Ethics, Fundamentalism, and the Second Precept

Ethics, Fundamentalism, and the Second Precept July 11, 2011

The conversation over Buddhisttorrents goes on, most recently with an excellent post by NellaLou at Madhushala.

Other posts on the topic from RodmeDannyNathanAdrian, and me again.

From a sociological standpoint, it’s been an interesting debate. The scenario reads just like a case in the Ethics Bowl, in which I was first trained in moral reasoning. You’ve probably never heard of the Ethics Bowl, but it was another bit of my undergraduate life that I chalk up to being very lucky. Around the same time I began studying Buddhism, I met a fellow, Jeff, at a local meditation center who said, “hey, you should check out this ethics thing we’re putting together…” Well, one thing led to another and I ended up competing in a couple national ethics bowls, coaching a team, co-organizing a regional bowl, judging at one national competition, and working at the Ethics Center on campus for several years.

Much like the Buddhatorrents case, in the Ethics Bowl you are given a dilemma, a situation with basically two sides that you can argue for. The best way to do this, we were taught, was to identify the moral agents, identify moral subjects (those covered by moral rules but not able to choose themselves, i.e. children), find the moral problem and the relevant arguments on each side.

A simple case we’d start off with for practice is, “is it ever right to tell a lie?” Kant is brought out as holding one extreme, saying no (this isn’t factually true, by the way, Kant does discuss situations in which falsehood is acceptable in his lectures on ethics, but that’s another matter). We then bring out ever-more difficult situations for the truth-teller. “Do these pants make me look fat?” Some people (wisely!) cave there and say, “Lie!” Others need the well-known, “What if it’s WWII and you’re harbouring Jews in your attic and the SS come to your door and ask if you are harbouring Jews.” Well, then it seems obvious that you should lie (Buddhists: fourth precept be damned, right?)

The cases are never easy. For every solution you may have, there is a counter-argument. It’s real life.

One I remember very well had to do with people with Apotemnophilia (once you learn that word and say it a few times you will never forget it). Basically it’s about rational people who believe, without doubt, that parts of their own body – for instance a leg – do not ‘belong to them’ and they want them removed. Should a surgeon remove the healthy limb? Our moral intuitions may pull us in opposite directions: 1) it’s his/her own body, why not? or 2) this goes against medical ethics and the person should see a shrink.

From there the discussion becomes very nuanced, as it should. If you cannot see the valid arguments of your opponent, it’s because you are blinded by your own ideology. Ideology serves to make things exceptionally clear, in perfect black and white. But real life is not so simple. The goal of the ethics bowl was never to ‘solve’ these issues, but rather to train students in the fine and difficult art of moral reasoning – an art all-too-often overlooked in the modern world.

Perhaps a result of the internet is that people can spout their intuition (sans nuance) instantly and everywhere. Comment sections become battlefields of “do this” vs. “NO, do that!”

In the case of Buddhatorrents there has been a good amount of thoughtful debate and discussion. And there has been a fair bit of ideology, mostly trumpeting the second precept. It dawned on me only today that this is just like the debates we’ve had lately on meat-eating (1st precept!!! fists-thumping) and alcohol (5th precept, you lousy Buddhist!).

I was one of those fist-thumping fundamentalists in the meat-eating debate (to a certain extent here, herehere, and here), and I’m grateful to friends who showed me the wisdom in their side of the discussion – and I’m grateful also to those who taught me to listen in the first place. One of the most morally nefarious positions one can take is to not only stake out one extreme position in the discussion, but to dismiss the arguments of others as ‘mere justifications’ or ‘rationalizing their wrong-doing.’ Once you do this, you’re pretty well lost, because you’re saying you won’t even listen to the opposition.

The precepts are great. They give us a clear framework in which to work and a goal toward which to aspire. There is evidence in the Theravadin tradition that they are even inviolable by an awakened one, suggesting a kind of ‘moral law’. But, they can also become a sort of rigid Buddhist Ideology (aka Fundamentalism). I can’t say go ahead and break any of them, or that there’s no negative result if you do – but to claim to fully understand the workings of action/consequence (aka Karma) is to either be an Arahant or a Supreme Bullshitter. Not to mention that many Mahayana practitioners will argue that the vow of Supreme Compassion trumps all others.

For some, it’ll just be a-okay to copy and share/distribute/etc anything everywhere anytime. For others, all such activity is wrong. If you’re really passionate about this, I hope you spend the time to read up on it. The posts (linked above) are all great. Many of the comments are also excellent. Try to see the nuances at play. Be sympathetic to those with opposing views. Judge the weight and validity of the facts. Try not to be swayed by mere rhetoric.

My own dogma in the case is that there is no “one size fits all” answer.

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