Science Tackles Moral Hazard

AUGUST 03, 2011
Shirley M. Mueller, MD

Dissecting the complex to its lowest common denominator is a way to make even the most difficult scientific material palatable. The authors of the paper, “Damage to Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Impairs Judgment of Harmful Intent” do just that. Their message is clear: Without the input of an important part of the brain that processes emotion — the Ventromedial Posterior Cortex (VMPC) — intent to harm is not detected unless damage is accomplished.

VPMC patients judged attempting to injure someone as more morally permissible than comparison groups. Though this research does not have direct applicability to last week’s article, How Moral Hazard Impacts You, it is intriguing to conjecture that future work in the area could reveal more direct relevance.

The study was designed to unbundle what part intention and outcome played in moral judgment. Patients that had adult onset bilateral damage to the VMPC could distinguish that a successful attempt to harm was wrong.  However, if the effort was unsuccessful, they didn’t think the failed endeavor was improper. This is different than the other study subjects, some of which were brain damaged also, but in a different area. Others were normal controls. Since it is known that even children can tell it is wrong to try to harm someone, even though the effort is unsuccessful, this finding is dramatic.

The VMPC patients thought it was permissible to attempt to harm if it was unsuccessful. They are compared to brain-damaged controls (BDC) and normal controls (NC).

From Young et al., “Damage to Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Impairs Judgment of Harmful Intent,” Neuron, March 25, 2010 page 4.

“The current results reveal an important aspect of VMPC function for moral judgment, specifically its role in evaluating harmful intent,” the authors write. This research is particularly timely today when many people think that a lack of moral judgment played importantly into our recent financial crises.

The paper was published in the journal Neuron in March 2010. The research group included Liane Young, Antoine Bechara, Daniel Tranel, Hanna Damasio, Marc Hauser and Antonio Damasio from several different academic institutions. It is important to note that the number of patients studied was small though the data was robust. There were nine in the VPMC group, seven in the brain-damaged controls and eight in the normal controls.

I promised to include a video of cartoon characters Angelina Jolie and Doctor Spock discussing moral hazard with this follow up article to How Moral Hazard Impacts You. Sadly, the video has been taken down. Someone must not have found it funny or entertaining. Please accept my apologies for not being able to keep my pledge.

For Further Reading:

Morals in Hazard


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