Neuroscience: Addressing Perdurable Questions of Humanity

Research in, and applications of neuroscience and neurotechnology are increasingly becoming an international enterprise. The past 10 years reveal the accelerated pace of both neuroscientific advancement, and investment of non-Western nations, corporate and venture capital companies, and actors in neuroscientific and neurotechnological research and development. Much of neuroscientific inquiry is directed at longstanding philosophical questions about the mind, morality, emotions, nature of being, and relationality. The body of neuroscientific information, and its ever-expanding influence and gravitas as a social force have challenged long-held notions about the basis of consciousness and the nature of the brain-mind-self relationship, and prompted re-examination of regnant concepts of ‘personhood’ and the person-in-society. As philosopher Fritz Jahr1 noted some 80 years ago, philosophy poses questions, science provides answers, and an enlightened open society must alter and adapt philosophical – and ethical – principles in light of new knowledge.

Neuroethics: A Viable Meta-Ethics

Yet, as Latour recognized, scientific answers often serve to generate questions anew, and expand and deepen the nature of inquiry.2 In this light, we ask what neuroscience can provide to and for the development and articulation of a contemporary ethics on an ever more pluralistic, yet interactive world stage? The field of neuroethics addresses these issues through its two foci: 1) studies of the neurobiological mechanisms of proto-moral, moral and ethical thought, emotions and behaviors – what our group refers to as “neuro-ecology”3 and 2) studies and engagement of the ethico-legal and social issues generated by neuroscientific research, use – and misuse – in medicine, public life, and global relations. We argue that if/when taken together, these foci obtain a meta-ethics that is naturalistically grounded, but not reductionistic in that it preserves the reality and importance of biologically embodied individuals who are psychologically sensitive and responsive to the socio-cultural ecology in which they are embedded, and as such may be tenable – and valuable – to guide the application of neuroscience to foster socio-cultural insights and understanding.4-6

Toward International Relevance in Practice

Our current work aims to develop an internationally-relevant paradigm of/for neuroethics.6,7 We offer a tentative model for an applied international neuroethics that relies on a version of Principlism, herein revised to reflect concepts of moral cognition, emotion and actions as informed by the neural and cognitive sciences. A ‘limited’ conception of global citizenship, acknowledging the contemporary bio-psychosocial human being as a ‘multiple situated self’, is the precondition for this neuroethical approach. In the main, it provides cosmopolitan concepts (i.e. - “global” constructs), that can be contextualized to bio-psychosocial realities in particular communities (i.e. - “local conceptualizations”), pro Dower’s notion of ‘communitarian cosmopolitanism’. By providing insight to the ways individuals engage resources, relate, regard each other, and respond to various circumstances, neuroethics may enable a view to “what” we are, and “why” we think, emote and act as we do, and in so doing could inform – if not guide – the norms, mores, ideals and ethos that affect “how” we act as individuals, communities, politics and society, writ both small and large.


1. Jahr F. 1927. Bio-Ethik: Eine Umschau über die ethischen Beziehungen des Menschen zu Tier und Pflanze. Kosmos. Handweiser für Naturfreunde 24(1): 2-4.

2. Latour B, Woolgar S. 1979. Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. Los Angeles: Sage.

3. Giordano J. 2011. Neuroethics: traditions, tasks and values. Human Prospect 1(1): 5-10.

4. Giordano J. 2011. Neuroethics- two interacting traditions as a viable meta-ethics? AJOB-Neuroscience 3(1); 23-25.

5. Giordano J, Benedikter R. 2012. Neurotechnology, culture, and the need for a cosmopolitan neuroethics. In: Giordano J. (ed.) Neurotechnology: Premises, Potential, and Problems. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; p.233-242.

6. Shook J, Giordano J. 2014. A principled and cosmopolitan neuroethics: Implications for international relevance. Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 9(1).

7. Lanzilao E, Shook J, Benedikter R, Giordano J. 2014. Advancing neuroscience on the 21st century world stage: The need for – and proposed structure of – an internationally-relevant neuroethics. Ethics in Biology, Engineering and Medicine (In press).


This work was supported in part by the JW Fulbright Foundations (JG), Clark Faculty Fellowship (JG), William H. and Ruth Crane Schaefer Endowment (JG), and funding from the Neuroethics Studies Program of the Edmund D. Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics.


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  • Received: 01 March 2014
  • Accepted: 01 March 2014
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