Neural underpinnings of morality are not yet well understood. Researchers in moral neuroscience have tried to find specific structures and processes that shed light on how morality works. Here, we review the main brain areas that have been associated with morality at both structural and functional levels and speculate about how it can be studied. Orbital and ventromedial prefrontal cortices are implicated in emotionally-driven moral decisions, while dorsolateral prefrontal cortex appears to moderate its response. These competing processes may be mediated by the anterior cingulate cortex. Parietal and temporal structures play important roles in the attribution of others' beliefs and intentions. The insular cortex is engaged during empathic processes. Other regions seem to play a more complementary role in morality. Morality is supported not by a single brain circuitry or structure, but by several circuits overlapping with other complex processes. The identification of the core features of morality and moral-related processes is needed. Neuroscience can provide meaningful insights in order to delineate the boundaries of morality in conjunction with moral psychology.
“By four-thirty in the morning the priest was all cleaned up. I felt a lot better. I always did, after. Killing makes me feel good. (…) It's a sweet release, a necessary letting go of all the little hydraulic valves inside. (…) It has to be done the right way, at the right time, with the right partner—very complicated, but very necessary.”
Dexter, Darkly dreaming Dexter (Jeff Lindsay)
Can immoral behavior sometimes turn out to be moral? What mechanisms underlie morality? The above quotation is taken from a scene in the American TV series “Dexter.” Dexter is a respected employee at the Miami Metro Police Department, and a family man. However, at night Dexter doubles as a covert serial killer, applying his own moral code and murdering assassins whom the legal system has failed to condemn or catch. To what extent can a murder be considered necessary or even moral? Dexter's code includes clear examples of moral paradoxes that are not yet well understood. Does Dexter's brain work in the same way as the brains of other people? Researchers in moral neuroscience have tried to find domain-specific structures and processes that shed light on what morality is and where it is in the brain, if in fact it is there at all.
Written By: Leo Pascual, Paulo Rodrigues, and David Gallardo-Pujol
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