What is ethical? - Compassion that stops at our own household or a compassion that embraces the entirety of nature? Albert Einstein associates a self-centered and myopic compassion with an “optical illusion of …consciousness,” ethical “delusion” and “prison”:
- A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated form the rest, a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
Why should we widen “our circle of compassion?” Einstein insists that ethics restricted to “personal desires” is “delusion,” a failure to see reality as it truly is. Indeed, the concept of “delusion” suggests that there is a condition of “non-delusion,” a higher truth that trumps and transcends a narrow preoccupation with our needs and comforts. However, if this is the case, what is the basis of this higher moral reality, and how do we know that we are actually tapping into it? Perhaps instead, the highest truth is nothing more than the survival-of-the-fittest – me and my genes first! How can I be sure that this represents “delusion?”
New Age guru Ken Wilbur expresses Einstein’s ethics in terms of the stages of “moral development”:
- As we look at infants at birth, they have not yet been socialized into the culture’s ethics and conventions. This is called the pre-conventional stage. It is also called egocentric, in that the infant’s awareness is largely self absorbed. But as young children begin to learn their culture’s rules and norms, they grow into the conventional stage of morals. This stage is also called ethnocentric, in that it centers on the child’s particular group, tribe, clan, or nation, and it therefore tends to exclude care and concern for those not of one’s group. But at the next major stage of moral development, the post-conventional stage, the individual’s identity expands once again, this time to include a care and concern for all peoples, regardless of race, color, sex, or creed, which is why this stage is also called world-centric.
Even if Wilbur is correct about the stages, why should the final stage – world-centrism – represent an ethical improvement over the former stages? The later isn’t necessarily the best, no more than senility is an improvement over adolescence. Perhaps the first two stages might contribute more positively to the evolution of the human race? If there are no universal, immutable, and authoritative moral absolutes – fixed standards of judgment – who can say that self-fixation or the survival-of-the-fittest is morally wrong?
If world-centrism represents a positive step in “moral development,” is there a rationale for this judgment? Perhaps it’s better for our families to be centered upon their immediate needs? And perhaps our purported concerns about the world are simply the reflection of our own psychological need to demonstrate our moral superiority over those of the first two stages? I can’t help thinking of world-centric communism. While expressing flowery idealistic concerns about the world did more to decimate the world than had any other philosophy.
Usually, world-centrism is erroneously defended by pragmatic appeals to its possible benefits for the entire world. Appeals are made to protecting the environment and limiting warfare, starvation and disease worldwide.
However, this argumentation secretly assumes the very thing that it is trying to prove – that “warfare, starvation and disease” are evils, which need to be eradicated or at least reduced. The argumentation fails to answer what makes these things or anything “evil.” Consequently, pragmatic argumentation is deceptive. It rejects the need for transcendent moral absolutes, while it secretly appeals to them and their condemnation of certain “evils.”
There is no way that pragmatic considerations (science, for example) by themselves can coherently call for a moral response. As the skeptic and philosopher David Hume observed, we cannot logically go from what “is” (pragmatism and science) to what “ought to be” (morality). They are separated by an impassable God-created gulf.
Einstein insists that because of “delusion,” the self-centered are missing a vital piece in the puzzle. However, how does Einstein know that they are deluded? We can’t make such a judgment unless we are certain about a fixed moral reality, transcendent moral absolutes – truths that transcend my myopic needs - and an embrace of the Creator, Sustainer and Enforcer of these absolutes. Without this Creator, there can be no basis for transcendent moral absolutes – the very thing needed to declare “world-centrism” superior to “self-centrism.” Without this Creator and His moral absolutes, no one can tell me that their morality is any bit superior to my own. We are left with nothing more than molecules-in-motion.
Without this higher standard, there is no basis to judge one action as better than another. It would be like a math teacher grading math exams without answers that are absolutely correct. Trying to do so without this absolute standard would be disingenuous.
Some might try to appeal to our common moral intuitions as a basis to make such judgments. However, this just passes the buck to another insubstantial source. The question still remains:
- Why should I trust my moral intuitions as an authoritative basis to judge, especially in view of the fact that my feelings change and are largely a reflection of my culture and upbringing? What makes them any more authoritative than the intuitions of the murderer?
Indeed, most of us feel that we are our neighbor’s keeper, but if this feeling is merely a chemical-electrical cerebral reaction, why then heed it? Is there any connection between feeling and moral truth? Not if a superior Being hasn’t designed this glorious connection!
Consequently, I am world-centric because God – the unchanging, all-wise and loving Source of all truth - is world-centric. Jesus taught that we should regard everyone as our “neighbor” and treat them accordingly. This is where the buck stops –absolutely!