The moral conversation

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I have been writing a continuing series about morality and ethics, which I summarize as being about “Why good people disagree,” since March, beginning with this post about the “first ethical dilemma,” as encountered very early in homo sapiens’ existence as a species. My basic position is that our theological and philosophical languages have evolved, over the centuries, as words for our collective discussion of the “hard choices” that our individual brains have to process, and then act on, to increase the odds of our personal survival, as well as the survival of our genetic community.

The basic reason why “good people disagree” about the most important ethical questions facing us, and the reason that great theologians and philosophers through the ages have expounded on hundreds of different models of moral behavior, is that this whole “ethical decision” process is much more complex than a binary “right and wrong.” There is not a single “good answer” or “bad answer” to most moral questions of any consequence. If this were the case, we would not have thousands of years of debate about the very same questions. Rather, there is usually an entire battery of “good questions” about any one dilemma, and a dearth of “good answers.” [1]

What I will assert is that ethical decision-making is not some “magic” process, nor one of a “little angel” and a “little devils” on your shoulder whispering into your ear. This is instead a “conversation” between different parts of your brain, each part having evolved over a different path over many millions of years, and each with its own specialty in helping to get you from this current “time t” into tomorrow’s “time t+1”. [2]

Each of these approaches to ethical decision-making devised by humankind has survived because each has improved the probability of the human species surviving and procreating into the next generation. They all “work,” either individually or collectively, more often than not. And so, the mathematics of natural selection apply here, where tiny incremental advantages eventually propagate throughout our species and cultures over many generations. As I like to note, if your parents could not figure out the basic “rules of the road” for survival in their society long enough to procreate, then you won’t either.

Over these past posts, I have simplified these models into four general “vectors” (rather than restrictive “categories”) but these vectors can be (and have been) parsed into innumerable combinations:

The Moral Conversation

The moral conversation

The brain does not start the conversation in any one place, and it does not nicely follow my sequential vectors/arrows, but this is about as good as a two-dimensional representation will get you, indicating examples of reasoning sequences. For instance, one part of your brain processes the bulk of the rules and duties you should follow, but you keep thinking of exceptions to those rules that might apply to you, because you really have a different “good end” in mind.

But then, if you think some more, you realize that this “good end” for yourself might have an unintended “bad end” consequence for someone else, and so empathy for the other person might get the better of you. And then you start pondering about all of the other people in the world you have to consider, and the problem just gets too big for a simple solution.

So, you step back to consider the meta-ethics of principles, values or virtues that are supposed to help guide you through life. And even then, you get frustrated because those principles just are not specific enough to help you decide this dilemma at hand. Finally, you find yourself back into the vector seeking more detailed rules and duties, completing the circle. Whew! All this ethical thinking can be dizzying.

Or alternatively, start in a different vector, and then have a “brain conversation” with other regions in your head, and maybe some other parts not in the boxes. Perhaps for any successful society of humans, survival is not a matter of “which box” contains the “magic knowledge,” but rather that you are having the conversation at all. As long as you are talking with each other in never-ending moral conversations, at least you are not killing each other.

More on that idea to come in a future post.

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  1. For my delineation between the concepts of “ethics” and “morality,” see this post.
  2. If you are still struggling with reconciling biological evolution and religious faith, I recommend you start with this earlier book review of mine, as well as reading the referenced book, Finding Darwin’s God. For more about the concepts of “time t” and “time t+1” check out this post about ant “choices.”

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