Moral Codes and Art: Ethos
Convergence of World Views
Convergence of Moral Codes
A Universal Code
We live in a multicultural world with shrinking boundaries, limited resources, and unbounded capacity for violence. As this violence chiefly manifests itself in clashes between belief systems, there is a need to promote mutual understanding among their underlying cultures if we are to live in peace. As a contribution toward reaching this goal, Humanistic Texts provides texts highlighting the sensitive, compassionate, and considerate aspects of human endeavors shared by many different cultures. It captures common humanistic values whereby men and women—as members of their community—may achieve the free and full development of their personalities.
Reaching this goal with the founding books of established belief systems is difficult, because each tends to deny the validity of the others or, worse, condones violence and the denial of basic human rights. It is reasonable, then, to offer a book of multicultural humanistic texts that can supplement doctrinal works by emphasizing shared human values rather than differences, and by pointing towards reconciliation of different beliefs rather than emphasizing their separateness.
Here, extracts from oral and written sources are set out in historical sequence to show how cultures throughout the world have gradually freed themselves from local prejudices and false beliefs and moved towards a clearer view of the human condition. Included are the words of people who have thought deeply and analytically, or have through experience much wisdom to pass on, or have captured the human condition in creative literature or song. The extracts deal with the perplexities of human life and with its celebration. They include attempts to improve the human condition by legislating basic human rights. Many times these efforts are cast aside. But the extracts show that the struggle continues, with rights gradually broadened and extended to larger sections of humanity.
The collection contains extracts from earliest times up to the Twentieth Century. The authors cited include philosophers, doctors, poets, lawyers, scribes, dramatists, politicians, scientists, novelists, and ordinary folk, with the words of each author set out in a separate chapter. The extracts are at sufficient length to give some familiarity with the unique contributions of each author; book references and links to Internet sources open the way to reading their complete works in detail.
1 A multicultural understanding of what it is to be human is timely. In the Twentieth Century the universality of humanistic concerns found global expression for the first time, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948):
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
2 Unfortunately history shows that our most human characteristic is to form conspiracies, political movements, or armies to murder other members of our species, treating them as mere objects in the way of our desires. We recognize this as part of our heritage from social animals that aggressively defend and acquire territory for the resources it contains. In humans, aggressive war of this type is much more severe, and appears in the pre-history of Iraq, Egypt, China, Greece and the Americas, striding through subsequent history to ravage every continent. In the Twentieth Century over 180 million people were killed, as humanity indulged in bloody wars, revolutions and massacres in Africa, Armenia, India, Iraq, Iran, China, the Soviet Union, the Chinese Peoples Republic, the Middle East, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and the Balkans, as well as globally in two world conflicts. In the second alone, some 45 million were killed. As the Declaration states: disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.
3 Atrocities and genocide are carried out by cultures that treat other communities as if they were merely insensate objects. This absence of respect and compassion stems from a failure to understand and respond to the humanity of others. Of course, a grab for resources and doctrinal motives are usually the moving force. However, even when such powerful forces are absent, cultural traditions can act in a similar way. There is the peculiar viewpoint that only the West has a tradition of rationality, liberty, and tolerance. Conversely, there is abroad the contention that "Asian" or "African" values somehow have a monopoly of successful authoritarian or mystical traditions. Both views are refuted by the records of past civilizations. These show, in fact, that the important humanistic values for achieving understanding—such as mutual respect, rationality, tolerance, and sympathy—have emerged in many different cultures. And it is important to recognize this in seeking texts that promote mutual understanding throughout the world. We search for common areas of agreement among different systems of belief, as a basis for preventing the tragic escalation of disputes.
4 The extracts in the following chapters therefore focus on the creative, cooperative, and contemplative aspects of human behavior that gradually emerge in the world’s verbal traditions. The texts derive from the basic experiences of being human—birth, growth, pain, love, the family, death, community, government, work, art, exploration, and play. Thus, we can read and compare the words of Sumerians and Chinese on the devastation of war, of Africans and Bedouins on pride in livestock, of Eskimos and Mongols on the experience and injustice of savage weather, of Indians and Koreans on the philosophical puzzles of human psychology, of Babylonians and Judeans on how society might be ordered, and the words of practically everybody on love, parenthood, and death. In short, what it is to be human.
5 Some of our oldest ideas of what it is to be human are with us still, and may be found preserved in recent oral traditions rather than in ancient texts. For example, Alex Saluskin, a Yakima Indian, gave an account in the second half of the Twentieth Century of learning from his grandparents how to hunt. Although modern, his words take us back tens of thousands of years, maybe longer, as they describe the tradition of passing on information from generation to generation. For this reason, the initial chapters contain extracts from oral traditions such as this.
6 The extracts then turn to written records from the ancient civilizations of Sumer, Babylon, and Egypt before passing on to those of China, India, and Greece. Subsequent extracts are made from collections of texts from around the world. As the extracts are in date sequence, they tend to group in a way that reflects the emergence of new centers of intellectual activity. The focus shifts from the oral tradition to Sumer, Babylon and Egypt, to Greece and Rome, then to the Arab empire, and finally to Renaissance Europe, while there is continuous Chinese and Indian intellectual activity throughout the whole period, with new ideas emerging in the latter part in Japan and Korea. At the end of the period, ideas from the Americas appear.
7 Extracts from the thoughts of people in the past can lead us to a better understanding of ourselves and of the challenges we face in this rapidly changing world. Obviously, we will encounter situations that people in the past did not meet. But we can learn from the way they break out of stereotyped thinking and see the world in a new light; and we can experience the pleasure of being in the presence of enquiring and creative minds. Furthermore, they often reveal aspects of the human condition that, appearing in different cultures in the past, are still relevant to us today. We can see that tolerance, understanding, and compassion have contributed to peace since earliest times. But we can also see that tolerance has its limits when faced with abuse of human rights that produces widespread suffering.
8 The goal in these extracts is to focus on the
creative, cooperative, and contemplative aspects of human behavior that
gradually emerge in the world’s verbal traditions and may be meaningful to
different belief systems. Although violence and warfare often accompany the
clash of different systems of belief, such systems have much value within them
and have produced today’s rich multicultural world. We need, therefore, to
understand belief systems if we are to find texts that will support their
A belief system is something all of us posses in some form or other, either
together with others or as a purely personal belief. It is a fundamental aspect
of our nature. From childhood, curiosity drives us to explore the world and our
relations to people in it. In this way we try to gain an understanding of our
environment that enables us to function with a minimum of fear and uncertainty.
In essence, we seek an orderliness in a universe that would otherwise be a
hurricane of random events. This is the origin of a belief system.
10 As we often only have a vague sense of this orderliness, we
make use of symbols or metaphors of very broad meaning to describe it. Then we
validate this core description by using it to explain events we perceive in the
physical world. If this explanation satisfies us, we sensitize our perceptions
of the world to recognition of the orderliness we have discovered. The further
evidence that his provides helps reinforce our belief, which is what we are
seeking. At the same time, we adjust our motivations to match our core
description so that our resulting behavior will not be inconsistent with it.
The process is complex, circular, and self-reinforcing. When further reinforced by social pressures, indoctrination, and ritual, it produces permanent changes that are difficult to reverse. For this reason, it is not practical to expect abandonment of established belief systems. The best one can hope for are changes in attitude that encourage peaceful co-existence.
11 We can define a belief system in terms of the process outlined. We
can then examine the different parts of the process for areas where progress
towards agreement among belief systems is possible. A belief system then, is
A concept of universal order described by means
of symbols clothed with such an aura of factuality as to steer a person’s
perceptions and behavior in a way that appears uniquely appropriate to the
conduct of life.
This is adapted from a definition of
religion proposed by Clifford Geertz in 1966.
characteristics define religions as a particular kind of belief system. These
may include some, but not necessarily all, of the following: a supernatural
power or powers, a moral code prescribed by these, prayer, sacred objects and
ritual, a sense of awe or adoration, a participating social group, and a view of
the history and nature of the universe. Other belief systems such as Marxism,
naturalism, or atheism dispense with most of these and offer alternative views
of the universe and alternative moral codes..
12 The primary symbols in a belief system are spiritual or material. A
belief system that relies on supernatural explanations may employ symbols such
as a cross, crescent, menorah, or mandala. In belief systems based on robbery
and violence, the symbol may be a sword or a gun. In materialist or naturalist
belief systems, the symbols may be a mountain, a hammer and sickle, a swastika,
or a begging bowl. The underlying concepts may take the form of gods or spirits,
of kings or dictators, of nature (benign or malign), of material (deterministic
or random), of man or superman, of “the people” or the proletariat—to
mention some of the main categories. Obviously, with such a variety of concepts
and symbols, the clothing of factuality (or rationalization) given them varies a
great deal. This is why the term “aura” of factuality is used in the
definition. It indicates that in any given system the accepted facts, while
obvious to the believer, may be open to question by others. It recognizes that
some statements of fact may not be generally accepted among different belief
13 Facts that are widely accepted include “granite is hard and
difficult to penetrate”, “oxygen is essential to human life”, “most
mothers take good care of their children”. Facts that are subject to argument
and held only by some fraction of the population include “women are inferior
to men”, “men are inferior to women”, “capitalism will fail through
internal contradictions and yield socialism”, “capitalism will lead to
prosperity for all”. Previous facts of this type have included “the earth is
flat and floats on water”, “the sun revolves around the earth”, and
“dragons are the cause of rain”. Thus there are facts that may with the
passage of time be verifiable and so removed from dispute. Yet other facts
continue to be in dispute and may be unverifiable, such as “the universe is
eternal”, “the universe exists for a limited span of time”, “the
universe is finite”, “the universe is infinite”, “life ends at death”,
“life continues after death”, “there is a divine providence”, “there
is no divine providence”.
14 The collection of facts agreed to within a belief system
constitutes its world view, which underpins its concept of universal order. The
facts that any particular world view holds important and are specific to that
world view and frequently contradict facts of a similar status in other world
views. It is this that often leads to violence—an indication of how important
an understanding of the world is to us, and how threatened we feel if our
understanding is undermined. The emergence of agreement on facts is, then, one
of the areas of interest in looking at past texts. For this reason, the
following chapters contain examples of investigation of the physical universe,
medicine, biology, and mathematics. That is, the concern is with agreed-on facts
discovered in the experiences of natural phenomena that we all share, rather
than supernatural facts revealed only to isolated individuals.
15 Another major aspect of a belief system is that governing a
person’s perceptions and motivations. This is termed its ethos. Perceptions
adjust the way we view the world. The process of perception filters the flood of
sensory information into subjective, meaningful patterns by means of inborn
capabilities or by learning from past experience. Motivations perform a similar
function for behavior, setting up preferences for certain types of responses,
often very creative, to the challenges of the world. Perceptions and motivations
govern the important areas of aesthetics and morality—how we seek expression
in communicative art and how we behave towards other people.
16 The emergence of moral codes, then, is an area of interest in
reviewing past texts. These appear in religious, legal, and philosophical texts,
which therefore are an important source for the extracts presented here. Moral
codes also gain expression (greater elaboration and often freer expression) in
literary works. That is, the aesthetic aspects of the ethos of a belief system
are important in clarifying moral attitudes. Therefore in the present
collection, many examples of poetry, drama, and literature from different
cultures are included.
17 As this collection aims to foster mutual respect, tolerance, and
sympathy among all cultures, areas likely to be counter-productive are to be
avoided. It would be pointless to include arguments that claim particular
fragments of the human race to be in some way superior to others. Similarly, it
would be inappropriate to include dogmas that describe all other viewpoints as
in error. Nor should it give much space to philosophical systems claiming
mastery of one race or group over others, or offering guidance from idealistic
worlds to a privileged few.
Thus, the three main areas in which multicultural understanding is sought in
Humanistic Texts are science, literature, and moral codes.
14 In reading through this collection, one can see a growth in understanding in the three areas identified: and morals, art and science. In science there is an increasing realization that accurate observation is the foundation of ascertaining facts about the world. We see that on this basis people can find grounds for agreement when forming explanations about the phenomena of experience, that is, when seeking concepts of an orderliness in the universe. This being so, we also see that there is a degree of uncertainty about such facts. An essential requirement now in reporting and analyzing facts gained in a scientific investigation is to state the degree of uncertainty involved and to draw attention to the existence of alternative interpretations of the measurements obtained. This degree of honesty is what opens the way for further scientific progress. By working away at areas of uncertainty, science pushes back the boundaries of the factual knowledge we are reasonably sure of. Thus the world view of a belief system, if it is to embrace scientific facts, has to tolerate uncertainty. This in itself would do much to pave the way for tolerance among belief systems.
15 Recognition of the true facts is a slow process. The history of medicine, for example, shows a gradual emergence of an understanding of the human body and a falling away of mistaken ideas. The extracts have therefore been put into a sequence that gives some sense of how our understanding of the human condition has evolved, even though this sometimes includes the presentation of mistaken ideas.
16 What becomes clear in reading through this sequence, is that the emergence of rational thought and enquiry can provide a basis for cooperation and tolerance. Rational investigation of the facts of a situation under dispute may offer an approach for reaching agreement.. This viewpoint finds expression in the fifth century BCE, when the Greek philosopher Democritus advised, "Believe not everything, but only what is proven". In China, a little earlier, Confucius described how rulers sought to improve their kingdoms: "Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things." An understanding of the limits of factual knowledge provides a basis for understanding how beliefs different to one’s own arise, and so opens the way for tolerance—an agreement to disagree peaceably when some facts are agreed on but others remain in dispute.
17 In the art of different cultures we see a uniformity of concern to express the core human experiences involving feeling and the emotions. Even though this expression is in different languages and cultural environments, translation is possible and experiences shared among cultures is revealed. This has become increasingly so as means of communication have improved. In imaginative literature authors illustrate the triumphs and tragedies of choices made by representative human types—Gilgamesh, Achilles, Sancho Panza, Falstaff, for example. Rather than offering moral certainties, these extracts record moral conflicts and show how people in specific situations have tried to resolve them. It is the skill of past authors in portraying the feelings aroused in such conflicts and the effects of particular decisions that prepares us for seeking resolution of our own concerns. To paraphrase Matthew Arnold’s words, these authors, by opening our minds to the past of our own and other cultures, cause us to turn a fresh and free stream of thought upon our stock notions and habits, and to become restless with the stereotypes of the present and skeptical of superficial answers.
18 Reading this collection of writings from the past reveals that it does not provide a comforting set of moral absolutes. There are many viewpoints represented and there is often no resolution of such long-standing questions as how to balance the demands of one’s family with those of society at large, how to assess the danger of a risk against the value of a reward, how to reconcile passionate love with common sense, or how to decide between the active and the contemplative life. What is presented are arguments made for and against alternatives. Confucius emphasizes love for one’s family, Jesus of Nazareth emphasizes love for one’s fellow human being.
19 There is, however, one area where some agreement has emerged over time. This is in civic moral codes. We have only small fragments of the earliest written codes from Sumer in the Third Millennium BCE, but in these we see the beginning of attempts to reduce oppression of the weak and to provide increased protection for women and children. In the Second Millennium BCE in Babylon we see measures to protect property and reduce corruption in the trial system. In Eqypt we find strictures against theft and slander. In the First Millennium BCE we see a Hebrew tribal law code that urges love of one's neighbor and protection of the tribal system of justice and marriage.
20 In China in the Fifth Century BCE we see the concept of reciprocity—do not do to others what you would not wish to be done to yourself, and guidance on proper government. In Greece we see the emergence of democracy and trial by jury, and codification of a citizen's rights and responsibilities. In India in the Third Century BCE we see the promulgation of religious tolerance by a king and acceptance of a duty to provide for the welfare and happiness of his people. In Western Europe, statements of rights to self-government and justice appear in the Second Millennium CE, beginning with treaties in England and Switzerland in the Thirteenth Century, and France and the United States in the Eighteenth Century. In the Twentieth Century a hemispheric declaration of rights and duties is agreed on by the countries of North and South America, an international statement of rights is agreed on by members of the United Nations, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a further extension of these rights is agreed on by the countries of the European Council and the European Union.
21 As rights entail obligations, the Universal Declaration can be translated into a declaration of obligations to be recognized by all people, and so emerges in the Twentieth Century as a universal moral code. It thus indicates how far we have come in achieving a degree of agreement in the moral aspects of world cultures. Those obligations that concern individuals directly can be summarized as follows:
All human beings are born with reason and a conscience. As members of their community, in which alone the free and full development of a person’s personality is possible, every individual, and every organ of society, has the following obligations:
Act towards other people as brothers and sisters, born free and equal, in dignity, rights, and obligations.
Respect and protect the life, liberty and personal security of all people.
With your neighbors and government, protect each family. It is the foundation of society.
Prevent anyone from being arbitrarily arrested, detained or exiled.
Allow all people freedom of opinion and expression without interference. Let them seek, receive and express thoughts and opinions in any way they wish, without regard for frontiers.
Allow all people freedom of movement and place of residence within your country.
Allow all people to assemble peacefully and form associations, without compulsion.
Allow all people freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Enable them to freely choose their religion or belief, or to freely change it.
Let all people express their choice of religion or belief in public and in private, alone or with others, in teaching, practice, worship or observance.
Base the authority of government on the will of the people, through periodic free elections by secret vote, with equal and universal suffrage.
Take part in the government of your country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
See that everyone has the right to own property, alone or with others. Let it not be taken from them unlawfully.
Do not arbitrarily interfere with another person’s privacy, family, home, or correspondence. Your laws must protect people against such interference.
Do not attack a person's honor and reputation. See that the law protects people against such attacks.
Free people held in slavery or servitude. Prohibit all forms of slavery and the slave trade.
Prevent people from being tortured or subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
With the free and full consent of each, let a man and a woman of full age marry and found a family, with no limitation regarding race, nationality, or religion.
Recognize that men and women have equal rights going into marriage, during marriage, and at the end of marriage.
Give special care and assistance to mothers and children. Give all children, born in or out of wedlock, the same social protection.
The remaining obligations concern the justice system, provision of work, social security, education, culture and leisure, international movement, non-discrimination, and support of world order. The derivation and listing of the full set of obligations is contained in the Obligations chapter of this collection. In this declaration of obligations we find the minimum moral commandments that nations of the world consider necessary for a belief system.
22 The journey of the human spirit is central to the success of humanity, by whatever measure one uses. The steps along the way are not the monopoly of any particular region or time. There are similarities among the thoughts of people at different times on different continents. There are common concerns about humanity and common steps towards enlightenment, which I hope will become evident in the following chapters. There is a unity that links the different ways or paths for understanding of what it is to be human: from different directions they approach the same destination.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Available from the United Nations, New York.
The Interpretation of Culture by Clifford Geertz. Basic Books, New York, 1973.
The Works of Matthew Arnold, edited by G. W. E. Russell. Oxford, 1905.
Guatama Buddha: Old Path White Clouds, by Thich Nhat Hanh. Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, 1991.
Confucius: The Chinese Classics, Volume I, The Works of Confucius, translated by James Legge. The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1893.
Democritus: Ancilla to The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, translated by Kathleen Freeman. Basil Blackwell, Oxford,1948.
Alex Saluskin: Can the Red Man Help the White Man?, edited by S. M. Morey. The Myrin Institute, New York, 1970.
Copyright © 2007 Rex Pay