Personal Thoughts on the Ethical Implications of Thelema #2/13 – The Source of Ethics
“A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.” — Albert Einstein
The source of ethics is the subject of much controversy and debate, and I hope that it will always remain that way. The religionists say that ethics are divinely inspired, while the atheists insist that ethics come from being human, the ability to empathize, and a mindful recognition of the connection between himself and his fellow man. In other words, they claim being ethical is a human trait. While considering this, one might see this as a paradox: ethics as a uniquely human trait illustrate the divine nature of man on the one hand, and on the other we must question how human a quality can be when so very few humans seem to possess it. Perhaps this is what is meant by “let my servants be few and secret1.” The Western Mystery Tradition has always been preoccupied with being more than human. If we look around, we can see why this is necessary.
The atheist blames religion for the world’s woes because he generally feels that people should do the right thing out of humanity or principle, rather than fear, and yet this is a terribly unfair assessment. Not all religion is fear-based, nor are all religious people acting out of fear when they do the right thing. One must learn to take the bad with the good. Despite the many instances when evil men have used religion to justify killing and torture, a lot of good has been done and continues to be done in its name. The notable movie personality Martin Sheen once said, “We shouldn’t be critical of Christianity, because it hasn’t been tried2.” If Christianity hasn’t been tried, then how much less can we say of Thelema? Even more disturbing is the idea that 2,000 years can come and go with so very few people ever adhering to their chosen paradigm.
Adherents of Christianity have, for the most part, only given lip service to the teachings of Jesus. It is true that people are healed, fed, and taken care of in dire times, but at the cost of their soul — the motivation for this aid has always been to convert. This made me think of the hypocrisy inherent in so many religious zealots who insist on representing their sect because doing so gives them a feeling of superiority. They appear to be better than others, but their actions do their chosen paradigm a great disservice. In other words, it isn’t the religious paradigm that has failed, but the adherents (if, after all this, we can still call them that) for not being sufficiently sincere to subject themselves to the inconveniences imposed by their chosen beliefs. They are only adherents when it serves them to reach their desired goals.
The religionists blame atheism for the world’s problems, insinuating that a belief in God is necessary for ethical behavior. Again, this is misplaced blame. They believe that people are incapable of acting rightly or honorable unless they are motivated by fear. Atheists can have conviction. Neither Buddhism nor Taoism requires belief in a “god,” and yet right action is a great preoccupation for adherents of both of these religious paradigms.
The ethical atheist may be more genuine than his religionist counterpart since the atheist is generally motivated by compassion, love, and/or enlightened self-interest, while the other (at least if he subscribes to the concepts of hell and eternal damnation) is largely motivated by fear and selfish self-interest. Perhaps the best way to explain the problem with religion-based ethics is to reference the 2004 US elections, where many people voted for the person that supposedly exemplified “Christian values” such as homophobia and a hatred for anything they saw as “liberal.”3 Crowley was clearly right about the shortcomings of so-called democracy4.
While it is true that religion can advocate high ethical standards, we would err greatly if we were to identify ethics exclusively with religious conviction. If ethics were confined to religion, then we would only see them in the actions of religious people. If this were true, then how do we explain the ethics of the atheist? Ethics are not synonymous with religion.
So what are ethics? I define ethics as a standard of right and wrong that dictates what humans should do in terms of rights, duty, and commitment to society, justice, or specific virtues, such as the Eleven Virtues of Thelemic Knighthood5.
Most importantly, however, are ethics as the development of one’s personal standards. That is what an ethical person does. Feelings, laws, and social norms often stray from what is ethical, so we must constantly test our own standards to make sure that they are rational and well-founded. The study of ethics is the noble endeavor of scrutinizing our own beliefs and conduct, and the work of ensuring that the institutions we shape achieve the standards worthy of those chosen beliefs. This is an application of ethics that doesn’t seem to be getting much attention today. To say it a different way, the study of ethics is important because it will guide us away from decision making based on peer pressure and the desire for external validation, and help guide our lives in accordance with our own personal internal compass. It doesn’t get any more Thelemic than that.
Nietzsche and many of his contemporaries went to great lengths to show that there was no such thing as because all that we do, no matter how well intentioned, benefits us in one way or another. In other words, there are no selfless acts. But we already know that. Perhaps the English journalist Gilbert Chesterton said it best when he wrote:
“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues[…] virtues gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians care only for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful6.”
Nietzsche explains that any altruistic act creates weakness because compassion and charity are insults to the individual to whom they are directed,7 and that those actions, as well intentioned as they may be, cause a sort of dependence rather than empowering the individual to rise up or fail on their own strength. Many Thelemites sincerely believe that this is what will cleanse the human race of all weakness of body and mind and create the ideal man, and that this sort of disregard to the suffering of one’s fellows is to be credited for the greatness that humanity has already attained.
Crowley seemed to subscribe to this idea as well, and if one reads through his comments on Liber Al, this is how he has chosen to interpret some difficult passages of The Book of the Law. It is somewhat ironic that very few people seem to follow Nietzsche’s or Crowley’s advice of questioning all things.
- Crowley was rather jaded toward the end of his life. His later comments reflect an attitude contradictory to what he wrote of the text when he was young and idealistic.
- His views were, unfortunately, very biased against every idea associated with Christianity. Given his parents’ strict, conservative household one can hardly blame him for this, but the reader should keep in mind that he obviously had trouble with this and it may have colored his interpretation of the message he was receiving.
- Neither Crowley nor Nietzsche have considered that compassion might be a human trait8 or that there may be a very good reason why people feel good when they do things for others. Nor have they considered how compassion, reverence, and empathy have contributed to human evolution. Humans help one another. As painful as it is for some to acknowledge, no man is an island, nor would we have developed communities, societies, or anything of lasting value without cooperating with others. Strength also comes in numbers.
- It is illogical to demonize compassion, reverence, and empathy simply because of the selfish nature of altruism, since compassion, reverence and empathy can come from other places. And as far as the “weak” are concerned — without people like Einstein, who had trouble spelling his name until he was eight9, or without Stephen Hawking we may not have dared to venture beyond already known ideas about the nature of time and the universe. John Merrick10 exemplified courage and inner strength. It is difficult to imagine never having heard a melody made by Chopin, or the teachings of Crowley himself, had they been allowed to die simply because of their debilitating illnesses. Strength comes in many forms, and often it only becomes apparent later in life. “Every man and every woman is a star11.” This is not to say that everyone has something worthwhile to contribute to human evolution, but in an ideal world, everyone would have the opportunity.
- Christianity seems to dictate that altruism implies that a person’s primary ethical responsibility is to others first, while egoism holds that one’s primary obligation is to oneself, and toward advancing one’s own self-interest. Nietzsche, Crowley and others have categorized altruism as a “slave morality” without any redeeming qualities. I also concur. Both Nietzsche and Crowley have noted that what appears to be an altruistic act on the surface actually furthers one’s self-interest, and they say it like it is a bad thing. A person’s self-interest must come first, and there are many ways to further one’s self-interest. For example, the Order of Thelemic Knights does not engage in charitable campaigns because its members are trying to learn to be altruistic; we do so because it furthers our own personal growth. That others benefit from our work began as a wonderful coincidence we’d like to keep.
Different Ethical Paradigms, or Why Kant We Just Get Along?
The five examples listed below represent the most popular forms of ethics used today in everyday life. It will become apparent that each has its strength and weakness. There are numerous more which could not be included here due to the limited scope of this dissertation. There are approaches within approaches. To make matters more confusing, every method described below could be used to justify unethical behavior.
In the Utilitarian approach, for example, there is the Ethical Egoist, who concerns himself exclusively with his own benefit, while a Consequentialist Utilitarian works toward the good of all who are affected by an action or deliberation12. Both look for a positive outcome or opportunity, but they differ on who should benefit.
Frequently, Utilitarianism will require that one do what is best for the greatest number of people, rather than what is good for oneself — but that isn’t to say that it cannot be used to justify something considered unethical by every other standard. For example, a Utilitarian could make the case that prisoners with life sentences should be used for medical experiments, arguing that discoveries could be made which would benefit millions of people of much higher character. This treatment of prisoners would not hurt the majority, and one could justify it by making the claim that the prisoners deserve to pay for their crimes in a way that would benefit society. If a prisoner should die in the experiments, then the scientists and doctors could endorse their experiments with the statement that, had they lived, they would be a burden to society since taxpayers have to pay to house, feed, and clothe them for life.
The bottom line is that whether we understand ethics or not, we still have the choice of doing the wrong thing or the right thing. Ultimately, we have to rely on our own self-knowledge, sense of self-worth, pride, integrity, and sincere effort to get us through tough decisions. You should also keep in mind, as you read this, that no one uses one method exclusively, but that they borrow what seems most comfortable to make their own ethical decisions.
The Utilitarian Approach
Utilitarianism was conceived by the English philosopher and political radical Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Jeremy Bentham spent most of his life critiquing law and strongly advocating legal reform, and came up with the system to assist lawmakers in deciding which laws were the most ethical. In a nutshell, the Utilitarian approach dictates that the most ethical decisions are the ones that result in the least evil13.
United States politicians and lawmakers tend to be Utilitarian or Consequentialist14 in their problem solving. The most important consideration is what effect the policy will have on the average citizen.
When using Utilitarianism to look for an ethical course of action, we might approach the issue by first asking ourselves a few questions. It might go something like this:
- What are the options available to us?
- Who will be affected by our decisions?
- What benefit or harm will each course of action lead us to?
After those questions have been answered, we chose an option that will cause the least amount of harm and benefit the greatest number of people. In Utilitarianism, the most appropriate action provides the most benefit to the greatest number.
One of the clear shortcomings of the Utilitarian approach is that there is a tendency to ignore justice. Apartheid in South Africa comes as a good example in recent history, when South African whites decided that all South Africans, black and white, would be better served under white leadership. Those arguing in favor of this view claimed that social conditions declined in African nations that exchanged exclusively white governments for black or mixed governance. The proponents of apartheid predicted civil war, financial decline, food shortages, and social instability following the establishment of a black majority government. These predictions did not occur when apartheid ended. If it had, then the white government of South Africa would have been ethically justified by utilitarianism, in spite of its discrimination.
The Rights Approach
The Rights Approach15 is rooted in the philosophical works of Kant, whose focus was on the right to choose for oneself. This philosophy supposes that humans have a moral right to choose freely, and that this freedom of choice is what gives humans their dignity and separates us from objects that can or should be manipulated. In other words, every human should be respected and given the choice to live their life in accordance with that choice. To say it another way, it is unethical to demand that a person act in a fashion that they have not personally chosen.
“Every action is right which in itself, or in the maxim on which it proceeds, is such that it can coexist along with the freedom of the will of each and all in action, according to a universal law16.”
Some of the rights listed below might remind you of Liber OZ. In fact, Liber OZ is so close to the human rights this ethical approach dictates that it is entirely possible it might have come to Crowley as a result of Kant’s writings. See for yourself:
- The right to truthful information. The right to be told the truth about matters that may affect our lives.
- The right of privacy. The right to do, believe, and say whatever we choose, provided that we do not violate the rights of others.
- The right not to be injured. The right not to be harmed unless we knowingly do something that warrants retribution, or we choose to risk such injury of our own free will.
- The right to what is agreed. We are entitled to hold a reasonable expectation of what is promised to us by people with whom we have freely entered into a pact or covenant.
When using the Rights Approach to explore an ethical course of action, we only need ask ourselves one question: Does our decision/action respect the rights of everyone?
We only need to look at the deceptively titled “Patriot Act“17 to see how our rights are violated in the USA. With the implementation of this act, Americans lost the following freedoms and rights:
- Freedom of association. Government may now spy on religious and political institutions even if they are not suspected of criminal activity, discouraging individuals from pursuing their right to freedom of association. Specific groups have been branded “terrorist organizations,” making membership in them illegal.
- Freedom of information. Government has closed immigration hearings and has held hundreds of people without charging them with criminal offense, and has applied pressure to public and civil servants to withhold once freely available information from the public.18
- Freedom of speech. Government may subpoena information from public librarians (such as individual patron records, listing books that were checked out), and may punish them if they alert individuals.19
- The right to legal representation. Government officials may monitor once protected attorney-client conversations in prisons, as well as denying legal assistance to Americans accused of crimes.
- Freedom from unreasonable searches. Government may search and seize property and papers without probable cause.
- The right to a speedy and public trial. Americans may be declared “enemy combatants” and imprisoned indefinitely without a trial.
- The right to confront accusers. Not only can Americans be jailed without being charged of a crime, but also they do not have the right to confront their accusers.
In short, under the Rights Approach, it is clear that the provisions in the Patriot Act, which circumscribe citizens rights as described by Kant and enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, are unethical. Furthermore, the Patriot Act opens the door to future legislation further limiting or completely eliminating these and other rights. Government agencies are protected against accountability by way of increased secrecy and lack of judicial oversight, checks and balances.
The Fairness or Justice Approach
This method is very similar to the Rights Approach, but has its origins in the teachings of Aristotle, who states that favoritism and discrimination are unethical and unjust, because giving benefit to someone without a justifiable reason is unfair to those denied those benefits. He teaches that discrimination is unreasonable because it burdens people who are no different than those spared from the same burdens. The fundamental moral questions for using this method are:
- How fair is an act?
- Does it deal with everyone in a similar fashion?
- Does it demonstrate preferential treatment or bias?
Consider ballot measure 36 in Oregon’s Spring 2005 elections. This measure amended Oregon’s constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. It is a reaction to Oregon’s gay community in general (which rightly feels discriminated against), and specifically against Multnomah County’s ruling that denying marriage licenses to homosexual couples was a discriminatory practice that denied homosexual couples the same benefits available to married heterosexual couples.20 These people pay taxes, and should receive the same treatment and benefits as other socially responsible taxpayers, regardless of sexual orientation. If a true separation existed between Church and State, this wouldn’t be an issue at all.
This political issue is a good example of a violation of The Fairness or Justice Approach and the Rights Approach described above as well as the rights declared in Liber OZ21.
Rules, such as the Equal Opportunity Act, the Fair Housing Act and the like will always exist, no matter how well we evolve, so long as someone is denied the same opportunities as others. I realize that these laws are rather arbitrary, and oftentimes when misused they can be a source of reverse discrimination.22 As a result, many shortsighted individuals have rallied to put an end to these protections, but if they succeed, we will never see the true geniuses rise up above the rest because they will not have an equal field on which to begin to prove themselves.
Consider this for a moment. On the one hand, we have the head of a corporation who had the best education money could buy, who never had to struggle with paying rent or putting food on the table, who inherited his father’s fortune and who took over as the figurehead of the organization. On the other hand, we have a foreigner (or single mother) who comes to this country with little more than a dream, who lives in one of the many shanty towns, ghettos or ‘projects,’ who attends the overcrowded and underfunded public school systems and grows up to have his or her own tailor shop. Who is the superior being? Is the accumulation of wealth the sole genetic trait for strength, or are there others?
The Common Good Approach
This approach to ethical problems began some 2,000 years ago with the writings of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. It suggests that a person’s own good is inextricably connected to the good of the community. In other words, members of a community are duty-bound to the pursuit of common values and goals. In recent times, John Rawls has defined “common good” as “certain general conditions that are…equally to everyone’s advantage23.”
This methodology approaches social problems by making certain that the policies, systems, institutions, and environments we so often take for granted are beneficial to all. Affordable health care, public safety, world peace, justice, and environmental issues are all subject to consideration.
Furthering the common good compels us to view ourselves as members of the same community and questions regarding of the kind of society, order, fraternity or neighborhood we want to develop and how we are to achieve it are the dominant considerations. This does not mean that the Common Good Approach disregards the rights of individuals, but rather, it provides us with the opportunity to look for the things we have in common instead of the things that make us different.
For example, if you feel that the children and loved ones of politicians who start wars should not be exempt from fighting those wars, or that politicians should send their kids to public schools, or that politicians should live in the neighborhoods where they work while earning the same salaries of the average citizen living in the area, then you might be using the Common Good Approach.
The Virtue Approach
The presumption made by the Virtue Approach is that some ideals that will accelerate our own personal and universal evolution, because when one of us rises up above the norm, the whole of humanity benefits from the evolutionary leap. They make us better people by helping us to develop. We begin to develop a sense of the required virtues by reflecting on our own potential.
Virtues empower us to behave and act in a manner that leads us to our highest personal potential. Virtues, once embraced, become a characteristic trait. Additionally, an individual who has accepted virtues will be predisposed to act in a manner consistent with his or her ethical principles because virtue relates to ethics. A virtuous person is an ethical person, and those few that truly and sincerely embrace The Eleven Virtues of Thelemic Knighthood can inspire amazing changes in character.
Most of the questions one might consider while using the Virtue Approach deal with the compromises one is making to their character. For example:
- What sort of person will this action make me?
- Will I be compromising my character or betraying my beliefs or myself?
- Will this action reflect badly on my chosen philosophical/religious paradigm?
- Will this choice of action promote, or interfere with, my development?
- Is this behavior befitting of the sort of person I am trying to become?
- Is this behavior and its consequences in line with my True Will?
The Virtue Approach concerns itself with self-worth. It holds that one’s integrity and honor are reflections of the individual’s true nature; therefore, there is an emphasis on action and works. This approach to ethics is a very popular substitute for rule-based (deontological) and results-based (consequentialist) ethics. In fact, the Virtue Approach to ethics was created out of frustration with ethical concepts of duty and obligation. It was a reactionary response to the use of convenient, but unbending and ineffective, moral rules and principles that are often used as standards to all moral situations24.
How the Virtue Approach varies, from, say, the Utilitarian and Consequentialist Approach, becomes apparent when using the following classical ethical dilemma: A man’s wife becomes very sick, and he spends an astonishing amount of money to attempt to save her life. In fact, with the amount of money he spent trying to save one woman, he could have saved ten women he didn’t know. The utilitarian would say that the man should have used his money to save the greater number of people. A virtue ethicist would argue that placing the welfare of loved ones above the welfare of strangers is essentially good because it isn’t natural for humans to make life-and-death decisions based on some mathematical moral calculation. They would also argue that few people would want to live in a world where we forsake our own spouses to save strangers.
Applied Ethics, or Ethical Problem Solving
Unfortunately, no templates or guaranteed methods provide nice, squeaky-clean solutions to ethical dilemmas. Wouldn’t that be nice? Ultimately, we are all going to have to get our hands dirty, but maybe we can arm ourselves by looking at the facts, understanding ethics and choosing to be ethical so that we can minimize damage. First and foremost, cause no harm.
At the very least, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I have all the facts?
- What are my options?
- What option will lead to the most balanced end?
- What benefits will my decision provide, and who will benefit?
- Will my course of action violate anyone else’s rights?
- Will my action show unwarranted favoritism or discrimination?
- Which decision increases the common good most?
- Is my chosen course of action harmonious with my own ethics?
- Liber Al Vel Legis — The Book of the Law I:10
- It is a little absolutist to claim, “it hasn’t been tried,” without simultaneously discounting the work of some remarkable individuals, such as Mother Teresa, for example. But it is easy to agree since very few adherents of Christianity are actually doing the work of Christ.
- Such as affordable healthcare, education, and scientifically-based research.
- “The principle of popular election is a fatal folly; its results are visible in every so-called democracy. The elected man is always the mediocrity; he is the safe man, the sound man, the man who displeases the majority less than any other; and therefore never the genius, the man of progress and illumination.” —Liber 194 — An Intimation with Reference to the Constitution of the Order
- Valor, Nobility, Discernment, Pride, Compassion, Fidelity, Passion, Strength, Discipline, Self-Reliance, and Hospitality.
- Gilbert Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1959), page 30.
- The Anti-Christ. Section 7. He uses the word “pity.” Many wrongly (and conveniently) lump pity with compassion.
- Either as a natural occurring phenomena, something evolutionarily useful, or both. Current research may be on the verge of providing scientific data to support this view.
- According to his mother, didn’t speak until he was three. Little Albert was terribly dyslexic.
- The “Elephant Man.”
- Liber Al Vel Legis — The Book of the Law — I:III
- Always look for a way to benefit everyone… including oneself.
- “Evil” is an emotionally loaded term, and this is why I have chosen to use it.
- Consequentialism is a branch of Utilitarianism that dictates that we should do whatever increases the chances for good consequences. What one does to achieve these good consequences is irrelevant. What matters is that the good results are maximized. It’s a counterpart of deontological ethics.
- I have refrained from criticizing The Rights Approach by referencing Liber OZ to make this point because I felt it would be redundant. Most anyone that reads this will already have first-hand experience of the tremendous potential for abuse in that document.
- The Science of Right by Immanuel Kant, 1790.
- The Patriot Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001. The name was carefully chosen in order to alienate those that disapprove of the gross restrictions and violations of constitutional rights proposed by the act.
- The Freedom of Information Act.
- Librarians have rebelled against this act by changing the way they keep records.
- These benefits include, but are not limited to, medical benefits for their lovers, better opportunities for low interest home loans, the right to visit an ill partner in the hospital, the right to make end of life care decisions for partners, the right to inherit in cases of intestacy, the ability to adopt children, joint filing on income tax returns and other social benefits afforded to heterosexual couples.
- But the most important philosophical issue in this debate is whether or not the State can determine who can and cannot marry in a country where the separation of Church and State is guaranteed. If that separation truly existed, then the argument would be between the heads of the churches, and not a matter for government.
- Reverse discrimination takes place any time that well-qualified native applicants are overlooked for employment in favor of people of color or a certain sex just to meet some arbitrary criteria.
- A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. Belknap Press; Revised edition (September 1, 1999)
- Marriage, as it is today, would be considered unethical in this approach.
©2007 Gerald del Campo
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Gerald del Campo is the author of A Heretic’s Guide to Thelema, New Aeon Magick: Thelema Without Tears, and New Aeon English Qabalah Revealed, among other works. You can visit his blog at http://solis93.livejournal.com and his website at http://thelemicknights.org. Gerald serves as Senior Managing Editor of Rending the Veil. He also writes music and plays in bands.