In constructing an ethical theory, one consideration is: who has ethical standing? That is, whose interests “count” when considering “right” behavior? Utilitarians like Bentham (and today, philosopher Peter Singer) feel that all sentient animals—all creatures capable of feeling pain—are due equal respect and consideration. No preference should be shown to humans or to Americans or to people of my particular family line.
Adam Smith would not go along with that. He argued that we owe greater duty and respect towards those closest to us: our duty to our own mother, for example, is greater than our duty to an unknown elderly women on another continent. Moral preference is necessary in some situations.
The issue of boundaries of ethical obligation is quite important, particularly when we consider global warming, whose greatest impacts will be in 100 years when few currently alive will be around. Issues of intergenerational justice are a huge problem. Should we consider those who live in two generations receive equal moral consideration to those living now? To economists, discounting future generations’ interests makes logical sense, but may put us on difficult ethical footing.
This brings us to a fascinating book by Richard Moss. The Mandala of Being is about how humans construct identities that create walls between people and different groups of people. But it is more than an analysis, it also has a prescription for gently disengaging one’s feelings, beliefs, and thoughts from the notion of identity, and by doing so, getting us closer to the experience of who we are in essence. This essence, he claims, allows us to be on an equal footing with others on the planet.
In Moss’ view, we form “identities” as a survival mechanism. Thoughts, feelings, and actions arise in particular contexts in which a child encounters stress. Our identities grow out of how we react to perceived threats. Identity is essential for survival and motivation, and cultural ideology and mythology are key parts of that identity.
But identity is also what keeps us apart from others who are different. Hence, tolerance only comes when we are able to step outside identity and the thoughts, feelings and actions associated with it.
Moss explores a psychological mechanism that will be familiar to practitioners of Eastern philosophy—the practice of living in the “now” of awareness. Awareness happens when we are able to gently let go of thoughts of past and future, of ego and of others, and simply “be.” Moss notes that he believes this is the essence of a human being. There are a multitude of techniques for getting in this state of original awareness, such as by focused breathing, meditation, repetitive physical activity (“runner’s high”) or playing games.
From this state of awareness one has a very different conception, Moss claims, of our relationships with others. From this place of blissful awareness we are far more likely to be tolerant of those who are different—because we can see that differences arise out of identity creation and not inherent or intrinsic disparities.
By contrast, Moss argues that moral absolutist are trapped in an identity that limits their experience of the now awareness. That explanation may be insulting to moral absolutists, but Moss has a much gentler way of getting to this point than I have.
At a future point I will describe the Mandala—essentially a psychological visual chart that relates past to present and subject (ourselves) to objects (others). Whether you agree or disagree with Moss, his work is interesting to economists because he is directly addressing the meaning of happiness that has been the object of much attention recently.