This short talk will introduce four challenges posed by neuroscience for our understanding of moral personhood and action. I begin with a well-known challenge: that of free will and voluntary action. I propose to frame the challenge not in terms of whether or not we have free will, but the kind of freedom we have. In philosophy, this often centers on debates between libertarian free will and compatibilist free will. There are already a significant number of neuroscientific studies providing evidence on this question. But there are two further questions that can be asked. First, what would it take to conclusively show that humans do (or do not) have free will? Second, if it turns out that we don’t have free will, can neuroscience provide means to help us have free will?

A second challenge, deeply tied to that of freedom, concerns moral responsibility. Increasingly, brain scans are being used in courts of law aiming to show whether or not a defendant can be held responsible for the crimes committed. Such usages are requiring scholars to consider how and when this new form of scientific evidence can be used, and what the evidence shows. The traditional view is that moral responsibility is connected to our ability to act freely. To what extent can brain scans show that I am incapable of acting freely? To what extent can brain scans show that I lack the ability to act responsibly?

A third challenge: A long standing tradition in philosophical ethics places equal if not more emphasis on the role of character in decision-making. What matters is not simply that I make the right decision, but that the decision also flows out of a pattern of life, one lived according to virtue. According to Aristotle, virtues are developed through habitual action and by example. If this is so, then there is good reason to think that there is a real sense that virtues are encoded in the brain. Thus, we can ask, to what extent can there be a science of virtue? Can neuroscience tell us the difference between the courageous person and the coward? If so, what role can and should neuroscience play in helping us turn the coward into the courageous, the selfish into the generous?

This leads to the final challenge: Should we socially implement neurotechnologies and, if so, how should we implement them? One form of implementation, that of neuroceuticals, exists already. Many American college students take Ritalin in an effort to improve performance on exams. Neuroscientific interventions can be used for individual level therapy and enhancement. But they can also be used for broader social purposes. If a soldier’s PTSD can be reduced with a pill, or if individuals who are socially deviant can be treated with transcranial magnetic stimulation, to what extent is this a good thing, and what are the lines that we ought not to cross?


Article metrics loading...

Loading full text...

Full text loading...

  • Received: 01 March 2014
  • Accepted: 01 March 2014
This is a required field
Please enter a valid email address
Approval was a Success
Invalid data
An Error Occurred
Approval was partially successful, following selected items could not be processed due to error