Holism and Morality
Sietze Bosman argues that a holistic worldview can inspire a natural moral doctrine aligned with the inherent order of creation.
The concept of holism was first introduced by Jan van der Smuts, a South African general, statesman, and philosopher. Where Smuts shaped his thesis on the relation between evolution and the concept of holism, I argue that by viewing the world as a holist entity, we can distill a moral doctrine from the natural order that follows from the holist view.
Here is an excerpt from van der Smuts’ book Holism and Evolution that outlines his vision of the order of holism:
The ascending order of wholes or the stages in which Holism expresses itself in the progressive phases of reality may therefore be roughly and provisionally summarised as follows:
1. Definite material structure or synthesis of parts in natural bodies but with no more internal activity known at present than that of mere physical or chemical forces or energies: e.g. in a chemical compound.
2. Functional structure in living bodies, where the parts in this specific synthesis become actively cooperative and function jointly for the maintenance of the body: e.g. in a plant.
3. This specific cooperative activity becomes coordinated or regulated by some marked central control which is still mostly implicit and unconscious: e.g. in an animal.
4. The central control becomes conscious and culminates in Personality; at the same time it emerges in more composite holistic groups in Society.
5. In human associations this central control becomes super-individual in the State and similar group organisations.
6. Finally, there emerge the ideal wholes, or holistic Ideals, or absolute Values, disengaged and set free from human personality, and operating as creative factors on their own account in the upbuilding of a spiritual world. Such are the Ideals of Truth, Beauty and Goodness, which lay the foundations of a new order in the universe. Through all these stages we see the ever-deepening nature of the Whole as a specific structural synthesis of parts with inner activities of its own which co-operate and function in harmony, either naturally or instinctively or consciously. The parts so co-operate and co-function towards a definite inherent inner end or purpose that together they constitute and form a whole more or less of a distinctive character, with an identity and an ever-increasing measure of individuality of its own. The functioning of the parts is influenced by their place in the milieu of the other parts, and whole and parts thus reciprocally constitute and determine each other.
Holism as understood by Smuts and as I do in my argument for a natural morality should be understood as the idea that the sum of separate parts gives rise to a whole that has additional unique properties that the parts in themselves do not possess. For example, a car has a steering wheel, a windshield, a trunk lid, a shifter, and so on. These parts do not in themselves possess the property of auto-motion. All the parts put together give rise to a unique quality that gives the car its “carness.” This is the essence of holism, though this mechanical example is a limited one, as natural things cannot be taken apart and put back together again. We must conclude that the natural world is not machine-like in any way. This is a very important distinction to make. As machines would not necessarily require morality to function together. A machine is only good insofar as it is efficient and does not require notions of right, just, or good. Man, on the other hand, requires a system of ethics; he needs a compass to point him towards the good and away from the bad.
…even though man has acted for millennia, as Nietzsche said, our history books are full of the horrifying consequences of this acting without a clear answer to how we ought to act.
For millennia the nature and origin of morality have been the subject of intense philosophical debate. One could argue that the search for the good or “oughtness” is one of the main factors that gave rise to philosophy in the first place. Philosophers have construed morality in every which way and the debate is far from over. The issue with most of the debate is that the hyper-technical nature of the philosophical debates isolates the entire endeavor of ethics from ordinary lay people. As Nietzsche already stated: “Philosophers ask: how should we act? Yet man has acted for millennia.” In order to get the masses to be moral, instead of just acting, the moral doctrine must be clear and concise. Over-intellectualization of the ethical debate is the death knell to the public acceptance of the moral doctrine.
In order to find a source for a morality that can persuade the most amount of people to act according to oughtness, such a morality must be based on recognizable earthly principles. Any attempt to appeal to the metaphysical will fail in the contemporary ideological landscape. While a return to metaphysics is a necessity in the future, we must resist the temptation to formulate morality along metaphysical lines, as it is not expedient.
Holism requires that we view the entirety of creation as a whole that has properties that the separate parts do not. From the smallest to the biggest, everything operates on the holist principle. This means that perception, which causes waveforms to collapse, forms atoms. Atoms put together in the right way form molecules that have chemical properties. Molecules put together can form biological cells that have a metabolism. Cells combined in the right way form bodies that possess several added and unique qualities. The body has an awareness of the natural world and can traverse it. In addition, man, as opposed to animals, asks why he exists and how he should exist. A question that remains unanswered to this day. And even though man has acted for millennia, as Nietzsche said, our history books are full of the horrifying consequences of this acting without a clear answer to how we ought to act.
In the animal kingdom, multiple animals form a pack or a herd. With humans, the property that emerges from the aggregate of individuals is the family. Multiple families form a folk. This continuous chain of parts and wholes is the inescapable inherent natural order of creation. It is this natural order that is the source of morality for man. This order creates the structure that gives man the orïentation of duty and responsibilities. If man wants to stay alive long enough to procreate and raise his children, then he must procure sustenance in order to feed the internal components that together make up his body. So the natural order determines that the emergent whole has an obligation to its constituent parts. Man is himself a constituent part of his family. This creates a duty to act in such a way as not to harm the family. Acting to advance the health of the family is his duty, and therefore oughtness. One ought to act for the good of the family.
As man must find sustenance for his body, so must the family provide care for the individual. As the whole prospers by the health of the parts, the whole has a duty towards those parts. The family ought to take care of the people that make up the family. It ought also to expel members who do not fulfill their duty to the family, just as the body removes dysfunctional cells. The whole cannot tolerate dysfunctional parts, as they are to the detriment of the whole.
A folk is made up of an aggregate of families. The same structure of duty is found in the relations between families and the folk. All families ought to act in the advance of the people, most notably in the creation of offspring to assure the future of the folk, exactly like in the individual, where cells divide to provide enough healthy cells to maintain the body. The folk, in turn, needs the families to create the community, and the folk provides protection at a scale the family cannot. A family is incapable of defending itself militarily and depends on the folk to do so.
All the folk combined creates humanity and again the same structure is found. Humanity ought to act for the health of the folk. And the folk for the advance of humanity. Sadly, the wild variation in the attitudes of the different folks in the world towards the natural order causes the divergence from oughtness. Perhaps the future shall yield a time when all the distinct cultures will embrace the natural order as the source of oughtness. For now, that is a goal unattainable.
The main focus of remoralizing the masses is to start with one’s own folk. It is pointless for a folk to accept its subservient position towards humanity, as long as there is no humanity-wide acceptance of a non-metaphysical morality. In fact, it seems right to cast judgment on those that do not honor the natural order. Not as a means to make them the enemy, but as something instrumental to keep a healthy distance from them. A truly moral people wants no dealings with immoral people.
While this model of morality does not answer all moral problems and ethical dilemmas, it does provide a simple and comprehendible moral structure that provides man with a “roadmap” for his duties. However, if the nature of the universe is holist, as I posit, then reason leads me to believe that all moral problems should, in one way or another, be reducible to the dictates of the natural order.