Living Ethics: The Way of
by Donivan Bessinger
Summer in the south hangs heavy, hazy, hot, humid. It is not a time for serious thought, unless one can find a quiet swimming pool to wash the sweat away. Then even in the sun, the brain cooled by evaporation can turn for a few moments to un-ordinary questions, and perhaps even try to make sense of life's syntactical jumble.
The sun sparkles on the surface of the shimmering water. In the late afternoon the shade of the tall trees nearly reaches the edge of the pool. The water's surface quietens, more in response perhaps to the heaviness of the summer air than to any rules of gravity, surface tension, or fluid dynamics. It is the stifling air that stills the surface. The only activity is the frantic swimming of an ant.
I reach to place a small leaf beside the ant. It crawls onto the green island of safety, which I lift and place on the pool deck. The ant happily scampers away to rejoin its colony, to resume its work.
Why did I do it? It was not a planned or even rational act. Whence came the impulse to intervene in the ant's crisis? What has an ant to do with world problems and medical ethics?
My thoughts evaporate with the drying of my skin. As the sweat returns to wet the skin again, I remember a book I read as a teenager, a story of a jungle doctor, a story of an African river and of a herd of hippopotamus cooling in the river at sunset. I dive back into the pool. As the brain re-cools, I recall the phrase, and the syntax begins to become clear once more.
Any relationship between a fatigued swimming ant and human problems must be very tenuous indeed. Surely such an ant carries less weight in world affairs, or even in my personal affairs, than does its body weight in comparison to the weight of the world's oceans -- inconsequential indeed, and far beneath ordinary notice.
While that individual ant may be well beyond the immediate concern of our discussion, nothing is beyond the web of relationships which encompasses all-that-is. It is fundamental to our argument that there is a relationship, or more generally, that there are relationships connecting all things in the universe.
That is the central theme of Wholeness and Ethic, which explores the connection between worldview and the formulation of ethics. Since the theme of systems order presented there is crucial to our argument here, we would do well to review the main points of evidence before continuing.
All things and all actions are interconnected in a web of various types of relationships. Our view of the relationships between those things, and our view of the forces acting on them, inevitably influences our formulation of ethical problems and determines our proposal of solutions. Our ethics is determined by our worldview.
In the light of knowledge first available only in the twentieth century, most of it new in the last half of the century, a new worldview is gradually emerging. It is a systems-based view of our physical reality, informed by the sciences of complex phenomena, quantum physics, ecology, psychology, physiology, and by an evolving theory of evolution. Just as our theories of reality control the design and thus the result of scientific experiment, so also does our view of reality control our arguments about what is ethical and what is not. These developments must force a re-examination of ethics theory.
Our understanding of human nature also determines our view of phenomena around us. We live in a world which still has many conflicting views of the relationship of humans to physical reality, and of the nature of the human person. In the previous volume, we contrasted various types of worldviews. On the one hand, mythic worldviews describe physical and psychological truths primarily using the symbolic language of the unconscious. The scientific (reductionist) worldview seeks to describe those realities in purely objective and cognitively precise language.
That contrast, or "conflict between science and religion," can still generate acrimonious and angry debate with each camp accusing the other of denying truth. In one sense (broadly construed, I grant), each camp defines the human in terms of only one half of human nature -- the unconscious or the conscious. In actuality, individuals and organizations blend these ideological ingredients in different measure to create a very wide range of points of view.
If we are to surmount such differences, we will need to come to a common view of the world, or at least develop an ability to analyze and understand one another's worldviews. A common worldview does not imply (nor is it desirable to have) uniformity of opinion on all matters. It implies an ability to understand a common philosophical language in debating the ethical issues of the day.
Now, more than ever before, new evidence is bringing us closer to a synthesis. We can begin to affirm that the reality of the unconscious human spirit is harmonious with that of our conscious experience of scientifically affirmed reality. That gives us the outline of a potentially unifying worldview.
First, there is substantial evidence from physics that the physical universe is a wholeness, connected by a non-local reality which is far different from the impression we get in classical mechanics and in ordinary experience.
Biology, too, illustrates the intimate interconnectedness of all life. It is demonstrable in genetic sequences which are common to many different species, even ones not in obvious or direct kinship in the traditional evolutionary "tree of life." This interconnectedness is also demonstrable in the web of ecological relationships by which species work together and survive together.
Physiology gives us the key concept of homeostasis. Each organism combines many different cells, organs, and organ systems. Yet these different entities are not independant. They work together harmoniously, through a variety of chemical, nerve, and cell-mediated information systems, to maintain a stable internal balance which supports life. Even though the environment changes, within the limits to which the organism is adapted the organism can make adjustments and return to its stable balance, or its flux equilibrium.
Organisms also interact with each other in various ways to maintain an ecological or a social stability. Sometimes species "hold steady" over eons, demonstrating a certain homeostasis operating both within a species and between a species and its environment. The ancient but still extant coelocanth (fish), certain shellfish, and sharks are interesting examples.
At the human systems level, our laws, various emergency services, communications systems, wide division of labor, diversification of economic activities, military and enforcement agencies, and diplomatic services all work toward a certain stability for a global sociological homeostasis. The well-ordered society is an organism with its own dynamic equilibrium.
There is also a strong basis for affirming a unified view of human nature. In secular public discourse about the human personality, we are still well enmeshed in the mythic-scientific polarizations mentioned above. Freud opened the unconscious to systematic analysis, but he considered religion to derive from neurotic illusion. That legacy has been followed successively by theories of cultural determinism, behaviorism and cognitivism which deny or minimize the influence of the unconscious domain.
It was Carl Jung, Freud's onetime protege, who gave a model of the psyche which treats mankind's unconscious "spiritual" dynamics as the operation of a normal homeostatic mechanism. Jung points us toward the understanding of the wholeness of the human person, in whom the cognitive reason of consciousness must be brought into balance with the demands of the intuitively creative unconscious.
His method is empirical and his language draws heavily on the various mythologic systems of mankind's history. Thus his model is expressed in the language of function rather than the language of physical description required by modern molecular biology. Nonetheless Jungian description is valuable, even indispensable, for its view of individual human nature as an integrative homeostatic system.
Jung also pointed to functional evidence for a collective unconscious which represents our shared human nature, and which defines the highly consistent way humans have processed symbols and dealt with the religious dimension of life since man's earliest times. Certain archetypal symbols and themes have been recurrent in all mythic systems throughout history, and appear regularly in the dreams of modern peoples of all cultures. This psychological evidence, buttressed by mythological scholarship such as that of Joseph Campbell, indicates that the same human nature is shared among all peoples.
Just as physical reality touches a non-local dimension beyond ordinary experience, so too does psychological reality touch a non-local collective dimension beyond ordinary consciousness. In the emerging systems synthesis, we are called again to recognize the insight of Heraclitus at the origins of Western thought, that "All is One." In that realization of the intimate connectedness of All-that-is, we stand at the threshold of a renewed examination of "How should we live."
[Contents page] , [TOP] , [Previous Chapter] , [Next Chapter]
Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.