Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

fMRI, moral decision making, and the law

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-12-20

A short letter in Nature’s Molecular Psychiatry ("The neural correlates of moral decision-making in psychopathy", doi:10.1038/mp.2008.104) demonstrates differences between normal people and psychopaths under fMRI.

I’d like to see similar studies done on those who are sociopathic, such as the "Corporate Psychopath", who often suffer, sorry, cause suffering, because of a lack of ethics and empathy.

While I’m extremely dubious about claims for fMRI use in legal cases, this does open up the door to discussions about whether a person can be held responsible for psychopathic actions.  Is the hypoactive amygdala during moral decision-making the product of nature, or of habit that "trained" the neural network?

Snippets (and my comments) from the paper follow:

Psychopathy is a personality disorder involving severe disruption in moral behavior accompanied by pronounced deficits in emotion.  Emotion is argued to be a critical component of moral behavior.  Highly emotional moral dilemmas have been found to evoke activity in the amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate and angular gyrus.  It has been hypothesized that persistent immoral behavior may result from deficiencies in some components of the moral neural circuit.

OK… that explains psychopathy, and highlights a major issue in the mind/brain debate that really affects people (the psychopath’s victims) rather than merely being of academic interest.

In this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, we find that more psychopathic individuals show reduced activity in the amygdala during emotional moral decision-making, with particularly conning and manipulative individuals showing reduced activity in the entire moral neural circuit.  These results provide initial evidence that psychopaths exhibit deficits in brain regions essential for moral judgment in normal individuals.

OK… so what if in a couple of years we can nut out a remedy, such as the electronic gizmos that cause deep stimulation in the brain that can help manage depression.  Might courts offer a choice (or mix) of a wire in the head or a prison sentence?

This is the sort of issue, a mix of medicine, philosophy, civil liberties and criminal law that we will face increasingly over the next few years and decades.  Variances between individuals (e.g. me, the pathways I use, evolving over decades of untreated epileptic partial seizures, are different from neurotypical folk for many functions) raise questions about the legal use of fMRI.

There needs to be much wider discussion on such issues, not merely between legal and medical types, but with the community.  If we don’t have the discussions now, the rapidly-developing science will be grossly misused.


One Response to “fMRI, moral decision making, and the law”

  1. Dave Bath said

    Recent papers (must look them up) are confirming these different pathways – liberals/lefties showing more activation of the moral pathways discussed above, particularly the amygdala, while conservatives (economic and social), over-activate the anterior cingulate and frontal lobes… the conservatives basically showing the same patterns as frank psychopaths – the “corporate psychopaths” and conservative politicians would show these pathologies if tested, I reckon.

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