The Spirituality of Ethics: Growing Humans Who Serve the Common Good

“Unlike most other species, we [humans] are not
biologically programmed to know what to do;
rather we are an experience in free choice.”
– Elisabet Sahtouris
Some people are really showing excitement
about the new millennium, that the new millennium
itself will bring new happy days. I think that’s wrong.
Unless there is a new millennium inside, then the new millennium
will not change much – same days and nights, same sun and moon.
The important thing is transformation, or new ways of thinking.
– His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Years ago, I began offering presentations on what I call, “The Spirituality of Ethics.” In these presentations, I invite people to reflect on how the new evolutionary understanding of what it means to be human might affect our understanding of ethical behavior and its opposite. This has become quite timely in light of the reasons behind the current economic crisis and other scandals rocking our international community.

Certainly, the new millennium has not brought us to “happy days,” as His Holiness the Dalai Lama predicted at the turn of the century in his book, Ethics for a New Millennium.

In this post, I want to try to share some of the insights that for me link the process of human psycho-spiritual development with ethics.  There is within this linking enormous challenge, but also signs of hope. It was, in fact, the hope that stirred me to begin to share these insights with others.

This post begins, then, with a very brief look at several schemas through which we might look at the inner dynamics of ethics. Finally, I offer a hopeful note in a brief presentation of a spiritual approach to The Earth Charter, which may in our time represent the manifestation of a hopeful movement toward a global ethics of sustainability.

Click on Image to Enlarge

My first encounter with an evolutionary view of ethics came through reading Roderick Nash’s book, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics.In the book, Nash suggests that our human approach to ethics has evolved, as indicated in the illustration shown here.  Initially, our “ethical” awareness and concern focused only on meeting our own individual needs. Later, as humans and their social communities developed, our concept of who needed to be included in our ethical concerns expanded to our family, our tribe, our region, our race and so on. Today, we ask new ethical questions about the right to life of trees, or entire ecosystems, and even Earth itself.

From within an evolutionary, developmental perspective, we acknowledge that the growth of every human being into someone who can consider in their decision-making the common good, requires access to the resources necessary for life and proper care from the start. We now know from a variety of sources, that human psychological and spiritual growth proceeds in stages. I want to begin this conversation about this process of development and its relationship to ethics by looking at Abraham Maslow’s stage theory.

Click Image to Enlarge

Abraham Maslow suggested that humans develop psychologically in response to certain “needs.” He posited that once a particular need is met, the path is open for movement to the next stage of psychological development, which in turn has its own needs. The process looks something like the accompanying diagram.

At the first stage, the needs to be met are purely physical – the need for oxygen, food, shelter.  At the next stage, the need is for safety and security. Once these basic needs are met, we move to the next phase of development, which manifests the need for love, affection and a sense of belonging.  As our craving for these is met, we mature to a stage marked by what Maslow called “esteem needs” – the need to be respected by others for what we can achieve. Finally, as we continue to mature psychologically, we enter a stage of generativity and wisdom, of sensing our connection to the greater community of life and wanting to make a contribution.

I have begun to use Maslow’s schema to consider moral development by looking at what might hold persons back from moving naturally through the stages.  I also am beginning to think that the stages apply not just to individuals, but also to societies trapped by circumstances beyond their control to change.

For example, at the earlier stages, from a moral perspective, the choice is between obtaining relief from one’s physical needs or facing death. It may be difficult for those of us who live with adequate resources to meet our daily physical needs to comprehend what might prompt an individual to choose to go against the common good to obtain them, or in a more extreme case to even choose a violent death, as with a suicide bomber, who may want to believe that his or her action ultimately may obtain a better life for future generations.

As another example, we could consider that many of us now find ourselves living in cultures in which we are constantly told that our esteem needs are to be met through the products we can buy, not through our relationships. Is this why our young financial executives focus more on acquiring wealth than on looking out for the common good? We might begin to ask ourselves where we are failing as a society in helping these young individuals to grow from within, not simply prove their adulthood by what they can acquire.

In the course of my ponderings these issues, I also learned of another development schema known as “Spiral Dynamics®.” Conceived by Don Beck, Spiral Dynamics® is based on the original work on the psychology of human development done by the late Clare W. Graves, a professor at Union College, New York. Beck’s Spiral Dynamics® looks at the process of development for both individuals and cultures, using a color-based system to describe the different stages.

Click Image to Enlarge

Recently, I came across a description of the characteristics of the various levels of Beck’s spiral matched with the methods by which persons and/or cultures make decisions. I present a summary of those descriptions here in the accompanying photos. You will see here that there are once again implications at each level for the process of making ethical choices.

We still have a long way to go in our ability to create environments within our homes and our communities that promote the psychological and spiritual growth necessary for developing healthy human beings. However, I believe the more we learn about ourselves within the evolutionary context, the more we see how important it is for all us to be concerned about how this is happening in our families and in our schools. We also need to take steps to counter those forces which contribute against creating such environments.

Click Image to Enlarge

As a final comment, I invite you to view a brief presentation which I created offering a spiritual perspective on The Earth Charter, a global initiative originally begun by the United Nations and now a worldwide effort to promote healthy, sustainable activities in all arenas of human interaction. As I mentioned earlier, I find it to be among the movements spreading across our Earth that offers renewed hope in our troubled times. Click Here to view a brief PowerPoint on the Spirituality of the Earth Charter. To learn more about the Charter, visit The Earth Charter Initiative.

This entry was posted in Current 11 - Spiritual Leadership and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.