“Big picture” ethics

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The prior post in this series about “empathy-based ethics” confronted its “fatal flaw” in standing alone as a way to deal with moral dilemmas. The reality is that we can’t save every person who needs our help. And so, at some point, even the most empathetic among us have to start thinking in terms of the “bigger picture.” I can’t feed all the starving people, so why are they in this position in the first place? What is the root cause of the illness I am trying to treat? What is the science behind our selfish human nature?

All of these questions (and more) push our pondering into the (perhaps) uniquely-human capacity to step back a bit mentally and “think about thinking.” This capacity, called metacognition, appears to have its locus in particular parts of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. [1] In other words, when we shift into “thinking about thinking” mode, we are “listening” to a different part of our brain from the parts that drive our “fight-flight” response, or that tell us to enforce rules, or that cause us to “feel another’s pain.”

In essence, the brain is “in conversation” with itself, processing multiple sensory inputs and, in the Daniel Dennett model, formulating various probability-based responses that get tossed into the “volition mix.” Sometimes we run away. Sometimes we reach for our neighbor’s hand. In the end, our “mix of volition probabilities” tells us a lot of about “who we are.”

Metacognition is, simply put, the human ability to ask the big “Why?” questions. We mentally sort through the messages coming from the other brain parts and try to infer a single integrated meaning. We all don’t experience this brain function equally. Some people rarely engage in “thinking about thinking,” while others spend much of their lives in that “space.” It’s another reason why “good people disagree.”

The subset of metacognition called meta-ethics attempts to create a “Big Picture” narrative that can integrate, or at least try to adjudicate between, the conflicts presented by the other ethics-focused input emerging from other parts of the brain. Earlier posts in this series have focused on how different parts of our brains demand rules, or an expeditious end, or an empathy-based reaction to a moral challenge.

Perhaps the best-known vector of meta-ethics is the concept of paring down numerous ethical conflicts into a small number of overriding principles, fewer in number and more general than the typical deontological rule set, but instead defining a “first cut” at the best direction for us to take.

An example of principle-based meta-ethics is found in the American military tradition, where three principles have been emphasized – duty, honor and country. The message is that if these three principles are first seriously considered in any compromising situation, you are more likely to make a better decision. Poor decisions by military personnel frequently fail at least one of those three principles.

In the introduction to the aforementioned parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus prompts a heckler in the crowd to recite the “greatest” commandments. The man in the crowd cites two – to love God and to love one’s neighbor. [2] Interestingly, the first is one of the classic Ten Commandments, but the second is not specifically in that list. However, Jesus demonstrates that these two principles alone are sufficient to teach the Good Samaritan story, and enough for the Samaritan rescuer to reach a good moral decision.

The need for exercising our abilities at metacognition is very powerful in many humans, to the point of sometimes devoting one’s life to seeking a “meaning” for that life. Indeed, the search for “a Reason” among humans is so strong that it has created many incredibly complex theologies and philosophies to “explain everything” in cultures around the world. The problem is this: many of these theologies and philosophies are mutually incompatible on many of life’s most significant issues.

And so, it appears that there are hundreds, even thousands, of “wrong” theologies and philosophies but only one “correct” one – mine. Now if I can just convince all of you other people of that…


Notes:

  1. Bailey, Penny. “Metacognition.” BrainFacts.org, 27 Feb. 2012.
  2. Luke 10:25-28.

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2 thoughts on ““Big picture” ethics

  1. Pingback: The Big Question: Who ought I be? – When God Plays Dice

  2. Pingback: Faith, hope, charity and Roy Rogers – When God Plays Dice

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