And now, in religions’ baffling inability to cope with women…

A Christian group at Bristol University in England is being investigated for its discriminatory policies. Women are banned from teaching at their weekly meetings without their husbands beside them. The email from their president said:

“We understand that this [women teaching] is a difficult issue for some and so decided that women would not teach on their own at our CU:Equip meetings [its principal weekly meeting], as the main speaker on our Bristol CU weekend away or as our main speaker for mission weeks.”

The email goes on to say that women may teach at these meetings, as long as it it with their husbands.

It is fantastic that these discriminatory policies are being dealt with at last. The sad thing is, of course, that similar discriminatory policies are being practiced in Buddhism. From Amaravati’s notorious “Five Points” of discrimination against women:

2. In line with this, leadership in ritual situations where there are both bhikkhus and siladhara–such as giving the anumodana [blessings to the lay community] or precepts, leading the chanting or giving a talk–is presumed to rest with the senior bhikkhu present. He may invite a siladhara to lead; if this becomes a regular invitation it does not imply a new standard of shared leadership.

The full list is on Leigh Brasington’s site. He’s added a variation to the list that was created some time ago, where “monk” and “nun” are replaced by “Whites” and “Blacks”. There are more variations here. The alternate wordings create a stark and disturbing impression, as if the original was not creepy enough.

We can only hope that Buddhist groups realize the harm that these policies create and change them before they are forced to do so by the law.

About APRO

I was recently asked to write a little about APRO, and I thought I would share this with you for your interest.

What is APRO?

APRO is the Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations. It is the peak of peak bodies for religious organizations in Australia. It was formed in the wake of 9/11, as a positive response to the increasing levels of religious intolerance in the Australian community. Over the past several years, APRO has organized and taken part in a number of events, including interfaith conferences, media training exercises, meetings with government, and so on. The basic purpose it to improve harmony and understanding among the religious traditions in Australia.

APRO is an informal body, which meets irregularly, a couple of times a year. It was originally under the auspices of FECCA. In any case, it is an independent body, with no financial backers to speak of.

The APRO members come from the main peak bodies of Australian religions. You can see the list on their website: http://www.fecca.org.au/aboutus/projects/item/87-australian-partnership-of-religious-organisations-apro

All the people on the APRO panel are wonderful; we get on very nicely, and have never had any conflicts. Everyone is sincerely dedicated to improving religious harmony, and we have never had any problems with people pushing their own agenda

Why is it important for Buddhists to have a representative on it?

As a multi-religious country, it is essential that Australia have a strong and healthy interfaith element. Without it, all the religions operate in their own narrow stream, without learning from each other. King Ashoka said that one never helps one’s own religions by criticizing the religions of others, but one only helps one’s own religion by helping other religions. I believe that the tolerant and diverse religious heritage of India, and East Asia generally, is a tradition of great importance in these times where religion too often becomes the reason for division, not harmony.

The religious culture of Australia is, of course, traditionally dominated by Christianity, but this is changing rapidly. Australia is the only developed country where Buddhism is the second largest religion. It is essential that Buddhists have a seat at the table whenever there are important interfaith forums, such as APRO.

What did you contribute and get out of it?

I have learnt a tremendous amount from my involvement with APRO, too much to summarize here. But if the is one lesson, then it is this: that we always share more in common with other religions than we have differences. We should not be afraid to stand up and make clear what the differences are. For example, several times I have had to remind people that Buddhists don’t believe in God. But don’t let the differences tear us apart.

I think I have been able to contribute something to APRO also. Often Buddhists have quite a different way of seeing things than others do, and I have never been afraid to mention this. At other times, in conferences and the like, I find that what Buddhists can do best is to stay silent. Sometimes we have had a panel of speakers; I opt to sit meditation with everyone for a few minutes; and afterwards people tell me it was the most memorable of all the speeches! Generally it is, I think, true that many of the other religions have better organized and more effective policies of social welfare than we do, and we can learn much from them about this. But the contemplative element is sorely lacking, so this is something we can contribute.

Just War in theory and practice.

Some time ago I wrote a post detailing why I was opposed to the notion of a ‘just war’: essentially because the theory is basically a blueprint for ideological justification of war. Here’s an example of what I was getting at.

In a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Cardinal Pell said that he opposed the war in Iraq, but believed the war in Afghanistan was justified.

So congrats on not supporting Iraq. Pell is not alone: 36 million people protested that war, but it just sailed ahead anyway.

What of Afghanistan? Let’s consider this in light of Catholic just war theory. Please remember that I am not endorsing this, or any other, theory of a just war – I oppose them all. Nor do I have any special agenda in mentioning the Catholic approach – it is just that Pell’s statement came to my attention, and the Catholics have a well-articulated theory of just war, which was the blueprint for the modern secular treatment.

The reasons for thinking Afghanistan more justified than Iraq are clear enough. The 9/11 attack was, in fact, initiated by Al Qaeda while they were being sheltered under the Taliban. With the best will in the world it is difficult to imagine that the Taliban could have been reasonable or responsible partners in any negotiations to bring Al Qaeda to justice.

Iraq, of course, had nothing to do with 9/11, and never posed any serious threat to the US, which is why a tissue of lies had to be invented to persuade the public to support the invasion. So while Pell’s opposition to the Iraq invasion is good, it hardly constitutes a vindication of just war theory. That war was obviously immoral, and no sophisticated analysis is needed to understand why.

Okay, so here’s the basic principles of Catholic just war theory, considered in the case of the Afghanistan war. According to catholicism.org, ‘the following conditions of a just war must be considered before deciding to go to war. All of these conditions must be present at one and the same time.’

  • Just cause: force may be used only to correct an evil to the nation or community that is lasting, grave, and certain.

Let’s allow this one. The attack on 9/11 was devastating and horrific, and while it has played a vastly disproportionate role in global events since then, there is no doubt that 9/11, and future potential attacks, demanded an effective response.

  • All other means of securing or defending its rights must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.

Again, let’s allow this one. It’s difficult to be certain, as there is always another way; but the Taliban really were pretty impossible and it is difficult to see any other course of effective action.

  • There must be a serious probability of success.

This is where I would say the adventure in Afghanistan was totally misguided. There never was any prospect for genuine long-term success, and this is still true today. The US presence will fade away, the bitterness of the war will remain, and the extremists will regroup. Understand that ‘success’ here does not mean putting in schools for the Afghanis or making better conditions for women. If these things happen, then that’s terrific, but the war was not waged to improve the lives of the Afghani people, nor should war ever be waged for such purposes (according to the first principle above). The war was waged to get revenge on Al Qaeda and prevent future terrorist attacks, and needs to be assessed in that light. Al Qaeda has been massively damaged and Bin Laden killed, but the ‘terrorist threat’, according to people who believe in such things, has not significantly fallen. And for those of us who look to the causes of conflict, not just the effects, who can doubt that a whole new generation of extremists has been born out of the seething resentment at the unjust invasion and often horrific abuses? And meanwhile, thousands keep dying every year…

  • Proportionality: the expected good to be achieved must be greater than the destruction and disorder that will be caused by the use of force. (Modern weapons of mass destruction must be seriously considered when evaluating this condition.)

This criterion was clearly not met in Afghanistan. It is, of course, impossible to truly understand the scale of destruction that is caused by a war such as this, so let us keep the task manageable by relying on one reasonably quantifiable measure: the number of deaths.

The deaths from 9/11 were around 3000, so the deaths from any response to that should be similar. But this is not the case. Civilian deaths are in the order of 17,000-37,000; and I find the saddest part of that is the sheer volume of the uncertainty. In the majority of cases, no-one really knows. The real figure is probably much, much larger.

The coalition military deaths totalled 2765 by the end of 2011; that is, as many invading forces have died as perished in the attacks on 9/11. At least we know who these are, for these are people with actual names and lives, not just a faceless ‘enemy’ whose dead are not even worth counting.

In addition, between 36,482 and 40,658 Taliban have been killed. Interestingly, it is much harder to find these statistics than for the civilian or coalition deaths. The Taliban are the devil, so who cares how many die? Well, their mothers do. And the sisters and brothers and fathers and friends of the dead, most of whom, as always, were young and naive men pressured to go off and fight for what someone else has told them is just and right.

The total casualties would therefore be at least 60,000, probably 100,000 or more. In any case, with due allowance for margins for error, the number of deaths is massively disproportionate as compared to the initial attack.

  • Force may be used only as a last resort.

I have my doubts over this one, but let’s allow it to be generous.

So there we have it. According to the tenets of the Catholic just war theory, the war in Afghanistan is clearly unjust, as it fails to meet the criteria of having a ‘serious probability of success’, and of being proportional. Failing just one of these is enough to render it an ‘unjust war’. I think there may be room for disagreement as to the probability of success, but not regarding proportionality. This is so clear cut as to be beyond any reasonable doubt.

And yet Cardinal Pell supports it. Why? Because the purpose of just war theory, when it comes right down to it, is to justify war. If the theory doesn’t fit the current war, then it can be ignored or argued around. The nominal purpose of the theory is to clarify thinking so as to make a proper moral decision in a difficult situation. But in practice, it doesn’t work.

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.’

The Essence of Wisdom

Since no knowledge is better than that by which a man knows himself, let us examine our thoughts, words, and deeds. For what does it avail us if we are to investigate carefully and understand rightly the nature of all things, yet do not understand ourselves?

Liber de Spiritu et Anima, LI. (Migne, P.L., vol. 40, cols. 816-7) (Author unknown)

Quoted in Jung, Aspects of the Masculine, p. 171 note 14.

The Moral Life of Babies

Here’s a fascinating article in the New York Times, which describes research that examine the extent of a babies’ innate moral sensibility.

It seems that even very young infants are instinctively able to tell ‘good’ from ‘bad’, a fact which is difficult to explain from a biological point of view. The traditional perspective has it that children are acculturated to learn morality as they grow.

Some researchers have been tempted to ascribe this innate moral sense to “the voice of God within our souls.” From a Buddhist point of view, of course, we would prefer to think in terms of rebirth.

Regardless of the reason why, the practical outcome of this is that people are, before culture, primed with at least the basics of a moral sensibility. This falls short of a truly mature ethics, as babies, for example, are still not impartial in the sense required by higher ethical discernment. (But then, who is?)

This reminds me of the Socratic belief that we have all learned everything in countless past lives, and so what we call ‘learning’ is in fact merely ‘remembering’. If children have an innate sense of morality, then it would seem that the most useful form of education would be that which ‘draws out’ (to use the literal meaning of ‘educate’) knowledge that is already innate.

This issue has recently become the focus of intense debate in Sydney, with the recent proposal to trial teaching ethics in schools to children who choose not to go to ‘scripture’ classes. The basic method of the ethics class is to present the children with a bunch of ethical dilemmas, and discuss them.

The Sydney Anglicans, as always foremost in reaction, have come out strongly against this, insisting that they be involved in the process, while the Catholics have been more muted.

(For those of you not familiar with the Sydney religious scene, the local Anglican church is one of the extreme conservative wings of the international Anglican communion, and is separate from the rest of Australia’s Anglicans, who are generally quite progressive.)

Jensen & co. seem to be outraged that secular ethics should be taught in Australian Government schools – teaching secular ethics in a secular institution! What will they think of next.

Underlying this is the basic question of moral authority. The Western philosophical tradition, starting with Socrates, sees ones own inner voice as the prime source of truth, while the Church sees morality as descending from on high, and mediated by itself.

The time has long passed when secular institutions looked to Christianity for its values. Our children need to learn ethics, not from any self-appointed ‘authority’, but by learning to listen to their own voice of conscience, to dialogue with others, to accept different points of view, and to found ethics on a shared humanity, not adherence to any religious dogma.