Brain research on morality and cognition

Debra J.H. Mathews, Hilary Bok

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The tools of neuroscience have increasingly been employed to address questions long considered the realm of philosophers, including questions of moral sentiment, choice, cognition, and action. This research seeks to identify the structures within the brain that function in and are the basis of human morality, to improve our understanding, for example, of the role of emotion in moral decision-making, or the moral failings of psychopaths. If successful, such research might not only allow philosophers to refine their theories based on scientific facts but also might inform social policy. While research on morality comes from a range of disciplines, including psychology, economics, and the social sciences, this chapter will focus on the subset of this research that uses the tools of neuroscience (primarily fMRI) and is explicit about testing hypotheses related to moral sentiment, choice, cognition, and action in humans. We will focus our attention here not only because the technology and methods used in this research, and their strengths and weaknesses, are unique but also because this research has proven fascinating to the general public and policy-makers, which substantially broadens the impact that this research may have. Ultimately, while the marriage of neuroscience and philosophy has tremendous potential to advance our understanding of ourselves as moral beings, we must be careful to limit both our scientific and philosophical conclusions to what the research can reasonably tell us, based on the limits both of the technology and of our ability to integrate centuries of philosophical thought into research design.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHandbook of Neuroethics
PublisherSpringer Netherlands
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9789400747074
ISBN (Print)9789400747067
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Medicine
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Social Sciences


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