‘Any such [good] life would have two general characteristics: that it feels good to live, and that it is more beneficial than not on its impact on others.’ A C Grayling
This post today has come about as a result of my previous post on microaggressions, my cycling back and re-exploring and expanding on ideas and past readings around morality, and also, a recent text on bullying by Rick Hanson in his weekly newsletter, Just One Thing. Summarily, his article focuses on the social nature of our species, how power is a major thread woven in all our relationships and how power can often be abused and misused. He uses bullying as a general and more common term to refer to various forms of abuse of power, which can consist of intimidation, discrimination, oppression, tyranny, and so on. He goes on to say that bullying creates a vast amount of suffering and is present in homes, playgrounds, work places, all the way up to the halls of power. He writes that bullies are dominating defensive and deceptive and are valued and supported by enablers at all levels of society and that bullying is fostered by underlying conditions. He mentions ways of protecting oneself and of understanding what might be going on in the bully or enabler’s inner world. He writes: “Deep down, the mind of a bully is like a hell realm of fended-off feelings of weakness and shame always threatening to invade. Lots of suffering there. Compassion for a bully is not approval. It can be calming and strengthening for you.” He lists possible ways of dealing with bullies and enablers at different levels of society: name the bullying for what it is; dispute false claims of legitimacy; laugh at bullies; confront lies, including denial of harms they’re doing; build up sources of power to challenge the bully; confront enablers; they’re complicit in bullying; engage the legal system; remove bullies from positions of power ….
‘All men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others… When men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will all experience a feeling of alarm and distress… to be without this distress is not human … Since we all have [this principle and others] in ourselves…Let them have their full development, and they will suffice to love and protect all [within] the four seas…’ Meng Tzu
As a species we have a natural ability to empathize with and take care of each other and we are capable of kindness, collaboration, friendship and love. We are both biological beings defined by biological and physical laws, and also, conscious beings with purpose and agency to one degree or other, depending on our individual differences and circumstances. Our innate curiosity and our capacity to reason motivate us to make discoveries about our world. Consciousness allows us to understand the world around us and ask questions about it, and gives us the potential to become the authors of our own lives and to be moral beings. This is not to say that we are not also capable of great ignorance and cruelty (we don’t have to look hard to find examples of deep inhumanity at a large scale across time all over the globe). But we do have the potential as a species to embrace living the one life that we have to the full, and also, to recognise that we are not alone in having one chance at life or desiring to be safe, to fulfill our potential and decrease our suffering. In recognising this we can choose to live in a way that not only celebrates our own precious life, but also, promotes the well being of other people and species. We also have the capacity to understand that each of us impacts others’ lives in many ways through our deeds and ideas, both while we are alive and after we have died. The fact that our impact can outlive us creates a responsibility for future generations, and the significance of this becomes apparent when we consider issues, such as, the environmental crisis, deficits of democracy in so many parts of the world, famine and strife, and the continuation of transmission of trauma and oppression at an individual and collective level. Broadening our lens helps us understand that our own happiness, the happiness of our loved ones and the happiness of strangers are to a great extent inseparably woven together. We should consider others because we are naturally social beings and we live in communities and life in any sort of community, from the family outwards, is much healthier and happier if the members are compassionate and co-operative than if they are hostile and aggressive.
Our human experience of empathy and compassion and our moral instincts and values don’t come from somewhere outside of our human nature. Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist and ethologist, suggests that two propensities are necessary for moral behaviour that of reciprocity with a sense of justice and empathy and compassion. Actually, in experimental settings many mammals have been found to be able to display both. In experiments rats, elephants, chimpanzees and other animals have displayed collaboration, care, empathy and unselfish behaviours. Many animals display concern about the welfare of others. This capacity for empathy is what has allowed for questions of morality to arise and develop. Without empathy and reason it is difficult to imagine how we could have developed moral codes and systems in the first place. Morality is a product of both our biological and cultural evolution. From an evolutionary perspective our propensity to support and care for others can also be contributed to our survival instincts and the importance of passing on our genes. Kin altruism, which is the love and care we show towards close relatives, which is common amongst mammals, might be the origin of our caring behaviour in general. A second explanation lies in reciprocal altruism, which involves acting in a way that might have a cost to oneself but benefits others, with the expectation that the favor might be returned. Our pro-social behaviours have evolved through both our biological and social history. The fact that we have as a species made it thus far and have created our human civilization and made such progress is largely contributed to our inherent capacity to co-operate, display empathy and a sense of fairness.
However, we have evolved other less desirable impulses like identifying more closely with our in-groups to the exclusion of strangers. Inappropriate biases, prejudices, and fears still hijack us. We can react aggressively when faced with a real or perceived threat. We also have incentives to be greedy, selfish and unfair. However, the conclusion that this is our constant natural state is not necessarily true because our motivations for generosity, reciprocity, altruistic love and kindness are also observed universally and have natural causes. Richard Norman suggests that the answer to the problem of moral motivation also lies in the power of stories. He suggests that ‘If people are not sufficiently motivated by good moral reasons, then the only way to fill that motivational gap is for them to become more deeply aware of the reasons themselves. In the case of other-regarding values such as compassion, justice or honesty, that means becoming more aware of what it is like to be the victim of cruelty or injustice, what it is like to be cheated or betrayed, exploited or enslaved. This greater awareness is generated most powerfully by stories – accounts, whether historical or fictional, of particular individuals, which bring to life the felt experience of suffering and the experience of having that suffering met by good actions.’
As a species we universally share basic needs for food, shelter, and health, the desire to be safe and loved, to be happy and to avoid misery, to be treated with respect and to be free to make independent choices. We also find virtues like compassion, justice, truth and care across the globe. Despite the many political, philosophical and religious differences there is a significant universal agreement about virtues and core values, which are not independent of us, but grounded in our shared nature or common humanity. Our awareness of human needs and core values can provide us with a level of objectivity in terms of what is right and wrong. These core values might be summarized as that which promotes human happiness and decreases suffering and misery. This utilitarian approach highlights the value of consideration and concern for people’s welfare, but since relationships are more complex other values like trust, honesty and loyalty, fairness and justice, autonomy and respect for others’ choices, as long as they don’t impinge on others’ basic rights, need also to be taken into account.
A lot of rules and moral codes are handed down to us and often they reflect a belief systems of separation and power over; however a moral compass based on our interconnectedness with all living things would serve more people and the planet at large. Ethical or moral behaviour requires responsibility and critical thinking on our part. Some might argue that the best thing to do is to appeal to authority. Sometimes, it can be wise to defer to authority without giving up our power, for instance, if we are looking for medical or legal advice; however, in the case of moral decisions, simply following authority unquestioningly does not necessarily guarantee that we will act morally and it can also lead to disastrous consequences. Consider what has happened historically when people have trusted and blindly followed people in leadership with destructive ideologies and motives.
In The War for Children’s Minds Stephen Law considers the case of an individual who asks a moral authority figure how they should treat someone who does not share their beliefs and is advised to commit a violent act. In accepting rules and commandments unquestioningly we can sometimes be rendered as children by authority. We need to think for ourselves and examine any moral guidance we are given, and decide whether or not to follow instructions given to us by others. This does not mean that rules cannot be helpful. Agreeing collectively to sign up to certain rules related to stealing, lying, harming others and killing is beneficial for society in large. Our freedoms should be constrained for the good of society; however, our freedom and our education should not be restricted to the extent that we are unable to think for ourselves or make our own moral judgments. If there are laws that are unjust or favor one group over another or allow discrimination we should have the right to argue the case for changing them. Education has a role to play and drawing on the wisdom of others can facilitate our journey, but we must be encouraged to subject ideas to critical evaluation and argument. Moral autonomy requires self-awareness of our rights, freedom and responsibility and it can be intimidating and difficult because it requires knowledge, presence and consciousness. Healing of our traumas and conditioning and a moral education that does not encourage passive, uncritical acceptance of any particular moral teaching, but focuses on developing the intellectual and emotional skills necessary to consider consequences and make moral decisions is a better option.
Also, because our moral systems, like any other human construct, can be flawed constructs they need to be reviewed and recreated in the light of new developments in human understanding. Scientific reasoning can reveal new facts about the world that can inform our morality. One salient example is that of slavery. Scientific reasoning has shown that slavery cannot be defended on the claim that human beings can be divided into different species. In The War for Children’s Minds, Stephen Law writes that ‘Reason alone may be incapable of determining right and wrong, but that is not to say that establishing what is right and wrong has nothing to do with reason.’ Additionally, reason alone cannot motivate us morally because we cannot, for instance, support other people to flourish if we are unable to imagine what it might be like to be them, and so we return to empathy. Most human beings can develop empathy. Imaginative and sympathetic identification with the happiness and sufferings of other humans can motivate us to be kind and generous to others as we can imagine how we would wish to be treated. Applying the Golden Rule is one basic way of exploring the morality of our actions. As long as we don’t apply this rule according to our own specific preferences and dislikes, but to the general desire to have our interests and rights taken into account could be a good place to start. Interestingly, this code is found throughout different cultures and civilizations from Jainism and Hinduism in India to Confucius in China, to Christianity, to Buddhism, to Socrates in Ancient Greece, and so on. The development of this inherent mammalian capacity also promotes care for the less fortunate, because we are aware that this is what we would need if we were in their shoes. Being in touch with our empathic nature discourages behaviours like theft, lying, social aggression or bullying because we would not wish to be the recipients of these injustices.
Finally, we need to question the assumption of a deep dividing canyon between the ‘self’ and ‘others’. Imagine a world where everyone was only driven by selfish desires and treating others as mere means to their satisfaction. The whole world would quickly resemble George Orwell’s dystopia, 1984. There would be no sanctuary and safe place. It would be total misery. We would be utterly unsafe, lonely, mistrustful, turned in upon ourselves, and unable to share feelings, dreams, hopes or fears. We need to look at our lives as a whole and recognise the whole range of relationships which make up who we are and give meaning and purpose to our lives. We need to wake up to our interconnectedness, neurobiologically and otherwise. Ultimately, the morally good life is an important dimension of a life well lived, because it is a life that is shared and a life that desires relief of suffering.