Nov 6, 2019 in Psychology

The Neuroscience of Moral Decision Making in Ethics

In the psychology, the decision-making is as a cognitive process, which results in a range of opinion or course of action among several alternatives. Every decision-making process produces a final choice, which may encourage or induce action. In neuroscience, decision-making and human will designate certain higher cognitive processes or functions related to the control of behavior. The will characterized by concepts such as motivation, cognitive control and ability to make decisions. Neuroscience findings and neurophysiological methods like neuroimaging increase scientists awareness of before obscure psychological phenomena and the brightest example is decision-making. There is an ethical status of having or not having right to choose and manipulating it not only about decision-making but also about freedom of will, character and belief. There are several approaches to study decision-making and applying neuroscience to it. First is studying it within the framework of interdisciplinary field of neuroeconomics and second is studying particular processes as levels of hormones that correlate with behavior patterns influencing the way people make decisions like aversion to harm, attitude to unfairness or monetary outcomes for other people and the person himself.

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Neuroscience experiments

Decision-making is the process of identification and selection of alternatives based on the values and preferences of the decision maker. In the past decade, economics, psychology and neuroscience together in interdisciplinary area called neuroeconomics, which aims to create a unified theory of decision-making. Neuroeconomics aims to uncover the evolutionary basis of human behavior, explain the role of emotions and cognitive control in decision-making processes, to explain the mechanisms of social cooperation and competition between people, to explore the neurobiological mechanisms of social influence and advertising. In daily life, we may undergo impact on our decision-making even buying something. Neuroeconomics research results influenced the emergence of neuromarketing that is neuroeconomics field, focused on the mechanisms of decision-making by consumers and the study of the influence of marketing.

First, it is necessary to analyze the basic neuroscience basis for decision-making, Classical economic theory suggests that the decision on the choice of an alternative occurs efficiently and depends on the level of subjective value or utility. Maximizing expected utility theory assumes that every individual seeks to maximize profits by choosing the alternative with the highest expected utility. Traditionally, in the construction of models of decision-making is constrained difficult to express utility in absolute terms. Neuroeconomics is trying to overcome this limitation by postulating that the utility (subjective value) can be objectively described as the value of the average activity of specific neuronal populations in the first place, a number of areas of the dopaminergic system: the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex. Moreover, neuroeconomics studies have shown that subjective value when choosing alternatives encoded by accumbens nucleus neurons and subjective comparison with integration values occurs in orbitofrontal cortex.

Neuroscientists and neuropsychologists encounter challenges in terms of morality and rationality. Decision-making neurological processes are available to study using neuroimaging (MRI, fMRI, CT etc.) and psychological experiments. Particularly, functional magnetic tomography is best to investigate the neural responses to cognitive tasks and moral dilemmas. This method bases on examining activation in certain brain areas associated with emotion. The ethical issue arises about the methodology and interpretation neuropsychological research and resulting from it. 

Additionally, knowing how our decision-making correlates with certain brain activity, there is a possibility of exploring ways to manipulate judgement through brain stimulation or medicines (for example, oxytocin influences trust and transcranial magnetic stimulation influences how we make choices). There is an ethical status not only about decision-making but also about freedom of will, character and belief.

The experiment showing the neuroscience of moral decision-making was completed in the late 1980s. Benjamin Libet from the University of California at San Francisco placed the test electrodes on the surface of the head and asked people to bend the arm at the wrist when they want. Approximately half a second before making a motion there was the particular electrical response of the brain called the readiness potential. However, the participants of the experiment realized its intention to bend the arm in about a quarter of a second to an action, i.e., brain made the decision before the person was aware of it himself. It turned out that the unconscious processes in the brain played leading role. More recent studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown that the solution emerging at an unconscious level even sooner. 

Probably, this is happening with all of our choices and none of them can occur as a result of a free and conscious decision on our part. Neurons, decision-makers, are activated in the brain long before we are aware of the selection. One of the main issues discussed widely in neuroscience and philosophy is that if we have free decision-making choices. There are some reasons why It is difficult to say that people do not have actual free will.  First, neuroscience does not have sufficient technical equipment to determine exactly how neural activity that provides the ability to assumptions and estimates of future choice, due to the fact that we will make choices in a few minutes, hours or days. Secondly, it is difficult to distinguish between conscious and unconscious activity. Consider the Libet experiment. First, the subjects consciously prepared to make some of the same type and unplanned activities. When the experiment began, they bend the arm at the wrist when they wanted to. It can be assumed that the neural activity that determines the conscious planning influences the subsequent unconscious starting hand. This demonstrates the close interaction of conscious and unconscious activity in the brain. Neural activity at an unconscious level can prepare us to conscious control and adapt our behavior.

Aspect that is more complicated is moral decision-making and decision-making in ethics. Decision making neuroscience requires the latest achievements of bioimaging methods (EEG, MEG, fMRI and TMS), computational and biochemistry (hormones level analysis) methods. The concept of moral decision-making is different in many investigators. Professor Crockett assumes that decision-making key component is attitude to causing harm to others, suffering of other people and the relation of others’ pain to own one. One of her experiments was investigating trade off profits for people against pain experienced either by other people or by themselves. Experiment included making choices between amounts of money and numbers of painful electric shocks. Interestingly, most people valued own pain less than others ‘pain. Professor calls it “hyperaltruism” in making decisions that affected others. Again, it contradicts ideas of neuroeconomics that assumes that people value others’ lucrative outcomes far less than their own.

Lowering serotonin levels by ATD showed peoples inclination to reject or accept unfair offers. During ATD treatment, rejection rates to unfair offers rose largely but it did not correlate with offer size. Functional magnetic resonance tomography showed increased activity in both dorsolateral and ventral prefrontal cortex during reacting to unfair offers.

Professor Crockett based other experiments on changing hormones levels (for example, serotonin) and tracing the changes in behavior patterns. Crockett associates some morality aspects with level of neuromodulators like serotonin and dopamine. It connected with impact of neuromodulators on level of empathy and aversive reactions. Serotonin changes moral judgment and behavior because it increases aversion to harming others. Increasing serotonin levels made people less likely to reject unfair offers and to have higher level of empathy.

To my mind, the experiments are somewhat too narrow to make decisions about the neuroscience of moral decision making in ethics. Professor associates moral decisions in ethics mostly with aversion and causing harm to others/oneself. Professor Crockett showed that increase in synaptic serotonin increased harm aversion, but increasing central dopamine levels had dissociable effect like diminishing the altruism levels. Additionally, professor is using drugs like citalopram and levodopa on harm aversion for self and others.


Advances in technology will help registering brain activity more accurately how conscious our actions are and the extent to which unconscious processes control our behavior that we cannot control. Decision making neuroscience is using achievements of bioimaging methods (EEG, MEG, fMRI and TMS), computational and biochemistry (hormones level analysis) methods. The search for answers to questions about decision-making is very important. For the legal system and the moral foundations of our society, we need to better understand the situations in which a person is responsible for their actions and in which not. There are several approaches to study decision-making and applying neuroscience to it. First is studying it within the framework of interdisciplinary field of neuroeconomics and second is studying particular processes as levels of hormones that correlate with behavior patterns influencing the way people make decisions. Such neuroscience aspects as levels of hormones show correlation with moral decision-making based on aversion to causing harm to others that is valued more than causing harm to oneself. The findings may differ from postulates of neuroeconomics: people value others’ pain more than ones value and react to unfairness that influences decision-making in ethics. Still, one matter remains obscure: whether there is a relationship between social moral decision-making depends on the basicity of helping or harming or the positive or negative outcome.

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