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Neuroanthropology of ethics

10 November, 2014

Handbook of Neuroethics edited by Jens Clausen and Neil Levy, published by Springer.

Springer has just published the Handbook of Neuroethics that features a section dedicated to Neuroanthropology edited by Juan F. Domínguez D. who is an anthropologist who has been working in neuroimaging at Monash University. Domínguez completed his PhD at Melbourne University under the supervision of Dr Douglas Lewis. In his introduction, “Toward a neuroanthropology of ethics” (pp. 289-298), Domínguez identifies “a pressing need for a neuroanthropology of ethics because the neural bases of moral agency are to be found beyond the confines of a single brain: in the coming together and interacting of a community of brains, in the shaping of the moral brain by the social field and culture, and in the workings of a neurocognitive system that evolved to absorb, reproduce, and contribute to shared worlds of meaning” (p. 289). He writes lucidly about Anthropology and Ethics (p. 290) and Neuroanthropology and Ethics (p. 291-292). Speaking to both anthropologists and neuroscientists, Domínguez has previously written about neuroanthropology in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience as well as Anthropological Theory.


Here is a brief summary of each chapter from Juan Domínguez’s introduction, “Toward a neuroanthropology of ethics” (pp. 289-298):

Laughlin, C. (2014) The sense of justice: a neuroanthropological account, in Jens Clausen and Neil Levy. (Eds.) Handbook of Neuroethics, Springer,pp. 299-321.

“In the opening paper, “The sense of justice: a neuroanthropological account,” Charles Laughlin critiques the highly abstract, elaborate, hyperational, and ethnocentric view Western philosophers have of justice and proposes instead what he calls a sense of justice in order to better capture an attribute that intuitively seems to be shared by people everywhere. According to Laughlin, the sense of justice is inherently relational and emerges from linking a basic intuition for fairness or balance with a capacity for empathy and the experience of positive and negative affect. Laughlin argues that these component elements of the sense of justice are mediated by discrete neurophysiological mechanisms, which have precursors in other bigbrained social animals. For Laughlin the sense of justice is universal, but it manifests differently depending on social structural and cultural factors. He offers examples of how the sense of justice plays out in specific contexts using ethnographic cases (including from his own fieldwork) and by showing that the sense of justice fulfills different functions in egalitarian and less stratified band and tribal societies compared to hierarchical, highly differentiated, bureaucratized societies: it is a structuring principle of social institutions among the former but becomes alienated from social procedures and juridical institutions in the latter.” (Dominguez 2014, 293)

Charles Laughlin ran the quarterly Neuroanthropology Network Newsletter from 1988 to 1992. He is also the co-founder of cultural neurophenomenology with Jason Throop.


Reyna, S.P. (2014) Free will, agency, and the cultural, reflexive brain, in Jens Clausen and Neil Levy. (Eds.) Handbook of Neuroethics, Springer, pp. 323-342.

“In “Free will, agency, and the cultural, reflexive brain,” Steve Reyna starts, like Laughlin, with a critique of Western philosophical conceptions about the will, concerned, as they have been, with a functional account of this construct but neglecting altogether its underlying substance, its structure, its materiality, and the set of mechanisms that give rise to it. Reyna identifies the brain as the structure of will and the brain’s reflexivity as a key mechanism giving rise to will. By reflexivity Reyna means the brain’s capacity to monitor the outer and inner milieus. Reflexivity thus understood engenders will as it constitutes a resource for finding out what is the state of the world to then figure out what to do about it. However, in the case of the human brain, action is biased by culture, which constitutes a set of understandings about the state of the world and what to do about it that are socially shared. The corollary is that “a culturally reflexive brain performs the functions of will.” Finally, Reyna adopts a critical stance by arguing that free will, understood as “unrestricted action,” is inconsistent with a brain that has a definite structure defined by biology or culture or both. For Reyna, acts of will are a consequence of the brain’s biological and cultural determinants and biases. He further argues that the notion of free will is often deployed as a tool of domination by those in power, who may allocate responsibility for acts of transgression (like theft) entirely on the “free will” of those transgressing without reference to social structures (e.g., of poverty) with a causative role. Instead, Reyna advocates the use of the alternative concept of “agency” as it better incorporates such structures and explicitly articulates issues of power in the expression of will.” (Dominguez 2014, 293-294)

Stephen P. Reyna was the editor of a special issue on neuroanthropology for Anthropological Theory which was featured on the Public Library of Science blog, Neuroanthropology. Reyna is also the author of Connections: Brain, Mind and Culture in a Social Anthropology.


Mason, P.H. (2014) What is normal? A historical survey and neuroanthropological perspective, in Jens Clausen and Neil Levy. (Eds.) Handbook of Neuroethics, Springer, pp. 343-363.

“In the last contribution to this section, “What is normal? A historical survey and a neuroanthropological perspective,” Paul Mason argues against an objective basis for the concept of normality, tracking down its historical roots, following its development, highlighting its inconsistencies, dissecting its uses and their contexts, and denouncing its abuses. Mason exposes normality as a tool of homogenization and essentialization, as a tool for obscuring the diversity of human phenomena and, as such, as an instrument of control in the hand of powerful, interested actors. Diversity is, according to Mason, not merely obscured but often made out to be degenerate. The concept of degeneracy, Mason shows, has itself been discursively maligned as part of the normalizing drive, its neutral meaning of divergence from a type being co-opted by a morality of deviance and decay. Mason reviews the effect of normality on the neurosciences where diversity in brain structure and function is reduced by transferring individual brains to a standard space; by using standardized, average results as markers of kinds of people; by generalizing the results of brain research focused on a very narrow band of the human population (largely young, university students of contemporary Western industrialized nations); and by reducing to neurobiological explanation complex problems that are in reality product of heterogeneous “intersecting variables that take place along the multistranded life course of each individual.” In light of this, Mason recommends neuroscience to embrace a view of diversity mediated by an alternative, morally neutral, conception of degeneracy whereby variability is a condition of complex systems rather than a sign they are breaking apart.” (Dominguez 2014, p. 294)

Various versions of “What is normal?” have been presented at  Disorder—the University of Sydney Anthropology Symposium, the Inter-university Neuroscience and Mental Health Conference, the State, Society, Stigma Symposium at Latrobe University, and the 7th Australian Cognitive Neuropsychology and Cognitive Neuropsychiatry Research Forum, as well as at several workshops and public lectures in Australia, India and Vietnam.



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