Morals in Hazard

JUNE 28, 2011
Shirley M. Mueller, MD
There are some people who have their morals in a sling, and they either can’t or choose not to use them. These folks aren’t like the rest of us and to us, they are impaired. Conversely, maybe they believe we are the ones with the problem if they think of it at all.

Irrespective of who is right, we now have innovative scientific information that has proven that a certain group of individuals do have morals different than our own — at least in the laboratory. These are people with ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) brain lesions. Because this region has important connections to emotional areas in the brain, the afflicted group lacks feeling when they make certain moral judgments. In turn, this influences their choices in the laboratory.


Researchers performed experiments with a control group of 12 healthy volunteers, six VMPC patients and 12 individuals with damage to a different brain area than the VMPC. They studied what someone would do to save others from certain death when given two choices.


Imagine you are one of the volunteers. In a scenario presented to you, a train is traveling on a track and it will hit five people. You have to decide if you would throw a switch and divert the train to a track where it would hit only one person.


After sorting this out in your mind and answering, you are asked an even more challenging question: In a separate scenario, would you push a large person over a bridge in front of a train so that its path would be switched from one track to another? In doing so, you would kill the one person, but save five others.


Here are the results. All groups would pull a switch that would kill one person, but save five others. However, this willingness to take action was not uniformly true in the second scenario when the volunteers had to personally kill the one person to save the five. Only the VMPC patients would push a person from a bridge to save others. This suggests that that they lacked empathy. This absence of emotion may make them more utilitarian or practical in their outlook.


One could argue that the two circumstances for which the subjects have to make life or death decisions are substantially different.
Also, VPMC patients are difficult to find and one could take issue with the small number of participants in the study. Regardless, the dramatic dissimilarity in results between the groups suggests that the researchers are onto something important. However, the results are also confirmed in follow-up experiments.

The study, “
Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgments,” was reported in 2007 by Antonio Damasio, et al, then at the University Of Iowa College Of Medicine and published in the April 19, 2007 issue of Nature. The research was recently expanded in another high-conflict moral dilemma entitled, “Harming Kin to Save Strangers: Further Evidence for Abnormally Utilitarian Moral Judgments after Ventromedial Prefrontal Damage,” published by Daniel Tranel, et al, from the same institution. This was in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, October 14, 2010.

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