Essay #8: Ethical Behavior

One of the purposes of religion is to provide moral constraints on human behavior so that we may smoothly function together as a society.  The 20th century spiritual path also offered its share of “commandments” to guide the wisdom seeker in the realm of ethical behavior.  Often this guidance was based on the first level of Patanjali’s Eight-Fold Path of Raja Yoga, the five yamas or “restraints” of ancient Samkhya and Yoga philosophy.  A brief exploration of these five guidelines of ethical behavior may be helpful in thinking about principles to guide the 21st century pursuit of wisdom.

The first yama is ahimsa, which means non-injury or non-harming and is usually depicted as nonviolence.  While the spirit of nonviolence is without question a valuable guideline of ethical behavior, it’s also without question an impossible literal guideline because all higher life forms need to eat other beings, animal or plant, on a regular basis in order to survive.  Also, human life involves circumstances that reveal nonviolence to be a situational concept.  Gandhi, who was the very embodiment of nonviolence, was asked what he would do if a killer invaded his home and threatened to kill his family, and Gandhi responded that he would let the intruder kill him first.  But isn’t a higher ethical response to this situation that we would harm the criminal to protect our family?  And isn’t it true that some things in life, like freedom, may be worth protecting even if it requires violent means?  In life on planet Earth a literal adherence to nonviolence is not possible or even desirable in every situation.

The second yama is satya, which means truthfulness.  Again, this is obviously a valuable ethical guideline in spirit, but not always in a literal sense.  Perhaps most of us have learned that in relationship it’s seldom wise to blurt out the truth about our partner’s perceived flaws.  Tact, compassion, and knowing when to speak our perception of truth are more important to relational harmony than raw truthfulness.  And in extreme situations of life, a lie may be the more ethical course of action than telling the truth.  For example, one wonders how often during the Nazi Holocaust a lie saved someone’s life.  Also, how often in our own lives have we discovered that some fact we thought was true and assured others to be true turned out to be false?  Literal truthfulness is impossible in a relative world where none of us knows the truth about everything.  As with nonviolence, truthfulness is situational and not always possible or even desirable in every circumstance.

The third yama is asteya, which means non-stealing.  This ethical guideline is pretty straightforward and beyond debate, except that it’s often depicted as non-desire.  The healthier interpretation of non-desire is to not covet that which does not belong to us, but the more traditional interpretation is that we need to eliminate the desires of our ego in order to attain moksha, liberation or enlightenment.  Please see the third essay for a discussion of the important distinction between the usual meaning of ego in contemporary Western culture and the meaning of ego in ancient Samkhya and Yoga philosophy.  But for this essay, desire, as most of us understand it in contemporary Western culture, is more our friend than enemy.  Desire is what motivates us to want to adhere to ethical behavior, it’s what draws us toward our purpose in life, and it’s what gives us energy to pursue the valuable goals of life like wisdom.

The fourth yama, brahmacharya, means non-sexuality or celibacy.  Here’s where the yamas run into bigger trouble.  It took more than two billion years for life on Earth to evolve sexuality, which made possible the genetic variability for more complex organisms to arise, eventually culminating in humans some one billion years later who are able to access a high level of consciousness and to want to pursue deeper meaning and purpose…and then some humans decide that sexuality has to be avoided in order for us to be ethically okay.  This view is quickly discredited by the sobering details that without sex none of us would be here to experience life and that without sex humanity would cease to exist.  Also, please see essay #12 for a more complete argument against the notion that avoiding sex makes us more pure and virtuous.  Certainly we need to adopt personal guidelines for an ethical expression of our sexuality, but non-sexuality is a non-starter as a required virtue in the 21st century.

The fifth and final yama is aparigraha, which means non-possessiveness and is usually depicted as non-attachment.  It’s definitely a virtue in the pursuit of wisdom to not be overly focused on attaining material possessions, and it’s also a virtue to not be overly attached to the possessions we do have.  However, the traditional teaching of non-attachment went far beyond possessions toward the renunciate ideal of not being attached to human beings.  All manner of psychological problems result when a young child does not successfully attach to a caregiver.  And at every stage of life we need healthy attachments to loved ones.

The above discussion is intended to show that no set of guidelines of ethical behavior is literally valid in all situations of life, and that historical guidelines may be outdated and in need of upgrading for current human realities.  What’s needed in the 21st century pursuit of wisdom is something much simpler and nimbler that can be applied by any individual to the many nuanced experiences of her or his unique life.

In essay #6, we arrived at the suggestion that the individual purpose of each human life is to unfold our positive potential.  This understanding may also serve as a useful principle of ethical behavior:  We are here to unfold our potential and to allow others, human and nonhuman, to unfold their potential.

Whenever we encounter an ethical situation, we need only consider what allows not only us but also every other being involved, human and nonhuman, to unfold their positive potential.  Yes, this requires us to work hard to cultivate an inner ethical sensibility grounded in fairness, justice, and unselfishness, but this work is part of the pursuit of wisdom.  And yes, this removes ethical behavior from the black-and-white certainty of an external authority and replaces this certainty with a nuanced decision within us, but this too is part of the pursuit of wisdom.  Ultimately, we alone are responsible for our behavior.   With our sincerity and effort, the simple principle above may be sufficient to apply to every ethical situation and guide us through the complexities of trying to be the best humans we can be in the 21st century.

© 2015 Gary Stogsdill