear is that moral cognition and decision-making doesn’t seem to be much different from any other forms of judgments and actions – at least on a neurological level. Moral decisions and behaviors involve memories, relating to others, reinforcements, anticipation of and response to rewards and punishments, and emotions of pleasure, discomfort, and pain. There isn’t a “moral center”, some “nucleus moralis” in the brain.

Current evidence reveals that a number of brain structures can be involved in what are construed to be moral decisions. Every decision and action – whether considered to be moral or otherwise – involves a perception of the circumstances and actors involved, some orientation to a prior event that was similar or referential to the present situation, recall of actions – of self and others – and their consequences, and recollection of the emotions that the actions and outcomes evoked.

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.