Archive for August, 2012


Today, I am going to share two excerpts from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. The first is from Chapter 5.11 and the second is from 5.16.

Marcus writes: Toward what end am I now making use of my soul?  Each day question and cross-examine yourself: What is really my own within this very part which people like to call the ‘ruling part’ and which is often that in name only?  What kind of soul do I have at this very moment?  That of a child? of an adolescent? of a tyrant? of livestock? of a beast?

Marcus writes: Whatever kind of impressions you receive most often, so too will be your mind, for the soul is dyed with the color of one’s impressions.  Therefore, color your soul with continuous thoughts like these: wherever there is life, there, too, the good life is possible; there is life in the royal halls, and so even in the royal halls it is possible to live rightly. 



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The idea of universality can bring into focus what for many is a serious moral dilemma.  When in Rome do as the Romans due.  But, what if the Romans go in for some rather nasty doings?  We do not have to search very far to find societies whose norms allow the systematic mistreatment of many groups.  There are caste-societies, societies that tolerate widow-burning, societies that allow stoning of women or deny them an education.  There are societies where there is little, if any, freedom of political expression or where distinctions of religion or language bring with them distinctions of legal and civil rights.

Here we have a clash.  On the one hand there is the relativist thought that ‘If they do it that way, it’s okay for them and in any event it’s none of my business.’  On the other hand there is the strong feeling that many have that these things just should not happen, and we should not stand idly by while they do.  Thus far, it appears to me, that we have only failed solutions to the problems of which standards to implement, if the standards end up like that.

For me, this logically leads me to look at the language of ‘justice’ and of ‘rights.’  There are human rights, which the above examples flout and yet deny.  The denial of rights is everybody’s concern.  If young children are denied education but exploited for labor that is not okay, anywhere or any time.

Many people will want to take such a stand, but then they get confused and defeated by the relativistic thought that, even as we say this, it is still ‘just us.’  The moral expressions I state above embody good, progressive, western standards.  They are even cemented in documents such as the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights [for example, Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.  They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.].  But are they more than just ours, just now?  And if we cannot see them as more than that, then who are we to impose them on others?  Multiculturalism seems to be a block, not an enabler.

We can – and sometimes do – insist on our standards, or thump the table.  No matter which of these we do, there will still be that little voice whispering that we are merely imposing our wills on others.  Here is a story that illustrates this idea.  When I was teaching business ethics many years ago I had the opportunity to attend an ethics conference.  During the conference there was a panel ‘discussion’ and on the panel were representatives of some of the ‘great’ religions.  First the Buddhist talked of the ways to calm, the mastery of desire, the path of enlightenment, and the other panelists all said, ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great.’  Then the Hindu talked of the cycles of suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release, and the other panelists all said, ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great.’  Then the Christian fundamentalist spoke of the message of Jesus Christ, the promise of salvation, and the way to life eternal, and the other panelists all said, ‘Wow, terrific, if hat works for you that’s great.’  And he thumped the table and shouted, ‘NO!’ It’s not a question of if it works for me!  It’s the true word of the living God, and if you don’t believe it you’re all damned to hell!’  And they all said, ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great!’

The disconnect of course lies in the mismatch between what the fundamentalist intends – a claim to unique authority and truth – and what he is heard as offering, which is a particular avowal, satisfying to him, but only to be tolerated [or patronized] like any other.  Perhaps the moral is that once a relativist frame of mind is really in place, nothing – no claims to truth, authority, certainty, or necessity – will be audible except as one more saying like all the others.  Of course, that person talks of certainty and truth, says the relativist.  That’s just HIS certainty and truth, made absolute for him.

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Arguing about ethics is arguing about the place of the end of the rainbow: something which is one thing from one point of view, and another from another.  Or, to put it another way, any particular set of standards is purely conventional, where the idea of convention implies that there are other equally proper ways of doing things, but that we just happen to have settled on one of them.  I loved Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers.  The philosopher in Jumpers tells us that ‘certainly a tribe which believes it confers honor on its elders by eating them is going to be viewed negatively by another which prefers to buy them a little hut by the sea.’  He also goes on to point out that in each tribe some notion of honor, or some notion of what is fitting to do, is at work.

Certainly, there is the law of custom AND it is also necessary for there to be some rule.  This suggests a limitation to relativism.  For given this, there come into view norms or standards that are transcultural.  For example, in the United States and Europe they drive on the right and in Britain and Australia on the left, but in each country there has to be one rule, or chaos will reign.  Funerary practices certainly vary, as Darius showed us in yesterday’s posting, but perhaps in every community since who knows when there have been needs and emotions that require satisfying by some ritual of passing.  If an airliner of any country goes down, the relatives and friends of the victims feel grief, and their grief is worse when there is no satisfactory ‘closure’ – say by identifying and burying those who have died.  In Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone [a must read, I believe for anyone interested in ethics and morality] our heroine is torn between two unyielding demands: she must obey the king, who has forbidden burial to his dead opponent in battle, and she must bury her brother, who was among them.  The second demand wins, and not only the ancient Greeks, but we today, understand why.  The play translates across generations.  Antigone’s sense of honor makes sense to us.

So we are faced with a distinction between the transcultural requirement ‘we need some way of coping with death’ and the local implementation ‘this is the way we do it here.’  This is what qualifies relativism.  If everybody needs the rule that there should be some rule, that itself represents a universal standard.  I can then suggest to you, gentle reader, that the core of ethics is universal in just the same way.  Every society that is recognizably human will need some institution of property (some distinction between ‘mine’ and ‘yours), some norm governing truth-telling, some conception of promise-giving and promise-keeping, some standards retraining violence and killing.  It will need some devices for regulating sexual expression, some sense of what is appropriate by way of treating strangers, or minorities, or children, or the aged, or the disabled.  It will need some sense of how to distribute resources, and how to treat those who have none.  Across the entire spectrum of life, it will need some sense of what is expected and what is out of line, if not out of bounds.  For us human beings there is no living without standards of living.  This suggests part of the answer to relativism, but by itself it only gets us so far.  For there is no argument here that the standards have to be fundamentally the same.  There might still be the ‘different truths’ of different people.

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As I had mentioned in an earlier posting, I had the privilege a number of years ago to design and then teach a course in Business Ethics; this was a ‘required’ course for all business majors.  A major topic each semester, one that really got the blood boiling in all of the students, was RELATIVISM.  Recently I was going through some papers – I have mounds of papers stacked up everywhere – and I found a lengthy piece on the topic.  I am not sure how many postings I will make on this topic but here is PART I.

Are we simply faced with the rules of our own making?  If so, then the thought arises in me that the rules may be made in different ways by different people at different times.  In which case, it seems to follow that there is no one truth.  There are only the different truths of different communities.

The short paragraph above captures the idea of relativism.  Relativism gets a very bad press from most moral philosophers [which includes theologians].  The relativist, as I well know, is a ‘nightmare’ figure in ethics courses.  Yet, upon reflection, I do ‘see’ an attractive side to relativism, which is its association with toleration of different ways of living.  Few folks are comfortable with the blanket societal certainty that just our way of doing things is right, and that other people need forcing into those ways [take, for example, our version of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’].  It is healthy, I think, that the 19th century alliance between the missionary and the police has more or less vanished [although it seems some in our country would like to revive this alliance].  A more pluralistic and relaxed appreciation of human diversity is often a welcome antidote to rigidity.

I have spent some time reading and savoring Herodotus’s Histories.  In Book III Herodotus [the Greek historian from the fifth century B.C.] is criticizing the king Cambyses, son of Cyrus the Great of Persia.  Cambyses did not, according to Herodotus, show sufficient respect for Persian laws.  Here is what Herodotus wrote:

Everything goes to make me certain that Cambyses was completely mad; otherwise he would not have gone in for mocking religion and tradition.  If one were to order all mankind to choose the best set of rules in the world, each group would, after due consideration, choose its own customs; each group regards its own as being by far the best.  So it is unlikely that anyone except a madman would laugh at such things.

 There is plenty of other evidence to support the idea that this opinion of one’s own customs is universal, but here is one instance.  During Darius’s reign, he invited some Greeks who were present to a conference, and asked them how much money it would take for them to be prepared to eat the corpses of their fathers; they replied that they would not do that for any amount of money.  Next, Darius summoned some members of the Indian tribe known as Callatiae, who eat their parents, and asked them in the presence of the Greeks, with an interpreter present so that they could understand what was being said, how much money it would take for them to be willing to cremate their fathers’ corpses; they cried out in horror and told him not to say such appalling things.  So these practices have become enshrined as customs just as they are, and I think Pindar was right to have said in his poem that custom is king of all.

There seem to be two rather different elements here.  One is that the law of custom is all that there is.  The other is that the law of custom deserves such respect that only those who are raving mad will mock it.  In our moral climate, many people seem to find it easier to accept the first than the second.  They suppose that if our standards of conduct are ‘just ours,’ then that strips them of any real authority.  We might equally well do things differently, and if we come to do so there is neither real gain nor real loss.  What is just or right in the eyes of one people may not be so in the eyes of another and neither side can claim real truth, unique truth, for its particular rules.

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Generally, I am an idealist not a ‘realist’ [as in ‘wait until you get into the real world’].  Generally, I see the best in others; I see their potential for greatness.  Generally, I believe in the goodness of others and hence trust that others are trying to live a ‘good life’ and that others act rooted in good faith.  Generally, I believe that abundance reigns, not scarcity [in that there is enough to go around if we are ALL willing to share].  Generally, I believe in high achievement more than in competition [my experience is that high achievers are rooted in an abundance mentality].  This brief ‘context setting’ brings us to our topic for today.

Generally, I think that if we were to take a critical look at ourselves we would recognize that competition not compassion is one of our main motivators as we journey through life.  Look around, as a culture we find ourselves deeply immersed in all sorts of competition.  It seems as if our whole sense of self is dependent upon the way we compare ourselves with others and upon the differences we can identify [as an aside, when we stress and focus on ‘differences’ there are but a few steps to then being able to guilt-free harm others].  For many of us, when asked, ‘Who are you?’ our response is ‘I am the difference I make.’  It is by our differences/distinctions, that we are recognized, honored, rejected, or despised.  Whether I am more or less smart, practical, strong, useful or handsome/beautiful depends upon those with whom I am compared or those with whom I compete.  It is upon these positive or negative distinctions that much of my self-esteem depends (this is also true when it comes to relationships, teams, families, organizations, etc). If I stop and step-back and reflect I soon begin to realize that many family problems, race/ethnic conflicts, class confrontations, religious-based ‘wars’ [the wars religions fight for our souls, for example], disputes that occur at the local, regional, state, societal and global levels – whether real or imagined – play a central role in all of this.  One consequence (partly intended and partly unintended) is that we define ourselves in ways that require us to maintain distance from one another [physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual distance].  We also become ‘protective’ and ‘defensive’ in order to maintain our differences.  After all, who are we if we cannot proudly point to something special that sets us apart from you?

This type of competition seems rampant today and prevents us from entering into full community/solidarity with one another – it is a major block to compassion [it is also a major tap root for ‘fear’ and high anxiety].  Compassion requires connection and connection requires relationship and relationship requires trust rooted in deep caring.  I-You-We might have to give up our identity rooted in differences and replace it with an identity rooted in commonness – the tough stuff, as most of us know, is in the giving up or the letting go.  Being compassionate requires us to be disturbed and moved in/by love; competition, for example, requires us to be disturbed and moved in/by fear.

This fear, which is very real even though it might not be rooted in the ‘real world,’ influences our thinking, our choices and our behavior; it betrays our deepest illusions: that our race, church, society, team, family, organization is NOT LIKE yours; our pride in who we are has morphed into arrogance and fear.  It is easy for us then to cling to our differences and defend them at all costs – our loss of compassion, via connection leads us far too often to being able to guilt-free engage in ‘violence’ upon the other [sometimes we say this ‘violence’ is for your own good – the Grand Inquisitor, for example, could guilt-free inflict great pain on the person in order to get the person to convert for the pain experienced now will not compare with the pain of everlasting damnation – ‘I am saving your soul, my son/daughter.’].  How about if we switch this a bit: COMPASSION –  NOT COMPETITION?  A bit disturbing isn’t it?

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