For centuries, philosophers have debated whether moral judgments are the product of active deliberation or that intuition drives our decisions about right and wrong. During the last decade and a half, cognitive neuroscientists have stepped into this debate by scanning people’s brains while they make judgments about scenes or scenarios involving harm and fairness. This endeavor has proven fruitful in showing that neural systems underlying automatic, intuitive, and emotional processes and controlled, deliberative, and cognitive processes are involved in making moral judgments. Although neuroscience has increased our understanding of the neural mechanisms common to people’s moral judgments, not much is known about how activation in these networks might differ between people depending on how strongly they react to injustice or their capacity to understand and share other people’s emotions (i.e., empathy). In a recent paper in The Journal of Neuroscience, Yoder and Decety (2014) report on a set of findings showing that individual differences in justice sensitivity, but not empathy, predict moral judgments and the associated activation in neural circuitry involved in moral cognition. We discuss their findings and propose that although empathic feelings might not be necessary for moral judgments, they might play a role in motivating moral action.
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