ethical living


“Ethics constitutes a biological grounding for human relational behavior, and its emotional foundation is the biology of love.  Ethical concerns take place as one cares for the consequences of what one does on the well being someone else.  But to care for what occurs to the well being of somebody else with what one does, the other must be seen and taken in one's life as a legitimate other.  And for the other to be seen as a legitimate other, one must be in the emotion of love, that is, one must operate in the domain of those relational behaviors through which the other arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself.  Ethical concerns arise in love, not through reason.  Duty and obligation arise justified through reason, not the concern for the other which takes place only when the other is seen as a legitimate other, and the care for him or her is spontaneously there requiring no justification. 

Ethical concerns arise in us human beings because we belong to an evolutionary history centered in the emotion of love, not in aggression, envy, competition, or ambition.  No doubt we can talk about ethics and develop some beautiful rational arguments to justify or show that ethical behavior is the fundament of human social life.  But those arguments have no weight on anyone who is not already in the biology of love unless the conversation in which they take place leads to an emotional change that brings him or her into it.”

Maturana, H.R.  1997 Morals and Ethics in Education

morals, ethics and ethical behaviour

As explained on the pages about Languaging and Distinctions, words arise in many lineages of relations, and hence have different meanings according to who is uttering them in what context.  Thus how I distinguish morals, ethics, and ethical behaviour is not the only way, but I do find it useful to consider the domains that are revealed as I consider the distinctions. 

I think of morals as the explicit or implicit “rules” or norms of acceptable behaviour in any culture.  Thus different cultures have different “moral codes”.  Ethical behaviour, on the other hand, is more nuanced as it pertains to the richness and complexities of each instant in our living.  Ethics, in my view, is the field of study that concerns itself with both morals and ethical behaviour.  As for any field of study, theories are developed and “facts” are accepted by groups who think similarly.

“Machines act with certainty,

humans act with possibility”

Kathleen Forsythe

“Morals constitutes a cultural grounding for human relational behavior in daily life, and its emotional basis is obligation.   Moral concerns take place as one cares for the conservation of relational forms or norms that one considers essential for the conservation of some manner of living.  In morals the norms are what has to be conserved as they are seen as embodying the manner of living that one wants to preserve in the living of the community. 
Morality, thus, exists as a domain of behavioral demands on the other or on oneself, and does not take place in the biology of love although morality and ethics may interlace in social living.

Maturana, H.R.  1997 Morals and Ethics in Education

“Ethics is a particular kind of conversation, a reflexive conversation of seeing and care for the consequences of one's actions on others.  In other words, ethics is a network of doings and emotioning in which the care and concern for the consequences of one's actions on others is present in what one does, and one acts in a way that entails accepting the consequences of that care and concern.   Ethics belongs to the domain of emotions, not of reason, and as such it belongs to the domain of love.

Maturana, H.R.  and G. Verden-Zöller ed. P. Bunnell, 2008
The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love

download rest of Maturana and Verden-Zöller section on Ethics

integrity of identity

systemic and local

Ethical behaviour can be simple, not all circumstances are complex or confusing.  A child can act ethically in the context of his or her world. 

Ethical behaviour is a matter of responding to the local circumstances in the moment, while also being aware of the coherences that pertain in a broader sense.  By this I mean the systemic matrix of our living, which is difficult to specify because once we do, we have selected some aspects and are potentially insensitive to others.  This is what we usually refer to as the “broader implications” - and rationalize later.  In the moment we find ourselves just acting appropriately if we have a history of living in awareness and care (and of course, we do make mistakes, and this can serve to expand our awareness and understanding.)

dilemmas in ethical behaviour

Knowing what the right thing to do, that is engaging in ethical action, can sometimes be very difficult.  This is because we do not live in a “flat world” - and the domains in which we view the consequences of any one action are not always logically consistent.

For example you may be presented the unexpected choice of acting to save either one person or ten people, depending on which way you turn.  Then, what if that one person is the Dalai Lama, or your own child; would you then choose that one over the ten others?  What if your inaction meant that one would suffer and ten would do well?  What if you had to intentionally cause suffering to the one so that the other ten would be spared?    The tradeoffs can be quite wicked, and are the subject of many studies in ethics -- most of which are hypothetical as in this scenario.

Steven Rathwell photo

morals are convenient

As a child I used to balk at any request to conform my behaviour to “what would the neighbors think” kind of argument.  It felt arbitrary and stifling.  But now I wonder whether that was not a simple way of evoking reflection, especially where people lived in a small community where everybody experienced similar conditions. 

Similarly, moral codes can serve as “rules of thumb” - simple references that work for most situation.  We do not need to fret about all our choices.

Yet there are circumstances in which the rules are inadequate.  I have asked students whether they would proceed through a red light in the middle of a still night once clear that there was absolutely no one around.  Some say yes, others feel they should stick to the rule.  One student noted that his motorcycle simply does not trigger the sensor embedded in the road, so the light would never change for him.

photo Parker Cook

story: a responsible customs officer