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Ethically Speaking

Katelyn B. Holstein
Lake Forest College
Lake Forest, Illinois 60045

In his book The Ethical Brain, Michael Gazzaniga argues that human beings should allow neuroethics to influence how they respond to social issues. Gazzaniga presented readers with ten issues on the topics of: life, death, the parameters of scientific research, cognition, and other social practices and argued how the neuroethical approach could responsibly respond to these issues. In response to his work, I will highlight an area in which I agree with Gazzaniga, describing an issue where I believe a neuroethical approach is most appropriate. I will also highlight an issue in which I partially agree with the use of Gazzaniga’s neuroethical approach, and one in which I disagree with its application altogether. After reading The Ethical Brain, my stance is that neuroethics are sufficient to gauge the unreliability of memories and explore the possibilities of universal ethics; however, they cannot definitively judge the morality of lie detection techniques and their potential to self-incriminate individuals.

Gazzaniga responsibly applies neuroethics when investigating the reliability of memories. Human memories are often faulty and can become distorted over time. Gazzaniga illustrates scientist Daniel Schacter’s work on memory, and concludes that human memories are subject to fading, absentmindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. Gazzaniga points out that the brain regions that activate during true memories also activate during false memories, emphasizing not only the unreliability of the brain’s memory function, but that personal confidence in one’s memories does not equate accuracy of them. Strengthening my willingness to agree with Gazzaniga’s argument that human memories are unreliable is a study that illustrated the phenomenon of “mood incongruent recall.” This study showed that participants were unaware that their moods affected how they perceived their memories. The subjects were also unaware that their brains were biased in which memories were  focused on depending on their mood at the time (Parrott & Sabini, 1990). Gazzaniga’s assertion is not overly elaborate, nor arrogantly bold. Evidence of the unreliability of memory is common in humans, who fluctuate between emotions and constantly store new memories, whether they are participating in a study or performing their daily functions.

Though I believe that Gazzaniga responsibly applied neuroethics to the assertion that human memories are unreliable, I do not believe that neuroethics can entirely justify his approach to the possibility of universal ethics. Gazzaniga is encouraged by historical patterns of people adopting similar religious and philosophical beliefs and influencing others with these ideologies. Humans, as a species, have evolved to have similar cognitive functions. There are a few ethical points on which humans intrinsically agree, those that even young children can quickly distinguish between what is right and wrong. Human experience gives every individual a sense of social and neural empathy towards others. Gazzaniga believes that these factors sum up to make universal ethics an attainable goal. I agree that neural evolution works to benefit the attainability of this goal, however I believe that the fine print, if you will, that details what defines universal ethics, should be modified. As argued by the philosophers Aquinas and Cicero and explored in a paper by Melé and Sánchez-Runde, humans have innate practical reasoning that leads their understanding of good and evil to be centered around what is beneficial for society as a whole (2013). I do not believe that humanity is likely to reach a state of total agreeance on what constitutes right and wrong, but I do believe that basing universal ethics on what would benefit everyone makes the adoption of them more attainable, due to the attraction of self-centered ethics. Ethics that benefit all of humanity benefit individuals. I believe that society would be more responsive to ethics that appease those self-interests. Gazzaniga’s application of neuroethics to widespread morals is effective if adapted.

Holistically, however, I do not agree with Gazzaniga’s approach to the ethics of courtroom lie detection techniques and their potential to be self-discriminatory. Gazzaniga partly justifies his ideology by asserting that those knowledgeable in a specialty should stay distinguished from those of another specialty, and that their blending may have adverse effects. Gazzaniga asserts that lie detection techniques only suffice to measure the physical brain, and cannot represent the workings of an individual’s mind, which is an entirely separate entity of human experience. The fear is that the resulting evidence would be a form of confirmation bias, where lawyers analyze data output to find potentially incriminating information. However, I believe that neurological lie detection techniques can be effectively utilized in the courtroom. Gazzaniga admits that these techniques are nondiscriminatory against sex, race, sexual orientation, or other factors that could influence a trial based off of biases held by jurors and judges. To expand on the reliability of neurological lie detection techniques, consider a study that faced its participants with the “Guilty Knowledge Test.” Subjects would knowingly receive a larger monetary compensation for successfully deceiving the experimenters while being monitored with lie detection technology. The subjects were very cautious to lie effectively, comparable to a defendant that would try to mislead a lie detector and thereby the courtroom (Simpson, 2008). The subjects were still flagged on the lie detector at a significant rate and were ineffective at abusing the technology. Therefore, lie detectors could be implemented as an unbiased, less gullible technique to investigate cases brought to the courtroom. Shying away from innovative technologies and avoiding drawing knowledge from experts in multiple fields causes courtroom investigations to be less well-rounded, and therefore less fair. 

Gazzaniga presented a variety of social issues that he believes neuroethics can responsibly resolve. I may bring converse thinking and adaptations of Gazzaniga’s arguments to the table, but this only emphasizes the controversiality of neuroethics and the various approaches to ethical dilemmas. Human memories are unreliable, but they are not to be invalidated or disregarded. Our memories mold us into our present states of being. Instead, the trustworthiness of memories should be considered with caution and regard to influential emotions. Universal ethics will not be attained easily. I believe approaching this goal as a holistic social issue, rather than by encouraging identical morals for every individual to comply with, makes it closer to reality. Neurological lie detection techniques are not as gullible or untrustworthy as Gazzaniga argues. I believe that mixing specialties, such as neuroscience and law, can move society towards more informed thinking. The implications of experts working together represent strides toward universal agreement on ethical dilemmas. Overall, neuroethics are sufficient to gauge the unreliability of memories and explore the possibilities of universal ethics; however, they cannot definitively judge the morality of lie detection techniques and their potential to self-incriminate individuals.



Gazzaniga, M. S. (2006). The ethical brain: the science of our moral dilemmas. New York: Harper Perennial, esp. ch. 7-8,10.

Melé, D. & Sánchez-Runde, C. J Bus Ethics (2013) 116: 681. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-013-1814-z

Parrott, W. G., & Sabini, J. (1990). Mood and memory under natural conditions: Evidence for mood incongruent recall. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(2), 321–336. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.59.2.321

Simpson, Joseph R. Functional MRI Lie Detection: Too Good to be True? Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 2008; 36(4): 491-8.


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