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Keywords:

  • neuroscience;
  • empirical ethics;
  • ethical boundary-work;
  • translational research

Abstract

The ethical issues neuroscience raises are subject to increasing attention, exemplified in the emergence of the discipline neuroethics. While the moral implications of neurotechnological developments are often discussed, less is known about how ethics intersects with everyday work in neuroscience and how scientists themselves perceive the ethics of their research. Drawing on observation and interviews with members of one UK group conducting neuroscience research at both the laboratory bench and in the clinic, this article examines what ethics meant to these researchers and delineates four specific types of ethics that shaped their day-to-day work: regulatory, professional, personal and tangible. While the first three categories are similar to those identified elsewhere in sociological work on scientific and clinical ethics, the notion of ‘tangible ethics’ emerged by attending to everyday practice, in which these scientists’ discursive distinctions between right and wrong were sometimes challenged. The findings shed light on how ethical positions produce and are, in turn, produced by scientific practice. Informing sociological understandings of neuroscience, they also throw the category of neuroscience and its ethical specificity into question, given that members of this group did not experience their work as raising issues that were distinctly neuro-ethical.