Buddhist Ethics and moral uncertainty in the West

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

This article was originally written for the celebration of the 2600TH anniversary of the Lord Buddha’s birth, awakening, and death.

One of the greatest teachings of both Religious and philosophical figures of the ‘Axial Age’, namely, the period between 200 or 300 and 800 B.C, roughly 500 or 600 years, was “Though we are in this world, we are not of it”. People of this magnificent period in the history of mankind lived their life believing they were like trees though deeply rooted in the ground, their branches were reaching heavens. But what is an axis? It simply means a straight line about which an object rotates. It can also be likened to a hub, though it is stationary, the whole wheel moves around it. This was the time when many outstanding luminaries appeared on the landscape of the Ancient Civilizations. To give a few examples, we should name personalities such as Biblical prophets in the Middle East, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in Greece, Zoroaster in Persia, Buddha and Mahavira (Jainism) in India, and Confucius and Lao Tzu (Taoism) in China.
This was the time when there was no gap between ‘fact’ and ‘value’ or ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’. In other words, there was a balance between man and his world. There was no conflict between him and nature. Nature was the source of his values. He learned from nature how to be. Nature taught him the meaning of virtue. He was educated in the bosom of nature and learned how to become virtuous. He knew the art of walking on the tight rope by avoiding the two extremes. The middle path was the secret to his success in life. He was neither coward, nor rash. He would choose the mean between the two, that is, courage. He did not see things only in black and white, that is, either, or logic. He believed there was always room for gray color or neither, nor logic which was in tune with the reality of nature. His Intellect was in harmony with nature though his ordinary reason was stuck in black and white colors. Through his Intellect he could discover the universal laws of nature. His natural Intellect corresponded to the natural law. The whole world was looked at as a living organism not as an ‘It’ or dead matter. The ancient Greeks drew their values from the natural law while Chinese based their values on nature. Axial age came to an end by the time Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) left Greece for his country of origin Macedonia after the death of his student Alexander the Great (356-323B.C.).

The new ‘Axial Age’ began around 500 years ago when many events shaped the structure of the European culture. The emergence of Renaissance or rebirth mushroomed as intellectual revival in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. This is the period when Protagoras’s phrase, “Man is the measure of all things”, meaning actually and not potentially, became very popular. The nostalgia or a return home to the great Intellectual achievements of the Greek thinkers and its humanism became prevalent. Some scholars believe that this great awakening and its rebellion against the Middle Ages and its dark intellectual decay was the result of close to 800 years of Muslim rule in Iberian Peninsula, that is, Spain and Portugal. This led to the preservation of the philosophical works of the Greek culture as well as the greatest cooperation among all three Abrahamic Religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam which was unique in the history of mankind. This period of translation of Greek intellectual accomplishments into Hebrew and Latin along with the philosophical and scientific discoveries made during this time enlightened the whole of Europe . However, some thinkers think this rebirth was gradually was derailed and turned into a poisonous mushroom which like leprosy ate into the fabric of the medieval world and its humanism crippled Christianity forever from which it is yet to recover.
Muslim world being knowledge oriented among other Abrahamic Religions and open to challenge the Greek ideas head on safe guarded itself by staying away from the philosophy of Aristotle as well as certain sciences and mathematics. They preferred not to risk the health of their Religion by getting involved in studies which might jeopardize their moral values in the future. For example, in geometry ‘oval’ was avoided because it gave them ‘perspective’ or horizontal depth which signified the world. ‘Circle’, on the other hand, was encouraged for it pointed to eternity. In Algebra ‘X’ is to be found which signified God who is unknown and is yet to be known and strangely enough the root of the letter ‘X’ came from Arabic language standing for the Ultimate Reality. They would have invented Calculus long before Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) but they worried about quantified mathematics which is not Pythagorean. This great mind of the pre Socratic era believed ‘numbers’ existed independent of our mind and they were real. We must have known them long before we came into this world. No wonder why we can easily get involved in mathematical calculations once we are reminded of them. Therefore, a teacher is like a midwife who helps us deliver the knowledge we already possess. When it came to scientific discoveries, Muslims were extremely cautious not to sell their souls to the Devil for knowledge in spite the fact that their Prophet, Muhammad had encouraged them to pursue it no matter where it might be. Perhaps the reason was they had such a great respect for their motherland to one day destroy it in the name of scientific achievements. Given the accelerating rise in the current environmental problems, which is presently threatening the very existence of our own planet, makes us think perhaps the Andalusian Arabs were right after all in anticipating what we’re facing now. Without doubt there is a philosophical lesson to learn from all this.

This new axial age also introduced the founders of the modern science, namely, Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. After the Copernican revolution, the planet of earth lost its centrality and man was ironically no longer the measure of everything. Galileo tried to popularize this astronomical discovery, which was really not unknown to the ancient astronomers, but he was silenced perhaps for good reason. This inventor of telescope was not able to convince a religious man to look into it and see the stars. Perhaps when Galileo asked him: “why?” he told him: “there are things in the universe that are best left unknown”. This man and also the one who refused to look into the microscope centuries later might have both anticipated what would happen to our world when knowledge is pursued without the protection of the sacred realm.

Around the same time Spaniards gradually drove Muslims and Jews out of Spain which ended centuries of the greatest scientific, philosophical, theological, biological, and Religious Cooperation human beings had ever seen. More than two thousands Muslims and Jews were burned at the stake and the remaining were forced to convert to Christianity or get killed. Ironically shortly after this conquest and retaking of Spain, Muslim Turks moved to West and took Eastern part of Europe and established their empire. As a result of this occupation thousands of Jews, who had lost everything, migrated to that part of the world and were under the protection of the Muslims once again.

Knowing that the world was not flat, Christopher Columbus (1446-1506), the Italian Navigator serving under the Spanish King, discovered America in October12, 1492. It is said that his time of departure to the new world coincided with the Jews rushing out of Spain for fear of violent death.

In the mean time the monolithic authority of the Catholic Church was challenged by three outstanding major figures of the protestant Reformation, Martin Luther (1483-1546) German, Urlich Zwinly (1484-1531) Swiss, and John Calvin (1509-64) French Swiss. After a century of bloodshed between the Protestants and the Catholics the protective canopy of the Catholic Church was removed. This freedom from the authority of the Catholic Church gave the scientists the opportunity to continue their discoveries in mostly Protestant countries in Europe. Philosophers being no longer controlled by the Church went their own separate ways. The unity among these three important disciplines, which was once the cornerstone of the European Civilization gradually dissolved. Protestants, who gave the scientists complete carte blanche or complete freedom to go ahead with their experiments, put all their emphasis on Christian Ethics. The whole of Europe was now left to the secular thinkers to come up with solutions to the existing uncertainty at this time of intellectual chaos.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the French philosopher and mathematician is considered the father of modern rationalism. He believed through reason we can know the reality of things. With his systematic doubt process he finally came up with the statement, “I think, therefore I am”, which is certain and cannot be doubted. The second rationalist was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), the German philosopher and mathematician. The third rationalist was Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), the Dutch philosopher who happened to be Jewish.

These rationalists were followed by the Great British Empiricists who believed knowledge is gained through experience. John Locke (1632-1704), the British philosopher was the first of these three thinkers. George Berkeley (1685-1753), the Irish thinker was the second and finally David Hume (1711-76), the Scottish philosopher was the last one.

“‘Ethics’, or moral philosophy, is the philosophical study of morality. ‘Morality’ refers to beliefs concerning right and wrong, good and bad—beliefs that can include judgments, values, rules, principles, and theories. They help guide our actions, define our values, and give us reasons for being the persons we are… Ethics, then, addresses the powerful question that Socrates formulated twenty-four hundred years ago: “how ought we to live?” (“Doing Ethics”, By Lewis Vaughn, Second Ed, p.3). ‘Sentimentalist theory of morality stands out as the most interesting one put forward by David Hume. Although he believed in fact and value distinction, namely, we cannot base our ‘ought’ on ‘is’, he argued that morality is rooted in our feelings and sentiments. He called this ‘Sentiment of approbation (approval) ordi approbation (disapproval).He said that ‘reason’ is inert and the slave of passion. We ought to go with our feelings, he maintained, when it comes to our moral choices. The question, however, is: “Are not we basing our morality on our nature?”If the answer is ‘Yes’, then it is finally true that the gap between ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’ is bridged. If this is the case, then we are back with the Greek philosophers. However, another problem haunts Hume’s theory.

Let us not forget that different people have different feelings and different moral attitudes towards what they confront. For example, when I see a homeless person being fed, I would have a sentiment of approval and when I see him kicked I would have a sentiment of disapproval. But it does not mean everyone else would have the same feelings. If this were correct, then Hume could easily fall into so called ‘Relativism’ in which there are no common and universal sentiments shared by everyone. In order to avoid the trap of ‘Relativism’, Hume argued that ‘Sympathy’ and ‘Benevolence’ are the two moral values common to all people. Furthermore, these vices and virtues which our moral sentiments approve or disapprove are socially useful. This idea of usefulness or utility in social behaviors would make Hume the father of the moral theory of ‘Utilitarianism’ in the West. Two great British philosophers, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) being influenced by Hume became representatives of this school of thought.

‘Being the enlightenment thinker, Hume also believed man‘s nature is good. Adam Smith (1723-1790), the Scottish economist, the author of ‘The Wealth of Nations’, and the father of ‘Capitalism’ was Hume’s close friend who also felt man is good by nature. His first book in fact was ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ in which he wrote that in a deregulated free market economy the sentiments of ‘Sympathy’ and ‘Benevolence’, being common to all mankind, would regulate man’s appetite and greed for accumulating more money to the detriment of others. As we can see, he was deeply influenced by Hume’s notion of morality. With the invasion of China by the British forces, the ideas of both Hume and Adam Smith also entered this isolated and closed culture to the world in general and the Europeans in particular. Amazingly this ‘Sentimentalist theory of morality’ was also present in the thoughts of Mencius (371-289 B.C.) who was the student of Confucius’s grandson. He also believed man‘s nature is good and he advised many leaders of China of his day to have benevolent governments instead of the ones run by force. He argued like Confucius himself that ‘Ren’ or the virtue of humaneness in reality is the presence of the Ultimate in the relative, namely in the moral character of human relationships. (World Religions, Eastern Traditions, Second Edition, Ed by W G. Oxtoby, p.356).

Centuries after Mencius Buddhism arrived in China apparently through the Silk road and faced great opposition by the Confucians. It took Buddhism several centuries to feel at home in China with the help of the Taoists. Now let us imagine that Buddha, Mencius, David Hume, and Adam Smith meet in China and the subject of their discussion is ‘Ethics’. In answer to Hume, Mencius, and Smith Buddha would say I too believe that ‘Sentiments’ and ‘Feelings’ matter and are very important in our everyday moral judgments and decisions. Of course, ‘Sympathy’ and ‘Benevolence’ are also values common to all. Allow me, however, to enlighten you with my ideas concerning this subject. First of all, I maintain that Ethical Conduct (Sila) is based on the vast concept of universal love and compassion for everyone. My teachings, gentlemen, is for the good and happiness of all people which are built on the compassion for the world. If a man wants to seek perfection, let him work on two qualities equally: compassion (Karuna) and wisdom (Panna). Please remember that compassion stands for love, charity, kindness, and tolerance. These are noble qualities which deal with our emotional aspect our being which are located in the heart. Wisdom, on the other hand, would stand for the intellectual aspect of the qualities of the mind. If we were to develop only the emotional side and neglect the intellectual part of our being, we could become good-hearted fools. On the other hand, if we only develop the intellectual side and neglect the emotional part, we can easily turn into hard-hearted rational person without feeling for other. Thus, to be perfect we ought to develop both of these philosophical approaches to morality equally. In other words, wisdom and compassion are linked together.

It is very interesting that a German rationalist and an enlightenment thinker by the name of Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804), who joined the conversation later, argued that “what is moral is rational and what is rational is moral”. He was against the Utilitarian project completely. He held that what is right is right regardless whether there is something in it for us or not. He also argued that we cannot base our morality on our sentiments and feelings. Because sentiment is not a very stable foundation for Ethics. These feelings are part of our nature and if Hume is right that ‘ought’ cannot be based on ‘Is’, then our morality does not arise from our nature. Our values are universally true for everyone and do not depend on natural law. In other words, we do not draw our values from it and nature is not the source of our values. We are morally autonomous human beings and we make our decisions independent of our nature and feelings.
Buddha, who was very quiet the whole time broke his silence and addressed Kant by saying that there should be a balance between our feelings and our reason, our heart and our head or else we would be heading for a moral chaos. Kant immediately asks Buddha: “What do you mean by this?” Buddha very politely answers Kant’s question by saying that in the Noble Eightfold Path there are three factors that establish Ethical Conduct which are rooted in love and compassion: Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Right speech means we ought not to lie. (W.Rahula, “What the Buddha taught”, pp.46-47).However, in your Categorical Imperatives or moral laws, you are completely opposed to ‘lying’ and believe that it is in and of itself a wrong action. Therefore, we should act on that maxim through which at the same time we will so it should become a universal law. In other words, do we want everyone to lie? If not, then we should avoid lying. You have also argued that we are not to turn others as means to our ends, that is, we ought not to use each other or even ourselves. You believe that we should not lie under any circumstances. Whether or not telling the truth would hurt the person, we must not lie. However, there is a problem with this way of thinking. As you know, during the Second World War, there were good human souls who gave shelters to many Jewish people in their homes at the risk of losing their own lives. Although some failed, but there were others who were successful in saving the life of many. Of course, there were occasions when Nazi soldiers, who were looking for Jews, knocked on people’s doors for random search. The owners faced with two choices: either they would tell them the truth or would lie in order to save the life of those who were hidden in their basements. If they chose the former, those Jews would die and the owner would be arrested for hiding them. But if they decided to lie, they would save their own lives as well as theirs.
Mr. Kant I’m sure you stand by your principle and moral laws in order not to fall into Utilitarianism. Truth telling is more important to you than breaking the moral law of your Categorical Imperatives. Your true statement is more valuable than the life of whole bunch of innocent human beings. For you there is no shade of gray between your black and white moral judgments. Sir, who does finally decide what the truth is? Why should our logic and language be more important than the truth? You believe that our statements should necessarily correspond to what is out there. But if this would mean the death of many people, is it worth it? You yourself come from a religious family and fully understand Christ’s attitude towards the Jewish laws. He came to make those laws transparent and told us their real meanings. The God of Moses commands that we should not kill. But to make sure your statement stays true, you are ready to let innocent men, women, old and young get killed for just being Jews? My answer to this moral dilemma or conflict of duties is that we ought to make use of our wisdom whose function depends on the situation. Even though Right Speech comes under ‘Love’ and ‘Compassion’, it is also in balance with wisdom. Mr. Kant please remember by ‘Wisdom’ here I do not mean dry black and white or either, or logic of Aristotle. Nor it is like your ‘Pure reason’ which is more like a park pigeons when it comes to the knowledge of the world beyond the appearances. The wisdom I’m talking about or ‘Panna’ acts like an eagle soaring into the air and see things from much higher perspective. It is in a critical situation like this that we should act according to our right volitions and intentions. This is what we mean by Right Speech.
In fact if I were the owner of the house, I would just tell the officer: “As far as I know, there are no Jews in my house”. Have I lied Mr. Kant? Of course, your answer is ‘Yes’. But I have not lied at all. Do you know why? The reason being we are all human beings first. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with my statement. As you can see, my statement also corresponds to my intention. In the mean time I saved the life of young girls like Anne Frank (1929-45), the German Jewish diarist who was dragged out of her hiding along with relatives and friends and killed mercilessly by the Nazis.
Your own example, Mr. Kant is: “ suppose an armed man knocks on your door and asks you if you were hiding the person he was looking for. You can either say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. You decide to lie to him and save that person’s life. But in the mean time the guy managed to run away from the back door out of fear for his life. The man with the gun also leaves your house. They both meet and the fugitive gets killed”. You prove your point by showing us the result of lying.
Mr. Kant first of all we need to be sure about the innocence of the person we’re about to save. But even if he was not, I still would not want him killed. I, however, can tell if a person is innocent or not for the simple fact that I’m enlightened. This means I possess the knowledge of the reality beyond the appearances. In other words, I know the Noumenal World that you argue it cannot be known with pure reason, which is the basis of scientific discoveries. Since the guy is innocent in this case, I’m morally obliged to save his life. So I just tell the armed man that: “ Look I have been standing here for a long time and I have not seen anybody. Have I lied? Have I deceived him? I do not think so. Because it is his fault if he does not ask me any further questions. I do not have to give him voluntary information whether the hidden person is innocent or not. Because the man with the gun is taking the law into his own hand and it is my moral responsibility to make sure the fugitive will get a fair trial.

Would you like me to come up with another example sir? Kant responds: “Sure”. I’m sitting on a bench in a park with no one around me. An innocent man runs away in front of me. I quickly get up and sit on the next bench. The policemen arrive and tell me: “We’re looking for a bank robber”. “Did you see anybody running away?” Officer I did not see anyone as long as I have been sitting here. Have I lied? Perhaps you would accuse me of deception? I do not believe so sir. This is nothing but a response to your empty logical formalism. After all one irregularity deserves another. If I am maneuvering around the idea of truth telling, it is to show you I can also participate in empty formalism like yourself. Since your pure reason cannot help you to go beyond the knowledge of the appearances, you will not able to do anything but to tell the officers what you saw. I’m sure you would feel so self righteous in telling them the truth. In other words, your theoretical knowledge did not help you with your practical knowledge.

For you truth telling is more important than the truth itself. Because you believe that there is an inherent contradiction in the act of lying. Just as square cannot be round and round cannot be square. I ask you, why? You tell me when we make a promise with the intention of not delivering it we have violated the institution of promise making. In other words, promising here has no meaning anymore. Or better, when we lie, we’re aware of the truth we’re hiding from the person we‘re lying to. Therefore, my statement cannot be false and true at the same time. I fully understand what you’re trying to prove. However, I rebut by saying that for you the real world out there must reflect and correspond to the categories of your our mind. This is, as I remember, your Copernican revolution. David Hume believed our mind reflects the world like a mirror. However, you turned the whole thing around, like Copernicus, and expected the world to reflect your mind. Mr. Kant the world does not necessarily have to reflect your mind. In other words, even though there is a contradiction in lying, it is possible that the world might defy your logic. That is the reason why I believe feelings and our reason should go hand in hand.

The world that only gives me what I have already put in there is not the real world. No matter how hard we try to come up with a dog food which would satisfy all dogs, there are still dogs that may not like that food. The CEO of a dog food manufacturing company is upset because their sales have dropped and he is wondering why? One of the salesmen gets up and answers his question: “Sir, the dogs just do not like the food”.

You try to rise above your sentiments and nature to avoid relativism, and yet relativism still haunts us even in 21st century. You put so much emphasis on the idea of ‘good will’ which means do your duty for duty’s sake regardless of its consequences which reminds me of the dialogue between god Krishna and Arjuna in the ‘Bhagavad-Dita’. Arjuna, do your duty, Krishna tells him, without any expectation for the fruits of your action. But in your Categorical Imperatives there is no god as such who is asking Arjuna to follow his advice. Because your pure reason cannot even know God whose existence is also refuted. The God you have to back your Ethics is but a postulate or an assumption. I also teach my followers not to expect anything in return when they give. They follow my advice not because I‘m a god. They do it because the wall between the phenomenal and noumenal world disappeared when I became enlightened.
Mr. K ant you are the child of the ‘enlightenment’ in which reason alone is glorified and people are told to think for themselves and dare to know. What I discovered was not through reason. I worked on myself and sat in Patanjali Yuga and finally through the middle path reached enlightenment. I penetrated the appearances and experienced the Reality.
Mr. Kant, Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, Aristotle (Original Axial Age)), and Hume they all knew they could not rely only on our feelings and sentiments for their moral philosophy. Thus, they came to the conclusion that moral education is very important. Finally we need to educate in order to elevate the moral level of man. This was also another attempt at reaching a morality common to all human beings in order to avoid ‘Relativism’. However, when it comes to ‘Education’, we can see that it is variable from epic to epic and society to society.

Mr. Kant I’m sure you also know enough about the danger of ‘Relativism’ and that is why you tried to rise above man’s nature and sentiments to establish your Ethics on reason. You argued that if we cannot know the noumenal world through reason, we can get there with our practical reason, namely, morality. And to my surprise, you have said that if we do not get to become morally perfect in this life, we can try to do that in the life after. This sounds very much like the Hindu belief in ‘Reincarnation’ and my teachings on ‘Rebirth’ although you did not anything about them in the 18th century. These two ideas are tied up to the belief in ‘Karma’(Actions and its Consequences) which is missing in your philosophy. ‘Karma’ is based on cause and effect. According to you, they are two of the categories of our mind by which we experience the world. They do not come from experience. In fact we cannot have any experience without them what so ever. The world reflects these categories. However, for me cause and effect are the foundation of ‘Karma’ and are not mind bound. They have objective reality independent of my mind. This is the core of our Ethics. If we get involved in wrong actions, we will bear the consequences whether in this life or the next.

Just like Mr. Alasdair MacIntyre, the contemporary moral philosopher, I also believe we need a saint in our time like St. Benedict (480?-543?) who, along with his monks, saved many souls after the fall of the Roman Empire. I also believe in moral education and taught many students for 45 years before I died at the age of 80. I totally agree with professor MacIntyre that we need a saint to educate us in our struggle towards moral perfection. In the absence of this saint, just follow my teachings and my footsteps to gain that moral virtue which is so badly needed at this time of moral uncertainty in the world. After all we must have done something right to have been around for 2600 years.