HARVARD COLLEGE, PRESIDENT & FELLOWS OF
Moral cognition is the study of moral judgment from the perspective of cognitive science, which views the brain as an information processor. Cognitive genetics is the study of how specific genetic variations affect how the brain processes information. The goal of this project is to begin the integration of these two young and rapidly progressing fields. Recent research on moral cognition indicates that moral judgment is not the product of a unified "moral sense" or "moral faculty." Rather, moral judgments are produced through a combination of automatic emotional responses and more controlled cognitive processes, where these two types of processes sometimes compete with one another. This kind of competition is elicited by classic moral dilemmas devised by philosophers: Is it morally acceptable to push one person in front of a trolley, killing that person, in order to prevent the trolley from running over and killing five people? People disagree about this case, but research shows that the tendency to say "no" is preferentially supported by automatic responses that depend on emotion-related brain regions such as the amygdala. In contrast, the tendency to say "yes" is preferentially supported by more controlled processes that depend on a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Recent research in cognitive genetics has identified variants of genes that influence neural activity in these brain regions. For example, there is a genetic variant that is known to affect emotional processing in the amygdala by regulating levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Likewise, there is different genetic variant that is known to affect controlled cognitive processing in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex by regulating levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This new research builds on earlier studies to explore whether and how specific genes influence moral judgment by examining moral judgments made by people with different genotypes and by imaging the brains of people with different genotypes while they make moral judgments. Moral judgment is a matter of widespread concern, with relevance to such practically oriented fields as law, medicine, public health, and politics. More philosophically, our capacity for moral judgment is widely considered an essential feature of our humanity. Thus, a better understanding of moral judgment and its biological basis may inform important moral decisions and may teach us important lessons about ourselves.