information about my research and collaborators, please visit the
Moral Cognition Lab
collaborators and I study moral judgment and decision-making using
behavioral experiments, functional neuroimaging (fMRI),
transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and genotyping. The
goal of my research is to understand how moral judgments are
shaped by automatic processes (such as emotional “gut reactions”)
and controlled cognitive processes (such as reasoning and
self-control). Our current work is aimed at
understanding these automatic and controlled processes in more
detailed functional terms.
Our research indicates that there is no dedicated
“moral sense” or “moral faculty.” Instead, moral judgment
arises from interactions among dissociable cognitive systems, many
of which—perhaps all of which—are not specifically dedicated to
moral judgment. In light of this, we aim to understand how
moral judgment is shaped by the operating characteristics of these
disparate systems. These include systems that enable cognitive
control, reward-seeking behavior, the representation of actions, and
One of our key research strategies is to divide
and conquer through the analysis of judgment processes that require
the integration of multiple pieces of information. This
includes information that triggers automatic emotional responses,
information concerning the probability and magnitude of morally
significant consequences, and the higher-order integration of
automatic emotional responses with moral reasoning (especially
reasoning about consequences) in the production of “all things
considered” judgments. More generally, our research aims to
break down moral judgment processes into their functional
Much of our research is motivated by normative
philosophical questions. I am currently writing a book about
the moral implications of our emerging scientific understanding of
Emotion and Reason in Moral Judgment
such as Plato and Kant conceived of mature moral judgment as a
rational enterprise, as a matter of appreciating abstract reasons
that in themselves provide direction and motivation. In
contrast to these philosophers, "sentimentalist" philosophers such
as David Hume and Adam Smith argued that emotions are the primary
basis for moral judgment. I believe that emotion and reason
both play critical roles in moral judgment and that their
respective influences have been widely misunderstood.
More specifically, I have proposed a "dual-process"
theory of moral judgment according to which characteristically
deontological moral judgments (judgments associated with concerns
for "rights" and "duties") are driven by automatic emotional
responses, while characteristically utilitarian or
consequentialist moral judgments (judgments aimed at promoting the
"greater good") are driven by more controlled cognitive
processes. If I'm right, the tension between deontological
and consequentialist moral philosophies reflects an underlying
tension between dissociable systems in the brain. Many of my
experiments employ moral dilemmas, adapted from the philosophical
literature, that are designed to exploit this tension and reveal
its psychological and neural underpinnings.
Moral Dilemmas and the "Trolley Problem"
main line of experimental research began as an attempt to
understand the "Trolley Problem," which was originally posed by
the philosophers Philippa
Foot and Judith Jarvis
First, we have the switch dilemma: A
runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks toward five people who
will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You can save
these five people by diverting the trolley onto a different set of
tracks, one that has only one person on it, but if you do this
that person will be killed. Is it morally permissible to turn the
trolley and thus prevent five deaths at the cost of
one? Most people say "Yes."
Then we have the footbridge
dilemma: Once again, the trolley is headed for five people.
You are standing next to a large man on a footbridge spanning the
tracks. The only way to save the five people is to push this man
off the footbridge and into the path of the trolley. Is that
morally permissible? Most people say "No."
These two cases create a puzzle for moral
philosophers: What makes it okay to sacrifice one person to
save five others in the switch
case but not in the footbridge
case? There is also a psychological puzzle here: How
does everyone know (or "know") that it's okay to turn the trolley
but not okay to push the man off the footbridge?
According to my dual-process theory of moral
judgment, our differing responses to these two dilemmas reflect
the operations of at least two distinct psychological/neural
systems. On the one hand, there is a system that tends to
think about both of these problems in utilitarian terms:
Better to save as many lives as possible. The operations of
this system are more controlled, perhaps more reasoned, and tend
to be relatively unemotional. This system appears to depend
on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain
associated with "cognitive control" and reasoning.
On the other hand, there is a different neural system that
responds very differently to these two dilemmas. This system
typically responds with a relatively strong, negative emotional
response to the action in the footbridge
dilemma, but not to the action in the switch dilemma. When this more
emotional system is engaged, its responses tend to dominate
people's judgments, explaining why people tend to make utilitarian
judgments in response to the switch
dilemma, but not in response to the footbridge dilemma.
If you make the utilitarian judgment sufficiently
attractive, you can elicit a prolonged competition between these
two systems. Consider the crying
baby dilemma: It's war time, and you are hiding in
a basement with several other people. The enemy soldiers are
outside. Your baby starts to cry loudly, and if nothing is
done the soldiers will find you and kill you, your baby, and
everyone else in the basement. The only way to prevent this
from happening is to cover your baby's mouth, but if you do this
the baby will smother to death. Is it morally permissible to
to the dual-process theory, this dilemma is difficult because it,
like the footbridge
dilemma elicits a strong negative emotional response ("Don't kill the
baby!"), while at the same time eliciting a
comparably compelling utilitarian response from the other system
("But if you don't kill the baby, everyone dies.") Difficult
dilemmas like this one tend to elicit increased activity in the
anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region associated with
"response conflict." And when people make utilitarian
judgments in response to these difficult dilemmas, they exhibit
increased activity in anterior regions of the dorsolateral
The Moral Significance of Moral Psychology
interest in understanding how the moral mind/brain works is in
part driven by good-old-fashioned curiosity, but I also believe
that we can use a scientific understanding of morality to make the
world better. As everyone knows, we humans are beset by a
number of serious social problems: war, terrorism, the destruction
of the environment, etc. Many people think that the cure for
these ills is a heaping helping of common sense morality:
"If only people everywhere would do what they know, deep down, is
right, we'd all get along."
believe that the opposite is true, that the aforementioned
problems are a product of well-intentioned people abiding by their
respective common senses and that the only long-run solution to
these problems is for people to develop a healthy distrust of
moral common sense. This is largely because our social
instincts were not designed for the modern world. Nor, for
that matter, were they designed to promote peace and happiness in
the world for which they were designed, the world of our
goal as a scientist, then, is to reveal our moral thinking for
what it is: a complex hodgepodge of emotional responses and
rational (re)constructions, shaped by both genetic and cultural
influences, that do some things well and other things extremely
poorly. My hope is that by understanding how we think, we
can teach ourselves to think better, i.e. in ways that better
serve the needs of humanity as a whole.
a short introduction to some of these ideas, you can download this article. For a
longer, and more philosophically contentious, presentation, I
article. Then there is my philosophy dissertation,
which you are welcome to slog through. Finally, I am writing
a book about these issues, which I expect to be published in
2013. I also have a related paper about the
problem of free will and legal responsibility (co-authored with my
former advisor, Jonathan
(release: October 31, 2013). Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us
and Them. Penguin Press.
*indicates equal contributions
Greene, J.D. (submitted). Reward sensitivity in the nucleus
accumbens predicts dishonest behavior.
Killingsworth, M.A., Stewart, L.E., Greene, J.D. (submitted) Is
life worth living?: Measuring net happiness and its misperception.
Shariff, A.F., Karremans, J.C., Clark, C., Luguri, J., Baumeister,
R.F., Ditto, P.H., Schooler, J.W., Greene, J.D., Vohs, K.D.
(submitted) Diminished belief in free will increases forgiveness
and reduces punishment.
J.D. (submitted) Beyond point-and-shoot morality: Why cognitive
(neuro)science matters for ethics. Paxton, J.M., Bruni, T., Greene, J.D. (under revision) Are
"counter-intuitive" deontological judgments really
counter-intuitive?: An empirical reply to Kahane et al. (2012)
Rand, D.G., *Greene, J.D., *Nowak, M.A. (2012) Spontaneous
giving and calculated greed. Nature, 489, 427-430. PDF
Amit, E., and Greene, J.D. (2012) You see, the ends don't justify
the means: Visual imagery and moral judgment. Psychological Science, 23(8),
861-868. PDF Baron, J.,
Ritov, I., and Greene, J.D. (2011 ePub, 2013) The duty to support
nationalistic policies. Journal
of Behavioral Decision Making, 26(2) 128-138.CV-5-19-13PDF
Cushman, F.A., Murray, D., Gordon-McKeon, S., Wharton, S., Greene,
J.D. (2011 ePub, 2012) Judgment before principle: Engagement of
the frontoparietal control network in condemning harms of
omission. Social, Cognitive,
and Affective Neuroscience, 7(8) 888-895. CV-5-19-13PDF
Cushman, F.A. and Greene, J.D. (2012) Finding faults: How
moral dilemmas illuminate cognitive structure. Social Neuroscience, 7(3-4),
*Shenhav, A.S., *Rand, D.G., Greene, J.D. (2011 ePub, 2012) Divine
intuition: Cognitive style influences belief in God. Journal of Experimental Psychology:
General, 141(3) 423-8. PDF
Paxton, J.M., Ungar, L., Greene, J.D., (2011 ePub, 2012)
Reflection and reasoning in moral judgment. Cognitive Science, 36(1) 163-177.
Shen, F.X., Hoffman, M.B., Jones, O.D., Greene, J.D., Marois, R.
(2011) Sorting guilty minds. New
York University Law Review, Vol. 80. PDF at SSRN
Greene, J.D. (2011) Morality and emotion: A tasting menu. Emotion Review, 3(3) 1-3.
(Editor’s introduction to special issue) PDF
Shenhav, A.S., Greene, J.D. (2010). Moral judgments recruit
domain-general valuation mechanisms to integrate representations
of probability and magnitude. Neuron, 67, 667-677. PDF
Bazerman, M.H. and Greene, J.D. (2010). In favor of clear
thinking: Incorporating moral rules into wise cost-benefit
analysis. Perspectives on
Psychological Science, 5(2), 209-212. PDF
Paxton, J.M., Greene, J.D., (2010) Moral reasoning: Hints
and allegations. Topics in
Cognitive Science, 2(3), 511-527. PDF
Paxton, J.M. (2009) Patterns of neural activity associated with
honest and dishonest moral decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences USA, Vol. 106, No. 30, 12506-12511. PDF
Paharia, N., Kassam, K.S., Greene, J.D., Bazerman, M.H.
(2009) Dirty work, clean hands: the moral psychology of
indirect agency. Organizational
and Human Decision Processes, 109, 134-141.PDF
J.D., Cushman, F.A., Stewart. L.E., Lowenberg, K., Nystrom, L.E.,
and Cohen, J.D. (2009) Pushing moral buttons: The interaction
between personal force and intention in moral judgment. Cognition, Vol. 111 (3),
Greene, J.D. (2009) Dual-process morality and the
personal/impersonal distinction: A reply to McGuire, Langdon,
Coltheart, and Mackenzie. Journal
Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 45 (3), 581-584. PDF
Greene, J.D., Morelli, S.A., Lowenberg, K., Nystrom, L.E., Cohen,
J.D. (2008) Cognitive load selectively interferes with utilitarian
moral judgment. Cognition,
Vol. 107, 1144-1154.PDFSupplementary
Greene, J.D. (2007) Why are VMPFC patients more
utilitarian?: A dual-process theory of moral judgment
explains. Trends in
Cognitive Sciences. Vol 11, No. 8, 322-323. PDF
Greene, J. D. , Cohen J. D. (2004) For the law, neuroscience
changes nothing and everything. Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society of London B, (Special
Issue on Law and the Brain), 359, 1775-17785. PDF Greene,
J.D., Nystrom, L.E., Engell, A.D., Darley, J.M., Cohen, J.D.
(2004) The neural bases of cognitive conflict and control in
moral judgment. Neuron,
Vol. 44, 389-400. PDF Greene, J.D.
(2003) From neural "is" to moral "ought": what are the moral
implications of neuroscientific moral psychology? Nature Reviews Neuroscience,
Vol. 4, 847-850. PDF Greene, J.
and Haidt, J. (2002) How (and where) does moral judgment
work? Trends in Cognitive
Sciences, 6(12), 517-523. PDF Greene,
J.D., Sommerville, R.B., Nystrom, L.E., Darley, J.M., & Cohen,
J.D. (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement
in moral Judgment. Science,
Vol. 293, Sept. 14, 2001, 2105-2108. PDF Greene,
J.D., Baron, J. (2001). Intuitions about declining marginal
utility. Journal of
Behavioral Decision Making, 14, 243-255. PDF Baron, J.,
Greene, J.D. (1996). Determinants of insensitivity to quantity in
valuation of public goods. Journal
Experimental Psychology: Applied, 2, 107-125. PDF
Amit, E., Gottlieb, S., Greene, J.D., (in press). Visual vs. verbal
thinking and dual-process moral cognition, in Dual-process
Theories of the Social Mind, J. Sherman, B. Gawronski, Y.
Trope, Eds. Guilford Press.
Cushman, F.A., and Greene, J.D. (2012) The philosopher in the
theater, in The Social psychology of morality: Exploring the causes
of good and evil, M. Mikulincer, P.R. Shaver, Eds. APA Press.
D. (2011) Social neuroscience and the soul's last stand, in
Social Neuroscience: Toward
Understanding the Underpinnings of the Social Mind, A.
Todorov, S. Fiske, and D. Prentice, Eds. Oxford University
Press, New York. PDF
Cushman, F., Young, L., Greene, J.D. (2010) Our mutli-system
moral psychology: Towards a consensus view, in The Oxford Handbook of Moral
Psychology, J. Doris, G. Harman, S. Nichols, J. Prinz, W.
Sinnott-Armstrong, S. Stich, Eds. Oxford University Press. PDF
Greene, J.D. (2009) The cognitive neuroscience of moral judgment, in
The Cognitive Neurosciences IV,
M.S. Gazzaniga, Ed. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. PDF
(2009) Fruit flies of the moral mind, in What's Next: Dispatches from the
Future of Science, M. Brockman, Ed., Vintage, New York.
Greene, J. D. (2007). The secret joke of Kant's soul, in Moral Psychology, Vol. 3: The
Neuroscience of Morality: Emotion, Disease, and Development, W.
Sinnott-Armstrong, Ed., MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. PDF
S.M., Botvinick, M.M., Yeung, N., Greene, J.D., Cohen, J.D.
(2007). Conflict monitoring in conflict-emotion competition, in Handbook of Emotion Regulation,
J.J. Gross Ed., Guilford Press, New York. Greene, J.
D. , Cohen J. D. (2006), For the law, neuroscience changes nothing
and everything, in Law and the
Brain, S. Zeki and O. Goodenough, Eds., Oxford University
Press, New York. PDF
(journal version) Greene, J.
(2005). Emotion and cognition in moral judgment: evidence from
neuroimaging, in Neurobiology
of Human Values, J.P. Changeux, A.R. Damasio, W. Singer,
and Y. Christen, Eds., Springer-Verlag, Berlin. Greene, J.
(2005). Cognitive neuroscience and the structure of the moral
mind, in The Innate Mind:
Structure and Contents, S. Laurence, P. Carruthers,. and
S. Stich. Eds., Oxford University Press, New York. PDF
My doctoral thesis: Greene,
J. D. (2002). The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth
About Morality and What To Do About It. Department of
Philosophy, Princeton University. (advised by David Lewis and