Localizing the moral sense. How neuroscience already discovered the moral brain during the nineteenth and early twentieth century

Jan VERPLAETSE
University of Ghent, Belgium

Thanks to the MRI and PET hype, brain mappers actually no longer fear for talking about the moral brain. Neuronal circuits that are essential to the moral sentiments and social behaviour are discovered and the brains of psychopaths and criminals – the classical anti-heroes of morality – are scanned with enthusiasm.

However revolutionary these imaging techniques might be, the enterprise to localize an ethical centre or moral organ in the human brain is far from new. Although THE history of science paid much more attention to the biology of ethics (Darwin, Kropotkin), the moral brain was a recurrent theme in the works of neuroscientists during nineteenth and early twentieth century. From the phrenology era to the encephalitis epidemic in the 1920s a wide range of European and American scientists (neurologists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, and criminologists) speculated about and discussed the location of a genuine moral sense that could be found in the human cortex. Encouraged by medical discoveries and distressed by fearful phenomena like crime or moral insanity, even renowned neurologists such as Moritz Benedikt, Paul Flechsig, Arthur Van Gehuchten or Constantin von Monakow attempted to localize morality in the human brain.

In my talk I will present an overview of believers and disbelievers, their positions and arguments and offer an explanation for these historical attempts to localize human morality despite the overwhelmingly dismissive or sceptical comments from colleagues. Briefly, I wish to answer the question: “Why were some neuroscientists bold enough to formulate new ideas about a moral brain, although most were scared to do so?”


Session VII
Wednesday, 6 July 2005, 2.30 - 3.00 pm

Tenth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Tenth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

St. Andrews, Scotland, 2005