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Naturalizing Neuroethics? A Syncretic Approach

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Naturalizing Neuroethics? A
Syncretic Approach
John R.Shook and JamesGiordano
Neuroethics is uniquely situated to socially interpret what brain sciences are
learning about social and moral cognition while helping society hold neurosci-
entific research and neurotechnological applications to firm moral standards.
Both tasks, if they are to be pursued successfully, must find ways to closely relate
the “neuro” with theethical.” Keeping them apart has been the objective of
nonnaturalist worldviews worried about scientism and reductionism, and now
they complain about “neuroessentialism” and similar labels for dissolutions of
agency and responsibility into mere brain activity. A nonnaturalistic neuroeth-
ics, on whatever metaphysical basis, insists that the biology of brains could not
explain moral decisions or ground moral norms. We agree on that much, since
the methodology of brain sciences presumes, and cannot replace, behavioral
and psychological attributions of moral capacity and conduct. But the social and
the neurological are always related through the anthropological; and that com-
mon basis is, not coincidentally, also where the ethical is grounded, as humanity
upholds persons as bearers of moral worth and moral capacity. Neuroethics, by
focusing on persons, need never resort to nonnaturalism to uphold what ulti-
mately matters for ethics, and “naturalizing” neuroethics is also unnecessary for
a humanity-centered neurobioethics.
Keywords: neuroethics, neurobioethics, naturalism, nonnaturalism, neuroscience,
psychology, ethics
1. Introduction
In this chapter we present a syncretic approach to neuroethics, opening a
conciliatory and convergent path forward for this interdisciplinary area. This
approach can (1) align neuroethics with cognitive and social neuroscience as well
as neurology and (2) situate neuroscience within a capacious philosophical natu-
ralism. Keeping “neuro” primary to neuroethics for its perspective on humanity
and keeping “ethics” for humanity central to neuroethics and its mission are
paramount goals. Yet, those goals anticipate that neuroethics will have sufficient
generality and applicability for all humanity. If the “neuro” and the “ethical”
cannot be somehow harmonized, any such universality for neuroethics is unat-
tainable. To that end, we argue here that relationships and continuities connecting
(neuro)science and (neuro)ethics should be traced through domains of (natural)
Neurobioethics - Bridging Biological Philosophy, Neurotechnology, and Medical Ethics
2. Metaethics and philosophy
Elsewhere, we have labeled the higher goal of universal relevance for human-
ity as a “cosmopolitan” aim, to solicit ethical wisdom from many cultures and
elicit principles fostering ethics across societies. That aim falls under the pur-
view of ethical theorizing, but it cannot be beholden to any particular ethical
theory (such as deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, and so forth) or to
the perennial debates among them. By setting a high methodological standard
for ethical theorizing, a cosmopolitan approach enters the area of metaethics
as well. However, cosmopolitan ethics, due to its attentiveness to humanity,
strongly doubts that metaethics by itself is oriented toward human universality.
Metaethics can easily amount to validations bestowed on one society’s conven-
tional morality over other societies or fixations with some countrys linguistic
habits about moral matters or a meditation upon a single culture’s moral
Just as metaphysics eventually lost its credibility as an adjudicator of moral
norms, skepticism toward metaethics as a lone arbiter of moral concepts and truths
has also been warranted. Will further refinements to metaphysics, or metaethics,
at last permit deductions of binding moral principles? That also seems dubious, as
proffered derivations continue to be a plentiful source of diverse and inconsistent
results. That profligacy, at least, could be reasonably expected. No narrow intellec-
tual base could sufficiently support broad practical norms.
Looking to metaethics to adjudicate ethical theorizing and deliver a principled
moral framework relevant to humanity cannot be encouraged, unless a different
kind of metaethics is engaged—one that is based upon and employs a metaphys-
ics that consults other areas of philosophy and is informed by fields across the
humanities, social sciences, and life sciences. Tentative efforts and initial results
on our part illustrate how such a broadly informed metaethics can yield a cos-
mopolitan ethical framework, which in turn suggests some principled ethical
guidelines [1, 2]. We do not replicate that work here. Instead we address certain
metaethical and philosophical issues of neuroethics, as it develops as an interdis-
ciplinarity of several scientific fields. Analyses and inquiries of a philosophical
nature seem inescapable, and likewise, we regard them as essential to the success
of neuroethics.
But taking neuroethics to be fundamentally indebted to philosophy would not
be apparent upon a survey of the many fields contributing to neuroethical concerns
and inquiries [3]. The centrality of philosophical inquiry comes into view with the
primary assignments given to neuroethics as an interdisciplinary enterprise (con-
sult [4, 5]). In brief, neuroethics (i) ponders the brains functions that are involved
with personal identity, autonomy, and moral judgment/action and (ii) evaluates
ways that neuroscience and technology (i.e., neuroS/T) can be developed and
implemented while respecting human dignity and ethical norms. Indeed, as many
have begun to acknowledge, each assignment yields information and actionable
assessments that are relevant to the other assignment.
Harmony between these two assignments is hardly automatic or straightfor-
ward. Consider again the hazardous intersections of ethics and neuroscience where
neuroethics has offered its supervision: first, the growing responsibility to advise
or even adjust social views about psychological and neurological processes involved
in moral and immoral conduct and second, the expanding ability to alter cognitive
processes in ways affecting conceptions of the self and moral capacity. Unless neu-
roethics can coordinate the advice to society with an assessment of neuroscientific
interventions, neuroethics will be unable to distinguish itself amid the cacophony
of opinions about what brain science does and means.
Naturalizing Neuroethics? A Syncretic Approach
For example, what neuroethical advice and guidance will be offered about these
matters in the area of criminal justice? Imagine a defense lawyer making this argu-
ment during a trial: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client cannot be guilty
because neuroscience shows that no brain is really capable of moral responsibility.
And then imagine another trial, where a judge imposes this sentence: “The court
requires this convicted criminal to undergo neurological treatment to restore the
capacity for moral responsibility.” As discourses in neurolaw are already indicating,
such scenarios may not remain as fictional as they once seemed [6]. But it appears
that a forced choice lies ahead: moral responsibility is either “in the brain” or it is
not. Criminal law and legal theory require consistency and try to eliminate confu-
sion. And many other civic institutions, social structures, and cultural frameworks
will encounter conflicting interpretations of new neuroS/T.If and when neuroethi-
cal consultation is sought, will it be able to speak with one voice?
One might think that the aforementioned kinds of confusing scenarios would
be preventable, or at least manageable, if neuroethics is steered in a less naturalistic
direction. Assertions that “We are not just our brains!” have an appealing clarity.
Disparaging labels for an excessive fixation upon brain functions now include
“neurocentrism” and “neuroessentialism” to join the oft-heard charges of “reduc-
tionism” and “scientism” [7]. Such labels conceal more than they expose. How
does a blanket rejection of scientific reductionism enlighten legal theory about
utilizing empirical evidence that adjusting neurological functioning in a brain
region actually makes a person less indifferent to hurting other people? How does a
scornful repudiation of neuroessentializing illuminate a better definition of moral
responsibility, while societies dispute different conceptions of culpability? Deeper
philosophical investigations are evidently necessary.
3. Naturalistic and non-naturalistic neuroethics
The counterpart to naturalism would presumably be nonnaturalism, as a catch-
all classification. Any alternative to naturalism sets up its opposition by pointing out
selected matters that are (allegedly) unaccounted for and left inexplicable, by the
resources of naturalism. A nonnaturalistic neuroethics therefore is a neuroethical
approach taking the view that authentic moral responsibility and moral decision-
making are matters requiring something unnatural about human beings. As
unnatural, that feature cannot be generated or directly affected by natural causes,
although natural causes may be able to interfere with human capacities (e.g., “free
will” is held to be necessary for moral responsibility). In addition, a nonnaturalistic
neuroethics would hold that authentic moral responsibility and moral deeds must
meet normative standards that remain independent of physiological/neurological/
cognitive processes, although such processes can help explain human behaviors
(e.g., “ethical rules” must prevail as normatively binding).
In sum, nonnaturalistic neuroethics rejects what it takes to be the opposed posi-
tion of “naturalistic neuroethics” and the neuro-reductionism and ethical naturalism
which naturalistic neuroethics could foster. Such a nonnaturalistic perspective has
its own distinctive stance on the two tasks assigned to neuroethics. For nonnatural-
istic neuroethics, psychological matters needed for one’s moral capacity and moral
conduct cannot be explained by any amount of information about the structures
and functions of brains; and ethical norms needed for judging someones moral-
ity cannot be grounded by any amount of information from biology or neurology.
Neuroscientific reductions or replacements of moral capacity are severely questioned
(NB: for a current survey, see [8]), and attempts to ground ethics directly upon nature
have long been scrutinized (a recent analysis is offered by [9]).
Neurobioethics - Bridging Biological Philosophy, Neurotechnology, and Medical Ethics
At this stage, we make our urgent plea for a philosophical pause, before the
paired tasks of neuroethics proceed toward a contested divorce, and false dichoto-
mies compel differing worldviews to collide. Although it is the case that “neuro
was hitched to “ethics” with the sort of haste that intellectual fads display, no such
mistake was made with “neuroethics.” Rather, the true mistake is to presume that
each component rests upon a basis that is independent from the other. Philosophy,
even naturalistic philosophy, does not so presume, which receives our elaboration in
what follows. We remain convinced that the “neuro” and the “ethical” can be closely
related and their grounds should be somewhat integrated. We provocatively raise the
question of “Naturalizing Neuroethics?” not to advocate for that one-sided agenda,
or to instigate counter-responses from naturalism’s adversaries, but rather to point
the way to a conciliatory philosophical setting that is broader than both sides.
Physician-philosopher Henk ten Have has recounted how the central tasks of
any philosophy involve metaphysical, epistemological, anthropological, and ethical
domains [10]. Naturalism is no exception. Naturalism, as a philosophical worldview,
cannot avoid a metaphysical perspective about what counts as real. For naturalism,
the universe, as it is empirically experienced and known, represents phenomena of
nature, which are accessible for inquiry. On this view, the tools and methods of sci-
ence—inclusive of those exploring and demonstrating how organisms arise, exist,
and interact with each other and their ecologies—are applicable to the universe, and
they are able (at least in the long run) to reveal the nature of anything accessible by
To be sure, practicalities limit what can be investigated and understood, espe-
cially at the outer bounds of size and scale. The epistemic basis of naturalistic
understanding, while ever-widening from the minute to the massive, has to respect
constraints of technologies and techniques (i.e., the tools) that humans develop
and employ to define what is known and can be known. From such capabilities
and constraints arise hypotheses and theories. Through methods of observation,
evaluation, and corroboration, hypotheses conjoin currently accepted facts and
established physical laws to develop theories: well-substantiated, valid explanations
of some aspect(s) of the natural world. Common definitions apply:
Fact: In science, an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and for all
practical purposes is accepted as “true.” Truth in science, however, is never final,
and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow.
Hypothesis: A tentative statement about the natural world leading to deductions
that can be tested. If the deductions are verified, it becomes more probable that the
hypothesis is correct. If the deductions are incorrect, the original hypothesis can be
abandoned or modified. Hypotheses can be used to build more complex inferences
and explanations.
Law: A descriptive generalization about how some aspect of the natural world
behaves under stated circumstances.
Theory: In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural
world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses ([11], 2).
Humans engage in their empirical inquiries with investigational and decisional
tools they implement and put acquired knowledge (information, understand-
ings, meanings) and invented technologies to use for other human enterprises.
Everything about science is thoroughly human in embodiment as well as in intel-
lect. Science (qua Scientia: knowing, and epistemic means and methods at hand),
Naturalizing Neuroethics? A Syncretic Approach
no less than technology (qua Techne-logos: an accounting of tool development and
use), falls entirely within the range, and limitations, of human activity in general.
To examine what science does is to study ways that humanity lives. Humans use sci-
ence and its tools for human endeavors: of comprehension, articulation, interaction
with the world, survival, competition, cooperation, and flourishing. Examining,
explaining, and proposing how humans enact and implement science include
epistemic matters, but they all instantiate the anthropological domain.
Moreover, as Thomas Kuhn, Bruno Latour, and other philosophers and histori-
ans of science have elucidated, human ways of life and thought are able to influence
and impact each other (for overviews, consult [12, 13]). Because science is a human
endeavor, its conduct and employment render it amenable to interpretations and
redirections based upon a worldview or philosophy, and/or on cultural tenets and
traditional beliefs, which both reflect and foster particular sociocultural ideas,
norms, and mores. As philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett points
out, there is no “philosophy-free” science, “only science whose philosophical bag-
gage is taken on board without examination” ([14], 21). Furthermore, since science
is part of the human drama of life, it cannot help but manifest an ethical dimension.
Human enterprises pursue ends and defined “good(s)” which are taken to be valu-
able for something and someone, and thus the ethical domain is engaged.
For naturalism, or any other worldview, the “natural” cannot be very distant or
detached from the “human” and the “ethical.That relationship works both con-
ceptually and pragmatically. Neuroethics is no exception, and indeed, it should
exemplify that kind of relationship. If and when the “nature” of moral meanings,
decisions, and actions are understood in connection with “neural” matters, and
the nature of brain operations are understood in relation with meaningfully
“moral” behaviors, then we can ascertain that the “neuro” is placed securely in
“neuroethics” [15].
Can so much “neuro” for neuroethics be trusted? Nonnaturalistic neuroethics
lacks that confidence. However, neuroscience cannot dictate what counts as moral-
ity and moral cognition, on scientific grounds alone. The neuroscience of morality
cannot be scientifically conducted without guidance from social understandings of
morality. Scientists premise inquiries into “moral” brain functioning upon ethical
views about what shall count as moral situations, moral thinking, moral decisions,
and moral values. No amount of cognitive neuroscience and neurology, on their
own, could determine what counts as a moral emotion, value, or belief had by any
subject. Nor do any of those fields, by themselves, identify the occurrence of a
moral decision among the innumerable brain processes happening at any moment.
Any perusal of current literature from those fields will illustrate such scientific
modesty, independent of conclusions that researchers themselves happen to make
about moral cognition (Ample citations to that body of literature are provided
by [1618]). A fuller discussion of neural processes involved in moral cognition,
decision-making, and action is beyond the scope of this chapter, but the reader is
referred to references cited above.
This methodological point deserves some additional expansion. Exploratory
experiments proceed as a human subject (an encultured person, to be specific),
who is told what to think about, is asked for a judgment about a certain situation, or
the subject is watched for some specific type of conduct, etc., so that experiment-
ers know when morality (among numerous matters for one’s attention) has some
relation to ongoing cognitive processes. For example, Keith Yoder and Jean Decety
survey key brain regions involved with the neuroscience of morality in this manner:
Converging evidence from functional neuroimaging studies and neurological obser-
vations indicates that the same regions implicated in social decision-making play
Neurobioethics - Bridging Biological Philosophy, Neurotechnology, and Medical Ethics
important specific roles in morality. Specifically, a set of interconnected regions
encompassing the vmPFC, OFC, amygdala, TPJ, ACC, aINS, PCC, and dlPFC
are reliably engaged across tasks which involve explicit or implicit evaluations of
morally-laden stimuli, regardless of whether the outcome of an action affects the
participants directly or another individual ([19], 285).
Neuroscientific terms predominate, yet key conditioning factors—such as
“morally-laden stimuli”—are already deemed by experimenters to be moral prior
to peering into the brain. In general, unless conditions are amenable to moral
sensitivity and judgment, and a person could be mentally oriented under those
conditions toward possible moral behaviors, nothing about that persons brain could
be interpreted as moral cognition [20]. Brains are not examined for signs of moral
cognition, while subjects are focused on preparing a dinner meal or operating a
lawn mower, unless some distinctively moral feature were added, and that cannot
be added by brain science alone. Nevertheless, neuroethics would lack vital content
and credibility without consulting neuroscience, so we believe our call for “no
neuroethics without neuroscience” to be a sensible demand [21].
In short, epistemic, anthropological, and ethical frameworks together transmute
a neurological assessment of brain activity into a neuroethical assessment of moral
competency and performance. These methodological considerations lend reas-
surance that our approach does not conceal a “neuro”-reductionist or essentialist
agenda. The discoveries of empirical relationships, stable connections, cause-effect
patterns, and conditioning factors among observable events are the very opposite of
concluding that some of those matters are unreal or “really” something else entirely.
As an illustration, if two observed matters are empirically correlatable, they both
remain just as real. References to neural correlates of psychological events, or to
neurological events preceding and preparing behaviors, are not covert concessions
to reductionism (see, e.g., [22, 23]). Neuroethics pursued in light of well-confirmed
neuroscientific discoveries is just well-informed neuroethics, not a neuroethics
already co-opted by a metaphysical worldview.
We have also endorsed a call for “no neuroscience without neuroethics” [21, 24],
to support an agenda already promoting the development and impact of neuroeth-
ics. Yet neuroethics has characteristically been equivocal at best, and at worst mute
(if not blind), about the corresponding call for “no neuroethics without neurosci-
ence.” Ethical rules and principles ready-made for application to neuroethical issues
relieve philosophical intercessions from the burden of incorporating cognitive
and neuroscientific information about moral judgment and action. A philosophical
neuroethics can do better than that. The dictum that “Is cannot imply an Ought”
appeals to positivists, yet the converse notion that “Ought cannot supply an Is” is
too simplistic and pessimistic as well. What is devoutly pursued with ethical devo-
tion must make its material difference in human practices and psychological opera-
tions, or else it has no footing or effectiveness (anywhere) in the natural world.
To this point of our argument, we have defended our view that reflective
philosophical approaches to neuroethics should acknowledge a “natural-ethical”
continuity and entanglement. Due recognition of that relationship has not been
naturalisms insight alone. After all, idealisms, phenomenologies, existentialisms,
and theologies have perennially sought to integrate the ideal and the real. Perhaps
answering the question, “Which philosophy or philosophies best undergirds neuro-
ethics?” need not choose one front-runner, if enough shared philosophical ground
could be found.
Philosophical anthropology, as the fulcrum point midway between metaphys-
ics and ethics, is ideally situated to stimulate realistic reflections on the capacity
of various cultural constructs and practices to ground a global neuroethics. The
Naturalizing Neuroethics? A Syncretic Approach
plurality displayed by ethics around the world is the key to forging an applicable
ethics for humanity. Since it is naturally human for societies to develop and uphold
their cultural ethos in diverse ways, all ethics is undeniably human in aspiration
and service. Our search for a universally relevant neuroethics, securely grounded
in humanity’s capacities and endeavors, has brought us to the question of cultural
diversity. How might neuroethics comport with, and best serve, the varied world-
views, wisdom traditions, and philosophies exemplified in the global heterogeneity
of the twenty-first century?
To begin with, neuroethics in definition and practice should not be viewed as
only another subfield of applied ethics, despite certain advantages to doing so. If
neuroethics were entirely subsumed under philosophical ethics, then its supervi-
sion by philosophy would bind neuroethics to the humanities, where human values
can be insulated from scientific encroachment and the “naturalistic fallacy.” That
security might relieve anxieties about dissolving what is most “human” into the
biological realm. However, neuroethics has already acquired and apprehended far
too much from the behavioral and brain sciences to expect and propose that human
values float freely and apart from individual and groups’ plans, pursuits, and
practices. We would hope that dismissing the scientific study of human beings and
retreating into idealistic enclaves should not be the destiny of neuroethics.
Perhaps neuroethics is instead destined to play an ancillary role, supporting the
lead taken by the brain sciences. Ethics, to be most realistic in nature, would pre-
sumably be discerned somewhere in the cognitive processes generating the actual
moral judgments that humans make in the course of living (more or less) moral
lives. That would allow neuroethics to appeal to ethical standards pre-approved
by the embodied human brains of people trying to be moral in the first place, so
neuroethics gets subsumed under the “neuroscience of morality.” But that leaves
moral psychology torn between two masters: shall it conform to strictures set by
neuroscience (such as the eliminationist abandonment of much moral vocabulary as
fictional folk psychology), or shall it remain loyal to one or another ethical theory
(e.g., by taking the dualist route of awarding moral thinking an ontological status
among other brain processes). Is neuroethics similarly caught between serving two
Treating ethics as something that is materially instantiated in the brain, as
many academic writings on neuroethics expect, is only a half-way measure that
contorts both ethics and science. Crafting just-so interpretations “showing” how
the brain does what this or that ethical theory requires amounts to committing the
naturalistic fallacy in reverse! Far too much work on behalf of one preferred ethical
theory or another has to be put into designing experiments and selectively inter-
preting results, from either experimental psychology or imaging neuroscience, to
reasonably conclude that any ethical theory enjoys an obvious empirical advantage.
Uniquely moral sentiments (and moral values, etc.) have no singular cerebral locale,
and they are not ready-made for guiding purely moral judgments somewhere in the
brain [8, 15, 25].
However, a third option beckons, presented by philosophical anthropology. Like
neurophilosophy, and its revisions of philosophical issues with a due measure of
scientific information, neuroethics could collaborate with the sciences in a prag-
matic and judicious manner. Neuroethics can be suitably naturalistic with respect
to advances in behavioral and brain sciences, without descending into a naturalistic
submission to science. On that basis, then—and only then—will human “ethics” be
fully aligned with “neuroethics.
Here, proponents of nonnaturalistic neuroethics may intercede, observing
that their protection of moral values surely merits considerable anthropological
validity. To reiterate, a nonnaturalistic neuroethics follows the lead of privileged
Neurobioethics - Bridging Biological Philosophy, Neurotechnology, and Medical Ethics
nonscientific or anti-scientific ideas about why and how people are moral/immoral,
and it conforms to traditional moral norms endorsed by one culture or another.
What could be more human? We cannot disagree, having drawn attention to the
way that humanity flourishes through many diverse cultures.
However, such laudable diversity compels nonnaturalistic neuroethics to subdi-
vide into numerous neuroethics, each beholden to one or another ethical tradition
that seems as “natural” for human beings as any. What they retain in common is
their reluctance to accept neuroscientific claims about human morality without
ample reinterpretation and amendment in light of their tradition(s). And in this
way, each nonnaturalistic neuroethics will tend to display a contradictory stance
toward brain science: while denying that neurological evidence could count against
preferred moral judgments, they expect brain evidence to somehow support the
naturality of those judgments. To conceal that tension, a nonnaturalistic neuroeth-
ics may appeal to two allies: moral philosophy (about what morality really is) and
ethical theory (about principles grounding moral norms). A suitably parochial
moral philosophy and a parochial ethical theory, sharing a sociocultural basis, can
lend support a nonnaturalistic neuroethics. No admission of relativism will be
forthcoming, as they purport to address what is genuinely moral for humanity.
A concern for human morality is admirable, yet nonnaturalistic neuroethics is
not alone in its anthropological focus. Naturalistic neuroethics, by definition, will
not follow ideas about humanity and human morality that prove incompatible with
the behavioral, biological, and brain sciences. Inconsistency cannot be ruled out in
advance. Naturalistic neuroethics is not silenced by claims to the effect that What
we think about morality cannot be placed in doubt by anything brains are doing.
For a naturalistic neuroethics, what human brains are really doing (and not doing)
can expose mistaken ideas about how people are able (or fail) to behave morally.
Human capacities to learn morality and incorporate moral norms into daily
conduct are studied closely by developmental, social, and moral psychology, and
cultural anthropology can be coordinated with those fields [26]. As for cognitive
and social neuroscience (i.e., what could be considered “neuroscience of moral
cognition and behavior”), their role here is adjunct to psychology, since they
presuppose that experimental subjects are sometimes thinking about, and occasion-
ally performing, moral behaviors. Moral philosophy should cooperate with the
behavioral sciences as well: moral philosophizing that ignores anthropology and
psychology lacks sufficient content, devolving instead into either rationalism or
4. Integrative, realistic, and neuroethics
Naturalistic neuroethics, heeding moral anthropology and psychology, finds
that only socialized and encultured brains enact moral practices. As previously
explained, no answer to What is morality?” or Who is moral?” will arrive solely
from studying neural functioning and brain processes. A “naturalistic” stance for
neuroethics should affirm, as firmly as nonnaturalistic neuroethics, that ethics will
not be determined by brain sciences, and narrow “neuro-reductionism” will not
replace moral philosophy or dictate neuroethics. Nevertheless, what human brains
are really doing (and not doing) sets factual bounds to pondering how people are
able (or fail) to behave morally.
Nonnaturalistic neuroethics would be best served by heeding and upholding
the realistic advice that ethical theorizing should attend to actual moral capacities
and practical methods able to improve them. Naturalistic neuroethics has the same
Naturalizing Neuroethics? A Syncretic Approach
boundaries, attending to humanity as it has biologically evolved, and morality as
actually practiced by humanity. Only socialized and encultured individuals (with
their embodied brains) understand and enact moral practices; hence there is no
such thing as a culture-free morality, unstructured by historical tradition embed-
ded in some society or another. Any neuroethics relies on ethics and cannot create
it. Ethics displays considerable variation with regard to concrete moral norms, but
it never wavers from its primary devotion to moral agency and the moral subject,
without which morality would be an empty gesture. It is ethics itself, a thoroughly
human ethics that requires neuroethics to protect the human capacity for per-
sonal identity, dignity, and moral responsibility. And it is ethics that demands
neuroethics to accordingly apply the highest ideals and principles for evaluating
neuroS/T.Thus, the answer to the question, “From where does neuroethics get its
ethics?”, can only be an anthropological answer: from humanity itself.
In comparison, nonnatural neuroethics cannot be as faithful to humanity as a whole.
Fixations upon unnatural psychology and transcendent ethics only seem to satisfy
metaphysical quests for permanence and certainty. Epistemic tensions tend to render
any nonnatural neuroethics apart. Neuroscience cannot be conducted or trusted with-
out reinterpretation from unscientific stands, while allies from moral philosophy and
ethical theory are culture-bound and somewhat resistant to revision. Anthropological
problems will also mount: human moral capacities are misconceived or minimized in
contrast with idealized moral expectations, while the effects of neuroS/T interventions
on moral behavior are regarded as mysterious or tenuous. Finally, when it comes to
practical ethics, nonnatural neuroethics is bereft of resources for constructive ethical
theorizing about workable ways to adjust and improve moral conduct.
A nonnatural neuroethics need not exalt metaphysics to the detriment of epis-
temology, anthropology, and ethics. A cultural heritage or religious tradition can
avoid the problems inherent to a staunchly nonnatural neuroethics. Abandoning
ethical principles and embracing reductionism is not necessary; indeed, naturalistic
neuroethics is admittedly metaphysical about nature yet it need not, and should not,
devolve into value-free physicalism. Even if metaphysical insights distinguish the
worldview of a religious tradition, scientific insights into the whole human being and
the human capacity for moral agency can be accepted and implemented for worthy
ethical goals. As for naturalistic neuroethics, it must never lose sight of the personal
self that bears moral worth and pursues moral ends. Here, it is important to assert
that neuroscience—and neuroethics—must appreciate the functions of brains that
are embodied in organisms that are embedded in their ecologies, inclusive of culture
and religious traditions and practices [27]. In this way, naturalistic neuroethics will be
indebted to ethical wisdom conveyed by cultural and religious heritages.
From this broader vantage point, the chasm separating naturalistic and non-
naturalistic neuroethics no longer seems so wide. With anthropology and ethics
leading this approach, a closer convergence is coming into view. We can now confess
that the initial (and admittedly artificial) dichotomy that we erected between
“naturalistic” and “nonnatural” neuroethics had to collapse. The shared humanistic
basis to any ethical neuroethics, grounded in humanity and its moral ways, brings
ethics and science into conceptual and practical coordination:
Only socialized and encultured brains understand and enact morality. No science has a
basis for inquiries or judgments about morality apart from this human arena of life.
Moral values and norms are instilled and perpetuated through one or another
culturally embedded heritage. No science is inquiring into anything about morality
outside of these ongoing practices.
Neurobioethics - Bridging Biological Philosophy, Neurotechnology, and Medical Ethics
Cognitive science and neuroscience cannot independently understand human moral
capacities. Alleged discoveries about moral cognition from brain science alone have,
in fact, tacitly presumed psychological or philosophical frameworks.
Developmental, social, and moral psychology is best positioned to comprehend
how people participate in the moral practices of their societies. Brain sciences yield
adjunct inquiries to moral capacities by presuming frameworks from the behavioral
The behavioral and brain sciences are discovering the cognitive functions and
neurological processes permitting moral behaviors. What human brains are really
doing (and not doing) sets factual bounds to pondering how people are able (or
fail) to behave morally.
Ethics offers bridges between moral practices that humans promulgate and desired
moral ends worthy of pursuit. Ethics should deal with actual moral capacities and
practical methods of improving them.
Effective means of understanding and improving real-world moral conduct are
the practical tools in service of meeting moral standards and realizing ethical ends.
Imagined threats to morality from nature and causality unwisely thwart motives to
make a more moral world.
So long as humanity as a whole is an objective of both scientific study and ethical
interest, then neuroethics can be cohesive and complete. “Naturalizing” neuroethics
actually names no urgently needed project. As unwarranted worries over reduc-
tionism subside, “nonnaturalistic” neuroethics only names a reactionary agenda
without a real opponent.
5. Conclusion
We posit that the truly urgent project facing neuroethics today is this query:
Given the cultural heterogeneity characterizing the global stage where advanced
neuroS/T is emerging, how should neuroethics wisely learn from, and lend advice to,
humanity’s worldviews, wisdom traditions, and philosophies? Elsewhere we have
urged that a cosmopolitan approach to ethics can elicit deliberations converg-
ing on useful principles [1, 28]. Here, we add our warning against emphasizing
metaphysical differences or moral disagreements at the expense of our shared
humanity, so that “neuro-bio-ethics” has a consolidated foundation and consists
of more than just a hybrid term [22, 29]. A human-centered and person-oriented
neuroethics will prove capable of assessing how neuroscience is exploring and
affecting cognition, emotion, and behavior (inclusive of moral conduct), while
upholding ethics to guide the application of neuroS/T as an endeavor seeking the
good for humanity.
This work was supported in part by the European Unions Horizon 2020
Research and Innovation Programme under grant agreement 720270: HBP SGA1
(JG); by federal funds UL1TR001409 from the National Center for Advancing
Translational Sciences (NCATS), National Institutes of Health, through the Clinical
© 2018 The Author(s). Licensee IntechOpen. This chapter is distributed under the terms
of the Creative Commons Attribution License (
by/3.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited.
Naturalizing Neuroethics? A Syncretic Approach
Author details
John R.Shook1* and JamesGiordano2,3,4
1 University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NewYork, USA
2 Department of Neurology, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington,
3 Department of Biochemistry, Georgetown University Medical Center,
Washington, DC, USA
4 Neuroethics Studies Program, Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics,
Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC, USA
*Address all correspondence to:
and Translational Science Awards Program (CTSA), a trademark of the Department
of Health and Human Services, part of the Roadmap Initiative, “Re-Engineering the
Clinical Research Enterprise” (JG); and by the Austin and Ann O’Malley Visiting
Chair in Bioethics of Loyola Marymount University (JG).
Neurobioethics - Bridging Biological Philosophy, Neurotechnology, and Medical Ethics
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Background As a discipline, neuroethics addresses a range of questions and issues generated by basic neuroscientific research (inclusive of studies of putative neurobiological processes involved in moral and ethical cognition and behavior), and its use and meanings in the clinical and social spheres. Here, we present Part 4 of a four-part bibliography of the neuroethics literature focusing on clinical and social applications of neuroscience, to include: the treatment-enhancement discourse; issues arising in neurology, psychiatry, and pain care; neuroethics education and training; neuroethics and the law; neuroethics and policy and political issues; international neuroethics; and discourses addressing "trans-" and "post-" humanity. Methods To complete a systematic survey of the literature, 19 databases and 4 individual open-access journals were employed. Searches were conducted using the indexing language of the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). A Python code was used to eliminate duplications in the final bibliography. Results When taken with Parts 1-3, this bibliography aims to provide a listing of international peerreviewed papers, books, and book chapters published from 2002 through 2016. While seeking to be as comprehensive as possible, it may be that some works were inadvertently and unintentionally not included. We therefore invite commentary from the field to afford completeness and contribute to this bibliography as a participatory work-in-progress.
The word ʼneurodiversity’ first appeared in a 1998 article by journalist Harvey Blume, discussing elevated rates of autism 1 in the Silicon Valley (see Box 26.1 for a definition of autism). The article capitalizes on the technological savant stereotype of autism to make the point that ʼneurodiversity [in autism] may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life’ (Blume, 1998). The term was then adopted by author Judy Singer in her 1999 essay “Why Can’t You Be Normal for Once in Your Life? From a Problem with No Name to the Emergence of a New Category of Difference,” who gave ʼneurodiversity’ its modern flavor when she wrote: The key significance of the “autism spectrum” lies in its call for and anticipation of a politics of neurological diversity, or neurodiversity. The ʼneurologically different” represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class/gender/race and will augment the insights of the social model of disability. (Singer, 1999, 64) Since then, neurodiversity has become a banner of the autistic self-advocacy movement. Though there are subtle variations in how neurodiversity is understood and described, these are predominantly variations upon a theme. Succinctly put, neurodiversity can be thought of as an 395identity-politics approach to autism, situating autism as a natural form of human variation and an integral aspect of identity that should be approached with interventions that assist autistic individuals without altering them (Kapp et al., 2013). In recognition of autistic self-advocates’ stated preference for identity-first language, which emphasizes autism as a vital aspect of self-identity, we adopt the term “autistic individuals” here to refer to those with a clinical diagnosis of autism (Bagatell, 2010; Kapp et al., 2013). (For more information, please see
From the Editors - Volume 25 Issue 4 - THOMASINE KUSHNER, JAMES GIORDANO