Skip to main content

Neuroethics: A Conceptual Approach


In this article, we begin by identifying three main neuroethical approaches: neurobioethics, empirical neuroethics, and conceptual neuroethics. Our focus is on conceptual approaches that generally emphasize the need to develop and use a methodological modus operandi for effectively linking scientific (i.e., neuroscience) and philosophical (i.e., ethics) interpretations. We explain and assess the value of conceptual neuroethics approaches and explain and defend one such approach that we propose as being particularly fruitful for addressing the various issues raised by neuroscience: fundamental neuroethics.

Hide All

This research has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation under the Specific Grant Agreement No. 720270 (Human Brain Project SGA1) and Specific Grant Agreement No. 785907 (Human Brain Project SGA2). The first two authors contributed equally to the article.

Hide All


1. Racine, E. Pragmatic Neuroethics: Improving Treatment and Understanding of the Mind-Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2010.

2. Racine, E. Debates about Neuroethics: Perpectives on its Development, Focus, and Future. Dordrecht: Springer International Publishing; 2017.

3. Roskies, A. Neuroethics for the new millenium. Neuron 2002;35(1):21–3.

4. Roskies, A. Neuroethics. In: Zalta, EN, ed. The Stanford Enciclopedia of Philosophy. 2016; available at (last accessed 20 June 2017).

5. Evers, K, Salles, A, Farisco, M. Theoretical framing of neuroethics: The need for a conceptual approach. In: Racine, E, Aspler, J, eds. Debates about Neuroethics: Perspectives on its Development, Focus and Future. Dordrecht: Springer International Publishing; 2017:89107.

6. Northoff, G. What is neuroethics? Empirical and theoretical neuroethics. Current Opinion in Psychiatry 2009;22(6):565–9.

7. Salles, A, Evers, K. Social neuroscience and neuroethics: A fruitful synergy. In: Ibanez, A, Sedeno, L, Garcia, A, eds. Social Neuroscience and Social Science: The Missing Link. Dordrecht: Springer International Publishing; 2017:531–46.

8. In logical terms, given some conditions, a healthy brain is necessary and sufficient for mental life.

9. Evers, K. Neuroetique. Quand la matière s’éveille. Paris: Odile Jacob; 2009.

10. Model and simulation are here assumed in their conceptual, not technical sense. For a taxonomy of models and simulation see Farisco M, Kotaleski JH, Evers K. Large-scale brain simulation and disorders of consciousness. Mapping technical and conceptual issues. Frontiers in Psychology 2018;9:585.

11. Cartwright, N. If no capacities, then no credible worlds, but can models reveal capacities? Erkenntnis 2009;70(1):4558.

12. Northoff, G. The Spontaneous Brain. From Mind–Body Problem To World-Brain Problem. Cambridge MA: MIT Press; 2018.

13. Giere, R. Using models to represent reality. In: Magnani, LN, Thagard, P, eds. Model-Based Reasoning in Scientific Discovery. New York: Springer; 1999:4157.

14. See note 12, Northoff 2018.

15. We should note in parenthesis that this need for a conceptual synthesis is true for both a data-led hypothesis-generating strategy based on predictive computational simulation modelling within a Big Data science framework and the traditional hypothesis-lead approach based on the interpretation of empirical data. Regarding these different approaches see Frackowiak, R, Markram, H. The future of human cerebral cartography: A novel approach. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 2015;370(1668): pii: 20140171.

16. See note 9, Evers 2009.

17. See note 5, Evers et al. 2017.

18. Melo-Martin, I, Intemman, K. Interpreting evidence: Why values matter as much as science. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 2012;55(1):5970.

19. See note 9, Evers 2009.

20. Evers, K. Towards a philosophy for neuroethics. An informed materialist view of the brain might help to develop theoretical frameworks for applied neuroethics. EMBO Rep 2007;8(Spec No):S4851.

21. Evers, K. Neuroethics: A philosophical challenge. American Journal of Bioethics 2005;5(2):31–3, discussion at W3–4.

22. See note 3, Roskies 2002.

23. See note 9, Evers 2009.

24. See note 20, Evers 2007.

25. Changeux, J-P (transl Garey L). Neuronal Man: The Biology of Mind. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1986.

26. LeDoux, JE. Synaptic Self : How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Viking; 2002.

27. Edelman, GM. Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1989.

28. See note 9, Evers 2009.

29. See note 20, Evers 2007.

30. See note 9, Evers 2009.

31. Farisco, M, Petrini, C. The impact of neuroscience and genetics on the law: A recent Italian case. Neuroethics 2012;5(3):317–9.

32. Farisco, M, Petrini, C. On the stand. Another episode of neuroscience and law discussion from Italy. Neuroethics 2014;7(2):243–5.

33. Greene, J. The secret joke of Kant´s soul. In: Sinnott-Armstrong, W, ed. Moral Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2008:3579.

34. Berker, AS. The normative insignificance of neuroscience. Philosophy & Public Affairs 2009;37(4):293329.

35. Scruton, R. The Soul of the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 2014.

36. Bennett, M, Hacker, P. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Oxford: Blackwell; 2003.

37. Bennett, MR, Dennett, DC, Hacker, PMS, Searle, J. Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind, and Language. New York: Columbia University Press; 2007.

38. See note 6, Northoff 2009.

39. Northoff, G. Minding the Brain: A Guide to Philosophy and Neuroscience. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; 2014.

40. Wagner, NF, Northoff, G. A fallacious jar? The peculiar relation between descriptive premises and normative conclusions in neuroethics. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 2015;36(3):215–35.

41. Farisco, M, Laureys, S, Evers, K. The intrinsic activity of the brain and its relation to levels and disorders of consciousness. Mind & Matter 2017;15(2):197219.

42. Farisco, M, Laureys, S, Evers, K. Externalization of consciousness. Scientific possibilities and clinical implications. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences 2015;19:205–22.

43. Evers, K. Neurotechnological assessment of consciousness disorders: Five ethical imperatives. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 2016;18(2):155–62.

44. See note 15, Frackowiak, Markram 2014.

45. See note 10, Farisco et al. 2018.

46. Evers, K. Can we be epigenetically proactive? In: Metzinger, TWJ, ed. Open Mind: Philosophy and the Mind Sciences in the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2015.

47. Changeux, JP. The Physiology of Truth. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press; 2004.

48. See note 7, Salles, Evers 2017.

49. Evers, K, Changeux, JP. Proactive epigenesis and ethical innovation: A neuronal hypothesis for the genesis of ethical rules. EMBO Reports 2016;17(10):1361–4.

50. See note 49, Evers, Changeux 2016.

51. Savulescu, J, Persson, I. Moral enhancement, freedom and the God machine. Monist 2012;95(3):399421.

52. Dubljevic, V, Racine, E. Moral enhancement meets normative and empirical reality: Assessing the practical feasibility of moral enhancement neurotechnologies. Bioethics 2017;31(5):338–48.

53. de Melo-Martin, I, Salles, A. Moral bioenhancement: Much ado about nothing? Bioethics 2015;29(4):223–32.

54. Farah, MJ, Heberlein, AS. Personhood and neuroscience: Naturalizing or nihilating? American Journal of Bioethics 2007;7(1):3748.

55. See note 3, Roskies 2002.

56. Shook, JR, Giordano, J. A principled and cosmopolitan neuroethics: Considerations for international relevance. Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 2014;9:1.

57. See note 6, Northoff 2009.

This research has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation under the Specific Grant Agreement No. 720270 (Human Brain Project SGA1) and Specific Grant Agreement No. 785907 (Human Brain Project SGA2). The first two authors contributed equally to the article.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics
  • ISSN: 0963-1801
  • EISSN: 1469-2147
  • URL: /core/journals/cambridge-quarterly-of-healthcare-ethics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed