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When Morality is Hard to Like

Jorge Moll and Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza have written an article about the study of morality in neuroscience, published in Scientific American. Below is an excerpt:

Koenigs and his collaborators compared the performance on moral decision-making tasks of six patients with bilateral VMPFC damage to that of neurologically normal controls and patients with lesions in other brain regions. The test subjects confronted decision-making scenarios in four main classes. One class contained “high conflict” (that is, morally ambiguous) emotionally salient “personal” moral scenarios, such as whether to push a bulky stranger onto the track of a runaway trolley (thus killing the stranger) if doing so would save the lives of five workmen down the line. A second class contained ”low-conflict” (that is, morally unambiguous) but highly personal scenarios, such as whether it was moral for a man to hire someone to rape his wife so he could later comfort her and win her love again. A third category offered morally ambiguous but relatively a-personal scenarios, such as whether it was okay to lie to a guard and “borrow” a speedboat to warn tourists of a deadly impending storm. A fourth category consisted of ambiguous but non-moral scenarios, such as whether to take a train instead of the bus to arrive somewhere punctually.

The VMPFC patients and controls performed alike in the low-conflict personal scenarios, unanimously responding “no” to all the clear-cut, low-ambiguity personal scenarios such as those mentioned above. But when pondering the more emotionally charged high-ambiguity situations, the VMPFC patients were much more likely than others to endorse utilitarian decisions that would lead to greater aggregate welfare. They were far more willing than others were, for instance, to push that fellow passenger in front of the train to save the workmen downtrack.

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