Connecting the Dots with TED

Being “Mr. Ethics” I tend to see the world through an ethical lens.  When you have a set of lenses (and you can have many pairs/perspectives), you can form connections between disciplines/concepts that others miss or never consider.  To illustrate this and to share with you a website I enjoy; below are links to some TED conference videos that I feel have bearing on the topic of ethics.  I will provide small summaries relating the TED topics to ethics.  I am interested in your feedback.

I will try to add to this post from time to time.  The videos are in no particular order.  I will add new videos to the bottom of the list as I watch them.

Jonathan Haidt on the moral mind.

“Openness to new experiences”  … a major difference between conservative and liberal thought.

“Kids are not a blank slate”  “The initial organization of the brain does not lie that much on experience… Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises… “Built-in” does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance to experience.” – (Marcus 2004)

Five Foundations of Morality:

1) Harm/Care

2) Fairness/Reciporcity

3) In-Group/Loyalty

4) Authority/Respect

5) Purity/Sanctity

Ancient insight, “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against.  The struggle “for” and “against” is the minds worst disease.”  – Sent-ts’an c. 700 C.E.

If you understand ethics, and you are able to see the gray, one way to avoid standing “for” or “against” something… at least while evaluating it, is to use words like “better” or “worse” instead of “good” or “bad/evil”.  Doing this will allow you to have a clearer picture of an ethical act/condition; it will allow you to stand beside an ethical act/condition long enough so that you can more accurately weigh the ethical choice; and achieve ethical truth.

Jonathan Haidt’s research and insights helped me to better solidify my thoughts on ethics.  I used his work and some insight to differentiate Ethics from Morality.

His work was so influential on me and pertinent to understanding morality that I will have a couple of post specifically on this material.  If I try to comment on this video here, I will take up too much space.  As you read through the main posts you will see many references to his work.

Pre TED summary:  Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran outlines the fascinating functions of mirror neurons. Only recently discovered, these neurons allow us to learn complex social behaviors, some of which formed the foundations of human civilization as we know it.

Mirror neutrons:

  • Are active when we perform an action or when we are touched
  • Are active when we watch other people perform actions, or when then are touched
  • Create a virtual world
  • Key to imitation, emulation, and learning
  • Helped us for culture and civilization
  • Mirror neutrons are involved in empathy – they allow us to feel another persons physical and mental pain.
  • Mirror neutrons ~ “empathy neutrons”
  • Basis for most Eastern religions, that there is no independent self; you are in fact connected

Neuroscience has come a long way science I read a good book called, “Emotional Intelligence – Why EQ can matter more than IQ” by Daniel Goldman.  Even by the mid 1990’s neuroscience had concluded that babies are not “blank states”, that nature provides some prewiring that enables us to be human, for lack of a better phrase.  As noted in this blog, our innate ability for empathy is a fundamental element to our knowledge and understanding of ethics.

Knowledge of mirror neutrons helps to solidify scientific backing for ethics being knowable innately, transcendent of time (or at least since the dawn of civilization), and transcendent of culture and religion.

Damon Horowitz calls for a “moral operating system”

Damon asks “What we should do?”  What is our moral framework, “moral operating system”.  “How do we figure out what is right or wrong”.   He goes on to summarize philosophical theories in “applied ethics”.

Plato… “Can ethics be like math?”  “Are their ethical truths?”  Aristotle thought… “Ethic is about making decisions in the here and now; using our best judgement to find our best path.”  John Stewart Mills – Utilitarianism  – maximize pleasure, the greater good, the best consequence, etc.  Immanuel Kant – “We should use our reason to figure out the rules to guide our conduct, and then it is our duty to follow those rules, not a matter of calculation.”

“What’s the formula?  There is not a formula.  Ethics is hard, it requires thinking.”

Hannah Arendt – “The sad truth is that most evil that is done in this world is not done by people who choose to be evil, it arrises from not thinking” – The Banality of Evil.

Per Damon, “The response to that is that we demand the exercise of thinking from every sane person.”  … “We care”… about ethical matters.

It is part of our inherent condition.  Luckily, we are born with the inherent knowledge to be able to introspectively resolve ethical matters if we simply ask good questions, starting with the Golden Rule, “How would I like it if someone did that to me?”

Philosophers in the past made ethics impossible to solve by trying to make it purely rational, mathematical.  A purely rational model of ethics could never work because it lacked a key component of ethics, emotion.  You need to be able to introspectively ask rational questions of your emotional state.  If it helps to focus your efforts, frame your dilemma in terms of harm/care and fairness reciprocity.  Then ask yourself questions about your dilemma until you come to a conclusion that makes sense to you emotionally and one that can be rationally defended on that basis.

Rebecca Saxe:  How we read each other’s minds – Sensing the motives and feelings of others is a natural talent for humans. But how do we do it?

Good discussion on the development of the brain as it relates to our ability to understand what others are thinking.  Good discussion on the role of intensions in ethical judgements.  She notes that in adult brains, the development of a given section of the brain can influence one’s ability to properly judge an ethical act.

If you think of the brain like a muscle, someone who exercises their brain will develop their capabilities.  Someone who does not develop their brain will be mentally weaker.  This of course is not mere conjecture, this new science provides proof along these lines.

If you think of the major cultural influences on children – school, religion, some parenting philosophies… many teach blind obedience, submission to authority/respect, loyalty/in-group, concepts of purity/sanctity…basically the tenants of Morality which are divergent from Ethics.  The influences mentioned are means of social control.  If fully absorbed, they cause you to do two things: (1) Think less, (2) Self censor thoughts and actions.

Repeated thoughts become beliefs, powerful memes that inform your view of the world.   This leads many to see the world through highly contrasted lenses, making the world very black and white, while others see the world through clear lenses, allowing a more nuanced view.  The ones who see clearly are those who maintain independent thought.

Ethics requires independent thinkers.  We would be far greater served by instilling independent thought and basic ethical understanding into our children as opposed to blind obedience and fear of authority and complete submission that many kids receive.

Daniel Dennett on Dangerous Memes:  Starting with the simple tale of an ant, philosopher Dan Dennett unleashes a devastating salvo of ideas, making a powerful case for the existence of memes — concepts that are literally alive.

“What is the most persistent parasite in the world?  An idea.” – from “Inception”

Ideas are infectious and repetitious; like a virus.  We humans subordinate our genetic interest for other interest.  This is uniquely human.  It can be the source for great innovation or mass suicide.

Simply understanding what memes are is important.  The next leap is to understand that people are not the only source of authority over other people, ideas can have authority over people.  Understanding the power of memes allows you to understand how powerful ideas can be; for good and for bad.

The only antidote to bad memes is light.  If you are in ear shot of someone spreading bad ideas, the best way to prevent further spread of those ideas is to counter them with better ideas; speak up!  Silence can be dangerous.

Jonathan Drori on what we think we know – Good talk on people’s misconceptions and learned ignorance.

His talk reminded me of a Mark Twain quote, “The problem is not what you don’t know; it’s what you think you know that just isn’t so.”

Per Jonathan Drori’s talk, “We look for evidence that reinforced our models”  …. and others help as well.

This concept relates to cultural norms and moral thinking.  Many times people will act in a manor against what they should know is right (in a harmful or unfair manor to themselves or loved ones – unethically), simply because their culture instructed them to (powerful memes that have authority over them).  Examples: Female gentile mutilation in Africa, Oppression of women (many places but the Middle East is a good example), Oppression of homosexual people (many places but much of the US with the denial of married rights), the list is long.

He notes we should “Get people to articulate their models.”

This is key.  The key to understanding ethics is to be able to articulate your ethical perspective.  Being effective with ethics requires you to be able to defend your ethical position in a manor that it can appeal to anyone, in any culture, at any time.  If you can succeed with that, your ethical understanding is guaranteed to be correct.

Outside of being very interesting, Alice Dreger’s talk made me think of two things: (1) I found it interesting to peek into the mind of someone who sees the world through an anatomical lens.  While I found it a bit difficult to make every connection she made, the depth which she understood the nuances of anatomical differences, something we all assume is about as binary a condition as possible, lead her to make some very interesting connections.  She connects human anatomy with the structure of the US government, an unique connection to be sure but one that is seamless through her eyes and taking that journey enhanced my view of the world a bit.

(2) It appears her deep understand lead to some deep introspection on labels and categories, which she first had to tear down, and them build back up, modifying the structure to account for her new understanding.  A paradigm shift requires acknowledgement that you have things wrong, or a bit off at least, and that there is a better way / a deeper understanding to be had if you take a different view.

The institutions/ideas we build up over time are valuable but they need some major re-work from time to time.  It is important to give our institutions/ideas an overhaul every now and again.  Our sacred institutions should not be so sacred as to be immune from questioning?  If we don’t like the answers, its time for reform.  If you keep up with the repair work, a building, vehicle, institution/set of ideas can be well maintained indefinitely.  If it sits unmoved in time however, it will surely rot.

Getting back to the binary concepts we like to hold (mainly out of laziness… to make things easier)…  If you take a rationalist view of ethics, i.e. things in this world are either “A” or “not A”… a necessary condition for a mathematical proof, then you will want to see things in black and white.  The assumption is that in war there is only kill or be killed (forgetting aggression and submission which happens in the animal world and in ours all the time… even on the battle field in war; see “On Killing” by Dave Grossman for more on these interesting distinctions and assumptions).  We are sure that people are only male or female (except for all those other possibilities… see Alice Dreger’s talk).

If you try (or want/desire) to see the world in black and white, than that can become your model/reality.  You can take the dark gray and make it black; the light grey becomes white.  Unfortunately, your model will not reflect the world accurately, and your rounding errors can be large; such is the problem with all Fundamentalist.  Ethics is not black and white, it exists in reality, and reality comes in many shade of gray.

Understanding ethics allows you to understand the world around you better.

Simon Sinek talks about the “Golden Circle” – Why, How, What.

Why are your views on ethics right?  How do you know you are right?  What knowledge can you bring to bare to support your decision/ethical stance?

While the Wright brothers are hard to draw an ethical parallel on directly, Martin Luther King clearly understood core ethical principles well.  Steve Jobs clearly understands business ethics well.  Understanding business ethics requires you ask a few basic questions:

1) Is this good for the customer (Does the product or service produce/add value for the customer?)

2) Is this good for the company (Can we profit?  Is this good for our reputation?  Is it good for our stakeholders?)

3) Is this ethical (Does it add “goodness” or at least create less harm than the alternative?  Would I like this (product or service) for myself or loved ones? – a question regarding fairness)

Brene Brown studies human connection — our ability to empathize, belong, love, and understand humanity.  She keenly notes (without using this terminology) that emotional intelligence is key to being happy and understanding our humanity.

She was invited to TED as part of a series of talks on “Expanding Perception”.

Some notes from her speech…

Competing views – Old science view: “If you cannot measure it, it does not exist.”  Social work, “Lean into the discomfort of the work.”

“Connection gives purpose and meaning to our lives… it’s why we are here.”

“Shame: The fear of disconnection”

“Worthiness: A strong sense of love and belonging”

Courage – to be imperfect

Compassion – to be kind to themselves & others

Connection – as the result of authenticity

(+) embrace vulnerability

“When we feel vulnerable, we make everything that is uncertain, certain.”

“Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery, to certainty.  I’m right.  You’re wrong. Shut-up.”

“The more afraid we are, the more uncertain we are, the more afraid we are.”  – a parallel to F.D.R.: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”

“This is what politics looks like today, there’s no discourse anymore, there’s no conversation; there’s just blame… Blame: a way to discharge pain and discomfort

When vulnerable “We perfect”  Instead of perfecting your kids Brene recommends  acknowledging they are imperfect but treating them in a manor that demonstrates that they are worthy of love and belonging.

“We pretend” that what we do doesn’t have an effect on people.

Brene Brown does a good job of de-coding some very important elusive obvious attributes of those who feel worthy; and those that do not.

She notes compassion to yourself as being essential and keenly notes, that you must have compassion for yourself to treat others compassionately.  This makes perfect sense, and this is why introspection works; and sometimes does not.  Someone who is self loathing, masochistic, depressed, psychopathic, etc, may not derive the same answers via introspection as a “normal” person.  In others words, your emotional intelligence and/or mental state can be a determining factor in the quality of your ethical understanding.

The fact that there are variations in peoples’ abilities to understand ethical conditions or the nuances of ethics makes sense when you understand where this understanding comes from.  These variances do not negate the fact that Ethics is knowable.  Peoples understanding of Physics varies but that does not negate the laws of Physics.

Could it be that those who find great appeal in Moral certainty due so out of a feeling of vulnerability?  I think Brene Brown’s research, some ethical understanding, and simple connections makes that question rhetorical.

So embrace the vulnerability of this world, take the red pill, and open your eyes to the wonder and complexity of the human condition.

Sam Harris – Ethics is scientifically verifiable.  I agree with pretty much everything Sam Harris says in this video, with the exception that I believe he equates morality with ethics, which is fine given the current normative use of the word.  I of course make a distinction between the two but so long as you understand the context of how a word is used, the semantics is less important.  The usage of a word is more important than the term; that is why it is important to define the way which we use certain amorphic words.


Michael Shermer:  The Patterns behind self-Deception

Michael Shermer makes an elusive obvious assertion that is somewhat counter-inuitive, “Belief is easy, skepticism is hard”.  Humans are prewired to favor false-positive ideas about the world.  He uses the example of assuming the rustle in the leaves is a predator.  If you fail safe, you may waste your time and energy pursuing a false reality but if you have the time and energy then what’s the harm?  If you dismiss the patterns, then you could end up lunch.  This logic makes sense from an evolutionary stand point but the same logic can lead to great harm in modern societies.

There is a yin & yang quality that is required for a balanced approach to life and social order.  If “belief via unvalidated reasons” is our default position then it is culturally the conservative approach.  Skepticism should be the scientist’s and the philosopher’s default position.  Some people are born with scientific and philosophical minds, they are innately inquisitive and suspect of authority.  That said, most people have to try to be skeptical.  Most people find its easier to believe then to be curious about the world around them.

Culture is flexible.  The moral climate is determined by those that shape it in their time.  The default position in any society is “center-right” – Conservative-moderate.  Progress is forged by progressives, those with liberated minds who debunk unvalidated believes and help to push society in a positive, forward direction.  To the extent that progressive thoughts are rooted in validated beliefs (i.e. scientific fact) or at the very least, displace bad memes with better memes, then they can help move things in a positive direction.

Working towards an Etho-liberal mindset is likely our best path to moving forward in a positive direction.  Rooting our thinking in Ethics, and liberating our minds enough to question our unvalidated beliefs, will allow us to keep cultural traditions that make sense and shed those that are holding us back.  Etho-liberal thinking can be applied to education, politics, economics, and possibly religion or at least aspects of religion.


Frans de Waal:  Moral behavior in Animals

Great TEDtalk on moral behavior in animals.  Frans de Waal provides a very good, convincing, and entertaining presentation of core ethical principles demonstrated by animals in nature.  The distinction between Emotional Channel – mimicry, synchronization, etc., and Cognitive Channel – taking another’s perspective is a good distinction that helps provide layers of ethical understanding.




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