Morality: A Journey from the First-Person-Singular to First-Person Plural

Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self is currently scrambling my brain, quite literally. It’s a tour through Metzinger’s – an analytical philosopher & neuroscience junkie – quest to understand the ‘self’, how our brain constructs it, and how our lives & ethics are shaped by the conception of self we espouse.

There’ll be a number of posts to come referencing this book. For now, turning an eye towards morality, Metzinger writes:

What kind of self-model do you need in order to become…a moral agent? The answer could have to do with the progression from a mental representation of the first-person-singular perspective to that of the first-person plural…In this way, the evolution of morals may have had a lot to do with an organism’s ability to distance itself mentally from a representation of its individual interests and consciously and explicitly to represent principles of group selection, even if this involved self-damaging behavior…”

The model put forth questions the difference between the operating pronoun in our notions, or models, of ‘self’. Do we reflexively think in terms of “I”, or “we”? What are the consequences of each scenario? We often accept the “I” perspective in matters that are wholly personal, but when our actions implicate others, we laud those who operate from the default “we” perspective. Thus a president who acts in her own best interest, at the expense of others, is frowned upon. While someone who acts in their own best interest within the privacy of their own home receives no such judgment.

This is sensible, but it begs the question, how fluid can our transitions be between self-models? Can we rely on humans to navigate and utilize the “I” and “we” models in their proper situations? History seems to suggest otherwise.

Zooming out, in the vital contemplations for a source of morality that transcends relativism, largely the domain of spiritual traditions and philosophy, Metzinger offers the idea that by altering, or progressing, our baseline models of ‘self’ from the first-person-singular to the first-person plural, from the “I” to the “we”, progress can be made. And moral progress is a tricky thing to come by.

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