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Neuropsychologia. 2019 Apr;127:195-203. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2019.01.020. Epub 2019 Feb 22.

When morality opposes the law: An fMRI investigation into punishment judgments for crimes with good intentions.

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Institutes of Psychological Sciences, Hangzhou Normal University, Hangzhou 311121, China. Electronic address:
The State Key Laboratory of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China.
Institutes of Psychological Sciences, Hangzhou Normal University, Hangzhou 311121, China.
Intel Mobile Communications Technology Ltd., Hangzhou 310053, China.
Department of Psychology, Shanghai Normal University, Shanghai 200234, China. Electronic address:


In judicial practice, morally right but legally wrong instances usually pose significant challenges for legal decision makers. To examine the cognitive and neural foundations of legal judgments in criminal cases involving apparent moral conflicts, we scanned 30 female participants during punishment judgments for crimes committed with good intentions. The behavioral results confirmed that moral acceptability was significantly correlated with the punishment ratings only in the good-intentioned crimes. The fMRI data mainly revealed that the right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ) plays special roles in processing criminal offenders' state of mind and that the right dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC) plays roles in resolving moral conflicts involved in legal judgments. Specifically, we found that compared to the bad-intentioned scenarios, the good-intentioned scenarios evoked greater activities during the postreading stage in the brain area of the rTPJ and that a signal increase in the rTPJ was associated with more lenient penalty judgments in the good-intentioned scenarios. Furthermore, reading crime scenarios with good intentions elicited stronger activation in the rdlPFC, which showed enhanced functional connectivity with the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). Overall, our study sheds some light on the neurocognitive underpinnings of legal judgments in special criminal cases and enhances our understanding of the relationship between legal and moral judgments.


Intentions; Legal judgments; Moral judgments; Prefrontal cortex; Temporoparietal junction

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