Ethics and Neuroscience

An Image of Ethics
The response of the human brain to moral conflict

Clinton D. Kilts, Dr. Paul Janssen Professor of Neuropsychiatry

Vol. 9 No. 2
October/November 2006

Return to Contents

Out of Control
Alcohol abuse and academic life at Emory

Use and Abuse

Select Recommendations from the President's Task Force on Alcohol and Other Drugs

"Faculty members generally are more aware of what’s going on with students than the rest of us are. They see the impact more closely in terms of class absences, emotional trauma because of assault, and grades suffering."

"In Italy someone who is out of control because of alcohol is considered the lowest of the low as far as bad public behavior is concerned. Drunkenness is disgusting. American youth are always associated with drunken behavior, and they go from drunken to destructive."

An Image of Ethics
The response of the human brain to moral conflict

Neuroethics and Moral Progress
Toward an understanding of ethics decisions

Emory Indicators: Research impact on neuroscience

Further Reading


How do our brains sort out ethical and moral quandaries?
Until recently, evolving understanding of the organization of brain function focused largely on the field of behavioral neurology based on the impact of brain damage on behavior. More recently, however, increasingly sophisticated neuroimaging
technologies such as position emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have provided
new and important insights into brain functioning that underlies human behavior in neurologically intact, awake, individuals. Other neuroimaging technologies have also been used in an attempt to explain the biological bases of human behavior. These
complementary approaches can describe ongoing patterns of neural activity in human subjects while they perform tasks that pose widely varying demands of brain function including cognition, affect, and social behavior.

The results of these studies, which are often oversimplified, have penetrated public awareness and are now commonly reported by mainstream media. The intersection of science and the public’s appetite for information about neuroscience has, in part, led to a separate field: neuroethics, which is concerned with the social impact of the ethics and value of neuroimaging in the service of marketing, hiring practices, the assessment of insurability, voter preference, and the ethics of considering, on a physiological basis, sources of prejudice and sexuality.

Recently a somewhat controversial study of “moral processing” (this paper is in press in the journal Neuropsychologia) was conducted at Emory, in which neuroscience intersected with these sensitive issues. The study team included, in addition to myself and another colleague from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, researchers from the Goizueta Business School, the Candler School of Theology, and the Department of Biostatistics in the Rollins School of Public Health. This multi-department research group brought discrete and individual areas of interest—business education and ethics, moral testing, decision making, neural networks, psychiatric disorders—and skills in neuroscience, ethics and moral behavior to the project. At one level, it spoke to a perceived lack of adherence at that time of a handful of neuroimaging studies of moral processing to the robust and long-standing field of moral theory. Some of us were interested in applying neuroimaging to avenues of the behavioral sciences that had not been influenced by this technology. From group discussions, the groundwork for the study design was hammered out, emphasizing a perceived need to adhere to contemporary views of the determinants, processes, and methods of assessing moral behavior and to promote the ecological validity—or how closely they simulate real-life situations—of the moral conflicts engendered by the study. The group’s discussion revealed a unanimous opinion that moral behavior is complex and multifactorial and composed of component processes.

At a second level, in following up on the intent to inform as-yet biologically uninformed areas of moral theory, we decided to focus additionally on controversies in the moral debate between different types of moral processing, specifically the difference between rule- and law-based justice reasoning and that of social-, emotional-, and perspective-based care reasoning. These different moral orientations have been associated with sex differences and differences based upon professional training (for example, the differences between police and nurses).
The research group decided to focus on an available and professionally homogenous group of students (sixteen men) in the Executive Master’s in Business Administration (EMBA) program in the Goizueta Business School. All of the study subjects had worked in business for an average of fourteen years before joining the EMBA program. Each was presented with scenarios organized as story segments in the life of Bob, a fictional marketing research analyst, as he reflected on workaday issues and decisions. Several types of issues were addressed: non-moral problems of a strategic or tactical nature, moral conflicts posed by issues of justice or care, and neutral issues.

Each story segment was two to three sentences long. Subjects were instructed to read the content of the story segments while undergoing fmri and respond by pushing a button to indicate when they were able to identify an “important” point or issue in the story. They were also instructed to respond as often as they wished for each story segment, or not at all if no issues seemed important. This study’s design therefore focused on the implicit recognition of real-life ethical challenges encountered by business professionals in typical business settings. Control stimuli and responses were represented by the non-moral strategic and
tactical issue processing and neutral events that were similarly identified as important by the study subjects. The identification of important issues served as an event around which image
analysis was organized.

A major finding of the study was that three activated brain areas were identified as being associated with moral sensitivity: the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, and the posterior superior temporal sulcus laterally. The findings, and subsequent interpretations, are consistent with theoretical models of moral thinking that propose that moral decisions and actions are related to self-identity and self-interest, and with ideas about the influence of the successful recall of autobiographical memories and with arguments that moral judgments are related to access to memories of outcomes of past moral decisions. Collectively, the results of this study are consistent with the involvement of a network of brain regions associated with moral sensitivity, which perhaps suggest complementary roles related to first-person perspective-taking, access to autobiographical memories and knowledge related to self, and social cognition and the attribution of mental states to others.

Future research may focus on corollaries of these findings—that immoral actions may reflect an exaggerated or dysfunctional self-representation, inaccessibility of internal models of behavior formed by past experiences, a faulty perspective of the outcomes of actions on others, or their combination. The findings also have implications for the development of moral sensitivity, suggesting that efforts to sensitize individuals to moral issues should focus on methods that tap into introspection based on personal experiences, as well as the use of perspective-taking techniques such as role-playing. It is interesting to note that different members of the research team took away different paths
of motivated research. These included the use of functional
neuroimaging and its insights in curriculum development,
specifically focusing on moral versus strategic thinking, and the study of individual differences in moral ability.

What is the true goal of human functional neuroimaging studies? Confusion around the goals and related significance of these studies has led to significant controversy. Ultimately, the outcome of a functional neuroimaging study in humans is defined by how it addresses the critical questions of how and by what strategies complex human behaviors are determined. This requires studies that are cautiously designed and careful attempts to minimize alternative explanations for their outcomes. In the specific example of this study of moral processes, the study team decided, for reasons of interpretability, to focus on an early stage process in moral behavior—moral sensitivity. Moral sensitivity or intuition refers to the interpretive awareness of a moral conflict from which subsequent moral behavioral processes of making a moral judgment and pursuing a moral action proceed.