Talk at 4S Conference in Barcelona: Ethics by neurological means

Talk at 4S Conference in Barcelona: Ethics by neurological means

In a few days, the yearly gathering of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) will take place – this time in Barcelona. I’m part of the track ‘STS and Normativity: analyzing and enacting values’, scheduled to present at Friday Sept. 2, between 11h-12.30h in Location 132. See my abstract below.

As always, the programme is massive. I’m particularly looking foward to the track ‘STS and Artistic Research’, organized by colleagues Peter Peters and Ruth Benschop. And of course to other presentations in my track, discussing values and normativity. Check the whole programme at the conference website. I’ve learned no longer to plan ahead what to see at such conferences. Too much to see or to miss, so just follow the flow.

This wil probably be the last conference for me as PhD-student! I’m looking forward to meet new and old friends and colleagues, from Maastricht, Linköping, and Eindhoven. Hopefully see you in Barcelona!


Ethics by neurological means: moral repertoires of a plastic brain

Short abstract

The notion of brain plasticity plays a key role in popular neuro-interventions. This paper shows how the plastic brain is made valuable in three discursive practices of a brain-inspired good life, and argues that values and ideas of the good are part and parcel of the diffusion of neuroscience to society.

 Long abstract

In the past decade, the brain has emerged in various societal and scholarly domains as a popular means for understanding and changing human behavior. Key to the spread of neuroscience knowledge from the lab to society is the concept of brain plasticity: the ability of the brain to change its functions or structure. The notion of brain plasticity ‘opens up’ the brain for all kinds of interventions (Abi-Rached & Rose, 2013) and invites actors to do something with it, invoking specific action programs, values, and ideals. Ranging from self-help manuals, management literature and brain games, popular interventions based on brain plasticity seem to address the timely ethical question of how to lead a good life.

In this talk, I explore how the plastic brain precisely is made valuable for addressing these ethical concerns. Based on an empirical philosophy informed analysis of three discursive practices of a brain-inspired good life – parenting teenage brains; working the mindful brain; and caring for ageing brains – I show how the notion of the plastic brain enables actors to enact, stabilize and challenge different (and sometimes conflicting) ideas of the good. I further show that these valuations of the plastic brain occur through recurring patterns of moral argumentation, which I dub ‘moral repertoires’. I argue that the explanatory power of neurobiological claims does not come from the promise of finally unraveling what it means to be human. Rather, it results from the versatile ways brain facts can be used as ‘ethics by other means’.


Abi-Rached, J.M. & Rose, N.R. (2013). Neuro: the New Brain Sciences and the Management