“Signaling” our way out of an ethical dilemma

I have asserted in earlier posts about “Why good people disagree” that the human inter-brain “moral conversation” is likely one of biochemical probability evaluation. It is the end result of hundreds of thousands of “moral evaluator” brain neurons, representing the “rules” parts of the brain, the “good ends” parts of the brain, the “empathy” parts of the brain and the “metacognition” parts of the brain, all throwing in their two cents on which way to resolve an ethical dilemma.

This mass of probability evaluations creates a net “do or do not” signal to the action-oriented body controllers. Will I respond to your insult by walking away, or instead by punching you in the nose? Sometimes the brain’s “consensus decision” is clear, and sometimes it could turn out either way, even for the most mild-mannered person. In Catholic moral theology, the technical term for this is “pissing off a priest.”

Over many thousands of years, since the beginning of our attempts to use human language, we have tried to convert that “brain conversation” into an “inter-human conversation.” The words written here are, in this respect, just another layer added to the pile of these inter-human “moral conversations,” which has been conducted in every language that humans have ever evolved. The better the language is at inter-human communication, the more effective the emerging human society becomes.

In each of these languages, the “moral conversation” might be in a form that assumes some kind of supernatural “Theos” (God), or alternatively in forms that limit themselves to human-generated “Sophia” (wisdom). The result has been the overlapping, and sometimes-competing, traditions of Theological Ethics and Philosophical Ethics.

Is “signaling” the answer?

And we can add to this mix the language of the evolutionary biologist. There is good evidence that moral codes, and even inter-human language itself, evolved to aid in signaling, that complex behavior by which humans (and other species) try to subtly indicate clan-bonding, aggressive intent, or sexual overtures to others in their species.

In “signaling” we perhaps have the best answer to “the first ethical dilemma” with which I started this series of posts on ethical and morality. In this scenario, our small clan of hunter-gatherers has come upon a new clan who have newly entered our territory. What do we do now? The matrix below shows two options for each clan, along with the most likely result of the combinations. Review each of the possible outcomes. Some are better for us than others:

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

Recall that the problem with this ethical dilemma is that we have limited control over the outcome, which largely depends on how they address the ethical dilemma facing them as much as how we address the one facing us. As discussed in an earlier post about the modern version of this dilemma as we face off with North Korea, this is classic economic game theory. Things have not progressed far over more than 100,000 years.

Signaling here would be our attempts to find ways to give the other clan a hint of our intent, or a way for them to likewise communicate with us. In the view of some evolutionary biologists, not only was this was a major reason to evolve language itself, allowing us to communicate across clans, but also a driver for giving expression to our religious beliefs. If both clans shout out the name of the same God to whom they worship, they have improved the odds of a “good signal” from that matrix of choices above. But if they shout the name of a “different God,” that, too, is a signal in the other direction, and we ready our weapons.

Come to think about it, this seems to be how Christians and Muslims still communicate (or not) today. How far we have come!

Modern-day signaling

How, then, does signaling work in ethical dilemma face-downs in modern times? How do “pro-life” and “pro-reproductive-choice” advocates resolve their seemingly intractable differences? I have written in an earlier post about the concept of ethical nuance, and in particular on this very example. The idea behind ethical nuance is that, rather than swinging “ethical sledgehammers” at each other, we first need to try to learn the other’s “ethical language.”

That is what a large part of this “moral conversation” is all about. Over thousands of years, humans have parsed and posited solutions for ethical dilemmas from multiple perspectives, and using God-based, philosophy-based, and science-based languages. In practice, however, most people concentrate on their preferred “language” and act like the Ugly American visiting Mexico and then demanding that everyone speak English. We need instead to learn to be multilingual in an “ethical language” sense.

Some humans are more “multilingual” than others. Not in the sense of, say, English versus Spanish, but rather in knowing when to use “God language,” as opposed to “philosopher language” or “neuroscientist language” or “biologist language.” And it is also knowing more than one variant of “God language,” rather than, say, just fundamentalist Christianity or just fundamentalist Islam. Wise Christian and Muslim scholars have long explored the “ethical nuance” in their religious traditions. Many preachers of the respective faiths, however, appear to have the need to insist that there is no nuance, rather, just “plain words from God.” And then communication fails.

Language that cannot communicate between people, no matter how accurate, has limited power. For instance, I love to read the books of the great modern physicists, like Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene or Lawrence Krauss. I’m a reasonably smart guy, but I will admit that I have no idea what these guys are talking about most of the time, so in this sense, their ability to communicate is limited in my case. And likely in yours as well. It is said that Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is one of largest-selling books most buyers have failed to finish. I finished it, but please don’t quiz me.

To a great extent, ethics IS language. It is how we translate our mess of inner brain impulses into a coherent structure of life’s most important questions, and then, in turn, how we communicate that perception of life’s meaning to the other guy, so we don’t kill each other off before we can successfully spawn the next generation. When the ethic “works” more often than not, the odds improve that our children will make it, and that they will carry part of that ethic with them.

Is this “nature” or is it “nurture”? Sometimes it is hard to tell. Genetics, environment and human culture do not necessarily have clear lines of delineation between them, and the debate about “which is which” is often more academic than useful. I have never spent more than a few Sundays in my grandmother’s ethnic Scandinavian church, but sometimes I swear that I am “biologically Lutheran” without ever joining that faith.

The harder question is why we spend so much time and societal effort parsing “ethics” and “morality” at all. Is it the fear of an angry God or the compelling urge of neurobiology? And on that topic, this thread of posts about ethics will shorty come to an end.

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