Educational Theory

The Ethics of Grace

In Spinoza’s magnum opus, Ethics, he postulated that the striving for self-preservation underpins the striving for power, freedom, joy and perfection. Modern psychology would find little to disagree with here, but our perception of preservation is limited. To understand this we must look no further than outside your window- wherever you are in the world, chances are that as you read this you are within spitting distance of a man-made example of a threat to our preservation. In short, our civilisation seems to display the opposite features of preservation that we would hope to find in an individual. Something, somewhere, has gone wrong with in our collective striving for self-preservation.

This striving for self-preservation at first implies a resistance to change, and on a simple level it is a conservative drive, but this resistance is contrary to Spinoza’s carefully defined concept of perfection. The deep-ecologist Arne Naess suggested that a more appropriate word for preservation would be ‘realisation’. This fits with Spinoza’s formulations, in as much as to completely realise oneself is to completely preserve oneself and to completely be in oneself. As a human being, a sense-perception realising itself through a composite of relationships to a massively complex system, we are constantly subject to change on an elemental level, and to be fully realised in this sense we become fully adaptive.

The education system that arises from this mindset is in a constant state of change and emergence, and is fundamentally a process of life.

The forms of life are not ‘finished work’ but always forms becoming, and their potency to become otherwise is an immediate aspect of their internal constitution… The becoming that belongs to this constitution is not a process that finishes when it reaches a certain goal but a condition of existence- a necessity to change in order to remain the same.” [Brady, R.]

We have grown so accustomed to thinking of education as a mechanical process, one through which we all must submit ourselves, where the aim is to ‘get through it’ as quickly as possible in order that we might begin our adult, working lives. As many radical (and not so radical!) educators have pointed out, the driving force behind this attitude is economic and industrial growth, not personal development. It must be noted that this is not a fault of the teachers per se, but the system which they implicitly support. Individual teachers are constrained by ever-growing curriculums and standardised testing, and with the recession biting into education budgets across the globe extra-curricular activities are lacking more than ever. In an atmosphere of what I can only call educational stagnation the world’s schools are less alive than ever. It would follow from this that it is less than surprising to see our innate individual ethics compromised for a collective destruction of the environment that supports us.

So why the Ethics of Grace?

Firstly, how do we define grace? We recognise when a person moves gracefully: we perceive a sense of harmony and balance in their movements. Equally, when a person acts with grace, we feel comfort, respect and security, once again perceiving harmony and balance in action. Expanding on this perception, a sense of grace can be synonymous with the feelings of connection, harmony and balance. Semantically, this point can be argued and expanded ad infinitum, but the key point is that we can easily recognise gracefulness when we encounter it.

Complex life is an incredible system of individual cells in relationship with one another. For this holarchy to function exactly the right balance must be struck between chaos and order on a molecular level, and I would argue that the subsequent complex adaptive system that we call multicellular life exists in a state of grace. Expanding further, the systems into which multicellular life is embedded holarchically (environment, society etc.) are also graceful. Historically, this observation has been linked to ‘beauty’ and ‘truth’ (e.g. Pulchritudo splendor varitatis, ‘Beauty is the splendour of truth’), but semantically these terms are difficult due to their deep connotations of the value-judgments of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. ‘Grace’, on the other hand, has more often been associated with concepts of divinity and sacredness. Although often cast as ‘good’, this supra-human world so not subscribe so easily to such value-judgements. For this reason, these biomimetic ethics are more graceful, and less beautiful or true, than more logically derived systems of ethics (which all too often slip into utilitarianism).

“Some people would argue… that the system of nature for life to prey on life is an excuse for eating animals and even for treating them however we please. It is natural. But to put it somewhat paradoxically, it is precisely our nature, human nature, to impose higher standards on ourselves that the ones that nature gives us. In the end, humanity will be what we make of it. Should we just be the cleverest of all species, who have found efficient and profitable ways to make use of other species, and are muscling themselves off the surface of the planet? Or should we be the species who tries to respond with respect and compassion to the other animals who share our fate as conscious living beings?… One of the animals you have to face is the one you see in the mirror every morning. And one thing that can make it a little easier to do that is to do as much as we can to avoid living at the expense of the other animals.”

Korsgaard, C.M., Facing the Animal You See in the Mirror


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