Magnetic Morality

Christine Whelan | Posted on 03/30/10

A team of neuroscientists claim that it's possible to alter a subject's moral judgments using a large magnet to temporarily disrupt normal brain activity, according to new findings published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers, led by Rebecca Saxe, MIT assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and lead author on this paper, Liane Young, a postdoctoral associate, find that subjects make different decisions about whether a person's behavior hypothetical scenario is permissible or forbidden after exposure to this magnetic field. 

Says Dr. Young

"It's one thing to 'know' that we'll find morality in the brain ... It's another to 'knock out' that brain area and change people's moral judgments."

Here's how it worked, according to LiveScience:

When people hear news of a crime like a shooting, they likely need more information before they can judge the offender's actions as right or wrong - was the crime accidental or intentional? If it was an accident or if the shooter was defending him or herself, people are likely to see the act as much more morally acceptable than if it was deliberate and unwarranted.

The study results show that stimulating a specific brain region interfered with the participants' ability to consider this mental state information when assessing hypothetical situations dealing with morality.

For instance, participants who received this brain stimulation were more likely to judge as morally acceptable scenarios involving attempted harms - where a person intends, but fails to carry out a crime, like an attempted poisoning.

There are plenty of caveats about this finding:

The difference between pre and post-zapped judgments averaged out to about a 15 percent change. Not much, said Young, "but it's still striking to see such a change in such high level behavior as moral decision-making."

And we're in the realm of correlation, not causation: A change in the participants moral decisions seem to be linked to the magnetic fields, but there's no definitive causal pattern.

Still, this is potentially disturbing. Are our morals just a matter of snap decision-making that can be tricked by forcefields? (Think: "These are not the droids you're looking for.") Did the girls from "Pretty Wild" just spend too much time playing with New Age magnets as kids?

I'll keep my eye on this story-I have a feeling that some moral philosophers may take issue with these findings in a way that's way above my pay-grade-and I'll report back soon with more thoughts.

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