Is Morality Unified? Evidence that Distinct Neural Systems Underlie Moral Judgments of Harm, Dishonesty, and Disgust

Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23 (10):3162-3180 (2011)
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Abstract

Much recent research has sought to uncover the neural basis of moral judgment. However, it has remained unclear whether "moral judgments" are sufficiently homogenous to be studied scientifically as a unified category. We tested this assumption by using fMRI to examine the neural correlates of moral judgments within three moral areas: (physical) harm, dishonesty, and (sexual) disgust. We found that the judgment ofmoral wrongness was subserved by distinct neural systems for each of the different moral areas and that these differences were much more robust than differences in wrongness judgments within a moral area. Dishonest, disgusting, and harmful moral transgression recruited networks of brain regions associated with mentalizing, affective processing, and action understanding, respectively. Dorsal medial pFC was the only region activated by all scenarios judged to be morally wrong in comparison with neutral scenarios. However, this region was also activated by dishonest and harmful scenarios judged not to be morally wrong, suggestive of a domain-general role that is neither peculiar to nor predictive of moral decisions. These results suggest that moral judgment is not a wholly unified faculty in the human brain, but rather, instantiated in dissociable neural systems that are engaged differentially depending on the type of transgression being judged.

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Author Profiles

Angela Mendelovici
University of Western Ontario
Victoria McGeer
Princeton University
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