Ronald Bailey at Reason.com reports on a conference on the neurological aspects of ethics and morality, sponsored by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Of particular interest is Bailey’s summary of a paper by Gregory Berns on the location within the brain where sacred values are processed (Berns’ paper is available here).

Bailey writes that:

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) . . .

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.

Berns used the fMRI imaging to identify the locations in the brain that are activated when one makes ethical decisions based on sacred values, i.e. on a deontological basis. Most interestingly, these locations appear to be quite different from the locations activated by utilitarian decisions, whether about ethics or otherwise.

People like me who make the argument for freedom in general, and economic freedom in particular, usually do so on utilitarian terms — with free markets people generally live better, including the poorer members. The opposition to free markets, however, generally appeals to the deontological side — inequality is wrong even if people are living better materially than they would be otherwise. This study reinforces the notion that a better job needs to be done to make the deontological case for economic freedom in order to appeal to both types of moral decision making.

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