In recent years there has been a good deal of discussion of the nature of Buddhist ethics, On August 1, 2014 Jayarava wrote a post about ethics in the Pali canon. My aim is not to add anything new to the discussion of Buddhist ethics but simply to recapitulate positions that modern philosophers specializing in Buddhism have taken on why and how Buddhists, especially Buddhists in India, were ethical. It is well known that Buddhists recommended avoiding taking life, stealing property, violating societal norms on sexuality, lying and becoming intoxicated. What is less clear is why. Answering this question takes us into the realm of meta-ethics, that is, the discussion of the criteria by which one may know that something is or is not ethical, and the classification of various ethical theories.
What everyone writing about Buddhist ethics these days seems to agree upon is that Indian Buddhists themselves said almost nothing about why it is a good idea to avoid killing and so forth; they seemed content just to recommend against doing certain things. If modern philosophers wish to talk about Buddhist meta-ethics, they cannot simply do scholarship on ancient texts and report what the texts say. Rather, they must try to infer on the basis of what is said explicitly in ancient texts what the authors would now have to say about meta-ethics if they were made aware of this field of inquiry.
Some modern authors, such as Damien Keown, have placed an emphasis on the virtues that Buddhists recommend cultivating. Indian Buddhist literature, both scriptural and commentarial, offer advice on how to cultivate carefulness, friendliness, generosity, kindness, responsiveness to the afflictions of others, impartiality, equanimity and other positive mental states. The Buddha himself is usually taken as a model human being, and when his mentality is described, it is described as one that is unfailingly furnished with the positive mental traits just mentioned. The precepts—avoid killing, avoid taking what is not given etc—are given as descriptions of the behavior of a man whose mind is furnished with those virtues. The emphasis is therefore not so much on rules of conduct as it is on the mentality behind the conduct.
Other modern authors, such as Charles Goodman, make the observation that virtue ethics normally presupposes the reality of a self or a soul in which the virtues reside and that Buddhism is based firmly on the doctrine that there is no self, there is no personal identity that can be said to own the virtues, but instead there is a constantly changing series of conditioned events upon which a notion of self or person is superimposed. A virtue ethic with no self is, according to Goodman, an anomaly, and therefore it is better to look at Buddhist ethics as a kind of consequentialism, that is, an ethical theory that identifies good actions as those that have desirable consequences and bad actions as those that do not have desired consequences. Goodman, following contemporary meta-ethical custom, distinguishes between act-consequentialism and virtue-consequentialism or character-consequentialism. In the former, the emphasis is on discerning the consequences of a particular form of behavior, such as taking life or making someone comfortable. In the latter, the emphasis is on the advantages of kindness or the undesired consequences of cruelty—in short, on the good consequences of having a character as much as possible like the Buddha’s.
Jayarava, who was mentioned above, has made a case for early Buddhist ethics being a kind of moral particularism, which is the view that a moral value can be attached to a particular concrete action but that it is impossible to derive general rules of what kinds of action are good ones which are bad. A moral particularist can take the view that there is a fact to the matter of whether, say, the hanging of Saddam Hussein was a morally good or a morally bad action. What the particularist says cannot be done is to arrive at a rule that can be applied to other cases. Even if we can determine the truth of whether it was good to hang Saddam Hussein, we cannot necessarily determine in advance whether it would be good to hang some other head of state.
In contrast to the moral particularist is the moral skeptic who argues that there is no fact to the matter of whether any action is moral or whether any mentality trait is a virtue as opposed to a vice. I myself have stated in an essay called Moral murk ethical skepticism as a position I accept but do not know how to defend. My contention that at least some forms of Buddhism, such as the Mādhyamaka school of classical India, entails moral skepticism is not widely accepted, but so far no one has managed to convince me that my claim is indefensible, even if many people find it unpalatable.
There is yet one further position on the nature of Buddhist ethical theory that some modern philosophers, such as Mark Siderits, have taken up for discussion, which is that some Buddhists, such as the Mādhyamikas, deliberately avoided theoretical discussion about what makes some actions or mental states good. In the same way that these Buddhists carefully avoided theorizing about metaphysical matters, Siderits suggests, they may also have avoided theorizing about what moral right and wrong consists in. Theorizing, the story goes, often leads to attachment to a particular view, which in turn often leads to having contempt for those who have opposing views, which eventually contributes to the suffering in the world.
So far, no one has been able to make a compelling case that one of the positions outlined above is better than the others. What is more to the point is that no one that I am aware of has made a compelling case that any of this really matters. Indeed, some have hinted at the possibility that Indian Buddhists had no meta-ethical theories, not because it never occurred to them to develop any, but because they saw meta-ethical discussions as a distraction and a waste of ineffectual resources that could better be put to other uses. I tend to take that position myself, which makes me wonder why on earth I wrote this blog post.
On the July 15, 2014 issue of Skeptoid, Brian Dunning discussed 12 Step Programs . After giving a brief account of the indebtedness of the 12 Step Program to an evangelical Christian organization known as The Oxford Group, Dunning delved into the important question of whether 12 Step Programs actually work. This turns out to be, in principle at least, a fairly straightforward question. The claim is made that 12 Step programs help people to break addictions of a various kinds, such as addictions to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, sex, gambling, shopping, hoarding behavior or overworking. Answering the question of whether these programs work is simply a matter of compiling statistics how what percentage of people who resort to these groups are actually able to spot the addictive behavior they sought to stop. One possible complication in the seemingly straightforward task of gathering these statistics is at what point does one collect them. If someone manages to stay free of the addiction for, say, fifteen years and then “falls off the wagon,” does that count as a success or not? If a person is in the program for twenty years and has seventy relapses but eventually happens to die in between relapses, do this count as a success or not? Supposing it can be determine (even if only arbitrarily) what counts as an example of the program working, one can come up with at least an approximate answer to the question “Do 12 Step Programs actually work?” (It is worth either reading or listening to Brian Dunning’s report and conclusions.)
After listening to Dunning’s podcast, it occurred to me that Buddhism is usually described as a program (although its followers tend to describe it as a mārga or pratipad, both of which Sanskrit words mean method of course or path, or as a dao (道), which also means path or way or course or method). A legitimate question to ask, therefore, is whether the program actually works. Does the path actually lead to the destination indicated on the roadsigns? Not only does this seem a reasonable question to ask, it seems to be the most important question for someone to ask about any path before embarking on it. Does this path actually go to where one would like to go?
Answering the question of whether Buddhism works should be quite simple. First, one determines what the destination of the path is said to be, and then one determines how many of the people who embark on the path actually reach the destination. The claim is that Buddhism is a path of getting to nirvāṇa. So all we need to do is collect statistics on what percentage of the followers of the Buddhist path reach nirvāṇa. If a very high percentage (once we decide how high a percentage needs to be to count as “very high”) does reach the goal, then Buddhism works. If only a very few people who follow the Buddhist method manage to reach nirvana, then we must conclude the path does not work very well.
No sooner is the method of determining the answer to the question of whether Buddhism works stated, however, than it is obvious that there is a problem. Suppose one were to use a similar method to determine whether highway I-25 works. According to the maps, this highway extends from Las Cruces, New Mexico to Buffalo, Wyoming. Now to determine whether the highway works, all we need to do is determine what percentage of the people who set out from Las Cruces make it all the way to Buffalo. I don’t know the answer, but I would suspect relatively few users of the highway manage to make the entire journey from Las Vegas to Buffalo, or from Buffalo to Las Vegas. Quite a few probably end up getting only as far as Denver or Albuquerque, or perhaps even only as far as Truth or Consequences, NM. This being the case, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that I-25 does not work very well. But that conclusion is obviously silly. Surely, one might observer, the criterion of success needs to be modified such that anyone who manages to use I-25 to get from somewhere on the highway to somewhere else on the highway counts as having made a successful journey. Using this criterion, we would have to say that I-25 works if someone manages to drive the thirty miles from Trinidad to Walsenburg, Colorado.
In applying the analogy of determining whether I-25 works to the matter of determining whether Buddhism works, we could either use the very strict criterion of determining what percentage of followers of the Buddhist path reach nirvana, or the more lenient criterion of determining how many followers of the Buddhist path manage to get somewhere other than the place where they started out. Let’s begin with the stricter criterion. What percentage of Buddhists reach the destination of nirvana? To answer this, we must first know what exactly nirvana is. Traditional Buddhism offers two definitions. Nirvana is either the cessation of rebirth or the complete elimination of greed, hatred and delusion from one’s mentality, with no possibility of their returning. How many Buddhists arrive at either one of those two destinations?
The problem of determining how many people achieve nirvana turns out to be at the very least difficult, and at the very most impossible in principle. Let’s begin with the latter. Given that it is not even possible to know whether anyone is ever reborn in the first place, how can one know whether anyone has stopped being reborn? For all we know, we all have only one life anyway, in which case we all succeed at not being reborn, whether we wish to or not. In that case, it would be trivially true that everyone who follows the Buddhist path avoids future rebirth; so does everyone who does not follow the Buddhist path, including every squirrel and every Colorado potato beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata). Even if it were granted that some or all beings are reborn, there is no easy way of knowing which beings stop being reborn. The Buddhist tradition claims that the Buddha himself had the ability to see what happened to everyone upon their death, so he could know who had stopped being reborn and who had been reborn in some other realm. There is, however, no way of knowing whether those stories of the Buddha’s powers of clairvoyance are true or whether he simply claimed he could do what no one else could do, or whether his admiring disciples made this claim on his behalf. While I think it would be safe to dismiss these claims, it might be better simply to conclude that there is no known way of determining whether they are true, and hence no way of knowing whether anyone achieves nirvana.
If we take the other definition of nirvana, the definition that says that nirvana consists in the complete eradication of the very possibility of being greedy, hateful or delusional, we are still left with something that it is impossible to determine. At the very most, we might be able to say that a person has not been angry for a very long time; but does it follow from that that there is no circumstance whatsoever that would provoke that person to anger? Are we ever in a position to know that some psychological event that is currently not taking place will always and forever be absent from a given mentality? Here again, Buddhist tradition helpfully offers the claim that when a person has attained the complete eradication of greed, hatred and delusion, then that person knows that there will never again be greed, hatred or delusion in successive moments of mentality. That claim, however, cannot be tested. It is not at all obvious what kind of evidence one would even look for to determine whether it is true or false.
Trying to apply the strict criterion of determining what percentage of followers of the Buddhist path reach nirvana gets us nowhere. Unlike the question “How many people start in Las Cruces, New Mexico and drive all the way to Buffalo, Wyoming?, the question “How many people who begin the practice of Buddhism attain to nirvana?” turns out to be unanswerable. But what happens if we apply the more lenient criterion, the counterpart of deciding that I-25 works as a highway if anyone manages to get on the highway at one point and end up at another point thirty miles, or two centimeters, down the road? It may be easier to apply this test. One might give a battery of psychological tests to a person to determine a mentality profile, have the person practice Buddhism for a period of time, give the battery of tests again and see whether the results of the first set of tests differed from the results of the second set of tests. Any difference in mentality profile could be attributed to Buddhist practice.
Well, yes, but that would still be a sloppy methodology. As described, it commits the fallacy of the form “If x precedes y, then x is the cause of y” (the Latin name for which fallacy is Post hoc ergo proper hoc). The difference in mentality profiles between the earlier and the latter battery of personality tests could very well have been caused by something other than the intervening Buddhist practice. The changes may have taken place simply because the subject grew older, or for any number of other reasons. To get anywhere at all with this question, one would have to have a group of people take personality tests before and after doing some Buddhist practice, and then have a control group taking the tests before and after not doing Buddhist practice for the same amount of time, and then compare changes in the two groups. If the Buddhist practice group changed in statistically significant ways differently from how the control group changed, then one might be able to attribute the difference in change to Buddhist practice. No doubt someone somewhere has done such an experiment and published the results, thereby claiming to have shown that Buddhist practice changes mentalities in some way. Do such tests results really indicate that Buddhist actually works?
Let us return for a moment to the Brian Dunning report on 12 Step programs. His conclusion is this:
So even though there are a lot of studies with a high noise level from the past half century, we can still form a pretty good answer to the question of whether twelve step programs work. If you have an addiction, then you are probably better off seeking a treatment program than you are doing nothing. You’re probably better off starting with a full medical intervention. And from there, the road forks: If you’re an evangelical Christian, your best chance at recovery is to enter a twelve step program; and if you’re not an evangelical Christian, then your best chance is to go with a community support program that is not a twelve stepper.
Without having done any research on the topic, my guess is that something similar to what Dunning said about 12 Step programs could also be said of Buddhist practice. If one wishes to change one’s mentality (presumably to a more positive mentality, however one defines “positive”), then it may be better to do something than to do nothing at all. The more attractive one finds a program, the more likely one is to stay with it, and the longer one stays with a program, the greater the likelihood the program will have some kind of results. If one finds Buddhist statues attractive and likes hanging out with people who identify themselves as Buddhists, then there may be a sense in which Buddhist practice works for one. If, on the other hand, one resists the very idea of accepting guidance from an allegedly enlightened master who lived twenty-five centuries ago and if one does not find Buddhist images aesthetically pleasing and inspiring, then one is unlikely to benefit much from Buddhism. In that case, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other programs that may work for one. Buddhism is by no means the only program in town.
There is, of course, also the very real possibility that nothing whatsoever works and that whether the changes in one’s mentality are positive or negative is a result of nothing but blind luck. If that is the case, then doing nothing may be every bit as effective as doing nothing. Ladies and gentlemen, please place your bets.
The Universe is thought to have been created about 13.7 billion years ago. Measuring two long-lived radioactive elements in meteorites, uranium-238 and thorium-232, has placed the age of the Milky Way at in the same time frame. From these measurements, it appears that large scale structures like galaxies formed relatively quickly after the Big Bang. Read more at http://www.universetoday.com/15575/how-old-is-the-solar-system/
My father wrote a book entitled Cambrian and Ordovician rocks of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. Although I have had the book in my library since it first came out in 1978, I still haven’t managed to read it all the way through, but I am gradually working my way up to it by reading more elementary and accessible works on geology. It is my hope to use my retirement years to learn enough about geology to be able to understand at least a few paragraphs of that book before it’s time to return all the molecules in my body back to planet from which they came. I am discovering about myself, however, that I have a tendency to put almost everything I learn into a contemplative context. So what follows is a Buddhist meditation—albeit by no means exclusively Buddhist—with a bit of a geological flavor.
Given that I live on the escarpment of Virgin Mesa a bit north of Jemez Springs, which is located in San Diego Canyon in the Jemez Mountains a bit southwest of Valles Caldera National Preserve in the northwest quadrant of what has, for the last century or so, been known as New Mexico, I thought a good place to start my amateurish exploration of geology would be Fraser Goff’s Valles Caldera: A geologic history, a most accessible book with plenty of maps and charts and photographs accompanying an admirably lucid text. Reading this book has multiplied my enjoyment and appreciation of this beautiful area and helped me understand how it is that less than a hundred meters from my house, at an elevation of around 2033 meters (6670 ft), one can find fossils of shellfish that lived their lives at the bottom of a shallow sea when this piece of the earth’s crust was located near the equator. One of my favorite reveries is to hold one of these fossils and try to imagine how much force, and how much time, it took to move this piece of crust more than 30º to the north and to raise it to more than 2000 meters above sea level. I love thinking about that, because it makes me feel so very insignificant. It puts my life, and the life of the species to which I belong, into proper perspective. Almost all the rocks I can see from my front porch have been here for millions of years, an exception being some tuff that dates back a mere 55,000 years—practically yesterday in geologic terms—and more than likely they will remain pretty much as they are until there is another episode of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, probably any time between later this year and 10,000 or more years from now.
Notwithstanding the relative longevity of geologic formations when compared to timescales that human being can comprehend, everything on the earth is impermanent, subject to change, liable to undergo violent and catastrophic transformation. As Fraser Goff reminds his readers, nearly everything that can be seen in this area has taken its present form during a period of time that represents only about 5% of the 4.5 billion-year history of the planet Earth. Like the human beings and the other mammals and the reptiles and insects that now scurry about on the rocks, the rocks themselves are just passing through, on their way to being transformed into something else. It’s just that their impermanence is not quite as obvious to us. As the Zen Master Dōgen observed back in the thirteenth century, “The blue mountains are constantly walking.” So are the red and yellow and tan mountains of New Mexico. Even this vast landscape that makes my own life so puny and insignificant is itself puny and insignificant in the context of the overall history of the Earth, and the Earth itself has been around for about a third as long as the Universe, which itself has an uncertain future, although we can be sure it will keep changing for as long as it exists.
For as long as I can remember, I have been exposed to terminology such as “Proterozoic Eon” and “Devonian Period” and “Halocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period of the Cenozoic Era” (the latter being the name geologists have given to the time during which most readers of this blog were born), and to time scales such as 13.7 billion years ago (Big Bang), 2.5 billion years ago (beginning of Proterozoic Eon), and 200,000 years ago (earliest Homo sapiens). An indispensable part of that geologic package was the conviction that all planetary change, including the evolution of species, has been essentially without purpose or design or intelligence and that it is therefore a mistake to attribute features of human intelligence and aspiration to the workings of the universe as a whole.
As William James (1842–1910) observed, it is the tendency of human beings to hold onto the first beliefs they acquired through childhood indoctrination and to abandon them only when “experience boils over,” that is, when the circumstances of life conspire to make it impossible to fit what one has experienced into the framework of one’s beliefs. Experience has never boiled over for me. Nothing has occurred in my life to make me question the teachings I received as a child that life is essentially accidental, undesigned and without purpose and that the universe in general, and planet Earth in particular, could have gotten along very well without it. Life does, however, happen to be here, and as long as it is here, those who happen to participate in it can, if they so choose, find some purpose to their own existence. James (who, along with Charles Darwin, was one of the most highly revered thinkers referred to by the adults in my life) also said “Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.” In keeping with that observation, I was encouraged to explore the world until I could find something that seemed worth living for; purpose in life is not given by anyone from the outside, I was told, but is created by one’s own mind.
As my own experience kept stubbornly refusing to boil over, thus leaving me quite comfortable with my childhood beliefs, my needs for religion were close to non-existent. When crises did finally arise (all of them entirely created by human beings), the only traditional religious teachings that spoke to my condition were the basic teachings that Buddhists claim were given by the Buddha (although I personally suspect these teachings have probably been around in some form for as long as Homo sapiens have felt an urge to teach their children): namely, that life is disappointing to those who have unrealistic expectations, and it is unrealistic to expect anything to endure without undergoing change, and therefore the only way not to be disappointed with life is to learn to accept that things will change, often in unexpected and unwelcome ways. For any observation beyond those, I never found any need, and so Buddhism has remained part of the framework of my system of beliefs since the day I became aware of it.
One of my favorite television programs of all time was the Canadian Broadcast Corporation program called The Red Green Show, which featured a slightly curmudgeonly country bumpkin who occasionally said “Remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.” That pithy saying perfectly sums up the Buddhist approach to ethics. All of us beings who have consciousness are together in this vast, purposeless, meaningless and largely hostile universe that keeps delivering up changes that few of us asked for, and all we have to turn to for comfort and help is one another. If we don’t pull for each other, there is no one else around to pull for us. So I’m pulling for you. And maybe when I get into a jam, if I get lucky, you’ll pull for me. Beyond that, there really is nothing much more to say about moral philosophy.
That being my own unboiled-over worldview, when I look out onto the escarpment of Virgin Mesa every morning, I see the consequences of millions of years of sedimentation at the bottom of a sea, followed by periods of upheaval caused by unintelligent forces of magnitudes beyond my ability to reckon, and violent volcanic eruptions that deposited hundreds of feet of ash and pyroclastic flow, and I note that some trees have managed to grow in an arid region and that birds live in those trees and that a few mammals have learned to eke out a livelihood in this environment, and I go into a village in which just about everyone is kindly and helpful, because they all know that life is not particularly easy in these starkly beautiful canyons, and all of those observations reinforce my Buddhist leanings. Everything in life is uncertain; we’re all in this together; let’s pull for one another.
Perhaps what intrigues me the most is that these very same surroundings also seem to reinforce the convictions of the Jews and the Christians and the Sufis and the atheists who have been attracted here. Even people who have never even heard of Cambrian and Ordovician rocks seem to feel quite at home here. How could one not love such people and pull for them?
When I was a graduate student learning to read ancient philosophical texts written in Sanskrit, there were two schools of thought on how best to approach these old texts. One school advocated the view that the best way to understand a text is to read all the commentaries that have been written on the text in later generations, including all the translations (which are, after all, also commentaries of a sort) of the source text into Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, Italian and English. The other school advocated the view that the best way to get an insight into the mentality of an author is to read as much of possible of what that author had probably read; reading later commentators and translators, said partisans of this school, is anachronistic. Surely a commentator like Candrakīrti, writing some five hundred years after the time of Nāgārjuna, lived in an entirely different world from Nāgārjuna’s and would therefore be a poor guide to Nāgārjuna’s thoughts. Both of these schools of thought made sense to me, so my own tendency was to do both—learn as much as possible about the author’s worldview and then be open to hearing whatever insights subsequent generations might have had into the text in question. This makes the study of any given text an endless task. No matter how much one may learn about a text, the amount one has not learned, and can never learn, about it is incalculably greater.
There was yet another approach to classical texts that none of my own teachers explicitly advocated but that made a good deal of sense to me, probably because of my years of being influenced by Quakers. George Fox, the founder of what eventually came to be called Quakerism took the view that no one could possibly understand Biblical passages unless they opened themselves up to the same Spirit that had inspired the authors of those passages in the first place. This contemplative approach involves sitting quietly until all the chatter of one’s own thinking subsides and then reading a passage and letting it speak to one’s own particular condition. Spirit, the person who wrote inspired words, and the reader of those words all collaborate in the composition of a new text. This approach, I concede, would probably not make for very good academic scholarship—Spirit is rather difficult to footnote—but it is still the only way of reading a text that makes sense to me when the goal is to be inspired by a text, a goal that is quite different from the goal of writing something about a text for a publication destined to be vetted by highly critical academic referees.
Now that I have retired from professional life and have little interest in submitting my writing to academic referees before making it available to the public, I find myself doing far more reading in the Quaker manner than in either of the two academic approaches that I learned as a graduate student. Nowadays when I read a Sanskrit text, I like to read just a few verses, or perhaps a paragraph or two of prose, then close the book and just let the text percolate through my memories and random thoughts and half-baked speculations and unexamined assumptions to see whether all this percolation makes any lights go on. Sometimes they do. Often they do not. I am equally content either way.
My fear of cliché is not as robust as it used to be, so I don’t mind saying that life itself is rather like a text. The task of making some sense of it may be approached by reading commentaries, listening to the wise counsel of elders, studying it methodically and analytically, forming hypotheses and testing them or reading blogs written by wild and undisciplined conspiracy theorists. There is no lack of material out there that can be used to put the experiences of life into convenient containers filled with predigested pap. As I get older, however, I find myself not wanting to avail myself of any commentaries at all. It is not so much that I want to make sense of life all by myself without any help form others—an attitude that is quite common among us off-the-scale introverts. Rather, it is that I find myself not feeling a need to make sense of life at all. Life needs no commentary; it goes on quite well whether sense is made of it or not. When sense is added to it, often quite artificially, I find it does not enhance the flavor very much. Indeed, it often masks the subtle flavors that raw experience delivers up.
I love to watch the birds that come to our feeders. There are days when I crave to know the genus and the species of every visitor and to read about their mating habits and the way they make nests and care for their young and their migration patterns. Knowing as much as possible about what others have learned by observing birds can add a dimension of pleasure to watching birds. Some days I crave that kind of pleasure. Other days, I just like to sit quietly and watch the birds eat and chase rivals away from the feeder and dart around in the branches of nearby trees. They do not care what names human beings have given them, nor do they care what generations of human observers have recorded about their lifestyles. They care only about eating and not being eaten in this very hour, an hour to which they have no need to attach a number.
As much as I may learn about birds by reading what other human beings have observed about birds, I think I learn more about how to go about being human by listening to the teaching of the birds—without a commentary.
I apologize for disturbing your day with my thoughts.
A while back I went to see a performance of Shen Yun, the dance group associated with Falun Gong. The dancing, singing and music were all polished and impressive, but despite the skill of the performers, I left the theater feeling that some important dimension was missing from the spectacle. There was nothing in the evening that really engaged me intellectually, emotionally or aesthetically. In thinking about it afterwards, I realized that what had left me feeling unsatisfied was the moral certainty of many of the segments, the theme of which had been that perfectly good and innocent people were being persecuted by thoroughly malicious people for no reason other than that malevolent people cannot tolerate good people. There was nothing at all subtle about it. The good people wore white and pastel clothing, while the villains who were tormenting them wore black clothing with prominent red hammer-and-sickle designs on their backs. The good and innocent people were without guile or flaws, and the villains were without redeeming qualities. The final effect was as two-dimensional and unwittingly comical as any piece of emotionally manipulative propaganda. Whenever art is put to the service of political or religious dogma, it ceases to be artistic and becomes merely crafty.
There is no disputing that different people have different tastes, so I cannot speak for anyone but myself in matters of morality. What I can say about myself is that my soul craves moral murkiness. This may be nothing more than a particular application of a more general aspect of my character, namely, that I love questions far more than answers, and love above all those questions that cannot be answered. Since most moral questions fall into the category of unanswerable questions, it is no surprise that I am drawn to thinking about morality and am especially attracted to situations of moral complexity, ambiguity and indeterminacy.
My own default position, which I admit I am unable to defend, is that there is no such thing as a moral fact. People have personal preferences in how they would like others to behave, but these preferences are essentially groundless and therefore indefensible. There is nothing whatsoever that I like about war. I find it distasteful, and my preference would be for disputes to be settled without recourse to violence, coercion, destruction of lives and property and to threats of violence and destruction. My preference would be to live in a world in which there were no weapons of any kind and in which no human being imposed his or her will on any other living being. As strongly as I prefer that, however, I have never been able to defend the claim that a peaceful world is more moral than a world of bellicosity. That peace is better than war is, in other words, a personal preference that I happen to have. It is not a moral fact. There is probably a name for the view that there is no such thing as a moral fact—perhaps it is what some people mean by the term “moral nihilism”. What the view is called does no interest me very much. What interests me more is that it is a view I would prefer not to have, but have been driven to having for lack of sufficient reason to hold the view that there are, or may be, moral facts.
Most situations that create a craving for moral certainty—that is, for clear answers to the question of what ought and what ought not to be done—create that craving precisely because no clear answers are evident. Most situations that make one even think in moral terms are situations characterized by ambiguity and indeterminacy. These two features are closely related, but let me try to explain how I would distinguish them.
- Moral indeterminacy. Moral theories that assess the rightness of actions on the basis of the goodness of the consequences of those actions lend themselves to indeterminacy; that is, the consequences of an action cannot be determined for a couple of reasons. First, given the complexity of events, it is seldom possible to know for certain whether any given circumstance that occurs after an action is the effect or direct consequences of that action. This is so because no circumstance has only one cause. This is especially the case when the putative effect in question is an abstract notion such as happiness, flourishing or well-being. Well-being is such a nebulous concept that it is almost impossible to define it with any kind of precision, and even if it could be said definitively whether a particular state of being qualified as being well, that state would have so many variables that it would not be possible to identify any given action or personality trait as its cause.There is another reason that the consequences of a given action or personality trait cannot be determined, which is that the consequences of anything at a given time continue indefinitely into the future. In the year 2014, for example, the consequences of the signing of the Declaration of Independence are still unfolding, and they will continue to unfold long after the nation that got its beginning after that action has ceased to exist. It is possible that the consequences of the Declaration of Independence in 1825 were better than the consequences in 1848 and slightly worse than the consequences in 1935. So at what point does one take a sounding of the long chain of consequences of an action to determine whether the consequences were better or worse? (There is an often-told Zen story that illustrates this point.)
- Moral ambiguity. Moral theories that focus not on actions but on personality traits tend to classify personality traits as either virtues or vices. A person with good character is one whose virtues outnumber or outweigh that person’s vices. It is usually said that virtue conduces to the person’s happiness or well-being, while vices conduce to a deficiency of flourishing. As was pointed out above, the abstractness of those notions militates against our being able to determine whether a person’s being is well or ill. Even if this could be determined in some way, it would turn out that any given personality trait has a mixture of results, some of them instances of well-being and others of doing poorly. If one examines one’s own patience, for example, one can probably think of situations in which patience turned out to be conducive to well-being and of other situations in which patience was an obstacle to well-being. So is patience a virtue or a vice? For most of us, the answer is Yes. It is both. Its valence is ambiguous. The same would be most likely turn out to be true of such traits as attentiveness to detail, curiosity, optimism and so forth. Even the qualities of wisdom and compassion, which tend to have a good reputation among philosophers as virtues, and faith, hope and love, which tend to be favored by Christian theologians, cannot claim to be unambiguous.It is a commonplace to say that everyone, with the possible exception of perfect saints, has a mentality that is a mixture of virtue and vice and that therefore there are no perfectly innocent victims, perfectly virtuous heroes or absolutely vicious villains. That is no doubt the case, but the problem is even deeper than that. At its most fundamental level, the problem is that there are no personality characteristics that are pure virtues or pure vices. There are personality traits; nothing more than that need be said.
Moral nihilism in a Buddhist context
Throughout the history of Buddhism, the claim has been made that the Buddha’s teaching on dependent origination steers a middle course (madhyamā pratipad) between the two extremes of claiming that there is an eternal self that survives the death of the present physical body and claiming that there is a self that endures from conception to death but is cut off or annihilated when the physical body dies. These two extreme views are therefore often called eternalism and annihilationism in English, approximate translations of the Sanskrit śāśvatavāda and ucchedavāda. Each of these two extremes is said to be a poor foundation for an ethical life. The view that there is a self in this life that fails to survive the death of the body is said to lead to a kind of moral nihilism. The usual reason given for this association is that if one does not continue existing beyond the death of the body in this life, then one is not accountable in the future for actions done in this life. One might, for example, commit a heinous act at the very end of this life and not live to experience the painful consequences that are supposed to follow heinous acts. One might, for example, strap a bomb to one’s body and detonate it in a crowded place, thereby killing both oneself and scores of other people, and if that is the end of one’s conscious existence, then one would not go to hell or be reborn as a rabbit in a realm of hungry coyotes. Buddhists, not alone among purveyors of religious ethics, worried about the injustice of crimes going unpunished. They also worried about the injustice of good deeds going unrewarded. Someone might, for example, run into a burning building to save the life of an invalid, succeed in saving the helpless invalid’s life and then die of smoke inhalation. If that heroic act is the very final episode in the hero’s existence, then there is no chance of reaping the rewards of the heroism. That a hero and a suicidal sociopath might have exactly the same fate—oblivion—hardly seems fair. So cosmic justice, the argument goes, demands that we survive into another existence long enough to experience the rewards of virtuous behavior and the miseries engendered by vicious conduct. Unless there is a difference in the consequences of vice and virtue, then vice and virtue turn out to be indistinguishable, and to say that there is nothing that distinguishes vice from virtue (or bad deeds and good deeds) is to espouse moral nihilism.
Let me begin by accepting, just for the sake of argument, that the Buddhist claim that denying an afterlife would lead to moral nihilism is correct. What I would now like to argue is that moral nihilism is in no way incompatible with having an effective Buddhist practice. This amounts to arguing that two and a half millennia of Buddhist teachers, and even the Buddha himself, were mistaken in saying that denial of an afterlife is a false or unproductive view (mithyādṛṣṭi) and therefore an obstacle to liberation from the root causes of discontent. Before presenting a case for my contention that the Buddhist tradition is mistaken in this matter, let me try to understand what I think the worry is. The Buddhists who adhere to their traditional teachings are worried, I think, that if someone is a moral nihilist, then that person will automatically behave in ways that are harmful to self and others. If one is convinced that trying to make a rational or pragmatic distinction between right and wrong and between vice and virtue is a futile pursuit, then one is sure to break all the Buddhist precepts. That is, one is bound to go around killing, stealing, being a sexual pervert, lying, gossiping and harboring greedy and hateful ambitions. Why? Because, I think the Buddhist is likely to respond, there is nothing to prevent one from acting in all those ways that are supposedly destructive to self and others. So if I am to show that the Buddhist tradition’s collective fear of moral nihilism is ungrounded, I must show that a it does not follow that a moral nihilist would necessarily violate the Buddhist precepts. One way of doing that is to explain why it is that I, being a moral nihilist, have strived (and for the most part succeeded) to follow the Buddhist precepts.
First, it may be helpful to say something about the nature of what are usually called the precepts in Buddhism. In the Sanskrit language these so-called precepts are called śīla, a word that simply means a habit or a propensity to act in a particular way. Liquid water has the habit of flowing downhill, while solidified water has the habit of staying stationary and gaseous water has the habit of rising. Buddhas have the habit of being mindful of how their thoughts and words and physical actions affect other living beings. There is not necessarily anything moral about śīla; it is simply a propensity to be predictable in one’s actions. The verbal formula for the five, or eight or ten śīlas of Buddhism can best be translated as “I undertake the training principle of abstaining from….” It is noteworthy that the formula does not say that one has a duty to abstain from a given action, or that doing a given action is offensive in the eyes of God, or that performing the action in question will lead to rebirth in hell. There is nothing suggesting that abstaining from the actions is obligatory. On the contrary, the abstention is purely voluntary. The abstention is simply something that one undertakes. One undertakes it as a training principle. In other words, if one wishes to be part of the community of people undergoing Buddhist training, then one voluntarily undertakes to abstain from taking life, taking property, reckless sexuality, lying and so forth. In much the same way that if one wishes to drive a car in England, one agrees to drive on the left side of the road, but if one wishes to drive a car in Canada, one drives on the right side of the road, if one wishes to consider oneself a disciple of the Buddha, one agrees not to take life or property and not to act in various other ways.
Surely, I can imagine someone saying, there must be something more involved in practicing abstention from certain acts than simply wanting to be a member of the Buddhist club and knowing that some kinds of behavior would be frowned upon by the doormen. And I would readily admit that successfully abstaining from those actions probably requires some motivation other than the fear of disapproval. In my own case, fear that I might be considered unworthy to be a member of the Buddhist club plays no role at all. My own adherence to the Buddhist precepts preceded my knowing anything about the teachings of Buddhism. What motivated me was, as was mentioned above, simply a strong sense of distaste for taking life and for the various other things that Buddhists undertake to abstain from. So while my own practice of the precepts has been far from perfect—rest assured that I am no candidate for sainthood—it has not taken much more effort to practice the recommended abstentions than it has taken to abstain from eating beets. I don’t like beets. I find them distasteful. I also don’t like killing, taking what is not given, being sexually careless and lying. I also don’t enjoy being around loud and boisterous people, so I also try to minimize my contact with them. All these preferences are purely a matter of taste, and de gustibus non est disputandum. There is no arguing about tastes.
Now, if my principal motivation in abstaining from the kinds of actions that made the Buddha frown is my own idiosyncratic sense of taste, does that not limit me as a Buddhist practitioner? I would say not. It does not limit me as a practitioner (unless my tastes unaccountably and unexpectedly change, which could happen if something very dramatic happened to me). At most, it may limit me as a Buddhist preacher, because I cannot preach what I practice. I am incapable of coming up with rational arguments for why I or anyone else ought to follow the Buddhist precepts. If someone does not already think it is a good idea not to take life, I cannot persuade him. If someone does not already think it is not a good idea to take someone else’s property, I cannot dissuade her from theft. I am completely unfurnished with rational arguments to support why one kind of behavior is better than another. But in this, I am not so unique. In fact, I would claim that in this respect I am exactly the same as Buddhist preachers, for they are also incapable of coming up with rational arguments for following the precepts. Telling someone that if they take a life then they will be reborn in hell is not a rational argument. Telling someone that the Buddha did not like theft is not a rational argument for abstaining from taking property. My claim is that all putative arguments for morality turn out to be, on closer examination, nothing more than statements of personal taste.
It is possible that there are disadvantages of being a moral-nihilistic Buddhist, but so far the only one I am aware of is that my distaste for moral absolutes and black-and-white depictions of good guys versus bad guys may have diminished my enjoyment of the Shen Yun troop.
My father had a sign on the door of his office that read, “Those who freely share their opinions are operating on the assumption that the demand for them is brisk.” Little did I know it at the time, but my father was preparing me for the interest in Buddhism that has haunted my entire adult life. The sign on the office door was, in my opinion, a bit too wordy, but I never shared that opinion with my father, because he never asked for it. (He did ask for my opinion on a number of things, but not on that sign.)
In one of my favorite dialogues in the Majjhima Nikāya (The Middle-length discourses), the Buddha is reported to have told one Prince Abhaya how he decides what is worth saying;
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has sympathy for living beings. Abhaya Sutta
Some people of our times have boiled the essence of those criteria down to a mnemonic: “Before speaking, THINK.” That is, ask whether what you are about to say is
Speaking, according to traditional Buddhist authors, is a manifestation of what one is thinking. All speech acts and physical actions are preceded by mental actions. When Buddhists speak of karma, they are speaking primarily about one’s thoughts, for it is from thoughts that verbal and physical actions arise. Buddhists have a good deal to say about thinking, and they have numerous categories by which they analyze different kinds of thinking. This is not the place to go into those details. There is, however, one kind of thinking that Buddhists never recommend. It is called prapañca, a term that will be left untranslated for now.
The fact that prapañca is never recommended is a sign that this kind of thinking is regarded as unhealthy or unwholesome (akuśala). But what exactly is this kind of unhealthy thinking, and how can one know that one is indulging in it? How can one take precautions against it? In looking for answers to these questions, we encounter a variety of interpretations.
Early translators of the Pali canon sometimes rendered the term papañca (the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit prapañca) as “obsession”. While it is true that there is an obsessive dimension involved in the kind of thinking called prapañca, that translation does not tell the whole story. What the term often means outside of Buddhist contexts is something more like elaboration. If, for example, one states an idea briefly and the idea is misunderstood, then one can offer a more elaborate account of the idea. Alternatively, if one makes a claim, and someone else disputes the claim, one might then counter the dispute by offering a more carefully qualified version of the claim. That more carefully qualified claim is called a prapañca. In this context, prapañca is a verbal action, whereas in Buddhist contexts prapañca tends to be the thinking underlying the speech. If a person making a claim is too attached to the claim being made and defends it against all criticism, no matter how reasonable, then the verbal prapañca may be characterized as intellectually obsessive in nature. An idea of which someone simply will not let go, no matter how good the reasons may be for dropping it, may generate a good deal of verbal prapañca. The verbal prapañca is not the obsession per se but rather the verbal manifestation of the obsessive clinging to the idea; clinging to ideas tends to make one rather talkative.
In Buddhist contexts, the mental prapañca that is so often warned against is, I am inclined to think, the making of unnecessary narrative. It is generating explanations above and beyond the mere observation of what is happening. Not being content merely to observe what is taking place, one may well try to tell a story about why something is taking place. For example, if I see someone behaving in a particular way, I may be tempted to try to explain the behavior by telling some story about the hidden (to everyone but me) motives of the person whose behavior I have observed. But attributing motivation to a mind I cannot directly observe is gratuitous in the sense that it oversteps the limits of observation. It is this overstepping the limits of observation that is the root cause of what Buddhists in India called prapañca. It is telling stories of the kind that no one can be sure whether they are true or false.
People who imagine that they have figured something (or someone) out often have a difficult time keeping their hypotheses to themselves. And so gratuitous thinking often gives rise to gratuitous speaking, for example, sharing one’s opinions with those who have not asked for them. (In really extreme cases, gratuitous thinking may even result in writing posts on a blog. When the disease has developed to that degree, the prapañca may well be incurable).
Prapañca is one of the principal ingredients in modern culture. Indeed, it is probably one of the principal ingredients in any human culture, for much of what we call culture is simply common agreement on which stories deserve to be told and called true, despite their overstepping the limits of observation. Nearly all of religious doctrine is prapañca that has come to be accepted by a community of people, despite being neither verifiable nor falsifiable through experience. Nearly all political conviction is prapañca, for very few political disputes can be settled by an impartial appeal to evidence collected through careful observation. Most philosophy is prapañca, and I would hazard the guess that one can also find traces of prapañca in other academic disciplines as well.
The Buddha reportedly said that there were a good many topics of conversation that he avoided. He did not like to talk about current events, sports or what people were doing and saying. He did not like to offer speculations about how the world came about or how it might come to an end. He did not like to speculate about how big or how old the universe is. All such topics of conversation were regarded as what in Pali was called samphappalapa, usually translated as “idle chatter” or “pointless speech.” Pointless speech is based in prapañca, which might therefore be called pointless thinking or generating pointless narrative or telling unnecessary stories.
No one asked me what my opinion is about the meaning of the Buddhist term prapañca. I shared it anyway. I obviously failed to absorb the lesson on the sign on my father’s door. So my advice to you is not to read this post.
“One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That’s all. They were coming in the goddam window.”—J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
A recent PBS American Masters documentary on the life and influence of J.D. Salinger reported that in the 1980s there were three assassinations or assassination attempts in which the assassins cited Catcher in the Rye during the trials by way of explaining why they had decided to take, or try to take, someone’s life. Mark David Chapman, the young man who shot and killed former Beatle John Lennon, reportedly said that he thought John Lennon was a phony. Chapman read some of the many quotes from Catcher in the Rye showing contempt for phonies. John Hinkley, Jr, the young man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan reportedly had a copy of Catcher in the Rye in his hotel room and also cited passages from it at his trial. A third shooting in the late 1980s of a Hollywood actress also reportedly involved a shooter enamored of and perhaps motivated by the book.
Like many young people in the early 1960s, I was fascinated by J.D. Salinger’s writings and read almost everything he published before he stopped submitting his work for public scrutiny. Like most young people of all times, I went through a judgmental phase in my late adolescence and early adulthood, during which I was hypersensitive to people I regarded as phony. One time I made the fortunate mistake of denouncing some acquaintance as a phony in the presence of my mother. In her college years my mother had been active in campus theater productions, and throughout my elementary and high school education she had taken a keen interest in dramatic productions I was involved with at school. When she heard me denounce someone as a phony, she drew upon our shared interest in theater and reminded me that most people put a great deal of effort into creating a character that they wish to present to the world. Rather than denouncing them, she suggested, I might try admiring the results of the efforts to present a persona. Perhaps the character they are pretending to be is not really who they are, but it really is who they are sincerely trying to be, or at least sincerely trying to convince others that they are. A good performance by anyone is nothing to decry, and even a mediocre performance can be entertaining in its own way. A façade is no less who a person is than what is behind the façade. So sit back, my mother suggested, and enjoy the show.
My mother’s advice was one of those parental interventions that had the effect of immediately changing my attitude, and it turns out that the change in attitude has lasted for more than fifty years. What she said had the effect of making me look more deeply into the distinction between authenticity and phoniness. Like a good many distinctions, this one does not stand up very well under close scrutiny. Although human beings are often inclined to see some people as more authentic than others, it is not at all clear what the criteria are by which one can make an informed judgment as to which actions are sincere and which are not, or whose character is genuine and whose is not. It is not even clear what the point is in deciding who is authentic and who is not.
In Jungian psychology, the persona (or ego) is considered to be an archetype of the unconscious. To make that claim is to suggest that few of us are fully aware of all the times we are striving to present ourselves as being a particular kind of person; we do so unconsciously. The Jungian theory also suggests that the persona one is striving to be is only part of the totality of who one actually is. The persona is a selected subset of our entire psychological performance. It is but one character in a complex drama with a good many dramatic personae. When one acts in ways that the persona does not fully approve, the unapproved action is deemed “out of character” and the persona is quick to think “That was not really me.” Others may see what we do as being fully in character and quite predictable, while the persona remains quite sure that the disapproved action was a puzzling aberration and a deviation from one’s true self.
My mother loved to quote the line from Robert Burns’s poem “To a Louse”:
“O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”
Over the years I have often wondered how much of a gift it would really be to see myself as others see me. Perhaps I am not alone in having been surprised a number of times by how others have characterized me, and when other people’s characterizations take me by surprise, my tendency is regard the characterizations as inaccurate. Surely, I like to think, I am not as mean-spirited and misanthropic as some people seem to think, nor as kind-hearted and accepting as some others seem to think. The truth (if there is such a thing) is probably that I am sometimes mean-spirited and misanthropic and at other times a bit more kind and accepting, sometimes demanding and critical and sometimes permissive and lenient. Given enough time and varying circumstances, I am quite capable of being just about everywhere on the map at one time or another.
Are there any of the regions of that map that deserve to be called who I really am? Are there any areas on the map that when entered mark me as a phony? To both questions I am inclined to say I think not. But I am so often mistaken about so many things, that I could well be wrong about this as well.