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Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements

Nature volume 446, pages 908911 (19 April 2007) | Download Citation

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Abstract

The psychological and neurobiological processes underlying moral judgement have been the focus of many recent empirical studies1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11. Of central interest is whether emotions play a causal role in moral judgement, and, in parallel, how emotion-related areas of the brain contribute to moral judgement. Here we show that six patients with focal bilateral damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), a brain region necessary for the normal generation of emotions and, in particular, social emotions12,13,14, produce an abnormally ‘utilitarian’ pattern of judgements on moral dilemmas that pit compelling considerations of aggregate welfare against highly emotionally aversive behaviours (for example, having to sacrifice one person’s life to save a number of other lives)7,8. In contrast, the VMPC patients’ judgements were normal in other classes of moral dilemmas. These findings indicate that, for a selective set of moral dilemmas, the VMPC is critical for normal judgements of right and wrong. The findings support a necessary role for emotion in the generation of those judgements.

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Acknowledgements

We thank H. Damasio for making available neuroanatomical analyses of lesion patients and for preparing Fig. 1. We thank all participants for their participation in the experiments and R. Saxe for comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Author information

Author notes

    • Michael Koenigs

    Present address: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892-1440, USA.

    • Michael Koenigs
    •  & Liane Young

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

Affiliations

  1. Department of Neurology, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Iowa City, Iowa 52242, USA

    • Michael Koenigs
    • , Ralph Adolphs
    • , Daniel Tranel
    •  & Antonio Damasio
  2. Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Liane Young
    • , Fiery Cushman
    •  & Marc Hauser
  3. Division of Humanities and Social Sciences and Division of Biology, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA

    • Ralph Adolphs
  4. Brain and Creativity Institute and Dornsife Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California 90089, USA

    • Antonio Damasio

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Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at www.nature.com/reprints. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ralph Adolphs.

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    Supplementary Information

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05631

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