From NeuroLeadership Summit 2010 Insights Newsletter

Joshua Greene, Ph.D. directs The Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard University, studying moral judgment and decision-making using behavioral methods and functional neuro imaging (fMRI).

On day one of the 2010 Summit Joshua’s session on the neuroscience of moral decisions explored how moral judgments are shaped by automatic processes such as emotional “gut reactions”, and controlled cognitive processes such as reasoning and self-control.

During the session he examined what neuroscience research is contributing to the debate between the two schools of thought in moral psychology on the roles of emotion and reasoning in making moral judgments. He proposes that emotions and reason both play a critical role in moral judgment and that these functions are grounded in different systems in the brain.

Joshua used an effective analogy between these two brain systems and the automatic and manual settings on a camera. The automatic setting ofemotions/gut feelings is very efficient but not flexible, it is good for most of what you need to know but there is a lot you can’t do well. The manual setting, the brains capacity for reasoning is very flexible but is not efficient and takes time and effort. If you don’t know what you are doing, you are more likely to make mistakes. The way the camera (and brain) balances the tradeoff between efficiency vs flexibility is by having both options.

Joshua took the audience through a series of moral dilemmas and visited the complexity of making moral decisions, highlighting how the two brain systems can sometimes point in opposite directions. He proposes that the solution to making good moral decisions is for us to understand ourselves and how we think. There is significant social value in understanding how we make these decisions, what our intuitive judgments are sensitive to, and what we do when we reason. With these tools we can identify what we are facing and what the right thinking is for the given situation.

For more on Joshua’s work visit

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