Ethics from the bottom up

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I have studied ethics for many years now, including formal academic work. I started from the usual place, which was an assumption that you will find some higher-order “correct ethical decision” for every dilemma if you can analyze it properly “top-down” and apply the correct philosophical or theological model.

Over the years I have more often preferred to turn this process on its head and then see where that approach leads. So, we start from the bottom in this post:

There is some biological process that makes me extend my arm to choose between selecting the temptress piece of chocolate cake in front of me as opposed to the gorgeous piece of fresh fruit. Or to offer my hand to you in friendship as opposed to punching you in the nose.

This is the biology of human volition that ends with nerves and muscles working in coordination to effect a body movement toward Outcome A or Outcome B“Strict determinist” neuroscientists might say that this outcome was the preordained result of the sum of all conditions in the prior instant. A “compatibilist,” on the other hand, might say that this is a probabilistic outcome, or perhaps even float a possibility that the human mind, in some manner or other, can “nudge” the outcome in one direction or another.

Feeding that process of selection is the human brain, which is not really “one brain,” but rather many evolved sub-parts, crammed into one space, that came along at different points in our 3+-billion-year history of life on this planet. The “better brain” will improve our chances of survival and procreation through processing a growing combination of senses and stored memories.

Here’s the rub: these different parts of our brain, as we shall see in future posts, may “recommend” different survival actions when faced with a threat. And sometimes very contradictory and conflicting actions. For instance, one part of the brain may want to work through some logical rules based on past experiences, while another part might demand action NOW to quickly achieve a necessary end.

On top of this brain lies this amazing symbolic human language, which articulates the process of our brain examining itself, and also enables communication with other human brains. We are “thinking about thinking” as we try to reconcile these conflicting survival strategies. Our early human languages for this task had a lot of “God language” in them because everything seemed supernaturally-caused in that very scary and threatening world. Later, philosophical language came into the picture, relying on more rational and aesthetic criteria to articulate those conflicts, but the “God language” is still inextricably enmeshed in our communication.

Many of these conflicting actions took on the labels over the centuries of “moral decisions,” as they seemed to have greater impact in how humans relate to one another. Should we fight or should we share? Or, which procreation practices are harmful to our community?

Compile 100,000 or so years of these ponderings, oral traditions, and writings, and you have Ethics, the conversation about and the study of moral choices.

In short, that is the “bottom up” approach to ethics. We are evolved biological creatures, and a lot of evidence suggests that our sense of moral choice evolved with us. I recognize that I have left some critical “God” questions out of this “bottom-up” definition of ethics and morality. That will have to wait for a later post.

Prior Dice  Next

2 thoughts on “Ethics from the bottom up

  1. Pingback: Hearing, seeing, and choosing in logarithms – part 1 – When God Plays Dice

  2. Pingback: Who ought I be? – When God Plays Dice

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