Dialogue # 5: On Objective Morality


April 19, 201

The Amoral Field
  Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.

[For years I’ve been thinking there’s got to be  some sort of bedrock natural morality, a cosmic morality wedded to the intelligent cosmos.  There is  lots to consider, not the least being a couple of hundred cultures on this planet, each with its own arbitrary set of rules.  How can such diverse ideas of morality and ethics fit into something so all-encompassing as the cosmos?  Can there be a moral universe, an ethical cosmos? Can such words even apply on such a vast canvas?  I invited Steven to explore the question in this dialogue.]

M: I’d like to talk about whether there’s some kind of objective morality. I don’t know if I would call what I’m thinking about ‘morality’, but it might be what Camus called the benign indifference of the universe–benign indifference! The idea that the universe isn’t mad at anybody. Some grains of corn don’t get nourished and don’t grow. People in Rwanda are getting their hands chopped off by their neighbors. Kids are starving to death all over the planet. Huge masses of people are destroyed in tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions. But you have to see all that in the context of the whole  thing.   The  universe isn’t really mad at us, I think is a reasonable view.  This is simply the way it works. To participate in all this, you have  to  recognize  yourself as part of the  warp and woof, not separate but integral.  If  you can’t do that, you’re not seeing clearly.  You wouldn’t be any good at helping the universe along.

H: I’ve been very interested in the question of moral and ethical development. I’ve been writing about it. So I find it interesting that you sent me that paper to read right before our meeting. It’s the one part of my book Spiritual Democracy that hasn’t been emphasized as much as I now see it needs to be. It will need a chapter at least. Maybe a couple, because there can’t be any real discussion of spiritual democracy without a discussion of ethics.

A Moral Cosmos?

M: That ties in beautifully. I think we’d have to re-define ‘moral’ and re-define ‘ethics’. We’d have to define them in terms of this cosmos, much broader than the narrow view of those two words. As Parfit says, by the time you sorted it all out, if you had to make a moral decision based on logic and reason, somebody might have died.

[I had read Larissa MacFarquhar’s article in The New Yorker, “How to Be Good,” September 5, 2011, about the British philosopher Derek Parfit’s work on morality and on the nature of the Self and had recommended it to Steven because of its relevance to their dialogues.]

You need to have something that’s a little more spontaneous that kicks in immediately. You don’t even have to think about it. It would probably be the result of having gone through the process of re-examining these things until they’ve become part of your nature–or return you to your nature would be more like it.

Another part of this morality would be  that you don’t cling to your life with your fist so clenched that you can’t enjoy yourself.

So I would say there is a morality to the universe though  I’ve  hated that word  for years. It just feels good not to go around hurting people and destroying things. It feels much better. And from your point of view, from a psychotherapist’s point of view, when someone is intent on doing awful stuff, his or her stomach gets upset; one gets ulcers and so forth. When your hand is open, usually you’re in better health. Almost universally, you don’t get so many ailments. That’s the kind of morality that possibly would work. You don’t need to have any rationale for it. It’s just like a tree growing. The morality of trees is  that if they get sun and food, they will do their thing.  If not, then that’s  the  way it is. No big deal.  I don’t suppose they would mourn. They might die, but I don’t imagine they would be all upset about it. So another part of this morality would be  that you don’t cling to your life with your fist so clenched that you can’t enjoy yourself.  The tree doesn’t have to curl up in a ball.  It  goes  ahead and dies–and gets itself reprocessed. Being part of the warp and woof of the universe, it’s its nature to go through that process.

H: That’s an interesting point, what you said earlier about clinging. The only problem I have with Parfit is the idea of the insignificance of the ego, that idea that clinging is something bad. That’s a moral judgment there. I like to hold to both and not get stuck on one point of view.

Here’s my thought about a lot of the problems  I find in religion today that Jung found first, but  I find myself going in my  own direction as I learn more  about the  history of religions.  It begins to fascinate me more. Take for example the  idea of compassion.  The Dalai Lama  says his religion is the religion of compassion.  Christ  said  his  religion is  the  religion of love.  If you have a religion based on compassion, it’s very hard to allow for a vision of evil and of the shadow in human history.

When you speak of objective morality I am reminded of a poem by Robinson Jeffers, where he says that the one thing the universe lacks and that humans have is moral beauty. The stars do not share in this moral beauty, nor do tsunamis and  earthquakes.  Human consciousness brings something unique into evolution and that is morality, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, light and dark, and so forth.

God’s Eyes

We are the  universe peering at itself

M: So it would seem, but I think there are other ways to explain our apparent capacity to apprehend moral beauty. I guess we’re going to have to re-define ‘beauty’ while we’re at it.  I guess, then, that Jeffers thought humans invented beauty.  It brings up the question of whether any other creatures can do this– or apprehend beauty of any sort, for that matter. I’d prefer not to  give ourselves  too  big a pat on the back. Twain mused on the idea of his era that “Man is the noblest work of God.” “Well, now,” he asked and after a pause, “Who thought that up?” It may indeed be that we are God’s eyes in the physical world. It may be through our agency that the cosmos gets to see an appreciate its magnificence. That might be  our job, but  even so, we  are  the  universe peering at itself.  We are  not isolated from it, we are it.   So there’s no  hierarchy.  You might  say God is God’s noblest work. Oh my, oh my! Sorry to have interrupted.  Why  don’t you complete your idea?

H: Well, whether there is an objective morality has been on my mind  for many  years and I wrote a long essay on this question that I have not published yet, called “Unitary Conscience.” Jeffers, of course, said some of the most radical things one can imagine  during World War Two, in his political poetry. As Everson said of Jeffers, who was his master, during WWII his poetry reached a pitch of complete hysteria. Seventy million lives were lost. Civilization is sick, he said. True. Wars are a collective illness. Well, from an objective viewpoint in history that statement is right. From another standpoint, however, it is wrong.  It all depends where one stands in one’s moral view regarding what actions during the war we are speaking about. Did the Native Americans have a right to defend their lands in the  Black  Hills  during the Battle of the Little Big Horn? I would argue yes. Some  might  disagree  with me, but that  is how I feel. Do I believe in War, as a solution to international conflicts? I say no. The problem is that we can sit here and discuss morality from our comfortable armchairs, outside of the tragedy and agony and violence of human bloodshed, for we do  not know what we  would do if bullets or missiles were being shot our way.

M: If I may interrupt again for a minute, let me insert some thoughts popping up in mind as we talk. I’ll probably forget them if I don’t. It does occur to me that to get a good feel of what cosmic morality is, I’d have to choose something like a star, as Frost put it, as my place for viewing, a place far away from the sturm und drang.  I’d guess most of us here in the West would think it’s obvious that it was immoral  to destroy those huge ancient sculptures in Afghanistan. But on the Cosmic scale, and in the Zen way of seeing, it would be similar to those wonderful sand paintings the Buddhists do, or ice or butter sculptures, a recognition of the impermanence of things. So even there, there’s more than one way to view it.  Does this tie in with where your thoughts were going?

 Doctrine into Deeds

H: A friend of mine taught with the Dalai Lama  and spent some  time  with him. When you look closely, these things are not so clear cut. The Lamas were not always so compassionate. There’s a new book about the Mongolian shamans  that tells how the  Dalai Lama  of the Tibetan Buddhists of the Himalayas, some hundreds of years back in history, gave an order to slaughter the Mongolian shamans. When I heard that, it was almost a relief for me because I, we, have this misconception about Buddhism based on more  recent  history with regards  to the Chinese in Tibet and the terrible tragedy that happened to the monks there.  It saddens me    to think about their suffering. When you hear that in the context of history, some of the Buddhists think it’s their karma for what the former Dalai Lama actually did. Well, we know  the history of the Crusades, we know the history of Mogul rulers, the Puritans in America and the history  of the Conquistadores in South and Central America.  If  you look at how Christians or Buddhists or Muslims have behaved, you see something very different than the moral philosophy of peoples’ religious beliefs.

The Unity of Opposites

What it does, by reflecting on it more objectively, is you create a more critical view of God in history, not just on theological discourse and beliefs–which is where I think our world gets into trouble–but based on reality, what’s the actual translation of the doctrine into action, into deeds. There hasn’t  been, as far as I can tell, any  kind  of teaching that bases its philosophy or theology on a principle of a unity of opposites. This is really Jung’s great contribution to modern thought. Jung was very much a moral philosopher. He studied history and philosophy. In fact, for a period of time he wanted  to become  a philosopher and  for a while he felt called to it, but then turned to natural science and  finally  psychiatry.  He  did study Nietzsche, Kant, Schopenhauer, and spent five years analyzing Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Zarathrusta and Absolute Good and Evil

Since 9/11/01 I’ve been going through Jung’s seminars and  reading  about what  he says about Zoroastrianism. Nietzsche was the first  to say that  Zarathustra  committed  the worst error in human history–which was morality–because he posited the cosmic dualism between good and evil, that there is an absolute good and an absolute evil, and Ahura Mazda, the god of the Zoroastrians, descended to incarnate those opposites in the first prophet of Iran.

[Zarathustra, believed to have lived around 600 B. C., was a religious teacher and prophet of ancient Persia.]

But since the basic dualism begins in ancient Iran in the Middle-East, the significance of Zoroaster and of Nietzsche and of Jung really rises to a level of awareness for me as a Jungian writer, and as a psychotherapist because we see moral problems every day in our psychotherapeutic practices. For example, patients who are having affairs.  How do you handle an affair? How do you handle others issues–where a crime has been committed? Moral problems are part of what we deal with in our practices every day. Oftentimes, a neurosis arises as a result of the inability to solve moral problems, or what Jung called conflicts of conscience.

M: So clarifying what morality is in a cosmic sense might free people from the rule books to look at each situation in its context.  (Oh, when you said Jung brought together good and evil into one sphere, so to speak, I thought of William Blake , who saw that clearly, and the yin yang concept. But certainly the split is profound in the thinking of Western cultures, as you said.)

H: Here in the West the split between good and evil is a foundation of our religious evolution from Zorastrianism–and let’s not forget Gilgamesh–because Babylon, Iraq, is  at the center of our attention right now.  So we have those two basic myths  that are pre-Biblical, before Judaism. Judaism is an attempt to create a more evolved moral foundation. So you’ve got the Decalogue, the Mosaic Law–Thou shalt not.  From there,  we’ve got  Christianity  where you’ve got a further evolution of the moral opposites. Christ represents, of course, the good attitude, the light and love, and extrusion from the evil element and the dark element from the God concept. And then you find in the Moslem religion and Islamic revelation of the Prophet, you find this very different evolution with Allah, who is really a god of terror and compassion, but this whole idea of Jihad arises out of the Koran. There are passages there that are quite shocking, when taken literally, and that of course is the problem with Holy Wars.

M: OK. I’m not clear on where you’re going with this.

H: The basic idea is that we can no longer have a religious vision that’s based exclusively on the good or on light or on compassion or on love. What  you said earlier about destruction, that needs to be part of our religious vision.

M: Yes, if we’re ever going to get a cosmic understanding, which is the only way we can fit together all these divergent views.

H: We need to be able to see the cosmos for what it is and humanity for what it is. What human consciousness can provide to the idea of the unity of the universe is an ethical view based on conscience where the moral opposites are held together, side by side. This is, of course, one of the most difficult things, but that is where beauty is, that is where love and compassion are, that is where light is.

Homeless Jesus

M: To boil it down, you could say that this being here (pointing to himself) is a microcosm of the universe, and within this being are the Yin and the Yang simultaneously. And for me to function in this universe, I have to recognize that I’m part of the destroyer. In the growing I’m also destroying as I go along. There’s no  way to escape this  reality. You can’t talk your way out of it.  If I were a Christian, I’d have to recognize that. And I think  that’s  provided for in Christ’s teachings but not in the interpretations so much.  In the  original Christianity, in everything I read about what they say He said, there are included whores, and wicked people, and so on. They are all God’s children, He would say. So when you look at some bum in the park, sitting there all strung out and you spontaneously say to yourself, “That’s  me,”  then you’re ready to be a Christian. That’s the  level of awareness I do think  is  needed.  And  that  would  be a kind of non-verbal, non-linguistic morality that goes beyond some sort of rational interpretation of the  universe, a falling into the  world and being a part of it, of being  It.  So as  I walk around, I’m a microcosm of everything we’ve been talking about. To see something over there as “other” is a major mistake. It’s a confusion of how things work. It’s  also very dangerous because it puts me at odds with the  rest of the  universe.  That’s stupid, because that isn’t the way it works. Oh, and I want to get back to the ego a little bit later, too. Do you think what  I just said is accurate?

H: For the most part I would agree  with you.  I have  a little hesitancy in going that last step and say it’s a mistake to not see identity everywhere. This  is  where  I think  even Whitman goes too far in his idealism. That’s why he ends up being so criticized and perhaps justly so, because to see one’s self as everything means that one sacrifices moral development, in other words, the ability to judge. Of course, Whitman was one of the greatest War poets. He was an abolitionist through and through and from an historical standpoint, he was on the right side of moral history. So from a moral standpoint  his  “Drum Taps” is objectively moral, in the love for what is beautiful about American democracy: racial, cultural, and  religious equality.

Instinct and Judgment

M: I didn’t mean it that way. The part I just described is the field out of which you work. In this  shared vision we call reality, we  absolutely must judge every second.  I judge every time I take a breath. So, yes, I go around making these decisions, but the  more  I ground them in the whole universe, the more those decisions are likely to produce serendipitous results. So, yes, the  individual is extremely important but only with the  awareness that the  other individual is extremely important, too. Co-equal in importance.  I am absolutely  important, and you are absolutely important. And you need to be Steven Herrmann to the nth degree, or why are you here at all? I do make these judgments, though it should not include smugness! When I see you over there making judgments that are not the same  as mine,  I might think, well, he doesn’t understand. That’s a kind of smugness that needs to be examined. Remember the last time we talked, you said that however bizarre someone’s idea may seem, you could say, “You’re right!” I thought, yes, you have to be able to say, “You’re right,” and mean it.

You’re right.

H: You know, when I say that, I want to include a bit of the origins of that attitude. There’s a bit of the trickster in that.

M: Yeah.

H: Because I mean it and I don’t. I don’t really believe that Osama Bin Laden is right. He’s a fundamentalist who has no sense of objective morality.

M: I understand.  I’d stop him for sure. Without doubt. But have I really bothered to know him inside and out, as well as I know me? In my classes I’d  probably treat Bin Laden as a Zen koan, maybe, “Find me half a dozen points  of view from which Bin Laden was  right.” You could do it the other way, too, of course. I’d be trying to divorce us from our biases long enough to get a good look at the issue in its fullness.

H: I think that, as Americans, we want to have tolerance towards everybody’s religion. It’s very American to want to see equality rather than to entertain a superiority in one’s religious beliefs. But when it comes down to it, certain madmen in history had to be stopped. Hitler’s one of them, as was Bin Laden. Whether or not it was right for us to blow up the white mountains of Afghanistan, I do have problems with that; that was in great excess. There we were wrong.

M: Well, yes, I think all madmen have to be stopped. They should be stopped in their tracks. And I think they would be stopped if one had a grounding in the universe.  In some compassionate institutions, they wrap crazy violent patients in a warm blanket and hold them in their arms.  So there are ways to deal with nut cases that are not also violent and crazy. The common solution, which doesn’t advance us at all, is to return such behavior in kind.  Humph!

H: This is the problem, Clark. So you agree that there needs to be an objective moral principle guiding spiritual growth . . .

The Morality of Spirit

M: It is tricky, though. It’s not something arrived at intellectually. When you get it all figured out that way, you can move very quickly into being a smug, self-assured prig. But when you see someone beating up somebody else, I think the universe would spontaneously stop that–through me somehow. It would be an involuntary response. A Taoist might see these madmen and the wave of horror they unleashed as similar to Dutch elm disease or the blight that destroyed the chestnut forests that once blanketed the southwestern Pennsylvania where I grew up. The Amish take that point of view.

The Heart of Matter

And it has just this minute occurred to me that ugliness is  part of nature.   How we respond to  it is the key. I’ve never seen this so clearly before. Events are not the problem.  How we respond to them is the antidote, and that is compassion and love. That’s what human morality is, an outpouring of shared feeling with our fellow beings.   And that is not a code of ethics, and it is not a rule book of moral dos and don’ts. It’s the soul’s spontaneous response to the world of physical reality.

Human morality is the soul’s spontaneous response to the world of physical reality.

H: What if your life was in jeopardy?

M: Usually you don’t think about that.  Did you see that news  clip of a guy on a motorcycle that crashed into a car and got pinned under it? The car was  in flames, and these people came.  I don’t know what prompted that many to come, but they were able to lift that car up by hand, and somebody dragged him out from under it. A minute or two later the whole  car went up in an explosion of fire. Well, in a situation like that, you can’t ponder your action. There isn’t time to wonder if you should help the guy. That kind of action has to bubble up from you ground of being. I’d say the universe went over there and lifted up the car. The universe also lets people die. We have to realize that, too.

Universal morality has to be spontaneous.

So universal morality has to be spontaneous. It  can’t be an intellectual thing.  It would have to be coming out of your right hemisphere, out of your soul, your spirit, from deep down in the ground of being. I can’t imagine anybody who’s growing healthily would manifest the kind of meanness that goes around whacking things. There’s no  desire  to do it… I suppose we could say sadistic pleasure is the black side of the Yin and Yang.

Religion and Morality

H: We were talking a little bit about religion in light of this whole big moral issue. It seems that the two are interconnected: moral philosophy comes out of religion.

M: I think it’s OK for churches to talk about these things and to examine them, but anyone who’s been in those groups has to realize that that is not where it is. That it’s just a path to where it is. What’s pointed to cannot be an intellectual construct. Intellectually you can figure it out, but you still have to take the trip.

H: You have to live it.

M: To live it.   Yeah. This is  the confusion people have about liturgy or meditation. They are a means toward something beyond.

I’ve been working on a Melville chapter for my book Spiritual Democracy and I went back to some writing I did eleven years ago. I have to say I do like the voice I used then.  It has a Melvillean, Biblical, feel to it, going back to the Old Testament. You know, Melville starts with the Old Testament characters in Moby-Dick, starting right out with, “Call me Ishmael.” Ishmael: the son of Hagar and Abraham; Ishmael, the father of Islam. You know, many Westerners may not be aware of the fact that the first great mosque  of the  Muslim world was constructed on the sacred rock in Jerusalem where Abraham is said to have been called to sacrifice his second son, Isaac. In Jewish tradition the sacrificial son of Abraham is Isaac, whereas in the Koran, it is his first son, Ishmael. Well, the  Dome of the  Rock is situated on exactly that spot and you can say that there is a source of Israeli-Palestinian tension, Muslim and Christian tension, conflict in international politics. Melville, with his keen intuition zeroed in on a problem therefore that he foresaw a century and a half ago and that is now at the forefront of world-wide attention. How can the three great monotheisms— Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—co-exist in a sense of unity that reflects the unity of the cosmos, moral beauty, and objective morality we have been speaking about?

M: You have a good point there.

H: Melville starts with the Old Testament and in so doing he takes us back to our origins.

M: And as you well know, it’s not accidental. It’s all calculated. One thing that might be touched on is how much can a writer of that level expect someone who’s not well schooled in the Bible and associated works, someone who may be a good reader but not a well-rounded reader, get to that? I have a view about that, but what do you think?

H: Well, I think that’s why a commentary is needed—to really get the  metaphors  that he’s using to create an allegory through symbolism, and provide a specific meaning not only for America, but for the world. It  takes a certain kind  of background of understanding of the myths that underlie American culture. It is not widely known, for instance, that Emerson was reading Hafiz, the great Sufi poet, when he penned his  great  essay “The  Poet,”  which Whitman read.

The Islamic scholars were great mathematicians, architects, scientists, astronomers, and Western culture and especially the Renaissance was largely built up on the libraries of Islamic scholars in Spain, Baghdad, and many parts of the Middle East, that were plundered by Crusaders.

M: Can we shift back to our exploration of morality for a while and then come back to Melville?

Getting Past Our Emotions

H: Sure. It will come together I’m sure, as we get into this at a little deeper level. Clark, you were talking with me earlier about someone who seems unable to get past her emotions.

M: Yes, her emotions seem to prevent her from thinking her way calmly through a situation. She almost seems imprisoned by her feelings.

H: That’s exactly how a complex works! When someone is in a complex, you can’t reason with them. You wanted to explore ethics and morality. Well, when someone is in a complex, they can’t reason, they simply can’t reflect on their own morality, or on the  relativity of  values. Values are relative. Nietzsche and Jung . . .

M: What do you mean by that?

H: I mean what’s right for you is wrong for me. And what’s right for me is wrong for you. It goes around, you know. You disagree with someone, say, on the illegal immigrant issue and that’s it. It’s polarized. It’s  that simple.  When a person is  in a complex, they represent the good, and the other person represents the bad, and that’s that. The split in conscience happens. The moral judgment kicks in, and there can be no dialogue about it. Discussion closed. [Both laugh.] How can two people possibly have a dialogue when emotions heat up around religion?

M: They can’t.

H: This is why we have freedom of religion. It goes back to the Constitution, the First Amendment. If we had a Christian nation, what about the rest of the world, the rest of the world’s religions? And who’s right?

M: Yes, many Christians are sure they are right, and that’s it.

H: No dialogue. That’s the point. And that’s why we’ve got a world like we  do. Fortunately, we have the United Nations.

M: Yes, and a lot of Americans would like to destroy it. John Bolton was sent there to try to destroy it. [Reader: These are the original dialogues.  I’ve left the time they were recorded intact.  But the world keeps updating itself, so you will have to take that into account.] He made no bones about it. Bush made this war mongerer our secretary to the UN. He unabashedly said the UN shouldn’t exist, and the US should not subject itself to international law. But to get back to your point, if you  have a very clear, solid picture of how the world works and you have your value system, you really think you’ve got it figured out; as far as I’m concerned, you are a tremendously dangerous person. Because you are going to trample over anybody else who doesn’t look at it that way. As you just pointed out, it is a matter of values, and values are relative. Any thinking person needs to come to at least that  point or else there can never be a dialogue.

 Morality and Immigration Laws

H: You could go that far in talking about illegal immigration. You could agree that they are illegal, no doubt about that, they do not belong here. That’s ridiculous of course, as we are all immigrants here, human beings with an instinct for travel, migrants.

M: Yes, I have done that. I agree that their being here illegally is a violation of our system of laws. But I have to point out that there is a lot of culpability on our part. We  ourselves have set up a system that fosters people coming here illegally. If there  were a level playing field with Latin American countries—wages, employment—if that were level, there would be no immigration problem. Secondly, we encourage people to come here because  we turn a blind eye to their illegal status so that we can have wage slaves working for us. We even have a euphemistic phrase for it, ‘guest worker’, I think it is. Bring them in, let them do all this work, make them live in hovels, don’t give them any benefits.

The thing is, all the Guatemalans I have direct contact with have a deep nostalgia for Guatemala. They would much prefer to be back home. But they can’t live there.

H: What’s going on in Guatemala that prevents their return?

M: Poverty’s the main thing. And Guatemala, like most third world countries, has two governments. One’s the one you vote for, and the  other is  the criminal element that actually runs things. There’s a shadow government. It’s all about bribery. There’s a great connection between the official government and those behind the scenes. Drugs are a major problem.

Guatemala is a very poor country. This family I was telling you about earlier live in what’s called a studio, but it’s little more than a closed-in garage.  They don’t even have a stove, just a hot plate. It’s pretty awful, but it’s much, much better than back home. OK, relativeness of values?

H: It’s a very important concept in religion, in philosophy, in psychology and therefore, in politics too.

Morality and Ethics in College Curricula

M: Do you think you could take a class of college freshmen and get them to play around with this concept? That would be one of the most valuable things you could do.

H: Sure. We’ll co-teach it together! [Laughter]

M: That would be lovely.

H: We’d have a good time. We’d read a little bit of Nietzsche, a bit of Jung.

M: One of the strategies  I used to use, speaking of taking a little bit of Nietzsche or Jung,  I can remember some books that were full of wonderful little passages, maybe a paragraph or just a line, and then maybe a whole chapter explaining the paragraph. Well, I found those explanations that were the bulk of the book to be tedious, boring. But the quotes  were great. So what I’d do would be to take the quote and forget the rest. We’d take the quote and fiddle around with that. That would gradually bring out all the  nuances, but that would be supplied by the people in the class. That was tremendously engaging.

H: Well, I can tell you that when I was a student in your freshman English class and we were using your book Image: Reflections on Language, that that sort of environment can make a major difference in a life.

M: That’s gratifying.

H: Here’s an example. This is something I learned from Image. I memorized one passage, among many others, that I can still rattle off, a passage from Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. It is about morality and was something at that time I had never read before: “I was taking the long road to school from Klein- Hüningen, where we lived, to Basel, when suddenly for a single moment, I had  the  overwhelming impression of having just emerged from a dense cloud. I knew all at once: Now I am myself!” Jung talks  about coming out of a fog and realizing: “Now I exist.” So  just take that as an idea to center this discussion on morality. The relativity of values has to do with the discovery of the “I,” the “real me,” or “myself.” Whitman says in the opening line of “Song of Myself”: “I celebrate Myself and sing Myself.”

M: Yes. I think you last sentence need repeating. “That is where objective morality comes from: the unity of the self with the oneness of the whole cosmos” That’s it!

H: So it’s the idea that morals come out of a moral foundation in the collective  unconscious, and these are your original morals. These are your morals, your values, the values in this instance of identity complex: the “I.” The ego that has become aligned with the self. Take the illegal immigrant issue. You have a specific moral judgment about that.  It’s  yours.  Nobody can take that away from you. That’s  original  to you, and  it’s grouped around  a set of ideas and values and judgments. And it is  relative because sooner or later you’re going to have a split in the nation about it, and you are going to have to take a moral stand. There are going to be people who disagree and say you are wrong, and it’s because of people like you that we’ve got this problem. On the other hand, history will prove what position was right, what position was wrong, and that is where it becomes objective.

M:  That’s right.

H: And you’re going to be questioned by someone. So I think the idea of coming out of a fog–Jung was an adolescent–is an experience of discovering one has a voice, and that matters. When one knows ‘now I am myself’ one can take moral action, one has a vocation.

M: Right. He was on his way to school.

H: Around that time, that awareness of being one’s Self, being conscious, like in your book, Thinking about Thinking. This idea that there is something else observing our thoughts and if we can align ourselves with whatever that is that’s observing our thoughts, what Jung calls the Self or objective cognition, we’ve got it.  And maybe  then we  are  following a path that was laid down from the beginning.

The Deep Self and Its Conscious Outer Reality

M: I think you couldn’t have said it much better than that. It seems to me it’s the job of any being, any human being anyhow, to bring those two aspects into alignment, ego and self. You know you’re there when that happens. Your conscious reasoning will always be flawed unless it’s aligned with that path.  For example, great artists like Picasso, I would say, have it in  perfect alignment. He can draw a simple line and it will be perfect. There’s no effort whatsoever to think clearly. It comes  because  that deep self and  its conscious outer shell are in harmony.

 It comes  because  that deep self and  its conscious outer shell are in harmony.

H: That’s really well put. It is about being in alignment, and once in alignment and knowing what one needs to do is some kind of vocation–and then speaking up for that. I can’t imagine that someone who’s blind with the value judgment that illegal immigrants  need to get out of  our country now doesn’t feel compassion, guilt, or shame, or any kind of responsibility, particularly if they meet with one of them, translating as you are doing, could not have a feeling for them as human beings.

All Education Is Personal

M: Absolutely. And I would have to say also that anyone who  wants  to teach English to people from other worlds is really confused if he or she thinks you can do that impersonally. They will not let you be impersonal. It becomes personal almost from the first word. In my judgment, you have to be willing to go there or you’re not going to be a very good teacher. I find that insistence quite charming. What an enrichment that is for these people to bring their world to you and offer it to you, like a gift. Just think  how your world would open up.  It’s just really fun. Then, if you get thirty people in a classroom and every single one of them is doing that, just look at how rich the teacher’s life becomes.  I knew teachers  who  had different views  of how you teach, and  one said  “I like  a wall  between us.” Well, that can’t be much fun. The teacher who told me that quit teaching not long after that.

Academic Elitism Versus Dialogue

H: You always had a personal approach to teaching, and that’s what mattered to me the most, and the contrast between taking your course and your colleague’s Shakespeare course, which I dropped, is that there was absolutely nothing personal about that class. He was behind the podium. There was a kind of elitism about his Shakespeare.

M: Oh, yes, that’s a common attitude. If you went through the  process, you might  be allowed to join the group.

H: Right, and I did not want to join the group. I had a budding intellectual side that needed to be invited out.

M: Yes.

H: And so, the impersonal setting didn’t work.

M: I don’t think it works for anybody.

The Decalogue and No-fault Divorce

H: I don’t know. It didn’t work for me. That’s where we  get back to objective morality. Take for example Moses. He had a revelation from God. He brought the Ten Commandments to a group of people. The problem with morals is that once they become written in stone . . .

M: Literally, in this case!

H: Then they become absolute, and then God becomes absolute, and then you can’t disagree with that kind of absolutism.

M: Or have a dialogue.

H: Or have a dialogue. Take for example, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

M: Oh, my god!

Unexamined Values

H: You know, the courts threw out fault divorces in California years and years ago. I, as a Marriage and Family Therapist, come out of that decision, the no-fault divorce decree. It used to be that someone had to be at fault. You could get more alimony. The judges threw all that out.

They said, “You know what?   We’ve got no-fault divorce in California.  We don’t want to know anything about who  is in bed with whom.   We want know what are the finances? What’s the property look like, and who’s  going to visit the children and  when? That’s it.” Why? Because they had to throw out the injunction of the Decalogue, “Thou shalt not.” Even George VIII had to work his way around that.

M: Oh, yes. Think of it, something like 1900 years of that injunction. Well, that makes me think about just how long blind obedience can shackle a culture.

H: Oh, but that’s where morality comes it. It’s about like and dislike, making judgments based on one’s own value system. That’s what you’re talking about.

M: George Bernard Shaw wasn’t fond of the idea of morality. Here’s one of his famous comments: “Confusing monogamy with morality has done more to destroy the conscience of the human race than any other error.”

H: Nietzsche wasn’t fond of morality either.

Unthinking Morality

M: Yes, it’s because morality is usually unthinking, as you said. It’s an emotional reaction. Which I think would be all right if it’s coming out of your deep self. I don’t think I’d worry about you, because, frankly, I don’t think you could be cruel to me if your morality were coming out of your deep self.

H: Did you see the pictures on the news that showed the killing of Gaddafi? The brutality? [Reader: These are the original dialogues.  I’ve left the time they were recorded intact.  But the world keeps updating itself, so you will have to take that into account.]

M: Oh, yes. It was horrible.

H: Horrible. It made me feel a little sick.

M: Yes, I don’t think morality calls for us to be such brutal executioners.

H: He asked for mercy.

M: And they gave him none.

H: A trial would have found him guilty and they would have hanged him anyway, but nevertheless. . .

M: Yes, I guess there’s no place in pure morality for cruelty, even to the worst enemy.

H: They really tortured him.

M: I think that’s  the  kind of fundamental morality out of which we  must act, that you cannot be cruel to anybody. I’d say in natural morality it would be impossible.  It  would be repulsive to one’s self to exercise cruelty. On the other hand, the few times I’ve come close to it, I see how much fun it is.  You can see it’s a delicious thing to be cruel.   And the  more you get into  it the worse it gets.

H: Do you realize that the German youth movement in World War I put into the hands of every German youth Thus Spake Zarathustra?

M: You’re kidding.

. . ..

M: You have this issue being played out on a grand scale in our country, it’s different issues, but it’s the same sort of difference. You can take the same text and adapt it to your own purposes or values and come to unbelievable conclusions. If you put us on national radio talking about morality like this, I imagine half the audience would have  turned the radio off  by the time we got this far. They’d no doubt think  those two people are crazy.  We’ve got to do something about this.

H: Who’s crazy, us or the religious right?. , . I have some thoughts about all of this. This is from a paper Jung sent to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Jung was asked “What are some techniques for changing the mental attitudes among nations and their leaders? How does a famous psychiatrist educate the UN?” He addressed the mental and moral conflicts in normal people.  It  consists chiefly in the integration of unconscious contents into consciousness.

M:     So     what      are      some      techniques?

Using Dream Content to Restore Balance with Nature

H: Jung says one method is individual analysis reading dreams properly, dream interpretation, trying to get back into balance with nature. He says the attitude of our method  is concerned with not only a mental but a moral phenomenon. An attitude is governed and sustained by a dominant conscious idea accompanied by a feeling tone, which might be hate or anger . . .

M: OK. So the concept is accompanied by a feeling.

H: A feeling, an emotional value, which accounts for the efficacy of the  idea.  And  then he says the mere idea will  have no  practical or moral effect whatsoever if it is not  supported by an emotional quality having as a rule an ethical value. In other words, the value is, It’s wrong. There’s no discussion. It’s a value judgment. So how do you change a mental attitude when you’ve got Palestinians and Israelis in conflict about territory? How do you have a dialogue? Jung says there has to be a dialectal procedure and human relationship. You have a feeling for them. You can then be a mediator.

M: Jimmy Carter did that in the Middle-East… He tried to do just what Jung is saying. And it worked to a certain extent.

Change Begins from Within

H: Let me lay out Jung’s thought a bit further and then let’s see what you have to say about it. He says change cannot happen through a method with a group. A change of attitude  never starts with a group but only with an individual. What’s  the solution?  Change  of attitude from a group when there is a leading minority, not a majority, a minority which might become the nucleus of a larger body of people. Martin Luther King Jr. and his group became a leading minority with ideas. It’s changed  the  nation and the  world, in South Africa, for instance.  It has to come from a few good thought leaders, people  with a heart. These people have to be  in a position of authority and leadership. And the first thing needed would have to be–what do you think–teachers, educators, leaders who have made their own evil conscious?

It needs more than mere idealism. The teacher has to be absolutely convinced that his personal attitude is in need of revision, even an actual change.  We’re always looking to change something or somebody out there, but it starts in here. That’s Jung’s brilliance. It’s about the shadow. Then he asks, “What is the sine qua non of a true leader?” Jung says “The world is wrong, and therefore I’m wrong, too.”

M: [Chuckles]

 Whose Heart Is Not Changed Will Not Change Others.

H: That’s the sine qua non of a true leader, because the collective psyche is in here [points to his heart]. He says a man whose heart is not changed will not change any others. So if the person who is against illegal immigrants cannot change in her heart, then no change  is possible.

M: But here I am sitting in judgment on her. Then, if the world, if she is wrong, then as Jung says, I am wrong.

An Increase of Consciousness

H: Yes. This is what we need, to get out of our own polarized positions and say, I love you, you’re right. We’re both wrong.  The change  starts with our selves and the  acknowledgment of the human shadow is key.

[“Shadow”, in Jungian terms, is a moral problem, either good or bad, of which the conscious mind is unaware, either because it is suppressed or never thought of.]

Jung says the main danger in all this is direct and indirect egotism, that is, unconsciousness of the ultimate equality of our fellow human beings. But there  is a problem in implementing change because real intelligence is very  rare and  forms  statistically an infinitesimally  small part of the average mind. Viewed from the level of a more highly qualified mind, the average intelligence is very low. A nation consists of the sum of its individuals and its character corresponds to the moral average. Nobody is immune to a nationwide evil unless he or she is unshakably convinced of the danger of his own character being tainted by the same evil.

So the key is immunity. Jung concludes a change of attitude involves a change that is felt as such. Change is never neutral. It is essentially an increase of consciousness. And it depends entirely upon the individual’s character what form change will take. It is a challenge to the whole person and it must be considered a risk, the risk involved in the further development of human consciousness in its attempts to promote inner and outer peace.

M: That’s so relevant to what we’ve been discussing. You ought  to put that on your blog,  that whole quote. It is tremendously relevant. I think you’re absolutely right, and this was a concern of mine, too.

H:  A leading minority of teachers, Jung says.  But they have to be convinced that if the  world is wrong, then I’m wrong. So, to change the world, like Martin Luther King Jr. did, to realize that violence is within me, if I can change that and practice non-violence as King learned from Gandhi, then I’m a potential leader. Then I can convince others; then I can convince the garbage workers to strike peacefully so that the  privileged  people see that  when the  refuse piles up on their doorstep, it’s their mess, and they’ve got to clean it up themselves. They’ve  got to stop treating us like slaves and give  us due respect.  Just like  the illegal immigrants,  we’re tired of being treated like slaves, we want to organize, we want a union, we want

someone to represent us. We have a leading minority. There is a leadership; someone’s got a leading idea.

Let’s give these people status. Let’s give them green cards and find a solution for them. They have every right to be here, just like you and I.

M: Yes, how could we argue that we have more of a right to be here?  How could anyone argue for that? How could you possibly argue for that? … Nobody has the right to be here.  But we’re lucky to be here. Now let’s see how we can all live here. Nobody has the right be here.

H: Say that to a Native American! … Now what about Jung’s point that one has to be absolutely convinced… Put it this way: If one is a center, one knows within one’s self that there is an inner voice of morality. And it goes back to cosmic intelligence. It knows things like instinct. How does the goose know how to migrate? How do we  know how to think, if not through instinct?

Obi wan Kenobi says to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, “Now let go thy rational self, Luke, and act on instinct.” That’s cosmic intelligence. And that’s moral beauty.  It  doesn’t come out of someplace up here [points to his head]. We’re talking about body-wisdom, some kind of intelligence in our bones that goes beyond the rational mind, that is actually intuitive knowledge.

M: Yes, and there’s no argument whatsoever.

H: How did Mahatma Gandhi know that the salt march would be effective? M: Maybe he thought that people would follow, maybe  they wouldn’t. How did he know that fasting would lead to rioting and protests?

M: I don’t know that he knew that that would happen. Obviously it was tremendously effective.

H: Do we have the leading ideas and ethical values? The ethical values are here . . .

M: Do you think Gandhi knew or was pretty sure these things would happen? I haven’t thought about it that much, but maybe he just thought that he needed to do this.

H: I think that in some cases people with prophetical intelligence, the prophetical mind, do know certain things that the rest of us don’t know. Remember that idea that the average statistical intelligence is very low?

M: Yes. That the average statistical intelligence is very low troubles me. It depends on how  we define intelligence, I think. And perhaps prophetical intelligence is simply being deeply grounded. You might call it clarity of vision, clairvoyance. It could give you a pretty good view of “out far and in deep”! It  would be  lovely to think humankind could awake collectively.

[Reader: These are the original dialogues.  I’ve left the time they were recorded intact.  But the world keeps updating itself, so you will have to take that into account.]  

H: Jung’s view of the state of affairs in post-World War II was very pessimistic about the possibility of change coming from the collectivity. He did not think change was  going to happen through the collective. What we’re seeing in the world right now is the  possibility on the other hand that there  is something amazing happening in the  Arab  Spring and  Occupy Wall Street,[] which gives me hope. It does reflect a certain common intelligence that makes us rethink what Jung said. If the average intelligence  is what  we’re  seeing, then that’s  pretty good.

M: There you go!

H: On the other hand, what is happening in Egypt is cause for some worry. We see the Muslim Brotherhood assuming power in a way that can make the Middle East conform to Islamic law, rather than constitutional law, based on a real spiritual democracy.

M: I would say that in every being, every human being, if not all beings, there is this drive for what you call individuation. [“Individuation’” in Jungian terms, is “the development of the psychological individual as a being distinct from the  general collective  psychology”] No matter what your conscious constructs are or how stupid they are, that urge to be you is what’s driving the Arab Spring and all the other democratic tendencies. It gets translated almost immediately into religious doctrine, but the urge to be free, that urge to be free of dogma, is what’s driving all of us, I think.

H: To get back to what you were just saying about Jung’s notion of individuation, I think it is exactly right. Foundational intelligence is really cosmic intelligence.

M: I do think that’s what we see now. I don’t think the problem is so much a low level of intelligence as it is ignorance, not so much stupidity as ignorance that allows that drive to be translated in the conscious mind into stupid stuff. Because you have lost track of what was

driving you. “There’s something driving me; I have got to do something.” That’s where it gets stupid, and that’s probably where Jung’s idea of a liberated or open leading minority comes in.

 Leadership, Shadow Work, and Teachers

H: Leadership, shadow work, and teachers

M: But again we can’t take the position that a bunch of us will get together and do this. I’ve made this point again and again over the past thirty  years or so.  One can’t operate like that. It’s I who must act on my ground of being. If other’s join me, that’s one thing and very invigorating. But it is true, too, that when I’ve had a perspective and expressed it clearly and openly, I have seen people come to it, too, as if they were waiting to see some light somewhere. Oh, yeah, that’s right.

H: In writing your book Teaching Human Beings you were trying to get across what you were teaching in your classes. How, in this  later stage  of your life, are you proceeding now?  In your new book, are you going to teach educators how to teach?

M: Sure, they could pick up a lot of insights, but it isn’t just for educators. I guess it has to be for anybody who’s come far enough that they’re willing to entertain the possibility of integration of all the variations around us, this seeming chaotic mess, like paranormal phenomena, telepathy, and all the other seemingly disparate phenomena. The book is saying that all that can be very easily pulled together. And you can become individuated. I don’t use that expression in the book–if you just play around with these ideas, you will see that there’s a way to get rooted again. I think my  behavior is  pretty  much hesitant, because I’m not  willing to go the next step, one that King or Gandhi would take. I pull back when I could go forward.

One’s Own Inexorable Self

H: Let me ask you this, because we started our dialogue about this specific situation where morals and values come into play with regard to immigration. What do you do, if you take Jung’s line that if the world is wrong, then I’m wrong, to help make it right, with regards to immigration? How can you create a change of attitude?  How might you help illegal immigrants? … Let me give  you another example  to round this  discussion on objective morality out. I’m working on a chapter in my book right now, which I think is the most powerful chapter in Moby-Dick, Chapter 9, “The Sermon,” which is all about teaching individuals their right to follow their own conscience. I think it’s a disguised prelude to the chapter that comes right after it, where Queequeg and  Ishmael  become  married, as  husband and wife. There’s a certain irony in the story  that has to do with a moral  teaching.  Basically the instruction is to follow your own “inexorable self.” Woe to  him who  does not do that, Father Mapple says. What happens  is we  end up  in the situation of Jonah if we do not take right action. After a call from the Lord to speak to the people of Nineveh, Jonah refused the call, and sailing on a boat to Tarshish was thrown overboard and was swallowed by the  big fish. It was only down in the fish’s belly that he remembered his mission, and he was vomited back onto dry land. Then he spoke his true words from the ground of his being. But we all get into these conflicts where we are in situations where we  have a specific duty based on some kind of deep instinctive knowledge, where we end up in turmoil and where we  get swallowed up, usually by emotions. This is the problem we all face every day, this problem of whether we’re going to be true to ourselves. Gandhi said somewhere that whatever we do in this vast universe is insignificant but it is very important that we do it.  Imagine  that coming from a man of objective morality like that! Well, I think this  pretty much sums  up what I have to say today.

M: And nicely so. Sometime or other I’d like to revisit this dialogue. I think we can distill these thoughts into some compelling, more poetic, metaphors. Let’s tease out some right- brain insights.

Author: Clark McKowen

I taught English at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area for over thirty years and probably taught over 20,000 students during that time. II'm still interested in how beings of any species learn and why, and I write books and articles about these things. My 2000 book of haiku, Ligonier Sightings, is an appreciation of the Chestnut Ridge area of Southwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up. All of my books can be purchased on the internet. Most teachers say they love teaching, but I don't know what they mean by that. I loved being in a group -- under my guidance, to be sure -- and getting so absorbed in exploring an idea that we didn't care whether school kept or not. That's the kind of teaching I love. I love seeing a bunch of people's eyes light up. I love the feeling of discovery of any sort. I love enlightenment. That's what more or less gets me up in the morning, -- and I suppose is involved, one way or another, in everyhing you will find on this website and in just about everything I do, including building redwood decks or going to the dog park with our Boston terrier Gracie.

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