Neuroscience researchers at the University of Iowa have traced emotional and moral reactions to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Two groups (one with damaged VPCs and one comprised of those with intact forebrains) were asked to respond to hypothetical moral dilemmas.
In situations involving no personal knowledge, subjects in both groups responded similarly. For example, nearly all the respondents would choose to sacrifice one stranger to save three. However, when asked if they would smother their own child to save a group of people, those with intact forebrains said no. Those with damaged VPCs produced the almost pathologically utilitarian response of yes.
“The findings show that our natural aversion to harming others emerges from two previously documented systems in our brain-- one emotional and one rational,” says the June/July 2007 issue of Scientific American Mind
. “Scientists do not yet understand how the two systems interact or how one supersedes the other when they dictate contradictory courses of action.
‘This study doesn’t mean that people who lack social emotions are dangerous,’ says Michael Koenigs, then at the University of Iowa, a member of the research team. ‘They tend to show little empathy and guilt, but they are not killers.’”
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