A neuropsychological challenge to the sentimentalism/rationalism distinction

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    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.

  2. 2.

    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.

  3. 3.

    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).

  4. 4.

    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).

  5. 5.

    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.

  6. 6.

    For examples, see reviews by Christensen and Gomila (2012) and Garrigan et al. (2016).

  7. 7.

    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.

  8. 8.

    Specifically, Greene et al. (2004) claim that these prohibitions are “central to deontology,” but as explained earlier (Sect. 1), this stronger claim is inaccurate and misleading; moreover, it is not relevant to the present essay.

  9. 9.

    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.

  10. 10.

    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.

  11. 11.

    This is true, at least, for most experimental paradigms in contemporary moral (neuro)psychology, including Greene et al. ’s (2001a, 2004).

  12. 12.

    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.

  13. 13.

    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.

  14. 14.

    Shenhav and Greene claim that such patients “make more utilitarian judgments” (2014), but as noted earlier (Sect. 1), I think this characterization is inaccurate and, moreover, that it is irrelevant to the present essay.

  15. 15.

    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.

  16. 16.

    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.

  17. 17.

    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.

References

  1. Berker, S. (2009). The normative insignificance of neuroscience. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 37(4), 293–329.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Blanke, O., Ortigue, S., Landis, T., & Seeck, M. (2002). Stimulating illusory own-body perceptions. Nature, 419(6904), 269–270.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bromm, B. (2004). The involvement of the posterior cingulate gyrus in phasic pain processing of humans. Neuroscience Letters, 361(1–3), 245–249.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Buckner, R. L., Andrews-Hanna, J. R., & Schacter, D. L. (2008). The brain’s default network: Anatomy, function, and relevance to disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1124, 1–38.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Carter, R. M., O’Doherty, J. P., Seymour, B., Koch, C., & Dolan, R. J. (2006). Contingency awareness in human aversive conditioning involves the middle frontal gyrus. NeuroImage, 29(3), 1007–1012.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Cera, N., Di Pierro, E. D., Sepede, G., Gambi, F., Perrucci, M. G., Merla, A., et al. (2012). The role of left superior parietal lobe in male sexual behavior: Dynamics of distinct components revealed by FMRI. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 9(6), 1602–1612.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Christensen, J. F., & Gomila, A. (2012). Moral dilemmas in cognitive neuroscience of moral decision-making: A principled review. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 36(4), 1249–1264.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Ciaramelli, E., Muccioli, M., Ladavas, E., & di Pellegrino, G. (2007). Selective deficit in personal moral judgment following damage to ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2(2), 84–92.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Dolcos, F., Iordan, A. D., & Dolcos, S. (2011). Neural correlates of emotion-cognition interactions: A review of evidence from brain imaging investigations. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 23(6), 669–694.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Farrer, C., Frey, S. H., Van Horn, J. D., Tunik, E., Turk, D., Inati, S., et al. (2008). The angular gyrus computes action awareness representations. Cerebral Cortex, 18(2), 254–261.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Foot, P. (1967). The problem of abortion and the doctrine of the double effect. Oxford Review, 5, 5–15.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Gallagher, H. L., Happé, F., Brunswick, N., Fletcher, P. C., Frith, U., & Frith, C. D. (2000). Reading the mind in cartoons and stories: An fMRI study of “theory of mind” in verbal and nonverbal tasks. Neuropsychologia, 38(1), 11–21.

  13. Garrigan, B., Adlam, A. L. R., & Langdon, P. E. (2016). The neural correlates of moral decision-making: A systematic review and meta-analysis of moral evaluations and response decision judgements. Brain and Cognition, 108, 88–97.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Göbel, S., Walsh, V., & Rushworth, M. F. (2001). The mental number line and the human angular gyrus. NeuroImage, 14(6), 1278–1289.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Goldin, P. R., McRae, K., Ramel, W., & Gross, J. J. (2008). The neural bases of emotion regulation: Reappraisal and suppression of negative emotion. Biological Psychiatry, 63(6), 577–86.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Grabner, R. H., Ansari, D., Koschutnig, K., Reishofer, G., Ebner, F., & Neuper, C. (2009a). To retrieve or to calculate? Left angular gyrus mediates the retrieval of arithmetic facts during problem solving. Neuropsychologia, 47(2), 604–608.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Grabner, R. H., Ischebeck, A., Reishofer, G., Koschutnig, K., Delazer, M., Ebner, F., et al. (2009b). Fact learning in complex arithmetic and figural-spatial tasks: The role of the angular gyrus and its relation to mathematical competence. Human Brain Mapping, 30(9), 2936–2952.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Gray, K., & Schein, C. (2012). Two minds vs. two philosophies: Mind perception defines morality and dissolves the debate between deontology and utilitarianism. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 3(3), 405–423.

  19. Greene, J. D. (2007). Why are VMPFC patients more utilitarian? A dual-process theory of moral judgment explains. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(8), 322–323.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Greene, J. D. (2014a). Beyond point-and-shoot morality: Why cognitive (neuro)science matters for ethics. Ethics, 124(4), 695–726.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Greene, J. D. (2014b). The cognitive neuroscience of moral judgment and decision making. In M. S. Gazzaniga (Ed.), The Cognitive Neurosciences V (pp. 1013–1024). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Greene, J. D., Nystrom, L. E., Engell, A. D., Darley, J. M., & Cohen, J. D. (2004). The neural bases of cognitive conflict and control in moral judgment. Neuron, 44(2), 389–400.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Greene, J. D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M., & Cohen, J. D. (2001a). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science (New York, N.Y.), 293, 2105–2108.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Greene, J. D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M., & Cohen, J. D. (2001b). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. [Supplementary material]. Science (New York, N.Y.), 293(5537), 2105–8. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/293/5537/2105/tab-figures-data.

  25. Grèzes, J., Pichon, S., & de Gelder, B. (2007). Perceiving fear in dynamic body expressions. NeuroImage, 35(2), 959–967.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Helion, C., & Pizarro, D. A. (2015). Beyond dual-processes: the interplay of reason and emotion in moral judgment. In J. Clausen & N. Levy (Eds.), Handbook of Neuroethics (pp. 109–125). Springer

  27. Hintikka, J. (1998). What is abduction? The fundamental problem of contemporary epistemology. Transactions of the Charles S Peirce Society, 34(3), 503–533.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Hirono, N., Mori, E., Ishii, K., Ikejiri, Y., Imamura, T., Shimomura, T., et al. (1998). Hypofunction in the posterior cingulate gyrus correlates with disorientation for time and place in Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry, 64, 552–554.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Horwitz, B., Rumsey, J. M., & Donohue, B. C. (1998). Functional connectivity of the angular gyrus in normal reading and dyslexia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 95(15), 8939–8944.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Hume, D. (2013/1751). An enquiry concerning the principles of morals. New York: Start Publishing LLC.

  31. Iacoboni, M., Molnar-Szakacs, I., Gallese, V., Buccino, G., Mazziotta, J. C., & Rizzolatti, G. (2005). Grasping the intentions of others with one’s own mirror neuron system. Plos Biology, 3, e79.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Jacoby, L. L. (1991). A process dissociation framework: Separating automatic from intentional uses of memory. Journal of Memory and Language, 30(5), 513–541.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Kamm, F. M. (2009). Neuroscience and moral reasoning: A note on recent research. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 37(4), 330–345.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Kant, I. (1964/1785). Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals (HJ Paton, Trans.). NY: Harper & Row.

  35. Katayama, K., Takahashi, N., Ogawara, K., & Hattori, T. (1999). Pure topographical disorientation due to right posterior cingulate lesion. Cortex, 35(2), 279–282.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Klein, C. (2011). The dual track theory of moral decision-making: A critique of the neuroimaging evidence. Neuroethics, 4(2), 143–162.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Koenigs, M., Holliday, J., Solomon, J., & Grafman, J. (2010). Left dorsomedial frontal brain damage is associated with insomnia. Journal of Neuroscience, 30(47), 16041–16043.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Koenigs, M., Young, L., Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., Cushman, F., Hauser, M., et al. (2007). Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements. Nature, 446(7138), 908–911.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Kosslyn, S., Shin, L., & Thompson, W. (1996). Neural effects of visualizing and perceiving aversive stimuli: A PET investigation. Neuroreport, 7, 1569–1576.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Machery, E. (2013). In defense of reverse inference. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 65(2), 251–267.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Maddock, R. J. (1999). The retrosplenial cortex and emotion: new insights from functional neuroimaging of the human brain. Trends in Neurosciences, 22(7), 310–316.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Maddock, R. J., & Buonocore, M. H. (1997). Activation of left posterior cingulate gyrus by the auditory presentation ofthreat-related words: An fMRI study. Psychiatry Research - Neuroimaging, 75(1), 1–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Miller, M. B., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Young, L., King, D., Paggi, A., Fabri, M., et al. (2010). Abnormal moral reasoning in complete and partial callosotomy patients. Neuropsychologia, 48(7), 2215–2220.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Moll, J., de Oliveira-Souza, R., Bramati, I. E., & Grafman, J. (2002). Functional networks in emotional moral and nonmoral social judgments. NeuroImage, 16(3), 696–703.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Monks, P. J., Thompson, J. M., Bullmore, E. T., Suckling, J., Brammer, M. J., Williams, S. C. R., et al. (2004). A functional MRI study of working memory task in euthymic bipolar disorder: Evidence for task-specific dysfunction. Bipolar Disorders, 6(6), 550–564.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Muller, J., Sommer, M., Wagner, V., Wagner, V., Lange, K., Lange, K., et al. (2003). Abnormalities in emotion processing within cortical and subcortical regions in criminal psychopaths: Evidence from a functional magnetic resonance imaging study using pictures with emotional content. Biological Psychiatry, 54(2), 152–162.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Mundy, P. (2003). Annotation: The neural basis of social impairments in autism: The role of the dorsal medial-frontal cortex and anterior cingulate system. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 44(6), 793–809.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Penner-Wilger, M., & Anderson, M. L. (2013). The relation between finger gnosis and mathematical ability: Why redeployment of neural circuits best explains the finding. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Poldrack, R. A. (2006). Can cognitive processes be inferred from neuroimaging data? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(2), 59–63.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Poldrack, R. A. (2011). Inferring mental states from neuroimaging data: From reverse inference to large-scale decoding. Neuron, 72(5), 692–697.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Price, G. R., & Ansari, D. (2011). Symbol processing in the left angular gyrus: Evidence from passive perception of digits. NeuroImage, 57(3), 1205–1211.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Pugh, K. R., Mencl, W. E., Shaywitz, B. A., Shaywitz, S. E., Fulbright, R. K., Constable, R. T., et al. (2000). The angular gyrus in developmental dyslexia: Task-specific differences in functional connectivity within posterior cortex. Psychological Science, 11(1), 51–56.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Reiman, E. M., Lane, R. D., Ahern, G. L., Schwartz, G. E., Davidson, R. J., Friston, K. J., et al. (1997). Neuroanatomical correlates of externally and internally generated human emotion. American Journal of Psychiatry, 154(7), 918–925.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Rusconi, E., Walsh, V., & Butterworth, B. (2005). Dexterity with numbers: rTMS over left angular gyrus disrupts finger gnosis and number processing. Neuropsychologia, 43(11), 1609–1624.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Schienle, A., Schäfer, A., Walter, B., Stark, R., & Vaitl, D. (2005a). Brain activation of spider phobics towards disorder-relevant, generally disgust- and fear-inducing pictures. Neuroscience Letters, 388(1), 1–6.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Schienle, A., Schäfer, A., Stark, R., Walter, B., & Vaitl, D. (2005b). Gender differences in the processing of disgust- and fear-inducing pictures: An fMRI study. Neuroreport, 16(3), 277–280.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Seghier, M. (2012). The angular gyrus: Multiple functions and multiple subdivisions. The Neuroscientist, 19(1), 43–61.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Shenhav, A., & Greene, J. D. (2014). Integrative moral judgment: Dissociating the roles of the amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Journal of Neuroscience, 34(13), 4741–4749.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Singer, P. (1972). Famine, affluence and morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(3), 229–243.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Singer, P. (2005). Ethics and intuitions. The Journal of Ethics, 9(3–4), 331–352.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Small, D. M., Gitelman, D. R., Gregory, M. D., Nobre, A. C., Parrish, T. B., & Mesulam, M. M. (2003). The posterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortex mediate the anticipatory allocation of spatial attention. NeuroImage, 18(3), 633–641.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Talati, A., & Hirsch, J. (2005). Functional specialization within the medial frontal gyrus for perceptual go/no-go decisions based on “what,” “when,” and “where” related information: an fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17(7), 981–993.

  63. Van Orden, G. C., Pennington, B. F., & Stone, G. O. (2001). What do double dissociations prove? Cognitive Science, 25(1), 111–172.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Vincent, J. L., Kahn, I., Snyder, A. Z., Raichle, M. E., & Buckner, R. L. (2008). Evidence for a frontoparietal control system revealed by intrinsic functional connectivity. Journal of Neurophysioloy, 100, 3328–3342.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Vogt, B. A. (2005). Pain and emotion interactions in subregions of the cingulate gyrus. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6(7), 533–544.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Young, L., Camprodon, J. A., Hauser, M., Pascual-Leone, A., & Saxe, R. (2010). Disruption of the right temporoparietal junction with transcranial magnetic stimulation reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(15), 6753–6758.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Young, L., & Saxe, R. (2008). The neural basis of belief encoding and integration in moral judgment. NeuroImage, 40(4), 1912–1920.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Geoffrey S. Holtzman.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation

Keywords

  • Sentimentalism
  • Rationalism
  • Pluralism
  • Emotion
  • Reason
  • Cognition
  • Neuroethics
  • Moral psychology
  • Dual-process model
  • Joshua Greene
  • Moral judgment task
  • Dilemmas
  • Trolley problems