The Insights, Uses and Ethics of Social Neuroscience in Antidiscrimination Law

The Insights, Uses and Ethics of Social Neuroscience in Antidiscrimination Law


Martin Hevia



Article Abstract

The article explores the uses in anti-discrimination law of social neuroscience—a broad interdisciplinary field that draws on the insights of brain science, medicine, epidemiology, social psychology, behavioral economics, moral cognitive neuroscience and many other experimentally based disciplines. It discusses the promising uses of social neuroscience findings from all these subfields on such matters as the irrational biases of “fast” thinking processes in general, and implicit biases against “out” groups more specifically, as well as group conformity, the black sheep effect, and more. The article traces a few of the ways these insights can help inform anti-discrimination law in both particular cases and in reform of law-related policies, rules, structures and systems more generally. Social neuroscience, for example, exposes the typical fallacy of demanding proof of intentional discrimination in most cases, and exposes the problems in using other doctrines that make discrimination and retaliation claims unduly hard to prove. Social neuroscience findings about the social pain of exclusion and the ongoing physical and social harm of discrimination further show that the damages caused by illegal discrimination are far greater than the restitution courts typically impose on respondents. Finally, social neuroscience and other science-related disciplines, in consilience with political theory, philosophy, and legal history and theory, support the recognition of a broader human right to “act differently,” subject to the rights of others not to encounter harm.

Finally, this article examines the potential ethical pitfalls of using social neuroscience in the numerous ways proposed above. It concludes that neuroscience should not be used in individual cases to establish unconscious but “intentional” discrimination by particular individuals, and that social reform crusaders should be reflective about the potential irrationalities of their own biases and moral tastes as they go about attempting to transform law by drawing on their interpretations of brain-based science. Such reform campaigns will necessarily require invoking political process that depend on resorting to moral emotions, values, rhetoric, and potentially overly simplistic or reductionist glosses on more complex and qualified ideas. Thus even social crusaders who aim to make the world a better place must retain skepticism and an ethic of restraint in insisting on their viewpoints as to the arrangements that could leader to a more moral and less discriminatory world.



Publication Date


Book Title

Regulating Neuroscience: Transnational Legal Challenges

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Developments in Neuroethics and Bioethics


Neuroethics, Bioethics, Legal Ethics, Regulation, Social Neuroscience


Health Law and Policy | Law

The Insights, Uses and Ethics of Social Neuroscience in Antidiscrimination Law