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Can Neuroscience Help Us to Understand Morality?

May 15, 2013

From Being Human:


The trolley problem is one of the most classic of moral quandaries: would you push one person in front of a runaway trolley in order to save five other people? The dilemma pits our aversion to killing an innocent against a practical problem of numbers. Joshua Greene is one of the foremost experts on the trolley problem, and has studied its implications for years. Recently, he and a team examined MRI brain scans belonging to volunteers pondering the dilemma.

They noticed that the scans all showed increased blood oxygen levels at the moment of judgment—a sign of increased mental energy spent on the problem. What impressed Greene, though, was that the brain scans of the people who chose to save more lives (even if it meant killing an innocent) showed higher levels of blood oxygen than the rest, suggesting that their decisions demanded significantly more brain power. The conclusion in those cases: perhaps reason was overcoming an automatic moral response.

This research bears out Greene’s hypothesis (shared by Antonio Damasio and others) that emotion and reason both play a role in decision-making, what he calls the dual-process theory of moral judgment. The tension we feel when making a tough decision is real, the result of two competing systems in the brain. [More]

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