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The Role of Emotions in the Development of Morality

There has been a long-standing debate concerning the role of emotion in our moral psychology. Sentimentalists hold that emotions are the primary basis for moral judgments. In contrasts, rationalists hold that non-affect-laden cognitive processes are the primary basis for moral judgments.

Now this talk of ‘the primary basis for’ is vague and ill-defined. What role do the emotions have to play in moral judgments in order for that role to be considered ‘the primary basis of’? Well, on a more well-defined version of sentimentalism, the emotions play a necessary role in the understanding and use of moral concepts. This ‘necessary role’ is usually cashed out in terms of the relevant emotions being constitutive of moral judgments. This ‘necessary role’ could also be cashed out in terms of the emotions being necessary for the causal production of moral judgments. It is important to note that both the ‘constitutive’ claim and the ‘causal production’ claim are claims of synchronic necessity. Under these views, strictly speaking, one could not be making a moral judgment without the accompaniment of the appropriate emotion.

There are several sources of empirical evidence often cited in support of moral sentimentalism. Some of the more interesting evidence cited in favor of sentimentalism comes from patients with adult-onset bilateral damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC).


The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is highlighted in red.

Damage to the VMPC leads to a flattening of emotions, especially the “social emotions,” such as empathy, guilt, shame, etc., which are the sorts of emotions that are thought to be integral for morality. Damage to the VMPC also leads to a decreased ability to anticipate future rewards and punishment and also leads to a lack of inhibitory control (Damasio 1994). Consistent with the sentimentalist position, patients with adult-onset VMPC damage show disruption in decision-making and social behavior (Anderson, Bechara, Damasio, Tranel & Damasio 1999; Damasio, Tranel, & Damasio 1991; Shallice & Burgess 1991) and tend to give more “utilitarian” patterns of responses to moral dilemmas than controls (Koenigs, Young, Adolphs, Tranel, Cushman, & Hauser 2007).

However, patients with adult-onset VMPC damage retain factual knowledge of social conventions and moral conventions. Additionally, their disruption in social behavior appears to be a result of a more general problem with decision making, and these deficits in decision making do not manifest themselves as being strongly immoral or antisocial (Anderson et al. 1999). Lastly, the extent to which adult-onset VMPC patients differ from controls in their response to moral dilemmas is confined to a limited range of cases. On the whole, the moral judgments (and even to a large extent, the moral behavior) of adult-onset VMPC patients do not appear to differ wildly from that of “normals.” This seems to speak against the sentimentalists position that the appropriate emotions are synchronically necessary for moral judgments.

However, the evidence still leaves open the possibility that the relevant emotions are diachronically necessary for the acquisition of moral concepts (and thus for the ability to make moral judgments). If the relevant emotions are developmentally necessary for the acquisition of moral concepts, one would predict that if a person had early-onset VMPC damage that this person would perform profoundly different than “normals” when it comes to making moral judgments and behaving morally. Though early-onset VMPC damage is rare, there have been a small handful of early-onset VMPC patients that have been documented in the scientific literature (Ackerly & Benton 1947; Anderson et al. 1999; Price, Daffjer, Stowe, & Mesulam 1990). In contrast to patients with adult-onset VMPC damage, those with early-onset VMPC damage show a persistence in inadequate social behaviors, demonstrate more severe inadequate social behaviors to the point where the behaviors could reasonably be described as anti-social and amoral, and they lack the ability to retrieve complex factual knowledge of moral conventions (Anderson et al. 1999; Anderson, Barrash, Bechera, & Tranel 2006).

Though VMPC-damage patients do not quite make the case that the moral sentimentalist wish to make (i.e. the emotions are synchronically necessary for morality), the evidence from VMPC-damage patients may support the claim that the emotions are diachronically necessary for morality. If this is right, then the emotions are important for the development of an understanding of morality, even if emotions are not necessary for the production of any particular moral judgment.

Want to cite this
Shepard, J. (2012). The Role of Emotions in the Development of Morality. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on

, from


Ackerly, S. & Benton, A. (1947). Report of a case of bilateral frontal lobe defect. Research Publications Association for Research in Nevrous and. Mental Disorders, 27, 479-504

Anderson, J., Bechera, A., Damasio, H., Tranel, D., & Damasio, A. (1999). Impairment of social and moral behavior related to early damage in human prefrontal cortex. Nature Neuroscience, 2(11), 1032-1037.

Anderson, J., Barrash, J., Bechara, A., & Tranel, D. (2006). Impairments of emotion and real-world complex behavior following childhood- or adult-onset damage to ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Journal of International Neuropsychological Society, 12, 224-235.

Damasio, A. (1994) Descartes Error. New York: Grosset/Putnum.

Damasio, A., Tranel, D., & Damasio, H. (1991). Somatic markers and the guidance of behavior: Theory and preliminary testing. In Harvey Leven, Howard Eisenberg, & Arthur Benton (eds) Frontal Lobe Function and Dysfunction, New York: Oxford University Press, 217-229.

Koenigs, M., Young, L, Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., Cushman, F., & Hauser, M. (2007). Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgments, Nature, 446, 908-911.

Price, B., Daffmer. K., Stowe, R. & Mesulam, M. (1990). The comportmental learning disabilities of early frontal lobe damage. Brain, 113 1383-1393.

Shallice, T. & Burgess, P. (1991). Deficits in strategy application following frontal lobe damage in man. Brain, 114 727-741.


  1. I'm a bit confused about your "However" paragraph as I seem to recall there being quite a bit of evidence showing that people with damage to the VMPC do exhibit strongly antisocial judgments and behavior. I was under the impression that that their judgments and behavior do, on the whole, differ wildly from "normals."

    Additionally, what the research typically doesn't explore (because it can't ethically) is the link between moral judgment and behavior or action. Patients with VMPC damage may retain knowledge of social norms and conventions (thus passing the judgment test) but when faced with a situation may still act inappropriately because of their lack of empathy and inhibition. In fact this is what defines the most problematic type of antisocial behavior: I know I'm not supposed to hurt this person but I don't care.


  2. Hi Jonathan,

    Unfortunately, it is often taught in courses or even said in papers that people who suffer VMPC damage as an adult differ "wildly" from normals, but quoting from the Anderson et al. (1999) paper that is usually cited for these claims: "The adult-onset prefrontal-lesion patients we studied (n > 25) generally do not show the sort of antisocial behavior noted in the early-onset patients, for example, stealing, violence against person or property. Beyond the acute period, the disruptive behavior of adult-onset patients tends to be more constrained … More often than not, the victims are the adult-onset patients themselves, not others, and their social and moral ineptitude can hardly be described as antisocial." (emphasis added)

    The claim that adult-onset VMPC patients differ wildly from normals when it comes to moral behavior and moral judgments, on the whole, just doesn't seem to be true (at least according to the people who are often viewed as the authoritative source on these matters, i.e., Anderson and colleagues). This is not to say that adults with adult-onset VMPC damage don't differ from normals; the difference isn't nearly as pronounced as people generally make it out to be (e.g., most adult-onset VMPC patients are not appropriately described as amoral, anti-moral, or anti-social; their moral judgments only differ from normals are very specific sorts of cases and not across the board).


  3. Jonathan: (continued)

    In response to the second half of your comment. The link between moral judgment –> moral motivation –> moral behavior definitely complicates the picture further, but, in general most VMPC patients do not seem to have a specific disconnect between moral judgment and behavior. (They do seem to have some general disconnects between judgment, motivation, and behavior; these general disconnects also tend to affect their moral behaviors a bit, but not to the point where it would be apt to call most adult-onset VMPC patients as being amoral, immoral, or antisocial.)

    It is unfortunate that this group has been labeled as "acquired sociopaths." From this label (and some of the not-so-accurate discussions of this group of people in the literature and in classes), you may get the impression that these people are just like psychopaths: "Yeah, they can tell you what is right or wrong but they just don't care." But this isn't the case for the majority of people with adult-onset VMPC damage (at least after the "acute period").


  4. I'll have to dig into some of that research a bit more. I've been reading a lot of Joshua Greene's work in this area but I haven't read Anderson et al's.

    Elderly patients who suffer frontotemporal dementias are an interesting population in this context. Their damage to the prefrontal cortex is about as late-onset as you can get and yet they do exhibit extreme behavior (violence against other nursing home residents, sexual inhibition towards care providers and residents, verbal abuse, and so on). Not only is the behavior clearly different from that of other nursing home residents, but it is starkly different from their pre-dementia behavior. This is behavior observed in the real world, not a group of research participants responding to a specific type of hypothetical scenario.


  5. Hi Jonathan,

    I definitely recommend checking out Anderson and colleagues work. They are the authoritative source on the topic (adult-onset vs. early onset VMPC damage). They are one of a few researchers who have extensively studied these populations (including the observation of real life behaviors).

    Greene primarily does neuroimaging work primarily with "normals", primarily when they are making judgments in response to hypothetical moral scenarios.

    Greene's work on the topic of VMPC damage (at least the work I am familiar with) is primarily "second hand." That is, he is pulling from the literature, including the Anderson et al. studies and the Koenigs et al. study I cite in the post. In particular, he makes a big deal about the Koenigs et al. study* in spite of the fact that (a) Koenigs et al. involves responses to hypothetical scenarios and (b) Koenigs et al. only demonstrates different moral judgments for only very specific sorts of moral scenarios.

    *For example:


  6. Also I would highly recommend checking out Huebner, et al. (2009). The role of emotion in moral psychology. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(1), 1-6.

    It is a short and accessible review on, well, the claimed role of emotion in moral psychology. They talk about the behavioral evidence, the neuroimaging evidence (such as Greene's), and the neuropsychological evidence (such as the evidence from VMPC patients).

    They conclude that "current evidence is insufficient to support the hypothesis that emotional processes mediate our intuitive moral judgments, or that our moral concepts are emotionally constituted."

    They also discount the evidence in favor of the diachronic necessity of emotion.

    While I fully agree them regarding their constitution claims, I am little more open to the possibility that the emotions are diachronically necessary.


  7. Thanks. By the way, is there a way to follow this blog by email? I can't seem to find such a link on the site anywhere.


  8. Hi Jonathan,

    I've added a "follow this blog by email" widget to the right-hand side bar. Thanks for asking.


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