making local government more ethical

Ethical Decision-Making

A chapter in Jonah Lehrer's new book, How We Decide, sheds some interesting light on ethical decision-making. The book shares the latest discoveries neuroscientists have made using hightech views of the brain at work, especially when it is making various sorts of decisions.

The chapter called "The Moral Mind" shows that ethical decision-making requires "taking other people into account. ... Doing the right thing means thinking about everybody else, using the emotional brain to mirror the emotions of strangers. ... At its core, moral decision-making is about sympathy.  We abhor violence because we know violence hurts.  We treat others fairly because we know what it feels like to be treated unfairly."

This is what ethicists refer to as "moral imagination," the ability to imagine how others feel or would feel if you were to act one way or another. There is a special area of our brain (referred to as "sympathetic regions") in which we, like our social primate ancestors, mirror others' emotions. However, we do it with much greater sophistication. We effectively have somewhat detailed theories of how others feel.

But, as with any ability, not everyone has it to the same degree. In fact, some people, such as those with autism, do not have this ability at all. Lehrer also shows how and why those who, in early life, have grown up in isolation or been abused lack this ability, as well.

The best part of our ethical decision-making is that it can give us pleasure, just like altruistic behavior, which is based on the same mirroring process. In an experiment, "people who showed more brain activity in their sympathetic regions were also more likely to exhibit altruistic behavior.  Because they intensely imagined the feelings of other people, they wanted to make other people feel better, even if it came at personal expense.  But here's the lovely secret of altruism: it feels good.  The brain is designed so that acts of charity are pleasurable … [in an experiment] several subjects showed more reward-related brain activity during acts of altruism than they did when they actually received cash rewards.  From the perspective of the brain, it literally was better to give than to receive."

There is one position Lehrer takes that I think is not quite accurate, and which does not, in any event, apply to the decision-making process involved in government ethics matters. Lehrer says that "within a few milliseconds, the brain has made up its mind; you know what is right and what is wrong. ... It's only at this point -- after the emotions have already made the moral decision -- that those rational circuits in the pre-frontal cortex are activated.  People come up with persuasive reasons to justify their moral intuition.  When it comes to making ethical decisions, human rationality isn't a scientist, it's a lawyer.  This inner attorney gathers bits of evidence, post hoc justifications, and pithy rhetoric in order to make the automatic reaction seem reasonable.  But this reasonableness is just a façade, an elaborate self-delusion. ... In other words, our standard view of morality ... has been exactly backward.  We've assumed that our moral decisions are the byproducts of rational thought."

First of all, this sort of quick, intuitional act is not necessarily emotional, but rather based on experience. When you first do a sport, for instance, you have to think about what you are doing, but the movements become second nature, involving different parts of the brain. The same thing happens with many typical kinds of ethical decision-making, especially the quick response to test situations in the experiments neuroscientists have thought up.

This certainly matches many of our experiences, but not the ones involved in government ethics, for instance. Yes, we might have a quick, strong feeling whether something is right or wrong, but we have the time and opportunity to think it over, to balance various considerations, to think of how others might feel and even about ourselves, how a decision might affect our careers. We also have the opportunity to look at the rules, to talk with others, to consult ethics officers or others with more understanding of such situations than we have.

Yes, many people do use their rationality to create not only what Lehrer calls "self-delusion," but also to try to delude others. But this is not ethical decision-making. This is the opposite: this involves using our ability to mirror others' feelings in order to manipulate their feelings. This is the dark side of the sympathetic regions of our mind, which Lehrer ignores (at least in this chapter). I often show examples of this sort of manipulation (or attempt at manipulation) in this blog, because it is one of the most dangerous, insidious aspects of government ethics.

Rationality is important to government ethics. Our quick views of right and wrong are often overly simplistic and uninformed. They are a beginning, but not an end. And if we discuss our feelings and thoughts with the right people, rather than with those who automatically agree with us, who enable our behavior, good or bad, then we will be far more likely to act correctly when it comes to government ethics.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics