Selective deficit in personal moral judgment
following damage to ventromedial
Elisa Ciaramelli,1,2Michela Muccioli,2Elisabetta La `davas,1,2and Giuseppe di Pellegrino1,2
1Dipartimento di Psicologia, Universita ` di Bologna, Bologna, Italy, and2Centro Studi e Ricerche di Neuroscienze Cognitive, Cesena, Italy
Recent fMRI evidence has detected increased medial prefrontal activation during contemplation of personal moral dilemmas compared
to impersonal ones, which suggests that this cortical region plays a role in personal moral judgment. However, functional imaging
results cannot definitively establish that a brain area is necessary for a particular cognitive process. This requires evidence from lesion
techniques, such as studies of human patients with focal brain damage. Here, we tested 7 patients with lesions in the ventromedial
prefrontal cortex and 12 healthy individuals in personal moral dilemmas, impersonal moral dilemmas and non-moral dilemmas.
Compared to normal controls, patients were more willing to judge personal moral violations as acceptable behaviors in personal moral
dilemmas, and they did so more quickly. In contrast, their performance in impersonal and non-moral dilemmas was comparable to that
of controls. These results indicate that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is necessary to oppose personal moral violations, possibly by
mediating anticipatory, self-focused, emotional reactions that may exert strong influence on moral choice and behavior.
Keywords: moral judgment; ventromedial prefrontal cortex; emotion; cognition; decision-making; lesion method
Recent interest in social cognitive neuroscience has led to a
growing body of research aimed at elucidating the neural
and cognitive mechanisms that underlie human moral
behavior (see for recent reviews Moll et al., 2005; Beer and
Ochsner, 2006; Lieberman, 2006; McKinnon et al., 2006).
Moral behavior refers to what individuals should do based
on principles and judgments (i.e. moral values) shared with
other members of their social environment. The initial foray
into the neuroscience of moral behavior and reasoning came
from the systematic examinations of changes in the social life
of people with localized brain damage produced by
accidents, strokes or neurological disease. Patients with
lesions in the orbitofrontal and ventromedial prefrontal
cortex have long been described as presenting high levels of
aggressiveness, lack of concern for social and moral rules and
irresponsibility (e.g. Eslinger and Damasio, 1985; Stuss et al.,
1992; Damasio, 1994; Blair and Cipolotti, 2000), which
suggests these brain areas are important neural correlates of
moral behavior. Lesions of the same areas during childhood
impair the development of moral knowledge and ethical
judgment (Anderson et al., 1999), further suggesting that
these brain regions are important neural correlates of moral
healthy individuals involving moral judgment (Moll et al.,
2002a; Heekeren et al., 2003) and moral reasoning
(Greene et al., 2001; 2004; Borg et al., 2006) have detected
consistent activations of the orbitofrontal and ventromedial
prefrontal cortex, although activated regions encompass a
more extended network of neural regions (see Moll et al.,
2005 and references therein).
One crucial question concerns the specific mechanism by
which these frontal regions promote behaviors that conform
to, rather than violate, moral values and expectations shared
by a social group. According to classical moral theories,
moral behavior is a perfectly rational type of affair, governed
by deliberative and high cognitive processing. A more recent
view, however, emphasizes the role of intuitive and affective
processes in social and ethical decision-making (Damasio,
1994; Greene et al., 2001).
Consistent with this latter view, Greene and colleagues
have proposed that medial prefrontal areas might mediate
strong negative emotional responses to moral violations,
which prevent individuals from implementing such morally
impermissible actions (Greene and Haidt, 2002). These
emotions might be the by-product of (or, alternatively,
evolved to promote) humans’ intensely social nature, which
relies on behaviors warranting the cohesion of social groups
(Greene, 2003). In a series of fMRI experiments (Greene
et al., 2001; 2004), the authors explored this possibility by
studying healthy individuals who were considering moral
dilemmas. Ethicists have called moral dilemmas situations in
which a person faces a conflict between two (or more)
Greene et al. (2001) compared individuals’ performance
on two different types of moral dilemmas, i.e. those
involving ‘personal’ and those involving ‘impersonal’
Received 23 January 2007; Accepted 5 February 2007
We thank Giovanna Moretto and Morris Moscovitch for their helpful comments on a draft of the paper.
Correspondence should be addressed to Giuseppe di Pellegrino, Dipartimento di Psicologia, Universita ` di
Bologna, Viale Berti Pichat 5 – 40127 Bologna, Italy. E-mail: email@example.com.
doi:10.1093/scan/nsm001SCAN (2007) 2,84–92
? The Author(2007).PublishedbyOxfordUniversityPress.For Permissions,pleaseemail:firstname.lastname@example.org
moral judgments. A typical personal moral dilemma involves
having to decide whether or not to push a stranger off of a
footbridge in front of an oncoming trolley in order to save
five people on the main track (i.e. the footbridge dilemma).
In a quite similar situation, an impersonal moral dilemma
involves having to decide whether or not to hit a switch that
will turn the trolley to an alternate set of tracks, where it will
kill one person instead of five (i.e. the trolley dilemma). In
both types of dilemmas individuals are required to judge
whether it is appropriate to incur in a moral violation (i.e.
killing one person) in order to maximize overall conse-
quences (i.e. saving five persons). However, whereas
personal moral violations consist in (i) causing serious
bodily harm (ii) to a human being (iii) through one’s own
agency (i.e. in such a way that the harm does not result from
the deflection of an existing threat onto a different party),
impersonal moral violations do not satisfy at least one of
these criteria (e.g. #3 in the case of the trolley dilemma), and,
therefore, may induce a less intense emotional experience in
individuals (Greene et al., 2001).
Greene and colleagues found that medial prefrontal
regions commonly associated with social/emotional proces-
sing (Damasio, 1994; Berthoz et al., 2002; Moll et al., 2002b;
2005), including the medial prefrontal gyrus and the
posterior cingulate gyrus, were strongly activated while
responding to personal, but not impersonal, moral dilemmas
(Greene et al., 2001). Importantly, this medial prefrontal
activation appeared to interfere with ‘utilitarian’ moral
judgment: Individuals were slower to approve, compared to
refuse, personal moral violations, consistent with the idea
that the approval of a personal moral violation is in conflict
with emotional intuitions, whereas its refusal is a rather
automatic reaction (Greene and Haidt, 2002). This pattern
of results was not detected for impersonal moral judgments
or dilemmas with no moral connotation (non-moral
dilemmas), suggesting these were mainly accomplished
through logical reasoning, supported by dorsolateral pre-
frontal cortex (Greene et al., 2004), with relatively scarce
contribution from processes dedicated to social cognition.
Although these neuroimaging studies have suggested a
role of the medial prefrontal cortex in personal moral
judgment, it is currently unclear whether this brain region is
essential for determining normal moral behavior, or is
co-activated with the crucial region, but contributes little, if
anything. In this respect, a stronger case could be made if
one uncovered patients with medial prefrontal lesions who
show abnormal personal moral judgment. Thus, in order to
integrate lesion data with the neuroimaging findings, in the
present study we tested patients with focal ventromedial
prefrontal damage and healthy control subjects in personal
and impersonal moral dilemmas. Given that patients with
ventromedial prefrontal damage may show deficits in
decision-making independent of the moral content of the
choice options (e.g. Mavaddat et al., 2000; Fellows and
Farah, 2003; Fellows, 2006), we also included a set of
non-moral dilemmas for comparison purposes. In order to
make our results easily comparable with those by Greene and
colleagues (Greene et al., 2001), we used the same dilemmas
used by these researchers, although translated to Italian.
If medial prefrontal regions are implicated in opposing
personal moral violations, then patients with lesions in this
region should be more inclined than healthy controls to
approve moral violations in personal moral dilemmas.
In contrast, no performance difference was expected
between patients and controls in impersonal and non-moral
dilemmas, in which behavior is deemed to be less dependent
on processing in medial prefrontal areas (Greene et al., 2001).
Participants in the present study included 7 brain-damaged
patients and 12 healthy individuals. Brain-damaged patients
were recruited from the Centro Studi e Ricerche in
Neuroscienze Cognitive, Cesena. They were selected on the
basis of the location of their lesion evident on CT or MRI
scans. Patients were included who had lesion restricted to the
ventromedial prefrontal cortex. In all cases lesions were the
result of a ruptured aneurysm of the anterior communicat-
ing artery. All patients presented with a decline in social
interpersonal conduct (e.g. patient 3’s wife reported that
they were no longer joining their friends to play cards,
because he easily got angry and kept screaming to the
others), lack of concern for social rules (e.g. during the
clinical sessions patient 6 often made comments concerning
the physical appearance of female staff members) and
emotional blunting (e.g. patients were invariably reported
as no longer interested in the personal life of their close
relatives). Patients had a mean age of 55 years (s.d.¼6.8),
and a mean education of 10 years (s.d.¼5). The control
group consisted of 12 healthy individuals who had been
matched to patients on the basis of age (mean age¼57.3
years; s.d.¼6.3) and education (mean education¼12.3
years; s.d.¼4; P>0.3 in both cases). The gender variable
was balanced across groups. Participants were excluded if
they exhibited clinically significant depression, alcohol or
drug abuse, epilepsy or other known neurological condition.
Participants gave their informed consent to participate in the
study according to the Declaration of Helsinki (1991), that
was approved by the Ethical Committee of the Department
of Psychology, University of Bologna.
Table 1 shows demographic data, time post-injury, lesion
side, etiology, lesion description, as well as the results each
patient obtained in neuropsychological tests commonly used
in clinical practice. All patients showed preserved intellectual
skills, as indicated by the scores obtained on the Mini-
Mental State Examination (Folstein et al., 1975), the Verbal
Judgment Task (i.e. a test see Spinnler and Tognoni, 1987
Matrices (Spinnler and Tognoni, 1987). However, patients’
neuropsychological profile included moderate problems in
memory and executive functions. Specifically, on the
Wechsler Memory Scale (Wechsler, 1987), two out of the
seven patients (patients 2 and 4) showed scores 1s.d. below
average performance, suggesting mild memory problems.
We note, however, that as a group patients exhibited a
General Memory index close to normal (they scored 87,
where the normal mean and s.d. are 100 and 15,
respectively). As for executive function, two of the seven
patients (patients 5 and 6) showed impaired performance on
the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (Spinnler and Tognoni,
1987). The remaining patients, however, as well as the group
as a whole, attained normal scores in this test.
Lesion location and extent
The lesion analysis was based on computerized axial
tomography (CT) data in five of the seven cases, because
of the nature of the neurological damage, specifically,
ruptured aneurysms that were subsequently clipped. In two
of the subjects, magnetic resonance scans were possible. To
reconstruct each patient’s lesion, the template method
developed by Damasio and Damasio (1989) was used.
Briefly, the location and extent of each lesion were traced
from slices of CT and/or MRI scans onto axial templates on
which Brodmann Areas (BAs) are premarked. Although the
locations of BAs in these templates are approximate, they are
widely accepted in the neuropsychology and neurology
communities. Figure 1 shows the extent and overlap of the
brain lesions in the brain-damaged patients. The regions
with the most extensive damage across the seven patients
were the ventromedial prefrontal areas, in particular BA 10,
12, 24 and 32.
Materials in the present study were 15 personal moral
dilemmas, 15 impersonal moral dilemmas and 15 non-
moral dilemmas, which had been randomly selected
from a battery of 60 dilemmas developed by Greene
available at: www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/293/5537/
2105/DC1), and translated into Italian.
Moral dilemmas are supposed to elicit moral emotions,
while non-moral dilemmas are not (Greene et al., 2001).
Typical examples of non-moral dilemmas posed questions
about whether to buy a new television or to have your old
television repaired for the same price, or whether to travel by
bus or train given certain time constraints.
Subjects sat in front of the computer. Each dilemma was
presented as text through a series of three screens. The first
screen described the scenario. The second screen posed
a question about the appropriateness of an action one
might perform in that scenario, i.e. the ‘dilemmatic question’
(e.g. ‘Is it appropriate to save the five persons by pushing the
stranger to death?’). We also added a third screen involving a
question about the content of the scenario, i.e. the ‘memory
question’ (e.g. ‘Did the number of persons on the main
Table 1 Demographic, clinical and lesion data of the two patient groups
Sex Age at
Education Side of
Etiology Description of
MMSE score SRM score* VJT score* WMS score WCST (perseverative responses)*
ACoA Aneurysm Vm PFC
ACoA Aneurysm Vm PFC
ACoA Aneurysm Vm PFC
ACoA Aneurysm Vm PFC
ACoA Aneurysm Vm PFC
ACoA Aneurysm Vm PFC
ACoA Aneurysm Vm PFC
Note. M¼male, F¼female, L¼left, R¼right, B¼bilateral, ACoA¼anterior communicating artery, VmPFC¼ventromedial prefrontal cortex, MMSE¼mini-mental state
examination (Cut-off¼24), WMS¼Wechsler memory scale (normal score¼100?15), SRM¼standard Raven matrices, VJT¼verbal judgment task. Scores in percentile value
are indicated with a (*). Percentile values <5 are indicative of impaired performance.
Fig. 1 Location and degree of overlap of brain lesions. The figure shows the lesions
of the seven ventromedial prefrontal patients. Lesions are projected on the same five
axial templates following the method developed by Damasio and Damasio (1989).
The level of the axial slices has been marked by black lines on the mesial view of a
right hemisphere drawing. Progressively darker shades denote the degree to which
lesions involve the same brain regions, as indicated in the legend.
86 SCAN (2007)E.Ciaramellietal.
track equal 10?’). The memory question was introduced in
order to make sure that patients were able to remember
relevant aspects of the scenario while taking their decisions.
Subjects read at their own pace, pressing a button to
advance from one screen to the next. After reading
the dilemmatic question subjects responded ‘appropriate’
or ‘inappropriate’ by pressing one of two buttons.
Participants were told to respond as soon as they had
reached a decision. For all dilemmas being tested, ‘appro-
priate’ responses implied the maximization of overall
consequences (Greene, 2003), e.g. killing one instead of
five persons (in a moral dilemma), or buying a new
television instead of repairing the old one for the same
price (in a non-moral dilemma). However, only for moral
dilemmas ‘appropriate’ responses resulted in moral viola-
tions. Note that ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ is a value-
neutral description of what the participant said about the
action in the dilemma and not an evaluation of the
participant’s decision. Both the number of ‘appropriate’
responses and response times (RTs; i.e. the time from the
onset of the dilemmatic question to the moment a response
was given) were collected. Once a response was given, the
memory question appeared, and participants responded
‘YES’ or ‘NO’ by pressing one of two buttons. The
proportion of correct responses was taken as a measure of
Normal subjects received all the 45 dilemmas during a
single session, which took about 50min. In order to reduce
fatigue, patients received the 45 dilemmas in three sessions
including 15 dilemmas each (five personal, five impersonal
and five non-moral dilemmas), and separated by about
3 days. There was no difference across testing sessions in
patients’ results [F(2,12)¼0.55; P¼0.58 for the number of
‘appropriate’ responses; F(2,12)¼0.84; P¼0.45 for RTs],
which were therefore collapsed for the purpose of data
Preliminary analyses showed that patients were able to
remember relevant aspects of the dilemmas’ scenario while
making their decisions. Indeed, the proportion of correct
responses to memory questions was above 0.9 across
subjects, and comparable between patients and controls
[0.93 vs 0.95; t(17)¼1.07; P¼0.3].
Moral vs non-moral
We first compared participants’ performance between moral
and non-moral judgments. Table 2 shows RTs for ‘appro-
priate’ and ‘inappropriate’ responses. Table 3 shows the
proportion of ‘appropriate’ responses to moral (collapsed
across personal and impersonal) dilemmas and non-moral
An ANOVA on RTs with Group (patients, controls)
as between-subject factor, and Dilemma (Moral, Nonmoral)
and Type of response (appropriate, inappropriate) as
within-subject factors revealed a significant Dilemma?
Type of response interaction [F(1,17)¼8.3; P<0.01]:
Participants were slower to give ‘appropriate’ responses to
moral compared to non-moral dilemmas (9191 vs 7142;
P<0.05), whereas the opposite trend was observed for
‘inappropriate’ responses (7262 vs 8539; P¼0.1). No other
effects were significant (P>0.6 in all cases).
An ANOVA on the proportion of ‘appropriate’ responses
with Group and Dilemma as factors yielded a significant
effect of Dilemma [F(1,17)¼10.2; P<0.005], indicating that
participants gave fewer ‘appropriate’ responses to moral
compared to non-moral dilemmas (0.39 vs 0.57; P<0.005).
Group was not significant (P¼0.4), and no Group ?
Dilemma interaction emerged (P¼0.9).
This first set of analyses shows that patients (like normal
controls) were less inclined and slower to approve moral
violations compared to actions with no moral implication.
Importantly, patients performed normally in non-moral
dilemmas, which reduces the possibility that unspecific
deficits in decision-making (e.g. the inability to detect the
most advantageous between two choice options) affected our
Moral personal vs moral impersonal
We next compared participants’ performance between
personal and impersonal moral dilemmas. Figure 2 shows
RTs for ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ responses. Figure 3
shows the proportion of ‘appropriate’ responses to personal
and impersonal moral dilemmas.
Table 2 Response time for ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ responses to
moral and non-moral dilemmas in patients and controls
Response time (ms)
Table 3 Proportion of ‘appropriate’ responses to moral dilemmas (collapsed
across personal and impersonal) and non-moral dilemmas in patients and
controls. Values in parenthesis refer to 1 standard error of the mean
Proportion of ‘appropriate’ responses
An ANOVA on RTs, with Group, Dilemma, and Type of
response (appropriate, inappropriate) as factors yielded a
significant effect of Dilemma [F(1,15)¼8; P<0.05], which
was qualified by a significant Group?Dilemma interaction
[F(1,15)¼9.3; P<0.05]. Post hoc comparisons showed that
normal controls were slower in giving personal judgments
compared with impersonal (10.001 vs 7631ms; P<0.01),
equally long (7748 vs 7838ms; P¼0.9). Importantly, a
Group?Dilemma?Type of response
emerged [F(1,15)¼5.7; P<0.05]: Normal controls took
longer to give ‘appropriate’ compared to ‘inappropriate’
responses in personal moral dilemmas (12658 vs 7345ms;
P<0.001), but not in impersonal moral dilemmas (P¼0.8).
In contrast, patients showed similar RTs for ‘appropriate’
and ‘inappropriate’ responses in both personal and imper-
sonal dilemmas (P>0.5 in both cases). Interestingly,
compared to normal controls, patients were faster to give
‘appropriate’ responses in personal dilemmas (12658 vs
8622; P<0.05) but not in impersonal dilemmas (P¼0.8).
An ANOVA on the proportion of ‘appropriate’ responses
with Group and Dilemma (moral personal, moral imperso-
nal) as factors yielded a significant effect of Dilemma
[F(1,17)¼10; P<0.001], such that fewer ‘appropriate’
responses were given in personal moral dilemmas compared
to impersonal (0.33 vs 0.44; P<0.05), and no effect of
Group (P¼0.5). The Group?Dilemma interaction did
not reach statistical significance [F(1,17)¼2; P¼0.14].
Nevertheless, for completeness, we also conducted planned
comparison. We found that normal controls gave fewer
‘appropriate’ responses to personal compared to impersonal
moral dilemmas (0.28 vs 0.45; P<0.05), whereas patients
gave a similar proportion of ‘appropriate’ responses to both
types of dilemma (0.39 vs 0.45; P¼0.23). Compared to
normal controls, patients gave more ‘appropriate’ responses
in personal dilemmas (0.28 vs 0.39; P¼0.056), but the same
amount in impersonal dilemmas (0.45).
This set of analyses shows that patients were faster and
more inclined then normal controls to authorize moral
violations in personal moral dilemmas, whereas their
performance in impersonal moral dilemmas was comparable
to that of controls. Normal controls were less inclined to
approve personal compared to impersonal moral violations,
whereas patients showed a comparable behavior when faced
with personal and impersonal moral dilemmas.
The present study investigated personal and impersonal
moral judgment in patients with ventromedial prefrontal
lesions and healthy individuals. Given that patients with
lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex may show
abnormal moral conduct and lack of concern for moral rules
(e.g. Saver and Damasio, 1991; Bechara, 2005; Moll et al.,
2005), we were interested in verifying whether, and under
which conditions, these patients would be more inclined
than normal controls to judge moral violations as acceptable
behaviors. To this aim, we had patients with ventromedial
prefrontal lesions and normal controls consider personal and
impersonal moral dilemmas, which required the individual
to judge whether it is appropriate or not to incur a moral
violation in order to follow utilitarian, more reasoned,
considerations (Greene et al., 2001). In moral dilemmas,
dissonant moral values of roughly comparable strength
strongly conflict, such that no widely accepted formal moral
principle exists that establishes a priori what behavior is
appropriate in these circumstances. Thus, much like in real
life, individuals have to decide what they would or would not
do based on their on-line appraisal of the specific situation
they are contemplating.
Fig. 2 Response time for ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ responses to personal and
impersonal moral dilemmas in patients and controls. Bars refer to 1 standard error of
Fig. 3 Proportion of ‘appropriate’ responses to personal and impersonal moral
dilemmas in patients and controls. Bars refer to 1 standard error of the mean.
88 SCAN (2007)E.Ciaramellietal.
Results on healthy individuals replicate and extend those
obtained by Greene and colleagues (2001, 2004): Subjects were
slower to approve, but relatively quick to condemn, personal
moral violations, whereas approvals and disapprovals of
impersonal moral violations took equally long. Moreover,
subjects approved fewer moral violations in personal moral
dilemmas compared to impersonal, and when they did
approve a personal moral violation, the decision took longer
than for impersonal ones. Patients with ventromedial
prefrontal lesions were more inclined to approve personal
moral violations compared to normal controls, and did so
more quickly. In sharp contrast, their behavior in impersonal
and non-moral dilemmas was comparable to that of controls,
both in term of the quality of the choices they made, and in
the time they needed to make their decisions. Thus, while
normal subjects appeared disproportionately reluctant to
authorize personal moral violations compared to impersonal
ones, patients were as willing to authorize personal as
impersonal moral violations.
The evidence of normal behavior in impersonal and non-
moral dilemmas suggests that patients’ abnormal perfor-
mance in personal moral dilemmas was not due to unspecific
deficits in decision-making consequent to medial prefrontal
damage (e.g. Fellows and Farah, 2003), such as an
impulsiveness to approve the behaviors called into question
without evaluating their merit properly, or even in
the cognitive operations supporting decision-making tasks
(e.g. maintaining an active representation of the scenario in
working memory, shifting attention between the competing
behavioral alternatives, etc.; see McKinnon and Moscovitch,
2006 for a discussion). Indeed, such problems would have
been apparent in all types of dilemma, for example in a
systematic tendency to respond ‘appropriate’ to the dilem-
matic questions, or decrease in RTs across experimental
conditions. This was not the case: Patients were able to
detect the objectively most advantageous between two
behavioral options in non-moral dilemmas and, in doing
so, they showed similar RTs to the controls. Also, patients
showed increased RTs to moral dilemmas compared to non-
moral, suggesting that their behavior was not rigid, but
instead reflective of the specific content of the situation
As well, our results suggest that patients were aware that
some actions may or may not be in conflict with moral
values and rules while taking their decisions. Indeed, like
normal controls, they refused moral violations more
frequently compared to actions with no moral implication,
as emerged when comparing their behavior in moral and
non-moral dilemmas. Note, also, that the time patients
needed to refuse moral violations was comparable to that of
controls, suggesting that knowledge about moral values was
not only available to patients, but also normally accessible.
This finding is in line with evidence of retained moral
knowledge after lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex
(e.g. Saver and Damasio, 1991; Blair and Cipolotti, 2000;
Mendez et al., 2005; but see Anderson et al., 1999, see also
Thus, the results of the present study point to a selective
deficit in personal moral judgment in patients with
ventromedial prefrontal lesions, in the face of relatively
preserved moral knowledge and ability to reason (imper-
sonally) about right and wrong of a complex situation.
Similar results have been observed recently in patients
with frontotemporal dementia (FTD; Mendez et al., 2005),
a progressive neurogenerative disorder that in its early
disproportionately more than dorsolateral regions (Hodges
and Miller, 2001). Patients with FTD were more likely to
declare that they would push the stranger to death in the
footbridge dilemma than were patients with Alzheimer’s
disease and normal controls, whereas no difference across
participant groups was observed in the trolley dilemma
(Mendez et al., 2005). This finding, again, argues for a
specific role of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in
personal moral judgment (Mendez et al., 2005). A potential
confound of studies on degenerative disorders is that
multiple brain areas may undergo deterioration along with
the one of interest, making it difficult to map relations
between brain and behavior. In fact, McKinnon and
colleagues have recently found contradictory results to
those of Mendez in FTD patients, namely a systematic
tendency to refuse moral violations in personal moral
dilemmas, often based on well-known social dictums (e.g.
‘I wouldn’t do it because it is wrong to kill’; McKinnon et al.,
2006). However, our results on patients with focal lesion in
the ventromedial prefrontal cortex clearly reinforce the
proposal, advanced by Greene et al. (2001), that this brain
region is crucial to oppose personal moral violations. In line
with this, several studies have linked criminal behavior to
medial prefrontal dysfunction (e.g. Blair, 2001; Kiehl et al.,
It is then natural to ask how the ventromedial prefrontal
cortex might accomplish such a role.
As we discussed earlier, moral dilemmas require taking
decisions about what is right or wrong to do in a novel
situation. Over the course of deciding, individuals tend to
consider both the immediate and the long-term conse-
quences of their choices (Bechara, 2005), and to foresee how
they would feel about these outcomes (Mellers and McGraw,
2001). Immediate and future prospects may trigger compet-
ing signals, whose summation will ultimately shape subjects’
choices. It was recently proposed (Bechara, 2005) that during
decision-making signals about the immediate and the long-
term outcomes of choice options would be conveyed
through two separate but interacting neural systems: The
amygdala would trigger affective/emotional signals of
immediate outcomes, whereas the ventromedial prefrontal
cortex would be necessary to trigger affective/emotional
signals of long-term ones (Bechara et al., 1994; McClure
et al., 2004).
Certainly, in both the footbridge and the trolley dilemma,
blocking the train has appealing immediate consequences: It
involves saving five lives, and may convey the sensation of
being a hero. On the other hand, individuals must have
thought about the negative prospect of causing the death of
a man while pondering their decision. Importantly, in
normal controls this latter factor, which conflicts with
the approval of the moral violation, weighted disproportion-
ately more in personal dilemmas compared to impersonal
ones, which was not the case for patients. As Lieberman
(2006) recently noted, personal dilemmas may induce
individuals to focus on their own personal involvement in
bringing about a distasteful outcome, whereas impersonal
dilemmas, by definition, lack this sense of agency and
responsibility (see also Cushman et al., 2006, Borg et al.,
2006). Thus, while contemplating personal dilemmas normal
subjectsmight have anticipated
responses at the thought of causing direct harm to an
individual, such as regret, guilt or an automatic emotional
identification with the victim (Greene and Haidt, 2002),
which then contributed to decision-making through the
ventromedial prefrontal cortex, thereby mediating an
aversive reaction to personal moral violations.
We argue that patients’ increased tendency to approve
personal moral violations related to a failure to anticipate
the emotional, self-focused, long-term consequences of
their choices (Frijda, 2005; Amodio and Frith, 2006;
Tangney et al., 2007). In line with this idea, evidence from
several fMRI studies shows that reflecting on one’s
emotional experience is supported by medial prefrontal
regions (e.g. BA10; Gusnard et al., 2001; Ochsner et al., 2004;
Eisenberger et al., 2005) which are damaged in our patients.
Accordingly, patients with ventromedial prefrontal lesions
report reduced self-conscious emotions after engaging in
socially inappropriate behaviors compared to patients
with dorsolateral lesions (see also Eslinger and Damasio,
1985; Beer et al., 2006). Moreover, these patients may
order to guide decision-making (Camille et al., 2004).
We also note that social reasoning abilities such as
empathy heavily rely on processing in medial prefrontal
regions (e.g. Brothers and Ring, 1992; Eslinger, 1998), and
may be impaired in patients with ventromedial prefrontal
damage (Shamay-Tsoory et al., 2005), possibly resulting
in reduced responsiveness to victims (see Blair and
Other authors have proposed that moral violations in
patients with ventromedial prefrontal lesions may result
from a failure to develop or use affective/emotional cues to
inhibit morally unacceptable behavior (e.g., Damasio, 1994;
Hornak et al., 1996; Blair and Cipolotti, 2000; Mah et al.,
2005). One might even argue that whether moral judgment
results impaired in patients with ventromedial prefrontal
lesions would critically depend on the degree to which the
task taps emotional/self-focused processing. Thus, whereas
emotions(e.g. regret), in
ventromedial prefrontal patients are generally able to
recognize moral trasgressions as such (this study; Saver
and Damasio, 1991; Blair and Cipolotti, 2000; Mendez et al.,
2005), they may fail to identify socially inappropriate actions
for which there are not formal societal prohibitions
but which typically induce negative emotions in observers
(e.g. intimately touching another’s child), and arguably are
detected based on an anticipation of such emotional
responses (Blair and Cipolotti, 2000, see also Lough et al.,
2006). Similarly, in the study by Beer and colleagues (2006)
which we discussed earlier, patients who had previously
failed to feel that their behavior was socially inappropriate
were able to recognize it as such on a later video recording.
rather then externally-focused (or even knowledge-driven),
social cognition mechanisms (Beer et al., 2006; see also
Lieberman, 2006). The dissociation we found in patients
between impaired personal moral judgment and preserved
impersonal moral judgment provides further support to this
In summary, we report that patients with ventromedial
prefrontal lesions were more inclined to judge personal
moral violations as acceptable than were normal controls.
This finding indicates that the ventromedial prefrontal
cortex is crucial to oppose personal moral violations.
This brain area might be necessary to forecast the long-
term emotional consequences of these actions during
decision-making (Bechara, 2005), thus preventing their
implementation, even when the resulting omission will
cause remarkable immediate costs (e.g. in the footbridge
dilemma). It has been argued that the ventromedial
prefrontal cortex is at the core of a neural mechanism that
allows individuals to endure sacrifices now in order to
obtain benefits later (Bechara, 2005). We speculate that the
long-term benefit of letting five people die in the footbridge
dilemma would be to contribute to preserve an overarching
moral value (i.e. ‘do not kill a member of your own group’),
and thus, in turn, the long-term welfare of the community.
Similar mechanisms might be at work when individuals
punish violations of social fairness at a personal cost
(Fehr and Gachter, 2002; Fehr and Fischbacher, 2003).
Indeed, fMRI investigations of cooperation and fairness have
detected consistent activation of the ventromedial prefrontal
cortex (Rilling et al., 2002; Decety et al., 2004). Possibly,
we are committed to pass to our successors these pro-social
dispositions, that we inherited from our ancestors as
a crucialwayto strenghten
means of neural mechanisms that automatically bias the
way we take our decisions, independent of our contingent
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