Transcendent Ethics and Spiritual Transformation

Part 1 - Ethical Theory, from Philosophy to Psychology

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,                  
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy...
Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5

Since the time of Aristotle the field of Ethics has been deemed exclusively to be a branch of philosophy. There is, however, ample evidence to suggest that ethical decision making processes play a critical and central role in the field of psychology and are the progenitors of the psychological schism within each of us that results in the Id, Ego, and Superego split that was described by Sigmund Freud.

Philosophical ethical theories explain how and why we, as rational and logical beings, should behave ethically. The problem with this is that we humans, while capable of both understanding and creating rational and logical thought, are neither logical nor rational beings any more than we are purely objective observers of the goings on around us. While we may perceive ourselves to be logical and rational, modern neural science and brain mapping tells us a different story about the intricate role that our feelings play even at times when we think we are being completely rational and objective. The closest approximation that we have to a rational, logical being is Gene  Roddenberry's fictional character Spock. 

When it comes right down to it, would any of us want to live in a world of human beings all of whom were ALWAYS rational and logical?  Those who watch Star Trek may enjoy seeing the interactions of the always logical Vulcan with the rest of us mere humans, but there is a good reason that we've never seen a series or even an episode devoted entirely to life on the Vulcan home world; such an episode would bore us all to tears.

Ethical theories that do not take into account our often illogical and irrational nature are based on idealized rather than actual human beings (“...and if a frog had wings it wouldn't bump its butt on the ground.”)  They are simply incomplete.

An examination of our actual human nature, our desires, our motivations, and how we interact and behave with one another, may lead us to a better fitting understanding of how ethics come into being (assuming that they haven't been around since the beginning of time,) the basis for the ethical constraints that we place on our actions, how we might transcend that part of our nature for which we need ethics and how we may even become spiritually transformed (definitely not the standard fare that one finds in a Philosophy of Ethics class.)

Part 2 - The Yin-Yang of Tiger-Bee Ethics

Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it...
Genesis 2:16-17 KJV

Everyone recognizes beauty only because there is also ugliness;
likewise, good is recognized only because there is also evil...
  Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2

Is it humanly possible to have no knowledge or understanding of the concepts of Good and Evil?  The story of Original Sin in the Bible's book of Genesis provides an interesting conundrum to consider regardless of whether or not one believes in the Bible or God. Good and evil are not difficult concepts for humans to grasp, yet how might we understand a state of innocence so complete that the concepts of good and evil could not be understood?  Before eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, would Adam and Eve steal from one another and lie to each other and simply never consider that such acts might be wrong, or would they be so selfless that they would never have the desire or temptation to lie or steal? Either they, in all innocence did, or did not do those things that would later be considered sins, so it must have been one or the other. Such are the quandaries familiar to many a  student of the Bible faced with the task of trying to comprehend how it could be possible to have no knowledge of good and evil.

As the awareness and understanding of good and evil are so much a part of our human consciousness, perhaps the best way to grasp how it could be possible to have no knowledge of these concepts is to find examples outside of our normal frame of reference, in nature, and imagine ourselves in similar rather extra-ordinary circumstances.

Tigers are solitary territorial hunters. The size of a Tiger's territory is determined by the abundance of available prey.  Tigers have a territorial imperative to defend  their territory from other Tigers, even if it means killing invading Tigers, in order to have access to an amount of available prey necessary to maintain strength and the ability to stay healthy and keep hunting.  This is the survival strategy that the solitary territorial hunter must follow, lest it perish.

If we humans in our distant past were ever solitary territorial hunters, then we would have been compelled by our territorial imperative (probably perceived as fear and rage) to drive off or kill any other humans who invaded our territory. We would be completely self-centered and selfish as we would owe no debt of consideration towards any other human or group of humans save how to dispatch them as a threat to the food supply. (I am, of course, sidestepping the issue of tolerating a mate for the purpose of procreation.) This would correspond with the notion of Adam and Eve stealing from each other and lying to each other without ever considering that such behavior might be morally wrong.

Our concepts of good, evil, and ethics would be incomprehensible to this solitary territorial hunter struggling to stay alive.

On a spectrum of degrees of socialization, Tigers would be at the asocial end of the spectrum and Honeybees would be at the fully socialized end of the spectrum.

The Honeybee, by all appearance, is a completely socialized creature. It lives in a hive and exhibits no behaviors that could be identified as asocial or in any way selfish. There is no evidence that Honeybees are at all inclined to stash away a personal supply of honey before returning to the hive with the remainder of the gathered nectar. Neither do Honeybees exhibit any territorial behaviors within the hive. They get along harmoniously and cooperatively in extremely close quarters with their fellow Honeybees, and perform no actions that are not in accord with what is best for the hive.

If we humans lived in hive-like societies and desired nothing more than to do what was best for the greater good of our hive or society, and if we had no individualistic selfish or antisocial desires whatsoever, then the concepts of good and evil would have no meaning for us just as if Adam and Eve were completely selfless and it would never occur to them to steal or lie.

The Chinese philosophical concept of Yin and Yang refers to opposites that are also complements in that you cannot have one without the other, such as large and small, comparisons in size that would be rendered meaningless if everything was the same size. So it is with good and evil. If we humans lived like Bees and never had a selfish desire, but only sought to do what was best for our society, then evil would have no meaning and neither would good. The concept of behaving ethically would be meaningless since it would never occur to us to behave unethically.  Conversely, if we lived as solitary hunters, then ethics would be meaningless since the completely selfish desires would all be aimed at ensuring the survival of the individual, as well they should be.

With Tigers at one end of the socialization scale and Bees at the other end, it becomes clear that we humans are somewhere in the middle.  We desire, enjoy and depend on the company of other humans in our societies for our security and are ill suited to survive on our own in most of the climate regions we inhabit without the clothing and tools that human society provides, and yet we also greatly value our individualistic nature, our freedom from externally imposed constraints on our actions, and our autonomy which gives us the ability to provide for our needs and the needs of our family. We can be said to have both a Tiger nature and a Bee nature, and herein lies the conflict for which we need the mediation of ethics.  Ethics, then are the constraints that we must and should place on our Tiger nature in order to live successfully and harmoniously in a society of people all of whom must also constrain their Tiger natures.

This Tiger nature (that Sigmund Freud called the Id) exists hidden within us humans and influences the creation of desires to behave in ways that are at odds with the social order and must be constrained or preferably redirected to an alternate action that satisfies the desires without violating the social norms.

We might be inclined to think that extinguishing our Tiger nature and learning to live like Bees, in service to our societies would be the highest good, as such a cohesive society would theoretically become a utopia, but this is roughly the notion that fueled Marxist ideology (the state would eventually wither away) and does not take into account the dynamic of our individualistic Tiger nature. The world has watched and seen how, in totalitarian regimes in which individualism has been crushed, stagnation has set in to a point where those societies could not even maintain themselves.

The enabling and yet containing of our Tiger natures therefore becomes the foundation and basis of our ethics. Our ethical rules at their most basic level must provide for the free expression of our Tiger nature, so long as that expression does not infringe on other members of our society, nor upon their free expression.

We are and should be free to do whatever we want with only one constraint, and that constraint is that our freedoms do not include the freedom to deprive others of these same freedoms. (The colloquial expression of this principle states that your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose and vice-versa.) This is the fundamental and most basic ethical principle that should be the foundation and basis of the codified ethical standards that are the laws of our society. Without this basis, the strong would prey upon those weaker than themselves, and only the strongest might consider themselves free and autonomous.

Perhaps the Constitution of the United States might have embraced this principle more simply had it not been deemed necessary to appease those who held slaves by distinguishing between free persons and slaves, who were valued at three fifths of a free person. The sentiment was certainly there in the Declaration of Independence which states that,  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If we believe in the concept of Liberty as an enduring and essential foundation of our societies, then our rules of law should make it a crime for the strong to enslave, oppress, or steal the possessions of those who are weaker, or else Liberty would exist only for the richest, greediest, and most powerful.

Part 3 - Basic and Transcendent Ethics

The Two Golden Rules

That we should be free to do as we choose so long as our actions do not infringe on the freedoms of others is the core ethical principle for building a free society. All Basic ethical rules can be derived from this principle, such as not killing another person, not stealing from another person, and not taking advantage of another person's weakness. Rabbi Hillel's succinct maxim, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn!" (given in response to a challenge from a Gentile that he explain the Torah while the listener stood on one foot) is perhaps the highest expression of this Basic ethical principle.

To explain Transcendent ethics it is helpful to consider examples in which we do not have a vested interest. Let us therefore consider the ethical instructions and advice that a parent gives to a young child about playing with others.

Foremost are the Basic ethical instructions such as, “You may not hit, kick, or bite your playmates, nor may you be intentionally cruel or mean to them.” These are not suggestions. They are hard rules, the violation of which will lead to sure and certain punishment from the wary parent.

Transcendent ethics are not given as commands, but rather suggestions such as, “Share your toys with the other children. Be nice to the other children and try to make sure that they are having fun. Think about how happy your friends will be if you let them play with your toys. Don't worry about going first; give others a turn. Be patient; your turn will come. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Children who are wise enough to forgo their immediate self interest and desires and follow this advice will find themselves well liked and surrounded by friends who are eager to play with them and happy to share their toys because friendship with a considerate and generous child becomes more important than toys. It is a bit like delay of gratification with an element of faith added to the mix, that if we can Transcend our selfish desires, delay our gratification and focus instead on the gratification of others, then we will wind up better off than we would if we pursued only our own desires and immediate gratification. There is also the suggestion that children can learn to enjoy the pleasure that their friends experience when the children share toys with the friends.  If you are enjoying watching your friends play with your toys, then you have reached a Transcendent ethical state in which you have transcended your selfishness and desires, and your enjoyment flows from the joy that your actions and gifts can give to others.

It is easy to recognize how the employment of Transcendent ethics by children would lead to their being well liked and much more fulfilled than if they had cared only about their own  immediate gratification and desires. It is much more difficult for us adults to see that these same lessons of Transcendent ethics apply to us as well, that by relinquishing the hard pre-wired connection that we have to our own intentions and desires and instead, focusing our attention on the needs of those around us, we too have the ability to vicariously experience the joy and pleasure that we bring to our friends, colleagues and fellow human beings when we try to please them.  Moreover, by letting go of our own desires we become free of the anxiety, expectations and cynical unease that serves to keep our attention directed towards what is in our self interest, and we become far less troubled and much happier... and yet, even though we may realize on an intellectual level that transcending our desires and selfishness is in our best interest, we never-the-less still have our subconscious Tiger nature that is not about to disappear just because our intellect tells us that the Tiger should give way to our Transcendent Bee nature.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between the maxims of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Jesus. Rabbi Hillel's maxim, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow” might be paraphrased as, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you” and could be compared with Rabbi Jesus' maxim, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Rabbi Hillel's maxim sets up a clear call to live and let live, while Rabbi Jesus' maxim calls on us to adhere to a Transcendent ethical standard that asks us out of love to forgo our own desires and consider the needs, desires, joy and happiness of others to the exclusion of our own.

Part 4 - Eden Revisited

A Third Possibility

In pondering the conundrum of how it might be possible to have no knowledge of Good and Evil two scenarios were suggested. The first possibility was that Adam and Eve might have stolen and lied and never known that these were sins, not unlike the territorial hunter, raising the possibility that we humans evolved from a race of solitary hunters who were forced by circumstances to band together into a group, tribe or society. Perhaps the available prey grew such that a single hunter could not succeed, but a group of hunters could succeed. Thus would societies be born and with them the need to get along with one's neighbor, hence ethics come into being.

The second possibility was that it never occurred to Adam and Eve to steal or lie because they were fully integrated into a harmonious hive like society until, for reasons that do not seem obvious, they evolved individualistic selfish desires and thus found themselves torn between doing what was best for the group, or letting their selfish desires control their actions. In order to preserve the social unit it would have been necessary to create a set of basic rules, and thus ethics would come into being.

The third possibility, is that Adam and Eve, who lived in a small tribal society (not unlike apes or chimpanzees) and yet never formulated anything resembling our thoughts about Good and Evil, learned to make a diverse number of distinct sounds and then figured out how to associate those sounds with objects used in daily life, and thus was language and communication born. (In Genesis 2: 19 & 20 Adam gives names -- could be on to something here!) This eventually led to abstract thought as Adam, Eve and their descendents learned to contemplate their past and future actions and structure their memories using the words that they had created. Good and Evil, which had existed in this society without anyone giving them any structured or conceptual thought, would come to be defined as frightening concepts since evil people whose deeds could be remembered and chronicled might be cast out of society and left to perish. Desperately wanting the approval and acceptance of the tribe (without which the individual could not survive)  early humans would learn to deny the existence of any antisocial desires, denying their existence even to themselves and blocking awareness of these antisocial desires from their conscious minds, and thus would be born the split within our psyche in which the Id or Tiger spirit would become repressed and hidden by a wall of words and concepts that we would think about to describe ourselves to ourselves as good people, worthy of society's approval and acceptance. Our descriptions of the world around us become so numerous and layered that what we perceive around us is mostly very limiting description.

Perhaps the Original Sin was the structured and conceptual awareness of Good and Evil and the wall of words that we built and continue to maintain that hides our inappropriate desires and inner Tiger nature from ourselves. Since we block out the awareness of our Tiger nature with our words, that hidden nature is free to influence us without our conscious awareness. As it motivates our actions, we use our words to build reasons and rationalizations for why we have acted or are about to act in a certain way.

To make matters worse, we human beings love to see ourselves as good and wonderful. We want to be the righteous heroes in our own stories, always on the side of good, and we find it very easy to use our words to build pleasing mythologies and illusions about ourselves that tell us that we are virtuous (especially when we are not) and thus the shadowy gulf between who we want to believe we are and who we actually are widens,  and we become further separated from the truth, while simultaneously feeling increasingly righteous.

Part 5 - Spiritual Transformation

The Leap of Faith... to Infinite Resignation

You must never fear dying, my little friend...  One is united with the origin
and aim of life precisely as he expends himself on behalf of the entire world.
   “What the Wind said to Tajir” from The Way of the Wolf by Martin Bell

Yet we might learn to shine a light into these shadows that we have created, confront their unpleasant truths, tear down our illusions, relinquish our feelings of righteousness, fully forgive ourselves and re-order how we might truthfully perceive ourselves. Then, having faced the full and complete truth about ourselves and our nature, we might have the strength to tear down the wall of comforting words that we keep wanting to use to describe ourselves (and hide from anything unpleasant inside of us) and sit in complete silence with the totality of our nature. We might be able to come to terms with and completely integrate our Tiger nature into our awareness. This is a tall order as it involves confronting, bypassing and eliminating the mediator for our Tiger spirit, our ego, which functions as the internal source of all of our desires. Allowing the ego to die is the highest form of spiritual transformation and the most difficult. Surely this is what the Buddha did when confronting Mara under the Bo tree in order to become Awakened, and what Jesus did when he told the tempter “Get thee behind me!”

This Spiritual transformation may sound fairly straightforward and easy, but facing our illusions is a frightening, embarrassing and completely humiliating process that nobody desires, and all of us would rather avoid, and the part of ourselves that would enjoy and desire the empowerment that a spiritual awakening through a "Leap of Faith" would include, is the very part of ourselves that has to die in order for it to happen. Our desires simply cannot take us there as it is that part of us that does the desiring that must be eliminated. Only a sense of duty and a willingness to give up our lives and everything we love about our lives in service to something greater, will take us there, and, when we get there, we must choose what feels exactly like death for ourselves in order to push with all of our will power through that veil at the edge of existence.  To make that mental leap into the void requires that we intentionally and consciously will ourselves into nonexistence.  In Kierkegaard's  Fear and Trembling he describes becoming a "Knight of Infinite Resignation," someone willing to completely give up and eternally renounce all hopes, all dreams, and all expectations, for the sake of a higher good. If we become knights of infinite resignation and succeed in killing our own egos, then the part of us that remains will have completed the "Leap of Faith" of which Kierkegaard spoke, but it won't be the part of ourselves that we know so well, it will be a transformed perfected version of ourselves. For the part of us we know so well (our personal, selfish hopes and desires) there must only be infinite resignation and death. It is somewhat like committing suicide, but without hurting any part of our body other than the part of our consciousness that we think we like the best.

In the process of leaping or preparing to leap into the void we may find ourselves tempted by a manifestation of our egos with offers of spiritual powers, wealth, etc. All desire for such things must be cast away and rejected as Jesus and Buddha were able to do.

We may be inclined to fear the inner Tiger nature that we will attempt to assimilate and integrate into our consciousness, thinking that it must be some ravening monster that wants to devour us and assume our identity, but this inner Tiger nature is not evil; it appears to be the vestiges of the survival instincts of a territorial hunter whose only motivation is the survival and security of the individual. It is extremely helpful to recognize this fact as it allows us to forgive that antisocial aspect of our Tiger nature and prevents the guilt, loathing and fear that we might otherwise feel about a natural part of ourselves that we have in common with every human being on the planet. Indeed we are redeemed by our humanity, imperfections and all.

We humans are a remarkable mix of characteristics. We yearn for autonomy and freedom to pursue our individualistic desires while we are simultaneously afraid of our own shadows that are created by the gulf between our idealized self image and the reality of the raw Tiger spirit that animates and empowers us. We yearn to live with others of our kind and are capable of great compassion, concern and love for others. We are even able, despite our many imperfections, to love others so completely and perceive and be so deeply concerned about their needs and well-being to the exclusion of our own, that we may willingly sacrifice ourselves, and face death itself for their benefit. (Complete Transcendence!) We set our basic ethical rules to allow for a maximum of freedom, and then challenge ourselves to transcend our desires and live for a higher purpose, to Love, fully and completely, and to serve and even sacrifice ourselves for the sake of those we Love.

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