More and more neuroscientific research is pointing to the fallacy of believing that morality is based in rationality. Jonah Lehrer looks at this subject in detail in his new book How We Decide.
In previous centuries the common assumption has been that we reach moral decisions by thinking as logically as possible about our options and choosing what we consider to be right according to set of abstract ethical rules. Scientific, empirical evidence is making it increasingly clear this is not how it works.
Instead, we decide on a course of action within milliseconds of perceiving the options. The rest is rationalization of a choice we’ve essentially taken unconsciously, on the basis of what we desire most. Which is not to say there’s no merit in overriding one’s impulses, it’s just that often we follow our impulses and pretend (to ourselves as well as to others) that we chose rationally and morally.
Think about your main character for a moment. Are you crediting him or her with too much rational executive power over their decisions? Does your character even really know why they have taken a particular course of action? And more interestingly perhaps, how does your character rationalize and justify their actions? What moral story do they tell, which might not have anything at all to do with the real reasons for their action?
To understand how difficult it is to know how your character decides, try understanding how you yourself decide.
Think about a major(ish) decision you’ve taken recently that involved some kind of moral ambiguity. A secret you kept to yourself or divulged, something of value you found and kept or returned, a malicious rumour you spread or dispelled, and so on. Be honest about how instantaneous your decision was in comparison to the amount of time you spent rationalizing and justifying your actions in retrospect.
It’s quite shocking, if you’re honest about it.
Generally speaking, we don’t really have much conscious insight at all into our moral decisions. The only thing we’re conscious of, is the narrative we construct after the fact, in order to make our actions seem logical and acceptable.
To my mind this distinction between a more or less instinctive, emotion-driven decision and the retroactive illusion of rationality, can be a valuable addition to the screenwriter’s toolkit. It’s a powerful way of thinking about conflict in scenes, but also internal conflict.