(Editor’s Note: In the article below Prof. Richard Cocks looks at morality and its relationship to mysticism. Though a generally ignored subject, it is also an important one for the contemporary age. Notably, meditation, altars dedicated to all of the religions’ deities, and so on, were a part of the Occupy movement, which saw itself as representing “the 99%”. Besides politics, morality is also part of modern spirituality, as well as, of course, religion and “alternative religions.” Again, in the semi-mystical Masonic fraternity that influenced the early modern alternative religious and spiritual movements of the West, the initiate is told that “Justice” (which is tied to proportion, and, of course, morality) is to guide his actions. Though perhaps not a popular word, morality is essential to our understanding of the world and our understanding of how we can transcending the material.)
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the gold standard when it comes to moral heuristics. One question is, why should we do this? Why are we obliged to do unto others?
The moral basis for do unto others centers around the existence of fairness and justice. If I want you to treat me a certain way, then I should in turn treat you that way. This is a kind of reciprocity and reciprocity is also based in fairness. If you do something nice for me, I should do something nice for you. If you help me, I should help you. If I sometimes want a ride to the airport, I should also give you rides to the airport. If you help me and I do something horrible to you, that’s not fair.
Students, due to the prevalence of moral relativism, are inclined to imagine that there is something simply invented about morality and to think that notions of right and wrong are culturally constructed. As such, they are officially skeptics about morality. However, in practice, they are moral realists. If I suggested that I would give an ‘A’ to certain students but not to another student, while saying that the other student’s work was of the same quality, they would object. All talk of cultural constructs would vanish. In practice, they have no real doubts about the objective existence of fairness and justice.
Once I’ve established this, with the students’ acknowledgement, the class in ethics can begin. We now have a subject matter to discuss.
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins tries to explain morality away by saying that acting morally offers a survival benefit. In a small community, being a good person will lead to reciprocal acts that will help you and it will also give you a good reputation so that people will want to associate with you professionally and personally. In other words, it is to your narrow advantage to treat other people well. The implication would be that in situations where it is not to your narrow advantage, e.g., self-sacrifice, you should not act morally. It also has morally nihilistic implications. Your supposed concern for other people is really just about helping yourself. ‘Morality’ is not real – it is self-interest and survival advantage masquerading as something truly beneficent.
However, Dawkins does not actually believe his own argument. Pointing out that reciprocity and reputation benefits don’t work in the relatively anonymous context of a very large community, he claims that our tendency to be moral even when this does not benefit us is a good thing. By good thing, he means it is a morally good thing. Thus he admits the existence of a moral good that has nothing to do with survival advantage or any other self-interested motive. Hence, he is de facto a moral realist after all, just like my students.
We recognize the existence of fairness, both intellectually and emotionally. Injustice evinces outrage and emotions tend to help to push us into action. If you remain completely calm and impassive in the face of injustice you aren’t really cognizant of what’s going on. If everyone is getting a lollipop for a certain behavior and another is unexpectedly shot in the head for exactly the same behavior, you should have an emotional reaction. If your reaction is a mere intellectual recognition of an injustice, then you haven’t really grokked what’s just happened. Our emotions can help us recognize and respond appropriately to moral and other realities.
We see a belief in and understanding of fairness in animals and young children. It is really only a kind of proto-morality because it tends to be a response to injustice and unfairness with regard to the child and the animal, i.e., egocentric. An experiment involving Capuchin monkeys shows this awareness here.
Two monkeys get a grape every time they perform a task involving handing over a small rock. The two monkeys can see each other. The experimenter starts giving one of the monkeys a piece of cucumber instead of a grape. The monkey looks at the cucumber, looks at the grape the other monkey just got, gets obviously agitated and throws the cucumber at the experimenter. The same scenario is repeated with the same reaction with the monkey clearly morally outraged and shaking the plastic borders of its cell looking like it wants out of there.
Little children will react the same way. If there are two or more two or three year olds and one kid gets a giant ice cream, the child with the smaller ice cream is likely to complain. Of course, it’s egocentric, but the complaint centers on a perceived unfairness/injustice.
Likewise, if an employer decides to give his employees a raise except for one employee and it is admitted that that one employee is just as deserving of a raise than the others, the employee will nurture resentment. Since we are now talking about adults, it is even possible that the other employees will complain on behalf of the excluded employee. This latter complaint is not self-interested and involves compassion. Compassion means ‘suffer with.’
Religious mystics of various stripes tend to claim that ‘all is one’ which is directly related to compassion. They also tend to claim that reality is far more beautiful and amazing than we usually realize and that it is divine and thus good. William Blake seems to have been such a mystic and wrote in Augeries of Innocence:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…
I choose to take such experiences seriously because they seem to resonate with my soul. Jesus said ‘I and the Father are one.’ Buddhists talk about nondual reality where the division between self and other, between self and world disappears.
If one subscribes to panentheism, the notion that all physical reality is divine and part of God, but there is an eternal and timeless aspect of God too, lying outside the universe and giving rise to the universe, then all reality is divine. Platonists subscribe to this in the notion of the principle of plenitude. Everything that can exist should exist and its existence is good. Panentheism says that there is a Godhead, the Source, the Father. We are not this, but we are one with this. We are of one being with the Father and the Father is good and divine.
Love and compassion means to recognize our connection with other things and other people. We are all of one being with the Father. Mother Theresa said that she would look into the eyes of sick and dying people until she saw Jesus and then minister to Him. Greek mythology frequently had stories about the gods turning up as dirty, old beggars asking for hospitality. Any refusal of hospitality was thus taken as tantamount to mistreatment of the gods and deserving of punishment.
In helping you I am helping myself. Love your neighbor as yourself is a command, but it is also simply recognizing that your neighbor effectively is yourself. I’m only ‘obliged’ to help you in the sense that not helping you doesn’t make sense given this reality. God is love and love means feeling and acting connected.
Commands and the notion of obligation only exist for those of us below this level of post-rational attainment. Jesus is telling us how to act because we are too undeveloped to know how spontaneously. For those of us who are not psychopaths, we realize that the demands of fairness and justice are real. We recognize those demands upon ourselves and for others, but we don’t really understand their source. A parallel might be with a mathematician telling us how to derive a certain answer but we don’t fully understand what we are doing. Unfortunately, this is all too common even with teachers of mathematics. Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning American physicist, said that he just worked out any mathematics he needed for whatever physics he was doing himself. Yes, sometimes he reinvented the wheel. At other times he invented better and more efficient ways of solving a mathematical problem. He didn’t need anyone telling him mere techniques because he knew exactly what the problem was and went about finding a way to solve it.
Obligation and imperatives, as Kant pointed out, do not apply to God. His will is in perfect agreement with his desires. Commands are just there to get us to behave as we would spontaneously behave if we were truly enlightened; if we saw through the illusion of separation.
We recognize the demands of fairness. Not being mystics, we don’t really know where these demands are coming from first hand. If ‘all is one,’ then I can’t buy my happiness at your expense. Trying to do this turns out to be self-defeating and in fact, selfish people report being less happy than those who volunteer in their communities. Without mysticism, this may seem an odd quirk of human psychology or the product of evolution. With Jesus and Buddha, acting in a fair and compassionate manner turns out to be consistent with the very structure of reality. We could see this if we were higher up the level of development. Until then, we sometimes need heuristics and commands (really suggestions).
When I feel close and connected to my wife I feel good. If there is a bad feeling between us and we are temporarily alienated, then I feel bad. To the extent that I can’t connect to other people in general and feel no love towards them, I am also unhappy. Acting immorally is to act contrary to ultimate reality. Figuratively, one is hitting oneself in the head with a hammer. To talk about an ‘obligation’ to stop hitting oneself in the head with a hammer is very odd talk indeed. Talking about moral obligation is really
talking about things going wrong. We say – ‘I don’t actually want to go, but I feel obliged.’ In these cases it seems there is a pathological disconnect between what we know intellectually to be the case and what we feel. Thus, I’m not very keen on replacing the notion of moral realism with the idea of moral obligation because the latter seems to indicate a pathology. When we study trees, birds or insects, we don’t take as our paradigm diseased or sick specimens. Instead, start first with moral realism and objective value and bring in moral obligation in the instances of a divided self; the intellect diverging from the emotional.
Goedel’s Theorem recognizes the inability of rational thought to justify its own underpinnings. It says that for any axiomatic system capable of generating the simple truths of arithmetic (thus of some minimal complexity – and here, the level of multiplication and division are enough), there will be an axiom not provable within the system. A (axiomatic system) + P (unprovable assumption). The placeholding representative of this unprovable assumption, P, is “this axiom is not provable within this axiomatic system.” If you can prove this is true, then the axiom is not provable. If you can’t prove this is true, then the axiom has still not been proven.
An axiom like ‘fairness exists,’ or ‘human life is valuable,’ is not provable within rational level morality versus the post-rational insights of mysticism and religious experience. ‘Rational’ morality depends on these axioms. Three year old children and little furry animals recognize the truth of these axioms; these first principles. They really have no doubt about their veracity, nor should they. However, it is disconcerting to be asked to prove them. Like the ‘P’ in Goedel’s Theorem, we cannot, and yet very little children and many animals recognize that P is true. Nobody has taught them.
I can know the sky is blue without knowing why the sky is blue. Knowing why belongs to a much higher order of intelligence. We know that first principles cannot be rationally proven just like ‘P’ in Goedel’s theorem. Knowing why involves insight into the structure of reality that most of us don’t possess. We intuitively grok them before we can even really think. You and I are little children and furry animals compared to Jesus and Buddha. Because of this we have to take it on faith that they know what they are talking about. We can see that 6 x 6 = 36 but apparently we can’t prove it. If we insisted that we wouldn’t believe it until ‘P’ was proven, then anything depending on multiplication or division, and beyond, would have to be rejected. That means rejecting the software running on the computer chip in your car, phone or computer. I know that I don’t understand this software, but I see that it works.
When I read the statements of the mystics: when I read that all is one and to hate, reject and ignore is to make a mistake, I feel like some part of my soul already knows this. If there is a climber and ladder, I am the climber but I’m also the ladder. I have an intuition of where I’m heading. Plato posited anamnesis — a remembering as the basis for profound knowledge — and that is what it feels like to me.
Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.