There has been much focus the past couple years on the relationship between the brain and morality, leading to a spate of books (Sam Harris, Patricia Churchland, Jonathan Haidt) and research like this:

A team at the University of Chicago has found that a person’s responses to similar situations change as they age, which is because of the evolving brain circuitry, the latest edition of the ‘Cerebral Cortex’ journal reported.

In their study, researchers combined brain scanning, eye-tracking and behavioural measures to understand how the brain responds to morally laden scenarios.

According to them, the study provides strong evidence that moral reasoning involves a complex integration between affective and cognitive processes that gradually changes with a person’s age.

“Both preschool children and adults distinguish between damage done either intentionally or accidentally when assessing whether a perpetrator had done something wrong. … adults are much less likely than children to think someone should be punished for damaging an object, especially if the action was accidental,” said lead researcher Jean Decety.

The different responses correlate with the various stages of development, Decety said, as the brain becomes better equipped to make reasoned judgements and integrate an understanding of the mental states of others with the outcome of their actions.

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking in this study, but it does further elucidate the role that the brain plays in moral decision making, and the sort of cognitive abilities needed to make sound decisions.