Science: The Age of Immorality

Article excerpt

Byline: Casey Schwartz

When it comes to deciding what's right or wrong, we're far more emotional than rational.

The lurid headlines of the past year--cheating politicos, lying coaches--are enough to make you think morality is a thing of the past.

If you ask Joshua Greene, a leading researcher on morality and the brain, he might say the tools most of us use to navigate moral conflicts are outdated, too.

Greene, 37, is a professor at Harvard and a leader in the field of moral psychology. He has been pursuing this line of study since college, when research first began to show that the brain operates fundamentally in two modes. One is automatic and emotional--in essence, a gut reaction. The other is slower, more reasoned. Today, this "dual-process theory" has become the dominant view of the brain.

Greene's work focuses on what this theory implies about moral decision making. In a series of experiments, some using evidence from brain scans, others focused on external behavior, Greene has found that most of the time, when we're deciding what is the right thing to do, what's happening in the brain is the emotional response, not the reasoned one. …