Vardy vs. the Buddha

I’ve just come back from another interfaith event. This was the Studies of Religion in Focus Conference 2011, entitled Core Ethical Teachings, held in the New South Wales Parliament building (although the event was educational rather than political). A range of speakers from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism were invited to speak and discuss on certain ethical issues, especially as they pertain to the New South Wales high school syllabus for Studies of Religion. Key areas included sexual ethics, bioethics, and environmental ethics. I was invited to speak from a Buddhist perspective on sexual ethics. I don’t quite know why a celibate monk ended up speaking on this – is there some special kink here that I don’t know about?

As always, interfaith discussions revealed a range of rich and fruitful insights, but I want to specially focus on the contributions by the main speaker, Dr Peter Vardy. He’s an English theologian and educationalist of note, and gave two articulate and persuasive speeches that dominated the main event. His position seemed to be received very well, but I had some serious concerns with his approach, which I’d like to discuss here.

Vardy wants to bring education back to focus on the whole person. He despises the fragmenting and degrading of education, the relentless focus on performance and outcomes, and speaks eloquently of an education that draws students on to their highest potential. These ideas found a strong resonance with the audience, who were mainly teachers of religion in high schools. I couldn’t agree more with this critique, and have believed the same thing since, well, since I was in high school.

The problem lies with Vardy’s analysis of the cause of the problem, and his consequent inability to propose any persuasive solution. He points to the modernist and post-modernist trends, the loss of a center of values, and the relativization of all morals. He argues that if we adhere to a purely ‘relativist’ postion on morality, we have no solid ground with which to withstand evil. His litany of evils included the usual suspects: Hitler, Pol Pot, modern art, the sexualization of teenage girls. In his own words, and his own emphasis, ‘WE ARE IN A MESS!!!’; and post-modern relativism is to blame. The solution is some kind – and here Vardy was quite timid as to details – of absolutist ethics, a rock solid ground of morality.

I beg to respectfully disagree. The reason for the arising of relativism was the failure of absolutist ethics. Lest we forget, the era of absolutism was the era when my own view was right, and anyone else was a heretic. The inevitable outcome of that attitude, when combined with technological superiority, was colonialism, with its program of imposing European Christianity on the rest of the world.

Vardy laments the intellectual vacuity of relativism, bemoaning the tendency for young people to just say, ‘Well, I’ve got my view and you’ve got yours, and everyone is entitled to their own view’.

I agree with him: this kind of relativism is shallow, and is usually little better than an avoidance of seriously grappling with the issues. But Vardy, I believe, seriously misrepresents the context in which this kind of dialogue operates. It has not risen as a replacement for serious intellectual discussion; rather, it replaces dogmatism and ignorance. In past ages, only a tiny fraction of the population received a higher education, and our record of intellectual activity is the record of the intellectual elite. Now the debate is broadened, and millions of voices who were previously silent can suddenly be heard – in classrooms where their opinion is sought, or blogs or Facebook. The quality of debate should not be compared with the Socratic dialogues, but with the chatter in the market or the village square.

From this perspective, to say, ‘Everyone’s entitled to their own views’ is actually a tremendous advance. It requires a degree of empathy, of understanding that there are many people in the world of different views, that different societies function in different, but equally valuable ways. Perhaps even more significant, it acknowledges that my views are a construct of my mind and environment, that they are conditioned, partial, and subject to change.

By all means, let’s not rest content here. Let’s delve meaningfully, rationally, and compassionately, get underneath our surface views and see where the real problems lie. But let’s not ignore the very genuine developmental achievement that relativism signifies.

Vardy seems to assume that all religions share his horror of post-modernism and relativism, and the modern ‘utilitarian’ ethics that these accompany. I would argue, on the contrary, that Buddhism ethics have always been relativistic and utilitarian. The problem does not lie with these tendencies as such, and therefore the solution does not lie in a return to absolutism. The problem is that these tendencies are still immature, and need to broaden and deepen.

What do I mean when I say that Buddhist ethics are relativistic and utilitarian? Let’s start with utilitarianism.

In the West this is associated with English philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham. According to Wikipedia, Bentham argued:

in favour of individual and economic freedom, usury, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and the decriminalizing of homosexual acts. He argued for the abolition of slavery and the death penalty and for the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children. Although strongly in favour of the extension of individual legal rights, he opposed the idea of natural law and natural rights, calling them “nonsense upon stilts.”

As such, he is diametrically opposed to Vardy’s call for a return to ‘natural rights’, a morality grounded on an absolute, timeless sense of right and wrong.

This is not the place to debate Bentham, but it is interesting to note how many of his moral positions have come to define our progressive modern society. I for one agree with him on every one of these points. The very fact that he had to argue for these things, which seem self-evident, points to the failings of the absloutist morality which prevailed in Europe before his time.

Bentham’s approach is that what is right is what brings the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’. The great virtue of this approach is that it is grounded on a clear and recognizable reality, the experience of pleasure and pain. The Buddha explicitly grounded his morality on the same principle: What is good (kusala, literally ‘skillful’) is what leads to happiness.

There are various theoretical problems with utilitarianism, perhaps the most pressing of which is the nature of pleasure. No-one wants a morality that leads straight to hedonism, so any utilitarian philosophy must lead to the psychology of pleasure, and specifically, it must account for different qualities of pleasure; the instant gratification of eating ice-cream versus the peace of a life well-lived, for example.

As I understand it, every spiritual tradition does in fact have some such analysis, and recognizes that short term hedonic stimulation must often be restrained for the sake of long term happiness of a more meaningful sort. Certainly the Buddha, as a direct consequence of his utilitarian ethics, developed a sophisticated psychology of pleasure, evolving and deepening at each stage of the spiritual path.

This is clearly an issue for we moderns, and there is no doubt the nature of pleasure and gratification needs a serious deepening. But this is not a flaw with the utilitarian approach as such, it is just that, like any moral philosophy, its application in the real word is messy and inadequate, and it needs time to grow into its potential.

While the Buddha’s ethics were a form of utilitarianism, this is not exactly the same as Bentham’s. Most important is the incorporation of kamma, which is firmly based on utilitarian principles: do good and you’ll be happy. The ideas of kamma and rebirth are intrinsic to a full understanding of the Buddha’s ethical teachings, and as such cannot provide a basis for ethics for those who don’t believe in these things. Nevetheless, the workings of kamma and rebirth are simply an extension of principles that can be observed here in this life. When the Buddha encouraged ethical conduct, he typically gave a list of utilitarian reasons, culminating in a good rebirth. In addition, for practicing Buddhists, ethical conduct is the foundation for all higher spiritual development. So Buddhist utilitarianism is still applicable and relevant within an entirely secular context, but within the context of the path as a whole it takes on an even deeper signifiicance.

Turning to relativism, as is well-known the Buddha characterized his own teaching as being about conditionality and inter-dependence. Whether in ethics, psychology, or metaphysics, there is no room for any absolute ground. Everything is, just as it was for Einstein, relative to everything else.

But it does not follow from this that our ethics are limited to just, like, whatever dude. And the analogy from physics works here as well. (I’m using the physics analogy because in the conference Einstein was quoted as saying that relativity applied to physics, not ethics. This statement, however, is not about the basis of morality, but about the relation between science and ethics, which Einstein always believed should be kept separate. Using Einstein to justify moral absolutism is highly problematic, as he also said: ‘A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary’.)

All motion is relative, and must be measured according to Einsteinian Relativity. Newtonian physics is wrong, as it relies on discredited notions of perfect absolutes, such as ‘a straight line is the shortest distance between two points’. This appears self-evident but is incorrect in the real world, due to the influence of gravity. Nevertheless, we still learn Newtonian physics at school, and for almost all practical purposes it’s good enough. Why? Because we share a common frame of reference: the planet earth. Unless we have to fly to Jupiter or build a nuclear reactor, Newton works just fine.

In the same way, fundamental moral issues are shared, not because of some ill-defined metaphysical ‘absolute’ by which we are somehow to measure our acts, but because we share a common frame of reference: the human condition. And all humans share certain values more or less in common. Most obviously, we love life, which is basis for the moral precept against killing. As long as humans are human, this principle is found and forms the basis for a shared morality, one which cannot be argued away by shallow cultural relativism.

By an incredible stroke of luck, we are just now able to test this idea in practice. Last week humanity was contacted by a race of sentient spiders from the planet Zog. They are an advanced arachniform civilization, who have mastered interstellar travel and, so they say, want to help humanity.

It all looked good, until we found out a curious detail of Zogian anatomy: each one of them gives birth to 1000 babies every week. All of these cute little spider-babies are able to speak from birth and are as intelligent and sensitive as a human adult. The Zogians take it as a matter of course that almost all of these little ones will die shortly after birth, leaving only the fittest. They are astonished at the care and love we lavish on our infants; it seems that the human race is unique in the galaxy in this respect. If the Zogians were to preserve the life of their babies, within a few weeks their planet would die of overcrowding. (This scenario is based on the much more realistic sci-fi world invented by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye.)

It’s a bit of a worry for we humans. Just a few Zogian colonists, and the earth could be taken over within weeks. What are we to do? Is it up to our enlightened moral absolutists to convince the Zogians that they are wrong to let their babies die, and that they must preserve their lives at any cost, even if that cost is the rapid and inevitable extinction of both our worlds?

I suspect that even the most die-hard absolutist would have little trouble convincing themselves that the Zogish ethics were right for the Zogs, and human ethics were right for humans.

This example shows why all attempts at absolutism will fail. It is because they attempt to impose an unchanging value on a changing world. The values of our religions, our sacred scriptures, our traditions, were not abstract laws crystallized out of the fabric of the universe. They were guidelines that helped people, in their own time and place, to live better lives. Those times and places change, and the values needed to live good lives also change.

Some things, however, change much less and more slowly, such as the moral precept against killing. Others might be more flexible; for example, while it takes an exotic sci-fi scenario to imagine a world where the precept against killing babies did not apply in a recognizable form, it is easy to imagine societies where there is no need of a precept against stealing, whether in hunter-gatherer societies who have few possessions, or in utopian post-materialist communities.

Appeals to absolutism are persuasive only to the extent that boundaries are limited. As moral horizons expand, more and more of what we formerly considered to be ‘writ in stone’ comes to be seen as product of a certain limited time and place. As our modern world changes and adapts with terrifying, unprecedented speed, the desire to find an absolute rock for moral foundations is understandable, but can never provide a common ground of ethics for all humanity.

Many religious people can find a sense of moral certainty within their own religious framework, but that framework will never be shared by all people. We must have a universal language of ethics that all people can share. It seems to me that utilitarian ethics, which is based on the compassionate understanding of our shared experience of pleasure and pain, is the best ground for such a common ethical framework.

It is quite true, such a language will in some senses be lesser, as it is concerned solely with the mundane or secular. Nevertheless, utilitarian ethics has fuelled many of what I consider to be humanity’s greatest ethical advances. In the past, the Buddha and Bentham are two great utilitarians who made radical, lasting, and meaningful reforms in the moral landscape. In the present, Peter Singer has articulated many of our most urgent moral challenges based on utilitarian principles, including the welfare of animals and the sufferings of poverty.

Utilitarianism is not a burnt-out or trivial bureaucratic exercize. When we take it seriously, it upturns our most precious assumptions and points to a revaluation of all values. The morality of the future will be grounded in the compassionate response to the shared human experience of pleasure and pain. As we pursue this, in our typical stepwise, faltering, and uncertain way, it will force us to question the nature of happiness more and more deeply. Our initially trivial ideas of happiness and suffering, which are sufficient to give moral guidance in simple situations, must be continually re-assessed as we are faced with new and more complex challenges.

Ultimately, we will reach the deepest reaches of meaning, just as in the great religions. But rather than imagining a doctrine of the absolute from our position here in the very relative world, we arrive at the depths from the ‘inside’, from working through and with matters of importance. The utilitarian principle lasts to the very end, as the Buddha said, ‘Nibbana is the highest happiness.’

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12 thoughts on “Vardy vs. the Buddha

  1. Yes, when we were talking about this the other day, what I thought is that relativism arose as a reaction to “judgmentalism”, and it is in this context that it should be related to and not as an isolated doctrine.

    Perhaps the the most mature approach is to say that differing views can be fine, but aren’t necessarily fine. In other words, having abandoned the extreme “Only this is right, everything else is wrong”, one shouldn’t adopt the other extreme “everything is equally right”.

  2. (Psst. Dear Bhante, it is still International Women’s Day here in Canada. So I thought I might share something that made the ether circuit today, a presentation on equality from that Paragon of Pop Culture Ethics, Mr. James Bond himself. (The actor in the video is the same actor who plays James Bond, a figure in a series of films that have spanned decades, etching the silhouettes of masculine-feminine stereotypes deeper and deeper into Western minds. The voiceover is (Dame) Judy Dench, who plays M, his scheming boss) Whether their previous antics as Bond and M were “right” or “wrong”, I wonder if these 2 minutes can erase some of that etching! Thank you Bhante for allowing me to post this here. Is pop culture also considered a religion?)

    (In case the link didn’t work up there, I am posting here too: )


  3. Hmmm, while I find myself in personal agreement with much you say here, I think the issue is indeed much more ‘messy’ than you make it seem! Perhaps the problem is inherent in the attempt to place Buddhist ethics within a western traditional context.

    If we insist on doing so, I think that “virtue ethics” is the closest category to Buddhist ethics. Buddhism is first and foremost a path of self-transformation, seeking the lessening (and cessation) of negative/unwholesome states and their replacement with positive/wholesome states (virtues). It is all about becoming a ‘noble person.’

    On the surface, there are indeed many similarities with utilitarianism. As you note, the Buddha often points to consequences of actions and moral choices. But, while western utilitarianism relies solely on consequences for moral validation, Buddhism places great emphasis on volition (cetana). Another — perhaps all too easily overlooked difference — is that the Buddhist tradition teaches that acts have good consequences because they are good acts, while western utilitarianism holds that acts are good because they have good consequences. This is NOT mere semantics!

    As for Buddhist ethics being relativistic, we can say it is in the sense that it makes room for flexibility, but not in the sense that moral norms (as opposed to custom and etiquette) are merely the function of local cultural and historical circumstances.

    In fact, we can also say it is absolutist in holding that certain things are always immoral, such as greed and hatred, and that some things are always good, such as compassion. Buddhist ethics tends toward being objectivity, seeing that as an aspect of Dharma, ethics is seen as objectively true, and in accordance with ‘the nature of things as they are.’ If Dharma exists as an objective moral ‘law,’ than it is understood that through the use of reason — and perhaps some kind of meditative insight/prajna — one can ensure that their moral choices are objectively valid. This lends Buddhist ethics a cognitive aspect, and that moral judgments are not merely subjective or a matter of personal taste.

    Again, I do not say that this is my personal approach to ethics, nor that I necessarily agree with the stance I elucidate above, but it seems to me that throughout the history of Buddhism, it is more accurate than saying “Buddhist ethics” are utilitarian and relativistic.

    thank you,
    poep sa frank jude boccio

  4. I’ve never like J Bond. Always thought he hated women.

    I never could understand why anyone would ever find such a bloke attractive. Personally found his whole persona hugely repulsive…begging everyone’s pardon…but the thought of such a bloke in anyway connected with sex just makes me want to vomit!

    His own lust was the major avenue through which he communicated with women. As such, ‘woman’ was always ‘sexualised woman'; either through her lack of sex appeal or through her existing sex appeal; and this was sickeningly and narrowly defined through the lens of exploitation (at sometimes relatively subtle levels) and brief gratification. ‘Woman’ was rarely, possibly never, just ‘human woman’.

    And the ego behind him, Ian Fleming, always seemed to kill women off once they’d been used in some way by pretty much everybody.


    Good on Judi and Daniel for taking the micky out of it and for doing it for the purposes of such very positive ‘discrimination’. Bring on that much needed balance!

  5. Bhante, I agree with all you say, as usual. So clear. How much of this response were you able to advance at the actual event? And how was it received?

  6. Brilliant Bhante.
    I’m a bit intrigued by the metaphor of the Zogs. Their fecundity combined with great intelligence seems counter-intuitive and paradoxical. In a natural system it is hard to imagine the complex set of circumstances that could lead to the evolution of an organism that combines such huge numbers of offspring with highly developed intelligence and physical characteristics. Highly developed biological systems seem to tend to greater diversity and lower fecundity. So in human and other complex animals offspring are, relative to the rest of nature, quite rare and highly valued. Thus the sanctity for life shared by most human societies.

  7. Absolutism can mean that we stop listening in the present moment because it’s just easier to apply the same rule to everyone and every situation.

    When we stop being present, stop listening, stop caring about individual circumstances…we run the risk of alienating people/groups. And this then becomes the fuel for all manner of aggression and general unhappiness.

    Someone once said that a dictatorship was the most efficient form of governance. This very much depends on the definition of efficiency. A Buddhist definition must take into account Suffering/Unsatisfactoriness/Imperfection, Conditionality and Change. It must make allowances for our flaws and mistakes and seek to focus and support our good intentions and wholesome qualities and it must seek to view each situation with fresh eyes, with creativity, friendliness and not just looking for lazy/easy solutions. Above all, it must not define success in terms of outcomes; but rather in terms of current levels of happiness and harmony.

    Perhaps if we are to have any over-arching ethical guidelines, it must be to be present, friendly, honest and to have a willingness to engage courageously with whatever arises.

    Absolutism just seeks simple solutions to complex problems, runs the risk of imposing black and white onto the many shades of grey and has little chance of ever seeing all the shades of all the other colours in the spectrum. It ignores too much and includes too little. It simplifies that which cannot be simplified, boxes up that which is of the nature to spill out of any box.

  8. There wasn’t much space to comment in the main forum. The session i spoke at was on sexual ethics, so i didn’t have the chance to respond directly to Vardy’s paper, hence this blog post.

  9. “I don’t quite know why a celibate monk ended up speaking on this – is there some special kink here that I don’t know about?”

    Possibly they just want to hear something from the side of celibacy, alot of people probably think that is very unusual or don’t understand the reason why someone is celibate, especially academic – just kiddin.

    Maybe it is good for people to know that this is a possibility, sometimes I get the impression people think sex is like food, and they or the opposite sex will die with out it or go crazy

    In the matriachal world I knew it was often incinuated men could not live with out it, although it also looks like in eastern countries and some religions it is apparently women who must constantly feed their desires or possibly risk dieing of desire starvation or something .. . so it does seem appropriate to me to ask a celibate monk to talk on sexual ethics, but then I guess it does depend on what their view before the conference of what is or should be sexual ethics.

  10. Here are too sort of ethical problems that I can’t work out, something is missing, is it just karma maybe or is that just the easy way out..

    Once upon a time there was a women who looked like a bit of a scrag, but she had lots of children – 6, (was reasonably happily married) who she looked after quite well, sacrificed a lot for and did the best she could for them. To make ends meet and because she had a vague sense of Christian ethos she stuck at a job looking after sick people as a nurses aid or something for low pay and respect when most other people had opted for higher paid and more glamours jobs. Although she was not 100% committed and focussed (ie had not listened to Ahjahn Brahms talks) with this job and possibly some of the people suffered for it, she still did the job and a lot of the chores that most `respectable people’ would not consider doing, ie cleaning up poo and spew in a way that was helpful to the sick people.

    One day she had to see a Doctor, the most convenient one was a well respected and noble man who of course was 100% comitted to his job because he was a
    Buddhist. So she made an appointment with him because she wanted the best for her sick kid, who was though the town terror. This was a small country town, he was a busy man and after first meeting her and her terror of a child seemed to brush her off by refering her onto someone else in the next town, she suspected that he thought he was too noble to tend to her and her sick child.

    What do you think, I mean I can see his point of not wanting this women gossiping about him all over town etc, but then you can see that she has quite a good and kind side . Possibly referring her on was the ethical option but then was it?


    There was a youngish (30ish) women who went to her local priest (there were are no women priests in this faith and even if there were this is the man she listened to every week so to whom she felt comfortable) he was an older, married rather unattractive man and she went to him when her family all died within months of each other.

    She asked for his counsell or help and thought he would be supportive throughout this time (in a religious way) because he was of her religious faith; it was a dark and confusing time for her obviously, she was a reasonably young women who had in a reasonably short period of time suddenly lost her parents and siblings and this faith was all she may have had left.

    Although she was a mildly rebellious girl she was very strict with regards to no sex before marriage even though she dressed a bit more like a bikie chick than a virtuous ‘lady’.

    The priest though refused to see her (or for more than a minute) because as he insinuated he could not be alone or talk to a with a female or something as ethically this would not be right, he was married and had a congregation and had to be ethical.

    Her outer appearance may not have reflected her belief in no sex before marriage but still he had known her or of her for a fair time and should have at least known she was not desparate or promiscuous etc as he seemed to be insinuating. this is where there seems to be no ethics in ethics, where it seem to get stuck

  11. ..continued…. I mean these are sort true stories, are they ethical people ethical, I mean this is where I find ethical considerations not very ethical? Does any one have any advice on this?

  12. Hi frank,

    Thanks for these remarks, that’s very helpful. you are quite right, any attempt to relate buddhist and western ethics will be difficult; nevertheless, we have to try, or else we just end up speaking past each other. the fact that the task is inherently problematic, however, also means that we should not dismiss any approach because it has some problems!

    I’m not sure if I made it clear enough in my original essay that, when I say that Buddhist ethics are utilitarian and relativistic, I do not mean that they are identical with the doctrines that are propogated under these names in western thought, whether popular or philosophical. What i mean is that, firstly, Buddhist ethics follow underlying principles that are relativistic and utilitarian; and secondly, that approaching them in this way provides the most direct and fruitful avenue for a true understanding between western and buddhist ethics.

    To respond to some of your specific points:

    I think that “virtue ethics” is the closest category to Buddhist ethics. Buddhism is first and foremost a path of self-transformation, seeking the lessening (and cessation) of negative/unwholesome states and their replacement with positive/wholesome states (virtues). It is all about becoming a ‘noble person.’

    This is true, but to me this is still straightforwardly utilitarian. A noble person is defined most characteristically as one who has ended suffering – the pleasure principle applies all the way to the end.

    while western utilitarianism relies solely on consequences for moral validation, Buddhism places great emphasis on volition (cetana)

    The buddhist treatment of cetana is not separate from the utilitarian principle: good intentions lead to happiness, while bad intentions lead to suffering. You may well be right in saying that the role of intention is much less in western utilitarianism, but this just points to a distinctive characteristic of Buddhist utilitarianism, it doesn’t mean it is not utilitarian.

    the Buddhist tradition teaches that acts have good consequences because they are good acts, while western utilitarianism holds that acts are good because they have good consequences.

    I am not sure that this really represents the Buddhist view. It seems to me that the point is that kusala actions invariably lead to happiness. It is the correlation between the two that is significant. Epistemologically, it seems to me that these two always work together. we have an idea of what is good and bad; prior to that (developmentally) we already have an idea of pleasure and pain. These two always interact in any person: our pre-existing notions of good and bad are modified and challenged by our experience of the results of actions; that experience is something we only learn slowly through life, however, and in the meantime we need to rely on shorthand summaries of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ acts; those conventional summaries (precepts), are themselves derived from past experience of many people; sometimes we think we follow the precepts only to discover that our choices lead to suffering and that we have misunderstood them; and so on. In any case, ethics must always fall back on whether they lead to happiness or suffering.

    As for Buddhist ethics being relativistic, we can say it is in the sense that it makes room for flexibility, but not in the sense that moral norms (as opposed to custom and etiquette) are merely the function of local cultural and historical circumstances.

    I don’t mean either of these things when I say that Buddhist ethics are relativistic. What I mean is that Buddhist ethics are conditional, contextual, situational; they arise solely out of relationship – whether that is a relationship between people, or the more fundamental internal conditioning of dependent origination – and have no existence or meaning outside of that.

    If we postulate an absolutist ethics of any sort, we are stuck in the impossible position of having two incompatible ethics: some ethics are relative, everyone agrees to that; so how are these relative ethics to be married to the absolute?

    In Buddhism the problem does not apply. There is no absolute. The Dhamma is the very opposite of an absolute: it is nothing more than the relationships themselves. Greed, hatred, and delusion are explicitly relativistic terms: they are defined as the ‘roots of the akusala’ (akusalamula). Like everything else in Buddhism, they only have meaning in relationship, as part of the causal matrix that is dependent origination.

    This does not mean that ethics are purely ‘subjective’ in the trivial sense that whatever i like, goes; any more than relativity for Einstein meant that particles could behave any way they wanted! What it means is that our understanding and evaluation of any individual event or phenomenon must be measured, not against a static ‘absolute’, but against other events or phenomena.

    I hope this clarifies my position somewhat; clearly more work needs to be done to sort out the degree to which ethics is, or is not, similar to these western ways of thinking.

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