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The Crossroads of Neuroethics and Neuroemotions

Ondine Berg
Lake Forest College
Lake Forest, Illinois 60045

Complex ethical issues about humans arise as society gains insight into how the brain functions. There is much disagreement about what is ethical, and neuroethics aims to determine a scientific reasoning to ethical issues. Micheal Gazzaniga, the author of The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemas addresses various societal issues and proposes that neuroethics be the guiding principal in determining the morality of these issues. However, other factors, such as human emotion, should be involved in determining ethics. Neuroethics should be the backbone building humanity through social issues such as abortion, living wills and pregenetic diagnoses and should be complemented with the consideration of human emotions. 

In the first chapter of his book, Gazzaniga digs into one of society’s most controversial issues: abortion. Neuroscience aims to answer the question of whether abortion is moral or not by determining when human life begins. Gazzaniga explains that one must look at neural development of fetuses in order to understand the true beginning of life (Gazzaniga, 2006, 15). In doing so, one can determine when a fetus should be granted the same status as a living human, and therefore find the point at which abortion becomes immoral. Gazzaniga explains a preliminary stage of embryonic neural development. At 56 days, a fetus only has the neural activity of a brain-dead patient on which doctors would “pull the plug” to harvest organs for donation (Gazzaniga, 2006, 8). He argues that “At around 23 weeks, the fetus can survive outside the womb, with medical support; also, around this time the fetus can respond to aversive stimuli.” (Gazzaniga, 2006, 6) An article titled, “Pain in the Preterm Neonate: Behavioral and Physiological Indices,” written by Kenneth Craig, confirms that it is not until late pregnancy that fetuses respond to aversive stimuli. His study shows that there is an immense difference between preterm babies ranging from 25-27 weeks and those ranging 28-30 weeks in terms of response to aversive stimuli. Craig states that at this point, human life begins, and a fetus should be regarded with the same rights as a human. While neuroscience guides the scientific analysis of when life begins, there is room for personal belief to which each individual can adhere. Individuals have different emotions towards embryos and fetuses, and it should be their choice to get an abortion or not.

The aging brain and living wills is another subject Gazzaniga argues should be guided by neuroethics. This topic should also be guided by human emotion. Emotions are highly regarded in sickness and death. One must consult neuroscience to answer the question of when human life ends. By examining the neuroscience Gazzaniga presents in the second chapter, one can define the end of human life. Gazzaniga explores the subject of brain death and the inability to be conscious as a patient nears death (Gazzaniga, 2006, 29). As Gazzaniga explains, once a patient has reached a point where they can no longer consciously participate in the ethics or morality of society, they should be able to choose what happens to their bodies (Gazzaniga, 2006, 27). One issue Gazzaniga brings up is living for oneself or one’s family. Gazzaniga’s statement that, “Gramps is a stimulus to your state of mind, not to his. Gramps lives in you, not in himself,” illustrates his belief that at some point the person is physically alive exclusively for the comfort of their family (Gazzaniga, 2006, 32). This is not a justifiable reason to live. Joseph Fletcher, a pioneer in the ethics, has published multiple works regarding euthanasia. His chapter, titled “The Courts and Euthanasia,” in the book Law, Medicine and Health Care, argues that it is wiser to allow individuals the right to end their life if intensive care is only prolonging death (Fletcher, 223). Fletcher considers the humanistic aspect of euthanasia. He sees it as unethical to force someone to live if they believe they are not truly alive under these conditions. Fletcher argues that both positive and negative euthanasia should be considered moral if they help bring a patient peace with themselves in “Ethics and Euthanasia,” a chapter in To Live and to Die: When, Why, and How. This also highlights the importance of human feeling in euthanasia.

Gazzaniga’s The Ethical Brain discusses pregenetic diagnosis (PGD) and the enhancement of brains by altering genes in its third chapter. In order to make an informed decision about whether techniques like pregenetic diagnosing are ethical, one must turn to neuroscience while also considering how human thoughts are involved. Neuroscience offers evidence that pregenetic diagnosis is ethical because the positives outweigh the negatives. As Gazzaniga explains, “Any abuse will be outweighed by the gains in eliminating disease from newborns, (Gazzaniga, 2006, 42).” The frequency of a disease related gene occurring in the human genome decreases when parents choose not to implant an embryo after PGD detects a lethal gene. This could lead to the eradication of newborn diseases. This would help all future generations of humans. Therefore, through a neurological lens, PDG should be considered ethical. Gazzaniga states that “Avoiding giving birth to a child with a lethal gene is generally viewed as a laudable goal.” (Gazzaniga, 2006, 42) It is important to consider how human beings feel about PDG when determining its ethicality. Two researchers, Fasouliotis and Schenker, explain the ethics of PGD using both an emotional and scientific reasoning. In their article “Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis Principles and Ethics,” they show that with PGD, couples are able to reduce the chances of genetic diseases in their children. Their essay also highlights that PGD may be more ethical than abortion later on in pregnancy when the problematic gene is found through other testing. Avoiding abortion can be more emotionally sound, as this can be something couples do not support (Fasouliotis, 1998).

In conclusion, like Gazzaniga argues, neuroethics should be a guiding principle for determining ethical issues in society. However, this should be a supplemented by a human emotional component to fully solidify what is considered ethical and not. Issues such as abortion, living wills, and PGD need to be studied through a neuroscience perspective to be fully understood. However, neuroscience alone can not determine ethicality. A contribution of human emotional perspective is required to develop a wholistic viewpoint on the topic. In this modern day of quickly developing technology and science, society must find a way to successfully define what is ethical and not.                                                                                                                                                         



Craig, K. D., M. F. Whitfield, R. V. E. Grumman, J.Linton, and H. D. Hadjistavropoulos (1993). “Pain in the preterm neonate: behavioral and physiological indices,” Pain 52: 295-296.


Fasouliotis, S. J., & Schenker, J. G. (1998). Preimplantation genetic diagnosis principles and ethics. Human Reproduction, 13(8), 2238–2245. doi: 10.1093/humrep/13.8.2238


Fletcher, J. (1973). Ethics and Euthanasia. To Live and to Die: When, Why, and How, 113-122. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-95238-8_9


Fletcher, J. (1987). The Courts and Euthanasia. Law, Medicine and Health Care, 223. 

Gazzaniga, M. S. (2006). The ethical brain: the science of our moral dilemmas. New York: Harper Perennial.


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