Moral judgment fails without feelingsMarch 22, 2007
Consider the following scenario: someone you know has AIDS and plans to infect others, some of whom will die. Your only options are to let it happen or to kill the person.
Do you pull the trigger?
Most people waver or say they could not, even if they agree that in theory they should. But according to a new study in the journal Nature, subjects with damage to a part of the frontal lobe make a less personal calculation.
The logical choice, they say, is to sacrifice one life to save many.
Conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California, Harvard University, Caltech and the University of Iowa, the study shows that emotion plays an important role in scenarios that pose a moral dilemma.
If certain emotions are blocked, we make decisions that - right or wrong - seem unnaturally cold.
The scenarios in the study are extreme, but the core dilemma is not: should one confront a co-worker, challenge a neighbor, or scold a loved one in the interest of the greater good?
A total of 30 subjects of both genders faced a set of scenarios pitting immediate harm to one person against future certain harm to many. Six had damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), a small region behind the forehead, while 12 had brain damage elsewhere, and another 12 had no damage.
The subjects with VMPC damage stood out in their stated willingness to harm an individual - a prospect that usually generates strong aversion.
"Because of their brain damage, they have abnormal social emotions in real life. They lack empathy and compassion," said Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Caltech.
"In those circumstances most people without this specific brain damage will be torn. But these particular subjects seem to lack that conflict," said co-senior author Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute and holder of the David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience at USC.
"Our work provides the first causal account of the role of emotions in moral judgments," said co-senior author Marc Hauser, professor of psychology at Harvard and Harvard College Professor.
But, Hauser added, not all moral reasoning depends so strongly on emotion.
"What is absolutely astonishing about our results is how selective the deficit is," he said. "Damage to the frontal lobe leaves intact a suite of moral problem solving abilities, but damages judgments in which an aversive action is put into direct conflict with a strong utilitarian outcome."
It is the feeling of aversion that normally blocks humans from harming each other. Damasio described it as "a combination of rejection of the act, but combined with the social emotion of compassion for that particular person."
"The question is, are the social emotions necessary to make these moral judgments," Adolphs asked.
The study's answer will inform a classic philosophical debate on whether humans make moral judgments based on norms and societal rules, or based on their emotions.
The study holds another implication for philosophy.
By showing that humans are neurologically unfit for strict utilitarian thinking, the study suggests that neuroscience may be able to test different philosophies for compatibility with human nature.
The Nature study expands on work on emotion and decision-making that Damasio began in the early 1990s and that caught the public eye in his first book, Descartes' Error.
Marc Hauser, whose behavioral work in animals has attempted to identify precursors to moral behavior, then teamed up with Damasio's group to extend those observations.
University of Southern California
Related Moral Judgment Current Events and Moral Judgment News Articles
Using decisional bias as an implicit measure of moral judgment
The act of identifying a perpetrator does not just involve memory and thinking, but also constitutes a moral decision. This is because, by the act of identifying or not identifying someone, the eyewitness runs the risk of either convicting an innocent person or letting a guilty person go free.
'Bad' video game behavior increases players' moral sensitivity
New evidence suggests heinous behavior played out in a virtual environment can lead to players' increased sensitivity toward the moral codes they violated.
Research shows compassion and euthanasia don't always jibe
New research from Case Western Reserve University found that compassion can produce counterintuitive results, challenging prevailing views of empathy's effects on moral judgment.
Women's Contraceptive Use Influenced by Previous Contraception Education and Moral Attitudes, MU Researcher Finds
Nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended, and unplanned pregnancies are associated with poorer health and lower rates of educational and economic achievement for women and their children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fiction prepares us for a world changed by global warming
Climate fiction, or simply cli-fi, is a newly coined term for novels and films which focus on the consequences of global warming.
Brain scans link concern for justice with reason, not emotion
People who care about justice are swayed more by reason than emotion, according to new brain scan research from the Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.
Study: Empathy plays a key role in moral judgments
Is it permissible to harm one to save many? Those who tend to say "yes" when faced with this classic dilemma are likely to be deficient in a specific kind of empathy, according to a report published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
'Moral realism' may lead to better moral behavior
Getting people to think about morality as a matter of objective facts rather than subjective preferences may lead to improved moral behavior, Boston College researchers report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Moral evaluations of harm are instant and emotional, brain study shows
People are able to detect, within a split second, if a hurtful action they are witnessing is intentional or accidental, new research on the brain at the University of Chicago shows.
Beanballs and the psychology of revenge
In a new study, baseball fans exhibit a high moral tolerance for a form of revenge not otherwise practiced in most of contemporary society: avenging a teammate who has been hit by a pitch by aiming a pitch at an opposing batter who was not previously involved.
More Moral Judgment Current Events and Moral Judgment News Articles