ETHICAL ISSUES: COMMUNITY vs. GROUPS
It’s inevitable that we be involved with others and will both affect and be affected by them. Each of us operates subjectively using our own five senses plus our intuition, instincts, insights and unique thoughts and reactions. This makes each of us unique with respect to our personal interaction with the rest of the world, each of whom is as unique as we are.
While you are entitled to your interpretation of what’s happening, others are entitled to theirs, and chances are excellent that they won’t be the same as yours. Given equal input, each individual may react differently and come to a different conclusion. In other words, there will be virtually infinite combinations of actions along the line.
In the context of mankind, that’s no problem. Humanity as an ethical whole will handle whatever its members throw its way. And while it may appear from our limited points of view to be a chaos of pressures, tensions and constraints with no hope of resolution, that’s not the case.
There’s an intricate system at work: a complex adaptive system or, if you prefer, spontaneous order. Nature always adapts “on the fly” and we haven’t a clue as to how it really works. But one thing we do know is that it happens and it works in spite of whatever we do to thwart it because the norm—mankind—is innately ethical. If it weren’t, humanity would have been done for long ago.
Then, what’s the problem? “Why can’t we all just get along?”
Well, the problem can’t be the (generic) individual, or the family, or the community (think extended family or tribe) because they’re givens and therefore essential, vital and absolutely necessary to humanity, still another given. There’s only one thing left, and that’s the group, not a given but instead a social construct. The tendency to form groups may be argued to be a given, but no particular group is a given.
Man in his arrogance would remake the world in his own image right now, so he organizes to get it done. No matter that it’s progressing in its own way and will continue to do so, we want to make the world as we believe it should be, our way, right now, using what we think is state-of-the-art technology (but really is only very limited knowledge that may be described as applied folly). So we form our groups and crash into the future and, because we don’t really understand the system, we suffer the consequences.
Groups operate on the vitality of those individuals comprising them. A person relates differently to the group than he does with individuals in the group, because the group is a what, while the individual is a who. This profound difference needs to be appreciated if we would understand why the individual relates to groups in a different way than with whos of humanity.
From the point of view of the individual, a relationship with a group will satisfy his need(s) while at the same time not cause him to lose a significant part of his self. And, because he’s vital and the group isn’t, he remains responsible for his relationships. The group cannot be responsible for individual relationships.
From the standpoint of the group, a favorable relationship is one with individuals having similar interests or needs and the desire to help meet group goals. The group’s function is to serve the individual by providing support, protection, stimulation and/or consensus, and/or to serve humanity by augmenting the effects of individuals. The group exists to serve, not exploit, the individual or mankind.
Problems develop when the individual-group relationship is misunderstood or abused. The group, being more visible than the individual, may appropriate greater authority and members may assume greater importance than “outsiders,” forgetting that it’s the individual who really has the power.
A group with an exaggerated idea of its own importance may equate itself with community or even try to speak for mankind (think churches or society). This—placing the institution above the individual—discriminates against or even subverts humanity.
But in the last analysis, any group is at the mercy of the individual. The significance of this statement can’t be over-emphasized.
By definition, groups deal with special interests. A vital connection, a personal bond—blood, heritage—basic to the person rather than the group, is not required. This makes group relationships distinctly different from vital ones. The difference is critical.
While community retains vital relationships, it also provides fertile ground for the development of groups. Members of different communities can be attracted to each other for many reasons. As these earliest relationships grow in strength and number, survival becomes less of an issue. As interest begins to include personal and end-centered factors, groups are formed.
People create better ways of doing things and the ability to concentrate some of their efforts on improving their lot. They learn, teach and progress, growing into larger and more productive cultures, and as they do they are able to pursue more personal avenues of interest— to specialize more and more as individuals. But the individual’s relationship to any group never has been vital to his existence. Any relationship with any group may be severed without permanent damage to the individual or mankind generally.
Nevertheless, groups have assumed greater importance as civilization has progressed (and are in fact a contributing factor in that progression). They get some things done faster and often better than a family or community could because they can concentrate their efforts on the task at hand rather than deal with all of the complex functions necessary for a complete life. In one way or another, groups specialize and develop systems that enable them to operate more efficiently in their efforts to accomplish their particular ends. But in so doing, something often is lost.
Even though group rules may infringe to some degree on members, those individuals subscribe to them in the cause of accomplishment. It’s the same with any group, small or large, and it’s important to realize that even our society is nothing but a very large group—supergroup—that’s still submissive to the whole of humanity and may not supersede any individual’s personal vital link with humanity.
But groups often assume more importance than they own, affecting in a very real way the relationships between individuals.
HOW? WHAT HAPPENED?
It takes considerable time and energy to learn all you need to know to become tops in your field, or to collect the knowledge necessary to develop a new product, or to break out of the mold into a new way of thinking. In our drive to do it all and do it now, we’ve spawned an elite of experts—specialists—who spend some part of their individuality to achieve some goal. You may number among them.
Experts know more about a particular subject than most others. Usually they attain their level of expertise through education, experience and critical thinking. But more appropriate here, experts tend to collaborate with others working in the same specialty, stimulated by interaction and challenged by their peers. They may pour their very life into their work in order to advance the state of their particular endeavor. The effort may be altruistic, commercial or selfish, and results may or may not be worthwhile, but often the fruits of their labors benefit mankind in some way, large or small. But at the end of the day, most of these specialists leave their group to return to family or community to renew their link with humanity and its collective purpose.
Most specialists and experts operate in the context of the group only to get something done, leaving the group in order to recharge their batteries. While their group may develop a “life” of its own, it’s not a whole life because it’s not complete. Its purpose is to provide a channel for the creative power of the individual, improve a product, increase the clout of the group or further the cause of individuals within it. If it were to somehow provide a total environment, it would be in danger (?!) of becoming a community.
Many groups including our society reward experts with higher status and greater compensation than the man on the street. While this status within the group may be earned, it doesn’t extend beyond the group. Status within any group, however large and powerful, is not directly transferable to humanity.
But when many expert-specialists leave their group to renew their vital link, they take their status with them and apply it liberally to the lives of others with whom they come in contact.
Our society and its laws facilitate this. Experts, authorities, specialists, entertainers, government officials, athletes, even “personalities” in highly-visible fields often are afforded importance out of proportion to what they warrant as human beings. Take, for example, medicine, law and higher education, callings usually requiring advanced degrees and considerable investment of time and money. Individuals in these fields join together in what have become powerful and dynamic groups that benefit and compel the respect of society and those with lesser “professional” status. But often, key individuals within these groups are sought out as authorities beyond their areas of expertise. The same may be true of rock stars, actors, politicians, even meteorologists. Wealth or notoriety alone may be sufficient to justify their opinions in politics and public discourse. While the rich and famous may be at the top of their own fields, there’s no reason to assume or accept their influence beyond those fields. They may have no expertise to offer beyond their fame.
All might be well if these individuals honestly aim to serve humanity and act morally. Some do. However, unless their authority is tempered with responsibility, it’s all too easy to become answerable only to themselves and their group(s). When this happens, the system that we have created overpowers us. The tail wags the dog.
It’s all too easy to become engrossed in one’s own work and importance and relate especially to others who understand and approve of what we’re doing, at the same time disregarding other aspects of our own lives and those of others. We all have to guard against this inclination for we all are experts and specialists in our own right. Each of us is totally unique, and each of us is equally and totally responsible.
Groups can pose a problem in that we may allow ourselves to be viewed less and less as individuals and more and more in the context of our groups. Since every group has its own agenda that defines it, our individuality can be compromised by letting our personal relationships be displaced by institutional ones. It’s very easy to sign over individual creativity, imagination and ingenuity to the groups and institutions to which we belong, effectively giving them permission to tell us what to think. The result is that we are led to believe. If this power is misused, we create those problems identified earlier. And the truth is that our complex super-developed culture has inexorably been redefining ethics in its own image.
We have to seek the truth as individuals. We have to know. We can’t be satisfied with being led to believe. An ethical person has to avoid groupthink and think for himself.
Groupthink might work temporarily when you’re in power, but suppression has consequences. If you favor unity over integrity, you’ll lose both. Beware of groupthink.
Ethics—it’s a given, too.
(More on this subject will be found in the book, To Tell The Truth… ) http://www.extremeethics.org/