Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Neuroethics

Neuroethics refers to the research on ethics done within the field of neuroscience. Neuroethics can also refer to the ethical issues that may arise in the research and study of neuroscience. Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system and the brain.

The field of neuroethics is relatively new, and its findings are far from settled. It examines the brain in relationship to questions like “Is there free will?” and “Is the human moral sense innate, or in other words, ‘hardwired’ in the brain?”

Research in neuroscience shows that the way the brain is wired has much to do with how and why people make moral decisions. In fact, neuroscience shows that a network of various regions of the brain is consistently involved in moral decision-making.

So, while ethics and morality were once exclusively within the province of philosophers and theologians, future research in neuroscience may contribute greatly to the resolution of key questions in these areas.

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Moral Reasoning

Moral reasoning applies critical analysis to specific events to determine what is right or wrong, and what people ought to do in a particular situation. Both philosophers and psychologists study moral reasoning.

How we make day-to-day decisions like “What should I wear?” is similar to how we make moral decisions like “Should I lie or tell the truth?” The brain processes both in generally the same way.

Moral reasoning typically applies logic and moral theories, such as deontology or utilitarianism, to specific situations or dilemmas. However, people are not especially good at moral reasoning. Indeed, the term moral dumbfounding describes the fact that people often reach strong moral conclusions that they cannot logically defend.

In fact, evidence shows that the moral principle or theory a person chooses to apply is often, ironically, based on their emotions, not on logic. Their choice is usually influenced by internal biases or outside pressures, such as the self-serving bias or the desire to conform.

So, while we likely believe we approach ethical dilemmas logically and rationally, the truth is our moral reasoning is usually influenced by intuitive, emotional reactions.

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Moral Cognition

Moral cognition is the study of the brain’s role in moral judgment and decision-making. As a social science, it involves understanding the rationalizations and biases that affect moral decision-making. Moral cognition also involves the scientific study of the brain that is evolving along with technology.

Researchers who study moral cognition attempt to provide social and biological explanations for how our brains process information and make moral or immoral choices. Some scientist examine genetic and molecular influences, while others use neuroimaging to map the areas of the brain that direct people’s choices.

Moral thinking appears to be a complicated process. There is no single seat of moral activity in the brain. However, a network of various regions of the brain does consistently appear to be involved in moral decision-making.

So, the study of moral cognition does not aim to tell people what choices they should make. Rather, it attempts to explain how and why people make the moral choices that they do.

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Behavioral Ethics

Behavioral ethics is the study of why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Its teachings arise from research in fields such as behavioral psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary biology.

Behavioral ethics is different from traditional philosophy. Instead of focusing on how people ought to behave, behavioral ethics studies why people act as they do. Arguably, it is more useful to understand our own motivations than to understand the philosophy of Aristotle.

Research in behavioral ethics finds that people are far from completely rational. Most ethical choices are made intuitively, by feeling, not after carefully analyzing a situation. Usually, people who make unethical decisions are unconsciously influenced by internal biases, like the self-serving bias, by outside pressures, like the pressure to conform, and by situational factors that they do not even notice.

So, behavioral ethics seeks to understand why even people with the best intentions can make poor ethical choices.

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