Consider the following moral dilemma: It's wartime. You and your fellow villagers are hiding from nearby enemy soldiers in a basement. Your baby starts to cry, and you cover your baby's mouth to block the sound. If you remove your hand, your baby will cry loudly, and the soldiers will hear. They will find you, your baby, and the others, and they will kill all of you. If you do not remove your hand, your baby will smother to death. Is it morally acceptable to smother your baby to death in order to save yourself and the other villagers?

Dilemmas such as this one, in addition to being troubling and puzzling, are a window into the psychology and neuroscience of moral decision-making. People often speak of a "moral faculty" or a "moral sense," suggesting that moral judgment is a unified phenomenon, but recent research strongly suggests that this is not so. Rather, it seems that moral judgment depends on a complex interplay between intuitive emotional responses and more deliberative controlled responses that depend on different parts of the brain. When we confront dilemmas like the one above, these neural systems compete for control of behavior.

The goal of this project is to use behavioral testing and cutting-edge neuroscientific techniques to help us understand how different kinds of moral decisions are influenced by emotional responses and controlled cognitive processes. Some experiments aim to illuminate how the brain represents moral costs and benefits. Other experiments are focused on the role of social obligations in moral judgment. Some experiments use hypothetical moral dilemmas such as the one above, while others involve real decisions with real consequences for real people.

Understanding how the human brain makes moral judgments is important from a basic science perspective, but it is also a matter of broader social concern. Our capacity for moral judgment is central to our identities as humans, and understanding this capacity in biological terms may change the way we approach controversial moral issues and may also, in the long run, dramatically change the way we see ourselves and each other.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Mary Rigdon
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Harvard University
United States
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