Neuroscience and the Question of Ethics


As business and neuroscience move closer together we should not forget some of the ethical problems associated with the advance of neuroscience.Brain mapping projects in the US and Europe are exciting developments. Learning more about how the mind works could well be a fantastic leap forward for humanity, helping us to treat psychological conditions and understand each other better; but equally the insights need to be handled responsibly and ethically to prevent them being transformed into tools of manipulation.We have seen some of the potential ethical problems with using neuroscience played out in the law courts.

Where does personal responsibility start and finish? Just how far can neuroscience explain human behaviour and in what circumstances can it provide a defence against criminal activity?Depending on how much neuroscience is permissible in legal cases, skilled lawyers may be able to shape solid defences around a person’s brain make-up rather than conscious awareness of one’s actions. This is a dangerous road where personal responsibility for one’s actions could take a backseat and be used to ‘justify’ criminal behaviour.There are still many ‘grey’ areas within neuroscience – in fact one of the uncomfortable truths with neuroscience is that we only really know a fraction of what there is to know about the brain; so it would be wise to proceed with caution here.

The customer question

Neuroscience has received a lot of attention as marketers have cottoned on to the fact that working out how people behave is what they’ve been trying to nail since they first started selling things! It has led to the development of the field of ‘neuromarketing’.Understanding the workings of the human brain inevitably leads to the subject of how we make choices and decisions. Through the lenses of marketers this means the buying decisions of potential customers- and it’s easy to see how this type of information could be used to create more effective advertising and marketing messages.The concern is where the line is drawn and when it becomes unfair manipulation of people, especially youngsters, into buying a product or service.Another area where neuroscience is increasingly applied is within leadership and teams in organisations.While part of healthy and successful leadership is understanding one’s team members – indeed it is essential – there is also a line here that, once crossed, turns understanding, motivation and encouragement into manipulation.