Living Ethics: The Way of Wholeness
by Donivan Bessinger

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2

Ethics and Civilization

-- Individually and collectively we must synthesize a new worldview that is consistent with all knowledge and is harmonious with human nature and human aspirations ...

-- But that's a tall order. Too tall. Immensely impractical!

We can imagine that the author and a skeptical friend are sitting in the central reading room of mankind's library. As their voices rise above the obligate whisper, the attractive young librarian sitting at the nearby reference desk looks up from her computer screen and smiles with interest. The older librarian, a gray-haired man sitting at a desk farther away, looks at her sternly, as if to remind her of her duty to maintain the traditional order of things. The friend lowers his voice, but gestures sweepingly toward the rows and rows of books and documents. He continues.

-- Look at all this stuff! How could we ever make sense out of all of this? Not even the specialists agree on the sense of it!

The young librarian stifles a smile that is more like a snicker, but doesn't interfere.

-- True, there are lots of data. We are living through an explosion of knowledge. It's overwhelming. But under all the data, there's only one reality. Isn't that the key?

-- You mean, if there's only one reality, one "truth", one cosmic "way it is", all pieces of knowledge have to fit together?

-- Exactly. It's the fit of the various pieces into a coherent view that tells us that we're on the right track. If the different puzzle pieces can be fit together to make a picture, then you can infer that the pieces belong to the puzzle, and the picture reflects the "reality" behind the puzzle's pieces.

-- Too bad the cosmic puzzle doesn't come with a picture on the box top.


To most of us, "worldview" is merely the scene from the window -- the traffic on the street passing the windows of our homes and workplaces, and the view from our automobiles and airplanes as we move through the world. Undoubtedly it also includes the tightly edited scene on the screen, as the world turns before the television cameras of the globe. Any other "world- view" is an abstract concept, of interest to philosophers and lexicographers perhaps, far removed from the everyday concerns of ordinary people embroiled in the preoccupations of the marketplace and the distractions of popular culture.

For each of us, the world turns on making a living, on our family relationships, and on our leisure time pursuits. We embrace the values which we see as directly supporting us in those concerns. In that context, ethics is left to take care of itself as we live by those values, and by the special rules of society, of our particular religious tradition, and of our professional groups.

So what then has "worldview" to do with us, and what does it have to do with ethics? Indeed, what does it have to do with the problems of civilization? The concepts of ethics and civilization are each tightly related to the question "How should we live?". As we look more deeply, we find ethics to be the bond of civilization and of our ordinary relationships. Our sense of ethic is defined by our worldview. To understand the relationship between these concepts is the first task of our search for the principles of ethical action.

The word civilization is used in many contexts. Sometimes we think of it simply as an absence of savagery or barbarity (in which case the world cannot yet be defined as civilized!). Yet, even as a technical term, civilization can have several meanings. James Harvey Robinson, in a classic Encyclopedia Britannica article * which was carried for decades, defines civilization as human culture. To him, civilization is what distinguishes human society from animal groups. In that context, civilization is distinguished by mind. It consists of those non-inherited human traits, like language, religion, beliefs, and morals that are manifestations of human mind and reason.

The word is also used in discussing certain historical peoples. A civilization is a particular stage or class of human culture, one that has a certain level of complexity and a certain longevity. In a civilization, culture has a high degree of specialization of human tasks. Life is usually centered in cities. Communication is developed to a high level, with a common language, usually written. There is a high level of respect for knowledge and for teaching of that which must be transmitted for an individual's and for society's survival.

One may also say that civilization means life organized around mutual survival interests. A civilization is bound by a community of ideas. The civilization shares a common means of communication, economy and defense, all organized to support and extend life.

However, a civilization's survival ideas must cope with more than human relationships. It must also come to grips with its supporting life forms. All life in interdependent. At whatever level, primitive or complex, the human society must relate to its natural food sources. For example, the primitive societies had to keep a natural balance with animal sources of food and clothing whether they were hunter-gatherers or herders. Plant sources were also important as food for the animals, and of such importance for mankind that agriculture was devised.

Early societies needed to be cognizant of "survival ideas" only within their immediate environs. That meant being aware of the need to limit hunting, fishing, or gathering to just those amounts needed for survival. It meant moving on when the agricultural capacity of a clearing was exhausted, or to allow the grazing capacity to recover.

Now, however, human society has reached the point at which there is only one civilization. Now the "immediate environs" are global. Humans can now encompass the view of their homeland in one glance, one small blue globe seen from space. Though there are many languages, and though there are a few isolated primitive communities, humans at all points of the earth and space may be reached by communications, and all languages may be inter-translated.

Further, there is a worldwide economy, in which the moneys of individuals, corporations, and nations all mingle in international banks. Trade extends throughout the globe. Commercial satellites of many nations have been carried into space. There is a common global defense interest. There are many warring factions, and there are adversary blocks of nations, but human society must now defend itself in common from its own weapons systems.

We have reached the point that civilization is synonymous again with humanity. The immediate environs of the new civilization are now the total biosphere. It is no longer practical to move on. Our survival ideas, our life ideas, must encompass all that lives. The survival of civilization is contingent on ideas held in common. Survival of the biosphere is dependent on the "ideosphere".


It is apparent that at the conscious level there is a body of life ideas, meaning survival ideas, that operate in the maintenance of civilization. However our search for "the bond of civilization and of our ordinary relationships" takes us back to a more primal level.

The primitive element distinguishing a human being, distinguishing mind, is self-awareness. It is consciousness of existence. It is the ability to identify the I. However, the primitive element of civilization is the interpersonal relationship. In Martin Buber's terminology, the relationship is predicated on the awareness of Other. The I must be extended into a concept of I-thou.

Thus, civilization is contingent on a common awareness of existence. However, the I-thou awareness is meaningless without an encounter between two minds. Buber quotes Heraclitus as saying that the waking have a single cosmos in common.* The conscious ("waking") encounter depends on existing within the same cosmos or world or dimension of experience and understanding.

For example, an observer in a two-dimensional "universe" could experience front-back and left-right, but could not encounter another two-dimensional observer in a plane above himself. For such an encounter to happen, each would have to move to the line at which their respective planes of existence intersected, if indeed they intersected at all.

Such a primal encounter is a "dialogue", from the Greek words dia logos, "through the word." We are speaking of a primitive awareness that preceeds spoken word. We are speaking of the binding of humans by a primal and common idea of existence, by primal word.

The concept of word is important in both its special and its ordinary meanings. Saint John's gospel equates Christ with creative Logos: "In the beginning was the word ...". The concept of word as original creative idea has been present in human thought since its earliest times. Lao Tzu used the concept of Tao ("Way") in a somewhat parallel meaning of creative bond or energy in creation. The relationship is apparent in the Chinese translation of the Saint John passage above, in which logos is translated as tao.

In its ordinary modern meaning, word is an idea given a name. Buber quotes Heraclitus as considering logos to be the meaning of being that dwells in the substance of the word. * Logos was word-with-meaning, a primal bond between meaning and speech. Robinson sees "words as deeds", as agents in building and bonding civilization.

Word, in its ordinary meaning, communicates our world-experience (worldview). Word in its special meaning applies also to the dia logos or idea of primal awareness of existence and of other that is the atomic bond of civilization. Word in both meanings expresses the primal or "natural" element of ethics, that primitive awareness of the self in relationship to other, human and non-human "other" alike, which underlies all efforts to discern what we ought to do.

By this analysis, then, we are led to the possibility of a concept of a natural ethic, that is, to an ethical principle inherent in nature that operates without direction of the reasoning mind, but of which the mind can become aware. Indeed, we must become aware if we are to survive as civilization, or find fulfillment as individuals.

The essence of the natural ethic lies in affirmation of inter-dependent existence. The natural ethic, operating below the threshold of consciousness, begins something like this: "I exist, you exist. We share existence. Our existence is inter-related and inter-dependent." Ethics as a rational study must start with bringing this ethical principle to the threshold of consciousness.

Such a statement goes against the grain of many ethicists today. From a reductive point of view, the quest is indeed long and perhaps hopelessly and impossibly intricate. Yet the pieces of the world puzzle do fit together in such a way as to give us an intuitive view of the possibilities.

Though we have used a different line of argument, our inquiry has brought us to the same point that Albert Schweitzer develops in his presentation of reverence for life. We will develop that more fully in Living Ethics, Part II. Our immediate task, however, and the occupation of the remainder of this volume, is to seek the basis for a common awareness of reality.


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