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Personal Evolution

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More Lives than One

The debate over whether a person can exercise free will in the major decisions that face him in life, or whether he acts and thinks only from determinism, is always an important debate, since it affects one’s view of ethics.

What vitiates previous debates is the complete lack of any view of personal evolution. Are we to assume that a person cannot evolve ?

From the records of history we can see that societies and nations change their values, and even evolve new and higher moral standards. But where does history leave the individual ?

How can an aborigine transform into a cultured and sophisticated person ?   Not in just a few years. Personal evolution requires more than one lifetime.

Sub - Headings
Slowness of change
Relational morality 
Practising ethics
Failing ethics
Diagram 5 - Negotiation chart

If a human life is considered to have no previous existence before birth and finally disintegrates at death, then the concept of evolution of the individual has no meaning. If a human life is considered to have no previous existence before birth and then after death that person resides eternally in heaven or hell, again the concept of evolution of the individual has no meaning. All that a single life can show is a little development, a little personal growth, in terms of  abilities and ethical standards achieved. However, development is a concept for the short-term, whilst evolution implies long-term progress.

All that science can proclaim is genetics. This is valid for physical characteristics of a person. Also, some genetic abnormalities put limits on the range of consciousness that a person can develop. Otherwise, the applicability of genetics to the evolution of a person is of very limited use. For the evolution of character traits the concept of genetics provides no explanation. For example, a physical body can be duplicated by cloning suitable cells, but character cannot be cloned.

Psycho-dynamic psychology does provide limited support for the concept of individual evolution. If a person goes through an intense psycho-analysis over many years then all the problems that originated in the present life can be solved. Yet problems will remain, and these problems existed before the person was born. Therefore psycho-analytic theory points to the view that a single lifetime cannot explain the complexities of human existence.

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Slowness of  Change

An obvious objection to the idea of personal evolution over a multitude of lifetimes is that there does not seem to have been much change in people within historical times. The major issue here is that while conscious standards and beliefs are often difficult to change for the better, a person's subconscious standards and beliefs are usually resistant to change. A person's core beliefs, which we can call his primary beliefs, are those formed in early childhood; they are formed from the child's interpretation of its experience and they function at the subconscious level of mind. These are the beliefs that are often resistant to change. As the child begins to mature during later childhood and adolescence, he adopts conscious beliefs, what we can call his secondary beliefs, from his social groups and family ties - these beliefs are more adjustable.

Psycho-analysis provides insights into the problems of personal change. All the difficulties, frustration, and joys of personal development and evolution are highlighted by psycho-dynamic therapy. However, such therapy does not always seem to produce noticeable results.  Why ? [¹]

The issue to understand is that people normally change and evolve (in terms of their character) so very slowly ; in fact they do not evolve very much in a single lifetime. The reason for this slowness is that the adoption of better ethical standards requires concurrent psychological change.

Standards arise from a person's character and beliefs. It can be difficult to change conscious beliefs ; it is even more difficult to change subconscious beliefs. Changing attitudes and character traits is much more of a problem. Once the person has reached adulthood, then to change primary beliefs (in the sense of making them more ethical ) is hard enough ; to change primary attitudes and basic character traits is nearly impossible. [²]

This psychological resistance to ethical change exists because people are only willing to learn about themselves so very slowly. Learning about oneself involves realising in what ways one is inadequate or immature, and this learning is a painful process.

A person can stand only so much psychological pain.
When the pain limit in a life has been reached the person stops learning,
and hence stops evolving in that life.

What is often mistaken for psychological change is change of circumstances. Suppose that a person is unhappy with his existing situations and relationships. His basic attitudes will more likely be negative ones rather than positive ones. Then his life changes, for some reason ; perhaps a better job, a new house, etc. His spirits rise and life becomes rosy for a time. When life changes for the better, the person thinks that he has changed for the better too. The self-deception in this view of oneself becomes obvious when circumstances change back to being bad – now the person resumes his former negative attitudes. Hence little actually changes internally in the person when external changes occur. All that has happened is that different aspects of his character are called into play when different circumstances are experienced. Only the way that he balances his attitudes has changed, not the attitudes themselves.

To appreciate better this difficulty,
we need to separate behavioural traits from character traits.

When circumstances change then our behaviour usually changes too, but our character traits remain the same. There is always a difference between changing the emphasis on what traits to work with ( behavioural change) and actually changing a trait (character change).

In an undeveloped and non-idealistic person, character traits are likely to be the same as behavioural traits (since the person is not likely to have a concept of self that is different from his concept of society). In the process of evolution, as the person begins to acquire a firm sense of individuality, along with cultural sophistication, so character traits and behavioural traits start to diverge.

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The need for Reincarnation Theory
We need to assume that each person has lived previous lives on Earth. So I accept the theory of reincarnation as a theory which is needed in order to fully understand human problems. Once reincarnation is accepted as a valid theory, then the evolution of the individual becomes meaningful. The concept of free will applies to the individual and can only make sense if individual evolution is a reality. Otherwise, if a person does not evolve, then of what use is free will ?

I use the theory of reincarnation as the framework of my ethics, and my ethics is based on the problems of the evolution of the individual. [³]   Within the scenario of personal evolution, there are three main factors to the understanding of morality and ethics. All of them work together, and their effects on the person depend on the intensity of social change.

The three factors of morality are:

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Relational Morality

First I consider the relational aspect. (I use the term ‘relational’ instead of the traditional term ‘relative’, since I use ‘relative’ in a new way).

There is nothing original here that I have to offer. Morality is always changing ; sometimes it changes slowly, and sometimes fast. A moral attitude or belief that may be adequate in one social era will usually have become inadequate in a later era. Many of the virtues of the ancient Greeks, as extolled by Homer, would not be acceptable today. Virtues change gradually over many lifetimes. It is the relational aspect of good and evil that allows this shift to occur, since there is a continuum of values between the extremes of good and evil – extreme goodness links to moderate goodness, which in turn links to a little goodness, then to a little badness, and then all the way to extreme evil. By this continuum I mean that there are no impossible obstacles to prevent a bad person changing into a good one.

A person only changes for the better when he understands that something which he is doing is ‘bad’, when formerly he thought that it was ‘good’. If there were no connection between good and evil a person could not reach this understanding. I assume that each person is basically good. Therefore a person only adopts a ‘bad’ belief or attitude because initially, within his circumstances, he considered that it was ‘good’.

For example, a person might turn to crime because it may be the only way that he can survive economically: survival is felt to be a ‘good’, and more important than the social disharmony that crime causes. Or a person may turn to organised crime as the only way to acquire power : power is felt to be a ‘good’, a ‘good’ which he cannot experience otherwise in his social circumstances. However, if crime were always an evil that can never link to any goodness, then the rehabilitation of criminals would be an impossibility.

Rehabilitation, or change of character in a positive way, can only work if good and evil are related to each other, that is, if there is a connection between them. The connection between good and evil enables character change to occur, but it can occur in both directions. Badness can change into goodness, and goodness into badness.

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Now I turn to the other aspects of morality. These are best understood through the lens of a psycho-dynamic viewpoint. 

Note.  I use the term ‘dialectics’ in the Hegelian sense. It represents a movement of thought through three stages. First there is the opening idea, the thesis ; then thought switches to the opposite conception, the antithesis. Finally both stages are blended together in the third stage, the synthesis.

I apply the idea of dialectics to morality.  In moral ideas, if the thesis is a concept of goodness then the antithesis is a concept of badness. If the thesis represents some badness, the antithesis is that of some goodness. The synthesis is the resolution of the conflict. Is this application of dialectics feasible?  Is it realistic to apply it to morality?

Consider the effects of abreaction on a person. The different forms of abreaction are just particular sequences of emotion. [4]

First, the abreaction of guilt.
Initially we have the excitement, and then we have the resentment that opposes it. Finally we have the steady state of detachment when the contents of the excitement and the resentment phases no longer interest us (we have ‘synthesised’ them together). This abreactive process is a dialectical one. 

Secondly, the abreaction of pride.
First there is the sorrow, then the bitterness which is the reaction to it. Finally there is the detachment. This abreaction is a dialectical one as well.

These ideas mean that abreaction generates dialectical change. Abreaction releases anxiety from the subconscious mind during the process of character transformation, and this release occurs by an oscillation between states of mind. Therefore the process of character transformation is a dialectical one. [5]

Each person follows his own dialectical path as he encounters, and learns to surmount, the difficulties of living on Earth. A dialectical path means that whatever problems a person has, his particular path must provide an answer to those problems. Out of a negative situation must arise a positive one, whence the person can then synthesise them together so as to reach a higher understanding. A standard aphorism that encapsulates this view is: ‘ That by which man falls, is that by which man rises ’. By learning from his mistakes so the person discovers what is right for him.

In my view, human evolution is the slow process of character transformation, the slow process of acquiring and developing self-consciousness. One of the principal means of achieving this is the process of abreaction. The deduction from this view is that human evolution is not a linear progression but a dialectical one.

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At this point I bring in my concept of relativity as it applies to relationships, and consciousness in general.

Once it is born, the infant constructs its reality by splitting it into subject and object. The ego becomes the subject, and everything else is object to it. This construction creates a relative world, a world of relative relationships. In a relative world, subjectivity is always tied to objectivity. Therefore, in any relative relationship, a subjective effect is always tied to an objective effect. This is the true meaning of relativity. The conventional meaning of it (more or less having the meaning of being "relational") is faulty. [6]

At a conscious level of mind, we can separate good from evil : good is relational to evil.
But at a subconscious level of mind, good is relative to evil : it is not possible to have one without the other. The process of abreaction links good to evil in a relative way, since the process is subconscious. Hence the subconscious mind is always filled with conflict. [7]

The relativity of good and evil means that they link together in the subconscious mind.

During the process of ethical training, the person has to rise from the relative experience of good and evil to the relational experience of them. By this I mean that the person has to learn from his relative experiences and construct an adequate idealistic (relational) code of ethics. This code will enable him to handle the subconscious mind.

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Now I return to my view on behavioural traits and character traits.
The two kinds of traits start to diverge in a relative way. The person makes a subjective interpretation of an objective situation. 

His character traits are his relative moral subjectivity,
whilst his behavioural traits represent his relative moral objectivity.

If he decides to accept change, then a change in his relative subjectivity can begin the process of deliberate character change. Whereas, if he prefers to change his relative objectivity, then he can begin deliberate behavioural change. The means of starting such change is the acquisition of self- awareness.

People normally change so very slowly. Usually it takes a crisis to radically change a person. This crisis can be personal, such as a bereavement, or social-political, such as warfare. The history of mankind shows clearly that each person has many immature, even bad, beliefs and attitudes at the core of his being. These need to be replaced by more harmonious ones.

Therefore human evolution is conflict-driven, in order to provide the crises from out of which each person can generate better beliefs and attitudes.

Periods of peace and social harmony are rare and represent a time of assimilation of past changes ; they are only a ‘breathing-space’ until the next round of conflict ensues.

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What provides the conditions for a crisis ?   It is social change and the various aspects of morality. I list the important factors that are functioning during a period of crisis.

These factors intertwine with each other, though each has its own special function. Social change, especially when it is fast, de-stabilises the person. The relativity of morality highlights strengths and weaknesses in the person. And abreaction drives the process of character change.

The person becomes aware of his strengths and weaknesses. By itself this is not enough to institute change. He would usually prefer to repress awareness of his weaknesses (this is possible when anxiety levels are low). However, fast social change de-stabilises him, increases his levels of anxiety, and makes repression an ineffectual method of handling the problems of everyday life. [8]

As his anxiety levels rise, the intensity of abreaction increases in tandem. This effect means that abreaction starts forcing his problems into his everyday awareness and drives him to seek ways of resolving them. He becomes propelled into a search for psychological solutions. If he resists change, then his experiences of sorrow increase till he becomes ensnared in confusion and perhaps even in mental disorder.

The overall pattern is that de-stabilisation increases the anxiety levels of the person, and then abreaction drains away the anxieties. However, residual effects remain (usually of guilt, resentment, or bitterness), and will continue to influence him and his relationships. During this process the person lives out his personal dramas, usually within the limits of his strengths and weaknesses.

Without conflict, people will not change. However, too much conflict will overwhelm them. Handling conflict, whether social or mental, is a process to be learned, much in the way that any other kind of skill has to be learned. This fact indicates the purpose of relativity.

The relativity of good and evil is needed in order to provide the conditions of psychological maturation.

The person progressively learns to handle ever more difficult levels of conflict, together with the sorrows that they bring. By this means, conflict stimulates personal evolution.

Without moral relativity and dialectics [9] , a bad person would never accept that he is bad. A good person would never accept that he could be bad. So a bad person would be unlikely to create a conscience. A good person would be likely to see nothing wrong in becoming licentious, for example, since licentiousness would not ‘taint’ him.

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Practising Ethics

Once evolution of the individual is accepted, within a perspective of reincarnation, then where does this evolution slowly lead that individual?   Most people are still in the early stages of their path through life. In this situation, evolution is leading to the practice of ethics and the achievement of psychological understanding of oneself.

In my view the basis of physical creation, of the world of nature and solar systems, is power. In olden times, man followed nature. So the history of bygone man is a history of his search for power. The present purpose of human evolution in the material world is to change the base of awareness from power to ethical and psychological understanding.

Once ethical standards have become an integral part of the person’s character, then other options open for the course of human evolution.

Yet to fully live an ethical life is perhaps the hardest achievement of all. Most aspects of life militate against it. Ethics easily deteriorates into narrow Puritanism or right-wing conservatism, especially as the person gets older. Ethics is usually absent from many of the important activities of a life, for example in economic employment, in relationships which incorporate power, in the social use of technology.

The higher the ethical principles that one holds, the greater seems to be the opposition to them that one experiences in life. Much of this opposition comes from the dialectical nature of processes within the human mind. The more sensitive that a person is, the more debilitating is abreactive resentment and bitterness. [10]. The more rungs that one climbs on the ladder of evolution the greater is the effort just to maintain one’s ethical principles. It will be almost miraculous if one can live a full life without breaching one’s principles now and again.

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Failing Ethics

My guiding principle is that I try to maintain my ethics for at least 90%  of the time. But the remaining time I have to act from survival values. The more that I try to remain fully committed to living my ethics the harder becomes the choices between ethics and survival. I have had to learn that human weakness is an unavoidable part of the drama of living an Earth life. For a person who focuses on will power this lesson is always hard to learn.

Personal evolution involves gradually learning to become more skilful in using ethics in daily life. I try to maintain my ethical practice as best I can but I fail for about 10%  of the time. This failure can be considered to be a region of social negotiation for me. This region is where I do most of my social learning ; it is where I negotiate my personal integrity in my various interactions with society, with employers, with organisations. This region changes as the group size that I am involved in changes. I put this idea in diagrammatic form.

Diagram 5:

Negotiation Chart

chart of negotiating goodness

The left-hand, vertical axis represents group size, in order of increasing power. As a person moves up the groups in his social relations, his problems increase in intensity, since the degree of power that he is handling is likewise increasing. The bottom, horizontal axis represents his values, on a continuum between goodness and badness. The diagram has three parts: a region of varying goodness (left hand side), a region of varying badness (right hand side), and the area between them (the region of negotiation).

The chart indicates the way that the boundaries between goodness and badness change as group size changes. At the level of a single person, a problem may be quite simple to understand. There are simple answers to any ethical issues. There is a clear boundary, a clear division, between goodness and badness, depending on the vagaries of personal inclination and prejudice. This division is somewhat arbitrary and often depends on social conditioning. The individual rarely sees the middle ground between goodness and badness. At this level of the individual, the range of goodness has its maximum value, and so too does the range of badness.

As a person engages in various groups, problems begin to magnify in intensity. The clear boundary between goodness and badness starts to become hazy and fuzzy in social practice. In effect, we now have two boundaries instead of one, with a confused region of moral values between them ; this region has become the region of negotiation.

As a person moves up the group size, these boundaries get pushed further apart, so that the region of negotiation increases with increasing group size. The bigger the group, the more choices there are about how to use power, so ethical issues increase in complexity and cease to have simple answers. In the region of negotiation a person has to decide to what extent he can accept lower ethical standards in his social relations and still live with that. The range of his undiluted goodness decreases, as does the range of his incorrigible bad side.

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For example, he may have to work with some persons who do not pull their weight. In this situation, should he do some of the work that they should be doing (thereby increasing the stress on him), or should he refuse to do so, knowing that the final work will thereby be faulty and so cast its reflection on him? Both of these alternatives are unsatisfactory, so he needs to find a compromise between them.

It is the need to compromise that causes the major difficulties in ethics. At the level of the individual, that individual can be in full control of his practice of goodness. But as he engages in group activities, so sometimes he has to negotiate some of his principles in order to function reasonably and survive. The higher up the scale of group size that the person is involved in, so correspondingly the lower becomes his overall level of uncompromised morality.

If a person can live a life of complete ethical commitment with no moral dilemmas, then this is likely to mean that, in some way, he is being sheltered and insulated from the harshness of the world – perhaps by affluence, or inherited social privilege, or even by being supported by a group of devoted admirers.


The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it.  For the addresses of my websites, see the Links page.

[¹]. My ideas on psycho-analysis are mainly on my website The Subconscious Mind[1]

[²]. There are four articles on attitudes in section 5 of my website Discover Your Mind. [2]

[³]. My ideas on reincarnation are on my website Patterns of Spirituality[3]

[4]. My analysis of the process of abreaction is given in the five articles on Abreaction. See home page.   My definitions, descriptions, and analysis of emotions are given in the three articles on Emotion.  [4]

[5]. There is an article on Character Transformation on my website  The Subconscious Mind. [5]

[6]. The true nature of a relative relationship, and the relativity of good and evil, are described in the section on Relativity, on my website A Modern Thinker[6]

[7].  My analysis of the process of abreaction is given in the five articles on Abreaction. See home page. [7]

[8]. Anxiety is an emotion. My definitions, descriptions, and analysis of emotions are given in the three articles on Emotion. See home page[8]

[9]. See the article  Dialectics and Human Evolution. [9]

[10]. The problems presented by resentment and bitterness are described in the fourth article on Abreaction : Resentment and Bitterness. [10]

Home List of  Articles Links Top of Page

The articles in this section are :

Sublimation - deriving good attitudes from distressful beliefs.

Faith - completes the patterns of bonding ; three forms of faith.

Morality - a look at origins and terminology.

Sexuality and Ethics - how sexuality affects ethics.

Personal Evolution - practising ethics, and negotiating goodness.

Nihilism - static and dynamic structures ; sexuality and authority.

The copyright is mine, and the articles are free to use. They can be reproduced anywhere, so long as the source is acknowledged.

Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath
All Rights Reserved

Ian Heath
London, UK

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