Examining overlap in behavioral and neural representations of morals, facts, and preferences

Jordan Theriault*, Adam Waytz, Larisa Heiphetz, Liane Young

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Metaethical judgments refer to judgments about the information expressed by moral claims. Moral objectivists generally believe that moral claims are akin to facts, whereas moral subjectivists generally believe that moral claims are more akin to preferences. Evidence from developmental and social psychology has generally favored an objectivist view; however, this work has typically relied on few examples, and analyses have disallowed statistical generalizations beyond these few stimuli. The present work addresses whether morals are represented as fact-like or preference-like, using behavioral and neuroimaging methods, in combination with statistical techniques that can (a) generalize beyond our sample stimuli, and (b) test whether particular item features are associated with neural activity. Behaviorally, and contrary to prior work, morals were perceived as more preference-like than fact-like. Neurally, morals and preferences elicited common magnitudes and spatial patterns of activity, particularly within the dorsal-medial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), a critical region for social cognition. This common DMPFC activity for morals and preferences was present across whole-brain conjunctions, and in individually localized functional regions of interest (targeting the theory of mind network). By contrast, morals and facts did not elicit any neural activity in common. Follow-up item analyses suggested that the activity elicited in common by morals and preferences was explained by their shared tendency to evoke representations of mental states. We conclude that morals are represented as far more subjective than prior work has suggested. This conclusion is consistent with recent theoretical research, which has argued that morality is fundamentally about regulating social relationships.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1586-1605
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2017


  • Metaethics
  • Morality
  • Social cognition
  • Theory of mind
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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