Sunday, March 07, 2010

Maximizing Our Potential with Rollo May 9





May calls chapter six of his book The Creative Conscience.  In other words this chapter is about ethics and morality.  I have long been of the opinion that ethics - or a code of right and proper behaviour - is something that has grown and evolved.  When I listen to contemporary debate about whatever ethical issue is the topic of the day on the broadcast media or in the print media I am always quite struck by the lack of awareness of many, who should know otherwise, who are content to use a present understanding of ethics, in its now evolved understanding, and are equally happy to read this evolved understanding back into any particular period in our history as human animals on this "blessed piece of earth" we call our home.  This is indeed a travesty, because this evolved understanding, apparently not too obviously, could not have pertained at previous periods of history.  One hears such comments: "murder was always murder", "rape was always rape" etc.  However, these two statements from an evolutionary or developmetal understanding of ethics, to my mind, are patently untrue.  When human animals first came out from the caves it was simply survival of the fittest and "murder" was just the killing of a threatening opponent.  Even when human animals began to live together in communities which would later develop into civilizations on the banks of the great rivers of the world, they had a very basic understanding ethics.  Rules needed to be set down so that people could live togther in some harmony.  And these rules evolved into a moral and/or ethical code.

Now, friends, if you happen to have stayed with my discussion of this hobby horse, then you are indeed singularly patient.  The Ten Commandments or The Decalogue, call that moral code what you wish, did not always exist.  This codified ethical system emerged at a certain point in the history of humankind.  That moral or ethical truths have always existed in some rarified metaphysical domain from beyond or before time I have long ceased to believe.  That we have ever-growing and ever-developing insights into ethics or morals I thoroughly accept.  Now back to Dr. Rollo May.

Once again, to my mind, May is wonderfully clear and insightful, and bear in mind that he wrote this wonderful little classic in 1953.  His opening words of this chapter are clear and precise:

Man is the "ethical animal" - ethical in potentiality even if, unfortunately, not in actuality.  His capacity for ethical judgement - like freedom, reason and other unique characteristics of the human being - is based upon his consciousness of himself. (May, op.cit., 130)
Again all of this is about the development of an inner moral sense, an inner ethical sense, in the human being.  In other words the outward evolutionary development of ethics is mirrored in the personal growth of an inner ethical or moral sense in the human animal.

Human beings as they grow learn to develop a sense of empathy for their fellows.  As May succinctly puts it, "he can feel himself into someone else's needs and desires, can imagine himself in the other's place, and to make his choices with a view to the good of his fellows as well as himself." (Ibid., 131)

However, May points out that when times of transition occur - when humankind is lost, and both economically and morally on its knees - we are at risk of descending into the abyss.  He refers here to the growth of totalitarianism of either the right (fascism) or of the left (communism).  Indeed, we are all aware of the atrocities committed by the régimes of Hitler and of Stalin respectively.   It is through and from these transition periods, born of sheer suffering, that humankind's ethical insights have grown.  It is no wonder that it was only in 1948, in the wake of Hitler's and Stalin's gross crimes, that the UN Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated.  Our awareness and insights into the rights of all human beings had at last reached a powerful point in its evolution.  Indeed, it was some years later, after much more suffering and corresponding insights that the Declaration Rights of The Child was promulgated.  I believe, and sincerely believe, that we as a species are slow learners.  In all of this, I have not even referrred to racism and the campaigns for civil rights by different ethnic groups all over our sad, if at times wonderful, world.  Let me return here to Dr May's insightful words once again:

Man is an ethical animal : but his achievement of ethical awareness is not easy.  He does not grow into ethical judgement as simply as the flower grows toward the sun.  Indeeed, like freedom and the other aspects of man's consciousness of self, ethical awareness is gained only at the price of inner conflict and anxiety.  (Ibid., 134)
In the growth of an ethical self-awareness May quotes the examples of the mythic figures of Adam (Judaism) and Prometheus (Ancient Greeks), both of whom suffered for their ethical insights at the hands of those in power - the gods.  In like manner we all suffer for our growing self-awareness in our struggle with those in power in our lives - our parents, our teachers etc.

Ethics becomes unquestioning obedience in ages of conformity and only becomes the pursuit of justice and other ideals in an age of authenticity and courage.  May mentions the likes of Jesus Christ and Socrates, both of whom met tragic deaths because they were seen as threats to the status quo, to the accepted comfortable traditions of what was socially declared right and wrong.  These very ethical men stood out against and indeed condemned the status quo for its narrow ethical understanding.  He also refers to Spinoza, the "God-intoxicated philosopher" who was excommunicated for heresy.  May makes the interesting observation that it is simply amazing to note how often the saints of one period have been the so-called atheists of the previous period. (See, ibid., pp. 142-143)

In the growth of ethical self-awareness - as in all the aspects of trhe growth of self - between new insights and old entrenched positions or authorities, e.g., conflicts between Adam and Yahweh, Prometheus and Zeus, Oedipus and his father, Orestes and the matriarchal powers etc.  The reader can add his own examples here.

While a discussion of religion is beyond my interest here, I wish to refer on the one hand to its significance in the development of our moral and ethical sense and also to its promotion of hatred, murder and mayhem in its deluded pursuits of warped perspectives on what they declare to be truths on the other.  I wish also in  passing to refer to Freud's concern that oftentimes religion in its many shapes and forms increased humankind's dependency and kept the individual infantile.  May admits that some forms of religion does makes for good mental health while there are many forms that do destabilise and derange the individual. (See ibid., pp. 144-145)

To be continued

Above a picture I took in The Vatican Museum of ancient Egypian face. 

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