Article Explores Revolution in the Neuroscience of Morality

Posted by admin on March 26, 2014

I spent decades thinking, writing and engaging in activism dealing with a variety of issues related to enhancing health and sustainability on many levels. A few years ago, I achieved a major breakthrough in my understanding of these issues when I realized that all of them, essentially, involved one core issue: human ethical choice. Specifically, I became aware that in order to most effectively and strategically address any of these issues, it was crucial to understand that humans differ in how they make ethical choices and that these differences involve many factors, including biological ones.

Just as I was making this realization, thanks to a number of resources on the topic, it seemed that much of the rest of the world was beginning to make the same realization. More and more stories related to the neuroscience of moral choice were coming out everywhere I looked. And dramas and books centering on psychopaths – perhaps the most fascinating examples of the stark difference between some humans and others in how they make moral choices – were attracting large audiences.

So I started this blog in order to help amplify this awakening to a new understanding about the factors underlying moral choice and, in turn, the types of events we refer to as “evil.”

Here on the blog, I’ve featured many stories that highlight the growing knowledge base at the intersection of neuroscience and morality. And today I read a quote that sums up well my feeling about this area of knowledge:

“It’s a field that’s waiting for a big revolution sometime soon.”

The quote is from Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor in Practical Ethics at Duke University’s Department of Philosophy and Kenan Institute for Ethics. And it comes from an article by Health and Science reporter Elizabeth Landau called “How your brain makes moral judgments” posted on today as part of its “Inside Your Brain” series.

Landau’s article features a nice selection of ideas and research studies in this area of the neuroscience of morality. It demonstrates, yet again, that we do seem to be on the cusp of the revolution in the field to which Sinnott-Armstrong refers – and which this blog exists to help, in some small measure, to bring about – and explores the implications of that revolution.

It covers a variety of studies, relating to which areas of the brain do what when people make moral decisions, by some of the top researchers in the field, such as Joshua Greene and Adrian Raine.

It specifically discusses what is different in the relevant brain circuits in psychopaths as compared with others, a topic covered extensively on this site, as well as in autism.

And in one of its more fascinating aspects, it discusses how interventions in brain processes can manipulate moral judgments. For instance, it talks about research by Rebecca Saxe, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT and associate member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, in which the application of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to a particular area of the brain led to a temporary shift in response when making moral judgments.

In the article, Sinnott-Armstrong is quoted regarding one of the most controversial aspects of ponerology, saying that he “thinks one day there could be treatments directly developed for the brain in extreme cases, such as criminal psychopaths.”

“‘It’s possible that if we understand the neural circuits that underlie psychopaths and their behavior, we can use medications and magnetic stimulation to change their behavior,’ he said.

Such techniques might not work as well as behavioral training programs, however, he said.”

The article also talks about how different brain areas may be involved in different kinds of moral judgments and whether there may be cross-cultural differences in moral judgment.

All in all, a very worthwhile article for those interested in these topics and yet another example of the increasing recognition of this crucial area of study.

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One Response to “ Article Explores Revolution in the Neuroscience of Morality”

  1. Richard W. Posner Says:

    Thank you for your commitment to the study of this most important field and for your efforts in attempting to raise awareness of it.

    I am absolutely sincere when I say that I think of Political Ponerology as the premier pioneering work in a new science that could help end the cycle of suffering and misery that has plagued the human race since the unfortunate event known as “The Neolithic Revolution”.


    Inherited and acquired psychological disorders and ignorance of their existence and nature are the primal causes of evil. The magic number of 6% seems to represent the number of humans who either carry the genes responsible for biological evil or who acquire such disorders in the course of their lifetime. This small percent is responsible for the vast majority of human misery and crime, and for infecting others with their flawed view of the world“.

    I will be adding a link to your site on my own.

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