Can we think our way to ethical behavior?
November 24, 2007

Dr. X asks a fascinating question (which emerges from The Splintered Mind): does thinking about ethical behaviour lead to less ethical thinking?

It can, he says. Thinking can just make it easier to rationalise unethical behaviour: “Not returning this library book on ethics isn’t stealing, nobody else reads these things anyway…”

Dr. X concludes:

Fruitful self-examination that recognizes the implicit themes, the contradictions, the gaps and the subtleties (or lack of subtlety) in our conscious experience is a capacity that is cultivated over time by consistently applying oneself to a process that can be painful, anxiety-provoking and depressing as we give up the lies we tell ourselves to make our lives more bearable. Rational examination has a role to play in this self-exploration, but deeper familiarity with the much larger role played by irrational, unconscious mental activity is critical to getting the most out of self-reflection.

A couple of points occur to me:
a. Conscious thought can help.
It is possible to end up going, “Aargh, though I don’t feel like doing it, pulling my car over to help that person change a tire is the right thing to do (it’s what I’d want someone to do for me and I’ll like the feeling of ‘being a good person’…). I.e. it can lead to good behaviour, if not to selfless motives. (more…)