Core Books for an Ethics of Self-Realization
1) Nature, Mind and Modern Science, Harris, Errol E.; London, George Allen and Unwin
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 &
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
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
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
“(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.