When “neuro” met “ethics”

June 13, 2017

Pär SegerdahlTwo short words increasingly often appear in combination with names of professional fields and scientific disciplines: neuro and ethics. Here are some examples: Neuromusicology, neurolaw, neuropedagogy. Bioethics, nursing ethics, business ethics.

Neuro… typically signifies that neuroscience sheds light on the subject matter of the discipline with which it combines. It can illuminate what happens in the brain when we listen to music (neuromusicology). What happens in the brain when witnesses recall events or when judges evaluate the evidence (neurolaw). What happens in children’s brains when they study mathematics (neuropedagogy).

…ethics (sometimes, ethics of…) typically signifies that the discipline it combines with gives rise to its own ethical problems, requiring ethical reflection and unique ethical guidelines. Even war is said to require its own ethics of war!

In the 1970s, these two words, neuro and ethics, finally met and formed neuroethics. The result is an ambiguous meeting between two short but very expansive words. Which of the two words made the advance? Where is the emphasis? What sheds light on what?

At first, ethics got the emphasis. Neuroethics was, simply, the ethics of neuroscience, just as nursing ethics is the ethics of nursing. Soon, however, neuro demonstrated its expansive power. Today, neuroethics is not only the “ethics of neuroscience,” but also the “neuroscience of ethics”: neuroscience can illuminate what happens in the brain when we face ethical dilemmas. The emphasis thus changes back and forth between neuroethics and neuroethics.

The advances of these two words, and their final meeting in neuroethics, reflects, of course, the expansive power of neuroscience and ethics. Why are these research areas so expansive? Partly because the brain is involved in everything we do. And because all we do can give rise to ethical issues. The meeting between neuro… and …ethics was almost inevitable.

What did the meeting result in? In a single discipline, neuroethics? Or in two distinct disciplines, neuroethics and neuroethics, which just happen to be spelt the same way, but should be kept separate?

As far as I understand, the aim is to keep neuroethics together as one interdisciplinary field, with a two-way dialogue between an “ethics of neuroscience” and a “neuroscience of ethics.” This seems wise. It would be difficult to keep apart what was almost predetermined to meet and combine. Neuroethics would immediately try to shed its neuroscientific light on neuroethics. And neuroethics would be just as quick to develop ethical views on neuroethics. The wisest option appears to be dialogue, accepting a meeting that appears inevitable.

An interesting article in Bioethics, authored by Eric Racine together with, among others, Michele Farisco at CRB, occasions my thoughts in this post. The subject matter of the article is neuroethics: the neuroscience of ethics. Neuroethics is associated with rather grandiose claims. It has been claimed that neuroscience can support a better theory of ethics. That it can provide the basis for a universal ethical theory that transcends political and cultural divides. That it can develop a brain-based ethics. That it can reveal the mechanisms underlying moral judgments. Perhaps neuroscience will soon solve moral dilemmas and transform ethics!

These pretentions have stimulated careless over-interpretation of neuroscientific experiments. They have also provoked rash dismissal of neuroethics and its relevance to ethics. The purpose of the article is to support a more moderate and deliberate approach, through a number of methodological guideposts for the neuroscience of ethics. These include conceptual and normative transparency, scientific validity, interdisciplinary methods, and balanced interpretation of results.

In view of this critical perspective on hyped neuroscientific claims, one could define the article as a neuroethical article on neuroethics. Following the linguistic pattern that I described above, the article is an example of neuroethics-ethics. No, this will not do! We cannot use these two expansive words to specify in neurotic detail who currently happens to advance into whose field.

I choose to describe the article, simply, as a neuroethical paper on neuroethics. I want to see it as an example of the dialogue that can unite neuroethics as an interdisciplinary field.

Pär Segerdahl

Racine, E., Dubljevic´, V., Jox, R. J., Baertschi, B., Christensen, J. F., Farisco, M., Jotterand, F., Kahane, G., Müller, S. (2017). “Can neuroscience contribute to practical ethics? A critical review and discussion of the methodological and translational challenges of the neuroscience of ethics.” Bioethics 31: 328-337.

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