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The limits of tolerance: ethics and human nature

At a time when we are struggling with a number of major moral dilemmas, Ivan Tyrrell suggests that the human givens approach can help us reach ethical decisions.

MORALITY — our character, manners and the way we conduct ourselves with others — is currently the subject of considerable attention, producing in the process much confusion, controversy and cant.

Perhaps this has always has been so. But just some of the topics involving moral dilemmas, publicly focused on recently, include: women’s right to technologically assisted birth at 60; human cloning; euthanasia; arms sales to both sides of a major conflict (India and Pakistan); the use of illegal and legal drugs; immigration policy; the rights of people to feel secure in their own land (Israel/Palestine); the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ (more uninvolved civilians have been killed by Americans in Afghanistan than died in the atrocities of September 11 in America last year); political party funding from pornography; sex education in schools; legal penalties for antisocial behaviour; and imprisoning parents for not ensuring their children attend school.

Many of these particular problems didn’t exist a hundred years ago but there is one constant: the large number of people in any age and time who are prepared to take a firm stance on any such issue. We may think we are capable of reaching ethical decisions. Yet all too often we start not with an open mind, prepared to review and consider the full facts, but from a ‘position’.

So it is that, from a religious stance, for instance, some doctors will view the taking of a life as wrong in any circumstances -— thus ruling out abortion and euthanasia. But our biases may be considerably more subtle than that. Our culture has not yet absorbed the important fact that what we view as ethical behaviour is, in fact, socially conditioned, and that moral philosophy merely articulates the morality of some particular social and cultural standpoint.[1]

In one culture, paying prime attention to the needs of each individual may be considered the ethical thing to do, so that everyone has the same opportunities for education, advancement, happiness and so on; whereas, in another, it might be deemed important to give first consideration to how an individual’s behaviour impacts upon the wider group.

At one time in our own recent history, it was accepted that children should be seen and not heard and physical punishments were the means to keep them in line and help them develop into responsible adults. Now, it is viewed as unethical to discipline a child physically in any way — although we have not yet fully thought through how best to deter unruly, disruptive children from running amok in schools and terrorising teachers.

Institutions established as part of the civilising process, to oversee our needs for education, medical and social care, law and order, commerce, etc, all have codes of ethics, yet, on closer inspection, may have much in common with tyrannies. Their major unacknowledged aim is to preserve an existing power structure. Such bodies commonly employ closed systems of thought and have inward-looking agendas that promote a limited, prejudiced view, in order to protect their power base. The true needs of a situation inevitably come second.

For example, doctors may sometimes close ranks to protect one who is responsible for serious medical negligence that has resulted in a personal catastrophe for a patient; social service departments may place the need for the smooth operation of their systems ahead of the needs of the individuals they are supposed to be helping (thus failing to offer practical help at all); judges may rule according to precedent, rather than in the light of the circumstances of particular cases; and businesses may put the need to satisfy their shareholders before the needs of their customers.

If we are truly to act ethically and be capable of making ethical decisions, we have to operate from knowledge, not from a stance which is socially conditioned or which is prompted by unrecognised emotions such as greed and the desire to maintain power. For that to start to be possible, we have to have a fuller understanding of human nature.

Pre-programmed patterns

An interest in dealing with the dilemmas of human behaviour is as old as history. (The word ethics comes from the Greek word ethikos, which means ‘dealing with human nature’.) Our knowledge of how human nature works comes from the scientific study of nature’s endowment to us all — what we now call the ‘human givens’ — and also direct experience, which gives us veridical truth.

The starting point must be that Nature endows each healthy human conception with a wonderful array of living genetic ‘templates’ — an infinitely rich treasure house of pre-programmed patterns for which we instinctively seek completion in the environment as we go through our lives. Babies, for instance, are capable of copying some of the non-verbal behaviours of their mothers, such as facial expression or sticking out their tongues, within just an hour of birth. They also instinctively practise breathing while in the womb, ready for when they must rely on their lungs after birth.

Refinement and adaptation

Such patterns are largely expressed as emotional needs, so that we are driven to seek their fulfilment (babies, for instance, need to create a connection with their main caregivers to ensure their own survival). Throughout life, they are in a state of continuous ebb and flow, refinement and adaptation. Nature is doubly generous in that she also brings us into the world with the means to help us get those needs met. It is precisely the way these needs are met, in the individual circumstances of each of our lives, that determines the individual nature, character and mental health of each person.

Only if enabled to cooperate with the requirements of human nature — the human givens — can children mature into independent, fulfilled and socially integrated adults. Recent discoveries about how the mind/body system works now give us greater insight into this process. The brain is a plastic, problem-solving organ, seeking challenges to meet in order to enable it to grow. Children therefore have to be stretched by their experiences of life if they are to develop well. Mastering any skill, whether riding a bike or learning the violin, takes time and effort — a combination of being drawn forward by the teacher and pushing oneself. There are also certain times when the brain is best equipped to learn — for instance, foreign languages can be best absorbed before the age of 10.

Taking advantage of such knowledge could powerfully improve the way we bring up and educate children. Indeed, we might need to question now whether it is ethical to leave language learning as largely the province of secondary school teaching, or to call ‘education’ the random imposition on children of ideologies, facts and procedures which do not whet their appetites for discovery and mastery. Or, as Thom Hartmann challengingly asserts in his Complete Guide to ADHD (reviewed by Joe Griffin on page 45 of Human Givens Vol. 9 No 2), is it ethical to dismiss as troublesome no-hopers, a huge number of children whose talents and behaviours are different from those of the majority, but which have significant value nevertheless?[2] Such reactions are the result of dogma rather than knowledge.

The importance of shared perceptions

Of the many obstacles which stand in the way of ethical decision making, perhaps the most important is the illusion of shared perceptions, which, consciously or unconsciously, serves to hide ignorance, protect territory, deceive or manipulate. This is largely the result of the language we use, and nowhere is this more plain than in the type of language used to describe ethical behaviour (see “Why abstractions confuse people”).

It is our nature to operate through metaphor and generalisations but, while this can be a great advantage to us, increasing our capacity for conceptualisation, it is also a vulnerability, as explained overleaf. We are social creatures and, unless we have perceptions more or less in common with those around us, it is difficult for us to cooperate, and our interactions at all levels are necessarily more crude. Then it becomes harder to ensure our proper needs are met, and selfish behaviour is more likely to occur.

Ethical decision making within a society is only possible if its members share the majority of their perceptions. Perception is the act of understanding the world by whatever means. Our senses are the channels for information about the world and perception is what our brains do with the information. But first the information is filtered and selected.

The selection process involves matching up the sensory information to what we already know by passing it through the embedded patterns of innate and learned knowledge held mainly in the limbic system and the left and right neocortex.[3],[4] The brain in effect compares all new information with its instinctive templates and learned memories of past experiences, and asks, “Is this important survival information — do I need to react? Or is it just interesting, or can I ignore it?”

As the brain discriminates — excluding or accepting information through this filtering process — it is forever building and enriching its internal model of reality. But, inevitably, this model is based on heavily censored input because the discrimination process is influenced by emotion and conditioning. For instance, a young man walking down the street on a warm July day is more likely to be aware of all the attractive young women in their summer clothes than of the unevenness of the cobblestones which preoccupies the old lady behind him. Or, when we applaud the words of a pundit or philosopher and proceed to repeat them to others, it may not be because of the clarity of the case presented but because we happen to agree!

All living creatures, even single-celled ones, that respond to sensations such as heat and cold, light and dark, hard and soft — moving forwards or away — are in effect practising discrimination: we require ‘sensitivity’ in order to discriminate.

The same, in a wider sense, can be said of groups or cultures. Civilisation can only exist when enough people share similar perceptions about the nature of the world and their place within it. The more refined, or subtle, the level of generally shared perceptions within a particular culture, the more highly civilised it is likely to become. In other words, a society in which there is a high level of dissent about what constitutes acceptable behaviour in people’s dealings with one another, or where there is an unwillingness to establish and abide by laws, operates at a cruder level than one where there is accord about such matters.

Thus, I would suggest, civilised (moral) behaviour is not a static achievement; it is a process involving the refinement of shared perceptions, the discrimination of countless shades of grey. We can see that, whenever this process is halted or reversed, the organisation or culture concerned ‘freezes’ and becomes intolerant. It then degenerates and eventually collapses, as happened in many ancient empires and more recently, in spectacular fashion, in the Soviet Union.

To increase our understanding of the friction between cultures today, and the predicaments of being human in a crowded world, we need to work at refining our perceptions as far as we possibly can. That means enlarging our perspective with the aid of the knowledge available to us from history, anthropology and psychology, to enable us better to see the bigger picture – the view beyond our own individual outlook or take on events.

Needs and wants

Looking at life from different perspectives inevitably brings about a greater understanding of others’ needs and wants, which may conflict with our own. Ethical dilemmas mainly seem to arise whenever circumstances are preventing someone’s physical or emotional needs from being fairly met, perhaps because they are in apparent conflict with those of another individual or organisation. The woman of 60 who wants to bear a child, because technology now makes it possible for her to be helped to do so, may want a child because she has been unable to conceive before, or because she has lost a child, or because her children are grown up and she feels her life lacks purpose without a caretaking role.

Perhaps, however, it might be considered that her need to be needed could be better met in a different way. The medical authorities may feel that she has as much right as anyone else to an assisted pregnancy; or that her needs are secondary to those of younger women; or that the pregnancy would be dangerous; or that it is inappropriate for a post-menopausal woman to bear a child when that is plainly against Nature’s intent. Others might argue that the menopause, which used to signal the decline of a woman’s life, now commonly occurs less than two thirds of the way through it, when women are still very healthy and active.

Yet others may be concerned that the unborn child’s needs conflict with those of the mother, if it is in the best interests of a child to have a parent who is able to take an active role in their life throughout childhood or who has the ability to work to support them. Or might it be taken into account that a particular financially secure, physically and emotionally healthy 60 year old woman who has a younger husband and the support of her family could be a more competent parent than a younger woman who is alone, mentally unstable, earns no income and often uses what money she has to buy drugs?

Taking the wider view, and establishing the different competing needs and interests involved, leads us to strive to understand each situation in which we find ourselves, rather than relying on belief systems for resolving them. Operating out of a belief system means blindly applying rules without questioning their applicability. Although beliefs ‘live on’, from generation to generation, they are, in themselves, dead things, preventing the pushing outwards of mental boundaries.

Ethics and emotional arousal

Issues such as the ‘right’ to have a child or the ‘right’ to a homeland generate an enormous amount of emotion. But taking the wider perspective requires objectivity — detachment. This is impossible unless we are in a state of low emotional arousal. As is now well understood, the more emotional we are, the more the rational part of the brain is over-whelmed and we are forced back onto the binary responses of the emotional brain — fight or flight. Emotional arousal locks us into one-track thinking, which can have survival value in certain circumstances but, in our complex world today, is rarely helpful for dealing with difficult problems.

When emotional, we think in black and white, all or nothing, terms. Misunderstandings occur. Feelings of being out of control develop. We tend to misuse our imagination, becoming so anxious about change or fearful of the unknown that we cannot meet challenges or take risks. We may worry constantly about loss of power or status; develop a morbid fear of failing, illness or death; begin to doubt our abilities and competence; become anxious and depressed. Because emotional arousal makes us inflexible, we suffer disappointment when things do not work out as we expect or as we feel they should.

In effect, being governed by emotion means being consumed by our own needs. In such a state, we cannot solve ethical dilemmas. Nor, when our emotions are strongly bound up in an ethical problem, are we capable of recognising that someone who does not share our view is not necessarily the ‘enemy’ or the ‘opposition’; and that if, in fact, they are standing back and taking an objective view, they are better equipped than we are to come up with a fair solution.

For instance, some pressure groups might clamour for an individual’s right to die when suffering from a debilitating incurable illness, and refuse to hear any dissenting voice. Yet, someone with knowledge who is unemotionally involved might usefully point out that many incurably ill people are depressed and that, if helped to lift the depression, they no longer want to die.

Solving difficult dilemmas that have moral or ethical aspects takes time. We have to be able to be calm and enable answers to come to us. As neuro-scientist John Ratey says in his book A User’s Guide to the Brain, “If one acts before allowing oneself time to think of the consequences, there is no willpower or self control. Values and goals are automatically ignored in the maelstrom of activity.”[3]

Two and a half thousand years earlier, Aristotle and Plato also taught that moral development is achieved by educating children to modulate their emotions, saying, “The moral virtues are engendered in us neither by, nor contrary to, nature; we are constituted by nature to receive them, but their full development is due to habit. So it is a matter of no little importance what sort of habits we form from the earliest age — education makes a vast difference, or rather all the difference in the world.”

Knowing where to go

Knowledge is not found in our conscious intellect. It is through our intellect that we refine our perceptions and come to understand. But when we understand something our state of knowing is unconscious. For instance, it takes conscious effort to learn a new skill, such as driving a car. Whilst learning we consciously think about every step required — the gear changes, signalling, judging distances, trying to analyse comparative speeds and so on. But there comes a moment when that conscious effort falls away. We instinctively pattern match to the required actions. Driving becomes automatic — unconscious. At that point, driving has become part of our intelligence. We know how to do it and might even be hard put consciously to describe all the elements involved. The knowledge only fully manifests itself when we get into a car and drive it.

We have probably all had experiences when we have, perhaps to our own surprise, just ‘known’ what to do or ‘known’ that something is so. One of my colleagues has a relative who was a property developer. He instinctively knew which properties in what state of disrepair to buy, and his judgement was rarely wrong. If, in an operating theatre, a sudden life-threatening situation develops and others are starting to panic, a particular surgeon may know exactly what needs to be done, and be able to stay calm and do it.

Similarly, we might just suddenly know the right life course to take, when faced with major conflicting options. This kind of unconscious knowledge, which enables us to act objectively, unencumbered by social conditioning or inappropriate emotional responses, is perhaps what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was referring to when he said, “Civilisation advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”[5]

It could be that consciousness evolved to help us focus more keenly on the world and question and analyse it, to help us get our needs met more efficiently and effectively. It is certainly a tool to solve problems. If knowledge is found in the sum of the richness of the unconscious pattern-matching processes which go on in our brains, then the work of consciousness is to help the person look for more effective patterns to match to, to extend and enrich unconscious knowledge. The more successfully we do this, the more emotion serves consciousness and perception rather than controlling it.

Understanding human nature

To have our best hope of acting ethically, as individuals, as members of a community or as members of a profession, we have to begin by gaining a better understanding of ourselves. We need to understand the processes of human conditioning; how ideologies restrict understanding; how the brain/mind/body system works; how to further refine perceptions; how emotional needs can be met without trespassing on the freedoms of others; and how best to use the resources given to us by nature to do so. Quite simply, we need to study the science of human nature, and the advances in knowledge about behaviour, biology and the brain that have accumulated in the last few decades.

In the process, we have to face the absurdities of selfish consumerism, human egoism, the blind certainties of dogmatic science and fundamentalist religious belief, including the grand unifying pessimism inherent in determinism (as expressed in the selfish gene theory), the simple ‘cause and effect’ ideas of some evolutionary theorists, and reliance on scientific reductionism. Post-modernism (which asserts that all opinions are of equal value, all thought is equally relevant and that there are no boundaries, no rules, no hierarchies, no objective reality, and which infects the arts, education, social policy making, and philosophy) also needs challenging.

Facing up to this may be more urgent than we realise. In the heady optimism of the mid-1960s, Idries Shah struck a sober note quite at odds with the naive but fashionable notion that to resolve any conflict, ‘all you need is love’. He said, “Tolerance and trying to understand others, until recently a luxury, has today become a necessity. This is because, unless we can realise that we and others are generally behaving as we do because of inculcated biases over which we have no control, while we imagine that they are our own opinions, we might do something which will bring about the destruction of all of us.”[6] His words are all too apposite now.

Developing an internal monitor

As a complex society, we will always find ourselves struggling with major ethical dilemmas, as there are multiple variables to everything. There are, however, three ethical safeguards in working from the human givens approach. First, professionalism and practice are based on the requirements of individual circumstances, rather than dogma and theory. It cannot be said too often that circumstances alter cases, and that what is appropriate in one instance may be inappropriate in another apparently similar one. Second, it focuses attention on looking largely at patterns and processes rather than content — the needs that have to be met in a situation to improve it, rather than the minute details of what maintains it. This is a mental posture which usefully helps keep us detached, vigilant, and focusing outwards, so that our own emotions do not become muddled up with those of patients/pupils/clients/colleagues or whomever we are concerned with.

Thirdly, it is understood that uncertainties or vulnerabilities within us can easily be triggered, through pattern matching, by an event or emotional story we read or hear. When this happens, inevitably we are no longer impartial or objective in our responses. For instance, a counsellor who is fearful of breast cancer, because of a raised family risk, may find herself being overly reassuring or, conversely, unwilling to address the concerns of a client in a similar position.

If people are unaware of this unconscious pattern-matching process, they may misinterpret the reason for their own reactions — perhaps assuming it is a legitimate response to the situation being considered, rather than the result of their own aroused emotions — and thus make avoidable errors of judgement.

On the Human Givens Diploma Course, we stress that we are first of all responsible for ourselves. We have to behave ethically towards ourselves if we are to behave ethically towards others, and we are behaving unethically towards ourselves if we allow any single need to dominate at the expense of others. For example, the development of any addictive behaviour, (whether workaholism, substance abuse, gambling, shopaholism, sex, or lust after money, information, gossip, power, attention or status) cannot but interfere with our personal and professional relationships.

If our own needs are out of balance, or we have so many emotional demands on us that we have little spare capacity left, we cannot reliably behave ethically towards other people or be effective therapists, managers or teachers.

Over the last 50 years there has been a partial breakdown in the ethical and moral systems (legal, educational and religious) that society once relied upon to maintain stability. Paradoxically, the breakdown process has to happen. Reliance on rigid belief systems eventually makes us too inflexible — and therefore too vulnerable — to survive in a rapidly changing world. New ideas and information can only permeate a society if it does not rigidly exclude such inputs.

While very many people are growing and flourishing, others are not adapting well to the rapid way the world is changing. Some appear unable to take responsibility for their actions. They have become fodder for the cult of passive consumerism. Consequences include the development of the ‘victim culture’, with people becoming obsessed with ‘rights’ and blame; the massively increasing numbers of people suffering mental disorders — now affecting a fifth of the population; — loneliness and a worldwide rise in suicide rates.

It is now enormously important, therefore, that we develop and learn to use well our innate resources, to steer ourselves and our society through the labyrinthine complexities of modern life.


IVAN TYRRELL is an experienced psychotherapist. He a director of Human Givens College, was a founding member of the European Therapy Studies Institute (ETSI) and co-developer of the human givens approach. He is a Fellow of the Human Givens Institute.

"Human Givens Journal" Volume 9 - No. 2: 2002



  1. Smith, D M (2000). Moral Geographies: ethics in a world of difference. Edinburgh University Press.
  2. Hartmann, T (2002). Complete guide to ADHD: help for your family at home, school and work. Underwood Books.
  3. Ratey, J (2001). A User’s Guide to the Brain. Little, Brown.
  4. Robertson, I (1999). Mind Sculpture: unleashing your brain’s potential. Bantam Books.
  5. Cialdini, R B (2001). Influence: science and practice (4th edition). Allyn and Bacon.
  6. Shah, I (1968). Reflections. Octagon Press.

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