Ethics, our code of behavior, is a complex and deep subject, that spans the spectrum from the trenches of warfare, to the divine realms. Historically, ethics refers to the “rightness” or “wrongness” of actions, and motives; and is relative to culture and circumstance. But we need not be chained to historical thinking processes. We are quite capable of thinking for ourselves – and defining our own meanings.
Ultimately we define words with our own unique spin. All people with eyes don’t see things exactly the same way. The same is true for all of our senses; as well as our minds. Just as our personalities reflect our unique perspectives and vantage points relative to each other, so do our understanding of the meanings of things. As the universe holds all diversity together without contradiction, I try to apply this way to my understanding of ethics.
Ethics, as a code of behavior is based upon how we perceive our relationship to be with our world, universe, spiritual hierarchy, etc. Hinduism teaches “dharma” (the way of righteousness), and Taoists speak of the “Tao” (the way). This post explores ethics as a function of a broader, universal perspective: “the way of the cosmos.” How would a person in tune with the way of the cosmos behave? The cosmos provides a right to life for many strange and diverse life forms. The cosmos does not appear to be selfish or biased in its granting of rights to life. From this perspective, ethics is about going with the flow of the universe; understanding its ways, and working with it, vs against it. There are many aspects to the way of the universe, and each aspect has layers of meaning – evolving meaning; meaning that expands and deepens. To study the nature of the universe is to study the ethics of reality. Following the expanding path of universal ethics is following a path of evolution. As we evolve in our understanding and identity, the scope of how we think, feel and behave evolves.
What is the nature of the universe? Is there a universal “right” or “wrong”? What behavior is in tune with such an understanding? A simple example is sustainable living. Viewing the environment as a closed system supports behavior that balances creation, maintenance, and destruction – a way that mimics the way of the cosmos. Viewing the environment as an open system, has created exploitation, waste and pollution; limiting the ability to continue creating in this way.
Human ethics are not so simple; as we must deal with perceptions and concepts, rather than just material logistics and energy flow.
Understanding ethics allows us to use our abilities in a way conducive to evolution; in a way that mirrors how the universe functions. Keep in mind that the universe operates on both small and large scales – and things from these various perspectives may appear to contradict any general assumptions we might make. An ethical path involves respecting life and its circumstances. Conscious ethical awareness balances the unconscious survival instinct – it is an aspect of the virtue of “compassion”.
Do we live in a universe defined merely by “survival of the fittest”, or is this only the perspective of some of the fittest? There are examples in our universe of the fit protecting and even sacrificing their lives for the weak (body guards); and of the weak commanding the fit. Of the learned educating the ignorant; of those with more sharing with those with less. Step outside of yourself, step outside of your biology for a minute…what is the way that includes all ways?
Ethics represent the code we live our lives by. We accept it from others, or write our own law, and we live by it, for better or worse. For some, ethics has come to mean “anything that promotes one’s survivability”. But this interpretation has no boundaries, or motivation to evolve. A strict interpretation of “ethics = survival”, or soldier ethics, may be appropriate for certain life-or-death situations, but it only serves to keep one in the game (life in a body); it does not reach beyond the body. There is no upward, evolving motive. “Upward” and “evolving” are about growth, not surviving. My definition of ethics is a path to evolution; which involves a constant urging to evolve (pushing you beyond your self – beyond the hardwired desires of your body). It’s not an all-or-nothing philosophy; it is the best synthesis of nature and spirit that we are capable of in the moment.
Survival vs Thrival
Life can be defined by two realms: survival and growth (thrival). An organism (be it a single cell or an entire body) must first survive before it can grow. You cannot perform your life’s purpose if you are ill. First you need stable health (survival), then you are capable of getting involved out in the world (doing things other than surviving). Who would write poetry or design cell phones if everyone were only concerned with personal survivability all the time? Surviving is only phase one. Phase two lies beyond.
The goals are different for the two realms. Survival is survival, growth is growth. Survival is about staying in the game. Growth is about ethics; a more advanced concept concerned with the natural order of the universe (vs keeping one body alive). If there is no distinction between ethics and survival, then there are no boundaries to the animal nature (the urge to kill to get what you want); and there is no guiding star to beckon you beyond your self. If everything is about survival, nothing is about growth. A survival-only orientation may provide you with a stable foothold in the game (the cyclical path of nature), but by definition, there will be no evolution – no upward movement. Ethics come from above (a straight line up to “divinity”, spirit or higher consciousness). Survival comes from below (the circle of nature). Evolution is nature spiraling upward toward greater things.
Souman and Ernst from Tübingen, Germany, have shown that we tend to walk in circles without something beyond ourselves to guide us (like the sun, a landmark or compass). This analogy also applies to ethics (learning to function as the universe does). If our only guiding reference is ourselves (our inner perceptions), our ethics tend to follow the circular path of the Quo (staus quo, or survival “as is”), rather than the Tao (evolution or growth beyond the way things are now). There are layers of depth to every idea. The Ouroboros represents how life consumes itself to continue to exist; it represents the closed system of nature. Though any given body may cycle within nature, the spirit extends beyond nature’s cage – beyond the cycle; it has direction – it evolves. As new beings are born into the world, and learn the basics of survival, those here before them help them to grow. The elders teaching the young the nature of the universe and its relationship to who we are. With this sense of being we conduct an ethical life and evolve.
A code of ethics arises through contemplation. We observe, we contemplate, we conclude, and along the way we make practical assumptions. Out of this process we formulate our code of behavior. Due to our physical design, our knowledge is always bound by biology and ignorance. We need to take this fact into consideration by acknowledging that our conclusions about our experience of life are working conclusions, not absolutes. Life is full of mystery, so we have to learn to observe as purely as possible, make educated guesses, and modify our conclusions as we go.
A rule of thumb: trust experience, question interpretation (another way to say this: trust events, question meanings). “Believe” the message that your eyes reported to your brain, but realize both the eye and the mind are easily fooled, so one should remain certain about nothing. Instead stay open to the fact that all knowledge is relative and limited, and may ultimately be proven wrong as you learn more.
“The wise man learns more from the fool
than the fool learns from the wise man.”
– Marcus Aurelius
We must listen for truth in all words: from old and young, good and bad, wise and foolish, mundane and fantastic. We can be sure of nothing, so be attached to no idea. Allow your knowledge to be proven wrong as you evolve. You can’t evolve without being proven wrong, so accept that all your conclusions are works in progress; stepping-stones to deeper understanding. Do not become attached to what you know or believe – stay open to evolution.
Codes of ethics are often issued from religions; supposedly originating from “God” (an unquestionable authority figure; and another concept that we may one day realize we got “wrong”…). Part of human evolution involves not believing everything we are told – whether it be from good or bad teachers, or beloved organizations we grew up with. To evolve, we must learn to tap into the source of truth for ourselves. In doing so, we will confront that which resides within our mortal bodies… and our perception of the universe will change.
We must realize, that so long as we are in bodies, we are subject to the influence of its biological ways: that traumatic events shape/taint our philosophies. Our bodies are hard wired to survive, and so we must acknowledge such urges, vs reflexively obey them. We must give the body its due; but to evolve, we need to constantly stretch beyond our biology. We live as the middle climber on the mountain of evolution. Attached by rope, we are pulled up by spirit above us, and dragged down by nature below us. Ethical living is a balancing act, that is hopefully slightly out of balance, in favor of “up”.