Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics
A Moral Prospectus, Continued
Responses to "A Moral Prospectus"AKeller
I find it interesting. I am a bit sceptic if it will help, because there is too much stupidity in the world, but I think that the institutions of our society have been improved over the last centuries, due to ideas developed by people like the ones you cited, and I generally believe that the further improvement of our institutions is possible.
I suppose that, like you, I also believe, at bottom, in further improvement of our institutions being possible, even likely; but I cannot forget that, in certain respects, we face a more plausible scenario (due to our ecological crisis and the continued proliferation of weapons of mass destruction) for human catastrophe than at any time in the past. Hence, the critical importance for us of a true understanding of the history of ethics in our time.Clifford Sharp
I have been fascinated by these exchanges and would like to introduce another aspect for consideration and comment. The main pragmatic purpose of any study of morality, of ethics, of some parts of philosophy and of much of religious teaching is to provide precepts enabling ‘value-judgements’ to be made which determine the resulting action in the form of individual behaviour. Human ‘values’ of this kind are therefore a fundamental part of the study of morality and, for the last ten years or more, I have been working on a book which has just been published with the title ‘The Origin and Evolution of Human Values’, an immense subject which, to the best of my knowledge, has not been seriously examined in recent years.
I suggest, therefore, that for any study of morality to be real it needs to examine the way each individual absorbs, ‘catches’ is the word I prefer, their ‘values’ from his or her environment as they grow up. Such ‘values’ (while having common features derived mainly from the culture in which the individual lives and has their being ) are different and unique for each person, their genetic inheritance determining the way, and the extent, to which particular concepts of behaviour regarded and accepted in that group or culture as ‘fair’, ‘decent’ and ‘seemly’ are indeed ‘caught.’
Using these individual and personal ‘values,’ we interact to a greater or lesser degree with everyone with whom we have any relationship, automatically assessing others' interests and their ‘values’ and balancing off these complex inter-relationships both single and multiple usually without a second thought. I liken it to a multi-level game of human chess with the pieces sometimes changing their importance and influence almost instantaneously.
I suggest that an individual’s ability to ‘catch’ what his group culture regards as normal values varies from one individual to another and may well be roughly distributed according to the normal curve. This means that while most of us fall into the central area enabling us readily to ‘catch’ the ‘normal’ values there will be those, at the ends of the distribution curve, who are unable to do so. These become at one end of the curve the psychopaths, the mass and serial murders, the rapists and the other anti-social deviants with the ‘saints’ at the other. Looked at in this way, the eternal philosophical problem of the reason for the existence of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ would largely seem to disappear.
With regard to what those ‘values’ should be is where what we call morality comes in and, to my mind, the first question to ask is what do we want those ‘values’ to do? My answer is that they should be such that the group culture is able to be sustained and preferably to expand. Looking at morality in this way leads, I suggest, to the conclusion that the most important feature must be tolerance of others’ ‘values’ provided they are not so anti-social as to represent a danger to the community. And that is where laws, customs, precepts and mores come in.
The main and most important conclusion is that there are no Absolutes, no over-arching principles holding good for all men, women and children for all time, in all places and in all circumstances. Any general statement of precepts, such as the Ten Commandments, needs to be interpreted in the light of the circumstances, and this will be done by each individual according to his or her ‘values’. There will at any point of time be a general consensus in a particular group culture of what can be regarded as ‘fair’ and ‘decent’ behaviour but that is changing all the time as, indeed, are individual ‘values.’ As Shakespeare so elegantly made Hamlet sum it up ‘Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’
Skepticism towards Absolutes as some panacea is understandable. After all, at the root of such skepticism lies the undeniable and difficult conflict that always seems to threaten violence when certain fundamental precepts are too rigidly adhered to. Such violence can even spring up among members of--ostensibly--the same group let alone between different cultures.
And certainly, beyond all this, there are also those intractable values that vary even more drastically throughout the globe from hemisphere to hemisphere.
Yet, despite all this, some essential values do not vary at all.
And therein, I would maintain, however Quixotically, lies the hope for humanity.
For instance, it seems to me that a mandate for concern with one's neighbor characterizes much of the most enlightened thinking through the ages, whether we are talking of Buddha's Mindfulness sermon in the Digha-Nikaya, the Dhamma-pada within the same Buddhist scriptures, the earliest stratum of the Analects of Confucius embedded in Chapters 3-9, Plato's Apology of Socrates, the Christian Gospel of Mark and the so- called Q passages in Luke, the precepts of other theologies, the humanist concepts growing out of the Enlightenment, or the Articles of the United Nations.
Certain cultures may appear to neglect such enlightened mandates, but that does not mitigate the fact that even those cultures that appear remiss also appear to give lip service to such "neighborly" mandates.
There is some hope in the fact that no culture today openly and seriously espouses the precept of "hate thy neighbor" (even when cynically practicing it), though many perfectly thoughtful, civilized observers still question the practical manner in which "love your enemies" can be applied--a challenging and difficult proposition, to be sure, in practice.
Yes, a stumbling block here may very well lie in the fact, for instance, that--for many--Confucius and Socrates, on the one hand, sometimes function as models within a more secular social context whereas Buddha and Jesus, on the other, function within a clearly theological one.
But at the end of the day, the consensus on "neighborliness," even beyond these four, remains striking no matter what.
Likewise, another cultural consensus expressed by these models is the stricture to look to one's own faults before criticizing one's neighbors.
In fact, "neighborliness" and "self-scrutiny" are only two precepts that could be agreed upon cross-culturally with little friction--and there are probably more.
Along with those "probable more," there are clearly plenty of other matters, such as a fundamental conflict on the consuming of stimulatives for one, over which cross-cultural friction may be inevitable. But it seems to me that an essential prioritizing process that would sift global precepts from group ones is far from impossible. Rather, it becomes imperative for human survival.
Here is where one comes up against the thicket of group cultures.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with group cultures. They too are essential. In fact, for a group culture to thrive, agreed- upon mores must be established even within that group let alone among a variety of different ones near and far.
Here, in addition, Mr. Sharp is absolutely correct with his stipulation that "the most important feature must be tolerance of others’ ‘values'."
In fact, going hand in hand with these dynamics specified by Mr. Sharp are the pitfalls involved when a perception inadvertently develops on the part of one group or community that it is being slighted or humiliated by others. Such a perception can lead only to simmering resentment and, eventually, social anarchy. Hence arises the need, enunciated by Mr. Sharp, for a "tolerance of others' 'values'" by all group cultures without exception. This truism, however obvious, that only "tolerance" of all can lead to security for all lies at the heart of this problem.
Likewise, a general perception on the part of many communities that one community in particular may not be abiding by professed principles, and, in doing so, may be fostering an air of intolerance and capriciousness, naturally diminishes the moral standing of the suspect community. And it can do more than that but of a more positive nature. This diminishing process can sometimes challenge the declining community to look to whatever gave it some degree of cohesion and moral standing to begin with. One cannot stand well with one's global neighbors without standing well with one's own cultural guardians too. Thus, the "self-scrutiny" advocated by certain altruists throughout time for isolated individuals can apply just as well to entire group cultures.
Still, even this establishment of "self-integrity" that Sharp helps us be alert to is only a first step. To attain the Quixotic(?) goal of living in harmony with all cultures around the world, integrity of individual group culture is only the means by which one can--eventually--attract other cultures and communities to simply reach out to a now reinvigorated culture, knowing that such commerce can be secured through cultural traditions openly espoused and steadfastly maintained--however various in nature.
Of course, I regard the process of throwing up one's hands, of copping out--of just assuming that some modus vivendi for clashing cultures cannot ever evolve in any form--as being an even more hopeless exercise, if, in doing so, it is seriously expected that humanity can simply muddle through without an eventual social, political, and ecological breakdown. Planet Earth is now a global community. We can no longer afford such an ostrich-headed luxury. Each group culture must learn how to accommodate all others.
As with the advice to Laertes in the first act of Hamlet:
This above all, to thine owne selfe be true
And it must followe as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man:
Now a question arises. What happens if such an integrity is not sustained? There was a letter to the editor in the New York Times of Sunday, May 18, 1997, sent by a Mr. Keppel that gave a graphic picture of the breakdown in credibility that can follow. Among other things, he referred to the eagerness on the part of our American leaders to push genetically engineered products on to world markets despite local opposition in different parts of the world. He also wrote of the U.S.'s compelling Thailand to suspend its smoking regulations so our corporate leaders can sell tobacco. Apparently, he views the benefits of our agricultural exports as a two-edged sword: They can bring benefits to consumers, but they can also destroy an eroding countryside, accelerate slum crowding and compromise food self-sufficiency "just when global climate disturbance should prompt caution." Though we may talk globalism, at the same time we end up imposing our foreign policy "on reluctant allies and trading partners." He does not believe that we are always helping indigenous populations against "local elites" in our commercially (and, in the end, culturally) expansionist policies. In fact, these elites are very much our allies, "eager to get on the Web, shop at Neiman Marcus and draw on our expertise... Rather than make our ugliness universal, can we not share the essence of the American dream by ourselves learning finally to respect those who still believe in justice?"
One does not have to subscribe to every one of David Keppel's points to appreciate the general lack of cultural sensitivity he is describing. Nor need one first subscribe to the occasional bashing Western culture has been getting in recent years before understanding the dimensions of Keppel's warning. After all, Keppel himself, in invoking the American dream in his closing statement, in fact vindicates what the West is capable of contributing. It is the extent to which we have fallen short of that--the obligation, finally, to abide by simple fairness and equal treatment--that he is criticizing.
I am not necessarily presenting, even left-handedly, a Jeremiad against some perceived--and unhealthy(?)--hegemony of declining Western culture, let alone Western culture over all. After all, when we see today what China has done in Tibet and what it threatens to do in Hong Kong, the similarity leaps out of a culture ignoring the finer tenets of its past and, in so doing, of trampling on any obligations to be sensitive and respectful of other communities in its cultural commerce. So other cultures can be as culpable as the West.
The critical concern here is cultural, ethical and philosophical integrity and the basis on which individual group cultures can thrive and interact positively with other groups.
As I have said, this is an immense subject which is of the greatest importance because of the dangers for the future of humanity involved in our ever increasing command over our environment (which includes of course all other humans). This command stems from the immense power provided by the scientific method and is now so great that unless we can find some non-violent way to resolve the clash of ‘values’ arising from the widely differing cultures then with the ever increasing flood of population with very different and competing interests and values a major human disaster seems almost inevitable.
It will probably come as no surprise to the reader that I second Mr. Sharp's placing of humanity's dilemma in its fearsome influence over our entire ecology front and center. Along with the prominence I have already accorded this crisis earlier in these chapters, I should like to draw attention to certain remarks made by the ethicist Sissela Bok in conversation with Bill Moyers:
"The predicament we're in now and that we have been in for some time is the threat of extinction from nuclear weapons, and the threat of extinction from environmental sources. It has simply never been the case before in human history that all of life--not just human life but really all of life-- could be wiped out. That has made an enormous change for us. At the same time, this is also an extraordinary opportunity. People are to some extent making greater efforts. Governments are trying harder. We've had the INF Treaty. . ."
In practical terms what is now needed, I suggest, above all else is for our education to pay more attention to the humanities, whose importance has been eroded and almost extinguished by our over zealous pursuit of the sciences. It is the sciences which have provided us with that dangerous and ever increasing power over the world we live in, dangerous unless it is controlled by a morality expressed in realistic ‘values’ which will recognize the need for the tolerance which is at the heart of all the main religions.
If you are interested in the more detailed exposition of these themes please let me know-- I will gladly arrange for a copy of my book to come to you.
Sincere thanks to Mr. Sharp for his invitation. We already have a click-on in our Chapter 2 for his book site. At that book site, the reader can find a brief summary of Mr. Sharp's work divided into seven separately titled sections. The actual text of the entire summary runs to about ten printed pages. It may be that the full text of this 10-page summary--without the added click-on table of contents at the end of each section--might be added as an appendix to the conclusion of this site. We may, in fact, do that if there is sufficient interest shown by other users in Mr. Sharp's ideas. Again, thanks very much.
Table of contents for "The Jefferson Bible"