The first ethical dilemma

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The discipline of Ethics is not really about “good actions versus bad actions.” Murder is bad. Got it.

The most interesting and vexing ethical questions are those issues where good people disagree about basic issues of human volition (i.e., “choice” or “free will”). And beneath the conscious volition there are different parts of the human brain doing probabilistic survival planning, with many layers of “God language” (theology) and philosophy accumulated on top. These questions will thread through a series of upcoming posts with the “Good people disagree” tag. Here is the first:


The first ethical dilemma is older than the Ten Commandments. It is older than ancient Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi. It is older than any of the world’s religions. And yet it is as new as today’s nuclear stand-off with North Korea, because we still haven’t figured out the answer.

One day somewhere in the distant human past (and not-so-distant past in some parts of the world), our small extended-family community of hunter-gatherers encounters another family, one that has been previously unknown to us. How shall we react to these intruders encroaching on our space? A simple 2×2 probability matrix rears its head, one which we sense intuitively rather than consciously and mathematically. Take a look at each the options presented to us and to the intruders, and then look at the four intersections for the possible outcomes:

If they fight If they share
If we fight  We may win or lose  We win; they lose
If we share We lose; they win We both win

There may be a third option for either of us here, which is to flee, but this option just delays the inevitable. At some point our extended family, with its children, elderly and infirm members, can no longer just run away. We have to confront the dilemma.

We haven’t even invented mathematics at this point of our origins, yet we must quickly figure out this dilemma. The problem here is that both we and they have to decide what to do without knowing what the other side will do ahead of time, or even knowing the probabilistic odds to assign to each potential action available to the strangers. Will they offer to share? Or will they come out fighting? We just don’t know for sure.

Note that in the matrix above, sometimes the “fighters” win, and sometimes the “sharers” win. So, what is the “right” action to take here in order to best protect our family? Which would you choose — to fight the strangers or to share with them?

Through this human cognitive process, occurring one small community at a time, in tens of thousands of places, over tens of thousands of years, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, the concept of ethics is born. However, there is no single “right” answer to problems like this, which is why philosophers and theologians have been proposing and debating ethical “decision models” for thousands of years.

And after all those thousands of years of human pondering, the above scenario matrix quite well describes the current standoff between the United States and North Korea, writ global in a nuclear world, with potentially millions of deaths if our choice turns out badly. Work through the matrix as you confront the threat of Kim Jong-un (and, importantly, as he ponders the threat of you). Which action will you choose?

More to come…

Prior Dice  Next