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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Neural correlates of moral judgments in first- and third-person perspectives: implications for neuroethics and beyond

Mihai Avram126, Kristina Hennig-Fast3, Yan Bao1256, Ernst Pöppel1256, Maximilian Reiser4, Janusch Blautzik4, James Giordano278* and Evgeny Gutyrchik126

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Medical Psychology, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Germany

2 Human Science Center, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Germany

3 Clinic of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Germany

4 Institute of Clinical Radiology, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Germany

5 Department of Psychology and Key Laboratory of Machine Perception (MoE), Peking University, Beijing, People's Republic of China

6 Parmenides Center for Art and Science, Munich, Germany

7 Neuroethics Studies Program, Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC, USA

8 Inter-disciplinary Program in Neuroscience, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC, USA

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BMC Neuroscience 2014, 15:39  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-15-39

Published: 17 April 2014

Abstract

Background

There appears to be an inconsistency in experimental paradigms used in fMRI research on moral judgments. As stimuli, moral dilemmas or moral statements/ pictures that induce emotional reactions are usually employed; a main difference between these stimuli is the perspective of the participants reflecting first-person (moral dilemmas) or third-person perspective (moral reactions). The present study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in order to investigate the neural correlates of moral judgments in either first- or third-person perspective.

Results

Our results indicate that different neural mechanisms appear to be involved in these perspectives. Although conjunction analysis revealed common activation in the anterior medial prefrontal cortex, third person-perspective elicited unique activations in hippocampus and visual cortex. The common activation can be explained by the role the anterior medial prefrontal cortex may play in integrating different information types and also by its involvement in theory of mind. Our results also indicate that the so-called "actor-observer bias" affects moral evaluation in the third-person perspective, possibly due to the involvement of the hippocampus. We suggest two possible ways in which the hippocampus may support the process of moral judgment: by the engagement of episodic memory and its role in understanding the behaviors and emotions of others.

Conclusion

We posit that these findings demonstrate that first or third person perspectives in moral cognition involve distinct neural processes, that are important to different aspects of moral judgments. These  results are important to a deepened understanding of neural correlates of moral cognition—the so-called “first tradition” of neuroethics, with the caveat that any results must be interpreted and employed with prudence, so as to heed neuroethics “second tradition” that sustains the pragmatic evaluation of outcomes, capabilities and limitations of neuroscientific techniques and technologies.

Keywords:
fMRI; Moral judgment; Perspective; "actor-observer bias"; Anterior medial prefrontal cortex; Precuneus; Hippocampus; Theory of mind; Neuroethics