Ethics

The subject of Ethics is customarily discussed in close connection with a metaphysical theory. While this elegant approach lends itself to a comprehensive analysis, it suffers, however, from the usual drawbacks of all top-down treatises where one has to traverse a long distance from the premise before focusing attention on the specific problem of interest. In the case of Ethics, the premise of the metaphysical problem is a realm of abstractions dealing with the whole of existence which is a subject that would not be of interest to a majority of the people. In any case, it would be placing an unnecessary hurdle on the student to suggest that a knowledge of metaphysics is a prerequisite to the understanding of the main principles of Ethics. The difficulty underlying the methodology of the top-down approach is compounded because of the prevalence of numerous metaphysical theories; theoretically speaking, each metaphysical theory can give rise to its own special version of Ethics. Such being the case, it is impossible to expect an universal agreement on any one of them because of the lack of specific guidelines to pick a unique one from amongst a diversity of solutions. In practice, however, the diverse solutions do fall within a narrow band.

Ethical considerations arise when one has to select a correct course of action from amongst several available alternatives while subjected to internal conflicts pertaining to the right and the good. A careful and systematic analysis of the basis for such contradictions assists in the formulation of concrete methods for their total removal, and constitutes the very essence of the bottom-up approach. This empirical approach, which is the subject matter of this essay, has the possibility of receiving wider acceptance since it does not necessitate an initial commitment to any single metaphysical theory. The necessity for the understanding of some basic metaphysical concepts for forging a link between Ethics and Metaphysics, however, shows up only in the final stages of the discussion and need not be initially anticipated.

The need for good moral conduct arises in man because of his special faculty of self-consciousness. For justification of the use of this term, we shall not digress into a discussion of the subject of consciousness which is of current scholarly interest in several modern disciplines including artificial intelligence which is a sub-discipline of computer science. For our purpose, it will suffice to take the commonsense understanding of the word consciousness that is corroborated at an experiential level. Self-consciousness, or self-awareness, is a unique feature of human beings that distinguishes them from animals. Socio-biologists inform us that although one can detect a glimmer of self-consciousness in some highly evolved animals, the difference in degree, however, is so extraordinary that the unparalleled ability of humans in this regard is, for all intents and purposes, a difference in kind rather than of degree. The spiritual literature on this topic leaves no room even for the least amount of ambiguity in this regard as evidenced by the declaration that self-consciousness is the unique endowment of human kind. Ethical conduct is, by definition, the actions that can follow from the well-trained and highly disciplined prompting of self-consciousness for achieving the good of the individual concerned as well as for the people with whom he is interacting with.

The very first observation about self-consciousness is that people become aware of themselves and as a result they feel to have an existence quite apart from the rest of the universe. In scientific parlance, this is called the observer and observed relationship which is fundamental to the success of most of the scientific enterprise. Self-awareness gives rise to an experience of duality between oneself and the rest of the universe. Before we proceed with the discussion of Ethics, it is necessary to have some preliminary idea of the sense in which we use the word self in the hyphenated word self-consciousness. There is a wide range of meanings that one can associate with the word between the two extremes of the gross self and the subtle self. Before reaching the subtle level, the self can get associated with any of the features of the body, mind, and intellect; the word I can be used in conjunction with any one of them. In most of human experience the self is always associated with some such feature. At the other extreme, when the self is completely stripped of all its features, which is a metaphysical concept, the subtle level reveals itself and it is variously described as Self with a capital S, pure consciousness, absolute consciousness, divine consciousness etc. We are not immediately interested in this lofty concept and our discussion will focus attention on the self of our day-to-day experience which is associated with some feature or the other.

For the discussion of Ethics, it is enough if we can conceive of a I that can take into account the idea of morality, that is, on one’s ability to act based on conscious choices. That ability is rendered possible if the mind is vested with a sense of discretion, unlike a robot which is programmed and thus driven by a mechanical necessity. The human mind is able to take alternate courses of action in order to work for the gratification of one’s inherent likes and the avoidance of one’s dislikes. Satisfaction of one’s likes results in pleasure and actions based on dislikes are avoided in order to prevent inflicting pain on one-self. At this stage, we take note of another important feature of self-consciousness. An individual can, through analogical reasoning , arrive at the reasonable conclusion that a fellow human being also possesses self-consciousness, and, consequently, infer that he would also like to act on the basis of his own special set of likes and dislikes. Accordingly, one can assume that the other person also wants to act in such a way as to realize his goal of experiencing pleasure and desist from acting in ways that would cause him pain. Furthermore, this inference based on analogical reasoning is uniformly applicable to all human beings irrespective of their differences in physical, mental and material well-being; it is valid whether one is a prince or a pauper, an intellectual genius or a person of average intelligence etc. Thus, the moral attitude emanates from an extremely egalitarian principle that is intrinsic to the mind.

Self-consciousness, with its twin implications of the feeling of duality and an equal concern for all human beings, gives rise to an inescapable need for a principle of reciprocity in man’s social behaviour. Person A is expected to behave towards B in the same reciprocal manner as A expects B to behave towards him. In fact, this is one of the basic tenets of criminal jurisprudence. Since we agree that the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain is common to everyone, ideally speaking, we should do to others what gives them maximum pleasure just as we expect them to harbour similar feelings towards us backed up by appropriate actions. And the negative side of the equation is that we should not inflict harm on others because that would cause them pain just as we are convinced of the converse statement that is confirmed by our own experience. For further discussion, it would be repetitious to deal with the negative concept of pain and so we concentrate only on the positive aspect of the principle of reciprocity that deals with actions leading to maximizing pleasure. This is also the underlying argument of psychological hedonism.

The principle of reciprocity in our relation to our fellow human beings bestows equal importance to both parties with the compelling necessity of simultaneity. Unfortunately, our intellectual knowledge about the desirability to do good to our fellow humans, dictated by the global consideration of reciprocity, does not suppress our urge to assign a higher priority to our own personal interests, thus giving rise to a serious internal contradiction. We do not always wish to obey the prompting of our self-consciousness because of this double nature of the mind, one that recognizes the validity of the intellectual assent that we have given to the assignment of equal weightage to the concerns of everyone, and a second that resists it by seeking the satisfaction of our own interests as a matter of priority. We sadly come to the conclusion that the idea of the self is not so simple as we thought at the beginning of our discussion. We can now talk of a higher self and a lower self that are opposed to each other; the former reminds us of our obligation to others and the latter urges us to take care of our interests first and foremost even at the cost of skewing the equation of reciprocity. This is the second implication of self-consciousness, next only to the feeling of duality where the feeling of dichotomy of the self was not envisaged. The contending forces between the two selves give rise to a moral constraint which has to be overcome in order to restore the spirit underlying the principle of reciprocity.

Overcoming the above moral constraint would mean restoring the primacy of the higher self, and this is where the concept of duty as commonly understood arises. Three of its principal features can be identified: a) in our interactions with our fellow human beings, that is, in the social realm, actions are directed towards others; b) what is required is conscious action dictated by our self-awareness, and not by instincts as in the case of animals which also work for the welfare of others guided by their herd-instinct; and c) we assign little or no tangible rewards to ourselves in the performance of our duties which means that our natural inclinations may not necessarily be satisfied. What is prescribed for the removal of the moral constraint in terms of duty might appear as unduly harsh, but this is what it takes to turn a personal inclination into a personal obligation which is an essential step in ethical progress.

Duty, if it is directed solely to the welfare of others would not contain a real incentive for action despite the deep-seated conviction in the principle of reciprocity which guarantees that similar duties when carried out by others towards the welfare of the agent would satisfy the agent's desires and inclinations. For the performance of duty to carry conviction, the individual performing the duty should also reap rewards from it although they may not be for the satisfaction of one's immediate desires. Thus, duty has a two-fold purpose: first, an external aspect directed towards a fellow being, and secondly, an internal aspect directed towards one’s own personal benefit. The internal aspect consists in the gradual development of one’s own character as a result of performing actions in the right spirit. For a duty to qualify as a moral action, it should satisfy both the conditions. The simple act of helping some one in distress will not qualify for moral action if it is not done with the proper spirit. One of the classic examples that is cited to illustrate the point is that if a person saves a drowning man merely because he is his debtor, the outward form of valour does not constitute a moral action because it is accompanied by a bankruptcy of the inner spirit. One is also reminded of the example given by Samuel Johnson where he talks about a rich man throwing a coin towards a poor man in order to hurt him; the poor man is grateful for receiving the coin but the donor did not give it in the right spirit and so the action does not qualify as a moral action.

Our discussion so far has implicitly assumed that the concept of self whether it be of the agent or of others pertains to the instant of time at which the duty is being performed. For a fuller discussion, it is necessary to remove this restriction and consider the self as it undergoes a transformation from birth to death. In other words, it is necessary to bring in the concept of an interval of time over which a metamorphosis of the self takes place. The bundle of likes and dislikes which are at the basis of the principle of reciprocity that we have enunciated will not remain constant throughout the life-time of any individual and so there is a need for a reinterpretation of the principle when an interval of time is taken into account.

In passing, we take note of the fact that we set aside the consideration of the self in its subtle state, where likes and dislikes are totally absent, because this is associated not with time but with eternity. The word eternity, as it is used here, does not mean from everlasting to everlasting, but it means that it is beyond the realm of time. This is where there could be differences in meaning about Ethics associated with the various metaphysical theories. Furthermore, there is no simple way of resolving the differences because eternity has reference to the transcendental realm; since it cannot be reached even when we take rationality to its very limits, it admits of different intellectual speculations. Fortunately, we do not have to delve deeper into the subject because our present thesis deals with empirical ethics where time is the essential factor and the self of our discussion is always associated with some external features.

The psychological experience of passage of time is fundamental to every human being. We have the concepts of the past, present and future, and because of the unidirectional flow of time, the past merges into the present and the present into the future, which is the underlying meaning of becoming that is an important philosophical concept. Let us for our purposes of analysis focus attention on the impact of time on self, not of the agent, but of the person the agent is interacting with. If, according to the principle of reciprocity, the agent has to indulge in such activities that would cater to the maximization of pleasures of the second person, the uncertainty arises as to which moment of life that needs to be considered since the agent's likes and dislikes do not remain constant throughout the life time. Consequently, one would per force look for a concept that is more enduring over the entire time interval than in the concept of pleasure of the moment which is transitory in nature. Such an integral concept is called happiness. The principle of reciprocity is now restated in terms of the maximization of another’s happiness instead of pleasures. The next question that arises is: how do we enrich the meaning of the principle by taking the whole of humanity into account? Theoretically, it would mean that man should strive for the greatest happiness of the greatest number which is called utilitarianism.

We can now bring in the impact of a time interval on the self of the moral agent, a consideration that we had set aside in our discussion leading to the concept of utilitarianism. The principle of reciprocity would be devoid of its true meaning if a real incentive for action is denied to the agent who should also realize that the exercise of duty to others should be such that it has the potential to increase the level of happiness in an enduring way. Furthermore, the agent should be conscious of the fact that while the happiness of others is only an intellectual conviction, it is, on the other hand, an emotional experience when it comes to one's own case. No one can fully experience some one else’s emotions. All said and done, each person has to work for personal ethical and moral improvement; others can at best assist one in the process. Consequently, there is a difference in the type of happiness that results through the application of the reciprocity principle in its broader setting. The happiness of the agent is placed on a higher footing altogether than that of the person being interacted with. Happiness of the agent can be considered as a higher good than that of others. It results in the building of one’s character whose litmus test is that what were once considered as moral constraints resulting from internal contradictions-- the tensions resulting from the perpetual struggle that goes on between the lower self and the higher self-- will instead be gradually felt as moral obligations.

The discussion on higher good needs some more elaboration in order to make its meaning clear. It should be noted that the goal of achieving perfection of character is equally applicable to everybody. While this ideal has clarity when applied to one’s own self, it is fuzzy when it comes to the perception of a similar ideal present in others. All that we can say is that moral action should be such that it should not only result in the achievement of a higher good in the agent but it should also indirectly assist others with whom we interact in the realization of their own goals in addition to the direct assistance rendered in the realization of the lower good. This should be possible since one cannot conceive of an internal contradiction in the two pursuits: A can work for his own higher good, but he can only be certain of achieving the lower good for B as a result of his moral action and, in addition, indirectly work towards the achievement of the higher good of B.

As we have stated earlier, for an action to qualify as a moral one, it is not only its outward form that is important but also the inner spirit with which it is done. When so much emphasis is laid on the inner spirit of a moral action, it is necessary to examine some objective criteria for establishing the worthiness of internal standards as otherwise they would be deemed as purely subjective. The time-honoured way for providing correctives for maintaining internal standards is by making use of the yardstick of social approval. What is meant by social approval is that it is based both on long traditions and current practice that are in accord, and , in addition, it is approved by the reflective minds of the society.

Under normal circumstances, in a majority of cases, both the internal standard of the individual and the moral judgment of the society coincide, but they can vary when a society is undergoing rapid changes. It is well known from experience that societies do change their values in the course of their history. To cite only one example, a generation ago, one could not have openly spoken about gay rights because of the taboo that was placed on such sexual behaviour, but it is now a matter of public discourse because of our understanding that it is a sexual orientation that has existed from time immemorial. Examples such as these abound in every society and so it is necessary to examine what causes ethical dilemma for an individual. Using the terminology that we have developed for our exposition of empirical Ethics, we can say the instability in social standards is caused by changes in our conception about the higher self. It can take on the meaning of a tribal self of a primitive society or, at the other extreme, it can take on the subtlest meaning afforded in philosophical and religious discourses. The double nature of the mind results from a fixed self (lower self) responsible for our likes and dislikes and a varying self (higher) depending upon the evolution of the society as a whole. But, whatever the stage of evolution of a society, all other implications of the principle of reciprocity will still be valid. The ethical problem, in the ultimate analysis, remains an individual one because of the internal contradictions posed by the double nature of the mind, albeit with the changes that occur with changes in social standards.

But is there a fixed absolute value for the higher self ? The answer to the question takes us to an understanding of metaphysics. If we are merely interested in empirical Ethics, which for all intents and purposes should be quite adequate to lead purposeful lives, we need not answer the question that is posed. But the incessant search for finding the real meaning of Ethics arises from human being’s insatiable urge for attaining perfection and so we make some concluding comments on the metaphysical question. We had started out with the idea of self-consciousness for developing the central concepts of Ethics and had pointed out that there is a self which is stripped of all features. One of the names assigned to it was pure consciousness. This highest self of the double nature of the mind was also referred to as Self. When that level of consciousness is realized, the lower self merges into the higher self and no duality is perceived. This is the essential argument of an Indian metaphysical theory based on non-duality. But the same central truth can be restated in different terms depending on one’s preference to a metaphysical theory. In any case, this is the stage at which the real link is provided between Ethics and Metaphysics.

We have so far given a model as it were for explaining the central concepts of empirical Ethics. But we do not want to leave the impression that for the principles to be put into practice, one has to painfully follow step by step the ascending order of the long discourse. If that were so, many would conclude that the discussion was meant only for gaining dry intellectual knowledge and was never meant for putting it into practice because of its hopelessly impossible demands. But the real story is more optimistic than that. What is initially required is some concrete step by which we can activate the whole process of moral improvement in a simple way that does not place undue burdens in its practice. This is done in a two-stage process: first, acquire at least a fleeting experience of the highest self that resides in every one through prayer and meditation, and secondly, make use of this experience to sustain the entire process of moral and ethical cleansing in a systematic way throughout one’s life time. If the process does not gravitate towards higher levels of happiness, one can begin to suspect that there is something wrong with it. The proof comes at an intensely experiential level and hence leaves no room for doubts. The practical discipline is best understood under some initial guidance and cannot be the subject of a theoretical discourse, at least not in its entirety.

We wish to point out at this stage that our particular development of the bottom-up approach to Ethics is based on Indian philosophical concepts. Indian philosophy can also be regarded as an Indian conception of values because it is not merely interested in an intellectual knowledge of the ultimate reality, the Self of our discussion, but also in the actual means of proceeding towards this common goal of all mankind in an individual’s life-time. This empirical approach to the exposition of Indian philosophy has also provided the conceptual framework for our discussion of Ethics. All too often, the New Age gurus who teach Eastern philosophical concepts in the West concentrate only on an intellectual knowledge of the supreme Self followed by meditative disciplines of one type or another. Specifically, they completely omit stressing the importance of leading an ethical life which is an integral part of the spiritual practice. Such teachings, which are maimed and mutilated, present a distorted picture of the Eastern philosophy, so much so that many have come to wrongly believe that there is no emphasis on Ethics in the Indian teaching. There is a need to correct this misunderstanding because of the wide publicity received by the New Age gurus.

In summary, we have developed a bottom-up approach for the understanding of the central principles of Ethics. We started out with the observation that self-consciousness is the unique endowment of human beings, and discussed its implication of duality of the mind. This was followed by a discussion of the principle of reciprocity arising out of people’s kinship with one another. However, we noted that the obligations implied by this principle are not usually met because of the double nature of the self, namely, the lower self and the higher self. It is the preference given to the demands of the lower self based on the likes and dislikes of the individual that skews the reciprocity principle. We have discussed how this moral constraint can be overcome by asserting the role of the higher self in the pursuance of one’s duty, an action which is replete with meaning. We then proceeded with the discussion of the moral equation when an interval of time was considered. The implications of moral action of the agent while interacting with one another were considered in detail. Further, we enlarged the discussion to include ethical considerations for the society as a whole. We also discussed how the social standards change with time and how these could be explained on the model of the higher and lower self. In conclusion, we pointed out how on the basis of an intellectual knowledge of the highest self, coupled with systematic methods for cleansing the doors of perception by adhering to ethical standards in the conduct of one’s life, one could bring in real meaning to the subject of empirical Ethics. Finally, we wish to reiterate that no uniqueness is claimed for the metaphysical theory of non-duality that constitutes the background for the present development. The Self is conceived in different ways by different faiths and so there are numerous ways to conceive of its interrelations of the lower self; in fact, such doctrinal differences exist even within a single faith. But what is important for the development of empirical Ethics is that it should be finally linked to a self-consistent metaphysical theory. The most optimistic conclusion to note is that, in practice, there is a lot of common ground in the conception of Ethics in the different philosophies of the various faiths.

Author/Creator: 
Dr. H. K. Kesavan