When My Brain’s No Good: The Ethics of Thought ~ emmi

The ethics of thought? That sounds like thought police! I can imagine a stirnerite with a crunched up smug smile of condescension at just the title alone. But at some level, being a human who thinks about how you want to be in the world with regard to ethics, you must also think about your own thoughts and which ones you deem as representing ethical or in-ethical decisions in the real world. For instance, in an emotionally complex situation, when you’re thinking about the best way to possibly try to navigate it ethically, you also think of ideas that you think aren’t the best idea. So you just move on and try to come up with something better. That is ethical thinking. It’s not about the thought police being the Protestant puritanical cop in your head, it’s just about like “I want to recognize my needs and also do the least harm and also the most good for myself and other(s).” Working with our thoughts and emotions can change what we perceive as possible and help us imagine new ways of birthing freedom into the world for ourselves and others.

But, if you’re anything like me, your brain can also just be a mess. I think terrible things. I think useless things. I think bizarre and peculiar things. I just think all over the place. I quickly alternate between thinking a thought and then slamming it into its opposite like a particle collider. But even in thinking it’s opposite thought, I can end up thinking some super bizarre shit. Or even just things negative fantasies or things that I don’t want to happen. And then I get to think like “huh, I guess I’m the type of person that thinks [x bizarre or unacceptable behavior]. It’s easy for me to fall into thoughts about my thoughts. When every thought has a probabilistic relationship with truth and decision making, the ethics of every thought do matter – even if this degree to which they matter is negligible relative to a million other probabilities in my brain.

But brains are just weird machines. They don’t always make the most sense. They malfunction. They have processing limits and biases in the code. It’s fine to think bad things or things that you wouldn’t otherwise do. It doesn’t hurt anyone inherently. I think it’s quite healthy to know that you don’t agree with everything you think. So people can’t be made to feel guilty for their thoughts because you can only even control it to some degree and for the most part thoughts are just thoughts and don’t impact the world. But sometimes they do, sometimes thoughts lead to decisions that we may later regret or feel bad about. Many bad decisions we make during our messy learning process about existing in a dynamic world, we first thought. So did the thought in some sense create the action? Yes I would say in some ways, thinking is just culling down the scope of various probabilities of possibility we see. Of course we can be surprised or wrong in our predictions about the world but nonetheless what we think about a future situation changes what we feel is likely or unlikely at least in our minds. This process of changing what we see as possible is part of trying to build what we see as likely and most desireable.

Things like depression, anxiety, and PTSD act like thoughts in that they, impact what we see as possible. My friends and my partners and I joke about “depressed brain” and how it can fail to see all the possibilities. But the process also works in reverse. In this same way, changing what we’re capable of thinking about and finding our way through our thoughts and feelings literally positively changes what we see as possible. One of the first things that happens to me when I come out of a major depression is I start to notice things glimmering around the edges of my brain that I hadn’t considered as possibilities. Part of being depressed for me is feeling unsure, but part of it is also just feeling super sure that, “this is how it is and it sucks”. So when I feel a little better I get to think like, “well I guess it’s possible that this could be another way of looking at that”. And boom. I am able to start building a better path in the real world. Alternatively though, things like mania can bring about a huge sense of possibility, but many of these possibilities are inaccurate, false-positives which can also be destructive. Similar to this is an “affective death spiral“, which is basically a form of instrumental rationality where you just follow a good feeling untill you’ve convinced yourself of something false. The delicate trick is being imaginative enough to see unconsidered possibilities and also be accurate in those possibilities.

So I don’t know about other people but for me, there are places in my brain that are just like really gross. They’re inaccurate, they’re unethical, they’re self-defeating, or just strange in a way that doesn’t feel good. And I can’t be blamed for that really. At least some part of that is trauma or just neuro-structure anyways. But there are other possibilities in my brain that are helping me to consider like, “hey I can make this change in my life that will improve things not just myself but also for other people”.

This shouldn’t be taken as a like The Secret kind of new-age or christian scientist type of thing that you create reality through your thinking and it’s all in your head or some such nonsense. Probabilities are variables but also just the world itself is full of variables and structures that we run up against. Things like structural oppression limit the possibilities we see in the world because they literally limit the possibilities we are able to make into realities. It’s like a poor person who never really gets around to imagining the possibility of owning some random luxury so don’t even consider that they’d want to because it’s impossible for them to do. The knowledge that “it’s not worth imagining because I’ll never be able to get it” is like an expectation managing thought that, while it may limit the possibilities you consider in some bad way, is also just a representation of reality and the things you consider unlikely.

So the actual world is a big fucking black-box in terms of thinking better. It’s a testing area for thoughts and a place to notice our emotions and relationship with various situations. It’s a learning area but it’s a learning area that matters a bit because other people are in it as well who all deserve and need the same freedom that we deserve and need. Thinking better improves our ethical behavior because it makes our thoughts more accurate but also imaginative of possibility but it faces the barrier of what is structurally possible or what turns out to be ethical or not in the real world when we try it. Part of thinking better is feeling better and the chicken and egg relationship of feelings, cognition, and behavior. But doing emotional labor for ourselves and supporting each other in that journey is a form of freedom maximizing and as a result a form of anarchism.

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