Breakdown of utilitarian moral judgement after basolateral amygdala damage

Jack van Honk*, David Terburg, Estrella R. Montoya, Jordan Grafman, Dan J. Stein, Barak Morgan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Most of us would regard killing another person as morally wrong, but when the death of one saves multiple others, it can be morally permitted. According to a prominent computational dual-systems framework, in these life-and-death dilemmas, deontological (nonsacrificial) moral judgments stem from a model-free algorithm that emphasizes the intrinsic value of the sacrificial action, while utilitarian (sacrificial) moral judgments are derived from a model-based algorithm that emphasizes the outcome of the sacrificial action. Rodent decision-making research suggests that the model-based algorithm depends on the basolateral amygdala (BLA), but these findings have not yet been translated to human moral decision-making. Here, in five humans with selective, bilateral BLA damage, we show a breakdown of utilitarian sacrificial moral judgments, pointing at deficient model-based moral decision-making. Across an established set of moral dilemmas, healthy controls frequently sacrifice one person to save numerous others, but BLA-damaged humans withhold such sacrificial judgments even at the cost of thousands of lives. Our translational research confirms a neurocomputational hypothesis drawn from rodent decision-making research by indicating that the model-based algorithm which underlies outcome-based, utilitarian moral judgements in humans critically depends on the BLA.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2119072119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number31
StatePublished - Aug 2 2022


  • basolateral amygdala
  • brain lesion
  • computational framework
  • moral judgement
  • social decision-making

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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