Police in my rear-view mirror

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No matter how much we contemplate our human ethical and moral systems, we don’t necessarily have rational control over which road our actions are going to take. A particular form of end-based ethics hits most of us when we have been driving a bit over the posted speed limit and we see a police car in our rear-view mirror, even if we have done nothing wrong at all. Our first reaction, even for the most pious among us, may be to utter a swear word, which is understandable in that the word likely came from deep inside the brain near the region that controls our “fight versus flight” reactions. [1]

Even the most rational of us may next succumb to a momentary panicked flash, thinking, “How can I get myself out of this mess?” This is teleological, not logical, thinking, with our deep brain’s basic survival functions on overdrive, cycling quickly though “escape” options. If we are sober, we may quickly calm down, and then the logical problem-solving and rule-based structures of our brain take over. If we are a little drunk and this part of the brain is especially impaired, we may well instead do something ill-advised, like take off speeding.

Note that since I am an old white guy, the probability of the police also reacting rationally in apprehending me, even with a bad “gut-level” reaction to their presence is quite high. For others, unfortunately, the probability of two “primal morality” responses to this type of situation ending tragically is far too high.

Just like a gazelle being cornered by a lion on the savannas of Africa, this teleological part of our brain is plotting our “best escape route” very quickly. Do I slow down and duck behind another car? Or do I instead turn a corner pretending this was my intention all along? If I am pulled over by the police officer, do I act submissive or do I act in a confrontational manner? These are all attempts to get to a “good end” as expeditiously as possible, rather than relying on logic-based deliberations.

Any of us, and in any circumstance, may choose any of these options, but we usually refer to whether we act “in character” or “out of character” in these situations. Think here of your “character” as being a probability function for how your teleological brain reacts. Normally, you might act with deference and politeness to the officer of the law, but even the most gentle person, at the end of a bad day, might snap back verbally in protest.

A cynical, but very common, form of consequentialism is called ethical egoism. Here we choose the outcome that is (if only “coincidentally”) in what we perceive to be our own best interest. While we may justify our action based on a higher value, ethical egoism is more readily apparent to those looking in from the outside than it is to those closest to the ethical dilemma at hand. Humans have shown the amazing ability to ethically justify just about any outcome as their preferred “good end,” no matter how heinous, when the heat is on.

Ethical egoism is usually the dominant ethical model at work whenever we ask ourselves, “How can I get myself out of this mess?” A policeman in our rear-view mirror is not required.


Notes:

  1. Wilson, Tracy V. “Swearing and the Brain,” How Stuff Works.

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