“The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile,” asserted 18th century French physiologist Pierre Cabanis. Last week, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies convened a conference of neuroscientists and philosophers to ponder how our brains secrete thoughts about ethics and morality. The first presenter was neuroeconomist Gregory Berns from Emory University whose work peers into brains to see in which creases of gray matter those values we hold sacred lodge. The study, “The Price of Your Soul: neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values,” was just published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
Philosophers often frame arguments over the bases of ethics in terms of deontology (right v. wrong irrespective of outcomes) and utilitarianism (costs v. benefits of potential outcomes). Both utilitarians and deontologists would argue that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings. A utilitarian might tote up the costs of being caught in murder or the harms to a victim’s family, whereas a deontologist would assert it is moral duty to avoid killing the innocent. For most people, a utilitarian reckoning in this case seems cold and psychologically broken (e.g., the kind of calculation that a psychopath would make). The researchers define personal sacred values as those for which individuals resist trade-offs with other values, particularly economic or materialistic incentives.
It is this distinction that Berns probes using functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) to see in which parts of subjects’ brains their moral decision-making is localized. Such scans identify areas of the brain that are activated by measuring blood flow.
I've generally heard the dichotomy referred to as deontology versus consequentialism. The first term comes from the Greek deon, which means "duty," a beloved concept of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who wove duty into his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. (The term ontology comes from a different Greek root: on or ontos, which means "being" or "existence." Don't confuse ontology with deontology; they aren't the same animal!) There is, when you think about it, something deontological about the consequentialist stance, and there's also something consequentialist about the deontological stance. As they might say in Zen Buddhism, the concepts are not-two (不二), i.e., they're distinct yet inseparable-- nondual.