Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Dilemma of Ethics

In the July/August 2011 issue of Discover, Kristin Ohlson writes about some research being done about ethics through neuroscience ("The End of Morality"). At the heart of the research, cognititve scientists Joshua Greene and Fiery Cushman took scans of subjects' brains while they were working through true ethical dilemmas. These dilemmas were the sort anyone who has ever taken an undergraduate philosophical ethics course would be familiar with. Each dilemma offers only two options, neither of which is an easy choice. For example, they used the trolley dilemma, where the subject is asked to imagine an out of control trolley hurtling down the track toward five people. But then the subject sees a switch that will divert the trolley to another track where it will miss the five, but will kill another person on that track. Or a variation where the subject is standing on a ledge above the track. Beside him or her, there is a person large enough that if he is pushed onto the track he will stop the trolley but will be killed in the process. The study asks if it is justifiable to kill one for the sake of more? Do you push one to his death to save five? Do you let the five die because of the one?

Joshua Greene sees our moral choices not based on anything other than the machinations of the brain. He talks about our brains being at war between the two options presented. One option is always a utilitarian option, that is, the greatest good for the greatest number. This option is best represented by John Stuart Mill's philosophy. The other option is best represented by Immanuel Kant who believed that moral laws were untouchable. As such there were lines that cannot be crossed, like "It is always wrong to kill" meant the five would die in the trolley scenario.

The research is fascinating. There are literally two different portions of the brain at war with one another when working through these decisions. The older portion of the brain seems to be the one that holds to the hardline of the moral truth. It takes significantly more time and energy to utilize the portion of the brain that is making the decision to kill one instead of five. Reason was trumping instinctual, emotional behavior it seemed. For Greene this was telling. He said, "You have these gut reactions and they feel authoritative, like the voice of God or your conscience." But they are not, Ohlson writes. "These powerful instincts are not commands from a higher power, they are just emotions hardwired into the brain. Our first reaction under pressure--the default response--is to go with our gut. It takes more time and far more brain power to reason the situation out."

Whether in academic situations or even in casual conversation among philosophically-minded friends, these dilemmas are common. They can provide great consternation and heated debate. This consternation and debate is precisely why philosophers want to reduce situations to do-this-or-do-that scenarios. Never is there any freedom to think about any other possibilities. They create an inherently strained situation where we are damned no matter which option we choose.

And this is precisely the dilemma of ethics. Not the dilemma of the situation, mind you, but the dilemma of ethics itself. Is ethics about discovering which is the right choice and which is the wrong choice? If so, then ethics is doomed. For if nothing else, these manufactured situations show the brokenness of our existence. Neither choice is right nor wrong. But both are sinful since they show the broken relationships that we must endure in this fallen world. In every scenario we are pitted against competing goods, goods that would not be a problem if the power of sin would not be present to divide and separate us and even our thought processes.

Do we treat ethics as a series of manufactured scenarios where we pretend to choose right from wrong? Or do we treat ethics as something else? If we try to reduce everything to the unsolvable, we give sway to the power of sin and place ourselves under its sway. After all, the fruit that Adam and Eve eat is from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. When we use these scenarios to make decisions we are playing God. Perhaps that is their draw. We feel like we are in control and the only entity that can make something happen.

But what if ethics were something else entirely? What if ethics were about the character of an individual, or more precisely, an individual within a particular community? The philosophers talk as if humans come to these situations untutored, blank slates that have yet to be written upon. This of course is not the case. We all come having been shaped in one way or another by, at the very least, the world around us. In reality, our actions are shaped by many things. Fire fighters don't simply react to their situations. They train and drill so that rather than reacting to a scenario, they respond with the training given to them.

Our lives can be shaped by the communities that we belong to. For Christians, the primary shaping and forming should be done by the Church (I will not go into here if that is actually happening). The Church should form its people to respond in ways that are faithful to the life of the Trinity, into which we are brought and which is testified to in scripture. And maybe instead of wondering whether we should push another person off the ledge, we would lay down our lives instead?

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