Your moral probability

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When encountering an in-your-face moral dilemma, say the imprisoning of refugee children apart from their parents at the southern U.S. border, you can likely predict which classic ethical justification certain people are going to throw out first. Some people will first speak of the damage done to the children, letting their “empathy flag” fly high. Others will shout, “But the law!”

Why do some of us consistently face the moral dilemmas that face us choosing one of the classic approaches to moral reasoning over another? It is partly about how “multilingual” you are in religious and philosophical language, and it is part biological probability.

My personal experience with the “moral conversation” illustrated in the diagram below, and discussed in an earlier post, is that my “moral self” expresses each of these vectors at one time or another, often in quick succession. My thesis here is that you may do this as well. As I have noted before, if you can’t analyze a moral dilemma that is troubling you from the perspective of each of the boxes and arrows below, then you aren’t trying very hard (and some people don’t try very hard).

Ethics cycle

What makes me me, and you you, to a large extent, is the differing probability mix with which you and I respond to the small and large ethical dilemmas that face us daily. This is the result, I suggest, of different parts of your brain doing real probabilistic math in real time. [1] The net result of the weighted probabilities is that my body reacts in some physical manner (or sometimes does not react) to the people around me. There is no “magic” here, no little devils or angels on my shoulder, rather it is an astounding simultaneous evaluation of my current social environment by all of my senses, filtered and analyzed by my brain, as modified by my personal history, culture and religion, and then determining my subsequent short-term adaptation to it.

So, an ethical issue comes up in front of me, for instance I learn that a close colleague has been cheating our employer out of a significant sum of money. At that point, my brain is likely cycling very quickly through every related memory and monitoring my senses, simultaneously, because different parts of our brain can operate somewhat independently of each other.

Sometimes, the weight of the immediate crisis tilts me away from a logical evaluation of my cultural rules in favor of a quick, “gut-level” reaction. Sometimes my “heartstrings” (my empathy brain centers) are pulled enough to swing me to a compassionate reaction, while other times my “duty brain” tells me to “Do the right thing” that I learned from my parents or pastor.

In short, we are each a mass of tiny “probability evaluators,” with each little brain neuron contributing toward the body’s eventual reaction. Which part of me will probably win out at the end? We are likely consistent as to the usual winner.

Equally fascinating to me is that I often appear able to volitionally “adjust the dials” on this probability mix. My personal “morality mix” has changed over time, for good and for bad, and likely so has yours. What would it take to “change your morality mix”? As Buckminster Fuller wrote: [2]

“I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing–a noun . . . I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process–an integral function of the universe.”


  1. For a look at how our brains do “probabilistic math” in real time, check out this earlier post.
  2. Fuller, R. Buckminster, Jerome Agel, and Quentin Fiore. I Seem to Be a Verb. Bantam, 1970.

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  1. Pingback: A moral conversation about immigration – When God Plays Dice

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