BECK index

Ethics

Metaphysical Foundation
Universal Values
Applying Universal Values

This chapter has been published in the book Mideast & Africa to 1700.
For ordering information, please click here.

Ethics is the discipline relating to right and wrong, moral duty and obligation, moral principles and values, and to moral character. To many people ethics and morality are synonymous terms, both meaning customs in their original Greek and Latin respectively. However, the Greek term "ethics" also implies character, whereas "mores" refers to social customs. Morals have probably been discussed as long as there has been language. Socrates and Plato discussed moral questions at length. Plato's student Aristotle was the first to make a serious and systematic study of moral principles, and he called that ethics.

Therefore I would like to make a distinction between the terms and use "ethics" to refer to a universal or philosophical system of moral principles and values while leaving "morality" to refer to the relative standards or values of any social group or person. Of course much overlapping can occur. An individual's or culture's morality may often have universal standards, but in many cases they may not be universally applied in a philosophical way.

In this work I will be applying universal values and ethical principles in evaluating and learning from the history of human civilization. In the beginning I want to clarify what those values and principles are. However, to explain the origin and source of those principles and values I must begin with the logically prior field of metaphysics, which studies existence and reality.

Metaphysical Foundation

What exists? Who wants to know? Who or what are you? What is real? These basic questions have often been asked by philosophers, and diverse philosophies have developed from the different answers given. I will present my ideas for your consideration and hope that you find them useful.

It seems to me that consciousness or awareness is a good place to begin because only through consciousness are we aware of anything at all, whether it is physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. Even though most people may assume that they are physical bodies, which when alive and awake, are conscious, in my view this is philosophically backwards and ultimately untenable. We are beings who when in physical bodies can use the body's senses to be aware of the body and other bodies and things. If we were not conscious, we would have no awareness of anything, let alone bodies. Yet somehow because we are not able to remember being born, people often assume that consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon of our organism. Thus since our consciousness is not omniscient, we assume that it is less real than the physical world which appears to be more solid and lasting. However, as Plato, Shankara, Descartes, Berkeley, and many other philosophers have pointed out, the spiritual awareness is more real than the body.

How do I know for certain that the spiritual is real? I do not claim to know it absolutely; but in my experience it is the most probable explanation. I do not ask the readers to believe everything I write; but I do ask that you consider these ideas with an open mind and with an attitude that they might be true. No one can prove to another person that God exists or that we live forever as souls, but on the other hand no one can prove the opposite either. Thus I am going to present a coherent philosophy that I have developed based on all my experience and studies as my explanation of the way things are as I understand them.

Although we experience everything through consciousness, the mind can also infer that there are some things that are somehow beyond our own limited awareness, such as other people and objects in the world, for example. It also can be inferred not only that our bodies exist as physical things but that somehow the source of our consciousness is a being or organizing principle that gives our consciousness continuity. This mysterious being, which is difficult to perceive or describe because it is beyond the mind, I call the soul.

In my understanding all souls are one with God or Spirit or whatever you want to call the ultimate and absolute reality which is responsible for the creation of this universe. For either this universe has existed forever, which is difficult for the mind to comprehend without some concept of an eternal being, or it was created by someone or something which transcends it. Now if this Creator or God is eternal and the souls are the same essence as God, then souls are eternal too.

Through consciousness souls are able to experience life in this universe. Yet if souls are divine, why are they not omniscient like God? It seems that the process of life is designed so that souls can gain experience, knowledge, and wisdom and so learn how to become more responsible creators. As the child begins life innocent and ignorant but eventually learns how to function as an intelligent human being, so souls seem to be in a process of education. However, souls, if they are eternal or exist as individual entities for long periods of time, can experience life many times in many different forms and situations over time.

We are currently experiencing life as human beings, but souls may also extend their energy and awareness into other forms of life. However, it is likely that the soul would not limit itself too much; thus it is conjectured by some and indicated by others who claim to be clairvoyant that other species of plants and animals have what is called a group soul. In other words the soul does not fully incarnate into the less evolved species but rather extends energy and consciousness into a group of them. Humans are the most extraordinary species on this planet for many reasons which will be described in the next chapter, but some say that souls might also incarnate themselves in other intelligent species such as dolphins and whales. This may be a way for souls to experience this planet for a short time without getting involved in the karma of humanity.

What is karma? Karma is a Sanskrit term meaning action or the measure of an action in terms of cause and effect. I call this principle responsibility. Essentially it is a way of examining the consequences of any action. In other words we reap what we sow, or in street terms "what goes around comes around." If the soul is eternal, that means the soul has to live with whatever it does forever. So the soul being a majestic and divine being does not want to have a blemish on its record and will find a way to balance or rectify every action eventually. The soul realizing that it is one with everyone will aim to love and be in harmony with all. In social terms this becomes the principle of justice. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Since infinity exists, then every action must eventually return to its source even though it may take a long time to do so.

This concept of the soul thus places responsibility on individuals. This responsibility also implies free will or choice. This metaphysical principle of freedom is essential to any intelligent theory of ethics, for how can we hold people responsible for their actions if they have no freedom to choose? Although cause and effect does exist in the universe and there are many physical laws that can be understood and so applied, this ultimate spiritual principle of the freedom of action transcends and interacts with those physical laws. Consciousness or awareness of alternatives is what enables us to express this freedom of choice in human life. Every action will have consequences according to the laws and principles of life, but the choice of which action to take is present as long as we are aware of alternatives.

Universal Values

In my book LIFE AS A WHOLE: Principles of Education Based on a Spiritual Philosophy of Love I describe twenty-seven divine principles. In my philosophy these principles are more than relative values but are characteristics or attributes of the divine which can be called upon and guide us in our lives, thus having absolute existence in addition to being relative. They are grouped into nine sets of three as follows: goodness, truth, and beauty; reality, awareness, and joy; love, wisdom, and power; life, growth, and fruition; will, freedom, and responsibility; creativity, balance, and harmony; courage, faith, and patience; law, justice, and peace; and wholeness, health, and perfection.

Certainly more concepts and variations of these could be added, but I believe that most of these twenty-seven are universal values that can be useful as ethical principles. Obviously any one of them could be taken to an extreme and misapplied, but if applied correctly and in harmony with the other principles I believe they can be very useful guidelines for our consciousness and behavior. Let us examine them one by one and see how they would apply to ethics.

Goodness is the most generalized concept of value and is usually an essential principle in most ethical systems. Perhaps the concept of goodness can help us to explain where values come from in the first place and how we know that they exist. Skeptics might ask if anyone has ever seen goodness or heard it or perceived it any way by means of our physical senses. Obviously goodness is not a physical object, for any object could be good or bad depending on how it is used. Yet from the perspective of consciousness we can realize the centrality and importance of the idea of the good, as Plato called it. Psychologically we can understand that consciousness is intentional or purposive, that everyone is attempting to do what they consider is good, although others may not always agree with them about what is good. Thus the goal of every action is some good, and in every choice we are deciding on what we think is good.

Even when we seem to be going against some intellectual concept of good and choosing a lower desire or instinct, it can be argued that psychologically at least in our consciousness the lower desire is temporarily chosen because our consciousness as a whole believes it is preferred at that time. Nevertheless ethics can also be a process of analyzing these different goods in order to help people to become more aware of what is truly good for the individual and others so that in the future greater goods may be chosen. Nonetheless this does not alter the psychological experience that what some may judge as lesser goods are still chosen because they seem good to the individual. No one chooses what they believe to be bad unless somehow their consciousness has been perverted to believe that what is bad is somehow good.

Utilitarian ethics, for example, has used this concept of good as its basic principle by attempting to maximize it by considering what is the greatest good for the greatest number or as the Romans and Thomas Aquinas put it, the summum bonum, or the highest good. If we have to reduce our ethical principles to one phrase, perhaps this concept of the greatest good is the best that we can do.

This idea of good is I believe very similar to love in that we do what we love, or we love what is good. To me love is the most important of the divine principles because love actively expresses goodness. Loving others as we love ourselves then makes this universal. I believe that we all want to love and be loved, and this above all can bring us closer to paradise and divine fulfillment.

Truth is certainly an important principle and being honest or telling the truth is generally recognized in ethics as a moral obligation. Truth is what keeps us in contact with reality, another divine principle but more important in metaphysics than as an ethical value. Nevertheless in life reality often sets in and forces us to make existential choices in limited situations. There can be no escaping reality whether we like it or not.

Beauty is obviously an esthetic principle and more related to the arts. However, in the Greek consciousness beauty was often linked with goodness and could imply a moral beauty. Certainly to many the unnecessary violation of beauty would be a moral fault.

I have already discussed the importance of awareness in moral choice. The implication is also that greater awareness is a good so that whatever increases awareness is good. Joy is another term for happiness, which is the main goal of the ethical philosophy of Aristotle called Eudaimonism. Joy is experienced as good, and in Hinduism as ananda is part of the divine experience of sat chit ananda, which includes chit as consciousness or awareness and sat as truth or reality in the sense of being. Joy is an emotional good or pleasant experience. Happiness, bliss, or being blessed is sometimes referred to as the ultimate goal in life because it can be argued that all other goods are intended as a means to be happy, but only happiness is sought only for itself.

Wisdom implies even more than awareness in that it is a good and useful awareness. Wisdom is considered the virtue of the mind and can be defined as knowing and doing what is truly good. By power I do not mean any kind of power, but as a divine principle or universal value only that power which is used for good. Perhaps virtue might have been a better term. It is expressed by the Chinese concept de. As we shall see over and over again, power can be easily abused. However, power is valuable in its meaning as ability or potential. Yet because of the dangers of power being misused, in this work I am not going to consider it a universal value, but only as a relative value which may be good or bad depending on how it is used. The same is true of other values not included in these divine principles such as wealth, which may or may not be used well although generally it is good.

Some virtues are also not included as universal values, because they may not always be beneficial in every situation. The virtues of courage, faith, and patience are usually good, but in some cases may be abused. Courage may be misapplied to killing in war, and although we may admire the courage we cannot condone the killing which violates the important principle of life. Similarly faith may become misguided, and patience may be an excuse for inaction.

Life is certainly a very basic and universal value, although growth and fruition while generally good may be inappropriate in some circumstances, just as the virtue of chastity may not always be beneficial. I think that reverence for life is extremely important because it also implies respect for freedom. Similarly health is a universal value we all want to enjoy without interference from others.

Creativity is a divine quality but may not be a universal value in that when it goes awry it can be destructive. Balance and harmony are also esthetic values which like beauty can be applied to social and ethical situations. However, there are times when the disruption of a seeming balance or harmony may be needed, though it could be argued that it would only be for the sake of a greater or truer harmony and balance. So I suppose these values are universal too.

Law, justice, and peace I think are quite important in social and political relations. Not all laws may be good of course, but the principle of law and its value as a means for regulating human interaction is probably necessary in a world where there must be some practical means of preventing and correcting harmful behavior. Justice is the higher principle here and most universal, and peace seems to be its result. Peace can also be found inwardly and is extremely valuable. Obviously peace at any price is not always beneficial. So at times we must return to the principle of justice.

Wholeness derives from the idea of the oneness of all things. It also implies that we need to consider all the factors and relevant considerations before we make our judgments. I believe this is a very important principle in ethics. Wholeness helps us to integrate all of the values and principles together. In evaluating actions from an ethical perspective we need to realize that there are many different aspects and factors involved so that we do not get carried away in narrow-minded or linear thinking. In some circumstances different values may come into conflict, and only from a holistic perspective can we intelligently evaluate those existential choices.

Perfection is the last of the divine principles and implies the end or completion in ultimate perfection. This is really more metaphysical than ethical because the practicality of ethics in a messy world makes the quest for moral perfection almost hopeless. Nonetheless it is an ideal we strive for, though it would be foolish to try to hold it up as a standard for anyone.

From this discussion of these divine principles I think that we can see that the most important ones for use in ethics as universal values are goodness, truth, love, wisdom, life, freedom, responsibility, justice, and health. Primarily upon these I base this work.

Applying Universal Values

In the writing of history authors often attempt to be neutral and objective. Yet as has often been pointed out, this is nearly impossible if only because of the selections which must be made. Nevertheless many attempt to write factual histories, and in the relative sense this can be done. I define a fact as a past event in space-time. In this sense then nothing is more factual than history.

However, this work is not just the story of civilization (like the Durants wrote), but of the ethics of civilization, a critical history of human consciousness. In other words the attempt is to evaluate the history of human experience from the perspective of ethical principles. Thus as a critique it is necessarily judgmental in its evaluations. However, these judgments are not made to condemn anyone, since most of the people involved are long dead. The purpose of the evaluations is to learn from their experiences so that we can avoid those mistakes and emulate their successes.

Thus this work is subjective in the sense that the universal values above described are being applied to the understanding of human affairs. Nevertheless it is also attempting to be neutral and objective, not in the sense that it is value-free, but in applying those abstract values universally to all equally and fairly. In other words I am attempting to avoid any cultural bias based on a particular sex, race, religion, nationality, or ideology. The actions of each individual and group will be examined as to their consequences considering the values of life, freedom, health, justice, and so on.

From our basic assumptions that freedom of choice exists for individuals and that justice is a universal principle, we can reason that therefore individual equality is to be respected in the sense that every soul is equally divine or human. Though people may have varying abilities and levels of awareness which may affect their responsibilities, it is nonetheless the case that every individual is responsible for his or her actions.

Also social groups are responsible for their actions, and each individual has a share in the responsibility of a group. This is sometimes referred to as group or collective karma and may be applied to families, cities, nations, religions, societies, and political factions or parties. Evaluating the consequences of these collective actions is very important because they affect so many people. We as individuals today also are responsible not only for our personal actions but also for our share in the collective actions which we support. In order to create a world of peace and justice with universal health and happiness, we, both individually and collectively, need to learn how to be responsible for all these actions.

Prehistoric Cultures

Copyright © 1998, 2010 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book Mideast & Africa to 1700.
For ordering information, please click here.

MIDEAST & AFRICA 1700-1950

INDIA & SOUTHEAST ASIA to 1800
CHINA, KOREA & JAPAN to 1800
GREECE & ROME to 30 BC
AMERICA to 1744

Introduction
Ethics
Prehistoric Cultures
Sumer, Babylon, and Hittites
Ancient Egypt
Ancient Israel
Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and Persian Empires
Muhammad and Islamic Conquest
Abbasid, Buyid, and Seljuk Empires 750-1095
Islamic Culture 1095-1300
Ottoman and Persian Empires 1300-1700
North Africa to 1700
Sub-Saharan Africa to 1700
Summary and Evaluation
Bibliography

Chronology of Mideast & Africa to 1950
World Chronology
Chronology of Asia & Africa

ETHICS OF CIVILIZATION Index

BECK index