The right and the good: distributive justice and neural encoding of equity and efficiency

Science. 2008 May 23;320(5879):1092-5. doi: 10.1126/science.1153651. Epub 2008 May 8.


Distributive justice concerns how individuals and societies distribute benefits and burdens in a just or moral manner. We combined distribution choices with functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the central problem of distributive justice: the trade-off between equity and efficiency. We found that the putamen responds to efficiency, whereas the insula encodes inequity, and the caudate/septal subgenual region encodes a unified measure of efficiency and inequity (utility). Notably, individual differences in inequity aversion correlate with activity in inequity and utility regions. Against utilitarianism, our results support the deontological intuition that a sense of fairness is fundamental to distributive justice but, as suggested by moral sentimentalists, is rooted in emotional processing. More generally, emotional responses related to norm violations may underlie individual differences in equity considerations and adherence to ethical rules.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Caudate Nucleus / physiology
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Choice Behavior*
  • Emotions*
  • Female
  • Gift Giving
  • Humans
  • Judgment
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Morals*
  • Putamen / physiology
  • Reward
  • Septum of Brain / physiology
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Justice*