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How we think about doing the right thing

March 31st, 2007 by dk

Neuroscience is teasing apart the multiple voices inside us that we call our moral self, reports William Saleton in tomorrow’s Washington Post and today in Slate. The article prompts several questions for me, some based on long ruminations, others based on recent discussions.

  • Isn’t it useful to note that some of these distinctions can be traced backwards through human consciousness using the slime trail of language? The utilitarian system can be delineated as “ethics,” leaving the older system intact as “morals.”
  • Note with care how squeamish we feel doing self-analysis, examining our own selves and how/why we might reackon such examining worthwhile. We WILL avert our eyes at some point. It’s useful to acknowledge it.
  • The ethical framework extends in more directions than simply population. In other words, the utilitarian choice may not benefit more people, but may benefit the same number of people for a longer time. Time is a dimension that dynamic people travel through (and change over), so it’s a dimension worth measuring.
  • Since these findings are framed inside evolutionary science (itself measuring humans over time, by the way), a question that must be asked (“dispositive,” as they say) is this: “How do you feel/think about evolution itself?”
  • Is evolution a force that you welcome? Is “new and improved” essentially redundant? Or are you an originalist, believing that the oldest version is most to be trusted — that later “improvements” are better understood as embellishments that lead us away from our “true” selves?
  • And if this process we attribute to evolution is inexorable, does that change anything?
  • Since this explication pits the “logical” against the “emotional,” I’ll use those terms, though I think they are arbitrary. I think the religious or spiritual position can inhabit either, though morality seems to ally more with emotional — does it “feel” right?
    • Can spirituality elevate the emotional system (morals) above the logical system (ethics)?
    • If so, is that a good thing?
    • In fact, is that the essential goodness of spirituality?
  • If we can speak/think/feel/imagine more clearly about these competing systems of goodness, can we accommodate both (and others that will follow)?
    • If so, can we also assist others in such accommodations? Or does the power of language exhaust itself before we reach this point?
  • Is the next synthesis already underway, combining morals and ethics and forging a new third way?
    • Does google know that it’s essentially undertaken this task and they aren’t being flip when they insist their corporate credo is “Don’t be evil”?
    • Notice the texture of Saleton’s article. Each key point is linked to primary sources, which are then linked to their own sources. As such, the article with its modern “footnotes” (that are likewise “footnoted”) is essentially endless. In fact, you could suppose that all human speculation is connected to this one article by links and sources and connections noted within the documents themselves.

    For the record, these issues are the same ones I posed in a speech I gave in early December, 2005, which I will post here for those with plenty of patience.

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    • 1 benproctor13 Apr 1, 2007 at 9:12 am

      Is this “third way” a new idea? Maybe it is in some contexts, I’m not sure. I think that the arts have been a ground for sythesis of “logical” and the “emotional.” I feel like I can look at art from any generation and see great minds embracing paradox and contradiction. I think of Whitman: “Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself, it provokes me forever, it says sarcastically, you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?” or “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Perhaps as our society shifts philisophically, there will see the arts as a more important place for the expression of ideas. (I hope so anyway!)

      Oh, by the way Don, you need to put “http://” in front of your links in WordPress to make them work right. Glad you are blogging again!