Moral decisions are made by our brain

Moral decisions involving dilemmas present us with difficult choices. The choices are determined by processes in our brain. Emotion and thinking areas in the brain influence each other. The processes between these areas are highly dependent on the way we are programmed. Once a choice has been made, we explain afterwards, in words, why we made that decision. But in fact it had already been taken into our brain by chemical processes. Everyone will sometimes have to make moral decisions with a difficult dilemma. The dilemmas can arise at any level. From dilemmas where major political decisions have to be made that could result in many victims to more everyday dilemmas. The environment appears to have a strong influence on this.

Description of the meaning of moral decision and dilemma

A moral decision means the responsibility for choosing how a problem (dilemma) is solved.
A dilemma is the choice between two or more options that are equally (un)attractive. 1

Influences on the brain in moral decisions

Source: Greta Kempton, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Truman, American president in World War II, had to make a decision in 1945 to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. The Japanese refused to end the war despite major losses. He was under great pressure to end the war quickly. He knew the bomb would claim many lives. The Americans had already lost many lives and were tired of war.

Truman’s dilemma was enormous: wait for the Japanese to surrender (a matter of days) or accelerate the surrender by dropping the bomb. He dropped the bomb.

Truman faced an important moral decision. He was influenced by the military advisors and the war-weary population. They wanted to end the war quickly, especially to prevent further losses on the American side. However, there were also advisors who advised Truman to wait a little longer because the Japanese would surrender in the short term. Many bomb victims would then be prevented.

Truman’s brain must have been very active. Two brain systems in particular: the brain area of emotions (the limbic system) and the brain area that controls, thinks about and inhibits emotions (the prefrontal cortex). Which area now gained the upper hand?

An example on another level

State Secretary Harbers had to decide whether two Armenian children who had been in our country for 9 years should return to Armenia or be allowed to stay. They grew up in our country and spoke our language. The pressure on Harbers was great: his own party was in favor of return, as was the judge. Some parties in the coalition were against it, as was the media. He was even threatened and had to go into hiding. Should he implement what the judge and his own party had decided, or should he

accommodate the media and coalition partners?

As with Truman, Harber’s emotion and thought processes will also have been in conflict. Brain chemicals that cause fear, stress and anger will also have been active. What took over in his brain?

Explanation of brain areas that are active in moral decisions

Two important innate brain areas that play a role in moral decisions are:

  1. the limbic system (emotion area), which can be divided into numerous brain areas such as the amygdala (fear, anger), hypocampus (memory) and cingulate cortex (pain, among others). It is the area of emotions (such as fear, anger, happiness).
  2. the prefrontal cortex, the thinking, control and inhibition area. This ensures that emotions are slowed down and, if necessary, contained and, if they do come out, they do so in a manner that is culturally acceptable.


Culture programs the brain

The mode of expression is programmed into the brain system by the educational culture . What is acceptable in one culture may not be acceptable in another culture. For example, culture determines the way men interact with women. Through repeated influence, brain areas and connections between them become firmly anchored (programmed). Such a connection can be compared to a walking path. The more it is used, the more passable.

How does the brain work in moral decisions?

Truman and Harbers must not have felt comfortable with the situation they found themselves in. The pressure from the environment was great but also contradictory. They suffered fear and indignation if the choice turned out wrong. Appreciation if the choice turned out well. Chemical processes in their brains will have worked hard to get out of the dilemma. This will involve using programmed connections that were made in their youth and later life. Truman, for example, had fought in France during World War I. Here he had seen the misery of a long war. At a certain point, certain processes gain the upper hand due to past experiences and current pressure in their brain and a choice is made.

The justification of moral decisions

Decisions are only justified when the decision has already been made by brain processes. This is done by the so-called brain interpreter or chatter that is located on the left side of the brain. 2 Through experiments, the neurophysiologist Libet showed that the brain of test subjects was already active before people were aware of it. 3

It would mean that a decision had already been made earlier in the minds of Truman and Harbers, through chemical processes, under the strong influence of the environment and their own feelings. Afterwards they justified this .

In summary

Numerous brain processes are active in moral decisions based on dilemmas. Decisions are made in the brain. These are taken under the influence of how we have been programmed through our upbringing and how strongly the influence of the environment affects us. Your own feelings also play a role in this. All these influences lead to processes in our brain that are so strong that they determine what we will do. Afterwards we justify this in words.

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  • How does conscience work when faced with difficult choices?

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