Can Virtue be Measured using Neuroimaging Methods?

Hyemin Han
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This essay considers how neuroimaging methods can measure the development of moral virtue in individuals and emphasizes new avenues of research that link moral virtue to an individual’s sense of “self,” which has been considered important among virtue theorists. Neuroimaging presents significant advantages over current methods for assessing moral development, such as self-reporting, which (1) do not give scientists insight into the substructures that process moral virtue and that underlie manifest behavior; and which (2) are biased by respondents’ subjective, potentially consciously biased, reporting. Such traditional methods are problematic for researchers because it is crucial to investigate the substructure that underlies manifest psychological processes, and to retain objectivity of measurement. Neuroimaging methods can address these problems by giving researchers access to quantifiable data on inner events, allowing them to develop specific metrics to apply to moral development in individuals. This essay discusses the benefits of such neuroimaging methods and metrics, demonstrating how to apply such methods in practice. First, this essay reviews the mechanism of brain connectivity analysis and its benefit to the studies of virtue psychology. Virtue psychologists will be able to examine whether moral functions are properly integrated into the self with this method. Second, this essay suggests the neuroimaging study of moral exemplars to examine the neural substrate of moral virtue. By comparing both the functional and structural aspects of the brain between moral exemplars and ordinary people, we will gain insights about the nature and development of moral character. In sum, neuroimaging methods have potential benefits in measuring the development of moral virtue. Due to the rapid development of neuroimaging techniques as the result of research in the field of electronic engineering and radiology, neuroimaging methods will provide increasingly reliable and direct measurements of moral virtue.