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Morality and Psychology

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Ethics and Metaphysics are central to Philosophy

I consider that the centre-piece of philosophy is either ethics or metaphysics. Ethical theory requires a metaphysical background, and metaphysics leads to ideas of right and wrong. So since they are related it does not matter which one a person favours ; I prefer metaphysics.

When both are sidelined and excluded from mainstream thinking, as they were in the twentieth century, then little can be expected in the way of challenging and innovative ideas.

There is a major problem within ethics – how does it relate to psychology ?

Sub - Headings
Terminology 1 and 2
Objective Ethics
Happiness and Sorrow
Law of  Sorrow
Form and Content

In my late 40s and into my 50s I was immersed in a deep psycho-analysis. During this time I turned to theories of ethics with the hope of understanding conscience and the ‘moral sentiments’. I did not have much success. Most moral philosophers have lacked any adequate knowledge of psychology, especially any knowledge based on personal awareness of oneself. For such philosophers, ethics can only focus on conduct or consequences ; motives cannot be explored. Without an understanding of psychology then ethics can easily deteriorate into wishful thinking : the thinker projects his subjective values onto the external world and then introjects them from the consequent idea of reality, claiming now that these values are objective.

There are two main forms of traditional ethics :

These forms are usually considered to be mutually exclusive. There is no need for this restriction once the relativity of ethics is understood.

A common idea in Western objective ethics is that the world contains a moral law or order that is as real and objective as the laws and order of physical nature ; this moral law is independent of the minds which obey it. Within this idea there is confusion between morality and spirituality. A few philosophers had some awareness of this, in their attempt to separate what is moral from what is right. The confusion arises because there is no understanding of the stages of spiritual development on Earth. In my view these stages form, for modern times, a progressive sequence which has, as one of its aims, the development of self-awareness in the person. The sequence is :

Morality leads into ethics, which then leads into psychology.

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At this point I need to clarify the terminology that I use.

Note 1.
I use the term ‘morality’ to denote standards acquired through social conditioning ; hence morality is usually inflexible and narrow.

I use the term ‘ethics’ to denote ideas on standards that the person has subjected to intellectual analysis and debate : this analysis enables ethical views to remain flexible and adaptable to modern-day conditions.

This division between morality and ethics is a real one, since the two standards have different origins : morality is a product of social abreaction, and ethics has its roots in the problems of sexual anxiety. [¹]

Note 2.
I separate two ideas or principles that have usually been run together in past theories on morality.

1a). Morality is relative.
A person's subjective values are the centre of attention.

1b). Morality is relational.
The values of any age arise as a development from previous ages. Hence moral values form a spectrum of related values over time. In addition, the moral values of any group can be compared to the moral values of other groups. 

I have separated the terms 'relative' and 'relational'. The reason for this is that my understanding of relativity is not the same as in idea (1a). In the previous article, Relativity of the Ego, I present the view that relativity is a relationship between something that is subjective and something that is objective.

So I recast these principles.

2a). Morality is relative.
This means that a person's moral subjectivity is related to a moral social objectivity ; in addition, this aspect of morality focuses on the person's strengths and weaknesses. This relative aspect of morality is analysed in this article and in the one on Personal Evolution, in section 3.

2b). Morality is relational.
This relational aspect of morality is reviewed in the article Personal Evolution, in section 3.

There is a third principle that needs to be added to these two.

2c). Morality is dialectical.
This dialectical aspect of morality is experienced during the process of  abreaction. It is abreaction that is primarily responsible for the gradual accentuation of moral awareness.

To start my analysis of morality I look at the idea of an objective moral law, a familiar one in both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions.

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Objective Ethics

In traditional Eastern theory, karma is an objective moral law. It is objective since it is seen to be primarily concerned with actions. Is this view an accurate depiction of the spiritual barriers that are placed on human evolution ?

Whilst living on Earth, the nature of the person is best analysed by using a suitable model of consciousness. The model that I use most is that will (or will power), mind and feelings link together  – this is a static model of consciousness.  This linkage is the basis of the process of abreaction. And abreaction is one of the prime causes of social change. Hence abreaction ensures that morality has a relative aspect  – the person's subjective beliefs have to be taken into account since they link to objective consequences.

In the understanding of Rudolf Steiner, when the advanced seeker reaches the stages of initiation then this linkage can cease.[²]. This cessation means that such a person can perform an action which he decides is necessary without being influenced by his personal likes and dislikes. This cessation implies that the initiate may then no longer experience abreaction. Which again implies that the seeker's state of mind is one of equanimity. When this achievement is maintained, then ethics is no longer relative. Therefore, for such seekers, and for the residents of heaven and higher worlds, ethics becomes objective (since subjective emotions now cease to be dominant).

So the concept of karma as a system of objective law, of objective ethics, really applies to higher worlds and not to Earth (except for a few initiates).

Why is there this difference?  It arises from the status of the person, that status being whether or not he is a self-contained entity or not, by which I mean whether he is a monad or not.

In the higher worlds, the person is a monad. Therefore he is subject to karma as a system of objective ethics.

On Earth, the conditions of childhood ensure that the person cannot be a monad. As I describe in the previous article on the relativity of the ego, the child's mind is subconscious at birth. The distinctiveness of life on Earth, as opposed to other regions of consciousness such as heaven and hell, is that the new-born infant lacks a conscious ego. This feature of a human life prevents the infant from being a monad. The reality of  transference (the bonding between parent and child) means that the infant is part himself and part his parents. The infant constructs its ego partly from its beliefs acquired in previous incarnations on Earth, and partly from the beliefs of the parents and other significant adults.  Therefore, not being a monad, the child is subject to the relativity of ethics.

The real nature of karma, as experienced on Earth, is that it is objective law applied to relative conditions.

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This effect means that karma has both objective and subjective factors. The objective factors arise from a person's actions, and the subjective factors arise from his thoughts (which are the contents of the process of abreaction). The peculiar circumstances of Earth life mean that karma is composed of both actions and thoughts. The traditional restriction of karma to actions occurred because there was little understanding of the subconscious mind till modern times.

Karma is objective law applied to relative conditions. This leads to an interesting consequence. The results of karma cannot always be predicted, because of the subjective factor. This is one reason why chance exists on Earth (though it may not exist in higher worlds).

These ideas can be looked at from a slightly different perspective. Of what value is it to a person not to be a monad ?   The answer is that this state of not being a monad, peculiar to a material life, enables the person to undergo the process of purification of character.

The relational aspect of morality means that good and evil are not in separate, watertight compartments. On Earth it is not possible for a person to be completely bad (and neither is it possible to be completely good). Hence, no matter how bad a person's character may be, he always has some good in him. And this goodness can act as a nucleus for his regeneration : he can learn to transform his badness into goodness. The relational aspect of morality enables a person to redeem his own character from his confusions and weaknesses. In fact the person has little choice in this matter, viewed over a time scan of countless incarnations ; the reality of abreaction will always lead him along the path to morality.

On higher worlds, where good and evil are always distinct and clearly separated, purification of character is difficult. The absence of abreaction means that there is no pressure on the monad to remove confusions and weaknesses. It can choose to ignore its deficiencies and remain immersed in self-deception.

Earth life has a special purpose. In my view, the prime reason for living an Earth life is to develop a sense of morality ; even better is to develop a system of ethics. All other noble activities have secondary status, since they can be pursued on other worlds besides the Earth.

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Happiness and Sorrow

The relativity of morality is tied to the experiences of happiness and sorrow. To explain this statement I look at the theme of happiness in moral thinking. Can a moral life be a happy life ?   The philosopher John S. Mill thought that it could. He is more refreshing to read than most moralists. He recognised that morality is intertwined with psychology, so his exposition of the theory of utilitarianism has a psychological base. His ethics centred on the attainment of happiness. He accepted that morality ultimately derives from subjective feelings in one's mind, and that the moral feelings are not innate but acquired.

The issue of happiness in moral theory is ambiguous. Mill expounded his ideas in nineteenth century England, when happiness was in short supply (especially for him). Similarly, Christianity was born in unhappy times. When moral codes are promulgated in hard times the desire for happiness is never far below the surface, and I regard Mill's analysis as being reasonably adequate for his time.

The opposite flow of ideas does not usually happen. We have seen in the twentieth century, when affluence has come to a large section of the Western world, that freely available happiness and freedom from pain do not necessarily lead to moral improvement, or even to morality at all. What Mill did not realise is that happiness is only desirable, as an ingredient of morality, when it is not freely available. Even religious enthusiasm, as found in revivalist and Pentecostal types of denominations, usually evaporates when the members become affluent and obtain a higher social status  – happiness gives way to respectability, rather than to better morals.

If happiness does not lead to moral development, then what does ?
The answer is - sorrow!

Sorrow can lead to an objective morality. For a person who centres himself in his social identity (that aspect of himself that orientates to social norms), then society (and hence relationships) can provide an objective basis to morality, through rules of social behaviour. For an individual who is not concerned with relationships, where is the objective component of morality?   To be objective implies that the component is universal among mankind.

Many moralists have claimed that there are universal rules which everyone should obey. But all such claims have never withstood analysis. Yet morality is relative and so has an objective component. A universal rule does in fact exist but no one discovered its hiding place till I analysed abreaction. The universal rule resides in the subconscious mind and is an interpretation of abreaction and manic depression. It is what I call the law of sorrow.

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The Law of Sorrow

Happiness is usually linked to excitement and anxiety, and excitement and anxiety always produce abreaction. What causes excitement ?  It needs vanity as the present mood, and the initiating cause is the desire for happiness, with anxiety being the dynamic of the whole process.

All forms of excitement flow within three possible emotional sequences. Two of these sequences start from the excitement : these are the abreactions of guilt (and of its variation, the abreaction of vanity) in either insight mode or else in feeling mode (which then usually lead to the abreaction of pride). The third sequence is that of manic depression, where the excitement is generated as a reaction to the preceding depression. The abreactions end in resentment (and then to bitterness), and the ending of mania usually creates the conditions for a new depression. All three sequences require the presence of vanity : mania and the abreaction of guilt result from the vanity mode of narcissism, and the abreaction of vanity results from vanity alone. [³]

Putting all three sequences together I can state a general rule, which I call the law of sorrow.

This law states that :

All self-generated joy ends in sorrow.
All self-generated happiness leads to unhappiness.

This law is universal since the abreaction of guilt requires either vanity or the vanity mode of narcissism to initiate it. Since vanity is the ground of  projection and introjection, which is universal, then abreaction cannot be avoided at any stage of life. This means that everyone experiences a lot of guilt, resentment, jealousy, and bitterness throughout all their life.

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Abreaction affects everyone, even people who have no understanding of guilt and pride. This fact was demonstrated to me when, for a few months, I helped out in a school for children with learning difficulties. One child, aged about twelve and with a short attention span, showed a particular physical phenomenon during abreaction : she ‘switched-off ’ in the stage of guilt (in the abreaction of guilt), and the eyes rotated upwards, showing mainly the white, with the iris partly hidden by the upper eyelid.

In general, the stage of resentment made some children unwilling to learn new material, whilst the stages of jealousy and pride (in the abreaction of pride) made learning temporarily impossible. [4]

Note: the stage of guilt can be sensed by an empathic observer, since guilt (in the mode of self-hate) shrinks the aura around the person.

A common way of interrupting the abreactional flow is the conscious induction of intense excitement or other ‘positive’ emotional states, for example by going to a party. But when the emotional ‘high’ is exhausted then abreaction resumes.

Many people have a narrow view of sorrow. They may consider that their life is a good life, even a happy life. This viewpoint is almost certain to arise from selective memory ; they remember the good aspects of their life and conveniently forget the bad side. This rationale is partly due to the ambiguity of abreaction : it is not always intense. When abreaction is in feeling mode there may be nothing specific to resent. [5]. Then the only obvious effect of resentment may be a headache, or perhaps just a mood of irritation, or a hangover after the party. An optimist forgets the headaches, the aspirins, the irritations, the hangovers, and remembers only the joys.

The sorrow caused by abreaction may not always lead to an objective morality : if the intensity is too little, it can be annulled by community support, whereas if the intensity is too great then the person will be crushed. But when the intensity of sorrow is between these two extremes then the person may begin to question what he has achieved in life, and what is the meaning of life, anyway. A major advantage of adopting an objective morality is that its rules provide a structure of beliefs that usually enables the person to handle sorrow more effectively.

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Form and Content

For the person engaged in his solitary development, sorrow is an objective fact of existence. This law of sorrow generates the structure of morality. This law is structure or form, and not content ; the reason for this is that it forces the person to come to terms with the need for ethical and spiritual development.

To understand that abreaction is form, not content, we can look at Western history. The moral standards of today are far in advance of the standards of ancient Greece. And today's standards will compare unfavourably with future standards (allowing for the two steps forward, one step back nature of evolution – since evolution is a dialectical process, modelled on abreaction). This advance in standards is due solely to the never-ending action of social abreaction on the Western world. This produces a curious effect : it does not matter where ethics begins. It does not matter which issues are chosen as the starting point of ethical debate. The initial content of ethics is immaterial in the long term since abreaction always develops it.

Abreaction brings psychological needs into consciousness. So my view is that, even if the ancient Greeks had chosen different issues from the ones that they actually did focus on, we would still have ended up with today's issues and today's ethical theories. The one qualification is that of time. If the ancient Greeks had had different needs from the ones that they actually did have, it would only have affected the length of time required to arrive at today's needs. ‘Progress’ would have been slower or faster than it has appeared to the modern era.

Structure is independent of content (compare the ‘categorical imperative’ of the philosopher  Immanuel Kant). Abreaction always develops standards, whatever they are. And in the course of time the field of ethical debate always widens.

There is no goal
The law of sorrow ensures that each person's journey to spirituality is always a process and never a goal, never something that is achievable once and for all.

The law cannot be avoided, so the only way to minimise resentment and bitterness is to clean-up one's life and to take responsibility for one's own actions and attitudes. The person has to develop his strengths and resolve his weaknesses. This law is neutralised only by attaining to equanimity, or by creating harmonious relationships. But even in the latter case, when the person is at any time on his own he is still subject to the full process of abreaction.

Spirituality is always a process, so there can never truly be a golden age. If a golden age did indeed come tomorrow then we would merely polish our virtues ; our failings would not be affected. Quite likely, we would not even recognise that we had failings, since these are usually only made visible by sorrow. A golden age removes any motivation to change.

Goodness supplies the basis of stability, whereas badness supplies the incentive to change.

Without conflict, people will not evolve. Conflict is essential to the evolution of each person. And the conditions of conflict are provided by the relativity of good and evil.

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This law of sorrow may not be obvious to normal man. Why is he not so vulnerable in the way that a more advanced seeker is ?  In general, as a person evolves he becomes more sensitive to, and alienated by, the social scenario current in his time. Either his sense of ethics or his creativity is more advanced than the social norm. Alienation creates the need for phantasy, so the person develops his imagination. However, phantasy relies on vanity and narcissism, and these in turn provide the starting conditions for abreaction. For the religious person, phantasy usually takes the form of religious imagery and myth : such imagery and myth may arise from various sources, yet much of it arises from vanity and narcissism as well. [6]

In short, when vanity and narcissism become accentuated, evolution usually has the effect of making a person sensitive. Phantasy becomes prominent. Therefore the imagination develops. In consequence, abreactions become more frequent and more intense. The overall effect is that imaginative or creative ability stimulates sorrow.

Unimaginative, unexcitable man gives the impression of achieving happiness, and this may be true ; but this happiness is due to lack of both sensitivity and depth of character.

As man treads the path of evolution a recurring cycle begins. The more he develops, the more sorrow he experiences, which in turn forces him to become more ethical and more developed. Ethics and sorrow escalate together. The only real choice available to him is to learn to develop his awareness in order to handle sorrow ; he can either develop it quickly by psycho-analysis and introspection, or slowly by trial and error over many lifetimes. The only real choice is whether to speed up or slow down one's evolutionary progress.

In summary,
a moral life is unlikely to be a happy life.

The aim of a human life cannot be the chase after happiness, since happiness always intertwines with sorrow. Therefore the aim needs to be centred on the cultivation of nobility of character, social harmony, and the development of ethical values, along with the understanding of dynamic psychology. These attainments enable the person to moderate and control the effects of sorrow.

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The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it. The addresses of my other websites are on the Links page.

[¹]. In section 3, the article Morality and its Origins looks at origins of morality and some social consequences, and the article Sexuality and Ethics looks at origins of ethics.
A brief description of  the process of abreaction is given in the article Emotion and Abreaction[1]

[²]. Steiner, Rudolf. Knowledge of the Higher Worlds, How is it achieved ?  Rudolf Steiner Press, 1993. [2]

[³]. In-depth analyses of Abreaction and Emotion are given on my psychology websites. For an overview, see the article Emotion and Abreaction.
The differences between the insight mode and the feeling mode of abreaction are described in the third article on Abreaction - Catharsis and Suggestion, in the sub-heading Suggestion. This article is on my psychology websites.

Manic depression is analysed in the article Narcissism - Mania and Manic Depression, on my website Patterns of Confusion[3]

[4]. The specific stages of the abreactions of guilt and pride are described in the article Emotion and Abreaction, section Abreaction of Guilt. [4]

[5]. When we have specific problems to deal with, then the various stages of abreaction feature different aspects of these problems. When no particular problem is present, then the stages of abreaction are in feeling mode, that is, the abreaction is just playing out the excitement and its aftermath.  [5]

[6]. There is an article on Alienation on my websites  The Strange World of Emotion and Discover Your Mind. [6]

Home List of  Articles Links Top of  Page

The articles in this section are :

Relativity of the Ego
Morality and Psychology
Moral States of Mind

Copyright @2003  Ian Heath
All Rights Reserved

The copyright is mine and the articles are free to use. They can be reproduced anywhere, so long as the source is acknowledged.

Ian Heath
London, UK


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