THE BLOG

Ethical Wisdom: 5 Steps to Doing the Right Thing

06/14/2011 09:05 am ET | Updated Aug 14, 2011

Good people do stupid things. But what makes a married Congressman spew soft porn into the Twitter-verse, a governor to use a state helicopter to fly to his son's baseball game, or a comic -- a black one, no less -- to launch into a homophobic tirade in (half) defense of bullying?

Ethically speaking, human beings are works in progress, forever torn between our baser impulses (lust, greed, bigotry) and what we know to be right. Psychologists describe this gap between reason and desire as a "design flaw" in our brains. That's why self-control is so difficult when our emotions get the better of us.

Luckily, there's an ace in the moral hole that many people don't know about. Thanks to scientists like Jonathan Haidt, we now know that the brain comes equipped with a five-part moral "organ" that helps us make ethical choices. We are hard-wired to know what's right and wrong in the same way we've evolved to learn things like language and mathematics. We're born with a natural sensitivity toward sound ethics. These five moral channels are universal to all human beings. By familiarizing ourselves with them, we can learn to use them when faced with difficult moral decisions.

Harm and Care. Humans are communitarians at heart. We care about other people and create systems of punishment for people who do harm. Therefore, the first question we must ask ourselves when contemplating a decision is: Does it do harm? To whom By what justification? Might we achieve the same results without inflicting harm? Can similiar action be taken in a more caring way, and if so we defer to this.

Justice and Fairness. Because good people do terrible things, humans rely on systems of justice and fairness and rules and regulations to chasten ourselves and mete punishment out to the guilty. We have a built-in instinct for justice that provides a sense of balance and safety in a dangerous world. This is why we enjoy reciprocity and feel the need for revenge when we're abused or witness the abuse of others. It's also why we must question the fairness of our intended actions as well. Does this choice leave us with feelings of guilt? If so, why? Look carefully at your guilt response. While some guilt is neurotic in origin, our ability to feel guilt (and remorse) is integral to our arsenal of moral emotions. It helps us remember to serve the one as well as the many.

Loyalty. Loyalty is a two-edged sword. In human evolution, the ability to be faithful to one's group and helpful to other members was critical to survival in a competitive world. Unfortunately, forming in-groups also creates out-groups, whose needs are automatically less important simply because they're not us. Indeed, us-against-them is our species' biggest ethical albatross, causing most of the violence in the world. This is why we must ask ourselves where loyalty comes into play in the choices we make. To whom are we being loyal and whom might we be betraying? Are we acting out of blind loyalty to a group whose values we might not completely share (but whose expulsion we fear)? Are we compromising ourselves for membership in this questionable group (which might also be an organization, or even a nation)? Where does our fidelity lie? Using the yardstick of loyalty to help gauge the effects of our actions also builds trust and protects our integrity.

Authority/Respect. We are hierarchical animals who rely on authority figures to guide us. When authority figures are positive role models, we're lifted by moral feeling and the desire to be better people leading better lives (psychologists call this "elevation"). When authority figures are tyrants, however, we are oppressed and dragged down by the need to respect people who don't deserve our devotion (often debasing ourselves in the process). "The higher a monkey climbs, the more you can see of its behind," St. Bonaventure reminds us. Power is the great corrupter, of course. The more we have, the blinder we are likely to become to our own faults. Begin to question the role that power plays in how you make decisions. Are you secretly power grabbing? Are you giving your power away to someone else? If so, does this person deserve your respect? What kind of power do you seek? Is it power squeezed from selfishness and greed, or it is the power of of service, benevolence or wisdom? Or do you surrender your power under the guise of obedience while also shrugging off responsibility?

Purity and Sacredness. Finally, all actions should be measured against what we hold sacred in life. Evolution gave the human brain a hunger for the sacred, as well as the hard-wired ideal of purity as antidotes to life on a bestial planet always threatening to pull us down Jacob's Ladder. Without our sacred ideals, sensitive creatures like ourselves could not survive in a brutal and frequently confusing universe. This is also why human beings have always required some kind of faith (and some 40,000 religions have been created to date). Before attempting an ethical choice, be clear on what you hold sacred. Is this behavior in line with what you care about most? Does it increase or diminish your faith in goodness? Does it leave you feeling "impure" in some way? Do you feel elevated or diminished, spiritually speaking? Will you feel more human or less afterward? Because feelings are key to moral behavior, pay extra close attention to your gut responses when contemplating moral dilemmas. Socio- and psychopaths aside, we can trust our gut responses -- providing we're telling ourselves the truth - to guide us toward the good and the worthy.

You can bet that Anthony Weiner, Chris Christie, and Tracy Morgan wish that they'd done their own soul searching before committing their own faux pas. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

This Blogger's Books and Other Items from...