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Ethics

Concerns about ethics have been at the heart of Middle Way Philosophy from the start. What started the process of thinking that led to the research for my Ph.D. thesis, that originally developed Middle Way Philosophy in 1997-2001, were reflections about the interdependent relationship between absolutism and relativism. It seems that when people believe they know what is of supreme value, the fact that they can only assert this dogmatically (rather than through experience) makes their assertion doubtful and commitment to that belief brittle (it either holds or snaps all at once). This means that absolutism counter-dependently supports relativism when people lose their faith in absolutes, just as people rebound to absolutism from the emptiness of relativism.

Middle Way Philosophy, instead, asserts that justified values can only arise incrementally and from experience, and that moral objectivity, far from being dependent on absolute metaphysical perspectives, is undermined by them. Thus I see the Buddha’s discovery of the Middle Way as being at heart a moral discovery. He made progress by trying out eternalism (represented by teachers and ascetics with absolute moral beliefs) and nihilism (represented by the conventional relativism of his family) and discovering that neither worked. Moral objectivity, in its incremental form, is found in our experience through various kinds of reflections and discoveries: through understanding the world and the consequences of our actions, through consistency of the principles that we use, through the development of personal objectivity or virtue, and through the recognition of the limitations of our understanding of all of these things. None of these, however, give us an absolute source of ethics, and we need to use whichever of them helps us move on from the limitations of our current views to something slightly more adequate.

What people often seem to find difficult to understand about this stance is that it rejects relativism even-handedly with absolutism. This is because they assume that in the absence of some sort of absolute guarantor of ethics (such as God), all we are left with is relative desires and social conventions, which is all relativism leaves us with to justify our actions. But there is no reason why we should assume this. Behind the dominance of relativism (in a lot of academic discussion particularly) lie three assumptions: the fact-value distinction, the singularity of the self, and the representational view of meaning. None of these have to be assumed, and without them relativism is no longer inevitable. I will not try to explain these three points fully here, but give a very brief account with further references.

The fact-value distinction is the belief that facts and values are justified in fundamentally different ways: facts through scientific investigation or perhaps mathematical reasoning and values either through absolute revelation or not at all. It was claimed by Hume in the eighteenth century that no value could be validly deduced from a fact: but even if this is true in terms of abstract logic, it cannot be applied to actual flesh-and-blood people holding actual values (which always assume facts) or actual facts (which always assume values). In any justification for beliefs held in experience, our mixed-up facts and values have to be justified together, and they have to be justified incrementally, not in an all-or-nothing way. For more see the fact-value distinction on the main Middle Way Philosophy site .

The singularity of the self is an assumption questioned both by the Buddha and by Hume. When we consider our experience without assuming that we are one single self, we meet a variety of inconsistent desires unified only by an ego (which has a desire to be unified, but is not necessarily an actual unity). But neither do we know that we are not a self (as Hume seems to conclude), rather we just cannot assume that we are. Thus the assumption that we are intrinsically “selfish” or that our desires are fixedly relative compared to an absolute standard has no justification: rather our desires vary in their degree of integration. “Values” are just more or less integrated desires. Our experience freed of either set of absolute assumptions just tells us that we are trying to make a more consistent self. For more see The identification of ego with self.

Finally, the representational view of meaning leads most analytic philosophers (and many other academics) to assume that “facts” have a meaning which is superior to that of “values”, because “facts” can correspond to how things are out there in reality, whereas “values” are just feelings with no such correspondence. This involves a misunderstanding of meaning itself, which in our physical experience (as opposed to merely in abstract analysis) mixes cognitive and emotional elements, and relates ideas and symbols to our whole bodies and our body representation in the right brain-hemisphere, not just a picture of the world in the left hemisphere of our brains. Values are not essentially absolute or relative because they are not contrasted to facts in this way: both facts and values are processed in both halves of our brains, and are both cognitive and emotional, because they are inseparable from each other. Both involve representations of the world to some degree, but also emotional responses to it to some degree. Even the driest academic paper about particle physics is offered, in practice, with attached values, and even the most emotive outburst, in practice, also comes with an assumed picture of the world. For more see assumptions about meaning.

If these points make even any preliminary sense, then you might be able to see how I was, in practice, unable to tackle ethics without also tackling issues of factual objectivity, meaning, and so on. I wrote a thesis entitled “A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity” – from which I later dropped the “Buddhist” because it was only widely inspired by the Buddha’s Middle Way rather than being “about” Buddhism, and which wasn’t just about ethics either. So ethics is somewhere near the heart of the whole enterprise of Middle Way Philosophy, but it is not by any means the whole of it.

 

Other pages on the main website related to ethics:

The Middle Way offers solutions to practical moral problems

An alternative to relativism

The concept of ethics

Moral objectivity

Moral authority

Virtue

A New Buddhist Ethics

 

 

 

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