Neural Anatomy of Ethics

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At the core of all learning lies ethical behavior that shapes its impact and value! Potter Stewart perhaps said it best, “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do, and what is right to do.”

Ethics is to the brain’s sense of right or wrong, what a noble life is to a highly intelligent and thoughtful person. Truth is – the brain comes with moral potential.  It equips us to do what is good – even when that good comes with personal cost.  Sure, it takes a bit of work, yet ethics physically reshapes the human brain. No wonder it also shapes our lives and entire communities. But did you know that magnets can change our moral values?

Interestingly, when our brains determine what good looks like – and leapfrogs us over bad habits, new neuron pathways are created to lead toward that action. Ethics engages the basal ganglia, and enables us to move past bad habits, in favor of ethical rejuvenation. Not a bad exchange when you think about ethical values as our lived experience.

Moral values engage the brain – through a heaping supply of intrapersonal intelligence. We are each born with a unique mix. As one of our multiple intelligences, intrapersonal capability depends on both our gene pool supply as well as ethical acumen we cultivate each time we do what is right on a daily basis.

Not surprisingly,  a person strong in ethical capability not only knows what is right, but does good and in that way finds happiness. What may come as a surprise though, is the brain’s practice of rewiring its plasticity to act morally in future dilemmas.

Called neuro-anatomy of ethics here,  it’s simply an adult brain’s ability to grow a stronger moral code, through generating new dendrite brain cells for ethical choices.

Ethics in real life situations usually involves a choice about what is right and what is wrong in controversial settings. Unethical practices most prevalent in typical news includes:

Cheating among students.
Questionable financial practices.
Conflicts of interest.
Greed that governs corporate America.
Inequity that underlies learning.

We could all add to this list of unethical practices that impact any ordinary day. Worth debating in any circle is the core question that interests most of us: Does it take ethics to reach genius status? More importantly, what would an ethical person do to rewire the human brain for more ethics. What do you think?

We know ethics guides our brains if we:

  • feel good when we do good, and feel bad when we act unethically.
  • find courage to live life cheerfully
  • create space for our own spirit and value spirit in others
  • act compassionately
  • avoid lies, cheating, or greed
  • revere life, and welcome differences in ways that teach all
  • depart from old ways in favor of more ethical discoveries
  • attempt to model values in our community to benefit others
  • care for the earth and preserve its riches for future generations
  • protect freedom for ourselves and others
  • love justice yet act with mercy
  • learn, grow and remain open to opposing views
  • use good tone to communicate with respect for all
  • help others and shrink from anything that harms humankind
  • live so that others clearly see a code of morality embedded in our actions
  • care for animals in ways that recognizes their vulnerability
  • open our understanding to grapple with great mysteries of the universe
  • remain loyal to doing good for others in your world
  • refuse to promote our own well-being at the expense of another’s
  • reverence sacred parts of life, and value other’s sense of sacred
  • work hard, and pay others fairly for their labor
  • apologize and make restitution whenever we harm another person
  • never think less or more of ourselves than is true
  • develop a conscience that remains sensitive to goodness
  • believe in and do the right thing when faced with choice
  • avoid or help resolve conflicts of interest
  • live transparently so that others can evaluate our actions
  • grow and develop with each new discovery about the good life
  • express gratitude for all that is given to us daily
  • practice the Golden rule often
  • act morally rather than preach morality to others
  • sacrifice to maintain goodness over evil
  • recognize the good in others, before we identify differences

How do you rate in the above ethical indicators? When we adopt daily ethical practices, like those Dr. Robyn McMaster described in Uncle Earl’s story here,  we find life is even far more worth living.

To see surprising mindfulness connections here, check out interesting research on the possibility that magnetic pulses to certain parts of the brain appear to manipulate our sense of morality. This relates to additional research which affirms how moral judgments can be impaired in patients with damage to ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It infers that moral judgements depend on our ability to  infer intentions. What do you think?

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