Science, politics and publics

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Case study Neurosciences of morality

Neuroscience, ethics and intellectual authority

Dr Maurizio Meloni

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A science of ethics?

One of the most interesting intellectual phenomena of recent years has been an increasing tendency to study ethics with the methods of the natural sciences, and the life-sciences in particular. From E.O. Wilson's call to remove ethics from the hands of philosophers and “biologicize” it, this “scientization” of ethics has become widespread in research programmes that study human morality according to a fully evolutionary paradigm, that is, those disciplines looking at the evolutionary antecedents and biological bases of human morality such as: evolutionary psychology, moral psychology, primatology, and above all the new born field of the neurosciences of morality.

Our research aims to understand the social and cultural implications, both for ethics and the life-sciences, of these attempts to make morality a fully biological phenomenon. In particular, we will examine whether this mutation in the relationship between ethics and biology results not only, as is already evident, in a change in the image of ethics (now “biologicized”) but also in the representation of biology and nature themselves.


“A new rhetoric of the brain as being ‘ethical’ and ‘wired for good’ has started to circulate recently, contributing greatly to the transformation of contemporary biology into a major source of moral and political hope for our societies. Understanding this ‘second level’ of scientific programmes - the way in which science implicitly takes a certain form in a given epoch to thereby offer answers to the most pressing social and moral dilemmas - is of paramount importance today”, says Dr Maurizio Meloni.



In the context of a three-year research programme called "The Seductive Power of the Neurosciences” (Marie Curie European Reintegration Grant: June 2011 – May 2014), which focuses on the increasing intellectual authority of the neurosciences in previously humanistic fields of investigation, one specific case study will be dedicated to the recent emergence of the neurosciences of morality.

This exciting new discipline aims to explore the ‘repertoire of emotions with a strong moral content’ (Sinnott-Armstrong 2008) in the human brain that constitute the pre-conditions of morality. The present research will focus on this new neuroscientific literature regarding human morality (from Damasio to Changeux, and from Gazzaniga to J. Greene), and in particular on the emergence of the idea of the brain as an organ endowed with an innate ethical system (Gazzaniga 2005) and a kind of “congenital neurobiological wisdom” (Damasio 2003).


Dr Maurizio Meloni is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Science and Society, School of Sociology and Social Policy, where he was previously a Marie Curie Fellow. He is a philosopher and a social theorist whose current research focuses on the political and moral dimension of contemporary naturalism, evolutionism, and neuroscience. He has published parts of this work in journals such as Economy and Society, Subjectivity, Telos, and the Rivista Italiana di Psicoanalisi, in the edited volume Neurocultures (edited by F. Ortega and F. Vidal, Peter Lang, 2011), and in a recent collection on neuroscience and political theory (Neuroscience and Political Theory: Thinking the

Body Politic, edited by F. Vander Valk, Routledge, 2012).

Professor Brigitte Nerlich explores the verbal and, more importantly, the visual framing of public understanding of the neurosciences, which also implies changes in public understanding of the brain, the body, the person and the society he or she lives in. The visual imagery surrounding the neurosciences will be explored as part of a high-level European Conference funded by the European Science Foundation, entitled 'Images and Visualisations: Technology, Truth and Trust', which will take place in  Norrkoping, Sweden in September 2012 (co-organised with Dr Andrew Balmer, Manchester and Dr Annamaria Carusi, Oxford).


The growing intellectual authority of the neurosciences for political, social and moral theory represents one of the most visible intellectual phenomena of our epoch, as can be seen in the many of ‘psychological’, ‘social’ and ‘cultural phenomena’ that have now been ‘turned neurobiological’. Though recent studies have addressed the “seductive allure” of neuro-explanations (Skolnick Weisberg et al. 2008) and neuro-imaging technologies (McCabe and Castel 2008), the aim of this multidisciplinary research is to take a wider view of some of the background reasons (political, ideological, moral) for the current intellectual prestige and rise to public prominence of the neurosciences. In particular, it explores the legitimization of the neurosciences as a new source for moral and political discourses (for instance, in a discipline like “neuropolitics”). The neurosciences of morality, and their growing influence (along with evolutionary versions of moral psychology) on contemporary social and political theory, will represent one of the key case studies of this research.

Scale of research

This research is grounded in a two-year Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship (FP7-PEOPLE-IEF-2008; research-project “The Emergence of a Biosociety”: Fellow Dr Maurizio Meloni, Scientist in Charge: Professor Brigitte Nerlich, June 2009-May 2011), funded by the  Marie Curie Actions/“People” Programme, followed by a three-year Marie Curie Reintegration Grant (FP7-PEOPLE-2010-RG; research-project "The Seductive Power of the Neurosciences: An Intellectual Genealogy”, Researcher: Dr Maurizio Meloni, June 2011 –May 2014), with partial funding by the same EU programme. It is linked to previous research relating to neurosciences and society carried out by Professor Paul Martin (now at the University of Sheffield) [ESRC seminar series on Neuroscience, Identity and Society (2005 – 2007)] and to the ESF conference mentioned above.


A partial financial contribution is given by the EU (Marie Curie European Reintegration Grant, FP7-PEOPLE-2010-RG: June 2011 – May 2014, total Euros 45,000) for the project on "The Seductive Power of the Neurosciences”, of which the research on the neurosciences of morality is an important case study.




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