Friday, April 20, 2007

The Brain, Emotions and Morality

Moral philosophers often focus on examples like the famous Trolley Problem to test our intuitions concerning utilitiarian versus deontological ethical theories. Is it permissible (indeed obligatory) to sacrifice one person's life to save a greater number of lives? People have different reactions to these kinds of scenarios.

The latest issue of Nature has two interesting pieces which address this issue. In "Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements" Michael Koenigs et. al. examine how damage to the brain can cause a utilitiarian response to certain kinds of moral dilemmas. Here is the abstract:

The psychological and neurobiological processes underlying moral judgement have been the focus of many recent empirical studies1. Of central interest is whether emotions play a causal role in moral judgement, and, in parallel, how emotion-related areas of the brain contribute to moral judgement. Here we show that six patients with focal bilateral damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), a brain region necessary for the normal generation of emotions and, in particular, social emotions, produce an abnormally 'utilitarian' pattern of judgements on moral dilemmas that pit compelling considerations of aggregate welfare against highly emotionally aversive behaviours (for example, having to sacrifice one person's life to save a number of other lives). In contrast, the VMPC patients' judgements were normal in other classes of moral dilemmas. These findings indicate that, for a selective set of moral dilemmas, the VMPC is critical for normal judgements of right and wrong. The findings support a necessary role for emotion in the generation of those judgements.

And in "Neurobiology: Feeling right about doing right" Deborah Talmi and Chris Frith offer further reflections on these findings. They argue:

....This result engenders a paradox. On the one hand, believing that emotion is the enemy of reason, our society still goes to great lengths to prevent emotional considerations from influencing important decisions, in particular moral decisions. Intriguingly, the result reported by Koenigs and colleagues seems to show that damage to the VMPFC does not impair moral decision-making, but rather improves it through eliminating the effects of emotion. On the other hand, there is abundant evidence that decision-making in other spheres is severely impaired in these patients.

....The challenge, then, is for decision-makers to cultivate an intelligent use of their emotional responses by integrating them with a reflective reasoning process, sensitive to the context and goals of the moral dilemmas they face. If decision-makers meet this challenge, they may be better able to decide when to rely upon their emotions, and when to regulate them. Indeed, such cultivation is already occurring in the legal system.