I was talking with a girlfriend today and she asked me that question. When I was teaching, I ask that question of my students. They most often decided that ethics were ‘rules’ designed to help people manage their relationships and morals had to do with life and death decisions. That’s OK, as far as it goes, but let’s take a deeper inquiry.
One of my big ‘ah ha’s’ is that most of our ethical and moral structures are focused on humans – how we live and if we live. This way of thinking, however, leads to some logical difficulties from a moral stance, take death, for instance.
We believe that we shouldn’t die. Our entire medical system is predicated on that. We do everything we can to prevent our dying. What happens to animals who dare to kill us? We exterminate them! Even in death we prevent anything from eating us by burying our dead in concrete vaults holding massive, wooded caskets of embalmed bodies. On the other hand, we cheerfully kill each other if we disagree about something. We dedicate ourselves to killing others who want our stuff, who want our land, or who want our spouses. We kill animals just for the fun of it. What’s up with that? We’ve worked for centuries to try and create a logical system that will allow these disparities, but without much luck.
If ethics are ‘rules’ then we run into the differences in cultures about how to best interact. This inconvenient difficulty has been addressed using ‘situational ethics’ but that has not been very satisfactory and raises more problems than it answers. We kinda’ believe there should be some way of understanding how to live in our world that would allow for differences that would be foundational for everyone, but so far no luck. Maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong places and asking the wrong questions.
Actually, the world seems to work pretty well. For the past 3.4 billion years life has increased in complexity. Life forms have become more complex, and the number of species has increased as ecosystems have become more complex. Obviously, something understands how to keep life thriving and robust, why don’t we?
WE have been trying to figure things out all by ourselves. Holding ourselves as separate and ‘better’ than the wildness of nature so we rarely look at nature to see how she manages. As we became citified, we stopped interacting with nature – except when she gets in our way, so we don’t really know or understand her. Maybe it’s time to change that.
Indigenous people have always lived in better harmony with nature than we have. Their stories and culture were designed to maintain that harmony. Their goal was to live well for generations and they did that. The Ohlone lived for 2,000 years without war. The Iroquois learned to live together by forming the first democratic government. Our cultures are designed for self-expression and for wealth – we have achieved that, but at the expense of future generations and even our own existence on a sick and dying planet.
What might happen if we used what science is now learning about how nature is able to create and maintain such a robust and vibrant ecosystem to shift our culture to mimic nature? Books like The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben have shown us how wonderfully complex the forest really is. The film Fantastic Fungi explores how the forest communicates so we now know that cooperation is the key to a healthy ecosystem. It certainly helps human communities too!
What humans have not been too good at is understanding the implications of their actions. We don’t think about how our actions will impact future generations or even how they will impact our own near future. Even with risk management, strategic planning, and insurance companies we do not seem to understand how to predict the consequences of our actions. What if, what if we had a road map that contained instructions for how to make decisions, but not what decisions to make?
Jane Jacobs took 12 years to research the criteria that people used to determine what made an action wrong. She discovered two systems of values, one that focused on protection and the other that is focused on exchange between cultures or business. Each system has about 15 values. Why is this important? There are several reasons: we see all values as separate and distinct and not as forming systems, and we do not recognize how our emotions impact our choice of these value systems.
Living systems have certain characteristics, first is that they are wholes even though they are comprised of parts. This is as true of an ecosystem as it is of these value sets. Second the parts are not interchangeable from one system to another. Plants that live in a forest will not do well in the desert. The values from one system will corrupt another system and prevent the intent and purpose of the systems from being realized. I have three workbooks on Amazon that deal just with these two aspects of systems, for individuals/families, organizations, and teams. We are often slapped by the unintended consequences or our actions – even when we think we have adhered to our most prized values, and a reason why is we’ve mixed values from different systems and, unwittingly, created a mess.
From neuroscience we now know a lot more about how our emotions impact our bodies and brains. We ignore this science at our peril yet ignore it we do. Taking the systems Jacobs discovered it is easy to see that fear is what drives the protective value set. Fear shuts down our ability to both connect and learn. That would suggest that fear limits our ability to innovate and narrows the possible number of solutions we might discover in a crisis. Fear and its relatives, stress and anxiety, are not our friends unless our life is immediately in peril, a situation that is rather rare these days. This indicates that the use of the Protective Value Set™ limits our ability to be successful even though it feels like the right choice when we are afraid. Here the key value of loyalty comes into play and holds people captive in a relationship space that seems safe.
The Effective Value Set,™ on-the-other-hand is stimulated in business when we want to make a sale. These values, honesty in particular, help to create a trusting environment so that deals can be made not just once, but over and over again. When this desire is attached to either ego, as proof of competency or personal value, or to greed, or to the desire to win and win at all costs, then fear enters the picture and when that happens these values get mixed with the Protective Value Set™ and things often don’t go as planned. I’m willing to bet that the tension between loyalty and honesty is not too hard to imagine. This is a common issue in many organizations for just the reasons mentioned above. Mixing these two value sets means that it becomes very difficult to achieve either, both safety and success become elusive.
As we go forward there are two clear strategies for dealing with a sick and dying planet. One is to beat it harder. Here we have the doubling down on technology as the path forward. Artificial Intelligence and climate engineering are two strong contenders on the path of trying to subdue or manipulate nature. This is a continuation of what we have been doing for centuries. So far it hasn’t turned our too well. The road less traveled is to mimic nature. One thing nature seems to do well is to create and support life. What if that was our job too?
So many people, philosophers, poets, and scientists have been engaged in trying to discover just how nature works. I’ve worked to distill from their work, as Jacob’s did, the criteria, the values, that nature uses to ensure a healthy and robust planet. The Resilient Values Set™ is the result of that work. These values show the dynamics nature uses to manage life – for life. They form a set of guidelines for consideration when making big impactful decisions and small everyday ones. They help us think through the implications of our actions.
There are two resilient values I’ll share for you to contemplate applying in your own life: the first is to maintain the integrity of the whole, and the second is to ensure that ALL actions create the conditions that support LIFE (thanks to Janine Benyus of biomimicry fame). The first can be applied at every level from relationships and family to nation states. The second applies to every decision and action that happens between living beings.
So, back to the initial question, what is the difference between ethics and morals? Is there actually a difference? Isn’t that the wrong question? Isn’t the point to live good and full lives? The path to a ‘good’ life is paved with interactions with others that should make that possible for them too. In reality the path to LIFE is paved with the interactions we have with ALL life that makes LIFE possible for them too – we have had too small a circle of care. If we enlarge that circle to take in all the LIFE we interact with and depend upon, then maybe we will find the meaning that seems to elude so many of us. In this context all our choices are life and death choices. All our choices are moral choices and only choices that support a healthy and robust planet are ethical choices.
The only good and ethical choices are those that strengthen, in partnership with nature, the ability of LiFE to thrive on this big, beautiful planet of ours. It becomes our responsibility and duty to fulfill our own unique destiny and to do that in a way that allows everyone else to do so as well. That means that trees and rivers, waterfalls and meadows need to be supported to fulfill their destinies as well. If we stand on the side of LIFE then everything else falls into place. Yes, there might be some hardships and difficult sacrifices, but learning to balance our desires for comfort and convenience with the needs of a thriving Earth might just be the growing pains we need to make us adults.
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben on Amazon
Fantastic Fungi - website, also available on Netflicks
Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs on Amazon
For the Values and Unintended Consequences books on Amazon
For more on the Value Sets go here
Kathryn Alexander, MA
Regenerative approaches require a deep integration with nature. Collaboration requires different structures and ways of working together. If we want different results we have to do things differently!