28 May 2010

Hierarchies of Values

I wrote last week about Philology and the idea that a text has one true reading over and above the multitude readings that individuals with varying hermeneutics find. [see: Truth and Philology] A few days later I listened to a BBC radio documentary about science and god, and in one segment evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson commented that religious beliefs can have "truth value" and "survival value". The latter determine how we will behave and are therefore of much greater importance to evolution than the former. In fact he suggested that the truth value of beliefs counted "for zip" in evolutionary terms. I started to think about the various kinds of values that affect what we believe, for instance: survival, utility, power, aesthetic, truth. I was aiming for a broad overview and I don't claim this is a complete list.

What occurred to me was that the list had some similarities with Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If you don't know about Maslow it would be a good idea to glance at a summary. Maslow was a psychologist who was interested in what contributed to a happy healthy human being. He saw that in order for someone to fulfil their potential certain things had to be in place. His hierarchy then placed broad categories of needs in the order that they need to be fulfilled - often visually represented as a pyramid. The needs are
  1. physiological: food, water, shelter
  2. safety: dealing with immediate threats to life
  3. social: belonging, love, affection
  4. esteem: status within a social group and self-esteem
  5. self-actualization: fulfilling our individual potential.
The point is that if needs lower down the pyramid are not met, then it is difficult to try to meet those above, for example we're not so worried about self-esteem if we are starving. I think the idea works best at the lower levels. Exceptions become apparent such as the lonely and alienated artist creating their best work, or the hermit who does not need or want company. Perhaps it is best to think of Maslow's hierarchy as a very broad generalisation that is true most of the time despite obvious exceptions.

If Sloan Wilson is right and the survival value of religious belief is more significant than the truth value, then this opens up an interesting discussion. Survival is all to do with the lower two levels of the pyramid. Factual truth, while sometimes also having a survival value, is a more abstract value and belongs higher up the hierarchy and so will only become important when lower values have fulfilled their function. I want to look at belief in karma as an example and see how this scheme might apply.

Karma is not simple homogeneous belief structure. There are wide variations in how it is understood and applied. But let us say for argument's sake that karma concerns the way behaviour in this life determines the circumstances in which 'we' will be reborn. This is not too far from what most Buddhist traditions say is true about karma.

In terms of factual truth we are not in a position to say one way or the other whether karma is true - and this is true of any and every variation of karma belief. To demonstrate any theory of karma we would need to have reliable access to memories of former lives, or we would need to have the ability of the Buddha to predict the destination of the deceased, and confirm our predictions. What we have are a series of oft-repeated generic anecdotes, and references to exceptional individuals who display precocious talent. They are pretty poor evidence, though sufficient for some. We do have a further dilemma here because doctrinally the individual reborn is not the same as the one who acts, nor different, but arises in dependence on causes. So in fact the link between one being and another is quite difficult to understand. Personality clearly does not survive death, so how can memories? Are memories somehow distinct from personality? Are memories stored in some way external to the being, and in this case why are they specific to the individual? The problem of continuity is profound - in order to literally recall past lives there must be continuity, which is tantamount to proposing an ātman. If we are not simply credulous, we quickly end up in a metaphysical tangle.

However, the belief in karma has other values. One of Sloan Wilson's suggestions is that beliefs are important because they help communities establish what is acceptable conduct and how the community should be organised. Clearly religious beliefs are powerful in this sphere. Karma is part of a moral system which emphasises personal responsibility. In small societies every one knows what everyone else is doing. In a group of up to 150 (the higher Dunbar number) it is difficult to keep breaches of moral codes secret - everyone knows everyone else's business. But in larger groups it becomes progressively more difficult to know the business of others, and secrecy is more possible, and perhaps more likely. One of the functions of the belief in karma is to 'police' unobserved actions. The fact that we are not caught, not observed acting, does not exempt us from the consequences. This kind of proxy observation, then, is a useful tool for social cohesion because it encourages everyone to follow societal norms even when unobserved or when there is no chance of being caught doing something wrong. Values of fairness and safety will be served if everyone 'knows' that the consequences of actions follow even when done in secret.

On the individual level karma offers a general principle, alongside the ethical guidelines that inevitably accompany it, for helping an individual determine how to behave. As I have often repeated, the Buddha equated karma and intention. So not only are one's secret actions covered by karma, but even one's private thoughts! Karma represents a pan-opticon more pervasive than anything dreamed up by 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who coined the term. This potentially sinister view of karma need not result in a Catholic Church style set-up with 'priests' overseeing the process and moderating 'forgiveness'. In early Buddhism, indeed, there is no forgiveness just consequences, though interestingly later Buddhists changed this and allowed for even the unforgivable actions to be ameliorated, and for god-like beings to intercede and save the sinner from themselves. Karma is a system that needs no human intervention and this is part of the beauty of it. There is no role for a persecuting authority figure disguised as a forgiving intercessor, who gains an advantage over us by knowing our dirty secrets. The individual is empowered.

Despite the doubtful truth value of the belief, it seems clear that individuals and societies would be better off if they believed in some form of karma. The karma doctrine has clear survival, safety, social, and self-esteem value by helping people to behave in ways that naturally maximise these. Because the goals of the belief system are expressed in broad general principles they are not specific to one time, place, or culture. Ultimately having these more basic needs met supports the search for liberation. The belief in karma has advantages over beliefs in overseeing gods, or a surveillance society, because it is impersonal. Yes, it dictates that suffering is caused by unwholesome actions, but karma is not subject to the foibles of gods or people: karma is not vindictive, it is not vengeful, it does not demand worship or sacrifice.

There is a minor problem in deciding which form of the karma doctrine to believe in. Do we accept that everything is due to our previous actions, or are there other less personal causes operating in the world? I've explored the early Buddhist view on this in my essay Is Karma Responsible for Everything? To quote from my conclusion in that essay:
The idea that everything that happens is a result of kamma is a common enough wrong view to have a name: Pubbekata-hetu-ditthi (literally 'the with-past-actions-as-cause view'). For a canonical discussion of this you could try the Devadaha Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 101). Bhikkhu Thanissaro's version on Access to Insight comes with a useful introduction.
However people in different traditions will probably find it more conducive to follow the karma belief of their own tradition. We do need to be clear that we cannot assert the karma belief as factually true, but we can point to it's pragmatic usefulness. In this I think I may differ from Stephen Bachelor who acknowledges that such beliefs can only be provisional (hence the phrase 'agnostic Buddhism'), but does not assert the value of them.

image: Jacob's Ladder by William Blake.
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