Cognitive Morality

A new study has revealed that humans’ ability to respond appropriately to intended harms – ie moral outrage and anger – is rooted in the brain region used for regulating emotions.

A new study has revealed that humans’ ability to respond appropriately to intended harms – ie moral outrage and anger – is rooted in the brain region used for regulating emotions. "Patients with damage to this brain area, known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), are unable to conjure a normal emotional response to hypothetical situations in which a person tries, but fails, to kill another person. Therefore, they judge the situation based only on the outcome, and do not hold the attempted murderer morally responsible. The finding offers a new piece to the puzzle of how the human brain constructs morality, says Liane Young, a postdoctoral associate in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and lead author of a paper describing the findings in the March 25 issue of the journal Neuron. ‘We're slowly chipping away at the structure of morality,’ says Young. ‘We're not the first to show that emotions matter for morality, but this is a more precise look at how emotions matter.’ How they did it: Working with researchers at the University of Southern California, led by Antonio Damasio, Young studied a group of nine patients with damage (caused by aneurisms or tumors) to the VMPC, a plum-sized area located behind and above the eyes."

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