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The neuroscience of social relations. A comparative-based approach to empathy and to the capacity of evaluating others’ action value

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Chapter Summary

One of the key questions in understanding human morality is how central are emotions in influencing our decisions and in our moral judgments. Theoretical work has proposed that empathy could play an important role in guiding our tendencies to behave altruistically or selfishly. Neurosciences suggest that one of the core elements of empathic behaviour in human and nonhuman primates is the capacity to internally mimic the behaviour of others, through the activation of shared motor representations. Part of the neural circuits involves parietal and premotor cortical regions (mirror system), in conjunction with other areas, such as the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. Together with this embodied neural mechanism, there is a cognitive route in which individuals can evaluate the social situation without necessary sharing the emotional state of others. For example, several brain areas of the prefrontal cortex track the effects of one’s own behaviour and of the value of one’s own actions in social contexts. It is here proposed that, moral cognition could emerge as the consequence of the activity of emotional processing brain networks, probably involving mirror mechanisms, and of brain regions that, through abstract-inferential processing, evaluate the social context and the value of actions in terms of abstract representations. A comparative-based approach to the neurobiology of social relations and decision-making may explain how complex mental faculties, such as moral judgments, have their foundations in brain networks endowed with functions related to emotional and abstract-evaluation processing of goods. It is proposed that in primate evolution these brain circuits have been co-opted in the social domain to integrate mechanisms of self-reward, estimation of negative outcomes, with emotional engagement.



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