Integral Ethics: How to Practice an Integral Life

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Roger and Ken begin the dialogue by commenting that in modern Western nations, and the US in particular, we’re really a culture bereft of any true ethical context. As they discuss, one of the strongest contributors to this rudderless situation is the therapeutic culture we have adopted over the past 30 years. What originally began as an effort to undo some of the overly-harsh judgments of our inner critic, we now find ourselves in a situation where no judgments whatsoever are allowed—good, bad, or otherwise. Paralleling this trend was the rise of postmodern pluralism in the universities, which stated that it was impossible to say that one value structure was superior to another, therefore making it equally impossible to say that one action was more “right” than another. Finally, there was the gross misinterpretation of certain esoteric teachings, where, for example, people would take “rest in choiceless awareness” to mean “don’t make any choices.” Taken together, all of these forces have crippled many people in their ability to think clearly about the judgments daily life forces them to make in any event.

Next, Roger and Ken explore the developmental, or vertical, aspect of ethics. As Ken mentions, the hallmark of increasing psychological development is the increase in the number of perspectives one can take into account. An egocentric ethics takes into account only one’s own perspective, an ethnocentric ethics takes into account one’s family, group, or nation, and a worldcentric ethics takes into account all people on the planet. Each level of development also has its own sources of legitimation for its ethical systems. Egocentric ethics gets its legitimation from the self, “because whatever I say is right, screw you.” Ethnocentric ethics often derives legitimation from fundamentalist, traditional religion, and therefore quite literally had God on its side. Once you pass into more worldcentric levels of development, things get much more difficult, because there is no longer a mythic God legitimating one’s moral decisions, and there are an increasing number of conflicting perspectives to hold in mind. A modern-rational worldview would say there are many different ways to understand the world, but that knowledge based on reason and science is best. A postmodern-pluralistic worldview would say that there are almost an infinite number of ways to view reality, and that all of them are equally legitimate. Aye, and there’s the rub for the postmodern soul: if all approaches to life are equally legitimate, how can I possibly say it’s better to do one thing over another? How can I decide what the “right” thing is to do?

The answer is, you can’t—at least not with pluralism alone. But with the emergence of an integral-aperspectival worldspace, answers begin to appear. An integral worldspace is the first to notice the developmental spectrum of human consciousness, which suggests that evolution is not merely a physical phenomenon—interiors evolve to higher levels of complexity and inclusivity just as do exteriors. The higher the level of interior development, the more perspectives that are taken into account, and an integral approach to ethics would suggest that the more sentient beings (i.e., the more perspectives) that are acknowledged in the process of coming to an ethical decision, the more ethical that decision is attempting to be. Therefore, the legitimating force for ethics at integral levels of development is evolution itself, as increasing levels of complexity and consciousness appears to be the direction the kosmos is headed—so get with the program!

Roger and Ken go on to discuss some important horizontal ethical practices, such as contemplative mind-training, which won’t necessarily cause growth to new levels of self development, but will certainly help one become more ethical at whatever level one is at. An integral approach would naturally encourage both vertical growth through stages of ethical behavior as well as horizontal growth and fullness within each stage.

This is undoubtedly one of the most important dialogues from the archives of Integral Naked, and we invite you to join in….

Image: Paradox by Michael Bergt [+view gallery] Text by Colin Bigelow

Roger Walsh

About Roger Walsh

Roger Walsh, M.D., Ph.D., has spent nearly a quarter century researching and practicing in the world's great spiritual traditions. His critically acclaimed book, Essential Spirituality, is a summary of that wisdom, outlining the seven spiritual practices common to the world's major religions.

Ken Wilber

About Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.

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