Evolution and Ethics

In an entry in the Encyclopedia of Science and Religion (edited by J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen in 2003) entitled Evolutionary Ethics, author Jeffrey P. Schloss (Westmont College, Santa Barbara, USA) explains that there are three ways to connect ethics and evolution. We may (1) study how ethics evolved in the cultural history of human civilisation (evolution of ethics), (2) reflect upon the ethical-normative content of evolutionary processes (ethics of evolution), or (3) attempt to derive ethical principles or guidelines from biological and/or socio-cultural evolution (ethics from evolution). Unfortunately, this rather poor article is short, incomplete, highly selective and a bit outdated. Worst of all, it is not precise, neither in the definition of ethics (especially its distinction from and relation to morality) nor in that of evolution (obviously assuming a strict Darwinian evolution model with a selection factor that is necessarily natural). That inspired me to think a bit deeper about these three fields of inquiry and write down my own reflections.

  1. Evolution of ethics

“What shall we do?”, or better: “What is right/good to do?”, are questions that people ask themselves or each other ever since man is able to reflect on that question. Whenever the action in question is one that affects people or instances other than the actor, it is a matter of ethics. How to treat others and how to control one’s decisions and actions in terms of certain values, virtues or other factors constitute one of the major branches in academic and applied philosophy around the globe. With a growing complexity of options and possibilities, the answer to those questions becomes more and more demanding and challenging. Whereas basic codes of conduct and moral rules for behaviour in small and pre-civilised communities (like tribes and ancient societies) can be sufficiently governed by simple principles such as “Don’t treat others like you don’t want to be treated by them!” (the Golden Rule), contemporary issues in applied ethics (like bioethics, medical ethics, questions of global justice, business ethics, technological impact, etc.) require sophisticated reasoning strategies and rational discourse in order to mediate between different interests and colliding values. A short look at the history of ethics reveals a trend that confirms this idea of ethics evolving over time: In Europe, the ancient Greek answered ethical questions with a virtue approach (“In a situation of ethical decision-making, choose what the ideal person would do!”). 2000 years later, Kant built a metaphysical theory of rational beings having intrinsic self-value, which puts the duty on everyone to respect that value (“Always treat people as ends, never only as mere means!”, “Always act as if the maxim of your will could at the same time serve as a common law!”). A little later, Bentham and Mill developed an ethical theory that focuses on the outcome of an action as the determining factor (consequentialism, most prominent form: utilitarianism, “Good is what brings about the biggest benefit for the largest number of entities.”). In very recent history, more elaborated theories such as contractarianism (based on John Rawls’ theory of justice) or discourse ethics (from Jürgen Habermas’ model of communicative rationality) have been presented and exploited for real-life cases. These later ideas help finding solutions for questions of distributive justice, human rights, political affairs, global economy and ecological or environmental sustainability. Similar developments of a sophistication of philosophical ethics can certainly be drawn in other cultural realms like the Asian (from Confucian and Daoist ethics via Mohism, Legalism and Buddhist ethics to contemporary Asian scholars).

It is important to note that an evolution of ethics must not be mixed up with an evolution of morality! I don’t think that human morality “evolves”. People today are not better people than people 500, 2000 or 10000 years ago! Ethics (the English singular term) is the endeavour to derive and reason morals (or ethics as the English plural term). It is this intellectual attempt that evolves in its strategies, methodologies and techniques, but not the sum of ethical codes (as the morality of a society) or even to what extent people obey to them. Before going into detail in the illustration of how ethics evolve, it has to be clarified what counts as evolution here. Darwin’s concept of biological evolution needs the trinity of reproduction, variation (for example by mutations) and natural selection as the factor that determines the success of a variation. Ethics as a completely human concept does certainly not evolve through a selection process of viable ethics theories by any “natural” entity. Rather, the selection is an artificial one, carried out by humans individually or as a societal agglomerate. When ethical theories are not successful in practice, they are challenged, modified, contested, refined or sometimes thrown aboard and substituted by new theories that serve the desired purposes better. Ethics is, therefore, a cultural achievement, not a natural one (but more on that in section 3).

Let me try to draw some lines of development from ancient humans until today (without having a solid knowledge background, I admit). The very basic human trait that makes people consider the rightness or goodness of an action is, probably, our emotional capacity, most of all empathic abilities. We are able to anticipate feelings, to “put ourselves into others’ shoes”. Our psychological demands, most of all the feeling of belongingness and as a result our family ties and desire for social embedment, make us want to see the people that mean something to us be happy and feel good. In the next step, we expand this capacity to people we don’t know. We rescue a child that fell into a well because we anticipate its suffering (and that of its parents) and feel the immediate obligation to save it from suffering. Nietzsche pointed out three possibilities here: (1) Ignoring the child and doing nothing, (2) rescuing the child for selfish reasons (a reward, or to stop the child’s annoying crying), (3) rescuing the child out of altruistic pure moral heartfelt concern. Only the third attitude is a purely ethical one, since the second one appears to us as a coldly calculated “reasonable” decision. It seems, there is an undeniable emotivistic foundation of morality. Rudimentary ethics, therefore, is the empathic observation of others’ wellbeing and satisfaction of interests. From this, considerations for right or wrong behaviour are deducted.

When larger societies formed and required new forms of governance and inner organisation (as in the ancient Greek Polis), these simple decision aids (“I do what doesn’t harm you.”) did not succeed in solving the urging issues of the time. Wise scholars modified the emotivist ethics, starting from the general premise that in principle we all know what is good because we feel it, suggesting to align one’s decisions to the behaviour of widely respected and admired ideal figures. “Look at that soldier! He is a good soldier because he is so brave, neither a coward nor a daredevil! That’s how you as a soldier should act!“. There is not much sophisticated philosophical reasoning in virtue ethics, yet. However, in order to achieve wisdom (the highest of all virtues), one must have a certain degree of knowledge, for example of state affairs, of contemporary crafts skills, of the world (today we would say science), of social organisation. An important factor in many societies of those times (3000-2000 years ago) was religion, here defined as the belief in powerful divine entities, while school education was not available for the majority of people. In this environment, knowledge is power of a few over many, and religious and political authorities constitute a new source of morality (“It is right because I tell you so, authorised by God!”). Ethics, then, is more strictly separated from morality itself: Those who perform ethics are a few while morality is inflicted on the ethical laymen (the majority of people), communicated by religious or state institutions and passed down from generation to generation via cultural customs and traditions.

Over the centuries, knowledge increases, libraries are filled, societies reform and revolutionise, education systems arise, political systems transform. A growing knowledge base almost necessarily changes the Menschenbild (image of man) that people have. Again from a European perspective: Galileo (and others) took Earth out of the center of the universe, Darwin took man out of the center of creatures, Freud took the ego out of the center of a person. The authority of church was sustainably shattered, enlightened humanism was on the rise. In the spirit of the French revolution, everybody was equal (more or less), everybody was free and self-determined (more or less), everybody was rational and reasonable (always more “less” than “more”). The answer to the question of what was right to do had to be reconfigured and put onto new grounds. The philosophical giant Immanuel Kant, father of European enlightenment, formulated his famous categorical imperative (see above) which impacted European law-and-order systems and political philosophy immensely until today. Ethics, then, becomes a normative science: An active elaboration (like “mental research and innovation”) of principles and theories that have to prove their viability by being applicable for the solution of particular ethical problems. In terms of evolution: Human problems that exist ever since continuously required answers (the reproduction of ethics in everyday life) while traditional value- and worldview-systems were not sufficient any longer so that they were varied (input of contemporary knowledge, adaption to new social circumstances, etc.) until normative theories were found that met the goals of solving the issue at stake (the artificial selection in terms of success criteria) in view of an ever increasing knowledge foundation. These criteria vary from society to society and over time, of course. Today, almost all social processes are regulated in normative terms, most prominently in professional fields (medicine, science, engineering, business, etc.) and in environmental issues (including the relationship between humans and nature, humans and animals, humans and plants, etc.). Ethics is now a field of expertise of mostly academic scholars that acquire a large amount of knowledge in particular specialised fields in order to tackle the pressing problems that arise in those narrowly confined areas. In order to answer normative questions in the field of nanotechnology, for example, one needs to be an expert on nano-science and nanotechnology itself, but also on ethics (as philosophical discipline), sociology, economy, technology governance, etc. Ethics is no longer a matter of interpersonal attitude, but one of roundtables and commissions.

Evolution of ethics is an inquiry that results in descriptive statements about historical and cultural developments and events. It can facilitate the understanding of particular societies in their temporal and regional frames. It is in a way neutral that it doesn’t tell anything meta-ethical, like the appropriateness or correctness of an ethical theory. As always with historical and cultural studies, the true value lies in what we do with what we learn from it: In the face of inevitably revolutionary insights from scientific, technological, cultural and societal progress, will we be able to align our normative standards and their reasoning to our new knowledge horizons?

For more information on the development of ethics systems around the globe, have a look at one or all of the following books:

  • Kenan Malik, The Quest For A Moral Compass – A Global History Of Ethics, Melville House Pub., 2014
  • Harry J. Gensler, Ethics – A Contemporary Introduction, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2011
  • Lisa Rasmussen, Ethics Expertise. History, Contemporary Perspectives, and Applications, Springer, 2005
  • Tad Dunne, Doing Better – The Next Revolution in Ethics, Marquette Univ. Press, 2010
  1. Ethics of evolution

From my point of view, the case is simple here: There is no ethics of evolution. Evolution as a process that occurs in nature (the biological evolution from which life forms emerge and that works in accordance with material cause-effect-relations and with fundamental principles of the universe like striving for harmony and balance, interconnectedness and conditionality) and culture (social progress, technology, politics, worldviews, etc.) is value-free in the sense that it simply follows pathways that are shaped by certain conditions. The most prominent opponents against my view are the religious institutions, above all the monotheistic churches. In his famous book Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays, Thomas H. Huxley (1894) draws a picture of evolution as a process full of evil: In Darwinian evolution, suffering and death become primal features rather than post-hoc additions to creation. The role of natural evil changes from an ancillary intrusion upon God’s mode of creation to the central driving force of the process itself. Moreover, the Darwinian picture of the world is coloured by dominant hues of self-interest and an utter absence of natural beneficence. Huxley obviously misunderstood completely what evolution is about, partly due to improper wording of early evolutionists. Educated people of today know better, of course. The “fight for survival” is actually not a fight among individuals or species in the direct meaning of the word. The fittest is not a dominant egoist but always that one who has better chances to succeed in a particular situation with a particular set of conditions that – co-incidentally – the fittest one meets best. Evolution is a cosmic process that – as I insist – is non-teleological and, therefore, non-ethical (unless you believe in God as creator, but then you better go and get some education). Ethics is a human system for the evaluation of actions and decisions which simply doesn’t apply to natural processes.

  1. Ethics from evolution

If not ethical as such, can evolution (better: our insights into the mechanisms and pathways of evolution) at least tell us anything about how we can elaborate a valid and viable ethics theory? Two viewpoints would definitely answer “No!”: Monotheistic religions that insist on morals provided by divine command, and moral realism that regards moral value as intrinsically existing unshakably in the world. I am entirely non-religious, so I won’t even comment on the former. Apparently, I am also not a realist, but the case is more complicated here. Normativity, ethics, laws, cultural codes of conduct, are constructions by human intellect and reflection. However, it is essential to apply a holistic viewpoint here: The human mind can’t be seen without its embedment into the environmental system that developed and shaped it – by evolutionary processes! As explained before, harmony and balance are major driving forces of universal processes. Evolution, then, is not an entirely random undirected emergence of co-incidental features and entities. Rather, it is a fine-tuned balancing-out of conditions in which a certain state (for example, a life form with a certain ability) can only sustain because it fits. That means (as Nancy Murphy puts it), the universe operates in such a way that what comes into existence (which means “what works”) inevitably tends toward the right or the good. Here, I run the risk of being accused of a naturalistic fallacy: I derive an ethical evaluation from what simply is. Indeed, the introduction of value statements (something is good or right) only works on the premise that it is justified to see value in cosmic harmony and its striving for balance.

If we can accept this point – that evolution itself proceeds on the basis of an intrinsic value – what does it actually tell us? The insight that everything that evolved has the same intrinsic value just because it has evolved is too simplistic and relativistic. Limiting our ethical vision to what conforms with prevailing views of the natural dismisses the human trait of karmic power, the ability to choose consciously even when it is “not natural” (which is, of course, part of the nature). I suggest that the link between ethics and evolution must be regarded as a rather loose one. The best ethics (from a meta-ethical perspective) is one that is informed by rationally acquired knowledge (for example by scientific inquiry) to the largest possible extent. Rather than deriving ethics directly from evolution, we align our normative understandings and evaluations with what we know about the world we live in. For example, with our knowledge about the evolution of life forms, we can’t regard mankind as “the crown of creation” any longer (like Christian ethics would), but appreciate and protect other environmental entities or even give them higher moral significance than human interests – an important insight for environmental ethics and bioethics. We would be able to argue from an evolutionary perspective against speciesism, racism and global injustice. Insights into psychological traits and how they arose in the anthropological history of mankind may equip us with the skill of empathic benevolence, thus reducing prejudice, hatred and interpersonal disharmony.

This view builds the bridge between knowledge of nature (what is) and normativity (what ought). A separation is necessary for many reasons (discussed elsewhere). But an alignment and reasonable adjustment of the latter by the former is necessary as well. This protects us from our mindless default-setting, from religious or other dogmatism and moral preaching, and from naturalistic moral absolutism. I am firmly convinced that only then will we be able to face and solve the urging ethical questions that arise in contemporary societies and their sub-spheres.

For further insights into this field of inquiry, check this book:

  • Scott M. James, An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics, Wiley Blackwell, 2011

Or a rather critical one (because it is always better to know all perspectives):

  • Paul Lawrence Farber, The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics, Univ. California Press, 1994



In daily life we often face situations in which we have to make a decision of what is “right” or “good” to do. Those can be ethical dilemmas, difficult choices of lifelong importance (job, partner, moving to another place, etc.), or just simple judgments of incidents, statements, observations and actions with political, social, cultural or other dimension. Since we are embedded into a network of social and cultural interconnections, we are able to come to conclusions without much sophisticated knowledge but just on the basis of our education, experiences, cultural confinements and other factors that constitute a kind of “common sense”. However, in many cases our judgments, conclusions and decisions conflict with those of other people. Then, our viewpoints and the foundations of our reasoning standards are challenged – we have to make clear to ourselves how and why we come to these viewpoints in order to convince “the others” of the correctness and reasonability (or in some cases: superiority) of our arguments. This kind of dispute is the core of all kind of conflicts – political, religious, scientific, in personal relations, etc. – since mankind developed the skills of communication and conscious reflection. History provides uncountable examples of what can go wrong: dogmatism, ideology, superstition, manipulation, physical threats, and many more. For many millennia it wasn’t “the most reasonable argument” that always won, but in many cases that argument that was brought up and pushed through by the most powerful (the strongest, the wealthiest, the armed, the educated, the rhetorically most skilled, etc.) instance. Especially organised religions, for example Christianity and Islam, with their highly dogmatic belief systems, but also scientific approaches to understanding the world (examples: Phlogiston theory, geocentric worldview), run the risk of erroneous interpretations of the “world”. The consequences of unreasonable world conceptions can be dramatic and catastrophic, leading to injustice, mistreatment and misery (examples: the racism and fascism of the Nazi regime in Germany, the persecution of “witches” in medieval Europe, ideology-based exploitation and suppression of “minorites” around the globe, massive environmental destruction and extinction of species due to human activity).

We might compare the development of mankind and its insights into the world fabric to the process of growing up from a child to an adult. A baby doesn’t understand anything, not even itself (or “its self”). A young child that just discovers basic mechanisms of the world (cause-effect-relations, gravity, time, etc.) and human skills (for example language, intentional action) is not capable of scientific and metaphysical understanding of the world. It will believe fairytales and stories when they match with the simple observations it can make. The moon glows at night, so it is reasonable to believe that there is someone on or in it who switches on and off a lamp. On Easter morning there are colourful eggs hidden everywhere in the garden, so of course there is an “Easter Bunny” that came at night and put them there! Also, adults give the child simple orders like “Don’t touch the electrical socket!” rather than explain the technical background of high voltage and its effect on the human body. The older the child grows and the more it learns the more we will expect it to “know” and “understand” these things. It will not be satisfied anymore with simple orders, childish explanations or flowery stories. A reasonable teenager will start questioning things, identifying flaws, fallacies or “lies”. The process of learning is mostly one of “acquiring knowledge”, both technical-factual and normative-orientational. With the ongoing process of maturation more and more “beliefs” and “dogmas” can either be substituted by “knowledge” and “insight” or be put on more sophisticated foundations of knowledge and reason. The latter often requires a refinement or modification of worldview and understanding. We can imagine that insights with strong impact can change a person’s attitude towards or opinion about something. The same goes for societies: Ancient civilisations cultivated cruel customs such as cannibalism, slavery, human sacrifice or barbaric methods of capital punishment. They believed in ghosts, gods, super- and para-natural forces (some people still do), or based their explanations and worldviews on “facts” and “knowledge” that – from today’s perspective – was simply wrong. Most of these false beliefs and immature practices disappeared or have been abandoned, mostly after periods of philosophical and intellectual insights like the European Enlightenment era leading to Humanism or the establishment of Confucian social structures after the Chinese “Warring States” period.

Is the current state of civilisation ready to be called “mature”? Regardless of the fact that there is not just “one civilisation” on Earth but many different ones with varying degree of maturation, we can state that around the globe the access to sophisticated knowledge and insight is given to a larger extend than ever before. Natural and social sciences as well as Philosophy and Psychology have elaborated profound understanding of worldly and human affairs. The question is: What do we do with that knowledge? I’d like to make a point that is by far not self-understanding for many people and/or societies: The basis for any form of reasoning – be it technical, logical, metaphysical, normative, etc. – should be knowledge. At the same time (and this is my second plea), we (like the rebellious teenager) should always question and doubt everything. Knowledge should inform worldview, but worldview in return should evaluate and analyse knowledge constantly. When the rebellious teenager matures into a young adolescent, he or she will usually become more peaceful by solidifying his or her worldview which is based on the questioned, modified, refined and challenged knowledge. With a little optimism I’d like to state that I see a chance that the mankind of today is capable of throwing old dogmatism, false beliefs, misled and corrupt knowledge aboard and substitute it by knowledge-based insight on the world fabric, mankind’s place in it, and the human condition. In the following I’d like to draw a sketch of what that might look like.


Worldviews and ethical theories are most challenged by finding their “deepest” reason, the most fundamental basis that all argumentation is built upon and that – ideally – can be understood and agreed upon by everyone. Constructs that take a belief or a story, legend or claim that can never be proven as the starting point or “ultimate truth” are called “dogmatic”, for example religious systems that are built around the faithful belief in a God. It is the standard of philosophical reflection to go deeper than that. Attempts to go back to the very beginning of reasoning and reflecting on the nature of reality are sometimes called “first philosophy”, for example skepticism (e.g. Descartes), induction (e.g. Hume), transcendental philosophy (e.g. Kant), and others.[1] There is an intrinsic circular problem that all these first philosophies have to deal with: We want to base a worldview on what we know, but that provokes the question of what we – as human beings – are able to know. This question can only be answered satisfyingly on the basis of a worldview – the one we want to elaborate from what we know. With other words: What the observer (we) wants to observe is the observer itself, more precisely: his ability to observe. Or, as Heinz von Foerster puts it: “What does it need to understand a brain? – A brain!”.[2] We need knowledge to draw conclusions on the epistemological question “What are we able to know?”,  which is ideally fed from ontological insights into the reality of the world.  A “one-and-half-cycle” approach is suggested: Based on the very general and fundamental assumptions that are formulated in the ancient Chinese philosophical texts and that we can assume to be more or less secure “knowledge” of the principles and mechanisms of the world, a worldview is drawn that allows conclusion on the “human condition” – the position of mankind in the “world fabric” and, by that, the abilities and limitations of cognition. With an idea of “what human are able to know” the validity of the initial knowledge base is checked and – if necessary – refined. With these more secure insights an extended ontology, the metaphysical foundations of a worldview, can be elaborated. This can serve as a starting point for “applications” such as ethical principles, scientific methodology, human psychology, etc.


The most fundamental phenomenon that we can observe in the world is “change“. This can be agreed to even without any scientific knowledge or philosophical preconditions. Nothing remains the same forever. Time and space are spanned up by “change”.[3]

In the next step, we have to conclude that there must be a governing principle. Otherwise we would end up either at chaos with all being as a product of randomness and chance, or at the postulation of an organized order under the guidance of a powerful entity creating a deterministic causality. Both are not reasonable to assume: the former because it does not match with our daily life experiences, the latter because it is laden with additional preconditions that are either impossible to prove or a matter of belief (but never of knowledge). Here, we can adopt the concept of Harmony from the Yi-Jing and its further elaborations in Confucianism and Daoism. Harmony must not be mixed up with “sameness”. Also, “equilibrium” does not imply “the one perfect state”. We can imagine these ideas in the picture of a pendulum: “Equilibrium” means the alteration around the perpendicular. As long as there are causes and effects in the universe, the pendulum will never come to a perpendicular stop. In this sense, harmony describes the tendency to balance out the energies that arise from the interaction of different elements in creative tension. Therefore, it is different from the “immediate harmony” in the Hegelian understanding, and different from the “natural state” symbolised by Adam and Eve in the Bible. This form of harmony is reflective, mediated, and highly relational.[4] In order to make this work, we have to assume a network of conditionality, both in the diachronic and synchronic dimension. The former means, a current state is caused by former states; the latter means, a current state is causally connected to other contemporary states. Additionally, still on save grounds, we can formulate that the ongoing process of oscillating around a point of harmony – disturbance of the equilibrium due to change of the conditions, re-aligning to the new surrounding state, establishment of a new equilibrium that is in harmony with the new state – necessarily leads to emergence, the development of more and more sophisticated and causally interwoven states.


These insights draw this picture of the world (we are now at Box 2: Basic Ontology): In the course of time and space that is made up by the properties and characteristics of Qi (call it “energy”), mankind’s appearance following evolutionary processes is embedded into this set of properties. Interaction with the specific environment on Planet Earth equipped the organism “human” with the senses and abilities that are useful and advantageous in this particular surrounding. Therefore, the actual cognitive and mental capability of humans is extremely limited given the complexity and variety of phenomena of the world. The development of brain processes known as “consciousness”, allowing volitional action, might be insignificant for the “world fabric”, but increases the complexity of human capabilites and human understanding massively. Especially the ability of communication (including self-communication, thinking) and its tool – language – widened the range of human action immensely. However, the idea of the world that is consciously perceived is condemned to remain a confined cut of the actual world. Moreover, it is a construction in the human mind. This leads us closer to the question of what we are able to know. But before we elaborate further on that, let’s have a closer look at the characteristics of this worldview that was just described.

We analysed the human condition solely in terms of its natural embedment in its environment, with the universal law of “cause and effect” as its foundation. Obviously, by doing so we follow a naturalistic approach which is the common term for the argumentative elaboration of “values” (like “harmony” or “balance”) with the focus on conditionality and cause-effect-relations. Among Philosophers, Naturalism became very popular in recent years. So many contemporary Philosophers claim themselves and other (ancient) Philosophers “naturalists” that it is hard to find a clear definition of what the term means and what it actually implies.[5] It seems safe to claim that Naturalism opposes the supernatural, and in certain understandings also the artificial. But it is the matter of heated debate whether Naturalism has to or needs to stand against “the normative”, too. From the Asian perspective, this question would surely be answered in favour of “naturalised normativity”: The norms and codes of conduct that are derived from ethical reasoning must be rooted in the nature of the world that mankind is embedded in. Everything else would be an “uprooted”, artificial, “thin” man-made concept. It is important to point out (as mentioned above) that it is necessary to be aware of a “separation of tasks” of different stages of reasoning: At this point we are investigating the human condition. Here, naturalistic perspectives like the Asian one are reasonable and appear helpful to address the respective questions. The introduction of “value” in order to elaborate normative statements will be done later when the whole metaphysical worldview is complete and when the perspective is focused specifically on “human affairs” rather than generally on “universal affairs”.

At this point, we can already exclude certain paradigms and principles – metaphysical perspectives that are certainly not element of “my philosophy”:

  • Dogmatism: Ideologies or teachings that are based on “belief” and mystical hypothesis are neither considered for nor concluded from this worldview conception. All it needed so far is a bit of experience and reflection, but no speculation about God(s) or other “creator entities” and no unprovable initial dogma.
  • Transcendentalism: According to E.O.Wilson, there is a significant difference between transcendentalists – those who believe that there are moral guidelines outside the human mind – and empiricists – those who think of them as contrivances of the mind.[6] Some philosophers understood the Yi-Jing as proclaiming “intrinsic value in the universe” and, accordingly, interpreted this as “transcendental”. The naturalistic “value” of harmony towards which everything is aligning and striving, however, should not be seen as transcendental since from a perspective of morality, it is “neutral” in the sense that it can’t tell what is good and right. “Equilibrium” shows “the direction to go”, but still the society and its members is obliged to figure out the methods and tools to go that way (the particular morals). Asian morality, especially as suggested by the Yi-Jing, is characterised as contextual prescriptivism, a highly situational ethics that depends on time, space and condition, but is firm in its principles and virtues. There is neither any form of “moral absolutism” nor a commitment to unshakable “cosmic norms” that are valid beyond the framework of human reasoning.
  • Human Nature: In the same sense, it is difficult to talk of “human nature” as something intrinsically given. Human traits are, according to Confucianism and Buddhism, manifestations of states with causal origins that change over time. In a more biological sense: The behavioural attitude of human beings (over the evolutionary development course of mankind) adapts flexibly to the environment according to its requirements and beneficial rewards. The attributes of “good” or “evil” are added by human from human perspectives.

The question “What can we know?” (Box 3: Epistemology) is a crucial one in the endeavour of building a worldview upon knowledge. In the West, the two major “classical” positions on this question are empiricism (knowledge as the result of experiences and cognitive perception) and rationalism (knowledge as the result of rational reasoning and mental reflection). From the previous insights we know that both our experiences and our ratio are “flawed” and/or incomplete and, therefore, our knowledge is also construed. This “constructivism” underlies both insight through reason and insight through experience and cognition. Buddhism (but also other Asian schools of thought) propagate an almost radical constructivism in questions of world perception and recognition.[7] In the European tradition, the idea that the mental representation of the world is not a depiction of the (real) outside world but rather a construction of an image inside the observing mind was elaborated comparably late, but is now widely accepted among philosophers and other related scholars.[8] Meanwhile, constructivism pervaded many academic and scientific disciplines, ranging from natural sciences[9] and psychology to sociology[10] and anthropology, especially prominent as “social constructivism”[11]. There is a clear tendency towards naturalism and constructivism going along with each other since both share, in parts, the same basic assumptions.[12] An idea that can be given up at this point is “truth” or, respectively, the possibility of getting anywhere near the “ultimate truth”. Therefore, also the attempt to achieve it is given up.

With these insights, is it necessary to revise, change or even discard the initial input of “basic knowledge” (Box 4)? Would we have to admit that the basic ideas of the world are in any way “wrong” or so flawed that they can’t serve as a starting point for metaphysical reflection any longer? The understanding that both the “human reality” and the “human options of acquiring knowledge” are best described by constructivism might leave the impression that “all we are able to know is that we know nothing”. However, this is a misconception. First, “knowing that our knowledge is highly filtered” and “knowing that what we believe we know can be wrong or corrupt” is not equivalent to “knowing nothing” (the nihilistic or fatalistic viewpoint). Awareness of the constructive character of our worldview and our reflections on metaphysics is important to avoid dogmatism, to increase the chances of both empiricism and rationalism to be “precise” or “correct”, and to align the worldview steadily to newly acquired knowledge. Moreover, the most important claim of all metaphysical and, in the following of it, ethical reasoning should be to be done “to the best of the available knowledge, insight, and conscience”. There is simply no other chance to base the reflections on “what we know” and “what we are able to know to the best of our abilities”. This corresponds to the Daoist idea that all we are able to do (and, therefore, obliged to do) is “getting as close as possible to the “Dao” (the point of total harmony) with our actions and behaviour, admitting that it will never be possible to reach it.[13] Here, too, it is impossible to reach the point of “ultimate truth”, but it should be taken as our goal to get as close as possible to it when reflecting on metaphysics.

Initially, it was claimed that the basic principles of the world fabric are:

  • Harmony – Cause-effect-mechanisms due to constant heading towards equilibrium states, spanning “time and space”
  • Conditionality – No existence without anything else existing, but no “ontological determinism”
  • Emergence – Increasing complexity through sophistication processes and development towards more elaborated states, resulting (among others) in consciousness.

Ancient Asian thinkers and intellectuals recognised – and I fully support it – that no phenomenon of the world manifests itself independent from other elements of the world. This can be observed for both material aspects of the world (the interaction of matter from the atomic to the cosmic scale) and abstract entities that occur in the mind of a conscious being. Moreover, even this classification of “material” and “mental” aspects of the world does not imply that they are separated, but regards them as connected as well, e.g. by understanding cognitive and mental processes as of material origin, for example the interplay of biomolecules, or by realising that also the “material world” is just another construction in the mind of the perceiver. Here, my idea of the world stands in sharp contrast to Cartesian dualism.

The initial assumptions are confirmed and supported by modern methods of scientific investigation and observation. Natural sciences created in-depth knowledge and understanding of the matter that the world is made from and how it is kept together. Mankind has access to knowledge about the atomic constitution of the world as well as the cosmic mechanisms of solar systems, galaxies and the universe. This knowledge confirms the important insight that whatever happens in the universe is happening because of a constant heading towards equilibrium states. Two atoms in a molecule oscillate and vibrate around a point of (energetically) “most favourable” distance to each other. In a chemical reaction, a “trigger” (for example an input of energy in form of heat or light) disrupts this balance, forcing the components to find a new “best” state of energy, eventually forming new bonds with other atoms or molecules. Macroscopic processes follow the same mechanism with increasing degree of complexity: Water runs down a mountain in the “energetically most favourable” way according to gravitational forces, friction forces, momentums, etc. Evolutionary processes creating “life” and bringing about consciousness and the ability of self-recognition, reflection and abstract reasoning evolve in a fine-tuned balance with the environment. Even psychological, social and cultural phenomena follow this rule of cause and effect – a trigger causing a disruption of the current equilibrium state, forcing the formation of a new equilibrium according to the new conditions. Reaching states of equilibrium is the fundamental driving force of everything that happens in the world. This can be taken as true independent from human observation and understanding. The examples used here, including “atoms”, “molecules”, “gravitation”, “energy”, “evolution”, “psychology” or “society”, are the current state of human knowledge, have been different 1000 years ago and will be different – maybe refined or discarded and substituted by new, more precise knowledge – in a thousand years from now. The overall principle of cause and effect, however, will most likely never be proven invalid, no matter how incomplete, insufficient, flawed and ignorant our human knowledge of the world turns out to be.

We can elaborate those first insights further. A simple conditionality would have to be understood as deterministic causality, but with the high degree of complexity that is found in the world, we better speak of “complex conditionality networks” pervading the “organic whole” that the world constitutes.[14] First, that allows the influence on “Karma” by volitional actions which is necessary to make sense of the Buddhist goal of enlightenment; and second, with this tenet we circumvent the threat of “nihilism” and “fatalism” that come up with stricter determinism. Emergence within this network of conditionality is “upgraded” to evolution by adding an element of “improvement” or “sophistication” through the growing complexity of “re-harmonising” processes. This evolution – a constant increase in cause-effect-relations within the network – necessarily leads to a high degree of interconnectedness of literally everything with everything. In this dynamic oneness, subject to constant change, nothing is permanent or eternal but everything contains of an intrinsic impermanence.

Another important concept in Western philosophy that must be regarded critically in the context of this (mine? “Asian”?) worldview is teleology – the question whether beings have an intrinsic purpose of existence or not.[15] Aristotle gave the example of an acorn that has the “telos” – the intrinsic purpose – to grow into an oak tree. The response from the perspective presented here would be: The acorn grows into an oak tree because that is its place in the conditionality network, both as “effect” (an oak tree produced an acorn as its way of sustaining the existence of the kind “oak tree”) and “cause” (the acorn is supposed to grow into an oak tree because that is its position in the causal chain that was established as an equilibrium to ensure the ongoing existence of the kind “oak tree”). Several scholars interpret this still as a form of teleology,[16] but the difference is an important one: “purpose” is a human concept, whereas thinking of states as result of karmic interconnectedness works out well without adding “humanisation” of processes (or “pathetic fallacy”).

Let me come to Box 5 and extend our ontological conception. The sophisticated cause-effect-law suggests that the world can only be understood “in its whole” since everything is connected. This can be best described by a combination of holism and monism (in “Western” terms). Realising that evolutionary processes proceed under the principle of “harmony” (heading towards equilibrium states) puts the human realm (as result of an evolutionary process) into a larger perspective of cosmic relations: We are neither “divine” nor “outstanding”, but just another “entity” that is part of the overall balance.

In Western philosophy, “monism” as counterpart of “dualism” often referred to a solely “idealistic” or a solely “materialistic” ontology, claiming that only one of them (respectively) is representing the reality. However, the dualistic separation of mind and matter sphere is still present in this attributive distinction. “Neutral monism” tries to overcome this separation.[17] The monism inherent in Chinese Philosophy can be best described by “dual-aspect monism”.[18] The first Buddhist philosopher that systematically pointed out the monistic character of a Buddhist’s understanding of the world was Nagarjuna.[19] His concept of “sunyata”, usually translated as “emptiness” could be considered as a form of cosmic monism when taken together with holism.

Holism as the counterpart of reductionism has a rather short history in the Western philosophical tradition. The term is coined by J.C. Smuts[20] and has ever since been subject of philosophical debate and dispute.[21] Several understandings of “holism” have been expressed, such as “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” (naïve holism), “An understanding of a complex system is best sought at the level of principles governing the behaviour of the whole system, and not at the level of the structure and behaviour of its component parts.” (methodological holism), “Some objects are not wholly composed of basic physical parts.” (ontological holism), “Some objects have properties that are not determined by physical properties of their basic physical parts.” (property holism). Modern understandings are strongly linked to the growing awareness for the high degree of complexity of the world.[22] Especially in the biological sciences, a reductionist ontology and methodology is more and more replaced by holistic conceptions of complex systems. With the acceptance of a complex conditionality it is, furthermore, possible to circumvent a strict determinism (see above). In Chinese Philosophy, Holistic world conceptions were much more widespread since ancient times. In most of the classical texts (Yijing, Daodejing, etc.), the complexity of the world as an organic whole is paid tribute to by analysing and understanding it in view of its constant processes of change and movement.[23]

The reflections above have revealed insights on the basic characteristics of my philosophical view on the world. The four key elements, so to say the cornerstones of that worldview, are identified to be holism, monism, naturalism, and constructivism. Their combinations result in further important concepts of the world fabric and its mechanisms:


The monistic and holistic world conception almost necessarily leads to a cosmocentric position in questions of ethical accountability and evaluation.[24] With a naturalistic approach to a holistic interpretation of the world fabric, credit is given to a complex conditionality as driving mechanism of all being and happening. The interconnected oneness of all being within the framework of Nature should be read with atheistic or agnostic accounts: It does not support the existence of a divine entity like the God of the Abrahamic tradition. The religious idea of monism becomes obsolete in a naturalistic fashion. The acceptance of a constructive character of human perception of the world adds further specific implications. In the ongoing debate between realists and antirealists, the ontology developed here can be grouped around the middle, comparable to pragmatism (in the Deweyan and Rortyan understanding)[25] or the “Natural Ontological Attitude” introduced by Arthur Fine.[26] To illustrate Buddhism’s nearness to Fine’s ontology, compare the Buddhist ideal approach of “seeing things as they are” to Fine’s statement “The attitude that marks [my naturalism] is just this: try to take science on its own terms, and try not to read things into science”.[27] Understanding both as approaches to “know reality” (Buddhism in a wider sense, Fine with means of science), they share the pragmatic and constructivist notion of being constantly aware of the pitfalls of human perception and cognition. Moreover, modern forms of “Engaged Buddhism” – the layman practice of actively supporting peace and the cessation of suffering – are based on a pragmatism that is characteristic for Buddhist practice in all its schools.[28] Constructive Realism, a model of knowledge- and language-based reality-understanding that I support (I will explain later), makes even more sense when embedded into a monistic interpretation of the world. The alternatives – ontological idealism or materialism, or epistemological rationalism or empiricism – are all dualistic and don’t fit into this scheme that emphasises monism. The “no-substance ontology”[29] that is prevalent in Asian Philosophy, especially in Buddhism, finds its foundation in the constructivist paradigm within a holistic worldview. That is so because a holistic world conception – of everything being holons that are parts of larger holons – within a constructivist paradigm (we can always only grasp parts of holons, e.g. certain properties and features) identifies “substance” almost inevitably as an illusion, whereas reductionism would conclude “substance”.

As pointed out earlier, I believe that my worldview shows significant parallels and similarities to what we can call “Asian worldview” which is fed mostly from the two directions of “Dao” (as in the Yi-Jing, in Confucianism, and in Daoism) and Buddhism. However, my focus is on Buddhism since its metaphysical foundations are further and deeper elaborated. This is perfectly reflected in the analogy between Buddha’s teachings and the cornerstone overview. Each link can be understood in terms of one or more of his key concepts:


Emptiness can be readily understood as the consequence of a monistic and holistic worldview.[30] Same as a cosmocentric framework for ethical reasoning, it propagates that there is no “intrinsic values” in parts of the world (for example, “human” or “mankind”), but only in “the world itself”. Complex conditionality leads to the concept of Karma, additionally reflecting the idea of “harmony” (for example, in the understanding of “dao”). A key factor is the complexity that allows the emergence of “consciousness” so that volitional action, and by that the influence on retributive karmic relations, becomes possible. In an interconnected world of natural entities, the practice of morality is expressed through “the middle way” and, for human beings, in compassion (rather than in following divine laws), while the source for it must be sought in proper (or “right”) understanding of the world. Moreover, the karmic interconnectedness leads to compassion (or better: the understanding that it is “right” to show compassion for all being), while the “Middle Way” is the active practice of supporting the establishment of balance and harmony. The case of constructivism is important for the Buddhist “Theory of mind”: The idea of accepting the constructive character of our world perception, resulting in the plea for practicing mindfulness and awareness in order to “align the construction as close as possible to the actual reality”, is another way to describe the goal of Enlightenment. The formulation of “microworlds” and “lifeworld” in constructive realism corresponds to the “Theory of Two Truths” in Indian Buddhism.[31] Ultimately, the central element of Buddhist metaphysics, the links of interdependent co-arising, are best mirrored in view of a combination of holism (everything is karmically connected and impermanent) and constructivism (ignorance, delusion, attachment, cognition as “contact” between sense and sense-object, etc.).

The following overview summarises the collected reflections of this letter by setting all important characteristics of this worldview into perspective using “western” terminology.


  1. For an overview: Ritchie J, “Understanding Naturalism“, Acumen Pub., Stocksfield, UK, 2008, chapter 1
  2. von Foerster H, Pörksen B, “Wahrheit ist die Erfindung eines Lügners. Gespräche für Skeptiker. (Truth is the invention of a liar. Conversations for skeptics.)”, Carl-Auer-Systeme, Heidelberg, Germany, 1998
  3. On the philosophical implications of “change”: Mortensen C, “Change and Inconsistency“, in “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (ed. EN Zalta), Fall Edition 2015
  4. Li CY, “The Philosophy of Harmony in Classical Confucianism“, Philosophy Compass 2008, 3/3, pp.423
  5. For an overview: a) Bashour B, Muller HD (eds.), “Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and its Implications“, Routledge, Abingdon, UK, 2014; b) Braddon-Mitchell D, Nola R (eds.), “Conceptual Analysis and Philosophical Naturalism“, MIT Press, Cambridge, USA, 2009; c) De Caro M, Macarthur D (eds.), “Naturalism and Normativity“, Columbia Univ. Press, Chichester, UK, 2010; d) Fischer E, Collins J (eds.), “Experimental Philosophy, Rationalism, and Naturalism. Rethinking Philosophical Method“, Routledge, Abingdon, UK, 2015; e) Flanagan O, “Varieties of Naturalism“, in “The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science” (ed. P Clayton), Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2008; f) Galparsoro JI, Cordero A (eds.), “Reflections on Naturalism“, Sense Pub. Rotterdam, Netherlands, 2013; g) Gasser G (ed.), “How Successful is Naturalism?“, Ontos Verlag, Heusenstamm, Germany, 2007; h) Milkowski M, Talmont-Kaminski K (eds.), “Beyond Description: Naturalism and Normativity“, College Pub., London, UK, 2010; i) Nuccetelli S, Seay G (eds.), “Ethical Naturalism. Current Debates.”, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2012; j) Olafson FA, “Naturalism and the Human Condition. Against Scientism.”, Routledge, London, UK, 2001; k) Price H, “Naturalism without Mirrors“, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, USA, 2011; l) Ritchie J, “Understanding Naturalism“, Acumen Pub., Stocksfield, UK, 2008; m) Walsh DM (ed.), “Naturalism, Evolution and Mind“, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2001
  6. Wilson EO, “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge“, Chapter 11: Ethics and Religion, pp. 260, Vintage Books (Random House Pub.), New York, USA, 1999
  7. Vogd W, “Constructivism in Buddhism“, in “Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions” (eds. Runehov ALC, Oviedo L), Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 2013
  8. a) Lenman J, Shemmer Y (eds.), “Constructivism in Practical Philosophy“, Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, UK, 2012; b) Pörksen B (ed.), “Schlüsselwerke des Konstruktivismus (Key works of Constructivism)”, 2nd ed., Springer VS, Wiesbaden, Germany, 2015 (in German); c) Bagnoli C, “Constructivism in Metaethics”, in “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (ed. EN Zalta), Fall Edition 2016
  9. Golinski J, “Making Natural Knowledge. Constructivism and the History of Science“, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 1998
  10. Onuf NG, “Making Sense, Making Worlds. Constructivism in social theory and international relations“, Routledge, Abingdon, UK, 2013
  11. a) Berger PL, Luckmann T, “The Social Construction of Reality“, Anchor Books, New York, USA, 1966, b) Kukla A, “Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Science“, Routledge, London, UK, 2000; c) Wilson DS, “Evolutionary Social Constructivism“, in “The Literary Animal. Evolution and the Nature of Narrative” (eds. J Gottschall, DS Wilson), pp.20, Northwestern Univ. Press, Evanston, USA, 2005
  12. Mallon R, “Naturalistic Approaches to Social Construction”, in “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (ed. EN Zalta), Winter Edition 2014, available from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/social-construction-naturalistic/ (accessed July 24th 2016)
  13. Moeller HG, “The Philosophy of the Daodejing“, Columbia Univ. Press, New York, USA, 2006
  14. a) Gershenson C, Aerts D, Edmonds B (eds.), “Worldviews, Science and Us: Philosophy and Complexity“, World Scientific Pub., Singapore, 2007; b) Gregersen NH, “Complexity“, in “Encyclopedia of Science and Religion” (ed. JWV van Huyssteen), Macmillan, New York, USA, 2003
  15. Bronkhorst J, “Karma and Teleology. A Problem and its solutions in Indian Philosophy“, Studia Philologica Monograph series, Tokyo, Japan, 2000
  16. for example: Full G, “Education in Buddhism“, in “Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions” (eds. Runehov ALC, Oviedo L), Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 2013
  17. Overview: Weir TH (ed.), “ Science, Philosophy, Religion, and the History of a Worldview“, Palgrave MacMillan, New York, USA, 2012
  18. Vimal RLP, “Buddhism and Dual-Aspect Monism“, available from https://www.academia.edu/4183378/Buddhism_and_Dual-Aspect_Monism, 2013
  19. a) Fatone V, “The Philosophy of Nagarjuna“, Motilal Banarsidass Pub., Delhi, India, 1991; b) Burton D, “Emptiness Appraised. A Critical Study of Nagarjuna’s Philosophy“, Motilal Banarsidass Pub., Delhi, India, 1999; c) Tuck AP, “Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship. On the Western Interpretation of Nagarjuna“, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, USA, 1990; d) Westerhoff J, “Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka. A Philosophical Introduction“, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, USA, 2009
  20. Smuts JC, “Holism and Evolution“, Macmillan, London, UK, 1926
  21. Procacci S, “Holism: Some Historical Aspect“, in “Determinism, Holism, and Complexity” (eds. V Benci, P Cerrai, P Freguglia, G Israel, C Pellegrini), Kluwer Academic, New York, USA, 2003
  22. a) Edmonds B, “Pragmatic Holism (or Pragmatic Reductionism)“, Foundations of Science 1999, 4, pp.57; b) Esfeld M, “Holism in Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Physics“, Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 2001; c) Esfeld M, “Physicalism and Ontological Holism“, Metaphilosophy 1999, 30(4), pp.319; d) Pigliucci M, “Between holism and reductionism: a philosophical primer on emergence“, Biol. J. of Linnean Soc. 2013, 112(2), pp.242; e) White M, “A Philosophy of Culture: The Scope of Holistic Pragmatism“, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, USA, 2002
  23. Tonietti TM, “Towards a History of Complexity. A Comparison between Europe and China“, in “Determinism, Holism, and Complexity” (eds. V Benci, P Cerrai, P Freguglia, G Israel, C Pellegrini), Kluwer Academic, New York, USA, 2003
  24. McShane K, “Individualist Biocentrism vs. Holism Revisited“, The Ethics Forum 2014, 9(2), pp.130
  25. a) Hookway C, “Pragmatism”, in “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (ed. EN Zalta), Summer Edition 2016, available from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pragmatism/ (accessed July 24th 2016); b) Dewey J, “The quest for certainty“, in “John Dewey: The later works (Vol. 4)” (ed. JA Boydston), Illinois Univ. Press, Carbondale/Edwardsville, USA, 1984/1929; c) Pihlström S, “Neopragmatism“, in “Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions” (eds. Runehov ALC, Oviedo L), Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 2013
  26. a) Fine A, “The Natural Ontological Attitude“, in “Scientific Realism” (ed. J Leplin), University of California Press, Berkeley, USA, 1984; b) Fine A, “And Not Antirealism Either“, Nous 18, p.51-65, 1984
  27. Fine A, “The Shaky Game: Einstein Realism and the Quantum Theory“, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA, 1996
  28. Adorjan MC, Kelly BW, “Pragmatism and ‘Engaged’ Buddhism. Working toward peace and a Philosophy of action“, J. Sociol. Self-Knowl. 2008, 6(3), pp.37
  29. Bhatt SR, Mehrotra A, “Buddhist Epistemology“, Greenwood Press, London, UK, 2000
  30. Gyeltsen GT, “Mirror of Wisdom. Teachings on Emptiness“, Thubten Dhargye Ling Pub., Long Beach, USA, 2000
  31. Thakchoe S, “The Theory of Two Truths in India“, in “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (ed. EN Zalta), Summer Edition 2011, available from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/twotruths-india/, accessed 11.4.2016