The neural processing of moral sensitivity to issues of justice and care

  • Robertson D
  • Snarey J
  • Ousley O
 et al. 
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The empirical and theoretical consideration of ethical decision making has focused on the process of moral judgment; however, a precondition to judgment is moral sensitivity, the ability to detect and evaluate moral issues [Rest, J. R. (1984). The major components of morality. In W. Kurtines & J. Gewirtz (Eds.), Morality, moral behaviour, and moral development (pp. 24-38). New York, NY: Wiley]. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and contextually standardized, real life moral issues, we demonstrate that sensitivity to moral issues is associated with activation of the polar medial prefrontal cortex, dorsal posterior cingulate cortex, and posterior superior temporal sulcus (STS). These activations suggest that moral sensitivity is related to access to knowledge unique to one's self, supported by autobiographical memory retrieval and social perspective taking. We also assessed whether sensitivity to rule-based or "justice" moral issues versus social situational or "care" moral issues is associated with dissociable neural processing events. Sensitivity to justice issues was associated with greater activation of the left intraparietal sulcus, whereas sensitivity to care issues was associated with greater activation of the ventral posterior cingulate cortex, ventromedial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and thalamus. These results suggest a role for access to self histories and identities and social perspectives in sensitivity to moral issues, provide neural representations of the subcomponent process of moral sensitivity originally proposed by Rest, and support differing neural information processing for the interpretive recognition of justice and care moral issues. © 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Care
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
  • Justice
  • Moral sensitivity
  • Self-reference

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  • F. DuBois BowmanColumbia University Mailman School of Public Health

  • Diana Robertson

  • John Snarey

  • Opal Ousley

  • Keith Harenski

  • Rick Gilkey

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