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. The breadth—and depth—of Roger’s experience is an extraordinary gift to any conversation concerning the transformation of the human soul.
In this dialogue, Roger and Ken continue their exploration of the theoria (theory) of Integral Ethics, while also looking at the praxis (practice) of how to make ethical decisions in daily life. As an example, Roger comments on the surprising difficulty of the “right speech” aspect of ethical behavior. With regards to this practice, he continues, perhaps the Buddha’s advice was the best: “Say only what is true and helpful.” After all, perhaps it’s true that you think your boss is a loathsome toad, but announcing this to his or her face would probably fail the “helpful” criterion.
What’s interesting, Ken notes, is that to be able to help another person, you have to know what they would consider helpful. “True” and “helpful” are not preexisting qualities that one must simply “tap into;” they are redefined at each level of development (from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric and beyond). For example: A fundamentalist Christian (ethnocentric) may honestly believe in her heart of hearts that if you don’t accept Jesus as your personal savior, you are literally going to hell, and so she tells you this in no uncertain terms. In her experience, she is being both true and helpful, and therefore as ethical as she possibly can be. In your experience, as a worldcentric individual, what she communicated is likely neither true nor helpful—but she was, nonetheless, following the Buddha’s advice perfectly. Part of what a more Integral Spirituality tries to do is unpack the profound gifts of the great contemplative traditions in light of a developmental and evolutionary context.
Roger and Ken then move to what is probably the most thought-provoking portion of the entire dialogue. Ken explains that summoning the will to act ethically is necessary, and incredibly important, but is not in itself sufficient for ethical behavior, because you have to know what constitutes ethical behavior before you can act it out! Such knowledge requires the ability to make conscious, normative judgments about what is a better or worse response to a given situation. This can get, shall we say, quite intense.
A classic thought experiment goes as follows: You are the captain of a lifeboat. The lifeboat was designed to hold 5 people, 7 at the very most, and you are carrying 10. If you don’t throw 3 people over the side, you all drown. So, as captain, in order to save the lives of 7 people, which 3 are you going to throw over?
Falling back on the ultimate Suchness of reality won’t help you, because Suchness does not advocate either judgment or non-judgment. Even if absolute truth is non-dual, relative truth is. If you fail to take action because you recognize each person to be an equally valuable manifestation of Spirit, and all 10 drown, you are not enlightened; you are criminally negligent. So what judgments will you make, and why?
As Roger and Ken agree, there is no perfect answer to the lifeboat question, but there sure are a lot of bad answers. If you have 3 bodhisattvas and 7 Hell‘s Angels, and you throw the bodhisattvas over—bad answer. Lifeboat ethics is only one slice of ethics as a whole, but it forces one to activate the kind of discriminating awareness and ability to make conscious judgments that contemporary culture has dismantled. And the rather rude fact about life is that the most important decisions are always “lifeboat” to some degree, so performing these kinds of thought experiments will train a muscle of discernment that you will no doubt be called upon to use in the future.
Ken goes on to suggest that the Basic Moral Intuition of all sentient beings is to protect and promote the greatest depth for the greatest span. This intuition gets unpacked in different ways at different levels of development, because depth, and therefore also “good,” mean something different at each level. Of course, depth cannot be the only variable in making an ethical decision; it must be depth in the context of all other aspects of a more integral, AQAL framework.
Any adequate ethics for today’s world is going to be a developmental ethics, and an integral ethics. We invite you to join in on this pioneering conversation, and find out if you agree....
(To listen to Part 1 of this fascinating, challenging dialogue, click here)
(To learn more about an integral approach to spirituality, check out “What Is Integral Spirituality?”)