Thrawn Rickle 46


Ethics vs. Morality
© 1993 Williscroft


Have you had something stolen from you lately? Do you know somebody who has? Do you believe the world is less safe than it used to be? Have you asked yourself why societal values seem to be changing for the worse? 

Pick up any newspaper; listen to any newscast. Visit a courtroom; watch C-Span. Even if you do not have a standard against which you can measure what you see and hear, you will be left with the impression that there is something fundamentally wrong with today’s society.

 

You are not alone. Across the civilized world, men and women publicly debate the underlying reasons for this dramatic turn of events. More often than any other, the issue of morality is raised, with the usual enjoinder being that western civilization has turned away from God and the precepts that underlie Judeo-Christian thought.

Occasionally, someone will point out that similar problems are developing in societies that do not subscribe to traditional Western religious philosophy. Depending on the speaker’s own perspective, the answer usually turns around “lack of Christian values” within these other societies (which begs the question), or sage observations on how in these societies – as in ours – morals are being ignored as these societies turn away from their religious roots.

 

Common to all these “insights” is the unchallenged assumption that religious principle underlies morality, and as a society turns from traditional religious roots, it loses touch with its moral roots as well.

 

Ironically, within our own society, those who reject traditional religious values (for whatever reason – scientific, philosophical, etc.) tend to embrace “esoteric” alternatives to fill the void and supply a moral tone or framework for their lives. Witness the resurgence of astrology, crystalology, pyramidology, and the many other pseudo-scientific world-views on one hand, and the interest in Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Bahá’í, and other “foreign” religious philosophies on the other. Even within the framework of traditional Judeo-Christian thought, denominations have arisen that attempt to integrate morality and religious thought on some “higher” level.

 

This idea is pervasive: morality results from and is guided by religion. But is this really true? Back in 1947, Phillip Wylie wrote An Essay on Morals, a slender volume wherein he attempted to address this issue. More than anything else, this work is a discussion of Carl Jung’s concept of archetypal figures and the collective race memory that forms a significant part of Jung’s writings. After the first edition reached reviewers, Wylie found himself panned by critics. The common theme of their rebukes was that Wylie had not a clue about Jung’s perspective. Religious leaders were outraged, and the intellectual community followed the critics in their knowing put-down of Wylie. (In his inimitable way, Wylie had managed to step on everybody’s toes once more.)

 

While all this was going on, Carl Jung wrote to Wylie, expressing his appreciation for “the best exegesis of my writing I have ever seen.” As might be expected, Wylie took full advantage of Jung’s letter in the introduction to the second edition of An Essay on Morals.

 

According to Wylie (and fully endorsed by Jung), there is nothing at all mystical about the apparent human collective subconscious mind or memory. We are the current end product of one of Nature’s evolutionary paths. As we trace our evolutionary branch, we discover more and more common elements with members of other species.

 

One very large difference stands out, however. Human cognitive ability far exceeds that of any other species on this planet. Even when we consider such interesting phenomena as the gorilla that learned several dozen words in sign language, there still is a vast gap between our ability to think, imagine, ponder, and so forth, and that of any other species. And yet we share a large common pool of genetic material with other species, including much that has been determined to control instinct in these other species.

Why, then, do humans not exhibit the same kinds of instinctual patterns that control all other animals? We do, Wylie says, but because we have this incredible ability to think, we ask “why?” The complexity of our thinking patterns, however, causes this “why?” to be buried in our subconscious minds, where it inevitably seeks and ultimately finds answers. These answers take the form of mental constructs that appear universally across all human societies, throughout all human history. Jung calls them archetypes, and he successfully mapped these universal images to specific instinctual patterns he observed in animals.

 

Jung’s mapping is not universally accepted, but the explanatory power of his underlying insight is powerful. Once we understand that all religions, all “moral philosophies,” all ideologies have the common basis of human instinct gene patterns, we can more clearly understand why, when religious faith declines, another “faith” must take its place. Inevitably, upon close examination the similarities between this new “faith” and the old will completely overshadow their superficial differences.

 

We will accept as a premise, therefore, that we are bound by patterns of instinct. These patterns manifest themselves as archetypal figures haunting our subconscious minds with sufficient sameness that the ghosts and gods and goblins we create – no matter where or when – are more alike than not. Is it possible, under these circumstances, to formulate a moral philosophy that remains independent of these driving archetypes? 

 

Enter ethics. There always has been confusion surrounding the two concepts, morality and ethics. Before we look closer, however, let us set aside any semantic problems. I once witnessed a conversation between several women regarding the color of a piece of cloth. The color was subtle – not your basic red, black, blue, green, or yellow. Picking out a name for this color could have been an interesting exercise in advertising psychology. In this case, however, each of the women could clearly see the color; whatever name somebody somewhere might have assigned to it had absolutely no bearing on what it actually was. Nevertheless, these ladies spent fifteen minutes or so arguing among themselves about the color’s name.

 

A similar situation frequently happens when we deal with the concepts of morality and ethics. We must not allow ourselves to get wrapped up in giving one concept two names and then arguing about those names. We are dealing with two concepts and two names, so we should have little difficulty in distinguishing between them, if we define our terms beforehand. With this in mind, I will, therefore, define morality as religion-derived, and ethics as derived from first principles. The difference, then, is not a function of what, but rather of how derived. Ethical behavior (derived from first principles) can be moral within this context if it also can be derived from religious principle. Ethical behavior can be immoral within this context, if religion condemns it; and, of course, it can also be amoral if religion does not address it. Likewise, moral behavior can be ethical or unethical; and it can also be non-ethical, in the sense that it falls outside the purview of ethics.

The problem in society today is that organized religion, which has dictated moral behavior, is losing favor with the general population. Since neither our families nor our schools are teaching anything resembling ethics, the only available replacements are the “esoteric” alternatives that are becoming so pervasive, or else the more visceral “street rules” that govern urban gangs. The result is predictable.

 

Is there a genuine basis for ethics outside of the moral religious strictures that seem to bound our society? Can we really start with first principle and derive an ethical framework that will work today, that can form the basis for reasonable social interaction, that can be taught in our schools and form a basic part of family life?

For simplicity, isolate one human on an island, and let him create what he needs for survival. (For this analogy to work, ignore the requirements for physical survival, other than to acknowledge their background necessity and availability.) By himself, this solitary human requires no theoretical constructs – no ethics. He does whatever he wishes, however he wishes, whenever he wishes.

 

Now double the population of the island.

Enter ethics.

The simple fact of adding another human immediately creates the need for interaction, no matter how rare; and interaction mandates rules of behavior. No matter how informal or unstructured, in the final analysis, the presence of more than one individual mandates some kind of interactive relationship, a set of rules, ethics.

Realistically, what are these rules? One can successfully argue that there are a large number of ways two or more individuals can work out their interrelationships. While this is true, there remain several fundamental elements that are common to all of them.

For example, if a society allows wanton killing of humans in the thoughtless manner in which a person steps on a bug, it is easy to show that this society will internally destruct.

As society grows, it is easy to see that the number and complexity of these rules also grows so that one eventually reaches a more general state where the population has stabilized to where the rules – the ethics framework – has reached stasis. There are sufficient rules to govern nearly any contingency, including “contingent” rules that address the odd exception. If one then formalizes these rules, so that they can be stated logically along with their obvious derivative paths, then one has an ethics system that can be taught in class to young members of the society, and imposed on the impressionable minds of children in the home.

 

The end result is a society with a common set of ethical underpinnings, rules of behavior that do not depend on religious training or perspective, a framework that will not dissipate in the face of changing belief systems. This goal is realistically achievable if educators throughout the society are specifically charged with its implementation. The difficulty lies, not in creating the concept, structuring the class material, or disseminating the knowledge, but simply in convincing the educators – the teachers – that it must happen. Within limits legislation can help, but in the final analysis, a thoroughly convinced teacher in every classroom will make it happen.

 

The solution is at hand. It only requires implementation. And a problem with a solution doesn’t bother me.