Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Moral murk

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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 not 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 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.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, April 7, 2014 at 11:30

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