The Moral Mind

This is part of my series on “How to Make a Christian“.   In that post, I illustrated what an adult’s modular mind looks like before they become a Christian (seen to the right).  This post elaborates on the inner workings of our Moral Minds.  Keep in mind that the Tribal Mind supplies the Moral Mind with classifications of how to value the various people addressed in our moral calculations (thus the arrow).

In the diagram below I have enlarged the Moral Mind to illustrate some of its inner workings.  You will note that, like the mind itself (above), this module is also composed of sub-modules.  These modules often work rather independently of each other (except where arrows show otherwise) and thus our minds are often divided when it comes to moral behavior.

The Moral Mind

If you have ever taken an ethics class, you have learned these three common ethical systems:

  • Utilitarian Ethics:  “The greatest good for the greatest number.”  Here, the outcome matters.  (Consequentialism)
  • Deontological Ethics:  “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” (and similar rules).  Here, the action matters. (Kant, Natural Law)
  • Virtue Ethics:  “The virtuous person is the moral person.”  Here, the person’s heart  is what matters.

Ethical Systems

You will note that in my model, these three calculators (and others) are working simultaneously in the person’s mind.  This illustrates part of the reason why philosophers have not reached agreement on morality.  The calculators (sub-modules) have all biologically evolved to solve different sorts of behavior decisions (moral choices) depending on different environmental settings and thus they have contradictory outputs at times.  Thus Philosophers and Theologians, trying to build one, simple, coherent intellectual system, run into the problem of trying to reconcile all these into one consistent. systematic, prescriptive ethical system.    Please note:  Two other common normative ethical systems not captured in this cute illustration above are: 1) Ethical Egoism and 2) Contractualism.

My model is nowhere near complete nor accurate but instead is just my attempt to sketch for you some of the complexity that is inherent in addressing morality.  Oh yes, please note:  No gods, spirits or ghosts where used or sacrificed in the making of this model.  But I will be later discussing how these sub-modules are commandeered to serve spirits and gods.

To finish this post, let me include below this SUPERB video by Andy Thomson from the 2009 Atheist Alliance International Conference where he explains this issue of contradictory moral modules in the mind.  My model basically agrees with much of what is in Dr. Thompon’s lecture.  Dr. Thomson has a private practice of general psychiatry and forensic psychiatry as well as serving as a staff psychiatrist at the University of Virginia’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy and also at the Counseling and Psychological Services of the University of Virginia Student Health Services.  He has a B.A. from Duke University, and MD from University of Virginia School of Medicine.  Enjoy !


Filed under Cognitive Science, Ethics, Philosophy & Religion

7 responses to “The Moral Mind

  1. I have been following your blog for a number of months, now. I have greatly appreciated your arguments, and more specifically your illustrations. They have provided a visual representation of many of the ideas I have been contemplating over the course of many decades.

    Your approach to thinking and belief appears to recognize it as a journey, not a destination. If so, I share that with you. Yes, I am a Christian, as a consequence of my journey taking that path.

    Believing that all of us are travelers in the journey of life allows me to respect those who are on different paths than mine. Not a common attitude in the history of Christianity, but my conversion was from the outside. I was journeying before God gathered me in.

    Please continue this great work. It has great value.


  2. @ Michael:
    Thank you for your kind note. I put a lot of effort into those diagrams and love it when people appreciate them. I try to be open-minded but I also don’t pull punches. For example, this series is leading to a provocative title soon. I hope inspite of my provocative, irreverent posts you do keep reading and help keep me honest. It sounds like you share much with several of my Christian readers. Good to have you.
    — Sabio

  3. darrenwong1859

    I agree that whenever we want to do something controversial, the many moral submodules come into action, and they often conflict with each other, especially Utilitarian and Virtual modules.

    From my point of view, utilitarian ethics works better in more cases, as in the case of the atomic bomb attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – had they not do so, the battle will drag on too long, which will result in much more deaths. Plus, since the Japanese government has declared a state of total war, the sacrifice of civilians can be justified. In other words, the end justifies the means, as long as all the side-effects are taken into account as well.

    However, I understand that utilitarian ethics are extremely controversial, and some of my friends have a hard time accepting it. And also, in many cases utilitarian ethics state that some people can be sacrificed for the greater good. That “some people” will definitely not agree. What do you think?

  4. ugh.. Dawkins… i did like the video though, reminds me of the Radiolab program on Morality which i found less boring 😉 of course, i’m biased against dawkins… so there you have it.

    i have recently come to the conclusion that Christianity maybe too utilitarian, focused on the goal instead of on the journey. we want the Kingdom, sure, but some go to lengths of conversion by any means necessary, poor ecological stewardship so that christ will come back and fix if (theological fail), and believing that the poor deserve their lot and their only hope is Jesus and religion as opiate. if we were more virtue ethics, that would be cool.. i view the Catholic church largely coming from that tradition… yet i’m trying to go deontological. i think there is where we should focus.

    just my 3 cents, you can keep the change 😉

  5. Sabio

    @ Darren

    The point of my model is not to tell HOW we should behave, but instead show why we are confused when we try to Reason or try to establish coherent rules for how we should behave. All to say, humans are not solely rule driven and are certainly almost never solely reason driven.

    I won’t touch the US Atomic bomb controversy. Thousands of websites and books address the issue. But you are right, it is an ethical dilemma, to say the least, which involved utilitarian, virtue and deontological issues and certainly a large input by the tribal module. Sorry, but I don’t want to derail this comment chain on the particulars. Here, I am stressing how the mind works. For if I feel that understanding the world can help us to change it — scientist in me.

  6. Sabio

    @ Luke
    I will listen to the rest of the Radio Lab talk later. I listened to the first 15 minutes and it was identical to a presentation I made for the graduate ethics courses I use to teach. In my course, my main aim was to help people learn HOW they make moral decisions, not how they SHOULD make moral decisions. For most, that revelation of how nature really works was surprising to them.

    Thanks for the link. I will listen to the rest later.

    I haven’t thought about how Christians should strive to change their ethics short of two major points (neither of which are you guilty):

    a) stop them telling everyone the lie that their morality comes from God

    b) stop them from treating everyone else like they are damned and only those in their flavor of Christianity are saved.

    You are out there helping affect these changes for all of us — for which I am grateful!

  7. i think i’m guilty of A but not B. i think it comes from God, just bottom up not top down. of course, i think it all comes from God, but that’s my delusion and i own it 😉

    but i think that what you’re getting at is “stop acting like your poop don’t stink” and i’m right there with you on that!

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