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The neural basis of morality: not just where, but when

Fiery Cushman
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awu049 974-975 First published online: 19 March 2014

We have known for some time that an intact ventromedial prefrontal cortex (PFC) is essential for normal social and moral functioning, thanks in large part to studies of individuals who have suffered damage to it (Damasio, 1994). In this issue of Brain, Taber-Thomas and colleagues report that the specific nature of a person’s moral impairment depends not only upon where brain damage occurs, but also when (Taber-Thomas et al., 2014).

Their point of departure is a landmark study showing that individuals with damage to ventromedial PFC make abnormal judgements when faced with a specific class of moral dilemma (Koenigs et al., 2007). These dilemmas hinge on a trade-off between allowing several people to die, or saving them by personally killing a single victim. For instance, the trolley problem asks whether it is acceptable to save five people from being hit by a runaway trolley by shoving a man in front of it in order to slow it down (such a bizarrely unfortunate railway mishap may seem the stuff of pure fantasy, but try telling that to Phineas Gage).

Koenigs and colleagues (2007) showed that although neurotypical individuals and those with brain damage to regions outside the ventromedial PFC tended to disfavour such direct harm despite its utilitarian benefits, individuals with adult-onset damage to ventromedial PFC are significantly more likely to judge such harms acceptable. Importantly, however, the differences between groups did not extend to another class of moral ‘dilemma’. Specifically, ventromedial PFC participants were just as likely as others to condemn self-interested harmful actions (bumping off a stingy boss, stealing a wallet, selling a daughter into the …

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