More Thoughts on the Spiritual Depths of Ethics

What sort of life is worth living? If I want to be fulfilled and
happy, what sort of person should I be?”
– Socrates
We didn’t come to have brains capable of lifelong learning
just so that we could set ourselves up comfortable in life.
– Gerald Hüther
A sign of authentic spirituality is the kind of life it engenders.
Morality is the public face of one’s spirituality.
– Richard Gula

In this post, I want to share a bit more on the insights that for me link human psychological and spiritual development with ethics. For me, there is within the insights gained from understanding this link enormous challenge, but also signs of hope. It was, in fact, the hope I drew from these insights that stirred me to begin to share these insights with others.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, several years ago I began offering a presentation on what I call, “The Spirituality of Ethics.” I was moved to create this presentation because it seemed to me that the basis of behavior that we might call “ethical” comes from within a person, not from the outside. Take, for example, the

Click on photo to enlarge

statement of corporate ethics shown here in the accompanying photo. Click on the photo to enlarge it and read the statements. Pretty impressive document is it not?

If you were to guess which corporation drafted this statement and displayed it for all employees and clients to see, which one do you think it would be? Would you ever guess that this was the code of ethics drafted by Enron Corporation in 2001?  Perhaps you recall that just a few years later, the company collapsed amidst one of the largest cases of corporate fraud in history, costing employees and investors billions of dollars.

Today Enron has become just one of many cases reported by the news media of costly unethical business practices. What, we ask, has become of such basic values as honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, and concern for the common good? I believe the loss of attention to these values in everyday business practices is related to our loss in understanding how to “grow” ethical human beings from the inside out.  In trying to address this loss, I have reflected on how the new evolutionary understanding of what it means to be human might affect our understanding of ethical behavior and its opposite.

From within the evolutionary context, we first can acknowledge that the growth of every human being into someone who can consider in their decisions the common good requires proper care giving from the start. My sense is that what we are coming to know about the stages of development of individual and collective consciousness can help us not only to make better ethical decisions in the end, but also help us to understand the source of our own disagreement, even impasse, when it comes to talking together about ethical concerns.

In my work with facilitating decision-making among groups large and small over the past 15 years, I have come to see that a person’s perspective on an issue determines his or her position on it, and in order to understand their choice, we must understand the life that led to that person’s perspective. Also, we must consider the formation of our own perspectives, and learn to communicate them to others. More importantly, it is out of that experience and knowledge that we shape our view of the world. Finally, it is from within that worldview that we embrace certain values as guiding principles.  One of my favorite lines from Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is that, “Even a gang of thieves has values.”  The issue is not whether or not one has values, but which ones a person chooses to use to guide his or her behaviors and life choices.

To get at the “inner” dimensions of ethical decision-making, then, we must consider each person’s perspective on the “spiritual” questions I am considering in this blog:

  • Who are we? (What for me does it mean to be human?);
  • Why are we here? (What is the purpose of life? Of suffering, of death? When, and for what reasons, ought it to be preserved and protected? What rules ought to govern the creation of life?);
  • How are we to be here with others? (When do my needs, or even my life, take precedence over yours?);
  • Who is God? (How does my belief in God or my unbelief affect my answers to the other questions?).

In seeking to understand a person’s ethical or unethical choices we much understand how he or she would answer these very fundamental questions.  We also must know to what extent a person’s inner life has developed and matured. Making the connection between spiritual development and ethics is said best for me by Thomas Merton, who once wrote:

Those who attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening their own self-understanding, freedom and capacity to love, will have nothing to give others. They will communicate to others nothing but the contagion of their own obsessions, their aggressiveness, their ego-centered ambition, their delusions about ends and means, their doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.

Whenever I see this quote today, I think of those Enron corporate leaders and now also of those on Wall Street responsible for our current worldwide economic crisis. Merton’s observation seems certainly to have been born out in them.

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