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The Utopian Horizon of Objective Human Values


The Utopian Horizon Of Objective Human Values

During the 20th and early 21st centuries human beings have been emerging out of an era that began with early modern science. There has been a fundamental paradigm-shift from the “materialistic” cosmology implicit in early modern science to a “holistic” cosmology implicit in the work of Einstein and subsequent quantum theory. Early modern science, culminating in the “Newtonian Paradigm” conceived of the world in mechanistic terms, as “bodies in motion.” It assumed that laws of gravitation, universal causal determinism, and atomistic composition of all matter gave us a complete account of the “reality” of the universe.[i]

These assumptions about the universe allowed no place for mind. Generally speaking, either mind was something entirely different from the materialistic universe, a different kind of “substance” as Descartes held, or it was merely an epiphenomenon of matter in which tiny atoms collided within the brain to produce the desires and feelings that we associate with human subjectivity, as Thomas Hobbes asserted. In either case mind appeared as an orphan within this mechanistic world, and especially within the Empiricist tradition, human values, that is human moral imperatives, appeared as “merely subjective.” Such was the famous conclusion of David Hume in the 18th century: “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”[ii]

A way into the holism of contemporary thought was formulated by Immanuel Kant who was awakened from his self-described “dogmatic slumber” by Hume’s skepticism concerning both knowledge and values. Kant emphasized the organizational structures that the human mind brings to its perception of the world, structures that make possible having any knowledge of the world at all. In his thought mind is no longer an orphan in a materialistic universe but a key to unlocking the necessary features of that universe.

Kant called this his “Counter-Copernican Revolution.” He put human beings back in the center through the centrality of mind in cognizing the universe, just as Copernicus had shifted us physically out of the center into the periphery of physical existence. But there was more. The synthesizing functions of the mind operated through the “transcendental unity of consciousness,” the transcendental ego, itself beyond time and the synthetic features of existence that it contributed to the knowing experience. Kant recognized that the transcendental ego presupposed not only its own unity but the unity and comprehensibility of the world as a whole. Subject and object joined in a comprehensive holism in which mind, far from being an orphan, is now seen as fundamental to the entire cosmos.[iii]

Human values were also restored to objective status. Human freedom entered the world through the transcendental ego, itself not subject to the deterministic categories by which it synthesized experience. Reason could legislate laws for human conduct, premised on freedom and freedom’s concomitant absolute moral demands, giving us “categorical imperatives” as the foundation for all human actions. Because all persons are rooted through the unity of their consciousness in the noumenal reality that transcends the phenomenal world, because we are all free, moral beings, we are required to recognize our intrinsic dignity—to “treat every person as an end in themselves, never merely as a means.”[iv]

Kant wrote in the late 18th century, before Hegel in the 19th century posited the temporal dynamism of the cosmos and long before Heidegger explored the integral relationship between human existence and temporality in the early 20th century. Temporality, movement, and the idea of evolutionary development began to dawn on human awareness, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species having appeared in 1859. 20th century thinkers began to examine human beings in terms of development, growth, movement from lower to higher stages of being and awareness.

In Being and Time, which appeared in 1927, Heidegger illuminates our existence as fundamentally temporalized creatures. Each person lives in a perpetual present moment within which we dynamically appropriate our memories of the past and project ourselves forward toward an anticipated future. He recognizes the contingent character of our human situation as being “thrown” into the world—the arbitrary and accidental nature of each of our lives. However, each of us may “take over” our thrownness and appropriate this in the light of our authentic potentiality for being. We can actualize our potentiality for being as we move into a future bounded by the awareness of our own death.

Inauthentic temporality, the common view of human beings in relation to time, conceives of human life as living along a continuum of an infinite series of “nows.” It fails to encounter the finitude of primordial time, which represents a “project towards that potentiality-for-Being for the sake of which any Dasein exists.”[v] Our primordial temporality means that we are projecting towards a “potentiality-for-Being” that places the future in ontological priority over the past and present. The future forms for us a “horizon” within which we can authentically actualize our being.

Heidegger does not here consider human values in any significant way. However, his emphasis on the horizon for self-actualization provided by the primacy of the future sets a framework for a host of developmental scholars who articulate a process of development into the future in terms of objective values. Numerous psychologists and philosophers posited overlapping and broadly consistent developmental models of human self-realization and awareness of values. Thinkers such as Abraham Maslow, Eric Fromm, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, Ken Wilber, and Jürgen Habermas began mapping human moral and cognitive growth.

The most basic model from Wilber and others involves development from the egocentric orientation of childhood (and immature persons) to the ethnocentric stage in which one has internalized the values of one’s immediate cultural, linguistic, and religious environments to the worldcentric stage in which one has transcended ethnocentrism and begins to think in universal human terms, in terms, for example, of what Karl Marx called one’s “species-being.” Beyond this, there are stages of “cosmocentric” growth and awareness in which we develop into integral harmony with the fundamental principles of being itself. From the worldcentric to cosmic levels of development, we begin to move from personal values, perhaps derived from our culture or upbringing, to “transpersonal values,” that appear as universal and independent of our personal subjective feelings and desires.[vi]

Maslow calls the values that emerge within our temporal horizon at this level of self-development “being values.” At the higher stages of self-actualization and self-transcendence, he affirms, there emerges an awareness of values such as wholeness, perfection, completion (fulfillment), justice, beauty, goodness, truth, and self-sufficiency or autonomy.[vii] These values, empirically observed from the study of self-actualization within many individuals, are termed “being values” precisely because they derive from the cosmic, transpersonal, level of consciousness.

Our temporal horizon is a utopian horizon. Heidegger’s authentic temporality that sees the actualization of our potentiality for being as the horizon of our perpetual present consciousness can now be understood, at the cosmocentric stages of growth, as values implicit to the evolving universe itself come to consciousness in us. The transcendental ego, which Kant understood as presupposing the fundamental unity and being of the cosmos, functions as the unity of a temporalized consciousness that becomes evermore fully aware of the “being values” implicit within its horizon.

Emergent evolutionary theory, formulated today by such thinkers as Ervin Laszlo, Teilhard de Chardin, and Errol E. Harris has understood that the transcendental ego represents the fundamental organizational principle of the universe come to consciousness of itself in us.[viii] Harris writes: “The self-conscious unity of the ego, coordinate with the synthetic unity of its experience, is the principle of identity in and through difference…. It is, in short, the universal principle of organization and order which has all along been differentiating itself throughout the scala naturae, and which has, at this stage, come to fruition in human mentality, where it becomes aware of itself.”[ix]

Harris emphasizes: “what one wills is always ideal. I will what I conceive to be a better state of affairs and of myself than what actually exists.”[x] “Philosophy,” Frederik L. Polak writes, “at its highest level is intimately integrated with thought about the future.” “Utopian thought,” he says, “always relates to the future, whether near or far away, and a future quite different from present reality.”[xi] Philosopher James L. Marsh declares: “reflection and freedom and praxis are essentially utopian in their full, unfolding life. Denial of utopia mutilates freedom and reason.”[xii]

Here we discover a key to our utopian horizon. Both freedom and reason presuppose objective utopian values. A human being is constituted as temporality, but we see now that we are also constituted as a transcendental unity of consciousness that accompanies and makes possible all temporal movement from past to future. In contemporary emergent-evolutionary theory, this is the cosmic evolutionary principle of complexification and unification that operates behind the entire process. Just as Kant had assumed that the moral imperative emerged from the noumenal dimension hidden behind, so to speak, a practical reason coextensive with that transcendental unity, so we can see now that the moral imperative for transformation and perfection also arises from this transcendental ego as its utopian horizon.

Objective human values populate the horizon of our common human temporality. Our task is to distinguish what is merely subjective from the objective lineaments of the utopian horizon. Our task is to live toward this utopian future as faithfully as possible, to transform our broken and degraded human condition on the Earth in the direction of the perfected human community, a community of love, peace, justice, and sustainability.


[i] Harris, Errol E. Apocalypse and Paradigm: Science and Everyday Thinking. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.

[ii] Hume, David. Treatise on Human Nature: Volume II. New York: E.P Dutton & Co., 1949,Book II, Section II, Part III.

[iii] Kant, Immanuel. Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965.

[iv] Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Trans. H. J. Paton. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

[v] Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. Macquarrie and Robinson. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962, p. 385. Cf. Charles M. Sherover. The Human Experience of Time: The Development of Its Philosophic Meaning. New York: New York University Press, 1975.

[vi] Wilber, Ken. Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World. Boston: Integral Books, 2007.

[vii] Maslow, Abraham. Toward a Psychology of Being. Floyd, VA: Sublime Books, 2014, pp. 75-76.

[viii] See Laszlo, Ervin. The Self-Actualizing Cosmos: The Akashia Revolution in Science and Human Consciousness. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2014. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The Phenomenon of Man. Trans. Bernard Wall. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961.

[ix] Harris, Errol E. Cosmos and Theos. Ethical and Theological Implications of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle. London: Humanities Press International, 1992, p. 12.

[x] Harris, Errol E. Twenty-first Century Democratic Renaissance: From Plato to Neoliberalism to Planetary Democracy. Pamplin, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press, 2008, p. 33.

[xi] Polak, Frederik L. “Utopia and Cultural Renewal.” In Utopias and Utopian Thought: A Timely Appraisal. Ed. Frank E. Manuel. Boston: Beacon Press, 1967, pp. 282-84.

[xii] Marsh, James L. Critique, Action, and Liberation. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995, p. 333. Cf. Glen T. Martin. Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation. London: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018, Chapter 8.