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Emotion Versus Cognition in Moral Decision-Making: A Dubious Dichotomy

Published by Admin in Philosophy & Religion
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James Woodward, Distinguished Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, University of PittsburghAbstract: A great deal of work, both within moral philosophy and in the cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience of moral reasoning, assumes a relatively sharp contrast between "cognition" and "emotion", often with the additional idea that moral decision-making is likely to be normatively better to the extent that it derives from cognitive rather than emotional processing. I plan to argue that recent developments in neuroscience undercut the idea that there is a sharp emotion/cognition contrast. The neural areas standardly identified as involved in emotional processing (e.g., amygdala, insula, ventro-medial and orbital frontal cortex) do a great deal of sophisticated information processing that looks "cognitive" in many respects. Conversely, reward processing and valuation are centrally involved in learning and other kinds of processing that has traditionally been regarded as cognitive. The cognition/emotion dichotomy may make little sense when we consider how the brain actually operates. I will suggest that this argues for a general picture in which "emotion" or affect and "cognition" work together in moral decision-making with good normative characteristics, rather than working in opposition to one another. Rather than attempting to associate different patterns of moral decision-making (e.g. utilitarian versus deontological) with distinct neural areas, I conjecture that it is more plausible that there is a value signal, represented in structures like the VMPFC and OFC that is common to all varieties of moral decision-making and to valuation generally, but that is differently modulated by other structures such as DLPFC, insula, theory of mind areas etc. when subjects make valuations that look more or less utilitarian or deontological.

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