An fMRI Study of Moral Judgment: The Modulating Effects of Emotion and Religious Belief

Project: A - Government Institutionb - Ministry of Science and Technology

Project Details


Morality and moral judgment affect all aspects of human life. But scientific investigations of moral judgment have only recently become more commonplace and sophisticated. One previous reason why scientific research was not common may be due to the philosophical distinction between “is” and “ought”; this distinction suggests that science studies what is the case, while ethics studies what ought to be the case. Although in principle this distinction should not have been an obstacle to the study of descriptive ethics; nevertheless, despite a few noteworthy exceptions, formal studies of moral judgment were limited. But on the view that ethics research is analogous to applied science research (Lane and Flanagan, 2013), there is no reason to exclude any aspect of ethics—including moral judgment—from scientific investigation. Indeed, in recent years, the advent of modern technologies like fMRI, have helped usher in an era of yet more sophisticated studies of moral judgment (e.g., Greene et al. 2001). Unfortunately, research on the effects of emotion and religious belief on moral judgment—arguably, two of the most important modulators—is underdeveloped. The primary goal of the experiments proposed here is to investigate the neural mechanisms underlying the effects of emotion and religion on moral judgment and self-control (viz., the efficacy of those judgments in regulating human behavior). The major issues addressed in this proposal include: 1) the modulatory effects of emotion on moral judgment; 2) dissociation of neural substrates for utilitarian and deontological moral judgments; 3) the role of cognitive control in utilitarian moral judgment; 4) the effects of religion-sanctioned social/racial profiling and moral condemnation; 5) neural mechanisms of religion-based cognitive dissonance; and, 6) the paradoxical relationship between religious belief and cognitive control vis-à-vis moral judgment—that is, religious belief requires and replenishes cognitive control, but people who harbor religious beliefs tend to be intuition-based thinkers, who hold intuitions that are deontological. In short, there is a pronounced tension between these two traits and it remains unclear how the two—utilitarianism and deontology—affect the moral judgments of those who adhere to fundamentalist beliefs. In order to investigate these six issues, neuroimaging and neural stimulation tools such as fMRI, TMS, and EEG will be used to help identify and disambiguate the relevant neural substrates. One of the novel aspects of this research is that prior studies focused on teasing apart deontological and utilitarian influences on moral judgment, without controlling for emotion or religious belief. By controlling for these factors, we will able to determine whether prior findings are valid or in need of refinement. Among other reasons, this research is of great importance because moral judgments play such a pervasive role in social life. Understanding how these judgments are made is the first step to amending those judgments, where which might be called for.
Effective start/end date1/1/1612/31/16


  • moral judgment
  • emotion
  • religion
  • religiosity
  • religious fundamentalism
  • fMRI
  • time-frequency
  • EEG