, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 169-194

The Neural Mechanisms of Moral Cognition: A Multiple-Aspect Approach to Moral Judgment and Decision-Making

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Abstract

We critically review themushrooming literature addressing the neuralmechanisms of moral cognition (NMMC), reachingthe following broad conclusions: (1) researchmainly focuses on three inter-relatedcategories: the moral emotions, moral socialcognition, and abstract moral reasoning. (2)Research varies in terms of whether it deploysecologically valid or experimentallysimplified conceptions of moral cognition. Themore ecologically valid the experimentalregime, the broader the brain areas involved.(3) Much of the research depends on simplifyingassumptions about the domain of moral reasoningthat are motivated by the need to makeexperimental progress. This is a valuablebeginning, but as more is understood about theneural mechanisms of decision-making, morerealistic conceptions will need to replace thesimplified conceptions. (4) The neuralcorrelates of real-life moral cognition areunlikely to consist in anything remotely like a``moral module'' or a ``morality center.'' Moralrepresentations, deliberations and decisionsare probably highly distributed and notconfined to any particular brainsub-system. Discovering the basic neuralprinciples governing planning, judgment anddecision-making will require vastly more basicresearch in neuroscience, but correlatingactivity in certain brain regions withwell-defined psychological conditions helpsguide neural level research. Progress on socialphenomena will also require theoreticalinnovation in understanding the brain'sdistinctly biological form of computationthat is anchored by emotions, needs, drives,and the instinct for survival.