The Neuroscience of Morality and Consciousness: A Brief Introduction

by Martina Darragh, February 2015

The history of neuroethics is filled with dramatic stories. Brain injuries sustained by patients such as Phineas Gage (Damasio 1994), “Monsieur Leborgne”/”Patient Tan” (Damasio and Geschwind 1984), H.R. (Scoville and Milner 1957), and EVR (Eslinger and Damasio 1985) provided clues to the dynamic relationship between the structure of our minds and consciousness. Their stories evoked discussions of classic questions going back to Hippocrates about the nature of free will, the possibilities for personhood, and the origin of conscience. (Churchland 2007)  When developments in neurotechnology enabled investigations of these issues to bypass the limits of individual cases, the conversation moved beyond the musings of philosophers and the speculations of scientists to interdisciplinary investigations into the neural mechanisms of morality and consciousness. Deemed “the neuroscience of ethics” (Roskies 2002), this set of questions has come to be known as the “first tradition” of neuroethics (Giordano and Benedikter 2011).

An example of one such interdisciplinary investigation involved a study by psychologists and philosophers utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine the neurobiology of moral judgment. Focusing on the ubiquitous “trolley” and “footbridge” dilemmas discussed in introductory philosophy classes, the researchers were able to determine which areas of the brain were active during the subjects’ assessment of the problems (Greene et al. 2001).  In another study, researchers employed brain scans to track neural responses to moral issues (Moll et al. 2002).   These studies, and others like them, challenge the concepts of consciousness and morality found in the works of theorists such as Plato, René Descartes, Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, and Lawrence Kohlberg, and present new ways to assess moral reasoning (Churchland 1988; Greene and Haidt 2002).

Researchers continue to broaden the scope of their questions to include topics such as the neuroimaging of personality (Canli and Amin 2002), the brain mapping of free will (Lau et al. 2004), and the interaction of brain chemicals and behavior (Zak 2012).  As research becomes more expansive, so do the questions about its impact. Will the concept of moral responsibility be erased? Would discoveries about the neural basis of behavior lead to “mind control”? Could images of the brain generated by this research be subject to digital manipulation and thus undermine our freedom?  The term “neuromorality” has been coined to reference both the research on the neural structure of morality and the questions generated by it (Roskies 2004). This empirical turn in consciousness studies provides a basis for us to revise our view(s) of what constitutes a “moral person” (Levy 2007).

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Definitions of Neuroethics

“neuroethics — the examination of what is right and wrong and good and bad about the treatment of, perfection of, or unwelcome invasion of and worrisome manipulation of the human brain . . . it deals with our sense of self — and as such is central to our being. [It involves] . . . the misuse or abuse of power to change people’s lives in the most personal and powerful way, or the failure to make the most of it.” William Safire, New York Times columnist, 2002

William Safire applied the term ‘neuroethics’ to the ethical issues involved with modern technologies in neurology. These include the use of psychopharmacology, brain imaging, and electrical stimulation of the brain.

Study Neuroethics

Georgetown University Medical Center, Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, Neuroethics Studies Program

Georgetown University Law Center, O’Neill Institute-Pellegrino Center Program in Brain Science & Global Health Law & Policy

Selected Resources

The Penn Center for Neuroscience and Society explores the ethical, legal and social implications of neuroscience. You can find open access scholarly publicationsopen education resources on neuroethics, a neuroethics MOOCuseful links related to neuroethics and more resources at their website.

A four-part working bibliography of neuroethics: part 1: overview and reviews – defining and describing the field and its practices. Liana Buniak, Martina Darragh, James Giordano. Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 2014, 9:9 (16 May 2014)
A four-part working bibliography of neuroethics: part 2 – neuroscientific studies of morality and ethics. Martina Darragh, Liana Buniak, James Giordano. Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 2015, 10:2 (15 February 2015)

Virtual Mentor: American Medical Association Journal on Medical Ethics Theme Issue: Ethical Issues in Neuroscience, August 2004

References cited in “The Neuroscience of Morality and Consciousness: A Brief Introduction”:

Canli T, Amin Z: Neuroimaging of emotion and personality: scientific evidence and ethical considerations. Brain Cogn 2002, 50(3):414-431. doi: 10.1016/S0278-2626(02)00517-1.

Churchland PS: Neurophilosophy: the early years and new directions. Funct Neurol 2007, 22(4): 185-195.

Churchland PS: The significance of neuroscience for philosophy. Trends Neurosci 1988, 11(7): 304-307. doi: 10.1016/0166-2236(88)90091-4.

Damasio AR: Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam; 1994

Damasio AR, Geschwind N: The neural basis of language. Ann Rev Neurosci 1984, 7:127-147. doi: 10.1146/

Eslinger PJ, Damasio AR: Severe disturbance of higher cognition after bilateral frontal lobe ablation: patient EVR. Neurology 1985, 35(12):1731-1741.   doi: 10.1212/WNL.35.12.1731.

Giordano J, Benedikter R. An early – and necessary – flight of the owl of Minerva: neuroscience, neurotechnology, human socio-cultural boundaries, and the importance of neuroethics. J Evol Technol 2011, 22(1): 110-115.

Greene JD, Sommerville RB, Nystrom LE, Darley JM, Cohen JD: An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science 2001, 293(5537): 2105-2108. doi: 10.1126/science.1062872.

Greene J, Haidt J. How (and where) does moral judgment work? Trends Cogn Sci 2002, 6(12):517-523. doi: 10.1016/S1364-6613(02)02011-9.

Lau HC, Rogers RD, Haggard P, Passingham RE: Attention to intention. Science 2004, 303(5661): 1208-1210. doi: 10.1126/science.1090973.

Levy N: Neuroethics: Challenges for the 21st Century. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Moll J, de Oliveira-Souza R, Eslinger PJ, Bramati IE, Mourão-Miranda J, Andreiuolo PA, Pessoa L. The neural correlates of moral sensitivity: a functional magnetic resonance imaging investigation of basic and moral emotions. J Neurosci 2002, 22(7):2730-2736. doi:

Roskies A: Neuroethics for the new millennium. Neuron 2002, 35(1): 21-23. doi: 10.1016/S0896-6273(02)00763-8.

Roskies A: Everyday neuromorality. Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science 2004, 6(4): 58-65.

Scoville WB, Milner B: Loss of recent memory after bilateral hippocampal lesions. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiat 1957, 20:11-21.

Zak PJ: The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. New York: Dutton, 2012.

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