Living Ethics: The Way of Wholeness
by Donivan Bessinger

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Throughout our study of systems and ethics, we have been confronted with considerations of level, and have encountered a number of ways in which one level may be used to illustrate or illuminate the operation of another. In discussing "the ethics of ethics," we are defining another level that must be inextricably involved in the making of right decisions. It is that other level of ethical concern that we designate as metaethics.

The meta-prefix may be unfamiliar to some readers. It is a "learned borrowing from the Greek," in the dictionary's words, which indicates a level set apart (beyond, above, etc.) from the reference level, and which defines operations at the reference level in some way. * The term's growing use is owed mostly to computer science, a discipline much involved with considerations of level. For example, one hears such terms as metadata, which may be interpreted as "data about data." Following that usage, metaethics becomes "ethics about ethics."

In recent academic usage, metaethics is that division of ethics which deals with theories about ethics, as distinguished from normative and applied ethics which seek ethical standards and solutions in stated situations. Our use of metaethics is similar, but its focus is applications, not academics. Here, we deal specifically with a concept of metaethics that can be applied in the life systems context.

In our work to this point, we have held that action must be resolved anew in each situation, giving due regard to all of the forces acting on the situation (the ethical field). At the level of ethical action, our reference level, the ethical impulse arises as reverence or respect for life, and seeks the good of life's system balance.

Defining the goal of a decision and defining the attitude in which the problem must be solved are both major steps toward making ethical decisions. However, these are still not sufficient guidance, and do not in themselves define "right action." An additional set of considerations must be brought into play, to direct the decision process itself, to define the extent of action required, and to evaluate whether the outcome is consistent with the processes and the goals of life systems.

While the conditions defining the situation are highly variable and must be individually analyzed, the life-process considerations are much more stable and structured. These considerations are derived from and are defined in the study of the life-system itself. These stable "constants" do not provide rules to be applied to the situation being decided; they provide rules for the process of making the decision. These considerations (rules) for the decision making process operate at the "meta" level, the level above ethics. It is these metaethical rules which comprise the metaethical postulates.

Formally, a postulate is a statement taken as self-evident, or accepted without proof. However, these metaethical statements derive from our study of world systems, and are consistent with the natural order, as has been made evident in the work presented in Wholeness and Ethic. Here, the term postulate is not used in the meaning "self-evident," but in its other senses of fundamental principle or a necessary condition.

The term metaethical statement is also appropriate. In computer programming, a statement is a line of instructions that require the computer to approach a problem in a certain way. Though a program may have many variables (designated memory locations) that contain different values at different times, the instructions themselves are constant. The instruction statements do not change, regardless of the number of different inputs, or the number of times the program is run. Similarly, the metaethical statements require the decision maker to handle each situation, regardless of the variations, in a constant and ethical way.

These statements define both the decision and the resulting actions, and are deemed to apply potentially in some respect to all decisions. However, in a given situation, not every statement may be given equal weight. Any decision attempts to find the best fit with all of the statements. They are not laws, but guidelines in the non-legalistic sense of that often misused term. Nor are they definitions of the ethical. These are the necessary conditions or the instruction statements that govern the making of ethical decisions:

(a) Act in an attitude of reverence for all life.

The metaethical system must be derived from the same principle that is to govern both the solving of ethical problems and the acts resulting from the decisions. The deed must be governed by the word. If reverence for life is to govern ethics, the act of deciding to act must be approached in the same attitude.

The reverence for life ethic is directed to all life. No life is excluded from consideration. In that respect, reverence for life defines an important principle that is not adequately considered in ethical systems based on altruism. Reverence for life includes reverence for one's own life.

The language here suggests the modern difficulties with the original English translation of Schweitzer's term. Reverence (respect) for one's own self does not imply any measure of narcissism or ego-centrism. Rather, it recognizes that one's own self is a part of the web of kinship of all life, and fully deserves the consideration given to other life. Acting under the inspiration of reverence (respect) for life is done in full awareness of the requirements for survival and development of all life, including one's own.

(b) Act so as to meet life needs.

The corollary of this postulate is to act so as to avoid denying life needs. A situation requires careful analysis of the potential life-effects of a proposed action, and in this respect, each situation requires a certain level of science (knowledge) of life-systems that must be taken into account. The ethics of reverence for life require respect for and practice of science.

Acting in accordance with this postulate requires making a distinction between needs and wants. Meeting life needs will require the regretful injury of other life. For example, I must kill something if I am to eat and survive. Moreover, the reverence for life principle does not require avoiding any particular type of food, so long as my choices do not violate life's balance. Reverence for life does impose a limit on my wants. Mere wants that may not be gratified without injury to the balance of life are found by reverence for life to be unethical.

In acting to meet life's needs, one must remain aware that life is a self-regulating process with limits. Reverence for life accepts that individuals cannot live forever. It finds no obligation to artificially extend metabolic process when there is no prospect that the individual organism can recover its homeostasis. Respect for life implies respect both for life's needs and for its natural limits.

(c) Act to further the development of life.

Reverence for life seeks the development of life both individually and collectively, for life itself seeks development. Life is not ordered for development toward "perfection" but toward balance. Life develops in the autonomic operation of its will-to-live, seeking to reach the fullness of both its form and its function. Will-to-live exerts a steady tension between what the organism has become and what it yet can be.

In unconscious life, acting ethically toward balance is the natural condition, an expression of unconscious will-to-live. In conscious life, acting ethically requires a conjunction of unconscious will-to-live with a conscious Will (desire) to live and to develop in balance with all life. The ethics of reverence for life seeks for all life, conscious or not, its freedom to act ethically within the limits set by life itself.

(d) Act in consideration of all life effects.

"Think globally." All life is inter-related. Actions vary in the intensity and generality of their effects, but the effects of actions potentially resonate throughout the biosphere in many indirect and often unintended ways. Many actions seem weak in this respect, in that their effects seem to dissipate immediately. However, actions may have far-reaching effects even at an imperceptible level. *

Therefore, in proposing actions, one must consider potential effects globally, not only throughout the reference level of the system, but also at the levels above and below the reference level. Reverence for life is concerned with all life.

(e) Act at the most proximate level practicable.

"Act locally." The closer one is to the level of proposed action and to the issues at stake, the more one will be sensitive to the needs inherent in the situation. The appropriate level of intensity for the action, and the immediate effects of the action will be more apparent when the decision maker is acting directly. Acting locally helps preserve proportionality between the need and the response. *

(f) Act to maximize the probability of ethical outcome.

In a complex system, one cannot guarantee an outcome based on a direct cause and effect calculation. Just as in quantum theory and in virtually all of the sciences, one must think in terms of probabilities, realizing that a given action might not have precisely predictable results, and may produce side effects. One must act with an ethical motive realizing that there is a risk that the outcome may be unexpected or undesired.

(g) Act to conserve diversity.

One of the most striking characteristics of the biosphere is the extraordinary diversity of life forms. That very diversity has been an important factor in the survival and development of life on the planet, giving life in the aggregate an adaptability, resiliency, and healing capacity which it otherwise could not have. An apparently unimportant form of life is still to be valued as a part in the chain of life. It "has value" to some other form of life on which some other form of life depends. Each species has been important in the development of all life.

(h) Act to conserve individuality.

The organisms of some less complex life forms have so little individuality that it is difficult to tell them apart, and those life forms usually must be considered as a whole. Nevertheless, each individual organism, regardless of its level of development or consciousness, "values" itself and autonomically responds to its own "will-to-live." Respect for life requires respect for this autonomic homeostatic imperative in each individual life.

The more complex the life form is, and the more individualized it is, the more the individual must be considered, for such individual has greater importance to the survival of the whole. For humans, each type of skill and each new thought carries the potential to be a valuable contribution to the whole of life.

(i) Act to conserve responsibility.

In a complex society, decisions often need to be shared. Committees, boards, congresses, and electorates all make major decisions that affect millions of lives, in all potential ways. Even so, individuals who make decisions in groups are making individual decisions. Group decisions demand the same standard of ethical thinking and concern as any personal decision.

One may not subordinate ethics to some other purpose. Every decision must be given its proper ethical weight. In an inter-related world, all questions are life questions. Operating at another life level does not invoke some alien non-life ethic. Company interest, profit margins, and national interest are not valid as guiding ethical principles, even when group decisions are concerned. *

"Thinking sincerely" is the ethical requirement at all levels of human action. Each decision maker must think through each situation, and one cannot rely on rules coded by others to assuage the personal guilt of an unethical decision.

(j) Act to conserve thought.

We have come to all of these conclusions because of knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of the world. We have relied on thought. Before humans, life apparently developed unconsciously, automatically. Now the result of human development (of civilization) is dependant on what humans consciously think. The integrity and preservation of the no”sphere, or the thought-sphere, is critical to the preservation and further development of all life.

There is an ethical responsibility not only to conserve, but also to expand, the process and product of thought. Commitment to conserving thought includes a commitment to building knowledge. Since knowledge is the sum of that which is verifiable, and thus true (insofar as truth can be known), the commitment to preserving thought is also a commitment to conserving and preserving truth. We must act both to honor wisdom and honor truth.

Reviewing the Metaethical Postulates

      (a) Act in an attitude of reverence for all life.
      (b) Act so as to meet life needs.
      (c) Act to further the development of life.

      (d) Act in consideration of all (global) life effects.
      (e) Act at the most proximate (local) level practicable.
      (f) Act to maximize the probability of ethical outcome.

      (g) Act to conserve diversity.
      Act to conserve individuality.
      (i) Act to conserve responsibility.
      (j) Act to conserve thought.

How is the life lived in accordance with reverence for life to be ordered? How may the postulates be applied to real-life situations? One can envision a number of conflicts between different individuals, and between the demands of different levels. How do the postulates determine the ethical relationships between humans and non-human life? Between an individual human and human society? Between individual humans?

We begin with the perspective that the conscious practice of ethics is distinctively a human activity, but it relates to all human decisions and actions in the biosphere. Inevitably there are and will continue to be unconscious processes (human and non-human) beyond the reach of human consciousness. Globally aware reverence for life seeks to recognize (make conscious) potential harms to unconscious life, while allowing such life to proceed under its own autonomic controls. Globally aware reverence for life understands that denying the needs of other life will, whether in the short or the long term, constitute a harm also to human life.

How do the postulates determine the relationships between an individual human and human society? If the reference level is society, why may not the individual human be treated as a means to serve society's own equilibrium? To do so, of course, would conflict with the requirements to conserve individual development, thought, and responsibility, all of which require maximizing individual freedom to that extent which does not begin to impair the freedom of other individuals. Only in honoring those postulates at the "local" individual level may society serve ("globally") its own summum bonum.

The corollary of course is that the individual's local summum bonum can only develop in awareness of the individual's global obligations to society. While it is in society's interest to allow freedom even for conscientious objection to a particular social service (for example, military service), it is the individual's obligation to serve the social equilibrium (perhaps by alternative service?), which reverence for life does not allow him in "good conscience" to avoid. Such conflicts are not resolved through polarizations of hardened moral doctrine, but must be resolved interactively and non-disruptively with a global view by all concerned, of the needs of the life system.

But what of societies faced with a hardened and entrenched government (of whatever political label) which acts contrary to the postulates and denies individual freedom necessary to meet life's needs? In such a case, the postulates provide the test for justifying the end of removing such a government, and for defining the means by which it may ethically be done. The postulates also define when the means is sufficient to the end. A revolution or coup d'etat undertaken in accord with reverence for life would avoid the common result of replacing one tyranny for another, and would be accomplished with the least possible injury to life.

Do the postulates provide guidance when the economic needs of the individual conflict with the resources of society? One immediately compelling problem is the current AIDS epidemic, in which rapidly escalating costs of individual treatment are multiplied by rapidly escalating numbers of cases to treat -- cases which at present [1993] are universally expected to be fatal. Particularly in the care of the terminally ill, it is important to recognize life's limits, and to avoid interventions which have no prospect of helping when the patient is beyond benefit. "Conserving thought" and knowledge requires the continuing search for measures which do provide benefit, though it does not follow that society must provide all patients equal access to unproven experimental treatments.

How do the postulates determine the relationships between individual humans? If the reference level is the individual, what determines whose life, or whose need, has precedence? The global view would argue that in a perceived conflict of individual interests, each seek the accomodation with the other that would best serve the interest of each, with least disruption to other individuals and to the social level. The global view would argue that neither has precedence, and that all such situations must be resolved dyamically without inflicting injury.

Conflicting claims of individual precedence can be especially troublesome. One particularly difficult issue in biomedical ethics is the question of whether the organs of an anencephalic * (fatally impaired) infant may be taken for transplantation into another (less impaired) child who might use them to survive. Here, one individual organism is claimed to take precedence over another, but there is a societal issue as well: could a society reach its summum bonum through a policy of promoting the "predation" of one human on another?

Such an anencephalic organism exhibits an "unconscious autonomy" of its own autonomic "will-to-live." An individual who may be beyond benefit of medical therapy may not be beyond harm, since it exhibits active homeostatic processes, the very processes which make its organs of interest for transplantation. Respect for individuality, even when the individual is severely impaired and there is virtually no prospect for development, argues for not taking such organs until the individual can be shown to be beyond harm.

By opening up new levels of analysis and argument, the metaethical postulates of life-systems ethics provide guidance even in complex situations involving multiple levels of action. Yet they also define our responses in the most simple encounters of life. One must be cautious in giving and interpreting specific examples, for the ethics of reverence for life insist on individual analysis and individual responsibility in each situation. Even when a situation seems similar to an example, the variables in the new situation may well be different, and a new analysis is not necessarily bound by the precedent.

Yet examples are indispensable for learning to apply the principle of reverence for life in practice. Schweitzer did not discuss reverence for life in terms of metaethics. The postulates derive from our analysis of the systems worldview, but they prove to be consistent with Schweitzer's work. Let us consider how the postulates might apply to one of Schweitzer's simplest and most poetic examples.

In a world concerned about hunger, racism, terrorism, and the threat of nuclear arms, or about disease and limited economic resources, a single wildflower seems hardly to be an object of ethical concern. However, in this illustration, Schweitzer has given us an excellent parable for considering how the system of natural ethics may be applied to even more complicated problems.

Even though there might have been many variables not stated here which might have been apparent to the farmer in real life, at this simple level he will inevitably act intuitively. However, if in his reverence for life he did need to appeal to linear reasoning, he would reach beyond the ethical "real" level to the metaethical level.

At the ethical level (the level of his action in this situation) the farmer is faced with an imperative to provide for his cows so that he may provide for himself and his family. In so doing, he acts in accordance with life needs, supports life's development, and has directly applied himself (responsibly and locally) to the work necessary to maximize the probability of an ethical outcome.

The individuality of the stalks of hay, or whatever the fodder was, has been sacrificed to support the individuality of his cows and thus of himself and his family (and thus of human thought). Moreover, he provides for the diversity of life and permits regrowth of the fodder by taking only what he needs in the least injurious way. So far, he has acted ethically in applying the metaethical statements appropriately. Within the sphere of his local system, he has served the interests of life's balance.

The ethical problem of the roadside flower is not central to that process, and so far is not even a consideration. Yet, acting in reverence for life and globally in consideration the broader implications of his actions, the farmer notices the flower and makes it a consideration. Had it been necessary to injure the flower, he undoubtedly could justify the action so long as he does it in such a way that the system itself is not violated and is allowed to recover. Had he injured it unnecessarily and without noticing it, his greater guilt would lie, not in the injury of the individual plant, but in the failure to act in respect and in global awareness.

Thus are decisions made with the guidance of metaethics. In this simple, almost childish, example, the beauty of a single flower leads us to conserve thought, and think about the web of relationship of all life. Clearly the present global situation places us all under "the pressure of necessity" to consider the balance of all life. The world can continue to be beautiful only if we "think sincerely" and see even the simplest actions of life as the concern of ethics.

[ Review: Metaethical Postulates ]

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