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The Need for a Progressive Neuroethics

Neuroscience is challenging previously maintained notions about the structure and function of nervous systems, the basis of consciousness, and the nature of the brain-mind-self relationship. Such developments prompt re-examination of concepts of ‘personhood,’ which forms the basis of the modern social sphere and its interpretation. Contemporary neuroscience also questions traditional socially defined ontologies, fundamental social values, conventions, norms, and the ethical responsibilities relevant to constructs of individual and/or social “good.” Moreover, neuroscientific developments are rapidly being translated into medical and social contexts in the present, not at some unforeseen point in the future.

These developments give rise to a number of pressing questions: are attempt at and strivings toward “liberation technologies” fundamental to human nature as an iterative engagement of biological, social, and machine-use tendencies, or do such activities portend a “transhumanist” trajectory that use neuroscience to engineer a novel being that is distinct from extant concepts of humanity? Irrespective of whether inherent to human nature of representative of a trend toward some transhuman design, might neuroscience (and neurotechnology) afford – and perhaps enable – a more inclusive idea (and ideal) of the human being, that overcomes biological (e.g. gender and ethnicity) and cultural distinctions by revealing a common basis and concept of consciousness and self, and in this way advance a new social reality? Will neuroscience expose the human being as “merely” another social animal among other species of social animals, and in so doing dispel anthropocentric notions of elitism? Can neuroscience – and its technological products – benefit the greater social good by creating a new more cohesive vision of humans, humanity, and perhaps other sentient creatures (e.g. animals and sentient machines) that reconciles long-held distinctions between mankind, nature, organic, and inorganic beings? How – and in what directions – will neuroscience and neurotechnology compel change in the construct, scope, and conduct of medicine as profession, practice, and commercial enterprise within a technophilic and market-driven world culture? And last, but certainly not least, how much the trajectories of neuroscience and neurotechnology evoke positively and/or negatively valent outcomes for the open societies of the 21st century?

These questions – and others that are sure to arise – reflect both the promise and the challenges that can and will be generated at the intersection of neuroscience, neurotechnology, and society. While studies of the brain-mind have historically been driven by strivings to address and answer perdurable philosophical questions about the nature of the human being and human condition, as a matter of fact, the scope and tenor of science and technology are frequently influenced by the social climates fostered by market and/or political imperatives that are often disconnected from – if not discordant with – such philosophical and/or humanitarian considerations and concerns.  Moreover, ant use of neuroscience-based outcomes must acknowledge that the foundational “hard problem” of how “mind” occurs in brain remains unresolved, and this neurocentric constructs of consciousness, self, morality, and perhaps the nature of society must be viewed as speculative, and as such, may be subject to misapprehension, misconstruction and misuse under various social agendas. How then are we to navigate a path forward, while recognizing the power of neuroscience and neurotechnology to affect – and be affected by – the social sphere, and at the same time acknowledge the limitations of both neuroscience and the social settings in which it may be employed?

The nascent, but growing field of neuroethics may meet this challenge. By definition, the field is dedicated to 1) studying the putative neurological substrates and mechanisms of moral cognition, and interpersonal social relations (i.e. “neuromorality), and 2) addressing the ethical, legal, and social issues arising in and from neuroscientific research and its applications in the public domain. In its two “traditions,” neuroethics might offer a form of contemporary meta-ethics that allows insight into the ways that moral decisions are individually and socially evaluated and made, and thus provides a mirror and lens with which to reflect upon, assess, and guide the conduct of neuroscience – as a research endeavor, set of clinically-relevant techniques, and influence upon society. I believe that the validity (and value) of neuroethics is predicated upon: 1) its embrace of an iteratively wider vision of the human being (if not sentient beings in general), and humanity, based upon and reflective of the advancement(s) and manifest effects of neuroscience, 2) recognition that novel concepts and ethical approaches may need to be developed to accommodate this expanded vision, and 3) use of integrative, bio-psychosocial model that acknowledges that – and how – organisms are reciprocally interactive with their environment (i.e. the dimensions of social design in the broader sense). Simply put, to be authentic, neuroethics must appreciate how neuroscience has affected – and will continue to impact – the ways that humans create biological and social identity, and are nested, vested, and function within society and culture, both at present and in the future.

Neuroethics must be flexible to incorporate a growing and shifting fund of knowledge – and technological capability – that is not tethered to dogmatic ideas about the human being and human nature, but rather, is free to develop a progressive view and concept of the human-in-society. Moreover, a meaningful neuroethics may need to transcend older, more traditional ethical concepts and systems, so as to embrace new ideas and methods that more fully enable analyses of novel situations, and questions generated by the effects of neuroscience in society. This situates neuroethics to engage issues ranging from the philosophical to the juridical. And, if politics in open societies can be defines as the permanent, never-ending translation of social practices into binding juridical arrangements, neuroethics must certainly be considered a viable study of, and influence upon, political endeavors.

The challenge before neuroethics as a field-in-evolution is to be pragmatic, self-reflective, and progressive. Programs of neuroethics education and practice must be international, multi-cultural, and multi-disciplinary so as to liberate its activities and perspectives from the restriction of anachronism and dogma, and sharpen the acuity of viewpoints. I posit that there is a need – and perhaps urgency – for well-established programs of neuroethics that appreciate and engage both the study of the neural bases of moral cognition, emotions and behaviors, and what ethical systems may be viable, valid, and valuable to intuit the shifting constructs of an increasingly neuroscience-influence society. If neuroethics is to come of age and face the future, it must strive to be collaborative, innovative, and rigorous in its scrutiny, guidance, and governance of neuroscientific and neurotechnological invention, intervention, and social effect.

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13 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater

    Does anyone believe that the challenge after neuroethics as a static field is to be unrealistic, non-reflective, and regressive ?
    Or that if neuroethics is to remain juvenile and face the past, it must strive to be uncollaborative, refuse innovation and be sloppy in its scrutiny…….

    1. Thanks for the comment Anthony …I take it to mean that you might doubt that there are those who would not embrace a progressive view of neuroscience, and who remain entrenched in misconstrued ideas about what neuroethics' scope and vision might be?

      Believe it or not, there are. There are some that tend to be very much wedded to rather dogmatic notions about the nature of the human as static, and fixed in evolution, and do not – or perhaps choose not to – acknowledge those ways in which science and technology in general, and neuroscience and neurotechnology in this case can, are, and will change the human condition and human being.

      As well, these views often substantiate an anthrocentricism that fails to recognize (how neuroscience is increasingly demonstrating) that other creatures possess consciousness and (at least some form of ) sentience (a point you so very well allude to in your post about bio-engineered meat…indeed such knowledge about the neural and cognitive capacity of other species compels a revision of many facets of moral and social regard and treatment).

      Going even further, there is a prevalent tendency to be rather unrealistic about what neuroscience can and cannot actually do, and thus we see rather ampliative claims and/or false attribution(s) to "neural mechanisms" for this and that based upon misinterpretations and misrepresentations of neuroscientific data and information (what I somewhat tongue-in-cheek refer to as "neurolalia", and what Roger Scruton has called "neuro-nonsense"), and on the other side of the coin, unrealistic under-estimations of neuroscientific and neurotechnological capabilities.

      Lastly, there are camps both within the neuroscience/neuroethical community and in certain echelons of policy makers and government that simply choose not to work cooperatively, and do not recognize the need for a discursive approach to developing guidelines and funded programs to not just engage in neuroscientific research, but also (a) identify those ways that neuroscience and neurotechnology can exert effect(s) in a variety of domains of the human condition, if not the world, and (b) take a deep(er) dive to explore if. how and why such changes may necessitate re-evaluation of older, anachronistic ethico-legal and social constructs, and in light of this, develop a contemporary and pragmatic approach to, and for neuroethics as a field and practice.

  2. Anthony Drinkwater

    Thanks for your reply, James.
    More explicitly, my point was that if neuro-ethics, (or any other kind of ethics, or any other kind of science) is to increase knowledge and be taken seriously, it should :
    1. be simply and clearly expressed – honestly, I found your piece obfuscatory. Compare the clarity of the About page here :
    2. avoid unneccessary wording, tautology or truisms. Sorry, but I found your original post contained all three.
    3. aim, as far as possible, to seek to establish truths, and not be motivated by a "progressive", or any other, agenda.

  3. OK Anthony, gotcha… And thanks for your constructive criticism, always appreciated. Big forum, diverse audience, and lots of writing styles and I'll try to take your suggestions to heart in the spirit in which I believe they were intended.

    As for your comment regarding "truth", truism and progress in science and ethics, I couldn't agree more. Science is a progressive process of revision of older concepts that update and in some cases replace facts and (at least temporarily accepted) truths (see some very interesting stuff by Robert Almeder; and Ernest Nagel on this). I agree with philosopher-ethicist George Khushf who's stated that ethics of/in science, and in this case neuroethics, should define the "real turf" underfoot and how it's changing, and from this describe the possible landscapes that lie over each hill of scientific/technological achievement, in order to try to plot the best path(s) forward (because as well stated by Hans Jonas and Juergen Habermas, the status quo is progress, and whether we like it or not, there's considerable momentum to carry us ahead).


  4. I think Giordano's blog posts makes a number of interesting and important points related to the futures of neuroscience and neuroethics – and argues to keep neuroethics grounded in the realities of neuroscience and its effects on humanity.

    In regards to Anthony Drinkwater's comments – I tend to think the first two relate more to choices in style and diction in an individual's writing. The third comment, however, may be misconstruing the usage of the word progressive. Having read alot of Giordano's writing, I got from this that he's using it in the context to advance further scientific and/or ethical truths – rather than a political spin (i.e.- as a synonym for liberal).

  5. As a recent graduate with a BA in philosophy, I've been following the field of neuroethics in blogs and academia for a couple years. It's been cool to watch a new field of philosophy develop. But I have always felt that the priorities were not quite right in neuroethics, which is why this headline caught my eye.

    This call to action relates to my apprehensions over the priorities of neuroethics: "And, if politics in open societies can be defined as the permanent, never-ending translation of social practices into binding juridical arrangements, neuroethics must certainly be considered a viable study of, and influence upon, political endeavors."

    I have seen very little neuroethics academia that concerns itself with the political, or even the policy end of neuroethics. There have been essays and articles about neuro-enhancement and psychiatry. But I have yet to read a neuroethics article or essay addressing the ethical implications of imprisoning individuals for altering their state of consciousness.

    Is it ethically acceptable to incarcerate drug users? what about if it perpetuates racism? what if it leads to massive death and instability in drug-producing nations? there are tens of thousands of deaths that have been a direct result of prohibiting certain states of consciousness. and yet, the field of study which is claiming to explore the rights and wrongs of brain science will not touch this. why?

    Neuroscience is an exciting emerging field, but it also has a legal history that neuroethics must pay more attention to. Why has Western society, especially the US, been so forcefully against certain drugs while embracing other drugs, even though our policies cant be tied to any scale of harm/benefit? is it morally acceptable to take away the liberty of another because they alter their consciousness? what if they sell the means to altering consciousness? what constitutes an "addiction", and are "addicts" civilly equal to non-addicts?

    Neuroethics has only paid attention to what is politically safe. But the ethical is often not politically safe.

  6. Julia, your comment is spot-on. There is a movement in neuroethics, referred to as Neurosciences' Ethical, Legal and Social Issues (NELSI) that strives to focus on exactly the points you've raised. Indeed, 20th century Western history well-illustrates the misappropriation of neurological and psychiatric information and "current epsitemology" in the name of social, political and even economic agendas (consider, for example, the implications of "drapetomania" in the USA – which incidentally remained "on the books well until the mid-20th century in some states; the neuro/psychocentric basis of the T-4 Program in Germany; and intentional misuse of the diagnosis of "schizophrenia" for those with political viewpoints that differed from the state in the USSR).

    For sure, we must be careful about the ways that "neurocentric" information is regarded and used – and so NELS issues loom large in any meaningful consideration of neuroscience. Your points ring especially true given the rapid pace of neuroscientific discovery and strong pull of market forces in bringing neurotechnologies to use – even if inaptly employed or frankly mis-used (such as use of neurotechnologies by untrained/unqualified individuals in the first instance, and the marketing of neurotechnologies as "toys" or games, or to explicitly detect deception – e.g.- "no-lie MRI" – in legal cases, in the second).

    The question of drug use really blossoms in light of the forthcoming 5th Edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5). Changes are proposed that would create a diagnostic category of Addiction Disorder that could subsume other substance use conditions. While the intent was to clarify these conditions "nosologically" so as to improve understanding of possible etiologies and therefore imporve treatment, the use of the socio-legally provocative term "addiction" (and thus, "addict") creates a host of potential problems. So while disorder-specifiers are proposed to clarify the nature of "addictive disorders", the social, legal and even ontological difficulties incurred by the terms "addiction" and "addict" need to be confronted and addressed (especially given concomittant changes in diagnostic categorizations of pain disorder under a broader rubric of "complex somatic symptom disorder", and the implication of psychosomatic causes – and the possible stigma- it may provoke).

    The market pull incurs questions of commutative vs distributive justice; namely, even if we assume that each and all of these new advances are ok to use (a big assumption, by the way), who will "get the proverbial goodies", who will deicde such allocation, and what metrics will be used? Of course, neuroscience and neurotechnology can and will also be used to advance political agendas (for example, in the service of national security, intelligence and defense) Here too the question is in what ways, toward which ends, and who shall decide?

    These are contentious issues, and neuroethics must tackle the burdens and risks – as well as the benefits – of the applications, uses and possible misuses of neuroscience and neurotechnology, in a way that realisitcally assesses the potential for political, economic and even personal influences.
    I've argued that to do this will require a cosmopolitan perspective, that is willing to engage – and open to – a dialectical approach. But this is often easier said than done…

    So, in sum, you've really raised a critical point about neuroethics as a field and practice. I've touted the "need for NELSI" as a vital component of neuroethics, and both the term and its charge are gaining some traction. As your most astute comment asks, however, the question is whether it is sufficiently rapid, broad and/or deep to tackle the probelms before they are out of hand, and safety becomes untenable.

    1. Thanks so much for your response. I just had some time to explore the DSM V changes regarding substance use. I think a larger problem than the switch to the term "addiction" and the stigmas surrounding that term is the low threshold for being diagnosed with an addiction. For instance, someone could get diagnosed with cannabis use disorder if they
      A) get caught using cannabis by her school (which is not uncommon, given how many schools require urine tests or patrol school parking lots drug sniffing dogs),
      B) get in fights with disapproving mom/boyfriend who thinks cannabis use is bad
      Whether she uses cannabis responsibly in evenings to deal with anxiety or does indeed have a problem, she is either way labeled as an addict. The label is not based on the harm of her drug use, but it is rather based on social stigmas towards cannabis use.

      The proposed DSM substance use-related revisions are hypocritical, given one of the proposed qualifications for a "mental disorder" reads "a [mental disorder] is not primarily a result of social deviance or conflicts with society" So much for that important qualification.

      Anyways, I really appreciate your feedback, and look forward to keeping my eye out for NELSI. I think it would be awesome if this academic community became a part of the growing drug policy reform debate.

      1. I really enjoyed the insightful back-and-forth between Julia and Dr. Giordano. For a progressive, open, realistic, and policy-relevant perspective on addiction as a health concern (as opposed to an arbitrary moral "failing") see: <a href=</a> – encapsulates much of the current neuroethical views seen here and in the rest of the field.

  7. When I was studying Ehics arise a new science named Bioethics, as a new field out of the traditional ethic.
    My question, after read this article, is that if it´s really need a new brand of Ethic, like neuroethic, or this one is inside the original Ethic, or even Bioethic, like a subdivision more.
    After all, smaller parts, looks minor knowledgements of life, as at Spanish philosopher Ortega´s said

  8. Jose- Of course, neuroethics, like bioethics, represents and uses the general method(s) of ethics as directed and applied to an area that has some unique aspects and premises. A variety of other terms (bioethics, clinical ethics, research ethics) attempt to direct the methods of various ethical approaches to the specifics of a field or discipline.

    Neuroethics is not different in that (methodological) regard – ethics offers the methods and "neuro" is the topic/field to which these are applied. But it's the "neuro" part that may add a different spin, of sorts (and arguably the same is true for genethics, nano-ethics, and cyber-ethics). Neuroscience and neurotechnology may give rise to new insights to the brain, consciousness, nature of moral cognition and action, enable access and manipulation of cognition, emotion and behavior, and may allow humanity to change and evolve in new ways, and at a fairly rapid pace. This generates new possibilities that might challenge existing philosophical constructs, and may dictate somewhat revised ethical approaches.
    It may be that as Neil Levy has claimed, neuroethics may offer both a new focus of, and approach to ethics, and I've stated that this might indeed be the case, particularly if and when we employ the "two traditions" of neuroethics (namely 1. the studies of the neural basis of morality; and 2. ethical issues fostered in and from neuroscience) together (NB: for a rich discussion of this topic, see Am.J Bioethics-Neuroscience April-June 2011, Vol 2, no 2). In his recent book "Pragmatic Neuroethics", Eric Racine does a fine job in framing the field and its relationship to ethics, in general, and bioethics (and other so-called "hyphenated" forms of ethics, as well) more specifically.

    I've made this statement before and un-apologetically do so again here – I think that neuroethics is "coming of age", and while those of us who work in the field certainly can influence this maturation, I believe that it's not just a job for the neuroscientists and ethicists, but should involve a larger, more multi-disciplinary group (inclusive of the public) to more meaningfully shape and guide the field and what it does. It will be interesting to see what neuroethics "grows up" to be…

  9. I think ethical debate about neurotechnologies or neuroimaging could benefit from the involvement of other disciplines than ethics and philosophy. Also, neuroengineers and neuroscientist could benefit from a profound ethical and societal debate about their technologies and therapies when these debates would run in parallel to the development.

    My plan for the next years is to bring stakeholders together through iterative panel debates and to show future case scenarios of neurotechnologies with theater to the general public so they can start to form their opinions. I still don't know if that will bring about new insights, but I am sure looking forward to it 🙂

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