YORK (Reuters Health) - In complex decisions of ``right'' and
``wrong,'' our emotions may get the last word, a new brain-imaging
find the underpinnings of human moral judgment, scientists monitored
brain activity in nine people who were presented with various
hypothetical dilemmas. The investigators found that particular
emotional centers in the brain charged up when the dilemmas involved
people in clear and present danger. But the brain activity was
diminished in moral decisions that did not involve ``up close
and personal'' harm to others--such as deciding whether to keep
money found in a lost wallet.
are published in the September 14th issue of Science. Joshua D.
Greene of Princeton University in New Jersey led the study.
to Greene's team, a classic example of how puzzling moral judgment
can be is the ``trolley dilemma.'' In this scenario, people have
a choice of letting a runaway trolley kill five people, or to
throw a switch that will divert the trolley to a set of tracks
where it will kill one person. Most people, the researchers note,
say that throwing the switch is the right choice.
is the ``footbridge dilemma,'' in which you can save five people
from that runaway trolley by pushing a stranger from an overpass
into the trolley's path. To this, most people say no.
``How is it
that nearly everyone manages to conclude that it is acceptable
to sacrifice one life for five in the trolley dilemma but not
in the footbridge dilemma...?'' the authors write.
that the footbridge scenario involves ``using'' another person's
life as a means to an end--a morally objectionable option, Greene's
report indicates, most people also say that throwing the switch
is the right choice when the trolley dilemma has an added twist:
the track on which the one person stands loops around to come
back to the original five people. In this case, the authors argue,
that one person is indeed ''used'' as an obstacle to stop the
trolley from coming back around. Yet most people would still throw
to this puzzle, the researchers suggest, may be that the footbridge
dilemma engages people's emotions to a greater extent. And such
emotional involvement changes the way we view morality.
to the report, their experiments support that idea.
where no moral question was at hand--such deciding whether to
take a train or bus--certain emotion-linked brain areas showed
no remarkable activity during brain scans. The results were similar
when the moral question was more ''impersonal''--as in voting
for a policy expected to cause more deaths than an alternative
a scenario that, for example, involved stealing one person's organs
to save the lives of five others, triggered increased activity
in the brain's emotional centers.
that moral dilemmas vary systematically in the extent to which
they engage emotional processing and that these variations in
emotional engagement influence moral judgment,'' Greene and colleagues
note, it is questionable whether this better understanding of
how moral judgments are formed will affect how people view their
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