How Does the Brain Make Moral Judgments?

What’s right and what’s wrong? When we judge the actions of other people, we tend to do so based on two things: the consequences of those actions and their underlying intentions. In other words, we try to get inside people’s heads and infer why they did what they did—and how well they understood why they did it.

But what if we change the way our brains work? Would it change how we judge the moral culpability of others? Liane Young, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, decided to find out.

Past studies have shown that an area of the brain called the right temporoparietal junction shows more activity when we try to reason about another person’s thoughts and beliefs. So Young and colleagues figured that, if they disrupted how well the RTPJ functions, this might alter moral judgments of someone’s action that rely on assumptions about their intention (The Great Beyond, Nature).

It turns out they were right. When the scientists applied magnetic pulses to the skull near the RTPJ, they found that people judged other’s actions based solely on consequences, ignoring intentions and beliefs, in a manner similar to how young children reason about such things. To them, a “happy ending” makes a morally questionable action OK—even if that ending is just a lucky outcome. A man who let his girlfriend walk across an unsafe bridge, for example, “had done nothing wrong” if she made it across safely. As the researchers explain it, “When activity in the RTPJ is disrupted, participants’ moral judgments shift toward a ‘no harm, no foul’ mentality” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

Alarming stuff. The research suggests that our moral judgments can be altered—in milliseconds—with something as simple as a magnetic signal. As Young herself points out in a write-up of the study:

You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior. To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.

Yet it’s only disturbing if you view morality as a lofty and immutable human trait, says Joshua Greene, a psychologist at Harvard University. But that view isn’t accurate, he says. “Moral judgment is just a brain process,” he says. “That’s precisely why it’s possible for these researchers to influence it using electromagnetic pulses on the surface of the brain” (NPR).

Category: Morals

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3 Responses

  1. Anna says:

    What’s with using these fancy, expensive magnets to show alteration in moral processing? Have these researchers never heard of the effects of whiskey?

    Come on, people. We’re in a recession.

  2. Rob Kettell says:

    Who has looked into the long-term consequences of altering the brain functions of living individuals? Are you assuming that these changes are only temporary?

  3. ratheesh says:

    This recalls a comment made some years later by Virginia Woolf. She wrote ‘Life is
    not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the
    The extent to which one relies more heavily on a controlled or automatic processing system is a
    function of cognitive ability (Stanovich & West, 1998).  If sufficient cognitive resources required to make
    a controlled, resource‐dependant decision, indicative of the cold system, are unavailable then one will
    rely on the resource efficient hot system. Accessibility naturally decreases as interference from compet‐
    ing information sources or demands on attention increase, and there are differences in one’s vulnerabil‐
    ity to interference.  Both vulnerability to interference and system availability are related to cognitive
    deficits based on internal factors, such as differences in age, arousal, and depression (Hasher & Zacks,
    1988).  System availability can also be affected by external factors otherwise referred to as “loads” such
    as time pressure, concurrent cognitive tasks, mood fluctuations, and time of day.  These loads effectively
    reduce access to available cognitive processing resources.  Availability determined by internal factors
    tends to be a greater predictor of task performanceFor both Marlow and Woolf, meaning is not something ‘arranged’ or concrete,
    rather, it is a ‘halo’, made visible by the preconceptions of the subject, and as such,
    the narrative of Heart of Darkness is directed towards Marlow’s efforts to define this
    ‘halo’, by directing attention inward, towards the actions performed by the subject
    that endow the world with meaning.
    This style of narrative, then, is consistent with the process Edmund Husserl
    termed the ‘epochē’, a suspension of normal assumptions about the world in order to
    focus upon how the subject constitutes their experience, and thus, Conrad’s literary
    style was acquiescent with the philosophical developments of his time. Bruce
    Johnson notes that ‘The epochē is to be found elsewhere in impressionism and early
    modernism, and represents a generosity about subjective experience’
    4
    . In Heart of
    Darkness, this emphasis on subjective experience is found in the difficulties Marlow
    has in expressing his perceptions accurately and making fair judgements. He can be
    an unreliable narrator, on several occasions providing the reader with information
    which later transpires to be false. Watt defines this ‘delayed decoding’
    5
    as the
    method by which the author gives ‘direct narrative expression to the way in which
    consciousness elicits meaning from its perceptions

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