Your four (or more) ethical brains

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The organizing thread of these observations on ethics and morality is that we have historically mis-ordered the sequence of human ethical reasoning. My assertion is that first multiple parts of the human brain are evaluating the alternative survival strategies which they have evolved to address. Only second do the human languages of theology and philosophy attempt to “map” the conflicting messages from the different parts of brain into a cohesive “story” that we can express and share with others.

It doesn’t take much study of the DNA evolutionary “tree” and brain development in vertebrates to recognize that the human brain is a mashed-together amalgam of functional regions that have evolved for different purposes. Our brain’s evolutionary track improved our chances of survival by evaluating different types of sensory and internally-sourced information, bio-chemically determining probabilities, and then initiating bodily action accordingly. The brains that accomplished that task better than others were more likely to survive long enough to reproduce.

When I say that we have “multiple brains,” I am not saying that these are walled-off sections with clear boundaries. The brain is quite “plastic” in its ability to perform multiple tasks, but various regions tend to specialize. The visual cortex for instance, which is the primary processor of information coming from our eyes, is at the back of the brain in mammals. Most logical operations are performed in the prefrontal cortex at the upper-front of your brain, and humans have a big one.

Some related functions appear to be processed in multiple places. Where are “empathy” and “compassion” processed, for example? For over one hundred years, physicians and scientists have discovered areas of the brain where a stroke, tumor or injury can hamper the ability of a human to perceive emotion in other people, even while leaving other brain functions unaffected. If you can’t reliably “read” another person’s anger or distress, compassion becomes much more difficult, although not impossible, so there must be other regions of the brain contributing to this important emotion as well. [1]

My preferred way to look at the various theological and philosophical languages we use to talk about ethics and morality is as “mappings” of these brain regions, giving words to the conflicting signals that will inevitably arise as the different parts of the brain reach different risk evaluations and conclusions. Should I shake your hand or punch you in the nose? Do I avoid the homeless stranger on the street or do I interact?

In future posts, I will group these conceptual (and partly physical) “multiple brains” into four “vectors.” I prefer the term vector to category, as there are very few clear categorical boundaries to ethical language. Vectors, on the other hand, have “direction” and “magnitude,” like the arrows showing wind direction and speed on a weather map. You don’t have to place a particular concept in a nice clean box; it is sufficient to say, “It is over that way somewhere.” I choose four vectors because two are too few and ten are too many. In brief they are these:

  1. The parts of the brain that we share most with other mammals and reptiles want to make decisions quickly, most of them aimed at a “good end” of getting more food, fighting or running from threats, and procreating. There is a lot of good “morality stuff” right there, mostly “end-focused.”
  2. The logical parts of our brain like to create formal rules and test out exceptions to those rules. Rule-based ethical codes are among the earliest examples of human writing found. We’ll start with an upcoming post about the Babylonian King Hammurabi, who beat Moses to the punch by several hundred years.
  3. The above-mentioned brain capacities of empathy and compassion have spawned some of the most impressive and compelling human actions and expressions in the realm of ethical behavior. Humans will risk their lives for a stranger just out of volition-directing compassion.
  4. Finally, the human brain has this amazing ability to “think about thinking,” with this blog being the closest example at hand at this very moment. The topic of meta-ethics, where we ponder the “big picture” of moral choice, is at least as old as Aristotle.

The short take of future posts is that “good people disagree” because we are often thinking out of different parts of our brains.

For people of religious faith who are still looking for a more overt mention of God in the development of human ethics, future posts will eventually get there. In the meantime, if your faith is that God is real, then I suggest proceeding with the assumption that God created your brain, plus everything that came before and after it.

If you are not of religious faith, then assume that the natural forces of the universe created your brain, and everything that came before and after it. Aside from some tweaks to language, we can get pretty much to the same place, which is why theological (“God language”) and philosophical ethical writing tend to overlap significantly.

The next several posts on this topic will focus on the origins and application of “rule-based” ethics, not because it is the earliest in human history, but because most people start here when they think about morality and ethics. Subscribe to future posts using the link to left, or click on the Facebook or Twitter icons.


  1. As I have done before, I recommend here reading the work of the late neurologist Oliver Sacks on this topic. His stories are less biology primers than they are fascinating mystery stories about what happens to people with unusual brain injuries. A good place to start is Sacks, Oliver W. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. Simon & Schuster, 2007.

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