Moral brain

Moral decisions are formed in the subconscious and people do not actually know how they arrive at moral decisions. They cannot explain their moral judgments. It is therefore virtually impossible to change their minds through reasoning. When asked for an explanation, they run through a range of logical possibilities and choose the one that seems closest to the facts. That is why moral arguments are often very fierce. Arguments are put forward to change the opposing party's opinion, but because the opposing party has not arrived at its position based on arguments, it cannot be convinced or dissuaded from its opinion. (Haidt)There are two types of moral decisions. The first could be called moral intuition. It works subconsciously and very quickly. As a result, moral decisions are made automatically and effortlessly. There is also moral reasoning. This is a process that only occurs after the unconscious moral reaction, when someone looks for arguments to support the moral decision or judgment. The decision based on moral reasoning is in fact a facade designed to give the impression to others that one has made the right decision.


When there is moral intuition, a whole network of brain areas is active. This includes brain areas that play a role in emotions and brain areas that are important for reasoning. It is striking that research shows that the emotional areas are especially active when it comes to personal moral dilemmas. The reasoning areas are active in non-personal moral dilemmas. It is possible that personal moral dilemmas are assessed primarily by moral intuition, i.e. very quickly, but subconsciously. Non-personal moral dilemmas do not automatically evoke moral judgment. The latter are assessed by moral reasoning, which mainly concerns justifying a choice in relation to others in the social environment.

Honest and dishonest behavior


During the last lesson of the year, the teacher plays a game with the students. The teacher is not really in the right mind and he gives one of the boys ten points too many. The boy turns to his friends. The time it takes him to turn around is enough to suppress his impulse to point out the teacher's mistake and to mount a moral argument. “If I honestly admit that I have too many points, my friends will call me a wimp.” He grins at his friends and his friends grin back. One of the girls also sees the mistake and shouts: “Hey sir, that's not right.” The boy group responds unanimously by calling her a rotten fish. It's not about whether the behavior is fair or unfair, it's about how the friends view it. By the end of the game, one girl has so many points that she can hardly lose anymore. However, her friend wrongly receives so many points from the teacher that she can win. No one except the girlfriend sees the mistake. However, her moral intuition responds immediately. She doesn't want to risk getting into an argument with her friend and she points out his mistake to the teacher, so her friend still wins and she receives a big compliment from the teacher.

In both examples, the responses lead to new, albeit different, moral dilemmas. If someone responds intuitively to a situation, this has different consequences than if someone responds based on moral reasoning. In a situation in which a participant receives an unfair offer, a brain region in the front of the brain called the insula becomes active. This brain area has strong connections with the brain areas that are important for controlling things such as heart rate, breathing and sweat glands. It also often appears to become active in situations that evoke a feeling of disgust or when there is a risk of nausea. It is therefore quite possible that an unfair human action evokes the same feelings as other unpleasant situations. Thinking about the situation puts the prefrontal cortex to work hard. This can lead to an honest acceptance of the situation, but also to reasoned dishonest action. Young people between the ages of ten and fifteen learn to accept that some social situations have different social rules than others.