In a post last year I proposed a method with some decent theological, philosophical and scientific bases for conducting moral conversations about those difficult issues on which “good people disagree.” It is time to attempt to have that conversation about the state of the U.S. Presidency.
This “moral conversation” post concluded a series in which I looked at what I see as the best research on the subject of how human brains make the decisions that we have branded “ethical” or “moral.” For my take on the difference between these two words, see this post. In short, sex and violence tend to trigger us toward using the latter term.
The idea of the moral conversation is that different parts of our brains, which evolved in different eons during our biological past, are always “in conversation” with each other, with each brain region trying to enforce its particular “view of the world around us” regarding life-threatening or trivial choices. I focus on four of these “moral vectors,” but that number of four is arbitrary; you can subdivide this topic as finely as you wish, and people do.
There are no hard and fast boundaries in our brains, but there are “specialist zones,” not only for your vision and hearing, for instance, but also for your decision-making. Philosophers and theologians have tried to articulate these modes of ethical decision-making into the common language for centuries.
Your duty to follow the rules
In this cycle of conversation you can start anywhere, and you will eventually wind up back where you started. I like to start in the top-center box, called Deontology, which is basically a part of our brain saying, “You have a duty to follow the rules that have been encoded,” not because it is the oldest or most powerful decision-maker, but rather because this is where most people start when talking about “right and wrong” decisions. What are the societal rules in this case, and are you following them?
From the time of the ancient scriptures from multiple cultures onward, this view of moral behavior has dominated “conservative” moral thought, that sub-group of any society that dislikes change and defends “the way it has always been.” At least until 2016, it appears.
It is society’s conservatives throughout the world who first bring up phrases like “Follow the law!” or “Obey our religion’s commandments!” And yet this current President openly flouts the most basic of our society’s traditional governmental and moral norms, while his supporters, many claiming to be conservative Christians, have consistently excused his behavior. In fact, this flouting of convention is so brazenly open with Donald Trump that I don’t think I even need to give examples. The refusal of most social conservatives to deny this reality is evidence, I suggest, of “personality cult” behavior. The rest of us must “play by the rules” but Donald Trump does not.
As shown by the top-right arrow, when our brains don’t want to follow the known and encoded rules, they start entertaining exceptions to the rules to “test” whether any exceptions apply to our situation. For instance, the rule says I should not drive past the speed limit, but my “brain voice” says, “You’re late and you probably won’t get caught,” which we sometimes rationalize as valid exceptions.
Proposed exceptions to civil behavior by Trump from his followers include statements like “The Emoluments Clause does not apply to him because he came into the Presidency as a rich businessman.” or “He wasn’t serious when he illegally told China to investigate his political rival” (the latter actually a tweet from Marco Rubio).
An ethicist mentor of mine liked to say that, “One reality is that there are exceptions to all rules. The other reality is that your exception is likely not good enough.” Let me suggest that the “Trump exceptions” are not good enough. However, if we can convince ourselves of enough “valid” exceptions, then our brain often shifts to “end-based” or “goal-based” thinking.
Going for the “good end”
Teleology, suggested by the right-most box in the chart above, is the idea that we should seek out “the good end” to the ethical dilemma that confronts us rather than be constrained by some rule. This approach has a long intellectual tradition, which is why it has this Greek name. Utilitarianism, with the familiar end-goal of achieving “the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” falls down this vector of ethical reasoning.
In evolutionary terms, this problem-solving strategy is likely among the oldest brain functions we have. “Get me out of this life-threatening situation as expeditiously as possible” appears to be a “hard-wired” decision-making capability. Even reptiles make this kind of “ethical decision” daily, and some science suggests that we share this bit of our brain with these biological relatives through a long-ago common ancestor.
Our “big human brains” have developed more sophisticated methods for creating ends-focused rationale than reptiles have, but we have also given the description “Machiavellian” to some of the instances where this logic goes off the rails, where the ends are used to justify the means. For instance, many of Donald Trump’s defenders put forward the end-based rationale of “Look at all of these great judicial appointments we are getting.” In “God-language” this is called “selling your soul for a mess of pottage.”
Perhaps the biggest downside of end-based ethical decision-making is in its unintended consequences (see the bottom-right arrow above). “Guardrail appointments” like General James Mattis found that their rationale for supporting this President resulted in enabling his “whim decisions” on military and foreign policy matters that they could no longer control, and as a result we may well see massacres of our former allies and side-by-side fighting companions, the Syrian Kurds.
When we confront the unintended consequences of our short-sighted actions, the reasoning of normal human beings often appears to switch into a third mode of ethical decision-making, in which our “empathy brain” takes over. When we try to “save our own skin” through goal-based rationales, somebody inevitably gets hurt by the downsides of our actions. This is where we will start in Part Two of this post, which is in the queue. A quick preview: Donald Trump does not appear to have an “empathy brain.”
Part Two continues the “moral conversation” about Donald Trump and is now posted here.
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