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.’