Our Brain Reward System

Our brains are working against our ability to make and carry out good choices.

It turns out that when people in a restaurant are offered a choice of salad or fries, merely considering salad as an option causes our brains to release the reward chemicals and sensations as it would if we actually selected the salad.

So, considering a good choice acts as permission to make the bad choice.

We don’t seem to consider that we may later regret that bad choice, because we tend to prefer to avoid or delay harm or bad consequences, even when we bring them on ourselves. There’s a little bit of Scarlett O’Hara in all of us.

This made me realize why so many high-profile people are so righteous – arguing for restricting gay rights and condemning gay sex as immoral is basically giving yourself permission to head to the nearest cruising zone to get yourself some.

I don’t think it’s a “do as I pray, but not as I do” situation or even arrogant risk taking anymore.

People really are not good or bad, but a neutral balancing act between the two things – I have done a good thing (condemn gays) so now I can or must do a bad thing (gay sex) in order for good and bad to be in balance.

Which really puts a new perspective on all those arguments in Dungeons and Dragons game about what actions are within any given character’s alignment. We all tend towards neutral by doing both good and bad actions and choices to create a net zero balance.

Aside: for the non-geeks – Character alignment is a character’s worldview of lawfulness (lawful, neutral, chaotic) and fairness (good, neutral, chaotic). A character can be any combination of one from the law column and one from the fair column.

Here’s an alignment quiz you can take.

I’m Lawful Neutral.

The only way to move away from these sorts of choices would be to consider future consequences instead of instant gratification.

Although in the extreme cases of dramatic differences between a person’s public morality and private activities, is probably more in need of serious therapy for the high level of self loathing the person is compensating for. Given how completely normal racism used to be (just watch any 1940’s cartoons), it’s really a matter of time before anti-gay public statements stop driving public policy.

So if you are trying to improve your health, it’s not enough to consider salad and order fries – order the salad and get the reward of considering a good choice and carrying out that good choice into future benefit. Remembering that fries may be the better option if the “salad” is soaked with fatty dressing, cheese and lunch-meats. That’s not really a salad, that’s a submarine sandwich minus the bun.

If you really don’t want to have gay sex, then stop talking against it so much in public. If you slip up and have gay sex, then instead of talking, lobbying, drafting legislation and voting for it (or the politician), make a donation to a charity instead – Doctors without Borders is about as good as it gets.

At least that way, when you get caught – and you will be – in the gay bar or outed by your lover – there’s not really a scandal because you’ve not had a public record on the matter.

Better yet, stop thinking about sex – any sex as a bad thing – sex is a good thing, it’s good for stress release, creates intimacy, feels good and is a great cardio workout. So, if you shift your framework just a bit, the sex (gay or not)  can be the neutralizing act in and of itself – the perceived immorality is balanced by the health benefits.

where do morals come from?

When debating with believers, the conversation inevitably comes around to morals. What’s moral? What authority do morals stem from?

That believers assign the authority to an external source, to me says that they do not know moral all on their own. They wouldn’t recognize a moral act from an  immoral one without their dandy list of rules – rules which largely do not deal with morals, but with worship and punishment of people who don’t follow those rules. And this punishment is pretty immoral.

So, where do morals come from?

They come from us, they evolved with us and as we embraced the morals, those were the people who thrived enough to breed. So, they were culturally taught and genetically reinforced.

The longer version:  humans are social animals and to live together, certain conventions of refraining from harming each other makes living in groups possible and refraining from incestuous behavior means the offspring are healthy.

We are happier belonging to groups and we increase survivability – it also allows us to specialize in labour and become more productive and allow for leisure time.

Harm covers a wide spectrum of behavior and decisions; in early days, being harmful meant you were expelled from the group and likely die without producing offspring.

The people who were willing to get along, lived to breed and passed this amiability down through the generations and these socially reinforced behaviours form the basis of our moral code.

Which is also why people from different cultures thought out history and today  have widely varying moral codes.

But convention isn’t a solo act – the disgust response plays a huge part in determining an individual’s morals – and this is also culturally – not exactly dependent, but culturally informed.

It’s repulsive to me to think of an 8 year old girl married to a 40+ year old man, but that’s a typical day in some countries. Theocratic countries……

We have an instinctive aversion to incest because that doesn’t produce healthy offspring – seeing couples of widely varying ages touches on this, but also, older people becoming parents – even with a young spouse – increases the chance of non-viable or non-healthy offspring.

Of course we’re not all instinct, because there’s a growing number of people who chose not to have children – that 6 billion plus people are enough in the world.

Other people think this is terrible and I suspect that much of that disgust is racist based.  Because the public and vocal proponent of not having children tend to be white couples and it’s religious white people who most object. So, I can only suspect that it’s concerns about white population numbers, not population numbers that’s behind this anxiety.

This is a stupid anxiety, since we are all humans, there are no subspecies. And, there’s less than 1% genetic difference between any two people randomly selected from any where on the globe. Yup, all the apparent physical difference really is cosmetic and skin deep.

People have other variations that allow them to have a diversity of moral views within the same culture as other people – and these are often religion influenced, as well as the tendency to be fundamentalist or moderate or open minded (which includes non-religious frameworks, like vegetarian, environmental, etc).

Problems and conflicts arise when one group thinks that their idea of morality is “normal” and should apply to everyone else.

These folks tend to want their morals to apply more to everyone else – sort of, do as I pray and not as I do.

There are no such thing as universal morals any more than there are universal rights. If there were, we wouldn’t be able to articulate them they’d be that ingrained and the same everywhere and throughout time.

And the idea of absolute morals, well, not all rules work with all situations.

Sometimes, you have to lie to spare someone’s feelings.

One thing that I noticed waaaaaaaaay back in college in the morals and ethics class that we looked at various schools of thought about morality, is that none of them, not one, factored in motivation.

They focused on outcome, impact on others, following a set of rules that didn’t allow for rule conflict.

What if stealing food saved a life? Still immoral?

If I saw a person drowning, and I jumped in to save them- moral thing, right? Probably. Especially if I didn’t know how to swim, I do, but that makes it kinda more heroic, eh?

What if that person celebrated surviving the event by harming or killing someone else? Even accidentally, say drunk driving home from a bar. Now, because I saved the first person, another person – or more  – died. Less moral now?

What I recognized the drowning person and knew they were rich? So I saved them to get a reward…. not as moral anymore…..

One action, many interpretations.

What if I let them drown because I was afraid or couldn’t swim? Immoral?

What if by letting them drown, all the future harm that they would have caused was prevented? not okay? what if they had a long violent criminal record that I had no way to know about?

Morals, make the best choice you can with the information you have available.

Think and Care.

Best foundation for any moral code.