Do ethics come from the heart or the head?

Admit it:  we all know, at some level, that rational thought can be a smokescreen. 

You don’t like strawberries because there’s a rational argument for them … they just taste good.  And you don’t abhor murder because there’s a good argument against it, although there is:  that good argument is something you use to justify your inherent disgust at the practice.   

We know that.  From far back in human history people have known that we often use rational justifications as a cover for things we already believe.

But modern neuroscience has now “proven” it – showing that for many decisions the emotional parts of our brain kick in before the rational.  Some people are now saying that this changes everything we know about ethics – because ethical behavior is an emotional, rather than a rational, process.

Does that follow? 

In a recent New York Times column provocatively entitled “The End of Philosophy,” David Brooks suggests that new evidence that humans make value-laden, emotional decisions will lead to a new “evolutionary” perspective on ethics that doesn’t need all that difficult philosophizing.  He writes:


The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.

Marvin Brown, however, doesn’t believe it. 


A noted expert on business ethics and an Organizational Systems faculty member at Saybrook, Brown says that the science is great.  The way people come to their initial beliefs about right and wrong may very well be an emotional process.  But even if all the science is completely right, it won’t actually change the philosophical nature of ethics:  we’ll still need to think ethics through.

Why?  Well because, Brown points out, people who make their emotionally based value judgments about what’s right and wrong are going to disagree with each other.

“People rarely do things that they think are wrong,” Brown says.  “Instead, people usually do what they think is right – taking into account the world that they think they live in.  So what happens when you have two people, both of whom think they know the right thing to do, who disagree?”

They try to figure it out. 

It’s possible that they could try to settle the issue with empathy alone, but even if that worked for two people, it wouldn’t work for three, or four, or a multi-national corporation.  At some point, people who disagree about right and wrong are going to have to sit down and try to think the issue through:  come up with intellectually sound principles for separating right actions from wrong.

“The ethical process, as opposed to first impressions, really begins when people who are doing what they think is right disagree,” Brown says.  “They can certainly come to their initial opinions through emotional means, but for collaboration, for society, for ethics in a meaningful way, we still have to do what Socrates did:  ask people why they think what they think, have them come up with meaningful answers and compare them.”

This is especially important now, Brown suggests, when so many of the ethical decisions that effect our daily lives are being made by corporations and government committees – which tend to have a pre-existing bias towards maximizing profit and enabling consumption … and very little empathy.

Their ability to think their decisions through … to challenge their own assumptions on the basis of evidence and make choices that are ethically responsible … has never been more crucial.

 “The process of being ethical really hasn’t changed, whatever people have found in the lab, and getting people to think about why they believe what they do is only getting more important, not less,” he says.

Keep up with our community!

Follow Saybrook University on Facebook and Twitter!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *