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Wednesday, August 8

When your brain determines your morality

Great article: Cold-blooded Morality?

Is it okay to kill some people in order to save the lives of many?

Your answer to this dilemma may be based on damage to your prefrontal cortex which may make you prone to utilitarian moral judgments.

"Certain aspects of this situation ... seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations."
- Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, in a letter about the possibility of developing an atomic bomb, August 2, 1939.

Einstein's letter to Franklin Roosevelt encapsulates key aspects of moral judgment: moral sentiment (Einstein's concern about the destiny of human lives on the verge of the World War II), a moral dilemma (his decision about whether to disclose scientific evidence that would ultimately lead to a deadly atomic weapon), and a utilitarian calculus (his judgment about whether more lives would be spared if America eventually built such a weapon). Whether to write this letter must have been a terrible decision to make.

Half a century later, cognitive neuroscience is developing the ability to explain the brain mechanisms that underlie such moral judgments. A crucial issue that remains poorly understood, however, is the relationship between moral reasoning and emotion. This new study by Koenigs and colleagues ("Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgments." from Nature, April 19, 2007) provides important new evidence on this question. It shows that damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), the region of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) located above our eye sockets, increases "utilitarian" choices in moral dilemmas -- judgments, that is, that favor the aggregate welfare over the welfare of fewer individuals. The study stirs already hot debates about how we juggle evidence and emotion to produce moral decisions."

These people are not always emotionally blunted. Continue reading...

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