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Neuroethics: the importance of a conceptual approach

By Arleen Salles, Kathinka Evers, and Michele Farisco

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What is neuroethics? While there is by now a considerable bibliography devoted to examining the philosophical, scientific, ethical, social, and regulatory issues raised by neuroscientific research and related technological applications (and a growing number of people in the world claim to take part in the neuroethical debate), less has been said about how to interpret the field that carries out such examination. And yet, this calls for discussion, particularly considering that the default understanding of neuroethics is one that sees the field as just another type of applied ethics, and, in particular, one dominated by a Western bioethical paradigm. The now-classic interpretation of neuroethics as the “neuroscience of ethics” and the “ethics of neuroscience” covers more ground, but still fails to exhaust the field (1).

As we have argued elsewhere, neuroethics is a complex field characterized by three main methodological approaches (2-4). “Neurobioethics” is a normative approach that applies ethical theory and reasoning to the ethical and social issues raised by neuroscience. This version of neuroethics, which generally mirrors bioethical methodology and goals, is predominant in healthcare, in regulatory contexts, and in the neuroscientific research setting.

“Empirical neuroethics” overlaps with social neuroscience and with what has been called “the neuroscience of ethics” (1). It uses neuroscientific data, specifically the relationship of the structures and different cognitive and affective processes in the brain, to inform theoretical issues (e.g.: how to understand moral reasoning, or how to understand informed consent and moral judgment) and practical issues (e.g.: who can give truly informed consent, or which beings can be considered moral agents). Neither of these approaches addresses a major challenge raised by neuroscience; namely: how neuroscientific knowledge can be relevant to philosophical, social, and ethical concerns. Answering to this challenge, we have identified a third, “conceptual” neuroethical approach that attempts to address scientific and philosophical interpretations.

The question arises: do we really need a conceptual approach? After all, doesn’t neuroscience include a conceptual component? Indeed, it does – although insufficiently. There are a number of ways in which we consider a specific conceptual approach key for addressing the issues raised by neuroscience; however, the conceptual apparatus of the neurosciences is somewhat limited by intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Consider, for example, an issue at the root of an epistemic insufficiency of neuroscience: the distinction between third-person and first-person accounts of notions like mind, consciousness, and normativity. Even if a material correspondence between cerebral (the object of neuroscientific investigation) and mental (1st person) levels exist, the mental (1st person) cannot be totally explained by 3rd person scientific accounts. And here, a conceptual neuroethics approach informed by philosophical reflection offers a more integral way to interpret the data. The same need for conceptual complementarity is found if we focus on mathematical models and computer simulation, highly sophisticated tools used by neuroscience that function as epistemic mediations between “the world” and “us.” Particularly, models are not isomorphic with the target object: what features will be modeled depends on a selection process that is shaped by scientists’ scientific and extra-scientific interests/purposes. The conceptual complementation offered by conceptual neuroethics can play a crucial role in helping neuroscience to build conceptual models that are not arbitrary and not inappropriate for explaining the target object.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

In previous works, we defended a particular version of the conceptual approach: fundamental neuroethics (FN) (4-6). FN is intended to be a reflection on the foundational elements (concepts and methods) of neuroscience. From this perspective, the challenges generally posed by scientific and neuroscientific findings arise not just at the scientific and socio-cultural levels but also at a more generally philosophical level, where the focus is on analyzing the meaning of neuroscientific terms, theories and interpretations, and their relations to how the same or similar terms are used in other disciplines and in ordinary, non-scientific discourse (7). Methodologically, fundamental neuroethics uses conceptual analysis to better understand neuroscience and its possible impact on our understanding of traditional notions such as identity, consciousness, and normative judgment (including moral judgment), among others. Notably, fundamental neuroethics’ main concern is the ontological and epistemic dimension of brain research. Indeed, the ethical and social issues raised by neuroscience cannot be adequately dealt with without acknowledging and addressing the epistemic and ontological aspects that play a major role in the quality of the research process and the legitimacy of the various interpretations of the relevant scientific findings. In short, the ethical, ontological, and epistemological aspects are not independent from each other but rather interwoven; effective reflection needs to address them all.

However, we are aware that one should be careful not to make too drastic a distinction between different neuroethical approaches. In fact, the distinction makes good analytic sense but it should not obscure the fact that the different approaches are complementary dimensions of one and the same field. An integral approach is necessary in order to properly address the issues involved.

To illustrate consider, for example, the following: 
Image courtesy of Flickr.

Empirical neuroethics takes neuroscientific findings as key in a) describing and eventually explaining a number of phenomena and experiences – including moral phenomena such as moral agency; b) potentially giving us important insights into fundamental philosophical notions and questions – such as how to understand autonomy and personhood (8); and c) refining and enhancing the moral tools ethicists use. The fact is, however, that taken by themselves these claims raise translational and conceptual issues. They raise translational issues because unless one supposes that brain facts and normative concepts correspond one to one (and there is no reason to take this for granted), it is not self-evident that brain facts have such explanatory power. But this is related to the conceptual issue: empirical neuroethics would greatly benefit from a conceptual clarification of key scientific and philosophical notions. How does it understand the brain and the mind and the relation between them (if indeed they can at all be separated)? What are the assumptions underlying some of the main conclusions, and can they be reasonably grounded? Indeed, a particular understanding of “brain facts,” their correlation with mental events, their value, and their normative weight underlie the claim that neuroscience has such explanatory power and can even lead us to revise particular metaphysical and ethical notions (9) (10). Conceptual approaches, including fundamental neuroethics, can nicely complement empirical neuroethics by providing the necessary conceptual investigations to satisfy a key requirement: explaining how biological data can have either explanatory or normative relevance. 

Making progress in addressing ethical issues and in uncovering the impact of neuroscientific findings on key human issues to a great extent depends on the concepts we use and how we understand them. Thus, a partnership between the three dominant forms of contemporary neuroethics is actually key. The conceptual approach we favor, fundamental neuroethics, provides at least two important things: an attitude of constructive critical alertness and a thought-out methodology that is intended to achieve both substantial scientific ground and conceptual clarity.


Arleen Salles, PhD. M.A. is a Senior Researcher in the Neuroethics and Philosophy Group at the Centre for Research and Bioethics (CRB) of Uppsala University. Task leader and research collaborator in the Ethics and Society subproject (SP12) of the European Human Brain Project,  and Director of the Neuroethics Program at CIF (Centro de Investigaciones Filosoficas) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is currently working on a conceptual analysis of human identity and the self, and the impact that some neuroscientific findings could have on what being human is.

Professor Kathinka Evers, PhD, is member of the Scientific Board Science of the European Human Brain Project (HBP) and leader of HBP’s research in Philosophy and Neuroethics. She is senior researcher and professor of philosophy at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB) at Uppsala University and Professor ad honoram at the Universidad Central de Chile since 2013. She has been Invited Professor on the Chair Condorcet at École Normale Supérieure, Paris (2002); at Collège de France, Paris (2006 -7); and at Centro de Investigaciones Filosoficas, Buenos Aires (2012).

Michele Farisco PhD, Associate Professor of Moral Philosophy, is part of Centre for Research Ethics and Bioethics neuroethics research team. He is the head of the “Science and society” research unit of Biogem Genetic Research Centre in Ariano Irpino (Italy). He is currently working on his second PhD about the neuroscientific and conceptual issues of consciousness and its disorders, and he is a member of the Neuroethics and Philosophy work-package of the HBP’s Subproject 12.


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3. Salles A, Evers, K. Social neuroscience and Neuroethics: A Fruitful Synergy
. In: Ibanez A, Sedeno, L., Garcia, A., editor. Social Neuroscience and Social Science: The Missing Link: Springer; 2017.

4. Evers K, Salles, A., Farisco, M. Theoretical Framing for Neuroethics: The Need for a Conceptual Aproach. In: Racine E, Aspler, J., editor. Debates About Neuroethics: Springer; 2017.

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. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. Forthcoming.

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8. Farah MJ, Heberlein AS. Personhood and neuroscience: naturalizing or nihilating? Am J Bioeth. 2007;7(1):37-48.

9. Shook JR, Giordano J. A principled and cosmopolitan neuroethics: considerations for international relevance. Philos Ethics Humanit Med. 2014;9:1.

10.Northoff G. What is neuroethics? Empirical and theoretical neuroethics. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2009;22(6):565-9.

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Salles, A., K. Evers, and M. Farisco. (2018). Neuroethics: the importance of a conceptual approach. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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