Saturday, 15 May 2010

Empathy and the failure of Ethics and Morality

A recent discussion held into the wee hours with a good friend brought out a few insights for both of us. We were chatting about parenting. And society.

We spoke of empathy and of ethics. We looked at why ethical committees of every kind routinely fail to stem the tide of abuse, corruption and other blatantly destructive behaviours.

The failure of ethics in western civilisation is perhaps definitive of western civilisation.

What are ethics?

Wikipedia describes Ethics as follows…

"Ethics (also known as moral philosophy) is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and bad, noble and ignoble, right and wrong, justice, and virtue.

Major branches of ethics include:
          meta-ethics, about the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions and how theirtruth-values (if any) may be determined;
          normative ethics, about the practical means of determining a moral course of action;
          applied ethics, about how moral outcomes can be achieved in specific situations;
          moral psychology, about how moral capacity or moral agency develops and what its nature is; and
          descriptive ethics, about what moral values people actually abide by.
Within each of these branches are many different schools of thought and still further sub-fields of study."

The key in this description is the issue of MORALS.

Wikipedia describes MORALS as follows …

"Morality (from the Latin moralities "manner, character, proper behavior") is a system of conduct and ethics that is virtuous. Morality has three principal meanings.
In its "descriptive" sense, morality refers to personal or cultural values, codes of conduct or social mores that distinguish between right and wrong in the human society. Describing morality in this way is not making a claim about what is objectively right or wrong, but only referring to what is considered right or wrong by people. For the most part right and wrong acts are classified as such because they are thought to cause benefit or harm, but it is possible that many moral beliefs are based on prejudice, ignorance or even hatred. This sense of term is also addressed by descriptive ethics."

That last line is crucial. Moral beliefs are based on prejudice, ignorance or even hatred … they leave out fear (which drives all three of those definitions) and of course what they are really talking about are BELIEF systems.

I have long made a profound distinction between 'beliefs' and 'knowledge'; the former is mental, the latter experiential; an easy analogy is thus : living in the wild, a belief about where or what is food can get you killed, knowledge will ALWAYS feed you.

Likewise we all KNOW when a 'wrong' has been committed, as any infant will quickly inform you. The truth of it is felt first, then thought about. Or not.

Natural Creatures live in knowledge and they thrive. It is obvious that the natural world KNOWS what it is doing, though that knowing is perhaps quite different from the current definition of knowledge made by ‘civilisation’. The Acorn KNOWS how to become the Oak Tree. The rain forest knows many things, from how to create rain, to how to build topsoil, filter water and share ‘resources’ so that all benefit. And it’s obvious that none of this could possibly be the outcome of a series of mechanistic ‘programmes’. The levels of precision that pertain to natural living process are far too intense for mere mechanics.

What is absolutely certain is that vast parts of the human species, mostly those who live in or around what is known as ‘civilisation’ currently live in belief, and that civilisation accepts only one form of knowledge as being valid – the reduced knowledge of science, and that part of the human species, while many, (24% of all adults uses anti-depressants at one time or another) do not thrive, but merely survive in an atmosphere of fear, be they wealthy or impoverished. Faith is common place. Empathy is rare.

Experiential knowledge is routinely ignored. Tony Blair and George Bush, and many, many hundreds of thousands of people worked together to launch the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in full knowledge of the possible consequences for the people who live in those countries. The imposition of IMF policies around the world is another example. The BP Oil spill currently destroying the Gulf of Mexico is another… Empathy has no place in these activities.

That civilisations and hierarchies tend towards morality as a system, an externally imposed set of rules is the norm, the base. Indeed all civilised religious belief systems outline in some detail a range of restrictions that are supposed to be guides in moral behaviour, and while certain commonalities exist, such as ‘thou shalt not kill’ and ‘honour thy mother and thy father’, there are massive variations, which fall under the cloak of ‘cultural differences’ and which while they are protected by the concept of ‘multi-culturalism’ or ‘free speech’ or ‘religious freedom’ actually work to divide people along cultural lines – what is accepted in one culture is maligned in another.

Likewise Secular Law is divided into what is called ‘common law’ and ‘statuary law’, or ‘civil law’ and ‘criminal law’ and there’s a further division under the guise of ‘contract law’. And there are hundreds of thousands of pages of detailed definitive law concerning how citizens in any state are to be controlled, managed and the affairs of local and national governance conducted.

Nowhere in any of these is the word empathy used. Thus ethics in business, law and religion are most often devoid a discussion of the fundamental quality of empathy, a quality that emerges from within the very biology of life. I have written of this before, so there is little to add other than empathy is a bio-logical imperative. Well actually, there is. It can’t be stated often enough that empathy is, amongst many things, not least the ability to feel ‘into’ the world in ways that enable a thorough comprehension of what it is that is being felt into – a form of observation of reality that pertains to every cell, a reading of the habitat and all that is in it.

To fully sense the ‘other’ in human terms, to feel what the other might be feeling, not merely to ‘understand’ it as an intellectual exercise and to be able to respond appropriately is the core of mother-child bond.

The baby in the womb lives in an empathetically direct connection with his or her mother, and this is a two way communication that operates at the biological level as much as the conscious level. For that link to be conscious, the mother herself has to be aware of that link and attuned to it. For that link to survive birth, the child-mother bond must absolutely not be broken, and must be retained throughout infancy… mere ‘care’ does not suffice, for the infant feels the fact of the missing empathy, and the developing neural pathways of empathy do not grow.

Another way to look at this is to understand that an empathetic parent cannot strike a child not because she or he knows it is worn, but because he or she ‘feels’ the impact of the blow upon the child even as the thought arises, as though they themselves were being hit. And chooses then to engage with the child, as one would with another person of equal standing…

When an a baby or infant is left to cry, he or she is learning that their gurgling communications will not be understood or empathetically felt and therefore not responded to, and so learns to cry to alert the parent to his or her need as the only means left. The same applies to all dysfunctional childhood behaviours – they are the learning’s that arise from un-empathetic parenting.

Parents whose own childhood experience they have forgotten, who have themselves been left to cry (as has been, and remains, common in many civilised and religious communities) find this crying distressing, not because of what their children are experiencing, but because the wounding’s they have forgotten are being stimulated again. And so they seek to control the child to protect themselves. This is a dynamic that pertains to society, to governance and to all controlling behaviours. This dynamic is of course rationalised as being ‘for your own good’.

Many people will attest that the beatings they received as children did them no real lasting harm.

The truth is that within civilisation and most of not all organised religions that link is broken, damaged, avoided and lost. Someone somewhere intended that break, that loss. Someone somewhere sees some personal benefit in ensuring that that loss is near permanent.

And that is the loss of empathy, a lost that ethics alone cannot counter. This is why ethics fails to deliver.

This is all carefully masked by the way people, as infants and children, and then as adults are forced to ‘adapt’ to this dysfunctional state, by the rationalisations of Organised Religions, Civilisations Institutions, Economics and Science and by the need to ‘survive’ in a coercive world, where food, shelter and the basics of life are denied all those who for whatever reason do not work for the ‘economy’.

Adapt or die out is the message to all the indigenous peoples who live on, within the land. The history is clear on this, and the practice exists today, and is in full flow.  Adapt or die is the message to the natural child. That is what Ritalin says to children who resist the imposed hypocrisy of their parents and the State Schooling system. Ritalin and SATS replace violence as a means of behaviour modification.

The result is the same either way. Damaged children. Some, who show the symptoms, and are ‘diagnosed’, and the others who mask the symptoms and successfully conform. And work for the ‘economy’.

That lack of empathy inhere’s in much of what even avowedly ‘good’ people are led believe – for many religions, those outside of their particular belief system are condemned, and thus even good honest people will routinely act in destructive ways. Even good people support the troops. Some of the troops are good people too. But that should in no way be used to excuse them from the consequences, the truth of what they are engaged in.

We must begin to return to empathy as a primary source of information about HOW to live together, with each other as people and with all of nature as equally living beings if we are to thread a path towards a sustainable human existence on Earth.


Kindest regards Corneilius 

 Do what you love, it's your gift to universe



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