How does morality work in the brain? A functional and structural perspective of moral behavior


Neural underpinnings of morality are not yet well understood. Researchers in moral neuroscience have tried to find specific structures and processes that shed light on how morality works. Here, we review the main brain areas that have been associated with morality at both structural and functional levels and speculate about how it can be studied. Orbital and ventromedial prefrontal cortices are implicated in emotionally-driven moral decisions, while dorsolateral prefrontal cortex appears to moderate its response. These competing processes may be mediated by the anterior cingulate cortex. Parietal and temporal structures play important roles in the attribution of others' beliefs and intentions. The insular cortex is engaged during empathic processes. Other regions seem to play a more complementary role in morality. Morality is supported not by a single brain circuitry or structure, but by several circuits overlapping with other complex processes. The identification of the core features of morality and moral-related processes is needed. Neuroscience can provide meaningful insights in order to delineate the boundaries of morality in conjunction with moral psychology.


“By four-thirty in the morning the priest was all cleaned up. I felt a lot better. I always did, after. Killing makes me feel good. (…) It's a sweet release, a necessary letting go of all the little hydraulic valves inside. (…) It has to be done the right way, at the right time, with the right partner—very complicated, but very necessary.”

Dexter, Darkly dreaming Dexter (Jeff Lindsay)

Can immoral behavior sometimes turn out to be moral? What mechanisms underlie morality? The above quotation is taken from a scene in the American TV series “Dexter.” Dexter is a respected employee at the Miami Metro Police Department, and a family man. However, at night Dexter doubles as a covert serial killer, applying his own moral code and murdering assassins whom the legal system has failed to condemn or catch. To what extent can a murder be considered necessary or even moral? Dexter's code includes clear examples of moral paradoxes that are not yet well understood. Does Dexter's brain work in the same way as the brains of other people? Researchers in moral neuroscience have tried to find domain-specific structures and processes that shed light on what morality is and where it is in the brain, if in fact it is there at all.

Written By: Leo Pascual, Paulo Rodrigues, and David Gallardo-Pujol
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  1. One simplified way of looking at this is you have motivations to do something and motivations not to do it.

    Are positive and negative drives handled by different parts of the brain?
    Are motivations concerned with the self and society handled by different parts of the brain?

  2. The brains ability to consider and judge may be quite slow. Certainly the wild animal us required a quick reaction. I wonder if these scans assume everything happens at the event. If we learn it would be immediately after similar events storing the response for next time. So I hope these scans are on going while the subject considers what they did. The thinking after may show you the storing for next time. Which maybe the only thinking there is in a system primed for respond or die actions.

  3. This could lead to the terrifying prospect of one day being able to alter a person’s morality, perhaps surgically or chemically. Another thing to keep bioethicists busy in the years ahead.

    At least it shows the religious argument of a supernaturally-derived morality for the hogwash it is.

  4. It is most unfortunate that Dexter doesn’t live near K Street in Washington, DC. He could alternate between Georgetown and K Street.

  5. Don’t get me wrong: this sort of research and analysis is vital for any study of the human mind, and I consider myself much the better informed for having read the article. However, as much as this is probably just me looking too far ahead, I get the impression that the research so far has been a process of identifying where the moral thinking happens and identifying the places to start digging, or as basically a subset of the task of location. What I suspect will become more important is a bottom-up approach to this investigation, getting to the neural code itself and figuring out how the logical connections build up to the larger-scale structures within the lobes. My prediction is that this will provide the foundation for finally understanding what morality, and moral emotions, actually are.

    To provide an analogy, I consider this research as being the stage when the digestive system has its organs identified and notes where the foodstuffs go to be digested, without fully confirming what digestion means. What I’m looking forward to is a catalogue of the specific chemistry involved – for instance, the enzymes produced, the mechanisms of metabolism inside the glands and cells, and the reactions going on within the organs – and the unpacking of the concept of “digestion” so that its evolutionary role is better understood (in this example, as a means of obtaining the raw materials for cellular repair, protein manufacture, energy release, and so forth). As far as this applies to the nervous system, I think it will involve not just locating empathy in the limbic lobe and subcortical structures, but unpacking its neural code to identify what it is actually made of, what the subroutines are, and how it works for an evolutionary purpose.

  6. In reply to #6 by Zeuglodon:

    Don’t get me wrong: this sort of research and analysis is vital for any study of the human mind, and I consider myself much the better informed for having read the article. However, as much as this is probably just me looking too far ahead, I get the impression that the research so far has been a pr…

    I had a similar reaction although I look at it more from the standpoint (naturally) of what someone who had never seen a computer before would do to try and understand say where and how the Powerpoint application (or in this case the Morality application) works. If you were trying to reverse engineer how Powerpoint works on a computer there are some interesting things you could understand about exactly where various things happen. Math get’s done on the math accellerator chip, I/O goes through the bus and comes from the keyboard and mouse, if there is video in the presentation that get’s handled by the graphics card, etc. But the vast majority of Powerpoint (or any application) just runs mostly on the CPU and Ram and where it get’s stored in RAM on any given computer is dependent on low level random details in the Operating System and won’t tell you a thing about the actual logic of Powerpoint.

    I look at the Moral system as being analogous. The human brain isn’t quite as general purpose as a computer since the brain evolved rather than was designed top down but still even in the case of the brain IMO a lot of the things you mention, e.g., how do individual neurons combine to make abstract concepts and to perform logical inferencing, will be more or less the same for the moral system as for lots of other types of reasoning that the brain performs. I’m not saying this kind of research isn’t of value, I think it definitely is, just that there are also other ways to analyze the problem that are essentially independent of the underlying hardware.

    A good analogy is language. We have found various centers of the brain that are responsible for various aspects of language. However, at the same time linguists have been doing research on abstract models of language that describe how people learn language and the computational requirements of any system (computer or human) that can process a language. Those models are completely independent of where in the brain language processing is done.

    A specific example would be parameterized grammars. A challenge for Universal Grammar (the theory that humans are born with a genetic capability for language) used to be that various languages don’t handle things like noun-verb order in the same way. With the parameterized grammars linguists found there actually are commonalities across virtually all languages that can be described by sets of parameters. I.e. if noun-verb order is done one way then other issues in the language will be done in a specific way as well. Looked at this way, not as traditional grammars but as grammars where the learner learns meta-rules, you see the incredible consistency across languages and that what humans are doing as young children are learning these meta-rules. Various psychologists are doing similar research understanding how humans acquire moral rules and are again finding that when you look at it the right way there is a lot of consistency across cultures in how we learn morality as well.

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