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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Neuroscience of Moral Judgment: Empirical and Philosophical Developments

J. May, C. I. Workman, J. Haas, & H. Han
Forthcoming in Neuroscience and Philosophy,
eds. Felipe de Brigard & Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (MIT Press).


We chart how neuroscience and philosophy have together advanced our understanding of moral judgment with implications for when it goes well or poorly. The field initially focused on brain areas associated with reason versus emotion in the moral evaluations of sacrificial dilemmas. But new threads of research have studied a wider range of moral evaluations and how they relate to models of brain development and learning. By weaving these threads together, we are developing a better understanding of the neurobiology of moral judgment in adulthood and to some extent in childhood and adolescence. Combined with rigorous evidence from psychology and careful philosophical analysis, neuroscientific evidence can even help shed light on the extent of moral knowledge and on ways to promote healthy moral development.

From the Conclusion

6.1 Reason vs. Emotion in Ethics

The dichotomy between reason and emotion stretches back to antiquity. But an improved understanding of the brain has, arguably more than psychological science, questioned the dichotomy (Huebner 2015; Woodward 2016). Brain areas associated with prototypical emotions, such as vmPFC and amygdala, are also necessary for complex learning and inference, even if largely automatic and unconscious. Even psychopaths, often painted as the archetype of emotionless moral monsters, have serious deficits in learning and inference. Moreover, even if our various moral judgments about trolley problems, harmless taboo violations, and the like are often automatic, they are nonetheless acquired through sophisticated learning mechanisms that are responsive to morally-relevant reasons (Railton 2017; Stanley et al. 2019). Indeed, normal moral judgment often involves gut feelings being attuned to relevant experience and made consistent with our web of moral beliefs (May & Kumar 2018).

The paper can be downloaded here.