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Section C

Ethical Foundations

Last updated: May 2021

The theoretical foundations of any enterprise are, and should be, the subject of continuing debate. The following is offered in that spirit: members are not required to accept all the ideas expressed, but are invited to consider them.

C.1  As human givens practitioners we are always concerned with helping people to flourish: to fulfil their nature, their needs, and potential as human beings in healthy ways. It is fitting, then, that we refer to that goal as the source of ethical practice, joining a stream of ethical theory that reaches back at least as far as Aristotle’s ‘virtue ethics’, if not further.

C.2  Philosophers may object that, as Hume pointed out, one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’: that is, that making claims to knowledge about how humans are and how they behave by nature does not lead automatically to the conclusion that this is how they should be or behave. A response to that is that we can choose to express a preference that humans should flourish, without relying on natural or supernatural laws as grounds for that preference. This is our ethical choice.

C.3  It is now known that human nature endows each person with living genetic ‘templates’ or pre-programmed patterns for which we instinctively seek completion in the environment. Such patterns are largely expressed as emotional needs, which drive us to action. We are also endowed with the resources or means to get our needs met (for a complete list of these needs and resources, see here). The way our needs are met produces our individual nature, character and mental health. This process is continuous, ebbing and flowing, refining and adapting us to our environment.

Mature, fulfilled, socially integrated adult humans can only develop when the environment is healthy enough, when they can learn the right kinds of things at the right time, and when their adaptive, plastic brains are stretched by suitable challenges: the brain is a problem-solving organ that needs to be exercised.

C.4  Recently, researchers in psychology and neuroscience have found evidence that human beings are equipped with a range of inbuilt moral emotional responses (see Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, Random House, USA (2012) for example). These, too, can be seen as part of the resources that equip us to deal with common human challenges, although their expression can differ widely in different human cultures. There is disagreement on the exact structure of these foundational morality modules, but Haidt and others have defined 6 moral concerns, each existing on an axis:

  • care/harm
  • liberty/oppression
  • fairness/cheating
  • loyalty/betrayal
  • authority/subversion
  • sanctity/degradation

The research also shows that we have immediate, emotional responses, within 200-250 milliseconds, to particular situations along the axes of these concerns. These are often, but not always, followed by conscious rationalisations about our reasons for those responses. In other words, we react instinctively, and afterwards ‘confabulate’ – make up stories or explanations – about our reasons for doing so.

C.5  If this is the case, then we can see that the role of culture in creating agreement about circumstances in which one reaction is more appropriate than another is vital. Evolutionary theory informs us that those behaviours and physical characteristics will survive and be passed on that adapt us best to survive in our environment. This is not just about individuals: humans need to live together in order to survive. So behaviours that enhance the survivability of the group are likely to be passed on through generations of humans. Indeed, there is growing evidence that evolutionary selection takes place at the group level as well as at the individual level. Any individual behaviour that is perceived by others as outside the group norms is experienced as a threat to survival, emotionally tagged as shame, guilt, embarrassment, etc. Customs, beliefs, rules and laws have grown over time and overlay these basic emotional responses.

C.6  Some of the drives that influence individual and group behaviour are selfish ones: to take what we can, to appear superior to and exercise power over others, to satisfy greed and lusts. In order to follow these drives, we seem to dehumanise the ‘other’ with whom we are interacting and treat them as an object (e.g. as a sex object, or as a ‘thing’ to be got rid of/killed). These drives warp people’s perception during such acts and allow them to invent justifications afterwards (‘they asked for it’; ‘they had it coming’; ‘it was their fault’).

But we are also born with co-operative drives, to empathise with others, to respond to suffering; to trust, bond with and commit to friends and family. We have a strong sense of fairness and we admire duty to a cause, loyalty and sacrifice. Such inclinations can be reinforced by habits, rules and education and the approval of our group.

C.7  In our particular cultural environment we gain our sense of ‘the group’ from many simultaneous (and sometimes opposing) sub-groups (family, neighbourhood, peers, religion, club, nation etc). The problems arise when notions of belonging to these groups conflict within and between cultures and nations. For example, the sanctity/degradation (or purity/disgust) emotions, together with loyalty/disloyalty, come into play when dictators encourage their followers to eliminate their enemies by genocide, overriding any vision of their victims as humans deserving empathy or equal treatment.

C.8  Civilisation only exists when enough people share similar perceptions about the nature of the world and their place within it. ‘Perceptions’ are our understandings of the world by whatever means. Sensory information is not neutral; it is always filtered through innate and learned knowledge by the brain (unconsciously and then consciously). The brain does this to filter out information that is important for survival from things that can be ignored. This pattern-matching and discrimination process builds and enriches the internal model of reality, but is heavily influenced by emotion, appetites and conditioning.

C.9  Problems arise from the illusion of shared perceptions. Ethical discussion has traditionally been largely conducted in language full of nominalisations (‘truth’, ‘justice’, ‘freedom’ etc). Each term means something different to different people – our brains pattern-match our memory of specific instances to the general term. Such nominalisations need to be reduced to specifics (what is the particular, concrete meaning of ‘justice’ in this context; who is doing what to whom?)… and challenged (‘You say you are ‘full of anger’. What makes you angry?’). If we do not do this we are vulnerable to self-deception and manipulation by others. An ethical discourse based on rights can also prove a stumbling block, based as it is on abstractions that evoke emotional responses.

C.10  Civilisation entails a high level of assent about what constitutes acceptable behaviour, about the law and the need to abide by it. Civilised behaviour is moral behaviour. It is not a static achievement but a process, involving the refinement of shared perceptions and discrimination among countless shades of grey. Good ethical decision-making is a practice that arises from the effort involved.

C.11  As human beings, and as human givens practitioners, we therefore need to work at refining our perceptions, and our understanding, of the challenges we face as we try to get our needs met and flourish in a crowded world. We need to enlarge our perspective with the aid of knowledge from history, anthropology and psychology so that we can see the bigger picture beyond our own individual outlook. We need accurate knowledge.

C.12  Our approach to the question of knowledge is to adopt the fallibilist position (see here for further information). This holds that knowledge does not, in fact, result simply from empirical observation but from imagination and conjecture in response to problems or challenges. Knowledge can thus be seen as a collection of useful explanations, which are always hypothetical: we can never be entirely sure that we are right. Our hypotheses then rely on empirical observation for their justification.

Fallibilism contends that we can accept this account of provisional ‘knowledge’, and advance explanations that fit the observable phenomena, that we can share, and that produce useful results. At the same time, we should always accept that our explanations will contain misconceptions in addition to ‘truth’. The role of experiment, or individual rational discrimination, is then to help us choose between competing explanations.

C.13  Further, explanations that are ‘hard to vary’ (for example, evolutionary theory, or general relativity, or quantum physics) are the most useful because they generate lots of answers. However, while exploring the dividends of a useful explanation we should constantly struggle to improve it, in the hope that this will enlarge its usefulness. The advantage of this point of view is that it refuses complacency. The human givens explanation for psychological well-being (and distress) can be seen as one such ‘hard to vary’ explanation, generating many new insights and including knowledge generated by previous explanatory theories that were less comprehensive.

C.14  What does this mean for ethical practice when working with the human givens? Ethical dilemmas mainly arise when circumstances are preventing someone’s physical and emotional needs from being fairly met, sometimes because they are in conflict with those of another individual or organisation. We therefore need to take an overview and establish the differing competing needs and interests involved, before attempting to resolve it.

C.15  This is a more productive approach than the traditional one of relying on beliefs and reasoning based on systems of generalised principles and rules. Beliefs are, in themselves, dead things that prevent the widening of mental boundaries. They may provide useful rules of thumb, but ‘circumstances alter cases’; each particular case will be unique and deserve consideration in its own context.

C.16  Taking on this wider perspective requires objectivity and detachment. This is impossible if we are in a high state of emotional arousal, which locks us into fight-or-flight response and which results in all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking and attendant consequences of anger and violence, or fear and withdrawal. If we are governed by emotion we are governed by the need to get our own needs met and therefore cannot solve ethical dilemmas because we are unable to consider others’ needs. Anyone who does not agree with us becomes ‘the enemy’. Again, the insistence on a ‘rights’ approach encourages this state of mind. We need to be calm and take time, approaching ethical dilemmas in a state of low emotional arousal.

C.17  We should not trust our unconscious reactions, including our own immediate moral emotions, but seek to extend and enrich our unconscious knowledge through conscious learning, so that our understandings join our unconscious knowledge, thus extending and enriching it. We need to understand ourselves better. This means studying the science of human nature. In particular we need to understand the processes of human conditioning; how ideologies restrict understanding; how the brain/body system works; how to further refine perceptions; how best to use the resources we have to do so.

C.18  Working from the human givens approach entails three ethical safeguards:

  1. Professionalism and practice are based on individual circumstances, not dogma and theory – we remember that individual circumstances alter cases
  2. HG focuses attention on patterns and processes rather than on the content of problems, and on the needs that have to be met to improve things; we can thus remain detached, vigilant and focusing outwards rather than emotionally involved with the client
  3. We are aware of the pattern-matching process, so if we find ourselves aware of elements in a client’s story that arouse our own emotions, we can take action to avoid this affecting our practice

C.19  In addition we need to make sure our own needs are met in balance. If our own needs are out of balance, or we have so many emotional demands on us that we have little spare capacity, we cannot reliably behave ethically towards others or be effective in our own roles.

C.20  A change in focus for all from ‘wants’ to ‘needs’, starting with a sincere examination of what nature has made us, will help us to do more good than harm to this planet and its inhabitants.


Continue to:  Online Therapy Guidelines (Appendix 1)


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