The self as a moral agent: linking the neural bases of social agency and moral sensitivity

Soc Neurosci. 2007;2(3-4):336-52. doi: 10.1080/17470910701392024.


The human brain is inherently able to understand the world in moral ways, endowing most of us with an intuitive sense of fairness, concern for others, and observance of cultural norms. We have argued that this moral sensitivity ability depends on a sophisticated integration of cognitive, emotional, and motivational mechanisms, which are modulated by individual experience in different cultural milieus. Different lines of investigation on agency and morality have pointed to overlapping neural systems. Therefore, understanding the relationships between morality and agency may provide key insights into the mechanisms underlying human behavior in several clinical and societal settings. We used functional MRI to investigate the contribution of agency and of specific moral emotions to brain activation using action scripts. Results showed that emotionally neutral agency recruited neural networks previously associated with agency, intentionality and moral cognition, encompassing ventral and subgenual sectors of the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC), insula, anterior temporal cortex and superior temporal sulcus (STS). Compared to emotionally neutral agency, different categories of moral emotions led to distinct activation patterns: (1) prosocial emotions (guilt, embarrassment, compassion) activated the anterior medial PFC and STS, with (2) empathic emotions (guilt and compassion) additionally recruiting the mesolimbic pathway; (3) other-critical emotions (disgust and indignation) were associated with activation of the amygdala-parahippocampal and fusiform areas. These findings indicate that agency related to norm-abiding social behaviors of emotionally neutral scripts share neural substrates both with the "default mode" of brain function and with the moral sensitivity network. Additional activation in specific components of this network is elicited by different classes of moral emotions, in agreement with recent integrative models of moral cognition and emotion.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Male
  • Moral Development
  • Morals*
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Self Concept*
  • Social Perception*