18 December 2009

Ethics: it's not rocket science.

texting while drivingRecently a friend of mine tweeted this:
Question. Are the moral consequences of texting while driving the same if (a) you accidentally kill someone or (b) you do not kill anyone?
After initially engaging with the idea I realised that there was an underlying problem. Whenever I get into discussions on ethics I end up making the point that Buddhist ethics don't really work in the abstract or hypothetically.

In this example my friend was assuming that he could know and understand the intent of the person, as though the behaviour can be isolated from the life of the person and that intentions are a fixed entity rather than a process. Acts are not isolated - we 'will' and act in a massively cross-linked matrix. The idea that a single intention gives rise to a single act is simply erroneous. Behaviour is more complex than this, and if we don't take this into account then we can draw erroneous conclusions. Indeed driving and texting are both complex acts in themselves that extend over time with intention varying from moment to moment. There is no single intention, though like a story with many episodes there may be a kind of story-arc, an over-arching goal such as sending a text, but this can never be disentangled from the matrix of conscious and unconscious willing going on all of our waking hours.

We also need to be very cautious about thinking that we understand the intentions of other people. Social psychologists have determined that humans are actually quite bad at guessing motivations: we can empathise, that is experience the emotions of another, but when we assign reasons for behaviour we tend to grossly under-estimate the importance of environmental interactions (including the social). This is called the Fundamental Attribution Fallacy. We assume that the individual is an entirely free agent, as we imagine ourselves to be, and in order to understand how another person could act in a particular way we try to imagine what kind of internal state (ignoring the external) might motivate us to act that way. An example very commonly encountered in online communication is where there is a perceived slight, and our first assumption is not that we have misunderstood, or that the person has communicated poorly, or that they are having a difficult time; our first assumption is that they acted maliciously because we can only imagine slighting someone if we were doing it maliciously. Online communication is often characterised by what is known as flaming - hot headed remarks and insults.

So it is important not to over simplify human behaviour because this does not give meaningful insights into the way people act. But even more importantly we need to think about what question is Buddhist ethics is trying to answer. Typically we try to answer the question 'why is this happening to me?' The point of Buddhist ethics is to answer the question: 'given the circumstances, what should I do?'

Very often we approach ethics from the point of view of the Abrahamic (ie Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) morality which is concerned to determine guilt, apportion blame, and direct punishment. We need to know who is responsible for what so that we can inflict some harm on them to atone for their sin. The harm we inflict cancels out the sin; and not only deters the sinner from doing it again, but will deter others from doing the same thing since they see the painful consequences. This we call "justice". It's important to spell it out like this, because even though we have left behind "an eye for an eye" our thinking about ethics is often underpinned by this kind of model. It highlights amongst other things why societies rooted in Abrahamic values have never made any progress on anti-social or illegal behaviour. In fact it is irrational to confess to a crime in our society, because to acknowledge guilt is to invite harm upon oneself. Unless one is convinced that suffering will atone for the sin, and we do not now believe this either individually or collectively (if we ever did); then it is not rational to invite society to harm oneself by acknowledging guilt. Note that guilt and blame can be distinguished - sometimes the guilty are not blamed, and therefore not punished, due to extenuating circumstances or diminished responsibility for instance.

Another aspect of Judeo-Christian morality is that it is rule based. As moral agents, in this view, we can only be moral if we can understand the rules and obey them - this is the fundamental teaching of Christianity especially. Over and above the basic rules which God has etched in stone, we know that society imposes a large number of subtle, often unspoken rules on us, and in order to avoid guilt, blame and punishment we have to conform to them - though there is always leeway. Additionally if one is suffering one wants to know "what did I do to deserve this" (i.e. what rule did I break?) because from the Judeo-Christian point of view there is no punishment without guilt and blame. We want to know how to avoid punishment - we do so by avoiding guilt and/or avoiding blame. But we also consider ordinary suffering to be a (divine) punishment, and therefore look for the rule that we have broken to deserve it.

Many people when they hear about the Buddhist doctrine of karma/vipāka assume that it reflects a cosmic retribution for evil acts. This is not helped by Tibetan versions of the doctrine which insist, contra the explicit early Buddhist position, that everything that happens to you is a result of something you have intentionally done - i.e. you do deserve to suffer! (NB: I do not believe this) The original intent of the doctrine was to focus our minds on the way the actions have consequences, particularly for how able we are to still our minds to meditate and seek wisdom. It is about deciding how to act. It is not about explaining how we got into this mess, but how we go about getting out of it. If we impose rules then we start to focus on avoiding guilt and blame all over again.

For these reasons it is important to bring ethics down to the experiential, to the personal. Buddhist ethics is not about laying down rules and judging other people. It is far more valuable to reflect on our own actions in practice and see what consequences came from what kinds of actions, to see for ourselves in actual experience, what is helpful and what is not. In this situation what should I do? What helps us to live harmoniously what helps us to achieve the calm state that we need in order to meditate and seek wisdom successfully? We do not need to concoct tricky intellectual exercises because these only lead to more theories and theorising. We need to observe ourselves in action. We need to be able to make broad brush stroke equations like: when I'm angry it's very difficult to communicate or get my point across to others. When I'm generous I receive more appreciation and kindness in return. When I serve others in some way I feel more content with my life. When I avoid gross stimulation it's easier to calm my mind for meditation. It's not rocket science.

image: Pasen Law Group blog.
Related Posts with Thumbnails