Neural foundation of human moral reasoning: an ALE meta-analysis about the role of personal perspective

Brain Imaging Behav. 2017 Feb;11(1):278-292. doi: 10.1007/s11682-016-9505-x.


Moral sense is defined as a feeling of the rightness or wrongness of an action that knowingly causes harm to people other than the agent. The large amount of data collected over the past decade allows drawing some definite conclusions about the neurobiological foundations of moral reasoning as well as a systematic investigation of methodological variables during fMRI studies. Here, we verified the existence of converging and consistent evidence in the current literature by means of a meta-analysis of fMRI studies of moral reasoning, using activation likelihood estimation meta-analysis. We also tested for a possible neural segregation as function of the perspective used during moral reasoning i.e., first or third person perspectives. Results demonstrate the existence of a wide network of areas underpinning moral reasoning, including orbitofrontal cortex, insula, amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex as well as precuneus and posterior cingulate cortex. Within this network we found a neural segregation as a function of the personal perspective, with 1PP eliciting higher activation in the bilateral insula and superior temporal gyrus as well as in the anterior cingulate cortex, lingual and fusiform gyri, middle temporal gyrus and precentral gyrus in the left hemisphere, and 3PP eliciting higher activation in the bilateral amygdala, the posterior cingulate cortex, insula and supramarginal gyrus in the left hemisphere as well as the medial and ventromedial prefrontal cortex in the right hemisphere. These results shed some more light on the contribution of these areas to moral reasoning, strongly supporting a functional specialization as a function of the perspective used during moral reasoning.

Keywords: ALE meta-analysis; First person perspective; Moral dilemmas; Moral judgment; Moral justice; Moral sense; Third person perspective.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Morals*
  • Self Concept
  • Social Perception
  • Thinking / physiology*