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Buddhist morality, Kant touch this

JasonJason God EmperorArrakis Moderator

Listening to the Philosophize This! series on Kant and morality, and it's making me realize just how ahead of his time the Buddha was. As far back as 2,600 years ago, the Buddha constructed what I view to be the perfect synthesis or middle way between deontology and consequentialism in his teachings on kamma, especially when taking into consideration the monastic code of conduct. The basic premise of his teachings on morality is that our actions (kamma) have consequences, both for ourselves and others, and that those consequences are determined in large part by the intentions underlying them. In essence, it suggests there's a cause and effect relationship between our actions and how they're experienced by ourselves and others.

Pragmatically speaking, actions are deemed morally blameworthy or 'unskillful' (akusala) if they lead to to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both, while actions that don't lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both are deemed morally blameless or 'skillful' (kusala) (MN 61). Therefore, the distinction between skillful and unskillful actions is based upon how their results are experienced—not only by ourselves, but by others as well. This emphasis on the consequential aspect of actions is similar to Jeremy Bentham's teleological utilitarianism, with John Stuart Mill's idea of higher and lower happiness being similar to the Buddha's distinction between long-term and short-term welfare and happiness.

Psychologically speaking, however, the quality of the intentions behind the actions are what ultimately determine whether they're unskillful or skillful. This aspect is closer to Kant's deontology when combined with the Buddhist principle of ahimsa or harmlessness. Intentional actions rooted in greed, hatred, or delusion have the tendency to produce painful mental feelings "like those of the beings in hell," while intentional actions rooted in non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion produce the opposite ("like those of the Beautiful Black Devas"). Then there are acts rooted in both that bring mixed results "like those of human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms" (AN 4.235).

The Buddha's reply to King Pasenadi in SN 3.8 in particular provides one of the key foundations for Buddhist morality, the principle of harmlessness. This short exchange focuses on the moral character of the individual that, in turn, revolves around seeing our desires for happiness and freedom from pain in all living creatures, particularly human beings. The underlying idea here being that there's no one as dear to us as ourselves, that all sentient beings essentially want to be happy in their own way (according to their specific capacities), and that this is a fairly decent and logical reason to desire their happiness and well-being as well as our own. The reasoning here is fairly simple. If our happiness and well-being comes at the expense of others, they'll do everything in their power to upset that happiness. Conversely, if they were to infringe upon ours, wouldn't it follow that we'd do everything in our power to upset theirs? Looking at it from this perspective, where insecurity dominates the moral playing field, a world with moral security not only seems more desirable, but more conducive to the flourishing of conscious beings. Moreover, the former promotes a vicious circle of retribution, and one of the ways to break this circle is an ethical framework that takes the happiness and general well-being of others into consideration, something akin to Kant's categorical imperative, with harmlessness as a universal law.

In terms of the monastic code of discipline, moral offenses are further broken down and analyzed for the purpose of determining penalties within the monastic community (i.e., acknowledgement, verbal confession, confession with forfeiture, meeting of the entire community, expulsion), being divided into five factors: "the effort, the perception under which it is made, the intention motivating it, the object at which it is aimed, and the result" (The Buddhist Monastic Code). The idea is that all of these things come into play in our intentional actions of body, speech, and mind, and the moral impact of our actions varies in large part depending upon the circumstances. The Buddha also took the non-linearity of this process into consideration, noting that the results of certain actions may be felt much later than the initial act itself, when the conditions ripen, and that the results of some actions may serve to condition and/or mitigate the results of others (psychologically as well as externally).

Because the Buddha saw the interdependence of life, he was able to perceive that our actions and their results were two sides of the same coin, and that it wasn't just how they affect us but how they affect others that we can gain insight into the nature of morality. That's why one of the primary practices of Buddhism is mindfulness of our intentions and whether our actions lead to harm and suffering or the opposite, while constantly trying to refine them to be as skillful as possible until we achieve a form of moral perfection. As St. Maximus writes in Opuscula theologica et polemica, from a complimentary Christian perspective, "A perfect nature has no need of choice, for it knows naturally what is good. Its freedom is based on this knowledge."

SnakeskinTravellersilverlobsterVastmindpersonDavidyagr

Comments

  • You're a scholar, @Jason. Thanks for that. I'll have to reread many times.

  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator

    Not really, just have too much time on my hands sometimes. :)

    Snakeskinfederica
  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Moderator

    It is really interesting to see information of all kinds come out as ground breaking only to realize how very much they are related to Buddhas teachings. It is nice to see you around, @Jason! I always appreciate your contributions.

    (excuse the typos and missing punctuation, my keyboard has a few keys that work only part time, so a replacement is on the way :lol: )

    Jason
  • personperson Don't believe everything you think 'Merica! Veteran

    I like Philosophize This! (I love his presentation) too and I'm always finding similarities between western philosophers and Buddhist ones. I just listened to the episodes on Sarte and his partner/wife? Simone De Beauvior. I certainly couldn't break it all down like you but Simone's ethics of existential ambiguity really hit home and I've been learning more about that.

  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited March 16

    @person said:
    I like Philosophize This! (I love his presentation) too and I'm always finding similarities between western philosophers and Buddhist ones. I just listened to the episodes on Sarte and his partner/wife? Simone De Beauvior. I certainly couldn't break it all down like you but Simone's ethics of existential ambiguity really hit home and I've been learning more about that.

    Same. The Buddha was really an intellectual as well as spiritual genius. And many of the ideas that western philosophy thought new and revolutionary can be found in eastern ones centuries earlier. In reading about Wittgenstein and his ideas about language presented in Philosophical Investigations, for example, I'm reminded a lot of the early Prasangika Madhyamikas. The Wikipedia article on Philosophical Investigations, for instance, summarizes one of Wittgenstein's arguments about language, meaning, and use as "meaning is use"—i.e., "words are not defined by reference to the objects they designate, nor by the mental representations one might associate with them, but by how they are used." And this is reminiscent of a famous line by Chandrakirti in Clear Words (composed sometime in the 7th century CE): "Words are not like policemen on the prowl: we are not subject to their independence. On the contrary, their truth lies in their efficacy; they take their meaning from the intention of the one using them."

    In addition, the idea that one of the consequences of Wittgenstein's argument is that "there is no need to postulate that there is something called good that exists independently of any good deed" is similar to the logical consequence of Chandrakirti's argument, which is that in debate, "It follows that we have merely invalidated our adversary's thesis. We need not accept the antithesis of the logical fault we have exposed" due to the fact that Prasangikas advance no thesis of their own. So just as one doesn't need to postulate that there's something existing on its own side called 'good' that exists independently of good deeds, one doesn't have to accept or advance a thesis of their own in order to invalidate that of another; and whereas Wittgenstein's argument can be seen as a rejection of Platonic realism, Prasangika in general can be seen as a rejection of the notion that all things and phenomena possess some kind of inherent, self-existing identity or essence (not unlike the Platonic idea of forms) without at the same promoting or being forced to accept the notion that things and phenomena are inherently nonexistent.

    lobsterpersonkarasti
  • personperson Don't believe everything you think 'Merica! Veteran

    @Jason said:

    @person said:
    I like Philosophize This! (I love his presentation) too and I'm always finding similarities between western philosophers and Buddhist ones. I just listened to the episodes on Sarte and his partner/wife? Simone De Beauvior. I certainly couldn't break it all down like you but Simone's ethics of existential ambiguity really hit home and I've been learning more about that.

    Same. The Buddha was really an intellectual as well as spiritual genius. And many of the ideas that western philosophy thought new and revolutionary can be found in eastern ones centuries earlier. In reading about Wittgenstein and his ideas about language presented in Philosophical Investigations, for example, I'm reminded a lot of the early Prasangika Madhyamikas. The Wikipedia article on Philosophical Investigations, for instance, summarizes one of Wittgenstein's arguments about language, meaning, and use as "meaning is use"—i.e., "words are not defined by reference to the objects they designate, nor by the mental representations one might associate with them, but by how they are used." And this is reminiscent of a famous line by Chandrakirti in Clear Words (composed sometime in the 7th century CE): "Words are not like policemen on the prowl: we are not subject to their independence. On the contrary, their truth lies in their efficacy; they take their meaning from the intention of the one using them."

    In addition, the idea that one of the consequences of Wittgenstein's argument is that "there is no need to postulate that there is something called good that exists independently of any good deed" is similar to the logical consequence of Chandrakirti's argument, which is that in debate, "It follows that we have merely invalidated our adversary's thesis. We need not accept the antithesis of the logical fault we have exposed" due to the fact that Prasangikas advance no thesis of their own. So just as one doesn't need to postulate that there's something existing on its own side called 'good' that exists independently of good deeds, one doesn't have to accept or advance a thesis of their own in order to invalidate that of another; and whereas Wittgenstein's argument can be seen as a rejection of Platonic realism, Prasangika in general can be seen as a rejection of the notion that all things and phenomena possess some kind of inherent, self-existing identity or essence (not unlike the Platonic idea of forms) without at the same promoting or being forced to accept the notion that things and phenomena are inherently nonexistent.

    I'm not sure but I'm assuming this has a relation to our debate on the other thread. I don't know anything about Wittgenstein except I think he's a phenomenologist. You'll probably have an easier time understanding me than I will of understanding you so I'll just mainly try to express my not wholly formed ideas around what you've said.

    I think I have some sort of hybrid ethics, I see what is good ethically from an individual's perspective as being somewhat different to good from a social perspective. Good for an individual action I think is something like what you've said, good is about intention since for an individual what is good has to do with the psychological impact it has on them. Prosocial intentions lead to happier more virtuous states of mind. For society I think I am more of a consequentialist and utilitarian, with the basis for determining what is considered good not a platonic ideal but rather the existence of conscious beings that can suffer and feel joy. So what is good is what produces the most well being for the greatest number of people.

    In that regard I see the material gains produced and the reduction in poverty by capitalism as the greater good.

    Also, maybe your reference to Prasangika's non-affirming negation is meaning you don't need to assert socialism to negate capitalism. If that is so, since an economy is a real world, practical system I don't think you can remove a system without an alternative to it. Capitalism could be the worst system there is except for all the others and we would still want to keep it.

  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited March 16

    No, no relation. Entirely different discussion.

    I think we more or less agree. I see in the Buddha's morality a duel-focus, more deontological on the individual level re: the quality of intentions and more consequential on the social re: how our actions affect others, with the root of each being the principle of harmlessness. As for the mention of Plato, that wasn't in relation to morality but rather epistemology and ontology. While connected, I suppose, the Buddha's teachings generally tend to avoid metaphysics, including ontology, in favour of a pragmatic approach to understanding mental stress and suffering and removing its causes, being more akin to a process philosophy in my opinion.

    Re: non-affirming negation, it's more referring to the logic of linguistics and methods of argumentation, not ontology or the transition of one economic system to another. Although, in that vein, you could say that each isn't an inherently existing thing in and of itself (i.e., a Platonic Capitalism and Socialism), merely a reflection of particular social relations that have the conventional designations 'capitalism' and 'socialism.'

    Talking about the morality of economic systems, though, I think you make some good/interesting points. I tend to keep such debates separate, although I have tried to express some of my ideas about that in the past. I don't have the time to debate them or anything right now, but if you're interested, you can read some of them here. Just keep in mind that they're a bit old and outdated, but still convey my general sentiments about the subject.

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think 'Merica! Veteran

    I was reminded today of the similarities between Buddhism and existentialism as well.

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-second-noble-truth/201712/existentialism-meets-buddhism

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