“The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile,” asserted 18th century French physiologist Pierre Cabanis. Last week, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies convened a conference of neuroscientists and philosophers to ponder how our brains secrete thoughts about ethics and morality. The first presenter was neuroeconomist Gregory Berns from Emory University whose work peers into brains to see in which creases of gray matter those values we hold sacred lodge. The study, “The Price of Your Soul: neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values,” was just published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
Philosophers often frame arguments over the bases of ethics in terms of deontology (right v. wrong irrespective of outcomes) and utilitarianism (costs v. benefits of potential outcomes). Both utilitarians and deontologists would argue that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings. A utilitarian might tote up the costs of being caught in murder or the harms to a victim’s family, whereas a deontologist would assert it is moral duty to avoid killing the innocent. For most people, a utilitarian reckoning in this case seems cold and psychologically broken (e.g., the kind of calculation that a psychopath would make). The researchers define personal sacred values as those for which individuals resist trade-offs with other values, particularly economic or materialistic incentives.
It is this distinction that Berns probes using functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) to see in which parts of subjects’ brains their moral decision-making is localized. Such scans identify areas of the brain that are activated by measuring blood flow.
Without going into all the details, in the study subjects were asked to choose between various values; some hypothesized to be more deontological and others more utilitarian, e.g., you do/do not believe in God, and you do/do not prefer Coke to Pepsi. Once the baseline was established for each subject, they were given an opportunity to auction off their personal values for real money up to $100 per value sold. Once the auction was over, each subject was asked to sign a document contradicting his or her personal values. Those values that subjects refused to auction off were deemed “sacred.”
Berns and his colleagues found that values identified as sacred were processed in areas of the brain that are associated with semantic rule retrieval. Basically subjects were reading off moral rules; what another conference participant would later refer to as “moral platitudes.” In addition, when sacred values were contradicted by their opposites (e.g., to a believer asserting “You do not believe that God exists”), the researchers found arousal in the amygdala, which is associated with negative emotions.
Not surprisingly, with regard to the personal values that subjects auctioned off, the areas of the brain known to be associated with evaluating costs and benefits were activated. The researchers also suggest that when policymakers try to employ positive or negative incentives to encourage trade-offs in foreign or economic arenas they may instead arouse sacred values provoking a reactionary response in the people at whom the policies are targetted.