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A Defense of Neuroethics

Jyothis James 
Department of Biology 
Lake Forest College 
Lake Forest, IL 60045


The mind is the source of thinking from which all decisions, intentions, and rationalizations come forth. In the body, the brain is the physical structure connected with the mind. It is the organ responsible for perception , consciousness , information processing , and decision-making , or all the functions ascribed to the non-physical mind. This strong connec- tion of a bodily structure associated with the non-physical phenomena of “mind” makes neuroscience, the scientific study of the brain, an interesting empirical source for philosophers to work with. However, there has been, and still is, considerable debate as to whether philosophy should rely on empirical evidence to supplement its work. This has been an especially contested issue in ethics where Hume’s Law has hindered the benefits em- pirical science can provide. I will address the issues surrounding the use of neuroscience in in the study of ethics, especially the naturalistic fallacy Moore has warned against, and then move forward to argue how neuro- science is useful for judging moral dilemmas at a metaethical level, distinct from providing a normative ethics. I will also acknowledge the problems in judging the moral consequences that come from premature and improp- er extrapolations of neuroscientific findings and identify them as issues in communication that do not affect the potential neuroscience has towards supplementing ethics.

Can neuroscience extend a normative theory?

I will first evaluate the major normative ethical theories that at- tempt to rationalize and prescribe moral ‘oughts’ for people to follow without dependence on empirical evidence. I will then describe why Hume’s Law of not deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ demands exclusion of empirical evidence when considering a normative principle. This assessment will necessarily demonstrate why empirical evidence, specifically neuroscience, may not be able to reveal what someone ought to do in a moral dilemma. Immanuel Kant’s deontological, or duty-based, ethics is an absolutist example of nor- mative ethics. He begins formulating a universal ethics by acknowledging two types of knowledge: a priori, what is known before experience solely through reason, and a posteriori, what is known with experience. Ethics has both rational and empirical parts, the latter being descriptive ethics and the former prescriptive, or normative ethics . Kant makes this distinction to bring forth a pure philosophy, absolved from any trace of empirical admix- ture, which is derived solely from a priori knowledge. This can then lead to a supreme moral law that is universally complied with by command of duty. Using a priori knowledge isolated from any inductive empirical information leads Kant to propose a universal law using the categorical imperative by saying, “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will my maxim should become a universal law.” The obligation to follow this rule comes from duty out of reverence for a universal moral law.

In contrast to Kant’s deontological ethics stands consequentialist ethics, which measures the moral worth of an action on the consequences it brings about. John Stuart Mill provides his utilitarian theory as a method to assess moral actions and obligate people to apply it to their actions as well. Like Kant, Mill is aware that a normative theory must be rationally proven to be universally applicable. However, he admits that first principles of ends are incapable of proof through reasoning, and therefore assumes that happiness is desirable as an end simply by the fact that people desire it. Mill uses a different logical structure that may still be rationally sound, but may not have been well communicated in the text.

The two major theories that I have outlined show an attempt to create normative ethical systems that can then be universally applied. To create a normative ethical theory, there must be an exclusion of descriptive ethics so that the universal right can be identified and then acted upon. Thus, one may not use inductive reasoning to apply moral tendencies, so- cial anthropology, or empirical evidence from sciences in deducing that something ‘ought’ to be from something that ‘is’. David Hume identifies this metaethical error that can be made in creating a normative system in A Treatise on Human Nature. Hume comments on how some moral theorists transition from observations to prescriptions by writing, “for as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ‘tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.” This prohibition of deducing moral obligation from observation is crucial as to why neuroscience, or any other empirical science, may not be able to contribute to creating or identifying a normative system.

Any attempt to associate moral rightness or good with something that is related or may be an indicator of it, such as pleasure, is accused of committing a naturalistic fallacy. In Principia Ethica, George Edward Moore proposed this similar, but still distinct, issue in Hume’s Law. He addresses the issue of equating a natural object to ‘good’ by saying, “If he confuses ‘good,’ which is not in the same sense a natural object, with any natural object whatever, then there is a reason for calling that a naturalistic fallacy” . This is another reason why what we may be able to assume, through neuroscientific study, to be indicators of “pleasure” or “happiness” cannot be then equated to good. No matter how close we get to isolating specif- ic neural patterns or biological markers to things associated with good, we cannot assume that they are good or indicators of something good in-and-ofthemselves. This is because good is a moral question that may not be reducible deductively from what is observed in the natural world.

If Mill’s utilitarian theory is revaluated under the conditions Hume and Moore place on deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, then he could be ac- cused of succumbing to naturalistic fallacy as well. However, he clearly admits, “To be incapable of proof by reasoning is common to all first prin- ciples; to the first premises of our knowledge, as well as to those of our conduct.” His deduction is that general happiness is desirable for its own sake. Therefore, good comes from a different logical structure that may not have clearly communicated the validity of his deduction. However, by admitting that pure reason cannot derive a first principle, he is not able to meet Kant’s absolutist standards requiring a normative ethic to be derived a priori.

I argue that it is precisely the demands philosophers like Kant place on deriving a priori moral principles that prevents normative theories of such strict requirement from being applied and ascribed to in a practical sense. For example, a pure Kantian would not lie even if it meant saving the lives of many. In the practical world where such dilemmas do arise, the consequences are more likely to be evaluated, and the absolute maxims that Kant’s deontological ethics provides are treated more conditionally. This is because it is difficult to determine if a person’s moral actions were purely exercised by reason and as such aligned to their duty. It is easi- er to evaluate the consequences that come forth from actions to see if a decision was moral or not. Thus, this may be why Mill’s utilitarian theory, derived from an a posteriori observance of happiness, is more widely ac- cepted and used.

Bearing in mind the demanding rigor required to prescribe a nor- mative ethical theory from purely a priori knowledge, or the possibility of committing a naturalistic fallacy by erroneously deducing an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, I will not attempt to defend the potential neuroscience may have in defining what one ‘ought’ to do. Evolutionary psychology, and teleological arguments within neuroscience and anthropology have discussed that the brain has evolved to do what is good out of selective pressures. Therefore, by analyzing the brain, we may be able to identify what is right and what is wrong. Though this may be an interesting argument to follow, I will fo- cus instead on the contribution neuroscience can make towards evaluating consequences in moral dilemmas.

Can empirical evidence be applied in philosophy?

Empirical evidence has been advancing exponentially with the advancement of technologies. Though there may be philosophical doubts about how reliable empirical methods are in evaluating nature and reality, one consensus that can be reached is that science, at its most fundamental level, explains most consistencies in the world of appearances, be it reality or not. Ethical judgments are deliberated, and consequences for socially deemed moral transgressions are delivered in the world we perceive as well. It would therefore only make sense to evaluate ethical dilemmas more objectively using the method through which we have the most confirmed knowledge of the world we live in.

Other branches of philosophy such as metaphysics and episte- mology have already been naturalized to a degree by incorporating em- pirical evidence into their deliberations. Since Newton’s discovery of the Laws of Physics, metaphysicians have needed to revaluate their claims under the conditions he proposed, therefore creating a directional change in metaphysics and its inclusion of empirical findings . Metaphysicians are encouraged to interpret and clarify physical theories instead of being prejudiced towards philosophy, as natural evidence is the strongest conformation of reality we currently have . Epistemology likewise has seen a shift from the use of phenomenology towards the application of cognitive sciences, such as psychology and neuroscience, to better understand what we know and how we can know it.

Empiricist arguments that encourage the use of scientific evi- dence in philosophy still face the criticism of induction that Hume proposed. However, in the practical realm where reality as we know it is confirmed by empirical evidence, philosophy has a difficult time ignoring the evergrowing and evolving issues that new scientific findings bring forth. As I had men- tioned above, I will not attempt to argue for a full naturalization of normative ethics. The emphasis on a purely a priori deduction restricts me from doing so. Richard Joyce in his article, What neuroscience can (and cannot) con- tribute to neuroethics acknowledges the deductive issue Hume outlined by writing, “Even if there were an a priori prohibition on deriving evaluative conclusions from factual premises, this need not stand in the way of me- taethical implications being drawn from factual premises, for a metaethical claim is not an ethical “ought” claim; it is more likely to be a claim about how we use the word “ought” in ethical discourse—which is a perfectly empirical matter.”

Joyce argues that if neuroscience is to be used in the field of ethics, it will most likely be in the field of moral epistemology . Neurosci- ence and psychology have already indicated the limitations of what we can know, to what degree emotion plays into moral decisions, or if rational decision-making occurs in moral dilemmas. Therefore, knowing how the body perceives and processes the stimuli that are agitated in moral quan- daries may help us evaluate questions of moral responsibility, intentional- ity, agency, and of other factors that play a role in ethical considerations. We can then use this information to better understand the implications of consequences that arise from morally ambiguous decisions or actions, and then appropriately respond to them in terms of dictating responsibility to the wrongdoer. These findings from neuroscience may revolutionize how we evaluate moral issues in the everyday world without prescribing what we ought to do.

Why should neuroscience be considered as an empirical source for ethics?

Ethics, and its execution, function through the mind and its cog- nitive processes using intention, rationalization, and decision-making to evaluate moral issues. Normative ethics re-quires rational agents to con- sider what they ‘ought’ to do and rationalize the correct decision that aligns with an ethical prescription. Without cognition or an ability to rationalize, we can function in the natural system according to inclinations and not worry about the implications of our intentions or actions on others. Therefore, the mind as the seat of cognition is necessary in understanding, defining, and assessing morals. The physical organ from which the mind arises is the brain. It only follows that the study of the brain and its nervous system, neuroscience, be the most relevant empirical source to understand the in- tricacies behind how ethical choices are sensed, processed, and executed.

I am assuming that the brain is the corollary physical organ to how we cognize after evaluating the various solutions to the mind-body problem. Though, this is still a challenging issue surrounded by various competing theories, it is strongly argued that neuroscientific evi-dence evaluating the relationship between cognitive behavior and activity in the nervous system have shown an experimentally tested high correlation. This is so to the point where we can in-ductively argue that the brain and its biological activity can be a reliable source to predict ef-fects on cognition and, by extension, the mind . I propose that information regarding neural activity and its correlated mental activity can be effectively used to identify ideas and behav-iors related to morality or goodness and thus be used as effective evaluative tools in judging whether a situation is ethically sound or not.

What can neuroscience reveal about morality? If it can, is it useful to ethics?

An evolutionary history of how the brain developed shows indi- cations of moral patterns forming as a selective component in social be- havior that aided species survival. Caring is neces-sary for survival in an- imals, as not doing so would be selected against. Even simple organisms, such as ants, show an extension of this self-care as cooperative behaviors. The mammalian ver-sion of such behavior may have developed as early as 350 million years ago. Empathy and caring may have been an evolutionarily effective measure of maintaining the species, but we cannot assume a teleological purpose in this trend and say humans are yearning for ethical progress.

At a neuroanatomical and chemical level, behaviors associated with caring have been identified with the brain’s cortical region, known for cognitive processing, and the neuronal regulation of the chemical oxytocin. The orbital frontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and lateral temporal region relate to physical and social pain. These regions also function with reward systems of the brain to improve socially desirable, or moral, values through experience. Oxytocin and the arrangement of its receptors seem to affect maternal behavior, attraction, and attachment or, in other words, behaviors associated with caring. Neurological information about caring shows that moral values seem to be ingrained in social behavior, and thus the purpose of sociability, to trust and cooperate, are additional facets of morality that may be neuro-biologically evaluated .

Care mostly functions at an intimate level, such as between mother and child, in most mammals. However, the oxytocin receptors I mentioned above play a crucial role in extending this care beyond oneself and into society at large . This caring leads to the cooperativity and trust necessary for a group to function; trust specifically has been identified with higher exposure to oxytocin. The combination of oxytocin-vasopressin re- ceptors affect so many behavioral factors related to sociability that it could be a viable biomarker for issues related to trust, asocial behavior, and lack of attachment, all of which may be indicators of weakly developed moral character around caring.

In addition to cooperativity and trust, an ability to socialize properly with consideration of others is an important component to acting morally. The prefrontal cortex is identified with decision-making and main- taining self-control in gratification. Damage to or diminished activity of this area could indicate impulsive or irrational behavior that may then impede proper decision-making. Social coherence is also an important factor that plays into moral actions. Mirror neurons in the frontal cortex seem to help humans and other mammals with developed cortexes to imitate behavior they see. In Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) communication skills, inter- pretation of social behavior, and empathy are diminished. There could be potential mirror neuron differences identified with observed differences in activation of frontal cortical areas between ASD children and controls. These studies indicate that imitation is important for social relationships. Identifying anatomical or structural indicators for diminished function or activity in prefrontal cortex or mirror neurons may help identify people at risk of making poor decisions, or lacking in empathy and social coherence, respectively.

Social neuroscience is also exploring the neurobiology of plea- sure and happiness. Pleasure is widely spread around the brain, but spe- cific loci that appear to cause pleasure are located deep in the brain (such as the brain stem), and also in cortical, or higher processing, regions (such as the orbitofrontal and prefrontal cortex). Happiness may be associated with the default frontal neural network the pleasure loci may create when activated. Though we may not know exactly how pleasure and happiness are linked, the pathological lack of pleasure has shown to decrease happi- ness. Pleasure, and its activity in the brain, may indicate how happiness works, and with eventual neurobiological inspection we may eventually be able to identify either neural patterns or other biomarkers that indicate cer- tain stimuli bring forth happiness in a person. This is an important endeav- or, as happiness relates to Mill’s utilitarian theory and such knowledge may be a way to bring about a more objective and efficient application of his moral system.

I have described above some examples of how neuroscientific findings in biology and psychology have been correlated with behaviors and emotional states we associate with morality. Moral behavior seems to have developed as a consequence of evolutionary needs that inclined us towards a more dependable reliable social network. Oxytocin and other neurochemicals seem to be associated with sociability, empathy, attrac- tion, and care. Anatomical structures such as the prefrontal cortex, mirror neurons, and structures ranging from the primitive brain-stem to the more recent cortex appear to play a role in emotional understanding, selfless- ness, decision-making, pleasure, and possibly even happiness. These are just few of the findings in neuroscience that may reveal how and why we are inclined to act as moral beings.

In light of normative ethics, there still seems to be a barrier that prevents neuroscience from breaking Hume’s Law. This is true if a univer- sal moral principle or morality in general is beyond a posteriori and can only be realized a priori. Even if this is the case, there is no prohibition of relating associated behaviors of neuroscience with what is morally right or good in society’s eyes. For the most part, the ability to decide, empathize, cooperate, and feel pleasure demonstrates moral character. Regardless of whether an individual adheres to a deontological ethical system, it is difficult to externally evaluate if their intention was fully and rationally aligned with the moral system in question. It is easier for others to gauge the con- sequences and see if the result of someone’s particular actions brought about emotional or behavioral results associated with what is morally right, such as happiness.

This may be why neuroscience has been widely applied in the fields of psychiatric care and criminal justice . In psychiatry, neuroscience can be used to find effective medical treatments for mental disorders. Care can then be specifically targeted to brain regions affected by pathologies such as depression, related to serotonin and dopamine neurotransmitters , or psychopathy, related to paralimbic system dysfunction. These are ex- amples by which neuroscience can help cure issues that affect moral char- acter. But it can also be used to administer justice and deliver punishment. Neurological discoveries regarding how morality develops in a person has been effective in identifying potential social deviants. I mentioned above that oxytocin-vasopressin receptors and proper cortical function play a role in appropriate moral and social development. Dorthy Lewis, a psychiatrist, along with her coworkers discovered multiple neurological issues, such as low oxytocin binding and frontal lobe dysfunction , in prisoners waiting for execution. Criminal characteristics associated with neurological systems related to morality can be used to administer justice, however, this may be a premature move that may lead to more injustice through the manipulation of the law and inappropriate verdicts.

Where can neuroscience go wrong in relation to ethics?

Neuroscience has rapidly developed in the past decades and the amount of information discovered may surpass the rate of applicabil- ity and interpretation. This has not stopped the widespread application of neuroscience to various disciplines. In light of the growing cross-disci- plinary studies and extended application of neuroscience beyond biology and medicine, a considerable amount of ethical issues begin to surface. In the preceding sections I discussed that ethics is most easily evaluated through judging and appropriately responding to moral consequences in a social structure. The society we live in evaluates the most serious of ethical transgressions in courtrooms where a jury passes a verdict appropriate to the degree of responsibility of an individual from the a posteriori information they gather and deliberate. I will specifically address issues that arise from the premature misapplication and sensationalization of neuroscience that then impedes justice by inappropriately playing into the rhetorical defenses and accusations of courtrooms.

The potential for neuroscience to reveal how we perceive, pro- cess, and interact with reality grants it a great degree of reverence. This admiration can reach the point where we expect that by fully understanding the brain, we may have the key to explain everything. Neuroscience has been granted powers and expectations beyond its capacity. Ideas such as neurorealism, where images from neuroimaging become objective truth in the public eye, permeate as a result. Deena Weisberg, a psychologist at Yale, and colleagues explored this phenomenon and discovered that non-expert judgments were inclined to favor explanations that integrated neuroscience regardless of its logical structure. The implications of this study may be extended to more serious arenas, such as in courts, where potentially life or death verdicts may be sentenced depending on the rhe- torical effect neuroscience can have in magnifying an argument.

In light of how neuroscientific implications can be misconstrued, objectively taken, and easily accepted by non-experts as fact, care needs to be taken in evaluating neuroscientific defenses in the courtroom. Neu- rochemical and neuroanatomical differences related to antisocial or poor decision-making skills can be inappropriately used to alienate responsibil- ity for serious crimes when justice is due. For example, in English Courts multiple defenses on the basis of neuroscience can be used to alter or diminish verdicts such as claims to insanity or diminished responsibility. These claims rely on the inconclusive basis of genetic and biological de- terminism. There may be appropriate psychiatric rehabilitative sentences that can be given to criminals who do need the care instead of the harsher consequences administered by justice. However, due to the inconclusive nature of neuroscience in relation to the rate at which information is grow- ing, and due to the susceptibility of such information to be miscommunicat- ed and misapplied, precautions must be taken when bringing neuroscience in as conclusive and objective evidence in an arena where serious moral issues are addressed.

Considering the negative implications that may arise from the misuse of neuroscience, I will take the time here to reemphasize that this concern is more of problem within communication ethics than about the limitations of neuroscience. I will use the arguments for discourse ethics provided by Andreas Spahn in his article And Lead Us (Not) into Persua- sion…? Persuasive Technology and the Ethics of Communication to claim that it is the use of persuasive technology, such as fMRI images, PET scans, and scientific graphs, in neuroscience along with the misapplication of such technologies in rhetoric that lead to unethical judiciary consequences.

We must first acknowledge that technology can communicate in- formation and therefore should be designed to do so fairly for its audience. I will consider the Habermasian claims implicit in speech acts a claim of comprehensibility, of truth of the content, of appropriateness, and truthful- ness as outlined by Spahn to propose a careful communicative structure for neuroscience. If these Habermasian claims are not fully validated when information is communicated from the technology, then a persuasive and potentially problematic element can result. Neuroscientific findings that are evaluated through specialized technology require trained specialists to evaluate the information. Without the correct training, data can easily be misinterpreted by the layman if the neuroscientist or data analyst in ques- tion does not take precautions to prevent unwarranted extrapolations from poorly represented data. It may be appropriate to present the breadth and density of scientific information to colleagues; however, to do so to non- experts would threaten their autonomy to evaluate information if they are dependent on experts, provided a determined party, especially in judicial settings.

The persuasive effects of neurotechnology, whether it results from its epistemological allure, validation of neurorealism, or intimidating authority, are to be evaluated, and as a result a reconsideration of the multiple facets of neuroscience communication need to come forth if we want misconstrued information to stop creating harm. This has been a growing issue in the communication of neuroscience, and current discus- sion has encouraged scientists to be mindful of how the information they communicate is interpreted by the public, and to also take measures to explain exactly what their research is and is not about. They also have to be aware that information about the brain can be used as a powerful tool, and therefore need to navigate the issues surrounding our world with care and a sense of responsibility.

Regarding the use of neuroscience in law, the main predica- ment arises from a deterministic perspective around free will that seems to alleviate responsibility from the moral transgressor. This argument has led to claims of insanity, and other reductions in responsibility preceding the full capacity of neuroscience to provide any adequate and consistent defense for such claims. However, in the future as neuroscientific finding progress in conjunction with theories in philosophy of the mind and neuro- ethics, there may be ways to identify and justly deem someone insane or undeserving of full responsibility for a crime. Even if a deterministic view is proven true, it is unlikely that a consequentialist theory, where the actions of others are judged, will be fully eliminated as an evaluative system for ethics. This is because even if the idea of free will as illusory is shown scientifically, people will still be inclined psychologically , and arguably out of necessity, to take on a compatibilist view or the idea that free will and de- terminism can function together and still be logically consistent. Therefore, our sense of ethics, morality, and justice need not be affected by decisive findings in neuroscience, because most likely we may continue to behave the way we do through our biological inclinations towards acting morally.


Through this attempt to defend neuroethics, I have hopefully shown the potential neuroscience, as source of empirical knowledge, can have in the evaluations of ethics. I began with an explanation as to why neuroscience may not be able to provide the a priori deduction to create a normative theory. I addressed examples of Kant’s deontological theory and Mill’s utilitarian theory to demonstrate how a deductive claim to a uni- versal moral principle can be set forth. Then I evaluated criticisms, from Hume and Moore, of deducing a moral ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ using empiri- cal evidence and also misattributing natural things, such as pleasure, with non-natural ideas, such as good. By evaluating the nature and restrictions needed for a normative theory, I argued that neuroscience, as an empirical source, may not be able to provide a universal moral mechanism.

However, knowing that neuroscience may not be able to provide a normative theory or explain what is morally right and good, I argued that it could still be used to evaluate ideas and behaviors related to moral principles, such as care, trust, decision-making, and pleasure. I provided evidence from neurobiological and psychological studies that showed the developmental, anatomical, and chemical correlates of behaviors related to morality and moral character. The evolutionary history and biological indications revealed possible implications and potential avenues to apply what has been learned about moral behavior to evaluating moral conse- quences more objectively. I argued that neuroscience would be most use- ful for ethics to evaluate consequences, for society has shown that moral dilemmas can be decided upon with greater certainty in regards to its con- sequences and not so much towards its intentions.

Considering that neuroscience can play an important role in helping us identify and better evaluate moral dilemmas, I addressed the issues of premature misuse and fallacious interpretations that may come from poor (or even persuasive) communication of neuroscience. I indicated that the main issue to be concerned about was the communication ethics, and not an issue regarding what neuroscience can provide to ethics. In judicial courts this is very important because inappropriate verdicts are being sentenced on inconclusive or poorly interpreted neuroscience. To remedy the situation, I argued for a revaluation of persuasive neurotechnology and allocated responsibility on experts in neuroscience to communicate effectively.

The problem of neurodeterminism and the potential absence of free will may pose challenges but may not fully diminish how we view morality, obligation, consequences, and responsibility. Evolutionary history of brain development has shown a selective inclination towards moral behavior, a sense of responsibility, and caring to help us succeed in a highly social environment. Therefore, it would make sense to see what this brain, that brings forth a sense of self and care for others, can reveal to us about morality.



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