Living Ethics: The Way of Wholeness
by Donivan Bessinger
These studies have set before us a worldview of wholeness and an affirmation of reverence for life as the ethic for survival. The analysis of its implications for the individual and for national society has moved us away from the polarities of doctrinaire political philosophy, and away from traditional left-right, liberal-conservative, and communism-capitalism dichotomies. It puts us on an entirely different axis.
One of the extreme worldviews lying in the old axis was that of the axis powers of World War II, whose death-loving "ethic" propounded by Hitler wrought the destruction of many individual lives and nations, and left us with a legacy of virulent bigotry which still percolates from dark crevices of the collective psyche. At the other extremity of that political pole we found, not a contrasting love of life, but another love of death, expressed in the sadistic psyche of Stalin. The polarities of the old axis of political thinking were defined by pogrom and purge.
The characterization of the psyches of Hitler as necrophilic and Stalin as sadistic (both examples of malignant aggression), is set forth in the landmark study of human destructiveness by Erich Fromm. * The destructiveness of Idi Amin of Uganda and Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti (and to a lesser degree, his son) also seem to derive from similar character traits. In the Iraqi war, United Nations powers confronted Saddam Hussein, whose malignant narcissism (diagnosed remotely but plausibly by a leading political psychiatrist) represents a similar character defect. All seem to have been driven by autonomous egos, unrelentingly out of touch with all internal and external psychic regulatory function.
The Iraqi war has given new impetus to the search for a new world order. That order must place us on a new axis, which is to be understood as the line or direction which newly orients human vision and human action. Its orientation is so different from conventional ways of thinking that it seems entirely proper to characterize it as a new dimension of thought, perpendicular to the old, and intersecting it at a new center.
The first order of business for defining a new world order is to understand order, not as a rigid political system of "law and order" but as the dynamic order of creation, operating organically and systemically. The new world order must be based on our best understandings of the world as it is. The collective social order, whether of families or nations, must recognize the dynamic needs of all and respond appropriately.
That concept is not new. Confucius, Plato and Aristotle derived political philosophy from ethics, not vice versa. Each of them had a concept of harmony, natural justice or golden mean which governs right action generally, and thus determines the structuring of society. Each drew on descriptions of human functioning to illustrate social functioning. With the aid of modern knowledge, we may now understand their language as not merely metaphor, but as a recognition of the biosphere as a living organism of many levels, governed by equilibrating interactions.
Of course, each had a different concept of the ideal political system. The natural ethicÅreverence for lifeÅdoes not automatically lead to a particular structure of world order any more than it defined the structure of the Greek city-state or modern national society. It does provide the principle which orders its function; it also considerably narrows the options in our choice of structure.
For example, this ethic leads us away from world government. Why? In an ethics of wholeness, is there not an imperative for bringing all nations into a political wholeness? I believe not. The systems worldview presented here affirms the powerful adaptive force of diversity. It also highlights the importance of individuality, and the necessity for cherishing shared symbol systems in expressing human spirituality. It points to the powerful effectiveness of subsystem organization.
If the nation states, who are to be considered "ethical personalities," were merged into only one global state, those strengths would be lost. The best hope for international community is for states to function smoothly in families, preserving individuality and diversity so that we may maximize our options of solving human problems.
On the other hand, reverence for life also leads us away from exaggerated nationalism. The systems worldview values the operation of life at many levels, and recognizes the need for nations and peoples to work among themselves at many levels simultaneously. Focusing all internal energies on the exaltation of the individual nation-state creates at the global level the equivalent of a pathologic complex in psychology. Usually it has a strong shadow side and limited ability to function interactively. That is destructive at the personal level and certainly even more so in world civilization. Such complexes can erupt convulsively as Nazi Germany did, destroying the nation and much life within and around it.
There is a presumption in some quarters that reverence for life can countenance no injury. However, the biologic economy of the organism that is the biosphere requires that life take life, for all life lives at the expense of other life. Reverence for life may countenance injury to other life, but (in Schweitzer's phrase) only under "the pressure of necessity." Because such necessities do arise, reverence for life may not be equated with pacifism and passive non-violence, even though those three points of view do share some common ground.
In the systems view, global society is to be conceived as global organism, in which order is equilibrium. This larger organism, like the individual human, must defend against the "diseases" or instabilities which threaten it, so that its homeostasis may be restored. A purely pacifist structure would give us the global political equivalent of AIDS -- a global organism unable to defend itself against survival challenges.
The new world order must provide the global family of nations an effective "immunologic" system which provides defenses at many levels: from aggression between nations, from its own weapons systems, from national tyrannies, from international criminality, and from exploitation and other disorders of development. All of these pathologic processes have their analogues in the individual organism.
What does reverence for life say of military systems? What especially does it say of nuclear weapons and weapons in space? How does an entity which is to aspire to being an ethical and spiritual personality deal with modern strategic complexities? That subject, of course, merits its own book, and takes us far beyond our present scope. There is an imperative for self-defense, which must analyze and act at many levels, responding decisively but only sufficiently to restore homeostasis. These principles which apply to the individual personality must come to be realized in the personality that is the national state.
Every action which prepares for self-defense must somehow be balanced by an action at some other level that makes the need for defense less real. The systems view of levels dictates that nuclear, chemical, biological and conventional arms may not be considered in isolation. It seeks the reduction of these, but not of one at the expense of greater danger from another. While weapons in space lead to greater dangers to the global organism, monitoring systems in space provide improved feedback data for maintaining global equilibrium.
Reverence for life is prepared to shift resources toward or away from defense to maintain the balance of the global civilization, but it seeks constantly to find ways to deactivate arms systems. At the same time that it calls for eradicating the trade in and buildup of arms, it must also work toward reducing the suspicions and human problems which make people resort to arms.
Yet reverence for life is realistic. It recognizes that hardened belief systems (as distinguished from knowledge systems) will continue for some time to present real barriers to the realization of an ethical world civilization. In this imperative, reverence for life calls not only for the courage of life convictions. It calls for determination and persistence as well.
Is there in reverence for life an imperative toward creating specific international enforcement authorities with power over nations? For example, should enforcement authority be vested exclusively in a permanent armed force, under the control of a revitalized United Nations? There are powerful systems arguments against such a mechanism.
In a world in which such powerful forces are deployed, the absence of a shared worldview (a "cosmos in common") presently dooms such unitary international enforcement solutions. Even when that problem is overcome, a permanent standing world army would not be subject to systems feedback ("checks and balances"), so that such an entity could become a greater threat than benefit. The international imperative of reverence for life is to work toward a shared ethical worldview. It is in that realm that the United Nations Organization can make a very much needed contribution to the current international environment.
These principles also help clarify the doctrine of justifiable war. War is justified only in the interest of the whole, and never only in the narrowly construed (short term) national or economic interest. Broadly construed (and over a longer term), national and economic interests coincide with the interest of the whole. Self-defense is justifiable, since the integrity of its parts is in the interest of the whole. Even so, war must only be a very last resort, after all other means have been exhausted. The natural ethic leads us to develop a broader range of options for problem-solving, so that risk of war is steadily reduced.
What does reverence for life say of response to internal national tyrannies? In the introduction, we sketched the progression of international law from a law of sovereigns to a law of sovereign nations, and pointed to the limited options by which peoples worldwide may react to internal tyrannies within an isolated nation. The barrier of sovereignty must usually be breached by force -- the economic force of sanctions, or military force of arms -- if the peoples of other nations are to aid the oppressed people. Those within such a nation who seek just change have little alternative but to let the tensions rise to the point of violent internal insurrection.
The Iraqi war provides a compelling contemporary example of the inadequacy of a strictly interpreted doctrine of sovereignty for fostering a new world order. The United Nations acted decisively to push Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait, since the Iraqi invasion represented a breach of Kuwait's sovereignty. However, the same nations (who still at this writing, March 1991, had occupying forces in Southern Iraq pending a formal ceasefire) invoked the doctrine of sovereignty to grant Hussein free rein for violent post-war repression of Kurds and Shiites.
Thus, a world order based on respect for the organic needs of all peoples calls for a greater variety of mechanisms for avoiding and confronting national tyrannies. Such tyrannies are a threat to the whole whether or not the "sovereign" tyranny presents an immediate armed threat to neighbor nations or commercial interests.
One attractive new option derives from the recognition of heads of state and heads of government as professionals whose "practice" has implications for the safety of the globe. While the sovereignty of peoples to select a government is paramount, no people may justifiably sustain and support a government which is a threat to the general safety; nor may sovereignty be used to license tyranny.
World order requires an accrediting or credentialing mechanism which effectively monitors and responds to oppressive leadership well before mass destruction -- internal or external -- occurs. Such a multi-tiered mechanism could be provided by a global Council of Heads of Government (CHG), developed along the lines presented in the appendix.
What does reverence for life say of response to international criminality? Despotism is only one such category. Terrorism is another. So is the massive international trade in illegal drugs, armaments, and in chemical, nuclear, and biological warfare agents. All are substances harmful to global society as well as to individuals. Another category is the protection and reward which sovereignty gives to criminals who sequester fortunes in national and international banking systems.
Solving such international problems requires establishing special purpose agencies for cooperative efforts and expert interactions at many levels. Of course, there is a distinction between forming cooperative agencies under joint authority of nations and forming agencies having authority over nations.
We must remove barriers to trade, communications, and law enforcement. To do so, we must also overcome the barriers of national prejudice, pride and even jurisdictional borders. For some special functions and purposes, nations will need to voluntarily relinquish claims of sovereignty so as to permit ethical life-affirming forces to effectively offset the many destructive forces which are not so fettered. For example, there should be a legal mechanism for declaring international outlaws, for whom no border could be a protection.
The doctrine of sovereignty is essential to defining a nation's identity. In systems terms, it defines a nation's legal "boundary" just as its border defines its geography. Yet boundaries must be open to solutions of problems of the organic whole. Boundaries must be more porous "membranes" if there is to be world order.
What does reverence for life say of exploitation and other disorders of development? There is a special imperative to make hope and progress real in the less developed, underserved areas of the world. Here especially, the systems worldview makes clear that the problems of such peoples are problems for all other peoples too. Reverence for life demands that these needs be met for the benefit and balance of all life on the planet, and it is here especially that barriers to innovative cooperative solutions must be removed.
The term Third World is a misnomer now, for there is only one world, at least on Earth. In an organic worldview, all nations are developing nations. The important distinction is not the immediate level of achievement of each nation, but whether there is healthy growth or a disease of arrested development. Corrective action does not focus on the size of the economic gaps, but on treating the problems which retard growth.
Among nations, there will always be a spectrum of differences in size, natural resources, and national needs. There are also historical factors which contribute to a nation's natural endowment. History cannot be undone, and must be accepted as a given. The only effective repair of the wounds of past injustice can come in the repair of our worldview, so as to get on with problem-solving.
The "Third World" is an arena which because of its history is especially sensitive to appearances of imperialism and colonialism. Paradoxically, the barriers of national pride, prejudices, and politics have often created serious obstacles to international cooperative measures. A systems view indicates that the areas with the greatest problems need the greatest adaptive flexibility if they are to survive at all. The ethic of reverence for life offers an alternative to economic imperialism, and offers in its place an imperativism for finding adaptive healing solutions.
But we must also seek a balance between under-development and malignant over-development. Resource development in all areas of the world, especially in its remote areas, carries implications for the entire globe. Development is not to be pursued for its own sake. It must be pursued in accordance with the need for human life to be balanced with all other life. For example, full "development" (i.e. destruction) of the world's rain forests is robbing us of the source of one third of the world's atmospheric oxygen.
Reverence for life also creates an imperative to affirm the collective psychological dimension. It presently sounds far-fetched and unscientific to speak of a world psyche. However, even if it is only conceived as the projection or resultant or resonance of all of our individual aspirations, there is a collective dimension to the ordering of individual psyches toward unity within the self and with the world. That spiritual dimension of human existence is expressed as religion, through art and ritual. Unfortunately, we have come to see religions as competing systems, rather than as complementary spiritual subsystems participating in the one system of creation.
I would suggest that we affirm our systems unity by developing, through our many arts, various international rituals and symbols by which individuals and groups can relate to world order without threatening cherished religious beliefs. International sport festivals serve this function to some extent. We would do well to encourage their "spiritual" dimension and deemphasize their commercial aspect. Perhaps we should also express these themes through periodic global festivals. Earth Day provided an example, but this theme of human oneness in and with creation goes beyond our traditionally narrow definition of environmental concerns.
Dare we even hope for geographical symbols of spiritual unity and purpose? For a "New Jerusalem" which symbolizes not only a spiritual inward peace, but also the political peace implicit in any concept of world order? Despite the very serious political and religious problems which stand in the way of such a proposal, it still seems worthwhile to uphold the ideal of a stateless Jerusalem as a world city belonging equally to all peoples.
Varanasi, though its status is not contested, holds a somewhat similar significance in the East. It and Jerusalem both stand as historical symbols of mankind's spiritual achievement. Together, the two cities touch in some way the spiritual aspirations of most of the world's peoples: Jewish, Christian, Muslim in Jerusalem; and Hindu and Buddhist in Varanasi-Sarnath. The two would be especially appropriate centers for continuing inter-faith dialogues toward spiritual understanding.
We live in a dangerous world, faced with many forces for life destruction and life denigration. The evening news telecast and the morning newspaper always carry the same litany, ritually reciting civilization's daily penance of totalitarianism, terrorism, political famine, religious wars, racial repression, nuclear threat.
The people intone, Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.
Yet it is not in the nature of mankind, or the nature of nature that the world is so ordered. It is the nature of nature to seek to adapt and thrive. All of unconscious nature is directed toward will-to-live and toward the seeking of its balance. Nature's only barriers to a balancing force are to be found in the human conscious. It is there that the barriers to human wholeness must be breached.
The solution to our dilemma, individually and collectively, is to bring into focus once again the ancient wisdom of creation, that the natural ethic is life ordered toward balance. We are not held hostage to impenetrable forces of evil. We are held hostage behind our own barricades which block ethical awareness.
The solution to our dilemma lies in working together to expand ethical awareness, not only within ourselves but in the world at large. It is in inner awareness that we find a "great energy for mighty transformations." It is there that we find why heaven and earth are so great.
It is in the ethics of reverence for life that we can find our adaptation and our opportunity. It is in its imperative for the affirmation of all life that we can find, individually and collectively, the counterbalancing forces for survival.
It is a dangerous age, but it is an age of hope.
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