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What it is, Does--
and Perhaps Should Do

Dr. James Giordano

Neuroethics is a field that addresses (1) the putative neuro-cognitive processes involved in moral thought and action (what has been referred to as the “neuroscience of ethics”), and (2) ethical, legal and social issues generated by brain research and its various applications in medicine, society and the military/political sphere (i.e.- “the ethics of neuroscience”). These are not mutually exclusive. Engaging the science of anything should obligate recognizing the ethics of how such work is conducted and used, and neuroscience – and neuroethics – are no 

different. In this way, neuroethics can be regarded as (1) a branch of ethics that emphasizes issues particular to brain science and its clinical and social uses; (2) a domain of bioethics and/or biomedical ethics, given the specific focus upon brain research and its clinical employment as aspects of the life and/or biomedical sciences; (3) a distinct discipline, defined by the uniqueness of the brain and the implications of this uniquity.

      I hold that neuroethics is actually a combination of all of these concepts and activities.  The late Edmund Pellegrino considered neuroethics to be a “hyphenated ethics” in which the prefix subject (in this case things “neuro” in their focus and utilization) is analyzed using the methods of ethics.  This is certainly accurate enough.  I posit that if we were to create a taxonomy in which “General ethics” sits in a top tier, biomedical ethics would assume a secondary tier (obtaining both research and clinical ethics), and neuroethics would occupy a position beneath it. To be sure, neuroethics addresses both research- and clinically-focal issues, inclusive of the ways that information and tools of neuroscience (e.g.-diagnostic methods and criteria, and various interventions) are used or misused within society.

Neuroethics flowchart. Ethics leads to biomedical ethics which leads to both research ethics and clinical ethics which both lead to neuroethics

     Here, neuroethics starts to come “full circle” in that it can – and arguably should – guide and direct a realistic, pragmatic approach to the discernment and use of neuroscience in any context (including how we study the neural bases of morality, ethics and law, and how we use such information).  And the circle can be completed because once we’ve ascertained the probity of neuroscientific methods and veridicality of its outcomes, neuroethics might then enable something of a meta-ethical view, given that brain science affords insight to moral predispositions, cognition and actions (inclusive of the moral and ethical ways we view, conduct and use brain research).

artwork of hands sketching each other

"The need for neuroethical engagement is now so very important, not only given the rapid pace and expanding scope of neuroscience, but because of the ever increasing use, broad visibility and availability of the brain sciences in the social milieu."

 "Drawing Hands"  lithograph by M.C. Escher

      Indeed, both the enterprises of neuroscience and their applications are becoming ever more international, with major governmentally-funded research initiatives in the US and Europe, as well as China, Japan, and Korea. Neuroethical discourses must be equivalently international, so as to avoid being parochial or exclusionary. This may require a shift from exclusively Western philosophical constructs and ethics, toward a palette of ethics that is more sensitive and responsive to differing socio-cultural contexts, values and contingencies.

      This may be far easier said than done; consideration of local values and norms may be tested if and when the brain research and its products are utilized on more multi-national if not global scales. It may be that certain extant ethical concepts will require review and revision, and that new, more contemporary ethical precepts might be required to guide the ever-increasing capabilities and possibilities fostered by progress in brain science on the 21st century stage.  This is vital, because ethics is a public discourse, and therefore an authentic neuroethics must both keep pace with the science that is its subject, and remain responsive to the publics that are affected by – and which affect – the scope, conduct and outcomes of brain science.   

fMRI scan of brain

The endeavor of neuroethics cannot be static; it must entail ongoing education, training, and support of institutions and individuals dedicated to its practices. Efforts toward such support have been encouraging, but must continue and grow. Simply put, there is neither time nor latitude for ethical laxity.  But neuroethical discourse and action need not perfunctorily impede the pace and breadth of brain science. Rather the goal – and task – is to develop insights to new developments, their meanings, probable use, and possible misuse, and to foster preparedness so as to identify, prevent, or at least enable effective response to burdens, risks and harms. In these ways, then perhaps what neuroethics is, what it does, and what it should do remains a work-in-progress.

Stay tuned…

Further Reading:

Giordano J, Becker K, Shook JR. On the “neuroscience of ethics” – Approaching the neuroethical literature as a rational discourse on putative neural processes of moral cognition and behavior. Neurol Neuromed 1(6): 32-36 (2016).

Giordano J, Shook JR. Minding brain science in medicine: On the need for neuroethical engagement for guidance of neuroscience in clinical contexts. Ethics Biol Engineer Med 6(1-2): 37-42 (2015).

Stein DJ, Giordano J. Global mental health and neuroethics. BMC Medicine 13(1); (2015)

Avram M, Giordano J. Neuroethics: Some things old, some things new, some things borrowed...and to do. AJOB-Neuroscience 5(4): 1-3(2014).

Giordano J. The human prospect(s) of neuroscience and neurotechnology: Domains of influence and the necessity – and questions – of neuroethics. Human Prospect 4(1): 1-18 (2014).

Giordano J. Neuroethics- two interacting traditions as a viable meta-ethics? AJOB-Neuroscience 3(1): 23-25 (2011).

Giordano J, Olds J. On the interfluence of neuroscience, neuroethics and legal and social issues: The need for (N)ELSI. AJOB-Neuroscience 2(2): 13-15 (2010).

A Bibliography of Neuroethics 2010-2016, see:

Buniak L, Darragh M, Giordano J. A four part working bibliography of neuroethics: Part 1: Overviews and reviews – defining and describing the field and its practices. Phil Ethics Humanities in Med 9 (9); (2014).

Darragh M, Buniak L, Giordano J. A four part working bibliography of neuroethics: Part 2 - Neuroscientific studies of morality and ethics. Phil Ethics Humanities in Med  10 (1); (2015).

Martin A, Becker K, Darragh M, Giordano J. A four part working bibliography of neuroethics: Part 3 – “The ethics of neuroscience”. Phil Ethics Humanities in Med  11 (2); (2016).

Becker K, Shook J, Darragh M, Giordano J. A four part working bibliography of neuroethics: Part 4 – Ethical issues in clinical and social applications of neuroscience. Phil Ethics Humanities in Med  12 (1) (2017).

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