Science and Morality
This may already be old news to some but new research has appeared in the March (2010) edition of the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that has sent a few ripples out in the rarified world of the neuroscientist as well as further afield.
Researchers used powerful magnetic imaging[not ordinary magnets] to identify a region in the brain that is active when a person considers moral questions. It turns out that the imaging has some affect on how we think about a moral question. It seems this 'scrambling' made it harder for people to separate innocent intentions from harmful outcomes. Led by Rebecca Saxe, MIT scientist Dr Liane Young and a team of colleagues, researchers applied magnetic signals to the test subjects craniums which altered their judgements of moral culpability. Liane said "It's one thing to know that we'll find morality in the brain...It's another to knock out that brain area and change people's moral judgments."
When we judge a moral action, most of us consider intention as well at outcome...was the harmful action intended etc? Was it understood by the perpetrator? It is for this reason we tend to judge less harshly those who may have diminished responsibility, such as children or the insane or those mentally impaired in some way.
The Moral Centre?
Through neuroimaging, scientists have been able to demonstrate that at least some of our moral decision making---the part that concerns the assumptions we make about other people's intentions, occurs in a part of the brain called the RTPJ...the right temporo-parietal junction. Scientists reasoned that if they could temporarily disturb this region, it may affect moral reasoning. Evidently the magnetic interference made it harder to distinguish intention and led participants to focus more on outcome. This is a particularly interesting find, as the study provides further evidence that the right RTPJ, [above and behind the right ear] is crucial for making moral judgments. Although the interference didn't completely reverse people's moral decisions, it did markedly bias them.
Could morality be just above our right ear? Or is that just where one particular process occurs? No-one knows, as it's still early days in this kind of research, but findings like this are bound to stir a few pots. The research scientists have already been accused by some of having 'an agenda' by trying to find a 'morality module' in the brain. At the very least this news might perk up all those paranoid conspiracy theorists who may now be thinking they were right all along and we keep screwing up here on Earth because a race of highly intelligent aliens are scrambling our brains through giant magnetic fields.(joke)
Anyone interested in further information about the research can find it at the PNAS website [for a fee] or the MIT website.
MIT News Office