Neuroethics: ethical, legal and conceptual aspects of neuroscience and neurotechnology


Introduction on the subject

It is nowadays possible to study the living brain at a level of detail which was unthinkable as recently as 25 years ago. On top of this, technologies aimed at modifying (influencing, treating or enhancing) the brain – ranging from neuropharmacology to neuroengineering – are becoming more and more powerful. These developments give rise to numerous ethical and legal problems. As a result, the relatively new field of neuroethics is currently undergoing an explosive growth.

Some issues discussed in neuroethics are special cases of problems which are familiar from traditional medical ethics. However, not all of neuroethics is continuous with traditional medical ethics. The reason for this is that the brain is a very special organ. Researchers nowadays assume that all mental activity is correlated with brain activity. As a result, knowledge of brain functioning comes dangerously close to knowledge of the most intimate and private parts of the mind, and control over brain activity may be regarded as the ultimate form of control over our inner lives.

Brain science outside the health care system

It is especially the use of brain science outside the health care system that gives rise to ethical concerns and legal problems. For example, in neuroeconomics, researchers try to understand the brain mechanisms that cause economic decisions. This becomes problematic when neuromarketeers try to identify the “buy-button” and start looking for ways to manipulate it. Similarly, law enforcement agencies are interested in brain-based lie-detection, arguing that “the brain does not lie”. It is hard to think of a more drastic breach of privacy. For example, in the foreseeable future, psychological tests may be replaced by, or at least supplemented with, brain imaging evidence for recruitment purposes – such developments might well be regarded as undesirable. This is not to say that all applications of neuroscience for non-medical purposes are undesirable. The current “brain-based learning approach” in education, for example, is widely perceived as welcome and defensible.

Modifying, treating or enhancing the functioning of the brain

The development of technology to modify (treat or enhance) the functioning of the brain raises a whole host of additional issues. Neuropharmacology is making progress, but the effects are often controversial: there is, for example, a debate going on about ADHD and Ritalin. Neuroengineering generates anxiety when, for example, one reads about military applications to improve the behavior of pilots and soldiers in the field.

Legal aspects of brain science

The discussion about the use of brain science outside the health care system is also gaining prominence in legal circles. In the USA, several criminal court cases have already taken place in which the defense adduced medical findings (e.g., the presence of a brain tumor) to obtain reduction of sentence or even acquittal. Such cases will become more frequent as time goes on. But is not yet clear to what extent neuroscientific evidence should be counted as relevant for legal purposes. Both neuroethics and the debate about the challenges which the progress of neuroscience poses to the law are currently more advanced in the USA and in the United Kingdom than on the European continent. Yet the conclusions reached abroad cannot automatically be applied domestically. Almost no work has thus far been carried out in the Netherlands.

About the research project

The present research project is based on the assumption that the debate about neuroethics and the relevance of neuroscience for the law would greatly benefit from greater attention to conceptual issues. The project is therefore largely aimed at conceptual analysis and clarification. The problem is basically the following: in the debate about neuroscience, ethics and the law, we see a mixture of two languages: the language of neuroscience and ordinary language, which is continuous with the language of the law. These languages cannot straightforwardly be translated into each other. Yet in the debate about neuroscience, ethics and the law, both are used and somehow have to be matched.

For practical purposes, the project is divided into two sub-projects: (1) conceptual and related issues in neuroscience and neuroethics, and (2) conceptual issues in the field of the brain and the law, with reference to the results obtained in sub-project (1) and with special attention to the Dutch legal system and legal framework, where relevant and appropriate. In addition to this, an introduction to the philosophy of mind for neuroscientists and other non-philosophers is planned.

In 2007, as part of the project, a conference on the ethics of neuroimaging was organized.

More information

Perhaps of interest to you: Researcher Gert-Jan Lokhorst is one of the associate editors of the Springer journal ‘Neuroethics’. This journal will offer free access to the full text of all articles during 2008 and 2009. Fore more information, see here.


The project has been funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

Related Scientific publications (selection)


  • Vincent, N A (2010) "Madness, Badness and Neuroimaging-Based Responsibility Assessments", in Michael Freeman (ed) Law and Neuroscience, Current Legal Issues (Vol 13), OUP. click to open pdf
  • Vincent, N A (2010) "On the Relevance of Neuroscience to Criminal Responsibility", Criminal Law and Philosophy, 4(1):77-98. DOI: 10.1007/s11572-009-9087-4. Dutch Translation . click to open pdf
  • Vincent, N A, Haselager, P & Lokhorst, G-J (2010) "The Neuroscience of Responsibility: Workshop Report", Neuroethics. DOI: 10.1007/s12152-010-9078-0 click to open pdf


  • Vincent, N A (2009) "Neuroimaging and Responsibility Assessments", Neuroethics. DOI: 10.1007/s12152-008-9030-8 click to open pdf
  • Vincent, N A (2009) "Responsibility: distinguishing virtue from capacity", Polish Journal of Philosophy, 3(1):111-26. click to open pdf
  • Vincent, N A (2009) "What do you mean I should take responsibility for my own ill health?", Journal of Applied Ethics and Philosophy, 1:39-51. click to open pdf


  • Lokhorst, GJC. 2008. Anderson's relevant deontic and eubouliatic systems. Notre dame journal of formal logic 49 (1):65-73. available online
  • Vincent, N A (2008) "Responsibility, dysfunction and capacity", Neuroethics, 1(3):199-204. DOI: 10.1007/s12152-008-9022-8 click to open pdf
  • Vincent, N A (2008) "Taking Responsibility for Voluntary Disadvantages", Proceedings of the Third International Applied Ethics Conference in Sapporo, pp 297-312. November 2008, Hokkaido University, Japan. click to open pdf

Related Professional/Popular publications


  • G.J.C. Lokhorst. 2008. Ethical and Social Aspects of Neuro-centred Interface Design. In: Ira van Keulen (ed.), Brain Visions; How the Brain Sciences Could Change the Way We Eat, Communicate, Learn and Judge. The Hague: STT, pp. 218-222. available online