Sunday, April 3, 2011


Lupus est homo homini (Plautus)

Plautus’s remark about man being a wolf to man relies on a couple of misconceptions. For one, rapacious predation is not the only characteristic of the wolf, which tends to exhibit collaborative and ‘loving’ behaviour towards members of its own species and does not deserve its caricaturally bad press. Secondly, and more importantly, it is the ego that adopts so-called ‘wolfish’ behaviour towards its fellows, not the self. The ego is almost exclusively predatory in that its interest in the other – whether that other be personal or not – is as an object of exploitation, control or opposition. The ego assesses the other exclusively in terms of its own advantage. It objectifies the other. It turns the other into an object of use or consumption.

The fundamental opposition in the self is that between hindworld, the individual sphere of awareness, and hyperworld, the wholly other. The other as another human self, is certainly the most crucial aspect of the self-other dichotomy, but there are more. The self is a relation. As such it is able – and indeed, some say, constitutionally predisposed – to relate to the whole of reality in what could be conceived as a personal manner. Without such a relation, the person remains trapped in the ego. Indeed, the self may need to feel a personal relation to reality in order to function properly. This tendency has for long been regarded as regrettably primitive anthropomorphism in the human attitude to the world. But increasingly, the scientific community is trying to show how humans fit into nature, in order to neutralise the alienation that grew as a consequence of the thing-ideology that completely de-personalised the world. Persons are repelled by the notion that fundamentally they can only relate to things. Physicists and biologists are now trying to show us that we belong in nature and are not anomalous beings, goggling at the natural world in absurd disconnection from it. We can feel integrated into reality, they tell us, because the matter in our bodies was created in a process lasting aeons of time from the beginning of the universe; or they point out that we can feel related to nature in that natural selection cobbled us together over billions of years in common with every other organism on the tree of life. Some evolutionists even recognise a ‘religious’ urge in us put there by adaptive pressure. But if we’re honest, we have to recognise that such connections to what after all remain mechanical, determined or accidental material systems ultimately fail to satisfy and indeed alienate. To adapt Pascal: Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis nous effraie – the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies us.

We need a personal relation; and it does not help if the evolutionists tell us that our urges amount only to some neural kink put there by our evolutionary past. The self is intrinsically a personal relation. Some will say that this is infantile, that only children need to feel personal warmth from the world. If that is so, then we all remain children, because despite the strident rationalistic bravado of the ego that fears, and tries to devalue, our emotions, the need remains strong in us to our last breath. Of course there is no obviously personal side to reality except in other human (or perhaps sentient) beings. There is certainly no parental figure smiling from the heavens, no ego-approved plan to nature. But though nature does not exhibit personal characteristics we may not assume by that token that it is necessarily less than personal. Since nature is patently intelligent there is another possibility: it may be more than personal. This is a no less logical and rationally acceptable possibility than the alternative. Both the less than personal and the more than personal could be experienced by us as impersonal. If the latter alternative is contemplated, then it becomes possible to think that our urge to establish a personal relation to reality as a whole may well make sense.

The problem of the current self-world relation

The self-world duality is not one in which a propertyless mind observes the propertyful object. It is the dogmatic materialism of the rational ego that creates this divorce from nature. The self is not a thing. The self’s knowledge, in contrast to that of the ego, emerges from confluence, from the unpredictable confluence of self and other. This gives rise to unpredictable creativity from which issues innovative understanding. Such innovation is an intrinsic feature of the natural world. We are intrinsic parts of nature; and so is our useful knowledge. The particular knowledge that regulates our relations to others (i.e. the knowledge that constitutes ‘moral goodness’ or ‘virtue’) must be seen in this context. That this is generally speaking knowledge ‘how’ rather than knowledge ‘that’ makes no difference, since ultimately all of our knowledge has to become praxis in order to persuade us.

Nevertheless, knowledge ‘that’ has a special significance for us language-using mammals. For millennia we as a species have been convinced that if only we could find the right method, the right linguistic trick, the right incantation, the right form of words and so on, then the mystery of the universe would open up to us. We have been convinced, since we acquired the trick of representing the world symbolically to ourselves and to others, that some special use of that ability would guarantee us privileged access to reality. We have used magic spells, open-sesames, religious rigmaroles, philosophical and logical methods, received procedures and so on to convince ourselves that the hidden door giving access to the inner nature of the universe was about to be opened by the device. After the emergence of monotheistic religion, we imagined that the Creator himself possessed the right form of words and could perhaps be induced to pass it on to us. When we got rid of him, the ego imagined that it alone could invent and possess this set of world-creating and world-controlling formulae.

Our doctrine of mechanism, our materialism, our determinism, our mechanical logic, our mathematics – all these are the last refinements of the same essential impetus: the impetus to control reality by means of right speech, right action and right method. Knowledge ‘that’, we believed, inevitably entailed knowledge ‘how’. The modern ego still clings obsessively to this idea, but something of the conviction has gone out of it as we become aware of our destructiveness. The post-modern world suspects that there is no absolutely right method and that even our precious scientific method has its disadvantages. It has realised that all methods can be deconstructed to reveal a particular agenda of the human species – usually to do with the gaining or retaining of power. At all events, the deconstruction of method shows that there has to be a response to reality that is beyond method. Why is this so? Because methodical approaches to reality are driven by ideology and the ideological assumptions that drive the method bring distortions in the results.

A non-methodical approach to reality is one in which there are no presuppositions, no unconscious assumptions, no ideological prejudices but simply an authentic, total response dictated by the nature of the self. We need not suppose that this response will be ‘objective’ in the sense that the thing-ideology imagines to be possible. But that in no sense means that the response is mere ‘subjectivity’ and thus not reliable, not to be trusted. Trust, here, is the operative word. We have to trust the self, rather than putting faith in this or that fashionable method. This is particularly true when we approach the current ethical crisis of mankind which boils down to our understanding that our favoured method of understanding – the scientific – can never make us good. The ethical crisis exists not because we do not know how to do right, but because all our ideologies and methods of defining the right have failed to convince us on the one hand, and – more importantly – because our favoured method of deciding all issues – the scientific – is incapable on the other hand of deciding ethical issues. And yet, once we have ditched all ideologies and methods of finding the right, we still know how to do it. We know what the right is even when the ego impels us to do the opposite. We do not know the Good abstractly in the Platonic sense; but we do know it practically, as in Aristotelian notions of virtue once they are stripped of the element social conditioning. Once we have realised that it is in the nature of the self creatively to understand the right, the next stage in the process has to be the realisation that all our methods of finding the good and the right, have so far been dictated by the rational ego. They thus bear all the hallmarks of the ego’s influence: all our deontological and consequentialist methods of ethical enquiry, from divine command to utilitarianism, are ultimately disguised forms of egoism since they aim at control. In transcending the ego, we transcend them, too.

It is clearly the spontaneous creative response of the self that ultimately generates all knowledge and therefore all ethical knowledge. This total response is not under our rational control, any more than our emotions are. We convince ourselves that our beliefs arise in purely rational ways; but they don’t – particularly not our ethical beliefs. These arise – as does all other knowledge – as a result of the confluence of self and world. Emotions are inseparable parts of this process; and they do not conform to a method. Moreover, in admitting the emotions to the cognitive process, we assent to our essential lack of control over that process. But that is how it should be, since our creativity cannot be commanded by us. How the confluence of self and world operates is not clear to us, we are afraid of not feeling in full control of it, and for that reason we remain stuck in rationalisations. But it is obvious to anyone whose mind is not completely corroded by rationalisation that the confluence of self and world happens: there is an interchange between self and world that results in the creative insight and in the new structures that we call ‘knowledge’. It also happens in the behaviours that we regard as ‘right’ or ‘good’. The old myth of complete objectivity, according to which the observing subject has no properties at all, cannot and should not be sustained – particularly not in ethical reasoning. Objectivity – the view that there is an absolute divorce between subject and object – is a simple distortion of the way our minds encounter the world and the way the world manipulates our minds. The mind-world distinction is a vitally necessary one, but it has to be admitted that fundamentally such a distinction is a convenient fiction. What we have in the mind-world interaction is a single, seamless process.

In order for such a set of ideas to have force and value, we have to understand that self and world are anyway so intimately related that they are inseparably entangled. The modern intellectual climate, created by the ego, has so separated the self from the world that produced it and in which it derives its being that the self has no place at all in the world, it is an anomaly, an inappropriate monster, an outcast, an abortion. Only as the qualityless subject of observation, the completely vacuous, staring, empty eye of so-called ‘objectivity’, only as the Faustian ‘experimenter’ or the ‘researcher’ or the ‘investigator’ can the subject continue its insubstantial existence. As a self whose very being in the world requires a sense of meaningful relation to that world, the subject of materialistic rationalism has no status whatsoever.

Now this state of affairs is clearly deeply silly, since not only is the self constituted by a world, the world is only structured by a self. The effort to wrench the two apart in the interest of so-called ‘objectivity’ is near psychotic. The purposes that appeal to the self in its ethical thought are therefore part of the dynamics of the self-world connection. They are not simply features either of the self or of the world. There is no absolute vantage-point (be that within a method or within an observer) from which the real structure of the world might be supposed to be revealed. All observation of the world is from a point of view and from within a particular frame. That frame is inevitably provided by the self. There is no other vantage known to us. Thus all worlds that the self can conceive inevitably owe their structure to the nature of the self as well as to the nature of the world. The modern world is structured by the ego and its predatory emotions. There is no better illustration of the ruinous effects of this than modern tyrannies, presided over by puffed-up egoistic dictators of the most uncreative, inhumane, arrogant and rationalistic sort. The whole self, however, has emotions which are not those of the ego, not egoistic, not ‘selfish’ but essentially collaborative and the world that it structures is necessarily structured by them. The creative gains of modern democracies derive from this source. It is the self that knows the right; it is the ego that tries to possess and control the right by means of method and ends up thinking and doing the wrong.

Clearly, the one set of motives (same root as ‘emotion’) structures the world differently from the other. A world structured largely by a need to control the other – as is the case with the ego’s world – is fundamentally different from a world structured by trust for example. If we absolutely must have our mechanisations – and there is no doubt that they are useful – we should hold them heuristically without taking them too seriously. We could then use our mechanisations for exploration while retaining in some other type of model the full, rounded, whole response to reality of the whole self which is essentially one of trust. If we do not do this, we will continue to find that ethics is impossible. The sterile mechanical world of the ego has outlived its usefulness. The means of its abolition must be the experience of wholeness: wholeness of self and wholeness of world. The two are one and the same. The self cannot inhabit a world of impersonal fragments, for such a world ends up damaging the self. The self has to belong to its world – intimately. Conscious awareness is always a relation, whether we like it or not. It is a mirror of the self-world connection; and if we mechanise the world, we mechanise both the self and the other and cripple the self-world relation. The dimensionality of that relation is far more than we suspect; but one thing is certain: the relation of self to others cannot flourish except as an expression of the total self in its relation to a total world. Relations to others that are driven by ideology or method are more prevalent than one would think and they are invariably destructive.

Behind the notion of a total response of the self to the world is a very old idea: the idea of man as the microcosm, mirroring the macrocosm. The methodical, mechanising, repetition-obsessed ego structures the scientific world-picture for the most part and that has resulted in a distortion. The distortion is entirely due to the fact that the ego is only a small, split-off portion of the self, and a primitive one at that. All views of the world structured by the ego’s fear-impelled mechanisations are necessarily going to be distortions; and this is a fortiori true of views of other persons. Only the total self can create a total world. Ethics, moreover, can only be intelligently practised within the context of a total world and by a total self. The discovery of the total self involves a discovery of the emotional depths that relate us, that always have related us and all non-human creatures, to each other and to our environment. The emotional depths determine our spirituality. We are animated by a deep need to relate emotionally to any world in which we live as if to another self. If we fail to do this, we dehumanise ourselves in proportion as we despiritualise the world. The simple truth is this: we cannot live in a despiritualised world. Such a world does not suit our self and when our self inhabits a world in which it is uneasy, it is truly ill at ease. It is subject to malaise, sickness, pathologies of various kinds and pathological behaviours. If ‘spirituality’ means anything, it means being connected, related, sustained and emotionally fulfilled by the world that the self inhabits. It is futile for the ego to riposte that the world is an unspiritual place: it is the ego and its methods that have made it thus and nothing obliges us to continue with the ego’s delusions. For a truly effective ethics we need in some way to respiritualise the world. There is no purely methodical, rational (read ‘objective’ or ‘unemotional’) way to practise ethics because the relation that is required cannot be subject to rules: it has to be creative. Creativity is the inner connection between self and world.

It is only in the discovery of the intimate creative relation between self and world that something like the self’s understanding of its onward destiny can be gained. The self provides the frame from within which the universe is viewed, the point of view from which the universe is understood. But far from being a qualityless observer, the self is in dynamic interchange with the world and is, by that token, part of the universal process of change. This is the essence of time. The confluence between self and world not only reconstitutes the world, it also potentially reconfigures the self. Only the ego clings to a crazy belief in acquiring a definitive state of knowledge and control of the world by observance of the right method.

The self cannot remain in or return to former states in its evolution. There is no such thing as arrival and no such thing as repetition. That constitutes the irreversible nature of real, deep time as opposed to the reversible time of mechanistic models of the universe. The belief that one can control the creativity of deep time is a redundant delusion. The self of the twenty-first century cannot be the same as even the self of the twentieth. The wave-front of reality is perpetually moving on to a new, unique position. As the locus of evolution in the human species, the self is a changing structure; it is constantly being created and re-created as it discovers the deepening relation between it and its world. The self does not discover ‘the world’ as such, except in a transferred sense. The self discovers the world that it is able to discover at any one point in its evolution. Of course, it makes contact with the world as such, but only with that portion of it that it can conceive and grasp at any particular stage in its development. The world in itself remains hidden and subject to an inscrutable principle of change. Nevertheless, in understanding the intimacy of the relation between the creativity of the world and the creativity of the self, the process of cognitive advance can be sustained without the need for certainty, without the need for a terminus, since it is sustained by a connection the is based upon trust.

The perpetual development of the self makes it nonsensical to talk as if the self had an absolute vantage-point, a God’s-eye view of the other. There is no more reason for this belief than there is for our old, long-abandoned conviction that we viewed the universe from a point of absolute spatial centrality or absolute temporal actuality. The scientific ego of the last three centuries is a passing configuration of the self, and a particularly restricted one at that, since it carries with it all the dangers of exclusive dogmatism to which the ego is prone. Its vantage-point is therefore considerably more of a distortion than the vantage-point of any previous types of self. The benefits of this distortion in terms of sharp focus and increased comfort are real, but we can no longer maintain the distortion for reasons of comfort alone, since our comfort now depends upon our moral attitudes and not just on the satisfaction of our physical needs. The speculative self of the Ancient Greeks, the religious self of the Medievals – these are more rounded selves than the modern scientific ego. The strength of the scientific ego is its ability to force consensus concerning its mechanical obsessions through maths and logic; but it can only do that with essentially similar kinds of self, with the ‘emotionless’, objectifying selves which believe the thing-ideology. But the point being made here is that the rational ego, despite the vast accomplishments due to its specialisation, has produced a distortion that now has to be put right, or else we perish. The scientific ego has to be put in its place and the total self with all its collaborative responses to reality re-discovered. This is the challenge of ethics in our time: to rediscover our creative connectedness to reality.

The sense that one’s self is inseparable from one’s world, that self and world are one and interdependent, is a very ancient state of consciousness. But it is precisely this that we have to re-discover on a higher turn – a post-egoistic turn – of the developmental spiral. If this is mysticism, then so be it, but ‘mysticism’ is in fact the wrong word, for it has the same origin as ‘mystification’. It should rather be seen as what Bohm calls ‘transparentism’, for in it the self-world relation becomes completely self-evident and the benefits of its discovery also become completely self-evident.

The specific problem of ethics.

The ego looms large in ethics of whatever coloration. In modern ethics the fundamental issue is the extent to which an individual chooses to act egoistically or not. To act egoistically one has to follow the dictates of the ego. One has to believe that one is an ego. That is to say, one has to be mistaken in one’s conception of oneself. In Greek ethics, it was naively assumed that enlightened self-interest, the pursuit of happiness, was the main issue; and for that reason, Greek systems of ethics had the character of egoistic eudaimonism. The question was, ‘how can I maximise my happiness?’ rather than ‘how can happiness be maximised?’ Nowadays, the word ‘egoism’ does not imply any particular value-judgement in philosophy, though in unphilosophical circles it may. There are those for whom the term can only be used in a positive sense, as in ‘rational egoism’ and there are those for whom the concept is almost a form of abuse. For some, the egoist is a kind of monster; for others the egoist, if left to go about his or her egoistic business rationally, will actually end up fostering the benefit of all. John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith (and more recently, Margaret Thatcher) were among the most famous defenders of this sort of notion. For those who discover the self, the ego is intrinsically neither good nor bad, but damaging if its value is overestimated. The ego is a structure that fosters the interests of a highly evolved mammal; but the mammal in question no longer needs to rationalise its animal passions (lust for power, territoriality, sexual conquest etc.) since it has the means at its disposal to leave those practically useful beliefs behind and develop a more capacious consciousness. In thinking of ourselves as an ego, we distort ourselves to a dangerous degree and that distortion shows up in our efforts to develop a rational (i.e. controlling) ethics.

The fundamental question in ethics has become, ‘why altruism?’ We are concerned, it must be emphasised, with ethics – i.e., the regulation by the individual of his or her behaviour towards others – and not with legislation – i.e., the regulation of a society by means of laws and sanctions imposed on its members. The confusion of these two different things lies at the heart of our modern moral confusion. Good legislation is ultimately rooted in ethics; but ethics is not about social regulation. Social regulation reflects the ethical considerations of society members; but ethics comes first and is fundamentally – as the word itself suggests – about regulation of individual life, about character. The character of the self is to know how to do good; the character of the ego is to try and control the good.

Aristotle had it right. Ethics is fundamentally about the development of a full humanity. Development is the issue, not the sort of stasis that the ego envisions. The human individual cannot be fully human without a dynamic connection to other human beings and to reality as a whole. We can only love ourselves if we love our neighbour, and vice versa. The reason for this is that there is no fundamental separation between self and others. So much is clear from our relation to our ‘nearest and dearest’ (for we are not only finite but very limited); but it can also become clear, at least intellectually, with respect to the whole of mankind and the natural world. The extent of an individual’s humanity would therefore seem to depend very much on the extent and richness of the connection to others. This entails far more than mere restrictions on egoism. It has much more to do with a creative self-project in which the creativity in question consists in the self’s growing awareness of being created by the universal process of uninterrupted creativity that is the world. Since the world is not mechanical, creativity cannot be reduced to rules, so it would seem that the desire to reduce ethics to a code of rules is simply misguided. Rules may indicate something of the character of this creativity; they cannot capture its essence. This essence has to do with the understanding that the same self is instantiated in all human beings and all are – consciously or unconsciously – expressions of universal creativity.

Natural history documentaries are a popular offering in the media, but we often fail to spot the wilful anthropomorphism that is implicit in the ‘stories’ told by the voice-over, particularly when what is shown is the life of the higher mammals. The animals are often being used, tacitly, not only to tell a tale, but also to make a moral point. Sometimes the moral point is that animals can be nice and cuddly and exhibit traits strikingly similar to human virtues; but sometimes the point is that the animals show up the ‘dark’ side of nature, and possibly of humankind, in their predatory, perfidious, selfish mode. We see films of chimpanzees turning from their peaceful grooming of each other’s fur and from their vegetarian diet to form ‘ferocious’, co-ordinated marauding bands of monkey-hunters, that tear their prey from limb to limb and devour the flesh with ‘grisly enthusiasm’. We then see father gorillas at one point dandling their young on their knees, playing with them with all the ‘tenderness’ and ‘delighted affection’ of a devoted human father and then aggressively charging a rival, teeth bared and drumming his chest to intimidate. Noble savage and King Kong. We then draw the conclusions from these two different sets of images that our nearest cousins in the non-human animal world combine in their range of behaviour aggressively violent urges and peaceful, generous tendencies. Which of the two we choose to emphasise is largely a matter of taste. The lesson at all events seems to be that humanity, too, is both thuggishly predatory and peaceably collaborative.

And indeed, this would seem to be the case when one considers the history of the social order and of the ethical codes that have developed with it. Interest has always seemed to have centred on stably inhibiting the lusts of the human animal. Our interest here, however, is not so much with traditional ethical theories of the deontological (i.e the ‘thou shalt’) type. These usually bolstered their claims by appeals to ultimate metaphysical authorities and were as unconvincing as the efforts of modern western ethical codes which are saddled with the problem of ‘proving’ themselves by means of a language that can only describe the disposition of objects in space. Modern ethics tries in vain to prop itself up with various types of ‘proof’ as if rules for living could be arrived at in the same way that theoretical knowledge of ‘facts’ is established. Since there are no certain facts about the universe, it seems bizarre to expect any certainty from ethical rules. Yet we are still searching for just this certainty. This is because same ideology governs our attempts to establish a convincing ethical code as governs our collecting of scientific knowledge. The same ego-driven obsession with repeatable rules and control governs both. Needless to say, the shortcomings of our scientific method are greatly amplified when we try to apply it to matters of such ‘unreality’ as ‘the way the world or our lives in it should be’. The rational ego entirely lacks the intellectual means for dealing with this should except as the more or less disguised compulsion of rules, codes of practice and laws.

Modern ethical codes essentially fall into two categories, the descriptive and the non-descriptive. The descriptive codes try to derive their rules and guidelines from a ‘naturalistic’, i.e. scientific portrayal of how humans have evolved to live together and how compromise and mutual respect seem to be basic requirements for any sort of stable social structure. All of these are more or less confused as ethics since they suffer from the logical handicap that values cannot be derived from facts. No ‘ought’ from ‘is. Facts imply no values; and so prescriptions cannot be derived from descriptions. The non-descriptive codes, on the other hand usually hope to find the means by which humans may be forced by rational proof to obey rules that they would not otherwise respect, just as in science they may be forced to believe things they would otherwise not believe. The descriptive theories try to derive the inductive ‘evidence’ for their case from what appears to be ‘good’ practice in human groups, that is to say, useful practice that permits the widest range of chosen behaviour with the minimum of restrictions, the greatest possible complexity in unity. The non-descriptive theories, by contrast, try to derive their rules and principles by logic itself and try to demonstrate, according to some premise (rationality, respect for persons, God etc.) that it is somehow contradictory for any one member of a given group to want to indulge in practices that he or she is not prepared to permit to others. The metaphysical beliefs that underpin such systems, however, have to be taken on trust.

But our concern here must not be with the competition between two types of rival theories but rather with the phenomenon of ethical rule-making as such. Why is it that the human animal feels obliged to give itself (or rather the other) mechanical rules for living? The non-human animals have no need for rules, in the sense of sets of sentences prescribing codified instructions. How could they, since they don’t have sentences in which to codify their rules? For us, these sentences are a sub-group of all the sentences that we as a species think of as ‘knowledge’: they constitute a special kind of knowledge, namely of what actions are to be desired or what actions are in our interest. As such, they suffer from the same shortcomings of all propositional knowledge: they serve the ego and its ambitions for ever more power and control.

There is, of course, a large body of philosophical and scientific opinion that states categorically that no sentence of an ethical type can constitute knowledge, simply because knowledge is a matter of describing contingent facts or stating logical tautologies whereas ethics is a matter of enunciating values and values are neither self-evident truths nor observable entities. The non-descriptive ethical theories may agree with this analysis in concentrating on trying to argue for moral precepts in ways that make no appeal to facts. The descriptive ethical theories, on the other hand, try to describe the facts in such a way that they seem to suggest by themselves that certain types of rules are desirable or necessary, given our needs and wishes for certain ends. But behind both types of theory, there is the notion that rational discourse with practical significance can only be about states of affairs one can actually observe: now what one actually observes is just the disposition of objects in space and no more. Since no principles that value one state of affairs over another can actually be observed, as the arrangement of objects in space is contemplated, no evaluative principles can, by definition, be talked about rationally. It does not need a great deal of thought to see that this kind of restriction of the ethical debate is driven, as is so much in our culture, by the thing-ideology and by the belief that only mechanical states of affairs can be the subject of rational discourse. The upshot of this culturally determined inability to talk about what is of most interest to human beings – namely the value, sense and purpose of human life – is the existence of two equally defective types of ethical system, both of which are skewed by the same restrictive view of the world, by the same defective belief concerning the sorts of entities that are supposed to be in it.

The two types of system of ethical precept-making are: 1) those that simply state flatly what is normative according to some metaphysical principle; and 2) those systems that argue from observation. The arguments in the first systems are essentially deductive and the will of the human being exposed to these rules is supposed to be inclined to bow to the force of logic and accordingly follow the rules. The other system of ethical precepts argues empirically, according to the facts of the matter and draws the conclusion that, given the nature of the facts, such and such a set of rules needs to be agreed or imposed by the majority of the group and the uncooperative minority can justifiably be punished or otherwise eliminated. Both types of system rely rather optimistically on the belief that the ability to know what is ‘good’ determines the will to choose it.

Most ordinary, unphilosophical people, however, are unaware of their ‘confusion’ in matters ethical and cheerfully use both types of argument even though logically speaking they are mutually exclusive. Most people will happily argue from principle and from the facts at the same time. For example they might say: “you can’t tell lies, because dishonesty is just wrong, and anyway, human life would be impossible if you couldn’t trust anybody.” The first part of the sentence argues deontologically from metaphysical principle and the second part consequentially from supposed facts. And indeed, ordinary moral debate throughout modern western society is characterised by this sort of confusion. On the one hand, for example, grand principles are enunciated to justify rules, such as, ‘the rights of man’, ‘respect for persons’, ‘ the sanctity of life’, ‘equality of opportunity’ and so on; and on the other we talk of ‘what is good for society’, what is ‘useful’, what the ‘majority thinks’ or what is ‘in the interests of everyone’. This confusion, it must be said, is only troubling to philosophers who are concerned to come up, as in all systems of knowledge, with a coherent and consistent set of propositions from which all the rules of morality can be derived. They want to ‘prove’ that one set of rules is binding on everyone, either because of its logical force or because of its derivation from the facts of human life. This would constitute objective ethical knowledge analogous to objective scientific knowledge. Needless to say, no agreement has ever been reached on any single coherent set of precepts arguing from any single set of premises. No one thinks to reflect that it is the aim of discovering the definitive set of rules and the method adopted to accomplish this that are at fault. Thus we are left with the actual situation in which we allow ourselves to argue from two quite different and mutually exclusive sets of premises. That shouldn’t really matter, since physics does the same and relies upon there being a deeper consistency than would be achieved by opting for one side or the other. But we don’t do this in ethics: we still strive for the complete coherent set of rules. The question is, why do we need any provable rules in the first place, why can’t we just do without them altogether? The discovery of definitive laws of nature is looking increasingly like a pipe-dream; why then should we suppose that moral rules are decidable?

The search for scientific knowledge seems predicated on the assumption that the final goal of this search is to discover the ultimate mechanism governing the universe, the mechanism that will demonstrate that all reality is a mechanism. We have attributed this particular striving to the ego’s desire to control things. If ethical knowledge has any similarity at all to scientific knowledge, then mechanism and ego-ambition would seems to feed the arrière-pensée here, too. The strangest thing about all of this striving is that the possibility of a mechanised human life within the context of a mechanical world appears to be an attractive notion to the ego. It becomes less strange when one understands that it is attractive to the ego because it is a method of controlling others. A little imagination and a little passion for the human condition are enough to convince one that such nightmarish fantasies are repellent in the extreme. They are the basis of what journalists with shaky knowledge of Greek derivations call the ‘dystopic’ visions of the future found in many novels such as those of Zamyatin, Orwell, Huxley, and many others. The ego’s desire to control, to inhibit other egos fuels such fantasies. The ego never desires to inhibit itself but merely to neutralise the competition. Thus anarchism has always been understandably favoured by those who tend to see the negative side of the desire to control, whether by education or by laws. But as with all these polarising and divisive styles of thought, it appears to be basic misconceptions concerning the nature of the self and of reality that keep them alive.

Societies have throughout the ages been structured according to rules and members of those societies have always fallen, from time to time or habitually, into two banal groups: rule-keepers and rule-breakers. But it is impossible to equate the former with the ethically good and the latter with their opposite. Much of the highly ‘moral’ behaviour in traditional societies – the ferocious punishments for example – are now regarded as immoral, just as much traditionally ‘immoral’ behaviour is seen as liberating and therefore moral. The reason for this is that we are increasingly troubled by the difference between morality and keeping rules. Indeed, we know that morality and rule-keeping are different. In most societies before the arrival on the scene of modern western ‘scientific’ ways of viewing the world, the rules were derived from principle and generally from allegedly ‘divine’ principle: everyone just had to act in a certain way, because that was the way of the world, the ordained order of things. Those failing to toe the line were generally treated harshly. The supposed origin of the rules in the divine mind made them particularly binding and their non-respect particularly heinous. The sanctions for not obeying them were often therefore correspondingly ferocious. And this can still be observed in sharia-dominated Muslim societies. It seems that from the emergence of societies of any complexity at all, complex enough to require detailed guidelines for behaviour of their members, this was the pattern of rule-making. It was only with the arrival of scientific modes of discourse and their rise to the position of unique authority that they now hold in the western mind, that the problem of how rationally to justify the rules of human life arose. It seemed that rules ought to have scientific backing, too. We are now in a situation in western democracies, however – where the ultimate moral authority is supposed to be not the voice of God, but the voice of the majority – where we find it impossible to found our basic moral and legal principles on science at all. We threw out the voice of God because the ego found the notion of omnipotent competition intolerable. The ego tried logic and empiricism as a means to impose its will, but this didn’t work either. And so we are left with the current practice of not looking too closely at how we arrive at our rules. It is our confusion that allows us to use ‘contradictory’ principles. Fortunately, however, there is another route to ethics that relies neither on logic nor empiricism: the ethical codes that arise spontaneously as universal features of human social life do not need proving in order to be of service. Recognising desirable human behaviour has always been an act of the creative imagination and has operated wherever homo sapiens and maybe other species have lived in groups. This ability of the human species has never been in doubt; it is the codification of ethical theory that has distorted and often perverted the pure instinctive capacity of moral judgement. There is world of difference between instinctively recognising and disapproving the injurious nature of theft, on the one hand, and announcing that thieves have to be fined, imprisoned, mutilated, killed or condemned to everlasting torment in Hell, on the other.

But this question remains: why have people throughout the ages felt the need for rules? And why have they always felt the need to justify those rules by some sort of argument? The principal reason is the tendency of the human individual to operate according to a set of beliefs that prop up the ego’s need for control and the persona’s attachment to appearance. Such principles are still at work in the modern Muslim theocratic states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia with their policing of people’s morals. Since the ego associates itself closely and uncritically with what, on the basis of its emotions, it values most – in Islam, the Koran – and since it desires above all control, its most fervent wish is to impose cooperation in its designs upon others. This is the source of much ethical rule-making and therefore of conflict.

Both the ego and the persona are structures laid over the self in order to facilitate the satisfaction of desires, wishes and lusts, or to enable the realisations of plans, designs, projects or intentions. These desires and designs have their origin in human ‘nature’ and that would seem to suggest that they are purely ‘natural’ phenomena. This is not necessarily the case, however, for desires and designs are often constructed socially and bolstered by purely social pressures. They can be entirely ‘artificial’. Nevertheless, certain desires and designs are common to all human beings and can be regarded as ‘natural’. These include sexual wishes, needs for nutrition and shelter, but also desire for power and influence, wishes to eliminate competitors possessing the same desires and designs and the like. Both the ego and the persona are structures that can facilitate the integration of the self in question into the social structure in which it finds itself. But this integration is not necessarily achieved. The ego and the persona can also serve to facilitate the satisfaction of wishes and the achievement of designs that militate against the structure of the ambient society. It is for this latter reason that those who wish to organise the lives of others deem rules and sanctions to be necessary or useful. It is then from the tension between the ‘good’ ego that obeys the rules and the ‘bad’ ego that wishes to break them that all the hypocrisy of social behaviour results.

It is the supposed selfishness and the supposed dissimulation of the human animal vis-à-vis its fellows that makes rule-making and rule-observing a vital part of human groups. The ego is insatiable; but the resources available are finite. The desires of one ego have therefore to be weighed against the desires of all other egos, for the ego cannot abide the thought of not permitting to itself what others permit to themselves. The question is, is there any other substance to ethical sentence-spinning? Is there not perhaps a wider or more fundamental purpose involved? Could it be that preventing selfishness and deception and the resulting predatory exploitation are not the only purposes of morality? These may be the principal purposes of the laws of a society, but morality is an altogether different matter. Could it not be that the inner purpose of morality, far from merely guaranteeing stability in society, is to provide a structure to human existence in which life itself has meaning, purpose and direction? If this is so, morality is of a piece with creativity and externally imposed rules are quite inappropriate to both.

Morality as a striving that serves the growth of consciousness beyond the ego.

We have got away from the traditional conception of morality, where observances of various kinds integrated the observant individual into the order of things as a whole. The reason for which we have got away from this conception of morality is again the thing-ideology and the obsession with a granular or atomic structure to the world. Each human individual who firmly believes in the thing-ideology and who considers him- or herself, by that token, as a thing, will tend to be convinced that his or her only duty is the fostering of the interests that are properties of that thing that is his or her self. The thing-ideology is incapable of comprehending any reasons for which wholes are referred to as wholes and not simply as collections of parts. Thus ‘society’ simply means a collection of egoistic selves. ‘Community’ means the same thing. The two words are empty as Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Britain so cheerfully pointed out. And her economists cheered her on. The dynamics of such societies and such communities are thus seen by the thing-ideology as entirely driven by the dynamics of the ego. It is therefore time we got back to a conception of morality that related it closely to spirituality and personal growth.

The ego is a selfish entity and will always seek its own interests. Thus, since no single ego is more important than any other ego, this selfishness has to inhibit itself or be inhibited in the interests of all the other, equally demanding egos that go to make up the group. But it is the inhibition of selfishness that counts and not anything else. The selfishness of the ego and the deceitfulness of the persona are thus the principal reasons for any rule-making. This fragmentary view of human groups is the dominant view in the modern west, though, as we have seen, there is some hang-over still detectable from a former age when morality was a matter of conformity by means of non-egoistic principles of one sort or another to some super-ordinate, overarching totality believed to be the ‘right’ order of reality.

The question is, is there any possible sense in a principle that is not simply that of inhibiting the essential selfishness of the human ego? The ego is at fault not only in the keeping or breaking of rules, but also in the manner in which they are arrived at. It is also at fault in the modern world in setting impossible ‘scientific’ conditions upon the ethical striving of humanity. Is there then any possibility of a morality that tends in the direction of forging wholes out of groups of human individuals, wholes that are true wholes possessing emergent properties and that are not simply the accumulated effects of the properties of the parts? Is there any sense in morality that makes wholes composed of many individual humans more than the sum of their parts, that makes wholes ends in themselves in the manner in which the ego regards itself as an end in itself? Is there any sense in which morality does for the group what desires and designs do for the individual self? The thing-ideology, with its reductive atomism, cannot understand this possibility at all; but this in itself may be sufficient reason to drop the thing-ideology as our exclusive method of approach to reality. If we do not find a morality that relates us to the world, we are finished. In dropping the thing-ideology, shedding our egoism may become that much easier. If there could be such a ‘holistic’ approach to morality and ethical sentence-spinning, how could it work?

The ego and its self-centred dynamics are fairly easy to understand in accordance with the materialistic-mechanistic-deterministic dogmatics of the thing-ideology. What we need to understand is the possibility of dynamics that are not self-focused at all, but that tend to foster the creation of cohesive, collaborative groupings. Freud postulated not only ego-instincts, the selfish lust for personal pleasure, but also the wider effects of the libido – of ‘Eros’ as he called it, using a quasi-mythical term – that were visible in the tendency of matter to bind itself into ever more complex unities: cells, multi-cellular organisms, troupes, herds, families, societies, and finally the world-community. We have seen something similar in the work of biologist Stuart Kauffman. But Freud’s theory was a mechanistic one and the thing-ideology was not able to accept the postulate of a mysterious life-force acting in addition to the simple mechanics of particulate matter. Modern physics, however, and the kind of complexity theory that Kauffman uses, have come up with a new conception of the mechanics of matter that does allow thinking of wholes in terms of ever more complex and ever more unified aggregations of material systems. Of course, one has to drop the conception of reality as a collection of three-dimensional objects and begin to work with a conception of matter that regards each unit under consideration – even down to the fundamental units of the so-called ‘strings’ that are the ultimate constituents of matter – as essentially reflective of the whole, analogously to the hologram, each part of which contains the whole. This way of looking at the holistic emergence of ever more complex unities in nature, from the bacterium to the human brain, is able to break the stranglehold that the thing-ideology has over our minds and permit the postulation of forces that are not simply those of the unit, the atom or whatever ‘thing’ you want to designate as your fundamental ‘particle’-component, ‘causing’ the dynamics of whatever system you want to consider.

To consider society as driven entirely by the dynamics of the atomic ego and by the various devices needed to restrain it, is a niggardly and unnecessarily reductive approach. The holistic approach could consider other phenomena of human society, namely those that tend to indicate a non-egoistic force that achieves ever greater unity in diversity, simply by virtue of the intelligence of the system as a whole rather than that of its individual parts. Why, after all, should intelligence be entirely the prerogative of the human brain? We attribute intelligence to creatures ‘below’ humanity on the evolutionary scale, why can we not attribute intelligence to, let’s say, human groups? Why can we not postulate a sort of group intelligence that is different from and superior to the intelligence of the individual member? We regard animals as mechanisms impelled by sub-mechanisms that we call ‘instincts’ without knowing really what we are talking about. Why should we not see animals as sensitively operating according to the intelligence of those systems upon which they depend? Why should we not see certain humans as sensitive in a similar fashion? The ego closes itself off from any such input by its egoistic beliefs; but it is entirely possible that the ‘benevolent’, ‘selfless’, ‘saintly’ giants of human morality have possessed a consciousness of the intrinsic intelligence of the human species, a consciousness that is conceivably clouded or obscured by the centripetal desires of the ego. Why should ethical thought not reflect the expansion of consciousness that one is able to observe in the evolution of species and societies? The thing-ideology has permitted the creation of a technological paraphernalia that has immeasurably extended our senses and physical capacities and immeasurably enhanced the physical possibilities of life. On the other hand, its attendant egoism has stunted us morally and taken away any possibility of talking intelligently about the constructive, collaborative forces (or ‘virtues’) that foster the cohesion of human groups and that by increasing the complexity of those groups and enhancing their power also vastly augments the potential of existence to acquire meaning, sense and direction. It is a sad feature of modern ethical theories that it is primarily the destructive (vicious) forces that they elucidate. Only virtue-theory does not do this; but it is decried by (ego-inspired) theoreticians as defective because it cannot compel anyone to do anything. But only virtue-theory is holistic in relating moral principles to the actual character of being in the world. Rather than trying rationally to compel, it presents a choice: do this and flourish, do the other thing and perish.

Ethics as a matter of ‘scientifically’ established rules for ego-inhibition is a waste of time. Holism should be given its head in ethics. We should be able to talk in terms of whole patterns of behaviour that regulate the dynamic relation of self to others. Once the ego’s creations, the thing-ideology, the reductive spirit and the mechanistic dogma have been put in their place, the holistic intuitions can be allowed to flourish and the moral crisis of the west, in which we find ourselves incapable of arguing persuasively for any principle of ethics apart from egoism and the inhibition of egoism, can be perhaps overcome. What is needed, in fact, is no more than a change of mind, a shift in fundamental outlook, a change from the thing-ideology to a preparedness to consider nature as a whole hierarchy of nested wholes. Of course, this involves looking at units not simply in terms of the properties of their parts. It involves attributing intrinsic order to units that are in some sense ‘greater’ than or ‘superior’ to the human individual. Virtues are regulated not by individual wishes but by the dynamics of the whole of human society. We have to attribute intrinsic order to groups, to processes and even to nature as a whole, if we are to postulate a more than egoistic ethics. Some ordering force (why not just call it ‘intelligence’ or ‘creation’?) produces the synthesis of emergent wholes that is not just the dynamics of the parts.

The thing-ideology maintains that only the dynamics of the parts can be taken into consideration, but not only is it a logical howler to say “because the parts are thus, the whole is thus,” it manifestly does not have to be the case. We no longer have to think of the thing-ideology as the only possible approach to reality. This change of mind may be sufficient to break our habit of always trying to solve problems by reductive arguments. In reductionism, very often our solutions become part of the problem because we are fundamentally confused about ourselves and about our connection with our fellows and with the world. If the universe as a whole is a co-ordinated energy-field, in which no part is fundamentally separate and in which each part is in dynamic, informed contact with every other part, then we can begin to regard the emergence of more complex wholes as the work of an intelligence that, while not human, nevertheless can be considered as working in human intelligence to foster its evolution to higher states of unity in complexity, higher states of consciousness. If we begin to think of the universe as intelligently coordinated and as composed of systems that are intelligently coordinated, then we will have achieved an important mindshift with implications for all areas of thought but particularly for ethics. Obviously this is not a proposal for another method of writing yet more rules

If rules are not what we need (except in legislation), what is the nature of ethical proposition-making? The answer seems to be: the expression and exploration of the virtues as creative, emergent, holistic, innovatory forces. This expression would be a kind of psychology; but a non-reductive psychology, future-directed and to that extent teleological. Thus altruism, love, generosity, kindness, benevolence, humanity, compassion, and all the other social, cohesive ‘virtues’ can be seen not just as woolly attitudes, but as forms of intelligence above, and superior to, that of egoism, rather than as anomalies to be explained away by reductive sophistry. It is simply not intelligent to consider the rational ego and its (unacknowledged) desires and designs as the sole repository of intelligence in the world. Of course the ego is bolstered in its self-belief by the thing-ideology and this ideology will always argue in its own favour because that suits the ego. That is the self-perpetuating and self-validating nature of this particular prejudice. But a simple effort of the imagination, a simple preparedness to gamble in favour of the holistic view of things may be all we need to break out of the vicious circle of the ego-driven thing-ideology and the morality of rules. We need a more contemplative, listening attitude to both ourselves and to nature as a whole. We need a more meditative, unhurried attitude to what the self if left to itself finds ‘obvious’. It may well be that a generalised meditative attitude would foster creative solutions to social and political problems that are currently impossible given the reductive, ego-driven methods in use. The ego will never be convinced that it simply ‘has to’ act in a particular way, if it does not particularly want to act in that way, simply because the wants and aims of the soul-atom are, according to the thing-ideology, ultimately and uniquely authoritative, just as the wishes of the monotheistic God (a kind of gigantic ego) were uniquely authoritative. Everyone knows what the virtues are and why they are of value. There is no dispute about this. Trying to reduce these constructive patterns of behaviour to rules is simply not necessary. The only rule would thus appear to be: ‘act in accordance with the virtues’.

It is the thing-ideology that has made ethical debate so problematic and there is no reason to perpetuate this. The European ego is still listening nostalgically to the last reverberations of the anthropomorphic, monotheistic, legislative conception of the divine and hoping to hang on to its authority. This should be allowed to die away along with all its predecessors. The new conception of the divine, if we need one, would be the simple perception that the whole is more than the sum of its parts and that nature exhibits intelligence – for example in the concept of ‘virtue’ that seems to be present in all societies without exception – in ways that cannot be grasped except by holistic, non-reductive, non objectifying means that abandon the thing-ideology in matters moral altogether. After all, it was the thing-ideology that created the moral crisis of the west in the first place, by announcing that only things could be talked about intelligently. Seeing nature as a totality of nested processes, some of which surpass our understanding, but which we can nevertheless consider as intelligent, would be a very salutary state of mind to adopt for the purposes of ethics.

Seeing nature as bound together in ever greater complex unities by a dynamism, by a creative ‘playfulness’ (lila is the Sanskrit word) that seems to have value built into it (or ‘dynamic quality’ as the imaginative alternative thinker Robert Pirsig calls it in his book Lila) would get us out of the cul-de-sac we have created for ourselves through our reductive deterministic view of the world and with our obsession with material atoms and mechanical rules. It would get us out of the tendency that we have developed from the dawn of the scientific age to consider human life from the ego’s animalistic point of view as a bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of all against each that was Hobbes’s version of Plautus’s principle. If humanity is no more than a collection of egos out to get what they can, this is indisputably the case. A holistic view of humanity as growing towards a consciousness of the self, i.e. towards an intelligent relation to reality as a whole, would enable us to locate the ethical striving of man within the general purposiveness of natural creativity and thus provide a sense to existence in a way that mere ego-inhibition cannot. This way of seeing the world may only be comprehensible as a myth. But that does not mean it would be untrue. It would be a post-egoistic, post-scientific myth of enormous practical value. To ground this myth emotionally rather than rationally we can talk of ‘love’ – the love of the self for the intelligent system that sustains it: the world.

This notion of love of the self for the world is of course essentially similar to the love of the soul for God found in traditional Christianity. That, too, does not mean that it is untrue.

No comments: