Does emotion mediate the relationship between an action's moral status and its intentional status? Neuropsychological evidence

Journal of Cognition and Culture 6 (1-2):291-304 (2006)
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Abstract

Studies of normal individuals reveal an asymmetry in the folk concept of intentional action: an action is more likely to be thought of as intentional when it is morally bad than when it is morally good. One interpretation of these results comes from the hypothesis that emotion plays a critical mediating role in the relationship between an action’s moral status and its intentional status. According to this hypothesis, the negative emotional response triggered by a morally bad action drives the attribution of intent to the actor, or the judgment that the actor acted intentionally. We test this hypothesis by presenting cases of morally bad and morally good action to seven individuals with deficits in emotional processing resulting from damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC). If normal emotional processing is necessary for the observed asymmetry, then individuals with VMPC lesions should show no asymmetry. Our results provide no support for this hypothesis: like normal individuals, those with VMPC lesions showed the same asymmetry, tending to judge that an action was intentional when it was morally bad but not when it was morally good. Based on this finding, we suggest that normal emotional processing is not responsible for the observed asymmetry of intentional attributions and thus does not mediate the relationship between an action’s moral status and its intentional status.

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