Morality and the Brain

Morality has long been a philosophical issue, but neuropsychology has been making interesting inroads into understanding the workings of the brain in relation to moral decision making. Since I am not a psychologist, this isn’t an exhaustive study into morality and neuropsychology, but rather a brief look at moral decision making as a physical process.

According to the British Medical Bulletin “Knowing right from wrong may be as fundamental to human experience as language, vision or memory.” In this study, the connection between morality and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), which is “a brain region known to be important for emotional processing.” In the abstract, they claim that “Central to [their] investigation is the extent to which emotional processes underlie our decisions about moral right and wrong,” but this seems somewhat presumptuous, since the paper manages to provide a link between the VMPC, and the moral process, but doesn’t nail down what the role of emotion is on moral decision making. The issue here is, that while I don’t contend that emotion and morality are closely linked, and emotion may play some role in moral decision making, it can’t be ignored that making moral decisions can lead to emotional responses such as guilt or feelings of reward, depending on the decision. Of course, these emotions could also be evoked when one is anticipating the outcome of a decision, and could therefore influence the process as well, but whether the causal chain begins with emotion or is perpetuated by it, is uncertain. I intend to revisit this paper in future posts, it provides some interesting thought experiments.

That paper was from 2007, but a more recent study, reported on by MSNBC last year, reveals some interesting information. This study focused on the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ), “which other studies had previously related to moral judgments.” Although that quote seems to have an element of redundancy, it makes it clear that there is an association between moral decision making and the RTPJ. What is interesting about this study, is that they actually managed to influence peoples analysis of moral issues.

Test subjects were given a story with moral implications, and while reading it “scientists applied a magnetic field using a method known as transcranial magnetic stimulation” which caused the neurons to “fire off electrical pulses chaotically.” The resultant confusion in the brain caused the subjects to focus on the outcome rather than the intent. This is quite significant, since the whole subjective morality argument is based on the individual’s perspective of what is right or wrong, not on their intent. The act of doing something wrong, is dependent to some degree on intent, but not on a subjective definition of right and wrong, this seems to be physically testable.

All this said, courts won’t convict someone who is diagnosed as criminally insane, on the grounds that they are incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong. Obviously in this case, awareness of right and wrong plays a role. The problem for the subjective morality crowd is, people can only be classified as unaware of right and wrong, if there is an objective view of right and wrong. So psychologists operate within a realm where morality is objective.

It is clear that neuro psychology can contribute to understanding morality, but more research is needed. The fact that moral judgements can be physically influenced speaks volumes for a morality being more than simply mental pictures built up through cultural programming, although, like language, the physical mechanisms may need some kind of activation during upbringing. Psychologists obviously need some sort of objectivity surrounding morality if they are to declare people unable to tell right from wrong. The evidence in psychology clearly points towards moral objectivity, and not subjectivity.



4 thoughts on “Morality and the Brain”

  1. hmmm… interesting point but…

    Objective morality remains subjective to the collective consensus. Alcohol is Haram and subjectively immoral for one to partake. But… others wouldn’t think so. But that is THEIR collective decision on MORALITY as it RELATES to THEM.

    I consider war an immoral act, but millions have gone to war to defend that which they consider worth killing for. That doesn’t make me right or wrong, simply makes me… well… me.

    Again it’s a collective objectiveness that leads to an objective case of right and wrong… what is considered moral or not. It wasn’t long ago that interracial relationships were considered immoral by many and law. Thankfully that version of subjective collective objectiveness has since been objectively declared subjective.

    You can argue that things are black and white (haha pun intended) but they simply aren’t. It is because nothing is truly objective, there is always a subjective view on things that we need governance, borders… freedom from slavery. If that wasn’t the case, then we’d all be living in perfect harmony.

    1. But if we consider morality as a characteristic then we can examine things on those grounds. I very much doubt that you’ll be able to find evidence that would support the idea that interacial relations cause major social unrest. One could find reasonable evidence to support murder; rape and theft being bad for society in general. With the knowledge that morality is based on a universal premise, and has particular measurable effects on the brain. We can then use this as a way of coming up with objective ways to prove that things are wrong. I doubt we’ll answer all moral dilemmas, but we certainly can answer the more pressing and socially damaging issues.

      1. The thing is I can argue for and against interacial relations as they DO cause unrest in much of the world TODAY.

        I too doubt that we’ll ever answer all dilemmas but also that we can’t really do much about the most evil as they tend to be indoctrinated from such an early age.

        Very few people have the ability to stand up against what they are taught to believe. Fewer still act.

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