Richard Marshall interviews Kathinka Evers in 3:AM Magazine:
3:AM: In your view there are two types of neuroethics: fundamental and applied neuroethics and that the ‘fundamental’ aspect has been unrepresented in the field. Is your thought here that if the fundamental aspect isn’t worked out the applied aspect won’t be able to fully work?
KE: Yes. So far, researchers in neuroethics have focused mainly on the ethics of neuroscience, or applied neuroethics, such as ethical issues involved in neuroimaging techniques, cognitive enhancement, or neuropharmacology. Another important, though as yet less prevalent, scientific approach that I refer to as fundamental neuroethics questions how knowledge of the brain’s functional architecture and its evolution can deepen our understanding of personal identity, consciousness and intentionality, including the development of moral thought and judgment. Fundamental neuroethics should provide adequate theoretical foundations required in order properly to address problems of applications.
The initial question for fundamental neuroethics to answer is: how can natural science deepen our understanding of moral thought? Indeed, is the former at all relevant for the latter? One can see this as a sub-question of the question whether human consciousness can be understood in biological terms, moral thought being a subset of thought in general. That is certainly not a new query, but a version of the classical mind-body problem that has been discussed for millennia and in quite modern terms from the French Enlightenment and onwards. What is comparatively new is the realisation of the extent to which ancient philosophical problems emerge in the rapidly advancing neurosciences, such as whether or not the human species as such possesses a free will, what it means to have personal responsibility, to be a self, the relations between emotions and cognition, or between emotions and memory.
Observe that neuroscience does not merely suggest areas for interesting applications of ethical reasoning, or call for assistance in solving problems arising from scientific discoveries, as scientists of diverse disciplines have long done, and been welcome to do. Neuroscience also purports to offer scientific explanations of important aspects of moral thought and judgment, which is more controversial in some quarters. However, whilst the understanding of ethics as a social phenomenon is primarily a matter of understanding cultural and social mechanisms, it is becoming increasingly apparent that knowledge of the brain is also relevant in the context. Progress in neuroscience; notably, on the dynamic functions of neural networks, can deepen our understanding of decision-making, choice, acquisition of character and temperament, and the development of moral dispositions.