In Part One of this post I looked at the first two “vectors” of the moral conversation that “walks our brain” through its different moral and ethical decision-making sub-parts as we contemplate the moral state of the Trump Presidency. In this last part I will “complete the circle” by looking at two more ethical vectors, empathy and meta-ethics.
Your “empathy brain”
It has been over 100 years since doctors started noticing that certain brain injuries, strokes, or other maladies would leave the patient apparently normal except for a “personality change” in which that person seemed to have lost his or her sense of empathy. In other words, some part or parts of my brain seem essential to me being able to see you as another human being capable of pain, joy, hunger, love, and other human feelings. This is called the Theory of Mind.
This capability may not be limited to one specific brain region, but just as an injury to but one toe can constrain your ability to walk normally, it only takes one affected brain region to hamper this “theory of mind.” Much of the ethical tradition of all of the great religions touches on this ability to feel pain when other humans feel pain, and therefore empathy has a lot of mystical and spiritual language behind it. And yet, a severe bump on the head can take away this key part of what makes you “human.” Empathy is tragically often one of the first things to go in Alzheimer’s patients, even those who have spent a lifetime of care and love for others.
When a person appears to have no ability to “feel your pain,” or even intentionally appears to inflict pain on others, we call this sociopathic, or even psychopathic behavior. In its mildest form it might be expressed as narcissistic personality disorder, where the person just cannot see beyond their own needs and interests:
Need we say more? There can be a debate as to whether bloggers like me are qualified to make psychological judgements at a distance about the apparent lack of empathy on the part of Donald Trump, but sometimes “a stick is a stick.”  That so many conservative Christian leaders give a pass to Donald Trump on this piece of the morality equation so closely tied to the Biblical accounts of Jesus, I still can’t figure out.
The meta-ethics of “Who am I?”
In Western culture we usually credit Aristotle with being the first notable philosopher to “talk about talking about ethics,” raising the moral discussion to a “meta” level of “thinking about thinking.” In Aristotle’s conception of virtue ethics, the idea of “What should I do?” from an ethical perspective is conditioned on “Who am I, really?” If I come to know “who I am,” then the “doing” part comes much easier.
There appears to be a brain region or regions that gets involved only when we start talking about these “self-reflective” ideas. Even dogs appear to experience empathy, but self-reflection may be the one unique “human morality.” When we get this brain region “in the conversation,” it results in some consideration of “Big Picture” principles for guiding one’s life.
Aristotle named “Big Picture” virtues like courage and temperance. Paul of Tarsus reduced the Gospel of Jesus to “faith, hope and charity.” West Point instills the values of “duty, honor and country.” These virtues or principles are much fuzzier than rules. Instead, all of these appear to act as “brain filters” that narrow down the ethical and moral choices that a person trained in them will entertain as valid choices.
But some people appear to have no higher-level “filter.” For some reason this part of the brain is rarely exercised or appears to be deficient. Although many of his closest associates in the past have known this for years, Donald J. Trump shows all the evidence of running “the long con,” and the instances of him acting with no visible principle besides “acting in the moment” are legion.
The technical term for the Donald Trump approach to personal and business ethics is “peeing on your leg and telling you that it is raining.”
And because principles are general in their very nature, that very vagueness brings us back full circle to “the rules” of deontology. The only thing that can enforce moral behavior in Donald J. Trump is “the law,” and so far he has made quite the case, now with Attorney General Barr at his side, that “the law” does not apply to President Donald J. Trump. I don’t have a lot of faith in the Senate or the Supreme Court, but I do hope that there is enough integrity and moral fiber remaining in those old men that they will bring this mess to an end. It’s the “right thing to do.”
- An old (or not) Zen Buddhist koan: The master holds up a big stick and asks, “Is this stick real?” The student, trying to show off his great knowledge to the master, proceeds to lecture about the different meanings of “reality” and about how it is impossible to know with certainty whether something is “truly real.” The master then beats the student over the head with the stick and says, “Sometimes, a stick is just a stick.”