Thursday, 9 February 2017


The Buddhist tradition has tended to hold a contradictory position on morality by simultaneously maintaining a type of nominalism and ethical realism. Buddhist nominalism means that values such as 'true' and 'false' are rejected as abstract objects along with 'good,' 'evil,' 'right' and 'wrong' and all other universals. Thus the parts of the Buddhist tradition that have accepted nominalism seem on the face of it to hold two contradictory positions:

1) there are no moral actions (no good, evil, right or wrong)
2)  moral actions have consequences (Ahetukavāda).

This seems to be a logical paradox since there could be no ‘moral actions’ if there is no good, evil, right or wrong.  This is in stark contrast to western traditions that have tended to see morality as a natural-law which was described by Whitehead as “the most confused ideas in the history of Western thought” (Whitehead, 1982, p 181). For a fuller discussion of Natural-law see 'Appendix.I.'  In the following essay, a solution to this contradiction is outlined.

Since there is scant evidence of a moral law then where does morality come from?  One answer is “expressivism” which claims that the meanings of claims in a particular area of discourse are to be understood in terms of whatever non-cognitive mental states (ie, feelings) those claims are supposed to express (Sias, n.d).   Some common examples of non-cognitive states are desires, emotions, pro- and con-attitudes, commitments, and so forth.  Truth for an expressivist holds the sentence (i) “p is true” expresses a certain measure of confidence in, or agreement with, p, and that (ii) whatever the relevant mental state, for example, agreement with p, that state just is the meaning of “p is true”. In other words, when we claim that p is true, we neither describe p as true nor report the fact that p is true; rather, we express some non-cognitive attitude toward p (Strawson, 1949) (Sias, n.d). Similar expressivist treatments have been given to knowledge claims, probability claims, claims about causation, and even claims about what is funny (Sias, n.d), but here we are only concerned with moral expressivism.

Moral expressivism is sometimes called ‘yay-nay’ or ‘yay-boo’ morality as they claim that making an affirmative moral claim is nothing more than saying that they approve of it (saying yay!! to it).  For example, saying (1) “stealing is wrong” is nothing more than saying, "stealing-nay!!"  It is argued that there is no trans-cultural judgement about the rightness or wrongness and that given the same set of facts different individuals and societies will have a fundamental disagreement about what is the right thing to do (they differ in their yaying and naying).

“Ethical expressivism,” then, is the name for any view according to which (i) ethical claims like “x is wrong”, “y is a good person”, and “z is a virtue”—express non-cognitive mental states, and (ii) these states make up the meanings of ethical claims.  In other words, the meaning of (1) “stealing is wrong” means nothing more than (2) “stealing-nay!!” and (3) “generosity if good” means nothing more than (4) “generosity-yay!!”

A commonly raised objection to expressivism is that ethical claims seem to be different from non-ethical problems which philosophers have called the Continuity Problem.  For a discussion of this problem see 'Appendix II.'  The conclusion reached in the Appendix is that a moral statement such as ‘stealing is wrong’ means nothing more than “stealing upsets me and therefore I assert it must be wrong.”

Even if we are tempted to accept some version of expressivism then one still has to explain why we
have moral feelings (ie, why is it that ‘stealing upsets me?’).    An obvious candidate is an evolutionary biological adaption that supported a connection with social coordination, cooperation and stability. In this view the state of accepting a moral-social-norm is a standard part of human moral psychology and its capacity for “linguistically infused motivation” (Gibbard, 1990, p 55).  In this view the reason (1) ‘stealing is wrong’ is because stealing discouraged working in groups which is the one great advantage humans have when dealing with nature.  Cooperation gave humans a massive evolutionary advantage and stealing is often a clear disadvantage and so evolution punished the act of stealing and rewarded generosity.  Our biological ancestors did not discover the existence of external moral truths but rather the pressures of natural selection favoured the development of capacities, tendencies and traits that supported biological fitness.  On this view, there are no moral truths and no possibility of moral knowledge independent of our evaluative attitudes (Joyce, 2006) (Joyce, 2013) (Street, 2006) (Street, 2008).

This neatly explains why moral feelings are to do with justice, sympathy, cooperation and doing fair by other people since they all aid the survival of the human species.  These attributes are not unique to humans and all the attributes we associate with morality such as fairness, reciprocity, empathy, cooperation and caring about others are found in the animal kingdom (Rowlands, 2012) (Waal, 2015) (Peirce, 2009) although animals don’t sit around wondering the why and wherefore of them. And furthermore, if we take the ‘survival of the species’ or ‘survival of your family’ as a moral action in the consequentialist sense then it clear evidence that one does not need a theory of morality to act morally.    It also indicates that one does not need a principle of universalizability since as long as most animals (human and non-human) don’t steal most of the time it is still acceptable for the greater moral purpose (eg, survival of the species, survival of a family, protection of the weak, etc).

Beyond the survival of the species, humans have other moral aims.  One example is the goal of enlightenment found which like emotivism is related to moral relativism and does not require the principle of universalizability to be consistent.

Buddhist ethics are often taken to resemble the ‘natural law’ theory of Aristotle (Kweom, 2001, pp 18 – 20)  which claims that certain rights or values are inherent by virtue of nature and therefore assert universal truths (Kweom, 2001, pp 21) and this is largely because "eschewing hypothetical speculation in ethics as in other matters the Buddha formulated his definitive normative response to ethical questions within the framework of a Path or Way” (magga) Kweom, 2001, pp 5). Nevertheless, Buddhist ethics is largely consequentialist since it derives from the effects an action, state, or thought has on oneself (and those around you).  For example, in the Kalama sutra the Buddha gets the Kalama's to agree that greed, hatred and delusion are states which are harmful to a person when they arise (A.1.118-93). This is because of the action and reactions associated with karma which will have effects in this, and the next life (Harvey, p10).  In essence Buddhism strives towards the greatest good with the theory of karma describing how moral actions lead to enlightenment.  (for an explanation of what is karma and why it punishes greed, hatred and delusion see Appendix III).

Buddhist ethics, then, is relative to each and every one of us as far as gaining enlightenment is concerned and normative ethics needs to determine under what conditions one can become enlightened. The Buddha was clearly a very sensitive person who was disturbed by high-beds, politics, and idle gossip (see appendix IV) and many other things, but it doesn't follow that everyone is equally sensitive and will need to do the very same thing to achieve enlightenment. The path to enlightenment an empirical question as Buddha pointed out when he said, "you should not accept the teachings through tradition, speculative reasoning, personal preferences, what one thinks should be true, or respect for a particular teacher" but rather you must "know for yourself" that these states are conducive to harm and suffering (A.1.118-93).

And since the astute practices of Buddhists monks are not the only way to enlightenment one must ask which way is the best way for me.  It might even be that some people can break all the precepts, join the army, eat meat, drink wine for their whole life and yet reach enlightenment whereas a bad conscience could cause another to hell for sleeping on a high-bed. After all, it all depends on how disturbed about the suffering caused by the wars and high-furniture. Put like this then normative ethics becomes an empirical question about what course of action causes people to become enlightened.

Therefore, following Buddhism and assuming that enlightenment is the highest good the question becomes what I need to do, or refrain from doing to become enlightened?  There is no requirement in Buddhism for one’s moral actions to be universal but rather one is required to save not just themselves but all beings (human and non-human) and the whole of ethics becomes an empirical question based on gaining enlightenment for oneself and all other living beings.

Despite much of the Buddhist tradition holding a type of nominalism that asserts there is no right, wrong, good and evil existing independently of our thoughts and feelings it is right to say that our actions have moral consequences.  This seeming contradiction rests on that fact that we have moral goals such as getting on on society, being good citizens, good parents, good children, and becoming enlightened and so on which are guided by moral actions and their real consequences.  For example, although it is not a moral law of the universe that playing loud music all night is wrong in itself it could nevertheless be wrong if we have the moral goal of getting on with our neighbours (Ok, that example assumes you have neighbours, and you didn’t invite them to the party, etc, etc, etc, but you get the point). To keep with this example of the neighbours then being moral is about knowing your neighbours and arranging your business such that you get along with them.  There is no list of ten commandments or noble-eightfold path that every neighbour needs to follow to be a ‘good-neighbour.’  The key to being good is individual and depends on many things (your house, your neighbours, etc).

Natural law theory suggests that certain rights or values are inherent in the universe, and universally cognizable through human reason.  Natural-law theory then an empirical matter which contains moral facts to be deduced.

Natural law theory has been a mainstay of western philosophy and is especially associated with Aristotle.  Western religion agreed but added that this universal law was imprinted on our hearts by God and accessible to anyone who looked hard enough.  For example, according to Islam, "every individual has been bestowed a clear standard of judgment of 'good' and 'evil'" (Surah Al-Shams" (91: 7 - 10)) and it is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that "the natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie" (Cathicism 1954).

Despite its attraction moral-law theory has its problems and as Whitehead noted, “the concept of natural law is one of the most confused ideas in the history of Western thought” (Whitehead, 1982, p 181).  The problems it faces are many such as its various conceptions and the lack of even basic agreement on the particulars.  One such problem with natural-law is moral acceptability varies between place, time and culture.  Slavery, for instance, was considered moral for much of human history and now is almost universally declared as morally abhorrent. In fact, it has been argued that natural-law theories lead to relativism since each person need only look to her own version of it imprinted by God or nature to find out what is the good (Rushdoony, 1970, p122).
And since is indisputable that people disagree about moral issues this has led philosophers to conclude that terms such as "good", "bad", "right" and "wrong" do not stand subject to universal truth conditions at all but depends rather on one’s own personal views, culture, customs and so on (Gowans, 2015).

The obvious problem expressivism faces is that ethical claims seem to be different from non-ethical problems which philosophers have called the Continuity Problem.  For a discussion of the Continuity Problem and a solution see Appendix II).  For example, they want to claim that (1) above is meaningless, or at least means nothing more than “stealing nay!!” but as a sentence it behaves in a way that is just like a non-ethical counterpart such as (5) “it is snowing”.  In fact, it appears that both claims are (a) embeddable into unasserted contexts, like disjunctions and the antecedents of conditionals, (b) involved in logical inferences, (c) posed as questions, (d) translated across different languages, (e) negated, (f) supported with reasons, and (g) used to articulate the objects of various states of mind, for example, we can say that Jones believes that lying is wrong, Anderson regrets that lying is wrong, and Black wonders whether lying is wrong, to name just a few. Historically this criticism of expressivism was formulated as the famous Frege-Geach Problem and the general problem that this expresses has been called the Continuity Problem.

One solution to the Continuity Problem is to deny traditional propositionalist semantics according to which sentences mean what they do in virtue of the propositions they express and claim instead that they are to be understood in terms of the mental states they express.  As an example, let’s revisit the cases (1) and (5)

(1)        Stealing is wrong.
(5)        It is snowing.

The meanings of both (1) and (5) are to be understood in terms of the mental states they express.  For example, (5) expresses the belief that it is snowing, as opposed to the proposition that it is snowing.   Similar approaches are called hybrid expressivist theories which say that ethical claims express both non-cognitive and cognitive mental states.  After all, it is clear that a single statement can contain two mental states as do slurs and pejoratives (Hay, 2013).  An example of a sentence containing two mental states would be Ben stating that “Man United lost 6:0” in which the speaker both believes that (a) Man Utd lost and also feels (b) joy at the score.  It is easy to see that the sentence expresses both of these states—one cognitive, the other non-cognitive. This is similar to how hybrid theorists in meta-ethics suggest that ethical claims can express both beliefs and attitudes. In fact, a single sentence can express a huge range of complex and sometimes contradictory mixture of beliefs and attitudes including disbelief and humour and is in reality far away from the traditional idea of a sentence containing a single proposition.

In this view, someone who sincerely utters (1) ‘stealing is wrong’ communicates two things: (a) she either expresses a belief or asserts a proposition that stealing is wrong and (b) she has some sort of non-cognitive attitude toward lying.  Therefore, a moral statement such as (1) means nothing more than “stealing upsets me and therefore I assert it must be wrong”.

This, of course, begs the meta-ethical question: what is karma and why does it punish greed, hatred and delusion?

The answer takes us to the Buddhist theory of consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna). In a nut-shell, the ālaya-vijñāna is pure undefiled consciousness of which the search for enlightenment is aimed at. The ālaya-vijñāna is often termed the 8th consciousness whereas ordinary, suffering consciousness that we are using to debate and we are trying to control and subdue is called the kliṣṭa-manas (disturbing emotions or attitudes) or 7th consciousness.

If then we take this rather simplified explanation then we can use a metaphor to explain why such an action is good or bad. If we take the ālaya-vijñāna as a large and peaceful lake and it's the winds of the kliṣṭa-manas which disturb the lake and create unruly waves (karma). This metaphor has its limits, but it shows why unskilful actions are bad - since they disturb your consciousness. The store-house consciousness receives impressions from all functions of the other consciousnesses and retains them as potential energy, bija or "seeds", for their further manifestations and activities. Since it serves as the container for all experiential impressions it is also called the "seed consciousness" (種子識) or container consciousness.  This being the case, when we are talking about 'normative ethics' we are really asking to what extent will an action effect one’s ability to subdue and control the kliṣṭa-manas and allow one to become enlightened and so ethics would be to not to ask if fighting war is wrong, but rather to ask if one would one be more disturbed by shooting people, or feeling guilty for not standing up for those your friends, family, community, country and so on.

Although the Buddha is famed for finding the so-called Middle Way the regime he set out for himself and his followers is quite difficult including singing, dancing, gossip, watching shows and using high beds and seats.  Below is a summary of the five, eight, and ten precepts of Buddhism.

The five precepts (not taking life (panatipata); not taken what is not given (adinnadana); sexual misconduct (kamesu-micchacara); lying (musvada); taking intoxicants (sura-meraya-majja-pamadatthana).

The eight precepts (eating at the wrong time (vikala-bhojana); dancing, singing, music, watching shows, using garlands, perfumes, cosmetics and personal adornments (naccagita-vadita-visukadassana-malagandha-vilepana-dharana-mandana-vibhusanatthana);
The ten precepts (using high beds or seats (uccasayana-mahasanyana); accepting gold and silver (jatarupa-rajata-patiggahana))
The ten good paths of action (absention from slanderous speech (pisunaya-vacaya-veranmani); abstaining from harsh speech (parusaya-veramani); abstaining from idol speech (samphappalapa-veranani); non-covetousness (anabhijjha); non-malevolence (avayapada); right-views (sammaditthi);

One should avoid talking about "kings, robbers, & ministers of state; armies, alarms, & battles; food & drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women & heroes; the gossip of the street & the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea; talk of whether things exist or not.”     In fact, what Buddha said monks and serious meditators should talk about is "modesty, contentment, seclusion, non-entanglement, arousing persistence, virtue, concentration, discernment, release, and the knowledge & vision of release."   AN 10.69

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