Taking an ethical position in life and work is essential for us to have some framework for healthy behaviour, which promotes individual and collective well-being, mutual appreciation, and respect. Take, for example, a company board of directors that holds firm to a sterile and materialistic ideal that ends justify means; they will stop at little to achieve the corporate goal, which is to make money. From a superficial and materialistic position, human beings and the environment are simply obstacles to be overcome. And it’s easy to see in our technological age as machines and AI become commonplace, that we have, and still do despite clever marketing initiatives, run riot over the natural world and one another in pursuit of profit or a basic living. Become A Patron of Sunday Letters
Take the oil sands in Canada, the destruction of the rainforest in South America, damage to the seabed by commercial fishing fleets, or any war throughout human history; they all stand as primary examples of our willingness to put aside moral and ethical principles for the sake of material gain, power and control. And it’s not solely corporations to blame. Ordinary people are also quick to drop their moral principles for the sake of profit or, indeed, a living.
I watched a documentary recently on BBC recently about the Canadian oil sands. At 142,000 sq km, it is larger than the entire landmass of England and described by National Geographic as the world’s most destructive oil operation. Here, where wages are around $1,000 per day, workers seemed completely removed from the impact of their involvement. Even the native people of the region who had lived on the land for thousands of years had become disaffected. Apparently powerless to stop the momentum of oil production and desperate for a living given the loss of their lands to corporations, they form companies that serve the industry and contribute to their continued demise.
When we look at the scale of the Canadian oil sands and the level of environmental destruction it inflicts, it is hard to see a way back for humanity. This operation is kept alive by our way of life, by how you and I live. It seems we don’t know how to live. Erich Fromm in 19471 put it thus, and I see little has changed. In fact, the situation has become worse (Pardon the male pronouns).
“modern society, in spite all the emphasis it puts upon happiness, individuality, and self-interest, has taught man to feel that not his happiness is the aim of life, but the fulfilment of his duty to work, or his success. Money, prestige, and power have become his incentives and ends. He acts under the illusion that his actions benefit his self-interest, though he actually serves everything else but the interests of his real self. Everything is important to him except his life and the art of living. He is for everything except himself.”
Fromm says that the nature of all life is to preserve and affirm its own existence. The first duty of an organism is to be alive, he says. Although he may have accounted for it elsewhere, he leaves out that arm-in-arm with this drive towards life, there is the drive towards death. He says that this death drive is pathological, but I don’t necessarily believe that to be true. To me, the death drive, or Thanatos (Todestriebe) as Freud put it2, is just as much active within us. It works in opposition to our drive for life. They dance together, taking turns at victory, and so perhaps ethics is only relevant where we are unwilling to account for our drive towards death. Perhaps just as humans are born and die, just as planets and galaxies are born and die, our behaviour must be both constructive and destructive. In this interplay between darkness and light, life and death, good and bad, we can only exist. As such, there is a sort of naivete or unwillingness to accept the destructive aspect of our nature. As Carl Jung put it3;
“A gentle and reasonable being can be transformed into a maniac or a savage beast. One is always inclined to lay the blame on external circumstances, but nothing could explode in us if it had not been there. As a matter of fact, we are constantly living on the edge of a volcano, and there is, so far as we know, no way of protecting ourselves from a possible outburst that will destroy everybody within reach. It is certainly a good thing to preach reason and common sense, but what if you have a lunatic asylum for an audience or a crowd in a collective frenzy? There is not much difference between them because the madman and the mob are both moved by impersonal, overwhelming forces.”
Jung says that there is little doubt that we human beings, on the whole, are less good than we imagine ourselves to be. We carry a shadow side to our being, and the less embodied in our conscious life, Jung says, the blacker and denser it is. So I wonder if our destructive behaviour towards each other and the planet, in spite of our insistence of its necessity, our indeed our moral righteousness, reflects our absence of self-awareness. Comments from oil sands workers seem to reflect this. We seem all too willing to disconnect from our sense of humanity, from the entirety of our being, when faced with our darker motivations. We would rather consider our behaviour acceptable, to justify it somehow, than recognise it as a direct consequence of our dark side. It seems to be the ultimate denial our ourselves to the point of self-destruction.
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