Tuesday, March 14, 2017

What is Feminist Neuroethics About?

By Ben Wills

Ben Wills studied Cognitive Science at Vassar College, where his thesis examined cognitive neuroscience research on the self. He is currently a legal assistant at a Portland, Oregon law firm, where he continues to hone his interests at the intersections of brain, law, and society.

As the boundaries of what may be considered “neuroethics” extend with the development of new kinds of technologies and the evolving interests of scholars, its branches encounter substantial structures of adjacent scholarship. “Feminist neuroethics” is a multidimensional construct and a name that can be afforded both to approaches that fall within the bounds of mainstream neuroethics and metatheoretical challenges to the scope and lines of debate within neuroethics. While acknowledging that scholarship at the intersections of academic feminism/gender studies, feminist science studies, ethics, and neuroscience is much more substantial and diverse than I’m considering here, my modest aim in this post is to highlight how the label “feminist neuroethics” has been used to look at what scholars consider important for neuroethics. In so doing we can see what scholars in these fields see as worth highlighting when identifying their work as such.

The phrase “feminist neuroethics” is young, first used (to my knowledge) in peer-reviewed literature by philosopher Peggy DesAutels in her 2010 article on “Sex differences and neuroethics,” published in Philosophical Psychology (though see Chalfin, Murphy, & Karkazis, 2008 for a close antecedent). She writes that, having found herself considering the ethics of neuroscience, the neuroscience of ethics, and sex/gender differences, her “overlapping approach could neatly be summarized as feminist neuroethics” (p. 96, emphasis original).

Image courtesy of The Blue Diamond Gallery.
DesAutels makes two arguments. First, reviewing the neuroscience literature, she finds it likely that sex/gender differences in certain physical and cognitive domains exist. If so, she argues, such differences ought to inform ethical theory and our understanding of moral behavior. (Left unsaid here, but discussed by DesAutels in other work (e.g., DesAutels, 2015), is the well-established point that ethics as a field has privileged approaches that culturally align with masculinity). On the other hand, if sex/gender differences have been simplified or overstated in neuroscience, this suggests that the research and its representation in the media may themselves contain bias on the basis of sex/gender. In this first piece on feminist neuroethics per se, DesAutels clearly ties feminist neuroethics to issues regarding putative sex/gender differences.

Following DesAutels (2010), “feminist neuroethics” as a label and an identity has been used relatively sparingly. I found two hubs of work explicitly calling themselves “feminist neuroethics.” The first is a special issue of Neuroethics devoted to neuroscience and sex/gender, with contributions from members of the NeuroGenderings network on sex/gender and neuroscience. The guest editors, Isabelle Dussauge and Anelis Kaiser, divide the entries into three sections: (1) proposals of a feminist and gender sensitive neuroscience, (2) alternative accounts of the brain from outside the neurosciences, and (3) reviews of neuroscientific claims concerning gender (Dussauge & Kaiser, 2012). The first section includes articles on difference as it is and can be considered in sex/gender neuroscience (Roy, 2012) and how neuroscience might integrate gender knowledge in a deep way (Nikoleyczik, 2012). The second section includes Cynthia Kraus’s (2012) argument for foregrounding the tensions between gender studies and neuroscience as a path for interdisciplinary headway and Sigrid Schmitz’s (2012) critique of how neuroeconomics reinforces gender norms while relying on a “new neuro-determinism.” It also includes a discussion of the ethics inherent in necessarily reductive fMRI images (Fitsch, 2012) and a demonstration by Cordelia Fine (2012) of how the epistemic and social authority of neuroscience contributes to a feedback loop where neuroscientific data showing sex/gender differences, on the one hand, and gendered behavior and beliefs in society at large, on the other, reinforce each other. In the third section, Catherine Vidal (2012) continues along themes similar to Fine’s and shows how specific research in three behavioral science subdisciplines (skills in language and mathematics, testosterone and financial risk-taking behavior, and moral cognition) overemphasizes sex differences. Rebecca Jordan-Young and Raffaella Rumiati (2012) argue that plasticity and variability ought to replace “hardwired” as prevailing metaphors for neuroscience, and illustrate ethical consequences of the failure to do so. 

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The other site of feminist neuroethics, so-named, is from the comprehensive 2015 Springer Handbook of Neuroethics, which dedicates a four-entry section to “feminist neuroethics.” Here, Robyn Bluhm (2015) discusses how feminist philosophy of science and neuroethics intersect, for example by bringing the idea that science is never value-free – a key insight of feminist philosophy of science – to neuroimaging research on sex/gender differences and other topics. DesAutels (2015) traces the rise of feminist ethics in response to the shortcomings of standard philosophical ethics, and suggests that, versus male/female, oppressor/oppressed is a binary that better cuts nurture at its joints. In this section the intersection of critical race theory and cognitive neuroscience through the concept of implicit bias is also addressed (Jacobson & Langley, 2015), and Cordelia Fine and Fiona Fidler (2015) show how null-hypothesis statistical testing (from whence comes the (in)famous p < .05) leads researchers to over-identify sex/gender differences. Fine and Fidler suggest an estimation approach using effect sizes and confidence intervals as a specific remedy.

The above articles contain a great diversity of topics that demonstrate a broad scope of how “feminist neuroethics” as a label has been used describe scholarship. Upon inspection, however, the strongest theme running through this microassortment of literature is clearly sex/gender differences. Some of the questions asked include: what the nature and scope of putative sex/gender differences might (or might not) be, which questions about sex/gender are important and why, how these questions are being answered by scientists and ethicists alike, and the ethical significance of sex/gender research and findings. Clearly, given this emphasis so far, feminist neuroethics finds this topic to be important. We should keep listening. 


Bluhm, R. (2015). Feminist philosophy of science and neuroethics. In Handbook of Neuroethics. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-4707

Chalfin, M. C., Murphy, E. R., & Karkazis, K. a. (2008). Women’s neuroethics? Why sex matters for neuroethics. The American Journal of Bioethics?: AJOB, 8(1), 1–2. https://doi.org/10.1080/15265160701829038

DesAutels, P. (2010). Sex differences and neuroethics. Philosophical Psychology, 23(1), 95–111. https://doi.org/Doi 10.1080/09515080903532266

DesAutels, P. (2015). Feminist Ethics and Neuroethics. In Handbook of Neuroethics (pp. 1421–1434). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-4707-4_155

Dussauge, I., & Kaiser, A. (2012). Neuroscience and Sex/Gender. Neuroethics, 5(3), 211–215. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-012-9165-5

Fine, C. (2012). Explaining, or Sustaining, the Status Quo? The Potentially Self-Fulfilling Effects of “Hardwired” Accounts of Sex Differences. Neuroethics, 5(3), 285–294. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-011-9118-4

Fine, C., & Fidler, F. (2015). Sex and Power: Why Sex/Gender Neuroscience Should Motivate Statistical Reform. In Handbook of Neuroethics (pp. 1447–1462). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-4707-4_156

Fitsch, H. (2012). (A)e(s)th(et)ics of Brain Imaging. Visibilities and Sayabilities in Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Neuroethics, 5(3), 275–283. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-011-9139-z

Jacobson, A. J., & Langley, W. (2015). A Curious Coincidence: Critical Race Theory and Cognitive Neuroscience. In Handbook of Neuroethics (pp. 1435–1446). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-4707-4_157

Jordan-Young, R., & Rumiati, R. I. (2012). Hardwired for Sexism? Approaches to Sex/Gender in Neuroscience. Neuroethics, 5(3), 305–315. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-011-9134-4

Kraus, C. (2012). Critical Studies of the Sexed Brain: A Critique of What and for Whom? Neuroethics, 5(3), 247–259. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-011-9107-7

Nikoleyczik, K. (2012). Towards Diffractive Transdisciplinarity: Integrating Gender Knowledge into the Practice of Neuroscientific Research. Neuroethics, 5(3), 231–245. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-011-9135-3

Roy, D. (2012). Neuroethics, Gender and the Response to Difference. Neuroethics, 5(3), 217–230. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-011-9130-8

Vidal, C. (2012). The Sexed Brain: Between Science and Ideology. Neuroethics, 5(3), 295–303. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-011-9121-9

Want to cite this post?

Wills, B. (2017). What is feminist neuroethics about? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2017/03/what-is-feminist-neuroethics-about.html

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