What Make Us Moral?

In the 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, doctors attempt to cure a violent, murderous psychopath using psychological conditioning — forcing him to endure disturbing physical reactions while witnessing acts of violence. Today, neuroscientists are studying how we use our brains to make moral decisions, and what we can do for people who do not seem to have a normal sense of morality.

Neuroscientists began looking for a region of the brain specifically dedicated to morality about ten years ago. Eventually, they discovered that the brain does not have one moral center or one system that is devoted solely to making moral decisions. Instead, various regions of the brain that are associated with planning, problem solving, cognitive control, theory of mind and social behavior are recruited when making moral judgments. These parts of the brain include the frontal lobe, the parietal lobe, the temporal lobe and various subcortical structures, including the amygdala.

The frontal lobe is involved with planning, decision-making and cognitive control. Specific areas of the frontal lobe that are associated with moral decision-making are the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the cingulate cortex. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is involved in emotional processing and adherence to social norms. It is used when someone is examining the emotional aspects of a moral decision. Lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex are associated with lack of empathy, with anti-social, aggressive and violent behavior and with the inability to make appropriate moral decisions, despite understanding social rules. On the other hand, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is associated with rational decision-making and making cost-benefit assessments. It plays a role in deciding who is responsible for a crime and what punishment should be applied. The cingulate cortex acts as a mediator. It is activated when the emotional and rational aspects of a moral dilemma are compared.

Like the frontal lobe, the parietal lobe is involved with cognitive control, is associated with working memory, and may be activated during moral decision-making. The temporal lobeplays an important role in theory of mind — the ability to understand the mental states of others.  Psychopaths and violent criminals may have reduced levels of temporal lobe activity and their temporal lobes may have structural abnormalities. The hippocampus, within the temporal lobe, is associated with fear conditioning. Habitual violent criminals, who never seem to learn from their punishments, appear to have low levels of hippocampus gray matter.

The amygdala is associated with emotional processing. Violent offenders may have low levels of gray matter in the amygdala. Their amygdalas may be structurally abnormal. Defects in the amygdala may cause these violent criminals to have trouble empathizing with their victims

Treatment and Ethics

Neuroscientists have considered the use of deep brain stimulation to treat patients who have abnormalities in brain function that are associated with immoral behavior. With deep brain stimulation (DBS), a battery-operated neurotransmitter is implanted in a specific area of the brain, where it gives off electric impulses. The neurotransmitter behaves like a pacemaker for that region of the brain.

DBS is used to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. It has also been used, experimentally, to treat depression, Tourette syndrome, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). As antisocial and immoral behavior may be associated with abnormal levels of activity in specific areas of the brain, DBS could be used to return activity in these regions to normal levels, and thus help people to behave morally. Of course, there are ethical issues associated with this form of treatment.

When is it appropriate to induce changes in someone’s behavior so that they adhere to society’s rules of moral conduct?

Would DBS to create a “sense of morality” only be used on those who have already shown themselves to be dangerous to society by committing heinous crimes, or would it be used as a preventive measure on people who commit relatively minor moral infractions (lying, for example)?

Could it be used to control the behavior of disruptive children or rebellious adolescents?

What would happen if someone were found to have a defect in a region of the brain that was associated with moral behavior, although they had never been found guilty of behaving immorally? Would they receive treatment — just in case?

Would consenting to an functional MRI (fMRI) become a prerequisite for being hired for a high security occupation?

And how would immorality be defined? Would it only include crimes against property and physical integrity, such as theft, burglary, assault or murder, or would immoral behavior also include violations of social norms such as eating the wrong food, wearing the wrong clothes or following the wrong religion (or no religion)?

As we gain a greater understanding of the brain’s role in making moral judgments, we must consider how we will use this knowledge.


Fumagalli M, & Priori A (2012). Functional and clinical neuroanatomy of morality. Brain : a journal of neurology, 135 (Pt 7), 2006-21 PMID: 22334584

Young L, & Dungan J (2012). Where in the brain is morality? Everywhere and maybe nowhere. Social neuroscience, 7 (1), 1-10 PMID: 21590587

Image via Molodec / Shutterstock.

Marcia Malory, BA

Marcia Malory, BA, is a science writer who enjoys writing about the evolution of consciousness and intelligence. She writes for a number of science websites. With a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, focusing on sociology and philosophy, she is especially interested in how scientific discoveries influence society and how culture influences the dissemination of scientific knowledge.
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