Thursday, March 29, 2007

Neuroscience: Emotion and moral judgments

Los Angeles (USA), 28 March: The critical role played by part of the brain in making normal judgments of right and wrong is highlighted by a study in Nature this week. Patients with damage to an area of the brain involved in the normal generation of emotions have an abnormally ‘utilitarian’ reaction when presented with certain types of moral dilemma.

Antonio Damasio and colleagues studied six patients with focal lesions to the venteromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) on both sides of the brain. They presented them with a set of moral dilemmas that pit compelling considerations of aggregate welfare against highly emotionally aversive behaviors, such as having to decide whether to sacrifice one’s child in order to save a number of other people. The authors report that the patients tended to have a utilitarian reaction to these dilemmas – that is, they responded in a manner that favored the greater good, despite the emotional significance of the decision.

The authors note that the effects of damage to the VMPC on emotion processing depend on context, and that their results are consistent with a model in which a combination of intuitive and rational mechanisms operate to produce moral judgments.
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