One of the first things that attracted me to the “I Ching” was the assumption that everyone knows right from wrong. It always counsels us to be “firm and correct”, never explaining what that is. The ancient Taoist belief was that if you wrote it down, spelled it out, people would figure out how to get around it, whereas if you looked at a world of constantly changing relationships, fairness and the right course of action could be judged individually. Every situation is different.
Erich Fromm distinguished two different types of ethics, referring to them as humanitarian and authoritarian. The attitude of the “I Ching” aligns well with the humanitarian mode which is golden rule based. We know what right is by what we do or do not want to be done to us. The study of mirror neurons gives that idea a concrete basis. What we see enacted, we feel inside through neuronal mimicry. This is working in all but the rare individuals psychiatry used to call sociopaths, who could hurt others without conscience because they were so disconnected from their own feelings that they could feel no sympathy for others. This would suggest that we can become more conscientious in our relations to others if we understand our own feelings better. Seek out the imagery that stirs our deepest places and reflect on what that shows. Pay attention when actions are out of proportion to the situation and search out the older pattern that was triggered.
Authoritarian ethics holds up obedience as the primary good and disobedience as the central evil. Yet people have done some terrible things while under orders. Obedience delivers us from the responsibility to understand right and wrong for ourselves. This is likely why Krishnamurti felt that all authority is an obstacle.
Goodness has nothing to do with the law. My efforts not to hurt others have nothing to do with being afraid of punishment. A picture of a young swimming star smoking pot at a party is only an issue because we treat obedience as more important than virtue. The fact that Michael Phelps is a role model has nothing to do with external obedience to authority. He’s an example to others because of his inner discipline and determination, his humility and genuineness, qualities anyone would do well to emulate. At the other end of the scale, we have authority’s representatives aiming all of their attention at the disobedience itself, since for them that is the more serious threat to cultural willingness to obey at all costs.
The laws most often invoked to bring someone down are laws about lying, where a person’s human instinct for self-protection is brought into conflict with authority’s insistence on truth or penalty. The original offense may not seem that serious, but the disobedience involved in lying for self-protection can be inflated endlessly as disrespect for the “rule of law”. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about an affair, not for the affair itself. Long before humans evolved, creatures were using deception to protect themselves. Peter Breggin wrote that when children lie, it’s because they feel unfairly coerced. The same strategies are carried into adulthood.
The focus on the law is eroding our goodness, our ability to practice virtue because it develops the connections between us, because we choose to, because it enlarges us and helps us grow as human beings. Being good makes us feel good, not because it builds self -esteem but because in the act, we’re not thinking of ourselves at all but reaching out and participating in a bigger picture in which we are included. As social beings our reward system supports helping each other. It comes naturally. Led by our sense of beauty, we act in harmony with our situation and take pleasure in kindness.
Thich Nhat Hnan said smiling is mouth yoga. It stimulates good brain chemistry in ourselves and in everyone we smile at, lighting up their mirror neurons. It’s an easy way to spread goodness, positive brain chemistry and reinforce the goodwill within us.