Letter

Nature 446, 908-911 (19 April 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature05631; Received 3 November 2006; Accepted 17 February 2007; Published online 21 March 2007

There is a Brief Communication Arising (20 March 2008) associated with this document.

Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements

Michael Koenigs1,5,6, Liane Young2,6, Ralph Adolphs1,3, Daniel Tranel1, Fiery Cushman2, Marc Hauser2 & Antonio Damasio1,4

  1. Department of Neurology, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Iowa City, Iowa 52242, USA
  2. Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA
  3. Division of Humanities and Social Sciences and Division of Biology, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA
  4. Brain and Creativity Institute and Dornsife Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California 90089, USA
  5. Present address: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892-1440, USA.
  6. These authors contributed equally to this work.

Correspondence to: Ralph Adolphs1,3 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to R.A. (Email: radolphs@hss.caltech.edu).

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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