Reflections on Moral Leadership| Part 4: Interpersonal Morality: The Struggle for Life. Or is there more…?

The quest for intrinsic morality

This is the fourth column in a series of moral leadership. My first column focused on Moral leaders in Society, my second on Professionally Moral Behaviour and my third on Integrity at the Top . And my last column will focus on Moral Self-Control.

Interpersonal Morality: The Struggle for Life. Or is there more…?

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), professor in mythology and writer, discusses the relationship between humans and nature in the book ‘The Hero’s Journey’. He reflects on an important experience that made him think:

“I can remember when I spent a long time with an intertidal biologist, Ed Ricketts, in that area between low tide and high tide (1931-1932). All those strange forms, cormorants and little worms of different kinds and all. You’d hear, my gosh, this generation of life was a great battle going on, life consuming life, everything learning how to eat the other one, the whole mystery, and from there they crawl up on the land.”

And he goes on: “We live by killing, which is what you do even when you are eating grapes. You are still killing something. Life just lives on life. And it’s the one life in all of these different heads of mouths eating itself. It’s a fantastic mystery. That’s what’s symbolized in the snake biting its own tail, the snake of life consuming itself. That’s what it means. “

The struggle for life

Life as a large circular movement from birth to death and again from death to birth. Life – with a tremendous inner strength – wants to survive and it wants to reproduce itself.

Within life, man is a social animal that lives in a group. Within this group a certain balance must be created and maintained. A balance in the intricate network of mutual human relationships and connections. And those relationships and connections, again, seem to be dynamic structures to meet our physical, social and emotional needs.

With time, scientists assume, we have become ‘convinced’ that, as a species, we can survive better by developing rules of conduct, prohibitions, taboos, norms and values ​​that sustain and protect our mutual human communities against disintegration. With the aim, in return, of maintaining the human group as a whole. So that we are stronger in the struggle for survival, which is what life is according to Joseph Campbell.

But does this also mean that the deep urge to survive behind it and the urge to continue our own life at any cost, has disappeared? Does this urge, apart from our deep desire to have children, also emerges in a different way?


We, ourselves, are also life in every cell of our body. We have forbidden to kill each other and to rob each other, but maybe we partly still have this inclination? Does not the struggle for life also come forward in the field of influence that human interaction is? Clearly visible in wars, indeed, and also in terrorism, but in a more appropriate manner also in our territorial drive, our self-assertion, our mutual jealousy, our conflict of interest and in the political game. Our tendency to let self-interest prevail which we often mask with fallacies? Do those who deny it see what a variety of forces are at work within the interpersonal dynamic?

In my opinion, man distinguishes himself from the animal, among other things, by a very refined, dynamic and complex self-system, in which self-awareness has a place. How exactly this self-system is structured and how dynamic, relation-, culture- and context-dependent it is, the last word about it has not yet been written. But no one doubts that every human being is aware of the fact he is here on earth, attaches certain meaning to it and wants to reflect and can reflect on himself or herself and his or her behaviour. Self-awareness is central to every human life.

It seems that man, as an individual, also wants to keep in balance the image he or she has of himself or herself and the self-structure associated with it. This is mainly expressed in mutual human contact, in which strong reactions can be evoked by a threat to self-image: denial, aggression, avoidance. The same concept seems to apply if the image that a human group as a whole has of itself is threatened. Even then, a group seems to want to strongly defend itself.

On the positive side, from our self-awareness also comes the incredible beauty that man knows how to create and all innovation that is often produced by all of us, together. Here too, in my opinion, human beings distinguish themselves from the animal thanks to great creativity and need for development. We want to reach the stars!

Depth of our interpersonal morality

We realize that we are there, and we can reflect on our behaviour. We want to keep in balance the image we have of ourselves and we like to belong to a group. This group itself must also remain in balance. To preserve an equilibrium in which peaceful and positive forces focused on growth and well-being ultimately have the upper hand. Are ultimately leading.

Within all cultures on earth, in past and present, there are rules of conduct, prohibitions, taboos, norms and values. You could say a morality. Depending on our point of view this morality, according to us, has been created by mechanisms of natural selection, created by God or by men themselves. But the need for a morality itself seems inherent in a being human.

In any case, all the major religions in the world are somehow engaged in morality. How do we live in the right way? How do we relate to each other? How does a person do well? But also, in all mythologies, such as those of the Egyptians, Asian cultures, the Aboriginals, the Greeks and the Romans, a moral sense arises. And with it the struggle of those who do not adhere to moral standards of the group. Moreover, in mythologies we can often discover a moral development. For example, the Greek epic poet Homer first describes: “Whoever was so perverted to commit a crime against Zeus was permanently imprisoned in Tartarus, the underworld, where the damned suffered their torture.” But later Greek moral awareness changed and the reward and the punishment after death became less a matter of divine arbitrariness and more of what someone deserved based on what he had done during his life. The responsibility for our own behaviour emerges here.

Also, in almost all fairy tales from all over the world, evil is overcome by good and evil is ultimately also punished. Is in this way a deep need being satisfied in our fairy tales? Do we as people need a morality?

Collective unconscious: fairy tales and myths

According to the Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961), fairy tales give a description of the natural rules of life in a community and, at the same time, these rules are in danger or threaten to lose their spontaneous, naive and thoughtless character. (Carl Jung, Archetypes and the collective unconscious, 1976). According to Jung, within myths there is a base of indigenous collective unconscious content that is independent of tradition. In a person as an individual the collective unconscious is, according to him, a deep layer in the human psyche that does not stem from personal experiences and it is innate. The content of the collective unconscious consists in Jung’s well-known archetypes: unconscious universal images. Examples of archetypes are: the shadow, the great mother, the hero, the divine child, the eternal adolescent. And the best-known structured expressions of these archetypes are again fairytales and myths. Jung writes:

“The archetype is in fact a manifestation of an unconscious content that is changed as that unconscious content comes to consciousness and is perceived. “

Socio-cultural homeostasis

Would our moral sense also be so deep and even congenital? Is it even known to animals? Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neuroscience and the Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California explains:

“Looming large over the question is the issue of the origins of morality. Does reason construct moral intuitions, beliefs, conventions, and rules? Or does morality emerge from prerational processes? On this issue there is growing evidence that many behaviours we designate as moral have forerunners in automated, unconscious, prerational processes, present not only in humans but in many other species. The evidence is quite robust in the case of mammals, especially primates and marine mammals whose brains share a lot with the human brain.”

Damasio goes on: “Human creativity and reason have taken such natural discoveries to new heights. They have extended the reach of biological regulation to varied aspects of the social space, thus inventing what I like to call sociocultural homeostasis. The familiar homeostasis of the human body is automated and operates largely at a non-conscious level, ensuring our physiological health and equilibrium. Sociocultural homeostasis, by contrast, is deliberate and requires high-level  consciousness. Morality (along with the laws and jurisprudence that follow from it) is the centrepiece of sociocultural homeostasis.” (Moral reasoning, John Templeton Foundation)

Our interpersonal moral actions in 2018

We are in 2018. According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, our moral sense is very deeply anchored and plays a central role in maintaining our social balance.

What are characteristics of interpersonal morality in our time? And are we in or out of balance regarding Damasio’s sociocultural homeostasis?

Let’s look at a few formulated principles with regard to the ethics of interpersonal communication. What is important when we examine the norms and values ​​in the way we treat each other? Ronald C. Arnett, chair and professor at the Department of Communication & Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, mentions the following principles in his book Communication Ethics Literacy (2008):

1)      To protect and promote the good of the relationship

Ronald Arnett: “Interpersonal communication ethics differentiates itself from other forms of communication ethics by attentive concern for the relationship between persons. Interpersonal communication finds its identity in the ethical mandate to protect and promote the good of the relationship. “

If we pay attention to the ethics of our interpersonal communication, according to Arnett it is therefore ‘by definition’ aimed at preservation and quality of the relationship itself. He contrasts this with an interpersonal relationship that is only used to achieve a goal: an instrumental relationship. Ronald Arnett quotes a statement from Philip M. Taylor about instrumental relations and the deeper needs of people:

“In the light of the idea of authenticity, it seems that having merely instrumental relationships is to act in a self-stultifying way. The notion that one can pursue one’s fulfilment in this way seems illusory, in somewhat the same way as the idea that one can choose oneself without recognizing a horizon of significance beyond choice.”

In other words, we ultimately make ourselves as humans and our worlds unnecessarily small and we limit ourselves if we strictly use others to achieve our own goals. In the light of interpersonal ethics and the quality of the relationship itself, Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, writes:

“At the foundation of our moral thinking is our understanding that some things are worth doing or pursuing for their own sake. It makes sense to act on them even when we expect no further benefit from doing so. When we see the point of performing a friendly act, for example, or when we see the point of someone’s studying Shakespeare or the structure of distant galaxies, we understand the intrinsic value of such activities. We grasp the worth of friendship and knowledge not merely as means to other ends but as ends in themselves. Unlike money or insurance coverage, these goods are not valuable only because they facilitate or protect other goods. They are themselves constitutive aspects of our own and others’ fulfilment as human persons.” (Moral reasoning, John Templeton Foundation)

We are in 2018….

Considering this first starting point, I would like to make the following comments:

  • How do we focus these days on the quality of our relationships? Within our romantic relationships or as parents and children, we probably recognize the importance of the quality of the relationship and we invest in it. But what about beyond it? Are these in fact only instrumental relationships or not?
  • These relationships, such as friendships, customer relationships, collegial contacts, were formerly more embedded in social structures, such as community life, face to face interest groups and social clubs. Nowadays we seem to operate more in networks. In addition, we also keep our contacts online more and more. Does that make our relationships more instrumental or not?
  • If we focus on the quality of a relationship, it is necessary that we invest in the relationship itself. If we do not invest in something, it will bleed to death, isn’t it? Those earlier social structures with their planned parties and meetings forced us to invest more or less in a stable group. In what way do we now invest in relationships for the sake of the relationship itself? Are we perhaps investing in the benefits of a relationship in the short term, but not in the long-term (quality of the) relationship?
  • What is the specific nature morally of an online contact? Have we developed an interpersonal communication ethic for online contacts? Or are our online relationships often characterized by non-commitment?
  • Many people today feel ‘disconnected‘ and this makes them unhappy. A connection arises partly because we focus on each other. What do we ourselves contribute to making this connection?
  • Do we still have the knowledge about how to establish and maintain deep and long-term relationships? Did we in the past have more ‘tacit knowledge about which was the right way to act within relationships? Did we ‘intuit’ more how to act morally?

2)      Interpersonal responsibility for the relationship

If we pay attention to the ethics of our interpersonal communication, Arnett’s second principle is that the persons who are part of the relationship take responsibility for the relationship itself.

The second assumption is that interpersonal communication nourishes the relationship in order to bond responsibility between persons, not to further careers or advance political agendas… Interpersonally, the relationship we have with another matters—it is the defining ethic in our interpersonal communication, and it is our ethical responsibility to nurture that relationship.

Arnett makes a distinction between interpersonal communication style and interpersonal communication responsibility for the relationship. The interpersonal communication style is about the effectiveness and personal character of what you want to convey to others. The interpersonal communication responsibility is about the extent to which you take ownership of the relationship, your commitment, your reliability, your dedication to the relationship that you have with someone else. In this case, ethics is not about style, but about taking responsibility.

“Placed in ethical language, the move from interpersonal style to interpersonal responsibility for the relationship highlights the difference between personality and character. Good personality, or interpersonal style, linked with interpersonal responsibility, or character, leads to long-term relational health; good personality without character forgoes the long-term obligation to attend to relational responsibility, forging a form of interpersonal sophistry marked by style alone and absence of interpersonal ethics—for the relationship is the content that guides character in an interpersonal ethic.”

And: “If one is not concerned about the Other or the relationship with the Other, one simply does not care.”

We are in 2018….

Considering this second starting point, I would like to make the following comments:

  • Is there currently too much emphasis on a good communicative style within our face to face and online contacts? Do we place too little emphasis on what Arnett calls character? If so, does that also affect the depth of our contacts?
  • At our communication training nowadays is the emphasis too much on training skills with which we can increase our effectiveness, but too little on training to take responsibility for a relationship and does this take place at the expense of ethical learning?
  • Our self-image on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram is often the engine of our online contact. But how do we deal with all the difficult things online that are part of building human contact? Our different visions and expectations, differences in character, differences in distance and proximity needs. Are we investing to arrive at solutions together or do we avoid it?

Robert P. George writes about the moral principles we use in our face to face contacts:

“….The specifications of this abstract master principle are the familiar moral precepts that most people, even today, seek to live by and to teach their children to respect, such as the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), the Pauline Principle (“never do evil that good may come of it”), and Kant’s categorical imperative (stated most vividly in the maxim that one ought to “treat humanity, whether in the person of yourself or others, always as an end, and never as a means only.” (Moral reasoning, John Templeton Foundation)

  • Do we use these moral principles within our social networks? Do we notice if these principles are not used and what is the effect?
  • How do we deal with violations of integrity online? Do we take responsibility for this or are we forced to be accountable by others? In short, is there any social control?
  • Do we or do we not have to face the consequences of it online? “You will get away with it”, you might say? What is the influence on our mutual trust?

3)      The naming matters: Ethical conduct involves specific relationships

According to Arnett, interpersonal communication ethics involves specific relationships: parent-child, teacher-student, friend-friend, etc. As a parent you have moral principles to your child, as a teacher to your student, as a doctor to your patient. The nature of the relationship then determines your moral principles and thus what you find proper behaviour. The law guarantees in the parent-child relationship certain moral principles and in that of teacher and student for example. Professional ethical codes have been established for specific professional groups.

Arnett states: “The first assumption in interpersonal communication from the standpoint of interpersonal communication ethics is that the nature of the relationship matters.”

Or as Levinas (2000) writes:“The naming matters. Naming announces the relationship of dad, teacher, student or friend. The proper name begins with a general reminder of a relationship played out in the particular between persons.”

It is precisely the special character of the relationship that gives interpersonal ethics power, meaning and direction. It is not a General Other, but a child, a student, a patient with whom you have a relationship. When people and circumstances change, the relationship also changes again, and the interpersonal ethics also require adjustments: your daughter has become a mother, your student is now a friend on Facebook, the coach client is now a contact on LinkedIn.

We are in 2018…

Considering this third starting point, I would like to make the following comments:

  • Are our relationships on social media may be too diffuse and unclearly defined? What are our contacts: friends, colleagues, acquaintances? Is the student still my student or has it become a colleague and competitor? Are we therefore perhaps too little aware of the interpersonal ethics associated with each specific contact?

Back to the timeless snake biting its own tail

With all our daily worries we are still part of that great circular movement that is life. A fascinating and dynamic play of forces that constantly seeks balance. Our motives are probably much deeper than we suspect, and we often surprise ourselves and each other suddenly in a very positive way:

The man who jumps into the icy water with danger for his own life to save the driver of the car that has been flooded.

The woman who on the street steps in the middle of a man’s fight to prevent worse.

The population who, themselves exhausted, after an earthquake helps with rescue work for days on end.

We then instinctively and perhaps also consciously surrender to something that is bigger than ourselves? Because we feel that we ultimately belong there?



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