Are there ethical truths which hold for all people at all times and places?
The concept of an absolute value, such as the archetype of Beauty or Truth, is one that has been pondered by philosophers for ages. Aristotle and Plato pondered this question, trying to define what common beliefs and values existed among all human beings. Carl Jung believed that there were certain truths which held for everyone regardless of time or place. Like Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, also later came to assert, since certain myths and symbols are present in all human societies, there must be some primal values or ethics built into the human being as a species. For example, all societies have ethics of power which include a value for justice and truth as viewed by the people in a particular community. The United States of America has (culturally speaking) long held freedom as an absolute human truth. Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious was the idea that all people have a preset, innate group of paradigms which tell them subconsciously how to structure a society.
The example would be a group of human beings will appoint a leader. They will structure some rules of their society and then as they develop they will start consciously making decisions about their societies, which is the point where variety occurs. While his thesis has been disputed (along with Freud’s ideas which Jung built his own hypothesis own), the idea of universal ethics and desires which unite all mankind are persistent even to this day. Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, spoke passionately on the subject of universal ethics that must be upheld even if human societies failed to meet them regularly. These universal human ethics specifically include the ability to care for one’s family in safety and peace, the opportunity for social progress, and justice.
All human societies should strive to obtain these things for their citizens, he argued, because these ideas are what founded the U.N. even as some of the governments who signed the charter were in violation of those very precepts. As far as we can tell from the studies of anthropologists and sociologists, most human societies have been based around the idea that human beings are safer and survive longer in numbers. A group of human beings, however, must have rules if they are to succeed and survive, let alone thrive. All societies, past, present, and future, believe in a type of justice which must be carried out in order to resolve inevitable disputes between members. What those specific rules vary from society to society but there are two specific ethics which are universally embodied by these rules: the need for truth and justice.
The long pursuit of a way to tell a lie from a truth is the history of law. All societies have ways of discerning a liar from an honest man, although the validity of these methods may be questionable. Some have trial by combat and others use trial by fire. Regardless of the accuracy, these rituals point to a universal human ethos of truth and method of executing law (or justice). These two ethics alone have continued to exist everywhere that humans are gathered together. Carl Jung would have said that this was evidence of the Universal Unconscious and that the paradigm for justice existed on a primal level for the human species in a raw form.
Finally, the ethic of freedom, which is defined for the purposes of this paper specifically as the freedom to improve one’s circumstances, is universal. While many of the world’s societies do not have paths for social mobility except the uncertain fortunes of a person’s birth, all people desire the knowledge that there is some way they can improve their lot in life, even if it does not include their social standing. An example of this would be the Roman view of social mobility. If you were unlucky enough to be born into slavery, while Roman society would never allow you a place among the aristocrats no matter how well you do, they would allow you to buy your freedom if you obtained the means. Some African cultures allow a person who proves themselves in battle to climb the ranks while others, such as India, hold out the hope that if you work hard, you can be born into a better caste in your next life. All these different methods reflect one universal idea of a human desire to improve life for themselves and/ or their families.
The squabbling will never end between cultures of whose ethics and practices are superior and people will fall short of achieving the lofty goals of truth, justice, and freedom. However, the idea of these ethics is universal in its appeal without restriction to time or place. Cultures around the globe strive to obtain these for their citizens and will continue that effort long after we of the present day have passed into memory. The United Nations stands as a monument to the idea that there is a common thread in humanity that seeks a certain quality of life and no matter how often we fail to provide that quality, the pursuit alone is noble.
Courtney from Study Moose
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