MRI measurements have shown that the the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ) - an area just above the right ear - receives more blood than usual when we think or read about the beliefs and intentions of other people, particularly if we use the information to judge people negatively. Young et al. show that this area is actually involved in making negative moral judgements, because when it is inactivated by trans cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), subjects judge an attempted versus an accidental homicide less severely. The abstract:
When we judge an action as morally right or wrong, we rely on our capacity to infer the actor's mental states (e.g., beliefs, intentions). Here, we test the hypothesis that the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), an area involved in mental state reasoning, is necessary for making moral judgments. In two experiments, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to disrupt neural activity in the RTPJ transiently before moral judgment...and during moral judgment... In both experiments, TMS to the RTPJ led participants to rely less on the actor's mental states. A particularly striking effect occurred for attempted harms (e.g., actors who intended but failed to do harm): Relative to TMS to a control site, TMS to the RTPJ caused participants to judge attempted harms as less morally forbidden and more morally permissible. Thus, interfering with activity in the RTPJ disrupts the capacity to use mental states in moral judgment, especially in the case of attempted harms.