Critical reflection on the available neuropsychological evidence suggests that the roles of emotion and reason in moral judgment may not be distinct. This casts significant doubt on our current understanding of moral judgment, and therefore also on all philosophical theories based on that understanding. Most notably, it raises doubts about both sentimentalism and rationalism, which historically have often been treated as exclusive and exhaustive theories regarding the nature of moral concepts. As an alternative, I endorse pluralism with regard to the emotional and rational nature of moral concepts.
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Although Greene and others typically use the term ‘dilemmas,’ I will use the terms ‘vignettes’ or ‘problems’ except when writing quotationally. This is because, as Berker (2009) has pointed out, several of the vignettes used in Greene et al. ’s (2001a) battery do not actually seem to involve genuine dilemmas.
Roughly, sentimentalism is the view that (normative) moral judgments are (and should be) driven primarily by emotion; rationalism is the view that (normative) moral judgments are (and should be) controlled primarily by reason.
These 60 vignettes (Greene et al. 2001b) have received significant criticism in the literature. They are often described as “trolley problems” (Foot 1967) despite the fact that many of them are quite unlike trolley problems (Berker 2009); appear to be unrealistic or contrived (Gray and Schein 2012); and fail to control for a number of confounds (Kamm 2009).
Vignettes were graded by two independent coders according to three criteria: “The moral dilemmas of which the coders said that the action in question (a) could reasonably be expected to lead to serious bodily harm (b) to a particular person or a member or members of a particular group of people (c) where this harm is not the result of deflecting an existing threat onto a different party were assigned to the ‘moral-personal’ condition; the others were assigned to the ‘moral-impersonal’ condition” (Greene et al. 2001a).
Although even this much may be doubted. Michael Davis has pointed out to me that, e.g., hiring a black-market surgeon to “kidnap a randomly selected stranger, carve out one of his eyes, and transfer it to you” (Greene et al. 2001b, “Impersonal Dilemmas” #19) is a personal moral violation even according to Greene et al.’s coding conventions.
During 2015, all seven of Greene’s solo and collaborative 2014 publications combined were cited less frequently (103 citations; M = 14.7) than either his 2001 (251 citations) or 2004 (172 citations) collaborations.
I use the term “preferential activation” to refer to the production of significantly stronger neuroimaging signals during a given task (or process; although cf. Jacoby 1991) than in a control or alternative experimental task.
It is ambiguous in Greene et al. (2001a) whether the authors use Kosslyn et al. (1996) as evidence for their characterization of the PCG, or of the MdFC. Nonetheless, Kosslyn also found that the MdFC is more involved in imagining negative emotional images than in seeing them. Thus, the remainder of Sect. 3.2 applies equally well to the MdFC, if the reader replaces each instance of the work “perception” with the word “imagery,” and vice versa.
Ironically, Kosslyn did find that the MFG (BA 9)—which Greene et al. (2001a) associate with controlled cognition—was more activated by negative emotional as opposed to neutral imagery.
I have in mind something like a visual representation of Greene et al.’s ‘impersonal’ moral vignette (2001b) in which a person blinded in war hires a doctor to kidnap a stranger and carve out his eye for transplantation. Another classic (Singer 1972) but more realistic ‘impersonal’ judgment might involve writing a check to help anonymous starving people; when such a decision is made after watching a commercial of dying children with distended bellies, this ‘impersonal’ moral judgment may be driven by emotional responses to visual stimuli.
A paradigmatic example of this, described by Young and Saxe (2008), is a case in which an agent attempts to put poison in someone’s drink, but unbeknownst to that agent only puts sugar in the drink.
A callosotomy is a procedure in which the corpus callosum, the large white matter structure connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain, is severed. This is typically done in order to reduce the interhemispheric spread of seizure-related neural activity among sufferers of epilepsy.
Depending on the region(s) in which a patient’s seizures typically begin, an epileptic patient’s corpus callosum may be either partially or totally severed by a surgeon.
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I am grateful to Joshua Greene and to Michael Davis, Thomas Fisher, Elisabeth Hildt, Warren Schmaus, Aaron Spink, and two anonymous referees for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. My research was funded by a grant from the Swiss Cogito Foundation, to which I am also grateful.
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Holtzman, G.S. A neuropsychological challenge to the sentimentalism/rationalism distinction. Synthese 195, 1873–1889 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1344-9
- Moral psychology
- Dual-process model
- Joshua Greene
- Moral judgment task
- Trolley problems