Clarifying Ethical Issues

by E. Alan Meece (Eric Meece)

There is much misunderstanding about ethics and morals, even today. The role of philosophers is to clarify these issues, and that is my intention in this paper. One famous such issue is "moral relativism," cited by many preachers as a sin that destroys ethical principles. On the other hand, "moral absolutes" are seen by others as intolerant and restrictive. Various faculties are cited as sources of ethical behavior, and there is also much misinformation about these.

Let us begin with the favorite among traditional philosophers, reason. Because it is often cited, even by brain scientists, as a faculty which can "control the emotions," it is considered an essential faculty for ethical behavior. If somehow guided toward "the good," as Plato called it, reason can lead us to discover what is the right thing to do. It may even provide principles to live by. However, my first point is that reason by itself does not ENABLE us to do the right thing. Knowing what is right, is not the same thing as doing what is right. Reason needs will. Without it, reason is impotent. Ideas, not acted upon, remain just thoughts. So for example, I could know reasonably that smoking is dangerous to health. It takes will to act on that knowledge to stop smoking. I may be aware that stealing is unethical, but greed may still get the better of me. Even worse, reason itself is one of our greatest addictions, especially among philosophers and other intellectuals. Reason is more likely to be led astray by emotions, as to control them. Our thoughts constantly lead us around, causing us to daydream our lives away. We plan what to do or say, or review what should have been done or said in the past, in order to avoid supposed future dangers. Under these psychological conditions, our thinking is based on fear, uncertainty, regret, anger, or selfish desires. What's even worse, reason, when addictive and unmanaged, causes a drastic decrease in our conscious awareness. If I am always thinking about the future, for example, then I am not present. When the future I have planned for finally arrives, all my plans will be of no use, because I won't even be there. My mind will be preoccupied with thoughts about yet another future. Being less aware of what is happening, I am less equipped to respond to it effectively or ethically.

Being aware of these and other limitations to our reason, does not mean it is of no use at all to us ethically, as we have seen. When healthy instead of addictive, it may still help us understand what is the right thing to do in a situation. It is also useful for other purposes, such as engineering, and coherent communication (such as I hope this paper is an example of). So the answer is not to discard reason, or never use it. Still less can we blame reason for all of our misbehavior. Nor can we blame the past and the future. If we become addicted to reason, then we need to look at addiction itself as the culprit. In addition, we need to look at the other faculties that, in conjunction and in proper balance with reason, enable ethical behavior.

The most important place to begin, is to look at addiction. For this, Buddha's Second Noble Truth is essential. The First Noble Truth states that life is full of struggle, pain and suffering. The Second Noble Truth is the cause of this suffering, which Buddha called "craving." The Third Noble Truth provides the cure, often called "nirvana," which means the cessation of craving: "abandonment, forsaking, release, non attachment." (Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, p.430.). The Fourth Noble Truth outlines the 8-fold path to nirvana, which includes various ethical principles and meditation practices. The second noble truth, or the cause of suffering, is often translated as desire; but I think this is misleading. When you crave something, you are addicted. These cravings we find difficult to stop, unless we follow Buddha's or someone else's path to release. So the problem in craving, is its power over us. Release or nirvana means taking that power back. Thus "abandoning" may also be misleading, since we are also empowering. This may be why Buddha included "diligence" (or will) as part of his 8-fold path.

My contention is that Buddha was right; he found the cause of suffering. Ethical behavior depends first and foremost on release or liberation from craving. All of our misbehaviors are various forms of this craving, labelled with many different names. My favorite name for craving is possession. Something, either within or without, has taken us over. We are no longer free, but are driven and controlled by what possesses us. This could be our own faculties out of balance, such as our reason, or our emotions, or our senses; or most likely some combination of these. Compulsion is another name for craving; the opposite of freedom. Other names for craving are attachment, clutching and clinging, as when we can't let go of people, ideas, emotions, plans, property, or whatever it is. The most powerful craving is fear; the panic that causes us to fight or flee for our survival. It may be necessary in an emergency, but most of us are unaware of the extent to which it has taken over our every waking moment even when no danger is present. Most other harmful emotions, such as anger, jealousy, envy, greed, and even over-indulgence, are based on fear. It also causes most of the clutching and clinging I described above. In other words, we cling to things out of fear of what might happen if we lose them. We may also be addicted to pleasure or comfort, although this also is frequently driven by fear. Thus we have cravings for sensual pleasures, like smoking, eating, drinking, sex, entertainment, or staying snuggled up in a warm bed. We would rather not take on difficult tasks, because we'd rather take the easy way out and enjoy these pleasures instead. Plato in The Republic called this the "leaden weights" that keep us chained and bound inside "the cave."

Our fears and attachments rob us of our power, and cause us to be helpless victims to our addictions. We may appear weak and passive in the face of them. But craving also includes much of our active, aggressive behavior too. If we are too pushy, too domineering, too interested in controlling others instead of ourselves, or too aware of our own agenda instead of the needs of others, we are addicted. We act from our cravings, such as fear, anger or attachment. So "active" here is really passive, masquerading as active. If our actions are based on our addictions, if we are being possessed when we act, then we are not really acting at all. We have lost our own freedom and our own will, even before we take it away from others. To state this more strongly: people take freedom away from others precisely because they have lost it themselves, and for no other reason. Such is the over-riding significance of the Second Noble Truth.

This does not mean I am claiming that, if we end craving, we will all be free; in the sense that all conflicts between people will end, and so we won't need any more governments. Individuals have many conflicting needs, and to live together on Earth we need referees, judges, legislators and executives to enable us to live and work together in society. False ideologies, such as free-market economics, whose foremost saint and mentor is the man we are commemorating, but which has again been thoroughly discredited by recent events, is based on the notion that things will work out if external controls are taken away. Indeed, I think that if we were freed from all of our cravings, we would work out our conflicts in peace, but we would still need management and government. Thus, IF we could manage our cravings and be free, THEN we would need fewer police, prisons, soldiers, social workers and welfare states. Meanwhile, it pays to understand that we have a long way to go before most of us humans have reached nirvana, and thus free-market and other limited government schemes serve only to release more greed and dominance of the weak by the strong, the middle class and poor by the rich, and so on. Tearing down the structures of society, before we achieve freedom within ourselves, only delays our progress. Let them wither away on their own, where possible, as Marx said.

Another conception often given by preachers and religious philosophers, is that we become ethical, or "saved," if we surrender our will to God's. Leaving aside for now the ultimate question of God's existence, the question I want to raise is whether we can achieve nirvana or liberation by giving up our will. So far we have established the idea that it is possible to be free of craving, and thus of suffering. To be free, though, would seem to be another word for having one's own will. If one is possessed or addicted, one has lost this. So it would seem to be necessary to have will, rather than to surrender it to a higher power, in order to be free. Will is action or thought that is done freely, by intention. Will is frequently confused with aggression. But if aggressive domination of others is really passive behavior, pursued by persons possessed by craving, then it is the exact opposite of will. Similar to aggression is the concept of trying to force things, to strain, to be tense, to push too hard. This is also confused with will, but since will is free behavior, it is also the exact opposite of strain and lack of relaxation, and of what we call "forcing your will on others." Since true will is relaxed, therefore, there is no need to speak of any additional "surrender." If one is no longer possessed, or has "surrendered cravings," one has "surrendered" all one needs to.

But (speaking of individuals in conflict who push their agenda over others) another favorite culprit often blamed for unethical behavior is "the ego." This is also described as "selfishness." To be ethical, it is claimed, one must think of others instead of yourself. To put others before self is the mark of saintly behavior. The first question becomes, what IS this self, this "ego", that is such a problem? I suggest again, that the real problem is craving, and that therefore in unethical behavior, the self or ego is possessed, rather than free. The culprit is not the self, therefore, but possession of the self by cravings. Individuality may not be the problem, but actually the opposite; being taken out of one's own center. On the other hand, as we have seen, the instinct of self-preservation lies at the root of fear. It has been implanted deep inside us since the earliest evolution, and is called the "panic button." When creatures were less conscious than we humans are now, fear and panic were necessary to arouse an organism to protect itself. Now that we are more conscious, we have less need of this automatic mechanism. Yet this evolutionary leftover is still allowed to rule over most of our lives. To be less "selfish" then, is to be more free from this instinct of self-preservation or fear, which in turn allows a wider perspective that considers other's needs as valuable as one's own, or even as part of one's own. This is why a Buddhist who has reached nirvana is compassionate as well as liberated.

Another point of view about ethics, is that it is transcended in higher states of consciousness, implying that ethics is only relevant at lower levels. Joseph Campbell, for example, spoke of this in The Power of Myth. He referred to the aesthetic principle of "the sublime," in which one feels divine wonder and power amidst terrible storms and horrific events. He took this from the philosophy of Schopenhauer, who defined the "sublime" as what we experience when we view terrible events from a point of view beyond our personal interests. Our awareness shifts from our own feeling of being in danger from the events, to the wonder and power of the events themselves. But this implies that the ethical is present, since in the sublime we have transcended "selfishness" and can see beyond the needs of "the ego" and our instinct of self-preservation.

Will, as we have seen, is power to act freely, by conscious intention. It is focused power; relaxed instead of strained. Will is a faculty that is often denied, or (in what amounts to the same thing) confused with aggression, out-of-control passion, or self-seeking. But it is not possible to act ethically without will, so denying it is of no use to us here. It should be clear also that to affirm will, or to say that reason without will is not enough, is not to deny the value of reason, or to say that humans are irrational. Though necessary, in fact, will is not sufficient. One may have free will, but will to do what? Guidance from some source or faculty on what to do is necessary too.

Immanuel Kant in Prologue to Any Future Metaphysics understood that both reason and free will are necessary for ethical conduct. Our rational faculty grants us principles which guide us, if we choose a principle that we would have all people observe and not just ourselves. He also affirmed the principle that people are to be treated as ends in themselves, not as means to an end. One must therefore respect peoples' freedom, rather than making them into instruments of your own will. Acting freely according to principle is ethical behavior, according to Kant. And Plato said The Good is the ultimate principle of truth. But the utilitarians pointed out that principle does not guarantee a good result to our actions. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, so we need an ethical "stimulus package" to improve our infrastructure, so we can have better paved roads to get where we're going. Bentham defined this as "the greatest good for the greatest number." This might be provided by various social reforms and technical innovations. But this leaves out the question of just what is "the Good." Ethical guidance is still missing. For any utilitarian "result" to be good, it still must meet the definition of good.

Moral relativists claim that no such definition is possible. It depends on the circumstances, and on what your culture defines as good. One must either improvise or act on instinct, hoping that whatever you do will turn out right, or one needs some other source besides principle to guide you. This leads some, perhaps including Adam Smith (though I have not yet read The Theory of Moral Sentiments), to attribute this source to our feelings, sentiments or other non-rational apprehensions. This source remains ill-defined, but not for that reason alone, insufficient. Truth is not limited to what can be defined or described in words or other symbols. If our feelings are free and honest, which I would define as free from compulsive craving and attachment, then they may provide guidance toward the good. The best of these feelings is love, or what the Buddhists call compassion. Another such feeling is beauty. When one experiences beauty, it is not only a feeling we may crave, or want to promote and share with others, but an apprehension of a grace beyond description that provides a model of an ideal life we can live by. If Love is another word for The Good, and Beauty is also a part of the Platonic triad of ultimate principles, then it might be reasonable to assume there may be a connection after all between reason and principle on the one hand, and the apparently "relative" and undefined ethical feelings and sentiments on the other.

This might not be enough to satisfy the critics of moral relativism, many of whom assert that only the principles laid down by revelation are reliable. But if one believes in moral principles because one is told to do so by some authority, then one is being compelled and not free. This kind of moral absolutism may thus be just another form or craving or possession, which cynical elitists think necessary to control the ignorant masses who can't think for themselves, nor be trusted with power and a will of their own. We have another source of absolutes though, in the form of the eternal archetypes which Plato described so well in The Republic. I am inclined toward the notion that this connection between feeling and principle indeed exists, and is the source of ethical guidance. My analysis of colors, among other things, convinced me of this. Color is very beautiful, the medium of art; and it is experienced through the senses. Our experience of beauty depends on colors and similar media. And yet there can be no explanation for color other than as archetypes. Defining them as different wavelengths only translates them from color archetypes into mathematical archetypes. The colors arrange themselves into the rational form of a circle, and always in the same order. This fact is not changed at all if we define one point on this circle as "blue" instead of another. Whatever we call blue, we all experience it the same way.

Plato's definition of "reason" includes knowledge of these archetypes or forms. Knowledge of the archetype of Beauty was described in the Symposium as a kind of inspiration and immediate knowing. This is a faculty of consciousness, as well as reason. As I suggested at the beginning, reasoning alone may diminish consciousness. If fully conscious, though, reason becomes inspiration. It is because meditation increases consciousness (or presence, mindfulness, etc.), that Buddha recommended it, along with ethical principle, as the path to liberation and enlightenment.

The Republic, in which Plato defined his theory of forms and truth, was set in the context of defining justice within the state, which he described as the soul written in large letters. Justice, the essence of ethics, was defined as the proper balance between our various faculties. The philosopher king was the one who understood and administered justice for all, bringing balance among the classes of society and ensuring each would perform its proper role. I would redefine this faculty of justice, that part of the soul that balances our faculties, as consciousness; magnified and inspired. When balanced in consciousness, no one faculty, such as reason, feeling, will, or the senses, is allowed to run riot and take over and possess a person, but is kept in its proper place and performs its function. Nor can any external "demon" from society or elsewhere possess you. And when consciousness is joined together with love and will, this balance is made fully effective, both within us and in society.

Additional added notes to this paper:

I lean toward "moral absolutism;" I agree with Plato and Augustine that unless there is some absolute standard, there is no such thing as better or best, and ethics or values are arbitrary. However, there is no scroll or tablet that contains these absolutes; we can only formulate them as closely as we can. They are only implied in the comparison. And there is no one perfect example of beautiful or good in the manifest world, to which all must be compared. But what is good or beautiful is not arbitrary or "subjective." Otherwise these ideas have no meaning. We experience things that are good and beautiful, or not; and that's why we say so.

We are free to make the choice of what is best. Though guides exist, and I consider the sources of this guidance to be based on absolutes, it is still up to us to perceive and make the choice as best we can. Making the best choice, of course, is far from guaranteed to us.

According to my analysis of the philosophy wheel and the MBTI psychology system, "values" (which claim to declare what is good and beautiful) belong to the essentialist quadrant of "Platonic" reason and INtuition. They are based on the Platonic idea of the "Form of the Good," the ultimate Idea. They are first principles, which we either perceive as being true in themselves, or we don't. If true, they can be applied successfully to any circumstance. They are more general than specific. Feelings such as love and compassion are another way to perceive what is good and beautiful, and we get information on the best way to act from any and all of sources of knowledge. Using the J or judging faculty, we make the decision in a deliberate way; or we trust the flow of life (P) to lead us in the right direction. J and P are where our will operates to choose the best course of action, according to our level of perception and knowledge of "the good."

Notes and Links
"The man commemorated" mentioned above is Adam Smith, at the Annual Philosophy Department Conference at San Jose State University, May 2, 2009
Note that this paper was not accepted for the conference, so I did not read it there.

The Value of Gold and World Views (this paper on ethics WAS accepted and read there some years before)
Philosophy on a Circle