The neural basis of intuitive and counterintuitive moral judgment


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Abstract

Neuroimaging studies on moral decision-making have thus far largely focused on differences between moral judgments with opposing utilitarian (well-being maximizing) and deontological (duty-based) content. However, these studies have investigated moral dilemmas involving extreme situations, and did not control for two distinct dimensions of moral judgment: whether or not it is intuitive (immediately compelling to most people) and whether it is utilitarian or deontological in content. By contrasting dilemmas where utilitarian judgments are counterintuitive with dilemmas in which they are intuitive, we were able to use functional magnetic resonance imaging to identify the neural correlates of intuitive and counterintuitive judgments across a range of moral situations. Irrespective of content (utilitarian/deontological), counterintuitive moral judgments were associated with greater difficulty and with activation in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, suggesting that such judgments may involve emotional conflict; intuitive judgments were linked to activation in the visual and premotor cortex. In addition, we obtained evidence that neural differences in moral judgment in such dilemmas are largely due to whether they are intuitive and not, as previously assumed, to differences between utilitarian and deontological judgments. Our findings therefore do not support theories that have generally associated utilitarian and deontological judgments with distinct neural systems.

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