Core Books for an Ethics of Self-Realization

 

1) Nature, Mind and Modern Science, Harris, Errol E.; London, George Allen and Unwin Ltd; 1968

 

2) The Evolution of Cooperation, Axelrod, Robert; New York, Basic Books, Inc.;1984

 

3) The Moral Sense, Wilson, James Q.; New York, The Free Press;1993

 

4) Plato’s Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law, Wild, John; Chicago, The University of Chicago Press;1953

 

5) Moral Scepticism and Moral Knowledge, Bambrough, Renford; London, Routledge & Kegan Paul;

 

6) Humanity and Self-Cultivation, Tu Wei-ming; Berkeley, Asian Humanities Press;1979

 

7) Confucian Thought; Selfhood as Creative Transformation, Tu Wei-ming; Albany, The State University of New York Press;1985

 

8) An Essay on Philosophical Method, Collingwood, R. G.; Oxford, Oxford University Press;1933

 

Each of the Above books contains fundamental notions of my teachings.  The following discussion helps to put them in context, though it hardly is enough to do justice to the larger context in which they exist.  That larger context will eventually be provided by papers similar to this which will list and comment on the books which form the background to this list.

 

The importance of item 1,  Nature, Mind and Modern Science is neatly summarized on page 452, “...empiricism, though it persists, is a relic of the past without scientific basis, and has itself proved to be, in this age of evolution, relativity and quanta, an outworn and outmoded superstition.”  What Harris means in this quote by empiricism is basically what we would usually refer to a materialism and its ideology, reductionism.  That materialism is fundamentally unscientific comes as a shock to many, but the whole of twentieth century physics and in particular quantum mechanics (which, by the way, is not mechanical) can be viewed as a reductio ad absurdum of the atomistic and mechanistic postulates which were proposed in the 17th century and have remained as unexamined presuppositions ever since.  Indeed the status of Materialism in science is on a par with the presupposition of Biblical literalism and inerrancy among Christian fundamentalists.  It is often represented as one of the great triumphs of Science, yet its real history and the highly polemical part which it played in the religious controversies of the 17th and 18th centuries is part of the hidden history of science which is so much in contrast to mythology of “Scientific Progress” of which it is heralded as the necessary beginning.  Facts such as that Descartes purely mechanistic and atomistic physics is a dismal failure while the great success of the “scientific revolution”, Newton’s physics, was rightly criticized by Christian Huygens, the greatest observational astronomer of the era, as reintroducing “occult virtues” and “action at a distance”, are neatly swept under the rug of oblivion.  The part which Catholic-Protestant polemics played in the development of science has until recently been ignored, the deleterious effects of Cartesian dualism have been so pervasive as to be almost the intellectual equivalent of some environmental poison, so common as to be taken for the natural state of things and thus ignored, and the importance of the revival of Epicureanism and its importance to 18th century anti-clericism is viewed as the triumph of “reason” over “superstition”, in which the implicit and unexamined presupposition is that materialism is the only rational world-view, a view which such rationalist as Plato and Aristotle would have had considerable to say to the contrary.

 

Basically the fundamental position of my teachings is that materialism has been refuted by science and anyone who believes it is neither scientific, nor rational no matter what they may believe to the contrary.  Also fundamental is the idea that a rational world-view does exist and that it is outlined in the works of Plato and developed over the next few centuries.  The fact that this rational world view is fundamentally transcendental in its perspective and culminates in the interpretation of Plato put forward by the “mystical” philosopher Plotinus may seem surprising to many, but life is like that and the case can be made with a rigor that would surprise someone who is not familiar with the literature and that includes something like 99.44% of the population, at the very least.  The result is what I have been calling ‘rational mysticism’ since the early 80's.

 

Now reason is important because it allows us to use an objective standard and rise out of the prison of our subjectivity, it creates the possibility of clarifying issues and reaching agreement without resorting to force.

 

The next two works complement each other, and are basically important because they can be used to show the moral relativist that a fundamentally biological basis for moral behavior can be shown.  This is necessary because while to a person who accepts a transcendentalist perspective it is relatively easy to argue that immoral behavior is foolish behavior, whether because of “karma” or “Divine Justice” or whatever, as Lucretius points out, if all is nothing but the endless interplay of atoms the gods will not punish us for our sins.  And in this one finds one of the powerful motivational basis for materialism, that no matter how horribly we behave there is no need to fear anything beyond immediate human retribution and if we can only hid our crimes or be powerful enough to avoid the wrath of the injured party we can freely indulge in any desire we might have.  Granted a transcendental perspective is not a guarantee of good behavior anymore than the threat of punishment is in ordinary human justice, for we are assured that Karma can be “burned” and that Divine Mercy and forgiveness temper all judgements.  That is why a totally different perspective on ethics and morality is necessary and this perspective is provided by items 4, 6 and 7 which lay the foundation for moral behavior as self-realization rather than as self-denial.  A foundation for this is laid by items 2 and 3 which can be used to counter the “selfish gene” mythology which seems to make altruism such a curious anomaly as to seem like a divine miracle, but items 2 and 3 can be read as an argument that even in the most reductionist Darwinian terms the “selfish gene” must “learn” to cooperate in order to survive and flourish, and the way that it does this is to learn altruistic behavior and the emotional life that supports it.

 

In The Evolution of Cooperation Axelrod develops at some length what we might call the mathematics of cooperation and then develops some of the implications of this theory.  Basically what Axelrod does is to show that in a large number of contexts cooperation between parties is the most profitable strategy to follow, once such a basis is laid it becomes possible to argue, as has been done in the case of the evolution of flight, that a genetic propensity for cooperation would evolve with all of the necessary motivational components just as exist in the case of eating and reproduction.  In The Moral Sense, this is exactly what James Q. Wilson endeavors to do.

 

When I first read Axelrod’s paper in Science twenty or so years ago I almost immediately saw the possibility of the types of arguments that Wilson marshals in his book.  To a certain extent Axelrod does this in his book, but Wilson develops the possibilities in a very powerful way, and makes a strong case that the possibility of civilized behavior is not something that is a mere thin veneer on a clever and unruly monkey, but rather a deeply rooted genetic potential that can be nourished and be the source of as much satisfaction as good food or good sex, with the implication that the person who does not do so is unwittingly impoverishing their life leaving a large part of their human potential undeveloped.  This of course also helps lay the foundation for the shift from the moral life as a life of self-denial to the moral life as a life of self-realization.

 

That this is the case is argued in item 4, Plato’s Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law.  In this work John Wild argue’s three points, first that a moral theory called natural law is the best way to structure a personal ethics and moral system, second that it is the only system that allows a rigorous development from personal to social, and finally that historically all of the essential points of natural law theory are represented in the works of Plato and form part of Plato’s implicit understanding of the basis of Morality.

 

Now let’s straighten out some of the tangles of misconceptions that surround some of these issues.  First of all “natural” law does not have to do with some mythic “law of the jungle”.  Aside from the fact that it is now possible to point out that it is not a “dog eat dog” world, but a dog help dog world so that even the imagined state of things in the jungle must be reexamined, the nature that is the basis of natural law is human nature and the idea is that both a personal ethics and legal code should be tailor made to fit human nature so as to maximize the potential for self-realization and happiness as a human being.  Now the proviso “as a human being” is important because within the theory of natural law it provides a limit in the sense of giving an ideal to be striven for and a lowest boundary not to crossed on pain of sacrificing humanity and becoming monstrous.  Now within the boundaries of human behavior there is an enormous area for personal difference and freedom of expression and for the possibilities of self-realization and happiness, it is not an area of rigid conformity but a land of self-discovery.  It is also important to realize that Natural Law theories of ethics have a positive opinion of human nature and would never allow “but I’m only human”, to be an excuse, they would reply that as a human being you have the potential for discipline and self-control and if you refuse to develop these potentials you are only impoverishing yourself.

 

In my teachings an important distinction is made between human nature and hominid nature.  In Chinese traditions this would be the difference between the ‘superior man’ and the ‘inferior man’.  The superior man takes human nature as an ideal, works to tame the inner monkey of hominid nature and strives to realize his nature as a human being, the inferior man remains at the mercy of his inner monkey instead of following the path of Human self-realization follows the path of hominid self-indulgence and becomes a perpetual victim of “clever monkey syndrome”, being punished for his foolishness and self-indulgence by the unwanted consequences of his actions.

 

Items 4,5,6 and 7 form something of a set with 4 giving a traditional western answer to human nature and ethical norms and 6 and 7 giving a traditional Chinese answer.  One of the interesting things is the way in which these answers complement each other, because a rough equivalence can be seen between the Socratic “tendance of the soul” and the Confucian “cultivation of Humanity”.  This is particularly so when Mencius’ clarification of human nature as “heart/mind” is taken into consideration.

 

Item 5, Renford Bambrough’s Moral Scepticism and Moral Knowledge, is a real masterpiece.  It’s fundamental argument is that moral knowledge is possible and that to deny that it is, is to undermine the basis of other forms of knowledge such as science.  This he develops very artfully.  Addressing the moral relativist’s argument he notes that some are misguided and fallacious, others that survive the analysis turn out to be as applicable to science as to moral reasoning thus showing that it is inconsistent to argue as many have that science is objective and moral reasoning is subjective.  It also raises a question not addressed by Bambrough, which is, if scientific reasoning is profitable in learning about the natural world and learning to create powerful technologies, than is there an analogous  possibility of profit in moral reasoning?  And the answer is yes, though we are so used to thinking of morality as self-denial, that the notion that the moral life could be a profitable life is foreign to us.  Yet this is actually the classical perspective as Wild points out:

 

“This conception of a radical opposition between duty and basic need is wholly foreign to Plato’s thought.  Virtue, what we ought to do, is not opposed to interest and happiness.  It is conceived as the proper functioning of an entity, acting well.  It is thus required for happiness and is an essential part of it.  Plato’s aim was not merely to attain inner peace and ‘imperturbability,’ but rather the complete realization of all the essential human faculties...” (Plato’s Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law, p. 18)

 

and Wild reminds us that “...virtue is defined in the Meno as ‘the power of attaining what is good.’” (ibid, p. 144)

 

Item 8 R. G. Collingwood’s An Essay on Philosophical Method, is interesting from several perspectives, but primarily it is important here because of his discussion of the “Scale of Forms” and how, by applying it to a notion of a scale of forms of Humanity, it mirrors a famous quote of Mencius and allows us to look at the moral stages of Lawrence Kohlberg in a new perspective.  I will quote Mencius within a longer quote from Tu Wei-ming, since this may help to put it in a perspective of human self-development.

 

“(Mencius says)’... the value of humanity depends on its being brought to maturity’ (6A.19).  In fact, on one occasion at least, Mencius even attempts to characterize a few perfected stages in poetic terms:

 

He who commands our liking is called good.

He who is sincere with himself is called true.

He who is sufficient and real is called beautiful.

He whose sufficiency and reality shine forth is called great.

He whose greatness transform itself is called sagely.

He whose sageliness is beyond our comprehension is called spiritual.

 

Undoubtably, from the good to the spiritual there are numerous degrees of refinement.  Moral self-development so perceived is tantamount to an unceasing process of humanization.” (Humanity and Self-Cultivation, p. 68)

 

and it is this process of humanization which is the goal of the moral life conceived of as self-realization, a view that has a twenty-five hundred year history in both East and West, and a view that is founded on reason and independent of any particular religious revelation, but is compatible with the basic moral requirements of all revealed religions, and thus could be condemned by only the most close minded fundamentalist.  In an era of increasing sectarian strife it may be just the thing to help defuse some of the problems of a religiously diverse society.

All Material Copyright Donald Lockwood 2007, 2008