What gives us our sense of right and wrong, our beliefs about fairness and justice? Before we’re trained to a particular moral code, before we’ve been programmed, do we have an inborn sense of how we should behave? I ask these questions not having the answers, having only a hunch, an intuition, that we humans have our moral inklings from very early on, and sense that some order built into the universe is going to require something of us, some sort of integrity. At least that’s the way I remember feeling from an early age: that to be a good person, honorable and worthy, meant living by a very specific Code. Later, when I was exposed to the Ten Commandments, I felt that this wasn’t it, not the Code itself, but only a broken part of it, at best. Of course it’s wrong to lie, cheat, and steal. Obviously it’s wrong to kill. But you would know this automatically if you knew the real Code. You would know these things, but so much more besides–bigger things, which applied to every moment of your life.
It would take me awhile to figure out what was wrong with the Ten Commandments, probably longer than it should have. The fact that a lot of people seemed to accept them as the absolute word of God– and therefore by implication as totally sufficient and beyond question–no doubt this contributed to my failure to probe, and articulate, their insufficiency. The problem that was right in front of me, but for a very long time invisible, was that these strictures dealt only with people’s dealings with one another, and with how they related to a rather insecure and self-proclaimed “jealous” God. What got left out was any hint about how people should deal with everything else that belongs to this world: the skies, the rivers, the earth beneath our feet, as well as all the other creatures who live here with us. Were there no rules governing how we behaved toward the (supposed) Creator’s Creation? That’s a tremendous oversight, when you think about it, and one that’s allowed for a lot of mischief to go unnamed, unnoticed, and unaccounted for.
What I was hoping for, as a young person, was some deep wisdom about how I should conduct my life, something that would inspire me to do my best and be my very best self: give me positive direction. What I found instead was a list of things I shouldn’t do, and most of those had little relevance to my young life. Indeed, I found some of these commandments to be more than a little morally confusing, and I’ll give an example of what I mean from Deuteronomy.
13. For six days you shall labor and do all your work:
14. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.
From what had gone before, it was clear that this was a jealous and vengeful god, punishing children for the iniquity of their parents, unto the third and fourth generation (Deuteronomy ). This seemed unduly harsh to me, but now here was a god who evidently gave his full approval to slavery. Sure, give them a day off, just like you do your donkey and your ox (but not your wife). But the point that I could not overlook was that here was a god who didn’t say get rid of your slaves, because slavery is immoral.
Did I know that it was immoral out of some primordial inkling or insight, something inborn, or did that come from my culture? This was the 1950s when I was exploring this moral territory, and even though racism was still very much alive in America, the culture said that slavery was wrong. When I asked adults about this Commandment, I was told this was the Old Testament, and there were parts of it that you couldn’t take too seriously. The New Testament was really more relevant to us today. Fine, but that didn’t really get at the heart of my question. An all-knowing all-powerful god would have known that slavery was wrong whenever the subject might have come up. If it’s wrong it’s wrong for all time. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me.
So, in looking for moral certainty I found only mortal confusion in the one place that was supposed to provide all the answers. As for the other commandments, I had to agree that murder, adultery, and theft were clearly not what people should be doing. But I was bothered by the commandment to honor one’s father and mother.
16. Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
What bothered me was not the honoring, but the reasons for it. What I thought should be there was some reminder about how much your parents have given you, including your very life, and that you owe them a debt of gratitude for all they have sacrificed on your behalf. Something like that. Instead you get threats. You’ll do as he commands if you want things to go well for you in this land he’s (not so graciously) giving you. Motivated by fear that a tyrannical god will take from you all the good things you’ve been given, you’d better honor your parents, or else! This commandment was very heavy handed, it seemed to me, and it did not project the kind of god that I thought a god should be. This one seemed very full of himself and his power to inflict harm upon those who did not do precisely as he commands. There was nothing here of loving kindness, or benevolence, or sweetness of nature. Thus I didn’t find much in these Commandments to either inspire affection or to give direction to my young life.
Only very recently, after years of muddling along as best I could with my own sense of what was right and what was wrong would I find a different set of commandments that spoke meaningfully to the question of how a human being ought to conduct himself in this world. They are:
1. The Earth is our mother; care for her.
2. Honor all your relations.
3. Open your heart and soul to the Great Spirit.
4. All life is sacred; treat all beings with respect.
5. Take from the Earth what is needed and nothing more.
6. Do what needs to be done for the good of all.
7. Give constant thanks to the Great Spirit for each new day.
8. Speak the truth; but only of the good in others.
9. Follow the rhythms of nature; rise and retire with the sun.
10. Enjoy life’s journey but leave no tracks.
These are not commandments, delivered from on high from an authoritarian God, but are instead moral precepts that offer insight into the nature of life and how to live it. This is precisely what I was looking for as a youngster, but nothing like this was available to me then. Why? Because of the culture I come from. Certain people of my culture might be able to endorse some of these precepts as making good moral sense. Some might say that, yes, we should live like this, but they would be in the minority. These Principles Toward a Good Life did not arise from our culture, and indeed they derive from a worldview mostly foreign to our own: that of the Americans who lived here before we Euro-Americans arrived, and who, though marginalized and partly subsumed by the new America, still retain this much wisdom to live by.
The moral vision behind these precepts is perfectly consistent with the Law of Holonic Reciprocity. If everything is connected to everything else in a far-reaching web of reciprocal interdependencies, then anything we do will have an effect on the whole. If the Earth is our mother, it makes moral sense to care for her—out of gratitude, yes, but also because anything we do to her we do to ourselves.
What does it mean to honor all out relations? Partly it means just what the fourth precept states: “All life is sacred; treat all beings with respect.” Honoring all our relations also means recognizing our kinship and our common destiny. This is even more profoundly true of those relations on whom we rely for sustenance. If we don’t take care of them—whether salmon, or deer, or the acorn oak–they won’t be able to take care of us. That’s another good reason to “Take from the Earth what is needed and nothing more.” In that way we won’t disrupt or destroy the source of all abundance.
Live lightly on the land, or, “Enjoy life’s journey but leave no tracks.” The implication would seem to be that human happiness is to be found in relationship—to the Great Spirit, to fellow humans, and to all our relations—and not in things material. “Give constant thanks to the Great Spirit for each new day.” Feeling gratitude and recognizing how sublimely lucky we are to be alive in such a world is a step in the direction of happiness, as is opening one’s “heart and soul to the Great Spirit.” When you open up in this way, you bring into consciousness an awareness of the larger Self, the Whole, and in so doing you may override the narrow and petty interests of the smaller self, and this is good for your spiritual life, your character, and the larger enterprise of life.
These precepts address not just outward behavior, but the interior state of the individual. Nor, would it seem, is a priestly class required to mediate between the individual and the Great Spirit, or to interpret words in a book. In this tradition, each individual can and should have his or her own relationship to the visible and invisible world. One’s peers may be there to offer support, or notice egregious shortfalls, and the tribal individual will likely also have group observances and rituals for purposes of purification and to deepen connections with the spirit world. But in general these Rules of Life do not require much explication or elaboration. The important thing is to keep them daily in mind and do one’s best to live by them.
Of all these simple but essential Rules, one stands out as having special profundity, and indeed as being an articulate expression of the Law of Holonic Reciprocity. “Do what needs to be done for the good of all.” Although very general, and presented in a soft way, this precept asks quite a lot of each of us, including some serious soul searching. For instance, the “all” whose good must be considered can have implications at several holonic levels at once. If you happen at a given time to be part of a group of three, and a moral decision must be made, do what’s best for all three, and not just for yourself. That seems pretty straightforward, but what if what’s good for the three causes harm or loss to the larger community? This must be factored into any moral decision as well. And one’s moral responsibility doesn’t end with the human community, but radiates out to the entire community of life, and to all the systems that support and make life possible.
Say you’ve had a very successful day at the river, and have caught more salmon than can easily be carried back to camp in one trip. Those back at camp will welcome every fish you’ve caught, but you’re so tired from the day’s fishing that two trips seem out of the question. Should you carry all you can and leave the rest to rot? Should you try to work a deal with your fellow fishermen where they have to come back but you don’t? A moral decision is required of you. On what basis will you arrive at an answer?
I can easily picture myself in this situation, because I am a fisherman and have had similar ethical dilemmas. Putting myself in the place of one of these young fisherman, I would know that we should have anticipated our present problem, and quit fishing sooner than we did. But we were having too much fun and none of us wanted to quit. Now, though, we had all these fish to deal with. It’s not altogether clear that we have violated the Rule that says not to take more than is needed—not yet, anyway—because, once back in camp, all these fish would be used. Then I recall that all life is sacred, and that we must treat all beings with respect. Leaving fish to rot, or throwing them back in the river, would clearly violate this Law of Life. From what I’ve heard from the elders, there’d be a very good chance that my people’s fishing would soon turn sour if we did such a thing. The salmon spirits would be that angry with us. Maybe there will be someone back in camp who can come for the rest of the fish. If not, then I’m going to have to do it myself, no matter how tired I might be feeling—knowing that I was doing what needed to be done for the good of all.
In this instance, knowing what needed to be done was not that complicated: choices were informed by considering several of the Rules of Life, weighing them against each other, and in combination. In other circumstances, arriving at the best course of action might require considerable deliberation among the group as a whole, and much could depend on the collective knowledge base accumulated over time. The experience of the elders could prove important, as might certain of the old stories. The charge to “Do what needs to be done for the good of all” implies a rather comprehensive understanding of what might be included in that “all”—that is, an understanding of the relationships among several holonic levels, and how an action at one level might affect other levels, including the overall well-being the whole. Among people who have lived in one place for thousands of years, or even for hundreds, a long-term knowledge base accrues about how their particular ecosystem works, and the various cycles their ancestors have observed. This knowledge, and all knowledge specific to place, helps to inform better decision making about how best to live in harmony with one’s chosen place, and doing what needs to be done for the good of all.
Take, for example, a group of fish-dependent people that decides to place limits on itself in regards to their fishing. Maybe at some point in the past they failed to show restraint in their fish taking, and so thoroughly depleted a salmon run that fish were in short supply for years afterward. Recognizing that they had taken more than they needed for subsistence, thereby breaking one of the Rules for Life, a group decision was made to limit their take. They would do this by allowing a certain number of days to pass from the sighting of the first spring salmon in their part of the river, and would not begin fishing for them until the appointed time. As is the case with many such moral decisions, by following the imperatives of their moral code, and showing restraint—treat all beings with respect; take no more than you need—they are actually serving their own best long-term interests.
Why should that so consistently be the case? Because everything is connected. What you do to any holon or system upon which you yourself depend, you do to yourself. And the more deeply you look into the matter, the more clearly you see that there is no holonic level or system from which you are absolutely independent. And, again, that’s because everything is connected to everything else.
Lacking these simple Principles toward a Good Life, the dominant cultures of our world have managed to deplete fisheries all over the globe, and driven many to extinction. No one believes this is a good thing, yet we go on doing it. Whatever guidance we’ve taken from our moral codes has clearly been insufficient to the task. I would suggest that this is because those codes come from a time and place that failed to recognize the holonic nature of our lives and our world. Instead of seeing the Oneness, and all the implications of that Oneness, their worldview seems to have been a muddled conflation of atomism and dualism. From atomism came the idea that everything was made up individual material particles, and that every whole (or holon) could be broken down into individual component parts, and could be understood in terms of those parts. The hyper individualism seen in Western societies, and made into a veritable cult of the individual here in America, has its roots in atomism.
Dualism posits that there are actually two worlds instead of one. As handed down to us by way of Plato and his theory of Forms or Ideals, we are asked to believe that the world we live in is a flawed copy of a second world where everything is perfect. This other, perfect world is evidently far away, and its perfections unattainable in this one. Following Plato and his precursors, the Abrahamic religions elaborated upon this dualism and asked of their followers that they concentrate their best hopes on an after-life in a better world. Whatever unity there might be between Heaven and Earth was something only understood by God.
Between the two of them, atomism and dualism have been the underlying foundations of Western thought for two millennia and more, and have informed both our religions and our science. Our worldview, confused as it is, derives from this amalgam of incompatible notions about who we are and the nature of the world we live in. At a theoretical level, neither atomism nor dualism is totally absurd or without merit. It’s just that neither, separately, accurately describes the world we actually inhabit, and, taken together, they’ve created a moral monster, as our ravaged planet clearly demonstrates. We’ve known no restraint when it comes to taking from the Earth far more than any of us has needed, and certainly it can’t be said that we’ve left no tracks behind. We’ve scarred and marred every inch of the Earth we and our machines could get to, and we’re not done yet. And we won’t be until we change our view of the world, and our place in it.
Conceptually, the Law of Holonic Reciprocity is easy to grasp. Once you understand that everything is connected to everything else, one holonic level nested within another within another, all the way up and all the way down, you recognize that a moral order is implicit in the the Oneness of All. It’s very much as Aldo Leopold has observed: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The charge for the human being is identical to what is required of every other holon within the holarchy: to make a positive contribution to the health and wellness of the whole, to keep the entire enterprise going at its optimum best. That’s it, it’s that simple!
Oh, but wait. We’re still hung up on atomism and dualism, our unconscious minds committed to the old worldview that isn’t working.
The larger assumption behind this moral imperative is that the holarchy, as a whole, and at each constituent holonic level, is something to be maintained at an optimum level of health and well-being, and not allowed to sink into dysfunction
If it involves the whole tribe or immediate human community, do what’s best for all. If a moral decision pertains to the Earth itself, or the entire community of life, do what’s best for all. Knowing what’s best for all in every circumstance is undoubtedly a huge challenge; so can knowing what needs to be done. In the more complicated cases, study and deliberation may be required before action can be taken. At other times, knowing what’s best for all is straightforward and obvious. When there’s doubt, some of the other Rules may cast some light. Does it honor all your relations? Does it take more from the Earth than is needed? Does it harm or help Mother Earth?
None of these Rules are arbitrary. They’re not just somebody’s idea of what might be nice. Practicing these Rules—not to absolute perfection, but conscientiously and assiduously—makes a real difference in the world. Not practicing them also makes a difference, as witness the broken world we live in today.
Part of the problem , it seems to me, is that we’ve forgotten what knowledge is for.
The Golden Rule seemed to come closer to the kind of all-encompassing Code I was looking for. Its truth could be stated in a single sentence, but with far-reaching implications. Yet, it too, suffers from the same human centered anthropocentrism that flaws the Ten Commandments. It tells us how best to live within the human community, but not how to live in relation to Mother Earth or within the larger community of life.