Natural Rationality | decision-making in the economy of nature


Neuroscience and moral decision-making - 2 new studies

First, a great review in Nature Reviews Neuroscience on the neural basis of punishment. Their conclusion is that the so-called 'Strong Reciprocity' explanation of altruistic punishment, the idea put forth by behavioral economist to explain why subjects tend to punish 'cheaters' in experimental games, event at their own cost, may not be that hardwired.

there is no reason to assume that altruistic punishment should necessarily be hard-wired as an inherited intrinsic motivational goal (that is, as an unconditioned appetitive stimulus) in the same manner as primary rewards. However, neither does it exclude the possibility. Future research might help to resolve both the role of learning and early development in the acquisition of altruistic behaviour.
Second, a new Nature paper from Hauser, Adolphs, Damasio and other collaborators on the consequences of ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) lesions in moral reasoning. This area is particularly important in the processing of emotional information and in anticipating emotional event. People with damages VMPFC tend to lose risk-aversion, because they lose the ability to anticipate negative feeling, and thus they engage in behaviors detrimental to their own well-being (loss of money, friends, family, social status, see Damasio's Descartes' Error), even if their intellectual faculty are perfectly normal. They also lose, according to this new study, the ability to use these emotional predictions for moral judgment. Normal subjects usually have a deontological conception of morality (i.e., there are moral principles that applies come what may) in certain cases, such as as strangling a crying baby in order to prevent it from revealing your position while an enemy troops wander in your village, with the instruction to kill all civilians. Normal subjects have a strong emotional response that leads them to refuse. VMPFC-imparied subjects, however tend to rely a little more on a 'utilitarian' scheme: since they lack the emotional appraisal of the situation, they use a cost-benefit reasoning. Thus, once again, neuroscience shows how emotions are important for moral and reasoning. The important question, of course, is how these studies can help us to understand how we should behave. Interesting question for ethical neurophilosophy...