Appendix D

The Human Brain, Volition, Feelings and Ethics


How does the brain make us want what we want, how does it create emotions and feelings, and how can the brain develop ethical thinking and behavior

Walter Aeschbach, MD, Heinz Aeschbach, MD revised 10, 2012, edited 12, 2013, 10/2017

Basic Functions of Neurons; Internal Representations; Memory
Understanding Behaviors and Volition (Approach by Ethologists)
Brain Research Related to Volition (LeDoux, Damasio)
Cultures Morality and Differentiation of Self
Natural Ethics as a Science
Teaching Ethics


Scientists are still trying to find answers to the question how to explain consciousness. The question of how and whether consciousness can be explained and understood based on scientific research of the brain is still unclear. And it is also unclear if and how conscious experiences determine or influence what the brain does. The researcher Joseph LeDoux wrote in his book “The Synaptic Self” that a few months after starting that book he attended a conference on the relation between the brain and the soul with the topic “Neuroscience and Divine Action” which was sponsored by the Vatican. The theologians who organized the meeting attempted to determine how it is possible for God to influence people’s lives without violating the laws of physics. It is no surprise that this question could not be answered. However, the question what consciousness, from a scientific perspective, is, and how it influences our thinking and behaviors is similarly elusive.
On the other hand, the issue of emotions and volition and how they lead to behaviors is at least in part understood, and this understanding is of importance in efforts towards more ethical behavior and improved quality of life.
We have an instinctual system that has developed to improve the chance of each species to survive and to thrive, or, to promote the survival and spreading of genes. In this process suffering as an experience of sentient beings is irrelevant. When talking of instincts in humans, people generally prefer the term emotional system but emotions and instincts are basically the same.
The instinctual system of present humans has developed over millions of years when most ancestors of present humans were wandering around in small groups, spending much of their time looking for food and avoiding dangerous animals. The emotional system has not developed to resolve problems of large anonymous societies.
With increased population density the issue of us versus them thinking has become extremely important. Humans often act without sympathy or empathy towards others that are not part of the group that individuals perceive themselves to be part of.
Most of what has been discussed and written with regard to ethics reflects cultural values, demands and prohibitions, or it is based on philosophical concepts like justice and freedom, or on religious scriptures, rather than directly addressing suffering and other experiences of humans and higher animals. Codes of ethics of professional groups reflect cultural values and address issues of misconduct by professionals. In the US culture there is a great emphasis on freedom to do what one wants to do as long as no laws are violated, but many activities that are legal are unethical. Understanding volition from the perspective of activities of the brain shows that freedom is an illusion, at least in the sense of free will.
People are mostly guided directly or indirectly by their emotional system and their cultures and institutions, rather than pursuing ethical goals and improved quality of life. No culture has implemented truly ethical morality and cultures have tolerated and created horrendous cruelties while impeding efforts towards a good quality of life.
As we make efforts to understand human volition and behaviors including our own, ethical considerations are of greatest importance. In fact all the tremendous progress in science and technology in the last decades have brought limited benefits in reducing human suffering worldwide, and this progress may cause catastrophes in the coming decades. It is by no means certain that humans are not destroying themselves within the next decades. Studying and implementing ethics on a worldwide scale should be understood as the most urgent tasks of the present time.

Basic Functions of Neurons; Internal Representations; Memory

When learning about findings from brain research in an effort to better understand how our mind (brain) works we need to accept that many generally accepted beliefs about mental functioning are erroneous.

The brain consists of approximately 100 billion (1011) neurons and a much larger number of synaptic connections. Neurons consist of a cell body, dendrites that branch in many endings to receive incoming stimuli from many other neurons and an axon that may divide and send stimuli to one or more neurons. Neurons communicate with each other at places of contact (synapses) and they have receptors that may also respond to substances in the fluid between nerve cells. Neurons form circuits and accumulations of similar neurons that appear to work together are called nuclei.
Nuclei have many connections and communicate back and forth with multiple other nuclei. Some communicate with various parts of the body.
There are neurons that transfer stimuli from one nucleus to another (mostly using glutamate as the neurotransmitter molecules in the synaptic connections), and there are many interneurons with the function of modulating the transmission of impulses within specific neuronal circuits; they may inhibit or strengthen transmissions and readiness of neurons to fire an impulse. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that inhibits many impulse transmissions including circuits related to anxiety. Other interneurons use neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine. In addition, there are many modulators (various peptides, hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine) in the fluid between the neurons. These may attach to specific receptors and inhibit, block or excite specific neurons in specific nuclei, e.g. certain substances inhibit the response to food when the stomach is full or digestion is disturbed; specific hormones may strengthen the response to certain stimuli that babies emit, others strengthen or weaken responses to sexual stimuli.

Many neurons are connected in genetically determined arrangements. However, many synaptic connections change over time as a result of activity or inactivity. In early childhood development many synaptic connections are ‘pruned’ (lost) because they are not used for some time. New synaptic connections are created during most activities of the brain.
In many nuclei neurons are arranged in layers with one layer forming a grid of cells that are capable of arranging information in images or maps comparable to grids of dots in a computer monitor that displays constantly changing images.
There are many nuclei with neurons that are genetically programmed to fire specific patterns of impulses to specific muscles causing specific movements. There are also circuits of neurons that send impulses to the vegetative nervous system to regulate functions of inner organs and endocrine activities. Most of these circuits are inhibited most of the time.
The brain receives input from sensory organs, particularly the eyes, ears, nose, taste buds, and the sensory organs in the skin, muscles and joints. All this information is mapped and processed and a small part of it reaches conscious awareness, e. g. as visual images, sounds, or verbal communication. The brain also receives much information from internal organs such as the heart, stomach, intestines, and blood vessels, and measurements such as blood sugar level and temperature. This information is analyzed and responded to in a constant interchange; the body’s internal organs transfer messages and receive impulses from nuclei of the brain stem and higher centers of the brain. This interchange maintains stability (homeostasis) and keeps the organism functioning optimally. Mapping of visual, auditory, and somatic information already occurs in the midbrain, in the superior colliculi, and the superior colliculi also guide movements e.g. when a lizard catches a fly with its tongue. (However, humans do not perceive or know that the midbrain processes visual stimuli and may direct movements.) Further processing of information with more complex responses occurs in the thalamus, hypothalamus and neocortex.

The brain develops internal maps of the environment. The memory system of the hippocampus may have originally held mostly maps of the environment with memories of information such as location of food or predators and routes of escape to hiding places (the hippocampus is part of limbic system located at the base of the forebrain). Centers with such mapping are interconnected with centers that direct movements so that, for instance, an animal can quickly run to safety, grab food or avoid walking into an obstacle.
The human brain also develops internal images or representations of objects, other persons and animals and of oneself. In our thinking the representation of oneself in the mind is the “self”. It consists of an awareness of oneself as a body with the skin separating “self” from the environment; “oneself” represents the subject of experiences and actions, and includes knowledge, skills, and memories. A biographic self includes understanding oneself in the context of past experiences, wants and behaviors and social connectedness. A highly differentiated self develops when a person observes and thinks about the experiences, wants, and actions of oneself and of others, particularly in social interactions. In this process a differentiated self develops beliefs and values that can gain emotional strength and help prevent automatic emotional responses.
The brain also develops maps of social systems such as mother-child and nuclear family relationship systems and of clans or groups. The hormones oxytocin and also vasopressin appear to facilitate the creation of internal representations of stable, close relationships in humans and other mammals.

Recording and remembering information

It is a quality of nerve cells of all animals with nervous systems that when two connected neurons fire together they strengthen and form new synaptic connections which then facilitate a repetition of the same sequence of impulses (“what fires together wires together”). This activity is called long-term potentiation. It is believed that this quality of neurons is the neuronal basis of all learning processes and of all memories.

Brain functions according to the MacLean’s “triune brain” model:
– The reptilian complex, also known as the R-complex or “reptilian brain” which has been called the R-complex creates basic mapping of internal processes and responds to them to maintain basic life functions, and it develops simple mapping of external perceptions including some mapping of its environment; it responds to stimuli with mostly simple reflex-like instinctual responses.

– The limbic system (a term that refers to functions of the brain that are characteristic of mammals that probably developed in early mammalian development) have added much more complex emotional responses and feeling states; in addition, the mammalian brain developed play behaviors to practice and modify instinctual behaviors, practice cognitive skills, and, as Jaak Panksepp described, somatosensory information processing within the midbrain, thalamus, and cortex. (The brain of birds have developed independently structures leading to some remarkably similarities to mammals with apparent strong emotional bonds and affectionate and caring behaviors between parents and offspring and between “spouses”.)

– The right and left hemispheres of the neocortex have developed extraordinarily complex mapping and processing of information including an ability of complex thinking, that is, creating intricate internal representations, changing them, kind of playing with them, creating novel images and ideas to work with, etc. It has been described that the right hemisphere specialized more in multidimensional representations with more attributes, systems interactions, and connections with feelings, and the left hemisphere in the development of language and analytic, linear cause and effect thinking. Newer research found that this different specialization is more pronounced in males and in females, the two hemispheres have more connections and appear less specialized in their functions (for instance language functions are distributed in both hemispheres).


Brain research of recent decades has given considerable information about screening of stimuli, emotional responses, reward systems, and addictive tendencies in volition. Observations by ethologists have greatly contributed to understanding instincts, i. e., emotional systems. Bowen and others have described emotional reactivity in families and social systems and the significance of differentiation of self.

Understanding Behaviors and Volition (Approach by Ethologists)


Ethologists, most notably Konrad Lorenz and Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, have based their understanding of behaviors of animals, including humans, on extensive careful observation of natural behaviors. Ethologists noted that animal behaviors are not based on serial reflexes and copying of behaviors of other individuals, as previously thought, but animals (including humans) develop
– Many preprogrammed behavior patterns (complex instincts); example: blind born child smiling. In the question of nature versus nurture (or culture), it became obvious that much is inherent, maybe exaggerated or modified by cultures, but not a result of culture. Example: Many behaviors were observed in modern and indigenous people that are clearly based on instincts, and such behaviors usually resemble animal behaviors, e.g. social interactions of apes, kindergarteners and politicians have much in common. Examples of sex-specific childhood behaviors: Genetically female embryos with a genetic abnormality or possibly through hormonal influence during a critical time of brain development in which the embryonic brain is ‘masculinized’ but the genitals stay female may look like girls but behave essentially like boys; during puberty, their clitoris grows to appear like a penis and they behave sexually and may change in appearance to look like men. If a woman experiences much stress in the third month of pregnancy, a male embryo’s brain may not be normally ‘masculinized’ and the boy will likely have more female behaviors and preferences. (Female brains have more connections between right and left hemispheres; if addressing conflicts, the female brain usually includes centers dealing with social instincts, while males tend to resolve issues in abstract notions; female problem solving tends to be more pragmatic.)
– Higher instincts are perceived as feelings with urge for physical expression; expressing (fulfilling) an instinct feels good.
– It appears that the brain builds pressure towards acting on instinct. A key stimulus in the environment leads to the instinct’s expression. The more pressure, the less specific a stimulus starts the behavior. After expression, the instinct seems weak until pressure is built up again. In reality, there is always readiness for instinct expression but higher centers inhibit expression (and apparently also awareness of the instinct); when an instinct is not expressed for some time, the inhibition gradually weakens or it is weakened by a key stimulus increasing the probability of activation of the instinct. Not expressing an instinct for prolonged period of time generally weakens the instinct, frequent expression strengthens the instinct.
– When there is no obvious key stimulus, animals may show appetence behavior, appearing bored, walking around seemingly without any purpose, essentially seeking any or specific stimuli.
– In evolution, instincts change along with anatomical changes and changes in the environment. Anatomical changes of humming birds developed in tandem with changes in the flowers they pollinate when drinking their nectar. Anatomical changes in males develop along with changes in preferences in females (long tail feathers, horns, manes, etc.).
– Instincts often develop “out of each other” or they “borrow from each other”, e.g. aggression in hunting, defending territory, establishing rank order; feeding baby animal, feeding older child to maintain bond, or feeding and nurturing a mate like an infant; showing strength in rank order competition and in impressing females; male aggression towards a male rival in lizards of circling around the opponent and then getting on top and then biting at the neck, and repeating essentially the same ritual with a female in preparation for mating (circling around, getting on top but then biting the neck very mildly, a behavior which apparently has persisted to humans).
– Instincts (emotions) often compete and the mind seeks the “instinctively” best solution. Konrad Lorenz described a “parliament” of instincts, and he described “tool instincts”, e.g. aggression, serving instincts related to territory and rank order.
– In primitive animals, instincts follow orderly sequences, expression of one instinctive movement is the key stimulus to the next, e. g. primitive hunters do not eat a dead animal that they did not hunt. In higher animals, individuals can enjoy fragments of an instinctual progression out of context, mix and blend instinctive behaviors, etc. Such instinct fulfillment is the basis for animal training and for psychological addictions (e. g. food eaten when bored, enjoyment of loveless sex with prostitutes with impression that regular sex is ‘a necessity’).
– What is associated with key stimuli and instinct expression becomes part of the individual animal’s personal adjustment to the world.
– Bonding with individuals as their ‘mother’ or ‘pack leader’ normally occurs as part of a specific developmental stage. Later bonding with mates and other animals is more complex and often involves hormones and physiological stimuli, e.g. shape of head.
– During time of appetence, people often think, remembering and anticipating instinct fulfillment. They are usually unaware of what motivates them in indirect ways, e. g. a person may develop positive feelings about somebody who may advance his career and negative feelings about a person with whom he competes.

Some findings of ethological research

Ethologists observed that animals have a large repertoire of behaviors that are genetically preprogrammed. Many behaviors are similar in many different species and variations of specific behaviors are characteristic for a species, similarly as specific variations in the shape of bones are characteristic for specific species. Almost all inborn behavior patterns are almost continuously suppressed and are only expressed when there is internal readiness and a specific stimulus overcomes the inhibition. Social animals including humans emit stimuli that decrease inhibition of specific instincts in other animals, e.g. certain smells, sounds, or specific shapes of body parts. Examples are the characteristic shape of a baby’s head functioning as stimulus that elicits instincts related to caregiving in adults, particularly in the mother of the baby. Similarly facial expressions and other body language elicit responses with or without the awareness of the individual emitting the stimuli. Appearances of many parts of the body of healthy young women function as stimuli for men causing a readiness for an instinctual response. They may lead to a sequence of instinctual interactions such as a girl making brief eye contact with a smile and then looking away or down, often covering her mouth to hide a smile, the male responding with a smile and the two then parting only to seek each other later again. Each step is characterized by changes in facial expression, other body language and physiological changes that are experienced as feeling states. In the parent-child and female-male interactions, each behavior is a response to a stimulus and is a stimulus for a further response. The initial contact of a girl with a boy is very similar to the response of small children to strangers, characterized by expressing ambivalence due to stimuli that have positive and negative emotional value. Some signals trigger a response of approach, eye contact, smiling, and later touching and at the same time other stimuli elicit a response of avoidance and fear. Eibl-Eibesfeldt documented such inherited behavior patterns in indigenous populations of several continents. In some birds the contradictory stimuli are dramatically displayed by a dark color on the forehead of the male that signals danger while other signals have positive emotional value leading to a strange behavior of the female and male approaching each other with the head turned to the side to reduce or avoid the aversive response to the dark area on the male’s forehead. The conflict of shyness and sociable nature of children as well as adults is an expression of the contradictory positive and negative signals that animals, including humans, emit and respond to. Observing other social interactions in groups of mammals, we can analyze the behaviors as responses to signals or stimuli that animals emit, influenced by internal factors such as hormones. Minimal changes in muscle tone affecting body language, gaze, or facial expression are at the same time responses to stimuli and stimuli to other individuals. They may signal cooperation, competition, social rank, or they may lead to physical fights which generally consist mostly of genetically preprogrammed movements and typically avoid lethal injuries. Behaviors related to food seeking and eating are also sequences of instinctive behaviors. There are also emotional responses of slowing down to rest. Another response is slowing down creating a sad mood. The state of depressed mood in response to a loss or decrease in social rank may be a natural way of withdrawing in order to rearrange internal representations of one’s social mapping.
The internal environment in the brain increases or decreases responsiveness to stimuli and inhibits or excites circuits of instinctual behaviors. When the stomach is empty and there are certain imbalances in the chemical milieu of blood, certain peptides function as modifiers to increase responsiveness to stimuli that are related to food. Imagined food then may guide an animal to a source of food. Male sexual responsiveness may be enhanced by aggressive instincts but is suppressed by a fear response, while female sexuality is suppressed by aggressive emotions but may be enhanced by fear. Certain hormones increase the responsiveness to stimuli related to pairing and sex; particularly oxytocin (mainly in females) and mainly vasopressin in males strongly increase responsiveness to stimuli corresponding to bonding and care giving. These hormones, along with other factors, may facilitate creating internal representations of the self as part of a family.
Instinctual behaviors are preprogrammed movements but they are often changed by orientation movements e.g. when an animal hunts and catches pray.
Instinctual behaviors are also modified through play behaviors and other learning, adapting instincts to a specific physical and cultural environment. When practiced, learned behaviors are reinforced and become stronger.

Appetence, instincts, emotions, background feelings and feelings

Instincts can be defined as genetically preprogrammed behaviors that are (with few exceptions) almost always inhibited. Expressions of instincts are activated when inhibition is decreased by modulators and a more or less specific stimulus further decreases the inhibition. In a broad sense, emotions are defined as any behaviors that are genetically determined responses to more or less specific stimuli, regardless of the presence or absence of any subjective experience. Emotions are basically instincts.
The response to danger such as a large object threatening to crush an animal or a person or an animal threatening another animal is essentially the same in all animals that can move; roaches behave about the same as humans under such circumstances. Also the avoidance of adverse environments such as toxic chemicals or hot or too cold temperatures is very similar across most species, even in one cell organisms.
When referring to humans and higher animals, the term emotion (sometimes called “emotion proper”) generally refers to an emotional or instinctive response to a stimulus that is associated with a characteristic emotional feeling state. We often think only of the emotional feeling state without being aware that this feeling state is an epiphenomenon of a response to a stimulus. Higher instincts are perceived as feelings with an urge to expression; when following the instinct, we usually believe to be acting freely.
Appetence behaviors: Ethologists have observed what is called a state of appetence or appetence behavior, a behavior of moving around, seemingly looking for something. It may be associated with a feeling of being free to move around and doing what one wants to do. Appetence may also lead to restlessness. The animal or human appears to look for a stimulus that elicits an instinctual behavior sometimes without knowing it. Letting the mind “wander” through memories and thinking of different things seemingly at random may be a form of appetence behavior. Imagined stimuli may trigger a response.
Appetence behavior may be caused by some internal imbalance that is perceived as a background feeling such as a vague sense of hunger or thirst; appetence behavior may also be a consequence of increased levels of sex hormones. Modulators then disinhibit centers in the brain that initiate exploratory and novelty seeking behaviors while increasing the responsiveness to certain stimuli, such as water, food, or potential sexual partners. With experience an animal or human will probably know what instinctual center is causing the appetence and an imagined stimulus may be pursued. An instinct is then perceived as a feeling with an urge to physical expression. Pursuing the instinct usually feels spontaneous or like a free choice.
Modulation of the intensity of instinct inhibition may develop internal rhythms, and/or the instinct is temporarily more powerfully inhibited after it has been fulfilled.
Primitive instincts related to life preservation, particularly breathing, are functioning as required for continued living. Responses to major dangers such as the noise of a heavy object coming towards an animal or person are hardly ever suppressed and function even during sleep.
The brain stem contains important nuclei that map and respond to important life functions including wakefulness, heartbeat, breathing, maintenance of blood pressure, maintenance of the optimal body temperature, and all the essential balances that are necessary to maintain life. It is believed that the mapping in this part of the brain creates basic background feeling states such as contentment or a sense of discomfort which may become more specific e.g. as thirst. It also causes emotional responses related to basic social functions such as dominance, territoriality, grooming or preening, mating, also hoarding. Basic emotional response and possibly feelings of love, hate and rage may be already in this part of the brain even though the experience of the emotional feelings probably requires more detailed mapping in higher centers such as the insular cortex.
Conscious experiences of feeling states cannot directly influence behaviors. They are important in the development of a differentiated self when a person thinks about experiences in developing personal values.


Ethologists observed that during specific periods in the development of animals or under specific circumstances the brain of an animal responds to specific stimuli in a way that influences emotional responsiveness and behaviors for a long time, often for life. For example certain birds are imprinted to recognize, shortly after hatching, the first large being as leader and protector. Comparable imprinting occurs in many mammals including dogs. Later imprinting determines the species the animal will seek to mate with when mature. Konrad Lorenz raised a jackdaw to adulthood; the bird first bonded with him as his mother and later courted Lorenz’s teenage daughter.
Humans have specific sensitive time period, e.g. when they readily learn (or invent) words and a basic grammar, when they learn to form powerful bonds with a few family members, etc. While bonds are not exclusive, children are severely harmed if bonds are repeatedly disrupted, as often happens when Child Protective Services moves children to a shelter, then a sequence of foster homes. By the time of adoption, a new bond is at best very tenuous.
Imprinting-like phenomena occur in the mother to child and spouse to spouse bonding. Oxytocin, released in large quantities while giving birth and to a lesser degree with intercourse, breast stimulation, eye contact and tactile contacts, appears to be a major factor in this bonding. There are significant similarities in the bonding of mates and mothers/parental figures bonding to children. Bonding in certain animals has much in common with bonding processes in humans.
Imprinting in mother-offspring bonding and when falling in love may be largely the result of hormones, particularly oxytocin and in males mostly vasopressin. Imprinting can be understood as the result of constellations of modulators (hormones, neurotransmitters, peptides) in certain areas of the brain that strengthen the response to certain specific stimuli and form patterns of social interactions for a long time or for life. These processes may be largely outside conscious awareness. In this way monogamous birds recognize and respond to the vocalizations of their mate even when they fly in a group with lots of vocalizations by other birds and, if they are accidentally separated for years, they go back together immediately if they find each other. Social imprinting in mammals and birds appears to cause changes in maps of social systems.
Imprinting with negative effects has been observed in children that grow up together and later in life are not able to respond to erotic signals among each other (natural basis of incest taboo) even if they are not related, as when growing up communally in a Kibbutzim. On the other hand, siblings (and fathers towards daughters) are able to respond to each other erotically if they lived apart during developmentally critical periods and may not know that they are close relatives.

Play behavior, learning

In reptiles most triggering stimuli and responses to such stimuli are fairly simple; specific stimuli generally disinhibit a specific center that sends a specific sequence of stimuli through nerve fibers to muscles causing a specific movement. However, nuclei that direct movements are connected with centers that map the environment and the two centers coordinate movements, e.g. when catching pray or running to a safe place.
Similarly, very young mammals including human babies generally respond to specific stimuli with simple preprogrammed movements that are initiated by disinhibition of certain nuclei in the brain stem. (In humans and other mammals many such simple movements appear clumsy and cute, and they function as signals or stimuli that trigger in adults, particularly mothers, responses of care giving and affectionate behaviors.) With the evolution and growth of the brain, particularly the neocortex, analysis of incoming stimuli and control of movements have become much more complex. Newer parts of the brain communicate with older ones in the thalamus, hypothalamus and in the brain stem. Relatively simple processing of stimuli and relatively simple responses become much more complex. Movements are modified and practiced in play behavior. As the involvement of higher centers becomes conscious, movements may be consciously controlled, modified and practiced. As skillful movements are learned, they become easier and are “remembered” through long-term potentiation (LTP).
Juvenile mammals try out and modify instinctual behaviors in play behaviors. They respond to external and imagined stimuli. Play behavior often imitates behaviors of others. Girls of aboriginal tribes with no toys may pick up a gourd and carry it like a baby; boys are notorious for play behaviors that include violent fighting, practicing instincts of rank order competition or defense of a territory. Play practices basic social interactions, seeking to be accepted in a group, maintaining or increase social status, temporarily excluding others from groups. It includes giving and taking, begging, bartering, trading, various forms of mutual touching in games or with rhymes, leading and following (“follow the leader”), obeying, running after and away from one another, hiding and seeking, care taking behaviors with dolls, preparing and serving food. Play behavior also practices movements in gymnastics and basic creativity in singing, reciting rhymes or dancing. Play behavior includes exploration of objects and of the environment and novelty seeking which probably is related to seeking resources for food, nesting places, etc.
Young children are in an essentially continuous state of readiness to learn; playing is practicing inborn patterns while adapting to physical, social and cultural environments. Later and particularly in middle adulthood, life is more routine and learning is largely limited to times of high levels of attention. Learning includes pruning many synaptic connections while strengthening others. Learning follows times of specific propensities, learning to trust and bond with limited number of people and modulating feelings and emotions within social environment, learning basic language(s) picked up from older people or invented (basic words and grammatical structures of sign and verbal communication), modifying and adjusting instinctive perceptions to learned basic cultural judgments of right and wrong, etc. Playing includes quiet time of reviewing things in one’s own mind. Playing a more or less sophisticated two-dimensional board game (checkers, chess) may symbolize learning processes; it includes the clear goal of winning in order to rise in rank order and perceiving eventual thrilling sensation; however such games rely on memories of previous games and projecting possible moves far ahead. In much of children’s learning there is strategizing: parents and the broader culture set the rules of the “game”, modifying social instinctive propensities; the child tries to cheat, but eventually will essentially follow the rules or suffer punishment, e.g. being isolated, shunned, later in life jailed.

Understanding Instinctual Behaviors as Functions of the Brain

There are brain centers that map and continuously update information from inside the body and send corrective messages through hormones and through the vegetative nervous system to maintain homeostasis. Multiple areas in the brain map and process data from sense organs monitoring the environment.
There are many nuclei that are genetically programmed to execute specific movement patterns; simultaneously other systems are influenced e.g. heart rate, blood pressure and skin temperature. These centers contain inborn programs for most behaviors of most animals, though there are mechanisms that modify the behaviors particularly in higher animals. Many such movements are fairly complex; they are modified using maps of the environment that are created in the brainstem and also in the hippocampus e.g. to avoid obstacles. They are also modified by complex interactions between conflicting programs, inhibited by the neocortex and/or combined in complex patterns of multiple programs, e.g. when animals are trained and when learning any complex actions. The basic inborn patterns are basic emotions or instincts.
Examples of specific innate movement patterns that are associated with changes in the vegetative nervous system are: inhaling and exhaling, sucking (in babies), following a moving object with eye and head movements, movements of grabbing objects and putting it in the mouth, biting, chewing, swallowing, smiling, yawning, crawling, the Moro reflex, holding and hugging, standing up, walking, running and/or climbing. Many movements have the function of communicating e.g. gestures, communicative eye movements or facial expressions and other body language.
Most instinctual behaviors are related to:
– maintaining life and optimal functioning of the body (breathing, eating, drinking, shivering with cold, urinating, etc.);
– food seeking behaviors including picking fruits and nuts or hunting in omnivorous and carnivorous species;
– response to dangers including predators (freezing, fleeing, or aggression);
– exploratory behaviors such as touching and examining objects;
– exploration of the physical environment (mobility and memory of the geography are important for exploring the environment to find resources such as food, water and nesting places and to memorize retreats to safety)
– social behaviors that strengthen bonds and hierarchical structure of group; they include smiling, comforting and unimportant communication; begging, giving and accepting; mutual grooming; imitating, following and leading peers; mild threatening and reassuring; etc.;
– social order behaviors (assuring acceptance and having a role in social groups, competitive behaviors, defending a social position or, sometimes, attempting to get a higher position. Rank order fighting includes posturing, display of signals or behaviors showing strength and/or status, physical fights between rivals, giving surrender signal or responding to such signals to avoid serious injuries);
– establishing and defending a territory with access to food, water and nesting space;
– nest building;
– pursuit of and bonding with a potential sexual partner usually includes a sequence of ritualistic displays and behaviors, and in some species of mammals and birds leads to lifelong close connection; some ritualistic behaviors of courtship are a repetition or variation of behaviors of rank order competition, such as showing strength; in some reptiles males fight by going around the opponent and getting on top of him and biting him in the neck and the same behavior is repeated in mating but the neck biting is minimal and not causing an injury; in many species there are bonding behaviors between mates which are a repetition or variation of behaviors of mother-offspring bonding;
– interactions with offspring including bonding behaviors (cuddling, licking, holding, stroking, feeding when young already well able to feed itself), protecting, defending and supervising offspring.
Aggression is a tool instinct that may be activated in different contexts, most typically it is triggered when establishing or defending social rank or territory and in defense (generally when escape is not possible or in meaningless fights, if aggressive responses have been reinforced). Males are more likely to aggress against intruders at the periphery of a family’s or group’s territory, females when their young or younger siblings are directly threatened.
Male sexual responses may be enhanced by aggressiveness which is the reason for the catastrophic frequency of rapes, particularly in wars and in cultures in which women have little or no protection from sexual assaults by men. And men who perceive themselves to be successful or powerful or otherwise have a sense of being an “alpha male” have increased testosterone which tends to encourages narcissistic and antisocial tendencies. This is probably the reason that many democracies limit the time a political leader may stay in office.
In addition, humans have an irrational fascination with extreme catastrophes, accidents, cruelties and generally extreme pain. It is highly unethical to indulge in and thereby strengthening the fascination with cruelties and pain and to exploit this unethical propensity as the entertainment industry does.
In humans and other higher mammals, some instinctual behaviors are mostly expressed in body language, accompanied by changes in the vegetative nervous system (and the functioning of inner organs, etc.), changes in interneurons and modulators (activating and inhibiting other circuits in the brain), and in subjective feeling states. Such instinctual behaviors are responses to various perceived, imagined or anticipated situations with significant associated positive or negative stimuli. In humans body language is associated with a sense of happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, disgust, and contempt. In acting, imagined stimuli help create facial expressions and other body language as required by a role; additionally feedback from the body influences mood and may cause the corresponding mood.
Birds show many social instincts and behaviors, particularly of bonding, caregiving and apparent love that are amazingly similar to those of many mammals including humans. This is surprising since it is thought that ancestral lines of birds and of mammals had separated some 300 million years ago and the brains of birds and of mammals are much more different than the similarity of social behaviors would suggest.

Excessive Density of Population

The ethologist John B. Calhoun observed the influence of overpopulation in multiple experiments with rats and he made observations that have striking similarities with certain human behaviors in overpopulation. Living in groups that are too large for all individuals to have an individual role and to recognize others individually appears to be an important factor in the breakdown of social systems. Calhoun did careful measurements of behaviors and calculated social velocity and other variables under different conditions. The most important findings were that with overpopulation individuals start to attack others randomly, normal sequences of behaviors based on emitting and responding to stimuli deteriorate, instinctual behaviors including sex are expressed inappropriately, care taking of offspring becomes erratic, rather than seeking new spaces individuals accumulate in small spaces, males often stand on the side lines close together doing nothing with seemingly no interest in competitive behavior or sex, and females behaving more like immature individuals, not taking adequate care of offspring. It has been noted that some human behaviors are strikingly similar in overcrowded conditions: they also tend to be more aggressive at random, have sex outside an orderly sequence of pair formation, take care of their offspring less consistently, leave smaller towns to accumulate in ghettos outside huge cities, and in parties we often see males standing close together drinking beer and showing no interests while women tend to mingle with children.
Calhoun described that these problems were decreased if individuals had previously learned cooperative tasks.
Calhoun also studied the effects of nutrition and of vitamins and he found that very high levels of vitamin A buffered the social system against the decrease of social velocity with increased population density, lowered intensity of fighting, it acted as a kind of “tranquilizer,” but it increases the prevalence of abnormal behaviors (poorer parenting in females and increased frequency of inappropriate sexual behaviors in males).

Brain Research Related to Volition (LeDoux, Damasio)

Emotional responses to stimuli

In his work and particularly in his books “The Emotional Brain” and “The Synaptic Self” Joseph LeDoux described volition basically as a response to certain stimuli. He emphasized the function of the amygdalae: screening stimuli and initiating a response. The right and left amygdalae are small centers in the brain that are part of the limbic system. They continuously screen input of stimuli for positive or negative emotional value, including stimuli from sensory organs, memories that are activated and images that the brain creates. The amygdalae are genetically programmed to recognize more or less specific stimuli with a positive or negative emotional value which trigger emotional (instinctual) responses. E.g. when there is an explosion or when a big object or animal approaches, the amygdala responds to the stimuli by immediately initiates a response of freezing and then of fleeing, along with changes in the vegetative nervous system that cause elevated heart rate and other changes that are known as flight-fight response. The feeling of fear does not cause the reaction; it follows the reaction a moment later. As changes of the flight-fight response in inner organs including the heart and intestines, blood vessels and in the tone of most muscles are registered and this information is sent via afferent nerves to centers in the brain, this information is mapped and constantly updated in the brain stem and other areas of the brain, and this mapped information becomes conscious as a feeling of fear; the feeling of fear is an epiphenomenon of the emotional response to the fear evoking stimulus. Similarly, the emotional system recognizes and responds to stimuli with positive emotional value, e.g. seeing a friendly person who smiles and makes eye contact causes a change in facial expression and changes in internal organs, and, as these changes are registered and mapped in the brain a moment later, they are perceived as a good feeling.
As a result of evolution the amygdalae are programmed to recognize and respond to certain stimuli and to activate specific centers which initiate specific instinctual responses. Responses may be running away or a change in the facial expression or grabbing a fruit along with fairly specific changes in functions of internal organs, blood vessels, endocrine system and muscle tone.
Even though these processes are automatic emotional responses to stimuli, they may be changed or inhibited in some situations if other parts of the emotional system interfere with the automatic responses.
The emotional system works rapidly and outside conscious awareness and only the later stages of the process become conscious as changes in muscle tones, inner organs, etc. are mapped in the brain; nevertheless the conscious self perceives emotional responses as volition and as spontaneous or freely chosen behaviors.

Reinforcement of emotional responses

When the amygdala responds to a stimulus, particularly a stimulus with high emotional positive or negative value, it also sends impulses to cells in the brain stem (ventral tegmental area) that are activated to release dopamine and other monoamines into different areas of the limbic system and other areas of the brain including the thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, nucleus accumbens, and areas of the neocortex including the prefrontal cortex. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and an activating modulator that is kind of sprayed into these areas to strengthen recognition of the stimulus, the response by the amygdala, the formation of memories of the triggering stimulus and other simultaneous stimuli and memories of the response to the stimulus. In the reinforcement process the nucleus accumbens plays a particular role. Dopamine also activates the prefrontal cortex (including the working memory) which may get involved in pursuing a stimulus utilizing complex thinking.

Stimuli becoming associated with natural triggering stimuli

During an emotional response e.g. a fear response, stimuli such as noises, smells, or images that occurred together with the stimulus that evoked the fear response, become themselves fear evoking stimuli and will evoke a fear response in the future. In general, stimuli that occur together with a stimulus with strong emotional value will evoke the same emotional response though with less intensity. This is the reason that previously neutral stimuli evoke a fear response if they were associated with a trauma. Similarly a positive emotional response to objects, ideas etc. develop if they are associated with a positive emotional response. For example, baby clothes may evoke positive feelings due to association of positive feelings that babies evoke. This process is known as classical conditioning. Over time most objects and places evoke at least mild positive or negative emotional responses.
The intensity of this reinforcement depends on the strength or emotional value of the triggering stimulus and the balance of excitatory and inhibiting interneurons and modulators. Genetic factors including gene expression and factors of the internal and external environment including social connectedness play a role, also the developmental stage of the individual. Healthy social support may reduce negative feelings that are associated with a traumatic experience whereas people with high emotional reactivity are more prone to severe PTSD.
Through inherited factors various animals including humans easily learn an exaggerated fear response to snakes, spiders, mice, height, deep water, fire, etc.; but even after such fears were learned, they may become associated with positive perceptions; fires may symbolize the safety of home and mice may become pets.
As the brain goes through memories and varies them to create new images these memories and images are continuously screened by the amygdalae and may evoke a response. E.g. a memory of good food at a certain restaurant may be screened and responded to with automatic processes of the brain seeking a way to get back to the same restaurant or get similar food at another place, when the process becomes conscious it is subjectively perceived as a desire.
LeDoux developed a detailed understanding of the fear response, and he believed that the same mechanism of recognizing and responding to inherent and associated stimuli with emotional value could be generalized to all volition. This is probably largely true, but the amygdalae are not the only centers that screen and evaluate incoming stimuli for positive and negative emotional values. In addition, it appears that instinctual centers that are disinhibited by modulators may become activated with less specific stimuli or possibly with no stimulus at all. Also practicing instinctual behaviors in play behaviors and instincts such as the urge to explore the environment may be disinhibited and activated mostly by modulators rather than specific stimuli.

Association and reinforcement of stimuli and responses; habituation, addictiveness

Many internal representations, ideas and imagined behaviors are associated with establishing social bonds, assuring acceptance and a role in a family, school class or other social group, or with maintaining or increasing social status. Training people and also animals, is mostly based on associating desirable behaviors with positive emotions from praise that affirms acceptance. Behaviors then become reinforced, they become integrated in the emotional system and feel like instinctual behaviors. E.g. cleanliness or good or compulsive work habits may become part of a culture or subculture.
Reinforcement of emotional responses causes formation of habits, including addictive habits. Thinking repeatedly of an object, idea or an activity with positive emotional value reinforces the emotional value and becomes an overvalued idea. Instinctive behaviors e.g. eating or fighting and responsiveness to triggering stimuli for such behaviors may be reinforced and become addiction-like. A culture of consumerism has developed as buying and having certain objects has become associated with positive emotional values that become overvalued ideas.
Most of these processes occur without conscious thoughts and only a part of the changes in the emotional system becomes conscious, expressing itself in different or new feeling states, images and/or ideas.
The advertisement industry works intensely to create overvalued ideas with regard to anything that a business sells. As a result common sense and ethical principles are largely ignored in buying decisions. Because money is associated with the pursuit of many emotionally valued possessions and activities, that is, instinct driven behaviors, money has strong addictive qualities, it is largely overvalued, and it is one of the main causes for unethical and destructive behaviors.
Addictive behaviors are generally perceived as strong emotional forces (urges) that become stronger than healthy pursuit of sensible goals and ethical principles. Much of the time the brain perceives and responds to stimuli that are associated with an addictive behavior before the conscious mind is aware of the process.
In psychiatry the concepts of dependency on a substance, addictions, compulsions and impulse control disorders are unclear. Addictions and addictive behaviors such as drug addictions, gambling, greed are strongly reinforced emotional responses that are associated with positive feelings; they are pursued despite knowledge of their harmful effects; they are often initiated by associated or imagined stimuli; addicted people generally plan behaviors in response to imagined stimuli e.g. when planning a trip to a gambling place or a source of heroin. Compulsions appear to involve the basal ganglia (R-complex) and they are mostly automatic and are not associated with positive feelings. Hoarding has elements of addiction and compulsion, it is often associated with overvaluation of objects, but also appears to be in part driven by hoarding instincts that probably involve the basal ganglia (R-complex). The term impulse control disorder has been used if a person behaves in unacceptable ways, usually because of inadequate control of aggressive behaviors; such behaviors may be in part the result of growing up with violence in family or in entertainment; it may also be a lack of effort to control aggressive impulses, since people that physically abuse their spouse or children often control themselves at a job that they do not want to lose. Addictive behaviors such as addictive sex or gambling should not be mixed up with impulse control disorders; they are addictive behaviors.
Cultures and individuals should work on reinforcing emotional responses that are part of or associated with positive social instincts (emotional responses of helping and cooperating), and cultures have to reinforce ethical values of responding to difficult situations with calm, thoughtful examination of options and choosing the most ethical behavior. Ethical values need to become stronger than negative emotions such as aggressive responses, behaviors that are driven by unreasonable competitiveness, greed or vengeance.

An additional layer in the emotional system: feelings

Antonio Damasio described in his work, particularly in his books “Looking for Spinoza” and “Self comes to Mind” the importance of feelings as an additional layer that nature added to the emotional system. Damasio distinguished background feelings from feelings of emotions such as love or disgust which he called “emotions proper”. According to Damasio background feelings or primordial feelings have developed in the brain stem and he believed that they are already perceived by reptiles. They are the subjective experience of the mapping of inner organs including arteries and measurements such as body temperature or osmolarity. Optimal functioning of the organism is perceived as good feelings and disturbances or imbalances as feelings of discomfort. Feelings associated with primitive appetence may be primordial feelings or background feelings related to an imbalance in homeostasis such as a need for food. They may also be related to changes in modulators such as hormones that decrease inhibition and increase responsiveness to triggering stimuli in nuclei of instincts e.g. related to fighting for rank order or related to pair formation and sex. Feelings that are associated with emotional responses to stimuli are subjectively experienced along with the emotional behaviors and they are often considered the essence of an emotion, however the feelings are only epiphenomena that accompany and generally follow the initiation of emotional/instinctual behaviors; they are the result of mapping of information that afferent nerves send from inner organs and muscles to the brain, as functioning of inner organs and muscle tones change as part of the expression of instincts. Many social emotions are expressed in body language and other changes in muscle tone and in internal organs. With the pursuit of a stimulus that is not in immediate reach or is only imagined, feelings of anticipation or frustration may be experienced.
Responding to a positive stimulus such as seeing or thinking of good food or obtaining an object that is associated with the idea of a higher social status generally requires some work. Working as a response to a positive stimulus is associated with specific changes in the functioning of inner organs and in the tone of muscles. These changes are mapped and are felt as good feelings of anticipation (in German called “Vorfreude” which means advance pleasure). Instinctual behaviors such as a fear response, eating, social interacting, or withdrawing into a depressed state are also associated with specific changes in functions of inner organs, facial expression and body language; the mapping of these constellations is felt as good or bad feelings with specific qualities. Good feelings associated with many instinctive behaviors and with the anticipation during work towards an instinctive behavior in response to a stimulus are referred to as rewards. Research appears to indicate that it is primarily the reinforcement of the response to a stimulus when dopamine is “sprayed” that reinforces the behavior; the good feelings (the “reward”) that accompany the anticipation of instinctual behaviors and the instinctual behaviors themselves probably play only a secondary role in reinforcing the behaviors. (Stimulant drugs work like a short cut to this type of reward.) Instinctual behaviors in response to negative stimuli and behaviors that hardly feel good are also reinforced with dopamine. For this reason people often seek fear responses in entertainment e.g. in scary rides in theme parks or in dangerous sports (though it is not clear how much perception of thrill, a sense of temporary power or invulnerability or anticipation of possible better feeling motivate dangerous and damaging behaviors). Also the instinctual response of a depressive stance is reinforced and depressed persons often seek thoughts and entertainment that reinforces sad feelings.
Volition as the experience of wanting something is a feeling state and it appears to be an epiphenomenon, like other feelings, with a specific quality. In fact, with many emotional feeling states, e.g. with the feeling of love, aggressiveness or hate, volition is experienced as part of the feeling. As a person becomes aware of a feeling and volition in the process of responding to a triggering stimulus with an emotion, that is, an instinctual response, there is a sense of wanting and of choosing an action as a free choice.
The feeling of making an effort is experienced when there is a conflict between different emotional/instinctual behaviors that are competing to express themselves. While working towards a goal (in response to a positive stimulus) other stimuli may create other instinctual goals such as eating or resting that interfere with the complete focus on the primary pursuit and this conflict is experienced as a feeling of effort. With the ability to focus completely on a task the sense of effort may disappear.

Thinking, deliberations, decision making; an additional layer of conscious participation in decision making; getting stuck in emotional responses

Antonio Damasio described in his work, particularly in his books “Looking for Spinoza” and “Self comes to Mind” the importance of feelings as an additional layer that nature added to the emotional system. Damasio distinguished background feelings from feelings of emotions such as love or disgust which he called “emotions proper”. According to Damasio background feelings or primordial feelings have developed in the brain stem and he believed that they are already perceived by reptiles. They are the subjective experience of the mapping of inner organs including arteries and measurements such as body temperature or osmolarity. Optimal functioning of the organism is perceived as good feelings and disturbances or imbalances as feelings of discomfort. Feelings associated with primitive appetence may be primordial feelings or background feelings related to an imbalance in homeostasis such as a need for food. They may also be related to changes in modulators such as hormones that decrease inhibition and increase responsiveness to triggering stimuli in nuclei of instincts e.g. related to fighting for rank order or related to pair formation and sex. Feelings that are associated with emotional responses to stimuli are subjectively experienced along with the emotional behaviors and they are often considered the essence of an emotion, however the feelings are only epiphenomena that accompany and generally follow the initiation of emotional/instinctual behaviors; they are the result of mapping of information that afferent nerves send from inner organs and muscles to the brain, as functioning of inner organs and muscle tones change as part of the expression of instincts. Many social emotions are expressed in body language and other changes in muscle tone and in internal organs. With the pursuit of a stimulus that is not in immediate reach or is only imagined, feelings of anticipation or frustration may be experienced.
Responding to a positive stimulus such as seeing or thinking of good food or obtaining an object that is associated with the idea of a higher social status generally requires some work. Working as a response to a positive stimulus is associated with specific changes in the functioning of inner organs and in the tone of muscles. These changes are mapped and are felt as good feelings of anticipation (in German called “Vorfreude” which means advance pleasure). Instinctual behaviors such as a fear response, eating, social interacting, or withdrawing into a depressed state are also associated with specific changes in functions of inner organs, facial expression and body language; the mapping of these constellations is felt as good or bad feelings with specific qualities. Good feelings associated with many instinctive behaviors and with the anticipation during work towards an instinctive behavior in response to a stimulus are referred to as rewards. Research appears to indicate that it is primarily the reinforcement of the response to a stimulus when dopamine is “sprayed” that reinforces the behavior; the good feelings (the “reward”) that accompany the anticipation of instinctual behaviors and the instinctual behaviors themselves probably play only a secondary role in reinforcing the behaviors. (Stimulant drugs work like a short cut to this type of reward.) Instinctual behaviors in response to negative stimuli and behaviors that hardly feel good are also reinforced with dopamine. For this reason people often seek fear responses in entertainment e.g. in scary rides in theme parks or in dangerous sports (though it is not clear how much perception of thrill, a sense of temporary power or invulnerability or anticipation of possible better feeling motivate dangerous and damaging behaviors). Also the instinctual response of a depressive stance is reinforced and depressed persons often seek thoughts and entertainment that reinforces sad feelings.
Volition as the experience of wanting something is a feeling state and it appears to be an epiphenomenon, like other feelings, with a specific quality. In fact, with many emotional feeling states, e.g. with the feeling of love, aggressiveness or hate, volition is experienced as part of the feeling. As a person becomes aware of a feeling and volition in the process of responding to a triggering stimulus with an emotion, that is, an instinctual response, there is a sense of wanting and of choosing an action as a free choice.
The feeling of making an effort is experienced when there is a conflict between different emotional/instinctual behaviors that are competing to express themselves. While working towards a goal (in response to a positive stimulus) other stimuli may create other instinctual goals such as eating or resting that interfere with the complete focus on the primary pursuit and this conflict is experienced as a feeling of effort. With the ability to focus completely on a task the sense of effort may disappear.

Significance of Consciousness from an Evolutionary Perspective:

It is not clear how and to what extent conscious feelings and thinking influence volition, thinking and behaviors and how it contributes to survival. Essentially the same processes that are in conscious awareness appear to occur also outside conscious awareness, in fact, only a small part of what the brain does reaches conscious awareness. It could be argued that if it is understood how the brain creates consciousness and how conscious experiences influence thinking, volition and behaviors, then it is thinkable that the same thought processes, emotional processes and behaviors could occur in a being without any consciousness. It could also be assumed, that once a brain develops circuits and maps that act as if they were consciously experienced by the self (the internal representation of oneself), consciousness arises as a result.
Once a feeling or thought process becomes conscious it contributes to a good or bad quality of life and it becomes important for ethical considerations. If experiences of suffering or joy would not exist there would be no reason to develop ethical thoughts.
From an evolutionary perspective it appears that consciousness is important because it is generally linked to the creation of memories of past experiences and actions and of pleasure and suffering which can later be consciously recalled in deliberations and decision making. In other words, independent from emotional valuation by the amygdales and other centers, memories of good and bad experiences and of past thoughts may reinforce pursuit of stimuli that are associated with good feelings and reinforce avoidance of stimuli associated with bad feelings and pain, and they may consider quality of life and ethical principles in deliberations and decision making.

Cultures Morality and Differentiation of Self

Small social units, mostly families, create a family culture, and larger groups including schools, work places, peer groups, ethnic groups within an area, and larger social systems such as states create cultures of different levels and various degrees of emotional penetration in social systems.
Perhaps the most important aspect of cultures is that they modify, exaggerate and/or restrict the expression of instinct driven behaviors through guidelines, expectations, mandates, prohibitions and taboos. Cultures starting with families teach under what circumstances and in which way instinctual behaviors may be expressed. E.g. cultures determine largely what and how foods are prepared and eaten, how feelings such as anger or sadness may be expressed, when it is permissible to cry or to scream, and cultures create guidelines and prohibitions with regard to clothing and housing, social contacts, expression of sexuality, rearing children, as well as how to treat people that do not obey cultural rules and prohibitions. Cultures also include mandates designed to exaggerate or suppress characteristics of people, male versus female, child versus adult characteristics, e.g. young girls are to appear older and women younger; what is perceived as most important male and female characteristics may be exaggerated by clothing, severe exercise, and surgeries.
Thoughtful people develop a personal culture in the sense of changing for themselves cultural guidelines, mandates and prohibitions.
Higher cultures have been developed by Lao-Tse, Siddhartha or Buddha, Jesus Christ, and many others, but even followers of these teachers generally did not appear to understand and follow the values and ethics of their teachers.
As cultures develop guidelines, expectations, mandates, prohibitions and taboos they develop a morality. Morality has to do with cultures assigning positive or negative value to behaviors, objects, situations and also to people and animals.
The brain has developed a genetically programmed propensity to attribute positive or negative emotional values to certain stimuli and many additional stimuli get a positive or negative emotional value through association with inherent positive and negative stimuli. The brain has developed a screening system that screens incoming stimuli for emotional value, and the emotional or instinctual system initiates automatically responses to stimuli with positive or negative emotional value, that is, a response of approach towards stimuli with a positive emotional value and of avoidance, escape or fight in response to stimuli with negative emotional value. In humans such responses are associated with characteristic feeling states that are experienced as positive, mixed or negative. (We do not know whether or to what extent many animals, particularly mammals and birds have similar conscious experiences.)
Probably parallel with or as part of the development of language the sense of positive and negative values (good versus bad, right versus wrong) has become more conscious and articulate with regard to behaviors of people, characteristics of people and animals and with regard to objects and situations. Conversations among people often deal with criticism or praise of the behavior of other people or of specific persons or groups.
Cultural morality includes conflicting values and is often unethical. It is usually influenced by the interests and instinct driven aspirations of powerful and influential people, including religious leaders. Most cultures have degraded and mistreated women and children. Cultures often reinforce certain values that are in part based on instincts, but at the same time are ethically dangerous, such as the values of honor, pride, loyalty and patriotism. Today’s Western cultures generally overvalue privacy and confidentiality. The moral-political terms ‘justice’ and ‘freedom’ are at best elusive; they must be replaced by meaningful goals.
Pride and honor may be feeling states that are at times positive, but they should never justify or motivate thoughts, attitudes, or behaviors that are unethical. Pride tends to be associated with a narcissistic sense of superiority that devalues others. Honor may be used to justify unethical behaviors including revenge and “honor killing”.
Loyalty is appreciated in married couples but may be destructive in other relationships. Working for and supporting another person should always be examined with regard to ethical consideration and being loyal to a person who is not ethical or no longer complies with his or her responsibilities is not ethical.
Patriotism may encourage good and cooperative work but it is associated with “us versus them” thinking and it has often contributed to depreciation of other countries and to wars.
Justice is a philosophical term that has no practical validity. In many situations people judge a behavior as fair or not fair, but justice is elusive because no two persons perceive the same treatment or the same responsibility the same and the same behavior in two people may have required very different efforts and may have been due to very different motivations. And does justice require that we adapt everything to handicapped people, that we compensate people for unavoidable suffering, etc.? We do expect fairness where this idea is applicable, but mostly we want to be treated humanely, avoiding unnecessary suffering and receiving reasonable benefits for our efforts. Freedom of speech must not be a right, if speech intentionally or negligently incites aggression, major unethical thoughts or is likely to cause otherwise much more harm than benefits.
The concept of freedom has no practical application either except that we want to be free from inhumane coercion and other inhumane treatment. We may enjoy the false feeling of making free choices, but when thinking of any specific situation we can easily determine that there are obvious major limitations to our freedom. Thinking “I could have avoided a mistake” always assumes that the mind had access to data which, at the time, it had not, or it disregards the forces of emotions. From a scientific perspective, free will appears unthinkable.
The values of privacy and confidentiality have also been overvalued. People usually want confidentiality with regard to sexual phantasies and behaviors, finances, particularly when they feel that they got more income or assets than seems fair, and they want above all confidentiality and privacy with regard to immoral or unethical behaviors. With regard to conditions that may cause embarrassment or shame it would be better for people to learn to accept such conditions, let go of embarrassment or shame and do what they can to improve them, rather than trying to hide them as confidential. Confidentiality and privacy should never be used to hide unethical behavior including inhumane behavior or other ethical transgressions in the privacy of one’s family and home.
The demand and insistence of rights should also be put in the context of ethical principles. Clearly, all people and other sentient beings should have the right to be reasonably protected from inhumane or otherwise unethical treatment and conditions and people should not be deprived of services or privileges due to discrimination or other unethical social conditions. In this sense human rights are very important and they may be revised to better reflect that all people deserve to be treated humanely, live in humane conditions and are not deprived from an opportunity to live with good quality of life.

Natural Ethics as a Science

Humans and higher animals are sentient or conscious, perceiving pain, pleasure and complex feelings, and humans have ‘reflective consciousness’, i.e. we know that we are conscious and have awareness of others’ pains, pleasures and other feelings. It is generally assumed that primitive animals are at most sentient in a very dull or minimal way, but what creates consciousness is unknown.

Our empathetic knowledge of others’ suffering, pleasures, sense of happiness and/or meaning in life, and our emotional connectedness with other sentient beings gives us an inherent obligation to consider these beings.
The scientific pursuit of ethics interprets empirical research concerning human interactions and aspirations. Philosophers, particularly Immanuel Kant, developed a transcendental moral philosophy that is like a religion. The terms mores and morality are not the same as ethics, they refer to customs of a culture and specifically its religion.
While appreciating sciences and technologies, humans appear innately attracted to religious and transcendental suppositions. The socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson defined the conflict of religion and transcendental philosophy versus empirical science in his 1998 book “Consilience, The Unity of Knowledge”:
“The essence of humanity’s spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another. Is there a way to erase the dilemma, to resolve the contradictions between the transcendentalist and empiricist world view? No, unfortunately, there is not.” He then refers to “…assumptions … tested … by cumulative verifiable knowledge about how the universe works, from atom to brain to galaxy.” and states “… there is a biologically based human nature, and it is relevant to ethics and religion.” He later refers to humans’ inherent need for a “sacred narrative” which makes religion relevant. Others doubt that we really need more than spirituality in the form of awe for the greatness of nature and human accomplishments.
Science-based natural ethics (not as described by Catholic theologians) refers to the investigation of what is natural and doable for humans and at the same time fulfills global goals of humans. Ethics addressees what instincts should be fostered and/or modified and what propensities weakened, but ethics must comply with human nature. E.g., philosophers may claim that we are to promote highly intelligent children anywhere in the world, but parents will never agree to neglect their ‘inferior’ children for the benefit of promising strangers. Mothers may learn to modify instincts relating to nurturing an infant, but unethical and unnatural child rearing techniques or mandated cruel treatment of children will eventually be resisted. As civilizations interact, excesses of specific cultures, such as by a culture mandated forms of mutilation, are driven underground and later disappear.
People may object to what may appear to be a global behavior modification program for the institution of some scientists’ vision. Actually, civilizations are behavior modification programs; our economic and legal systems are the most blatant part of a behavior shaping environment; the educational and social systems are part of it; literature, games, entertainment and the media are part of it. Humans are relatively free in the sense that we are not moving from responding to one environmental stimulus to the next. Most human behavior is indirectly motivated by our emotional system. We learn and feel free when reviewing memories, speculating about our future, strategizing and individualizing our lives within the aggregate of emotional forces and reinforces.

Ethics, economics and psychology deal with behaviors and decision making that affect others; they address: who does what, when, why and with what consequences.
Ethics scientifically addresses conflicts between self and others with regard to avoiding suffering, feeling good and finding meaning; principles include reciprocity, empathy, avoidance of us-versus-them thinking, self-control, and finding meaning in the pursuit of a ‘common good’, as upheld in virtually all cultures.
In contrast, mores and morality are part of a culture and its religion. Some inherent propensities were further defined and reinforced by cultures as ‘virtues’ (compare Jonathan Haidt’s work). The introduction of agriculture and herding lead to the development of anonymous stratified civilizations. Their male elites created religious, social, political and legal institutions that largely served to strengthen their position, often preventing progress and interfering with the pursuit of ethical goals. Religions, as part of cultures, were responsible for many abuses; they reinforced the powerlessness of the poor and the subservient, confined roles of women.
Psychology and psychiatry, including psychological self-help materials, address mental health, including flexibility and adaptability of the mind, and the pursuit of mutually beneficial interactions with other humans. Psychological help must help people to move out of conflicts which were mostly created by culture, and it must address ethics since unethical behaviors tend to be self-reinforcing (materialism and consumerism, loveless and exploitative sex, expression of anger with its temporary feeling of power, gambling, child abuse, food as tranquilizer, medication and other substance abuse, etc.)
Natural ethics is based on empiricism, on our understanding of human nature, not based on transcendental philosophy or religion. It is pragmatic, not absolute.
Science-based natural ethics analyzes what makes people feel good as individuals, social groups and as a worldwide community, and it addresses functions and influences of institutions. Many instincts support ethical behaviors, e.g. most social instincts appear altruistic. Even non-human primates like to please when it is easy for them: if asked, primates tend to do what is asked without expectation of a reward, but probably as a matter of inherent expectation of reciprocity, “I believe you would do the same for me if I would ask you.” Monkeys do not like to see another monkey suffer; in an experiment when eating was correlated with another monkey getting electrical shocks, the monkey stopped eating. People naturally do not like to see or hear strangers in pain nor knowing of severe suffering in other parts of the world, and people hardly like killing humans for entertainment (however, these positive natural propensities may be overridden by us-versus-them thinking, vengeance or sadism, and they are often suppressed for instance to enhance efficiency). Universally, parents, particularly mothers, want the next generation to do better than they did. Consequently, humans widely agree on some basic ethical goals, most importantly the preference of negotiating, compromising, using mediation and arbitration and other conflict resolution techniques over use of aggression and war fare (global ethics). Rushworth Kidder, in “Shared Values for a Troubled World” describes global ethical principles, or instinct-based cross-cultural values.
Happiness research (compare Derek Bok: “Happiness Policies”, 2010) gives additional data that may guide changes in institutions. E.g., while seeking happiness, people greatly misjudge consequences of major changes. Losing a limb, winning a lottery or a drop or change in living standard leads usually to rapid adjustment without a lasting change in quality of life. Giving has more positive effects than consuming. If basic needs are met, the living standard is not closely correlated with happiness or satisfaction in life.

Ethics primarily addresses the conflict between an individual’s drives, desires, aspirations etc. versus his/her influence on the suffering and happiness of others, within and outside the person’s society. Natural ethics establishes guidelines on dealing with conflicts concerning instincts, culture, and personal values; conflicts that are inherent in relationships; conflicts within or caused by institutions; etc.
People are basically egoistic; they seek resources and space for their needs. Altruism is also natural. People are always in conflict, desires and perceived needs of spouses, parents and children, siblings, friends, coworkers, etc. never match, but finding understanding and compromise solutions strengthens bonds; resolving conflicts often builds friendship and trust. Humans have always understood that they are interdependent within clans and groups, and they usually learn that they benefit from trade and cooperation with outsiders and distant groups. People value altruism as they instinctively assume that there is some form of reciprocity. In addition, seeing and knowing of others’ suffering feels bad; fate is not just and many deprived and abused people appear to deserve help. However, unrestrained altruism is problematic: while the donor’s esteem rises, the recipient’s is diminished; recipients may become exploitative and mutual resentment may develop. Idealism is dangerous: fanatics may follow abstract goals, political or religious, and even engage in warfare.
Humans have an inherent framework for the perception of their physical environment, for social interactions, for language and morality. Even if raised without verbal interactions and opportunities to observe human social behaviors, children develop for primates typical social interaction patterns and their own primitive language, basic perceptions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and a model of their world. Humans have a strong inherent propensity to judge things, people and actions as ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’, ‘good’ versus ‘bad’. We appear to have a moral center, comparable to and probably an extension of the language center. Morality and language are to a significant degree culture specific; they influence people’s behaviors, feelings and thinking.
Humans also have natural sympathy, feeling instinctively and spontaneously, to a lesser degree, what others feel. People have the ability to be empathetic, to put themselves into others’ place, attempting to understand others’ experiences, perceptions and emotions. Based on an instinct to rescue other individuals in distress or danger, people usually feel compassion, being somewhat sympathetic and empathetic towards a suffering person and wanting to help or at least wishing that the suffering is ameliorated.
Ethics teaching enhances broad empathy and compassion. It may also help people add a personal culture that overrides negative cultural influences.

Points that are most relevant in the pursuit of ethical decision making:

– Reciprocity and “golden rule” are important but limitations must always be considered: more needy persons than people who can be generous; what we want is often not what others want; what a person wishes may not be beneficial, etc. Also, generosity is often necessary since people usually appreciate more what they do for others than what others do for them. Negative experiences must be understood as ‘normal’ mistakes of others and self, never leading to reciprocal vengefulness.
– Broad empathy, that includes studying others’ experiences and perceptions, must be widely practiced. People must always reasonably considering consequences of any planned action on directly and indirectly affected others, present humans, animals, future beings (this includes minor actions, such as wasteful use of plastic, paper and water). Broad empathy challenges culturally taught values. Instead of obeying learned cultural mandates and expectations, we must develop a more ethical (higher) personal culture.
– Us-versus-them thinking must be largely avoided. People must work on overcoming inherent propensity to be unempathetic or even cruel towards people outside of what is perceived as one’s family or group. Social thinking and consideration must never be limited to own group.
– People have usually excess resources, time, material, etc. Naturally, the quantity of giving and helping others considers factors including closeness (family, group members, adopted strangers) and previous investments in recipients; recipients’ developmental stage, mutual feelings and imminent potentials; reciprocity; quantity, severity and special meaning of deprivation and suffering; guilt perceived by donor; and instinctive stimuli to nurture, such as cute, helpless appearance of a child.
– Ethics respects honesty, private space, property, commitments, natural and cultural roles, natural courses and normal developments, art, natural environments, etc.
– Aggression is an instinct that primarily serves to establish and defend rank order and territory, (including mental territory for instance in organizations); aggressive feelings are usually inhibited by culture and perceived as justified anger and revenge feelings, often with underlying jealousy. Ethics requires that we address conflicts peacefully, with consideration and compassion. Usually we have to renounce expectations and judgments which lead to anger; we must accept reality, may meditate, then calmly reevaluate issues.
– Humans often must resist unethical cultural beliefs, customs and mandates. Usually, ethics requires that we develop a higher personal culture.
– Humans often must frustrate an inherent fascination with suffering and cruelties; males must frustrate a propensity to combining sexual and aggressive feelings.
– People must not give into, mentally consent to and/or enjoy unethical thoughts; vicarious unethical acts in games and identifying with real or fictitious perpetrators must be considered taboo (maybe part of a past phase in a person’s life, but later leading to shame, guilt and/or disgust).
– We must always be aware: an unethical emotion can only be overcome by a more powerful emotion. People must always work on and help each other strengthening emotions that support ethical decision making. We want to behave in ways that we will not regret, and we want to find meaning in life. We may practice meditation and emulate aspects of wise and ethical persons, etc.

Ethics also includes some widely hold cultural expectations which reduce frictions and negative emotions, such as basic common rules of courtesy and showing respect, appropriateness of expressing emotions, care in work and with objects as appropriate for a situation, reasonable cleanliness, reasonable punctuality, minimizing wastefulness.

Living ethically follows ethical principles pragmatically. It includes taking care of oneself, partly to be able to be a resource for others, by creating a healthy lifestyle and environment. Meditation may calm impulses and unethical propensities. Ethical decision making includes reviewing situations from many angles, evaluating data regarding possible consequences of possible actions, and considering affected individuals empathetically, as time allows. To broaden one’s mind, a person may question if he/she would advise a considered action to a close peer, and people may ask themselves what a most trusted, wise person would advise or what a panel of people of different gender, age, and cultural background or ethnicity might conclude. The decision then follows intuition and conscience (mental processes that are outside our awareness).

Teaching Ethics

As children grow up, instinctive propensities and their enjoyments are directly fostered, culturally adapted, discouraged or suppressed. Instincts that are expressed and/or vicariously enjoyed are strengthened. Distraction and frustration of instincts weakens them. The “pressure pot model” of instincts is wrong: non-expression of aggressive (or sexual) feelings and frustrating urges to act does not lead to ‘exploding’, it weakens the instinct.
Children learn eagerly in many ways: they practice in play, learn about, and vicariously enjoy all types of social interactions, roles representing how they see themselves as future adults, and fantasies of extraordinary successes and powers they imagine to be possible. They learn observing nature, by observing other people’s interactions, from told stories, books and media, from complex and sophisticated games, and from all forms of entertainment. Children and adults are naturally interested in novel experiences, e.g. safaris and expeditions, reading and seeing movies about them and possibly participating.
In guiding children’s plays and other learning, teaching broad empathy and stepping out of the usual us-versus-them thinking are central. Learning language, singing and acting, social studies, etc. should include all types of persons that students have to identify with, including social outcasts, handicapped, displaced, abused persons, etc. Students must examine completely different perspectives than their own, e.g. boys reading books and enjoy other media that direct them to identify with girls and women, of own and of different cultures and back grounds. Schools must teach children to listen to others who are different and outside the groups one belongs to, making efforts to understand perceptions of different persons and even of sentient animals; young people should attempt to recognize aspects of others’ lives that they appear not even able to express and talk about (within most cultures, human rights violations are hardly recognized by most people and/or the violations are considered necessary). Empathy includes being mindful of sympathetically felt and in others observed feelings about their environment and past, as well as fears about present and anticipated future that one assumes the other person must perceive on some level (e.g. a teenage girl who tries to enjoy unprotected sex may be jealous of young mothers but is also afraid of possible STD, pregnancy and childbirth).
Cultures influence people in direct ways,
1. recommendations, guidelines and expectations that may or may not lead to significant consequences if not followed;
2. laws and family or cultural mandates which usually lead to punishments and/or loss of status, etc. if broken; and
3. taboos which generally lead to shame, disgust and punishment if transgressed.

Declaring something illegal implies that it is probably desirable or fun, at least for some people; people usually break laws with little guilt if not likely to be caught. Laws mostly describe behaviors that some people actually want to do. People may enjoy thinking of transgressing and under extraneous circumstances actually perpetrate the forbidden behavior. Taboos are broadly considered offensive to nature and/or culture. They are rarely transgressed and to most people thoughts of breaking them lead to shame, guilt and disgust. Taboos are too reprehensible to be vicariously enjoyed. In modern cultures, taboos are extremely limited, the main remaining taboos being incest and mixing fecal material and food. For many, cruelties and even sex with children are largely categorized as illegal rather than taboo. Observing the limitations of modern cultures, education must help students find a higher personal culture; cultures and education need to help that many unethical behaviors will be perceived as taboo, including all forms of cruel and inhumane behaviors, unethical sex and abuse of seriously dangerous drugs.
People of all ages benefit from learning to reasonably compartmentalize their time, to include times for work or studying, exercise, artistic enjoyment and expression, meditation, and particularly contemplation, that is, reviewing memories, observations and anticipated events in a nonjudgmental way. Contemplation often helps to weaken propensities towards unethical behaviors. While learning about people in efforts to become more meaningfully empathetic, people should also learn about wise and ethical persons they can attempt to emulate.

Effecting Changes

Becoming more ethical includes a change in personal culture that includes changes in unethical responses to stimuli, emotions, thoughts and actions. To effect major changes, the following may be needed (all more or less simultaneously):
– setting a clear goal to work towards more ethical and meaningful living and being more ethical and thoughtful in daily decisions and behaviors and strengthening these ethical values connecting them with strong positive emotions, e.g. related to seeing self with more wisdom, being more respected and loved by people one loves and in community, gaining good self-esteem;
– identifying specific unethical or harmful behaviors that contradict the main goal of pursuing a more ethical and meaningful life;
– developing and affirming a belief or knowledge that goals are theoretically achievable or possible;
– avoiding deceptive and self-defeating negative self-talk (“the unconscious is listening”), e.g.: using the word ‘trying’ which implies not making a clear decision, behaving like not being in control;
saying or thinking ‘should’, ‘ought to’ which implies not wanting but feeling guilty, feeling bad while procrastinating and while doing it;
saying or thinking ‘must’, ‘have to’ which implies avoiding decision making: anticipating possible bad consequences that are presently ignored; saying or thinking ‘must’, ‘have to’ which implies not wanting to do something and not taking responsibility but doing it feeling that it is the decision of somebody else, e.g. reformulating the thought “I have to go to work” to “I want to go to work but I want to keep my job because of the income and other benefits it gives me”;
saying or thinking ‘overwhelmed’ which implies wanting to give up;
– expectation of a process; there may be new responses to situations in daily life, but the important change is a slow process of new emotions to become ‘natural’; and recognition of difference between ‘lapse’ (impulsive with quick return to process), versus ‘relapse’ (mind consenting, giving in to exception, giving up goal, giving up making efforts, at least temporarily);
– reasons for change(s) are positive; usually person designs complex changes in his/her mind (making multiple changes simultaneously is generally easier than one at a time; different bad behaviors tend to reinforce each other and changing one without changing others is often difficult);
– finding emotional component to positive motivation, e.g. related to loved ones, maturity and wisdom [counselors often falsely advise drug abusers: “you have to do it for yourself, not for others”; loved ones particularly children, a loved spouse or relatives whom the person does not want to disappoint or from whom he/she wants to regain respect and more love, may strongly strengthen motivation]; there may be some competitiveness (who learns most effectively new patterns of emotions and thoughts), and there may be some pride in tolerating deprivation when avoiding habitual unethical behavior (junk food, alcohol, expressing anger in threatening way, etc.);
– awareness of actions, self-monitoring, avoiding thoughtless ‘automatic’ acting (awareness meditation exercises)
– ‘wholehearted’ action, working out conflicts, then acting with emotions and ‘rational’ considerations working towards same constructive goal;
– visualization of changed feelings and behaviors; visualizing what is emotionally motivating, e.g. wise person, child; also visualizing alternatives to undesirable behaviors while focusing on positive emotions;
– structuring and limiting undesirable behaviors in planned way; examples: to overcome habitual lying or angry verbal outbursts: starting with apologizing soon after behavior, then apologizing immediately, then stopping lying or angry outburst in mid-sentence, finally only hesitating rather than starting behavior; when wanting to stop cigarettes or junk food: may first limit to social situations only, never alone, not in car, not late at night, etc.;
– practicing to avoid any physical response to strong stimuli: no change in body language; immediately attempting to calm self, one to few minutes meditation (narrow mental focus such as breathing, no judgment); avoiding thoughts of reasons for undesired responses;
– practicing ‘reruns’ of situations of previous lapses, visualizing feeling differently, being calm and behaving differently;
– finally, attempting to completely stop behavior with zero exceptions; no excuse for an exception;
– preparing for temptations to fall back to undesirable behaviors: if tempted, focus on positive emotions of maintaining ethical living, of resisting temptation, and think of feeling shame and regret if giving in to temptation; being tempted by a person and/or other form or irritation and instigation may lead to short indignation, annoyance or disappointment, thoughts and impulses of regressing to undesirable (unethical) behavior should feel shameful and should be stopped immediately;
– meditation, possibly contemplation, meditation with self-suggestions, e.g. nothing is important (except for finding peacefulness and meaning in life); I expect nothing (process, not reaching goal, meaningful); I am free of the past (may learn from rather than repeated mistakes), etc.

Efforts to Apply Ethics and Improve Quality of Life Based on Various Ideas from Different People

Being ethical means thinking and behaving with empathy, reasonably considering with empathy the consequences of behaviors to all affected people and other sentient beings, including future generations. The central issues are alleviating and prevention suffering and improving quality of life. Even though ethics deals with balancing one’s own interests with the interests of others, efforts to becoming more ethical and efforts to improve the quality of life for oneself and for one’s family and social groups are largely the same. Such efforts overlap with efforts toward developing a more differentiated self, efforts towards living thoughtfully according to one’s ethical values, with more wisdom, and, perhaps, efforts to get closer to or reach the ideal of “sainthood”.
Such efforts may begin with developing clear goals and internal images of living in harmony with others and with nature, enjoying activities without harmful consequences, and enjoying good physical and mental health. Goals include healthy routines that provide a balance of rest and a variety of activities (some form of physical work or exercise, mental stimulation, healthy interactions in social systems, enjoyment of art and nature, meditation and a sense of meaning). Working toward a more ethical self means taking responsibility for and taking control of one’s thinking and changing thoughts that are related to harmful or unethical behaviors or negative emotions. This includes changing thoughts of desperation, anxious worrying, anger, jealousy, envy, inconsiderate competitiveness, vengeance, greed, and other thoughts that are related to addictive behaviors; and guiding thinking and behaviors to healthy ideas and activities. It also means to apply ethical principles in dealing with others, in dealing with conflicts, being tolerant and accepting of others, but making efforts to stop and prevent clearly unethical behaviors of others. Simplicity in the material aspects of life generally contributes to quality of life and generally is part of pursuing ethical principles. Particularly when responsibilities and work for one’s family are not excessively consuming of time and energy, work that benefits others including work for humanitarian organizations should be part of balanced activities.

Much of what we usually think, do and pursue is motivated by associations with instincts and may not be ethical nor contributing to a good life. We must make efforts to identify and change such thoughts, behaviors and pursuits. People often hurt others in interactions without being aware of it. In many daily activities we are careless, wasteful or otherwise harmful to others, to our economy and to the environment. E.g. eating meat, particularly meat of bred mammals, is unethical and harmful for multiple reasons. Many behaviors that are associated with the instinctual propensity to help others who suffer and the need to be accepted are ethical. Other behaviors are unethical and do not promote a good quality of life e.g. most behaviors that are motivated, directly or indirectly, by instincts of establishing and defending territoriality or rank order and the enjoyment of abuse behaviors which often lead to addiction.
New ethical ways of thinking needs to be practiced by imagining situations of daily life, of conflicts and emotionally difficult situation; ethical responses need to become part of a personal culture that becomes integrated in the emotional system and growing stronger than emotions that foster harmful and unethical behaviors.
To go a step further, applying ethical principles means to work towards more ethical cultures on all levels. It means to work, as feasible, through political processes, education, literature and entertainment towards cultural institutions that do not promote greed and consumerism, marginalizing part of the population, mistreating weaker persons and animals and damaging the environment, but instead bring the best potentials out of people by promoting healthy families and communities, good physical and mental health, ethical pursuits and humane treatment and conditions for all.

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