Bringing Neuroscience into the Teaching of Ethics

We cannot continue to teach ethics without taking into account what we currently understand about the brain and human behavior.

Bringing Neuroscience into the Teaching of Ethics

ARE WE TEACHING ETHICS in the most ethical way possible? Not if we’re not including recent research based on neuroscience.

For most of its history, ethics has been taught through normative theories derived from religious teachings and 2,500 years of moral philosophy. Teachers have drawn from utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, and other dominant theories to help students think about moral dilemmas. The pedagogy didn’t change even when social scientists began to claim that there was little proof these philosophies led to more ethical behavior.

However, in the past few years, consensus has been growing among those who teach ethics that we simply cannot go on with business as usual. This attitude has emerged as we have learned more about the moral behavior of humans through disciplines such as behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology, primatology, and—most particularly and perhaps most controversially—neuroscience. Now we face our own dilemma: Do we begin incorporating insights from neuroscience into our understanding of ethical behavior? Or do we continue to leave them aside, either because they are too complex to teach or because they are not yet well-established enough to include?

Here I offer three assertions about why we must begin to incorporate neuroscience into our teaching. I also present the common objections, and my responses to those concerns.

Assertion: Those who teach business ethics must do their best to understand what neuroscience tells us about how the brain’s evolutionary history affects human behavior and moral decision making.

It is one thing to introduce the class to classical utilitarianism by debating the Trolley Problem—i.e., if there is a runaway trolley and you can save five lives by sacrificing one, should you do it? It is quite another to use that example as a way to suggest that different populations will make different decisions because of variances in their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex system, or the region of the brain associated with personality expression and decision making. If some individuals are predisposed to think and act differently from others, shouldn’t we consider how that affects their ethical decision making? If we want students to understand the actual decision-making processes that humans use, shouldn’t we discuss what science is finding to be true?

Objection: Neuroscientists themselves disagree about the origins of morality in the brain system. Some will say we still know little about how the moral systems in the brain have evolved and that it is too early to teach anything definitive about neuroethics. Others will point out that neuroethics is such a complicated subject that few philosophy or religion professors can be expected to fully grasp its complexities and teach it competently.

My response: While I acknowledge that few religion or philosophy professors would have the same educational background as credentialed neuroscientists, I believe we still have an obligation to educate ourselves and our students about neuroethics. Otherwise, we find ourselves in the situation that has garnered us so much criticism in the past: ignoring actual evidence and relying too much on our own speculations and revered history.

We have learned to incorporate other research from the social sciences into our business ethics courses, and there’s no reason we can’t do the same with neuroscience. Business professors don’t need PhDs in Buddhist studies to explore the way Buddhists respond to ethical dilemmas; similarly, they shouldn’t need doctoral-level grounding in neuroethics to lead a discussion of its implications for ethical behavior and practice.

There’s still the question of how we teach about moral behavior and the brain when much of that research is still ambiguous, and certainly incomplete. But most of us trained in the humanities live with the ambiguity of competing positions all the time—the ability to critically assess them might even be considered our strength. As educators, we are aware of our obligation to present evidence and arguments from many points of view—including the position that neuroethics itself is a young field that undoubtedly will change a great deal. But that’s no argument for not teaching it now.

Assertion: We have a professional and moral obligation to teach ethics from the point of view of science, because science provides us with the most accurate picture of our species.

Objection: Just because science can provide us with “brute facts” about ourselves, it shouldn’t determine what we should do or be. We must uphold Hume’s law that we cannot derive an ought from an is. We need only look to past discussions of eugenics, for example, to see how dangerous science can be when it is unchecked by critiques from philosophy, religion, or political science.

My response: As always, good teaching means choosing which topics to include in a course, and in the case of neuroethics we should choose to teach the topics that help reveal us to ourselves. The science of neuroethics has convinced many of us that, as a species, we should be humbler than we are. Our evolutionarily developed trait of self-deception, for instance, means we do not have as good a sense of ourselves as we often assume. Philosophy teaches us that we can alter the behaviors that are causing harm to ourselves and others. Neuroscience shows us that automatic processes in the brain often direct our decisions before we are even aware we are making them. When we understand that we aren’t always in control of our decision-making processes, and that we confuse rationalizations for reasoned positions, we can seek new ways to overcome our influences.

Ethics still gets taught, primarily, as a way of thinking about situations more clearly. I don’t suggest abandoning that goal, but I do think we must acknowledge what neuroscience shows us—that many of our choices will remain mysterious to us even when we have more information. If we take neuroethics seriously, we will need to step back from ideological certainty and step toward understanding why our default positions tend to be self-involved righteousness and why we have such a difficult time conceding that others have valid points.

Assertion: Teaching ethics from a more scientifically informed perspective will decrease the knee-jerk judgments that prevent moral progress and will give students realistic ways to change their behaviors.

Objection: There is little hard evidence that an ethical education based on religion and philosophy will change a student’s behavior or decision-making process—but neither is there any evidence that a scientifically informed approach will have more impact.

My response: One of the great discoveries of recent neuroscience is neuroplasticity, the brain’s physical malleability based on its capacity for attending to one thing as opposed to another. Despite our cognitive blind spots, we can change—in greater degrees and later in life than we previously assumed. Neuroethics directs us to the types of questions we should ask and the kinds of actions we should recommend if we want to build good lives, businesses, and communities.

For instance, neuroscience teaches us that we make better ethical decisions if we cultivate empathy, educate our emotions, meditate to reduce the effects of chronic stress, create checklists to identify blind spots, and develop a greater awareness of depression and psychopathy. When we approach ethics from a neuroscience perspective, we don’t just teach students about normative theory; we help them understand and respond effectively to their own and others’ ethical struggles.


Even though leading thinkers in the field of neuroscience can disagree on the meaning of various kinds of evidence about the brain, they all realize we know very little about our own moral positions and failings—their evolutionary origins, their susceptibility to cultural relativism, and their tendency to default to irrational settings in the face of stress. Those of us who are using recent research to teach ethics should cultivate moral humility as our first step.

“Know thyself” has been a cornerstone of philosophy since ancient times. We now have a new, promising way of meeting that goal by carefully studying all neuroethics can offer. When we teach ourselves about ourselves, our classrooms will become the places where science and philosophy illuminate each other.

Michael DeWilde is director of the Koeze Business Ethics Initiative at the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.