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Do you believe in right and wrong or just skillful and unskillful?

2

Comments

  • I gotcha :)
  • The word skillful in Buddhist practice means to bring forth good outcomes in this life and the next or both, and may or may not include interacting with others. Right and wrong on the other hand, does not necessarily involve creating merit towards the afterlife. Right and wrong usually refers to our morals and applies to the choices we make on a daily basis. I think. :)
  • I gotcha :)
    I gotta remember to include those emoticons. Like this one ;). My humor is admittedly pretty lame sometimes.

    Alan
  • Skillful and unskillful actions are determined by context and are relational-- that is, how does a potential action interact with a certain set of circumstances. The idea of absolutely "good" and "evil" actions presupposes an unchanging "essence," which runs contrary to the very heart of the Buddhadharma (as expressed, for example, by the three marks of existence). Skillful actions arise in the context of a situation that needs it. Not all situations require an identical response.

    In other words, there is no such thing as a cookie cutter morality that one can simply fall back on. There are no authoritarian orders one may follow to absolve oneself from their own response-ability to every given situation.

    I have read, in shock, about how Christians with sense of absolute morality hypothetically would wrangle with something as simple as lying to Nazis who are looking for Jews hidden away in the attic (because of their belief that lying is a moral absolute). This shouldn't even be an issue-- but it is an issue if you believe in moral absolutes that exist independent of real life situations. Life isn't as clear cut and simple as that. Sometimes there are no easy answers.
  • @riverflow thank you for that response. You have said what I feel better than I did/could have.
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran


    I have read, in shock, about how Christians with sense of absolute morality hypothetically would wrangle with something as simple as lying to Nazis who are looking for Jews hidden away in the attic (because of their belief that lying is a moral absolute). This shouldn't even be an issue-- but it is an issue if you believe in moral absolutes that exist independent of real life situations. Life isn't as clear cut and simple as that. Sometimes there are no easy answers.

    So what you are saying is that we should ignore Buddha's Precept that, "I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech".

    Yup, you're right...there are no easy answers.
  • @vinlyn when one attains certain insights through buddhist practice, the clarity gained frees one to make decisions based on wisdom, instead of instruction.
  • If you take the precepts as absolute rules akin to the Ten Commandments, as possessing an unchanging essence, then you inevitably run into inherent contradictions: Should I lie to the Nazis or should I allow the Jews I am hiding in the attic to be taken to be killed? If you see the precepts as absolutes, then which absolute will you choose? Context and relation determines skillful and unskillful action, not a set of commandments from on high.
  • @vinlyn when one attains certain insights through buddhist practice, the clarity gained frees one to make decisions based on wisdom, instead of instruction.
    Yes, the training wheels come off-- you don't become a more moral person, you just learn how to become more skillful.
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    @vinlyn when one attains certain insights through buddhist practice, the clarity gained frees one to make decisions based on wisdom, instead of instruction.
    So what. Either we follow Buddha's instruction, or we don't. And if you can select to not follow that instruction, then anyone can select to not follow and of his instructions.

    I'm not saying what you are anyone should do. I am saying that this is a difficult proposition.

  • @vinlyn, just as @riverflow said, "...the training wheels come off..."
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    @vinlyn, just as @riverflow said, "...the training wheels come off..."
    I UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE SAYING.

    That does not eliminate the question of whether we should follow or not follow Buddha's direct teachings. I'm saying it's a bit of dilemma.

  • I don't think there's anyone here that doesn't take the precepts (5, 8, 10, whichever variation) seriously. But there are situations where one has to decide based on the situation they are in when one or another precept may have to be overridden by another precept.

    Thankfully, this does not happen too often-- something like hiding Jews from Nazis is not an everyday occurrence! But if I were in a similar situation I would lie through my teeth to save a life and have no qualms about that. And in such a case as this, I would be breaking one or the other precepts anyway. I'd either be lying or I'd be the accessory to murder.

    This is hardly an endorsement to do whatever I please and to simply discard the precepts. But blindly following the precepts as if they were commandments will lead to a distortion of what the precepts are for: compassion for others and, at the same time, develops a sense of peace and equilibrium for oneself. The precepts are not an end in themselves.
  • That does not eliminate the question of whether we should follow or not follow Buddha's direct teachings. I'm saying it's a bit of dilemma.
    The question is really "what does following the Buddha's teaching mean?" --that is, what is entailed by following the precepts? And, yeah, that's sometimes easier said than done.
  • CloudCloud Veteran
    edited September 2011
    In general, the precepts are meant to be followed until you no longer need to follow them. That basically means you never stop following them intentionally (well, you can if you choose a different path), you simply become transformed by walking the path to where they are the natural actions (or non-actions) you would take. Acting skillfully becomes as natural as breathing.

    There are exceptions regarding the precepts. The precepts are "training rules", not moral absolutes themselves. They're meant to prevent actions that lead to unwholesome results and to allow the mind to become pure for meditative practice. They are for lay and monastic Buddhists; you never hear them being applied to non-Buddhists, as if they are wrong if they don't follow these precepts. That's the difference... any other "religion" holds the world to its own standards, while Buddhism holds Buddhists to its standards, and doesn't step on the toes of other faiths/beliefs.

    We do occasionally have to make judgment calls, such as that Nazi question. Just as unskillful karmic actions have "weight" to them, with some actions being more harmful than others, so too must we judge between two unskillful actions/choices and choose the lesser when/if there's no skillful choice. In this instance, the unskillful choice becomes the most skillful of available options. We weigh the harm vs. benefit of each action, and must live with the consequences of our choice.

    There are no unsolvable situations, only imperfect ones. If we hold to a "perfect" ideal and expect the world to give us clean-cut situations, then we're creating the problem for ourselves (paradoxes are not real, they are the result of not having clarity). We have to be adaptable, while still holding to the spirit of the precepts.
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    That does not eliminate the question of whether we should follow or not follow Buddha's direct teachings. I'm saying it's a bit of dilemma.
    The question is really "what does following the Buddha's teaching mean?" --that is, what is entailed by following the precepts? And, yeah, that's sometimes easier said than done.
    The issue is, not everyone -- including not everyone in this forum -- has good judgement.

  • I have to agree with riverflow and tmottes: the precepts are intended as guides, not absolutes. It is not that lying is "wrong" or "evil", at least not in any absolute sense, it's that lying is risky behavior that usually leads to harmful consequences.

    In the vast majority of circumstances, it is best to be truthful. I would tread very, very lightly when it comes to violating a precept. There is a saying one should measure twice before cutting. When it comes to violating the precepts, I would measure ten times before making that cut.

    Alan

  • edited September 2011
    Skillful and unskillful actions are determined by context and are relational-- that is, how does a potential action interact with a certain set of circumstances. The idea of absolutely "good" and "evil" actions presupposes an unchanging "essence," which runs contrary to the very heart of the Buddhadharma (as expressed, for example, by the three marks of existence). Skillful actions arise in the context of a situation that needs it. Not all situations require an identical response.

    In other words, there is no such thing as a cookie cutter morality that one can simply fall back on. There are no authoritarian orders one may follow to absolve oneself from their own response-ability to every given situation.

    I have read, in shock, about how Christians with sense of absolute morality hypothetically would wrangle with something as simple as lying to Nazis who are looking for Jews hidden away in the attic (because of their belief that lying is a moral absolute). This shouldn't even be an issue-- but it is an issue if you believe in moral absolutes that exist independent of real life situations. Life isn't as clear cut and simple as that. Sometimes there are no easy answers.
    Ohhhhh. I'm starting to see the real problem people have with objective morality, and it's compelled me to jump back in here. You believe objective morality means that if something is wrong, then it must ALWAYS be wrong, in every situation, no matter what!

    However, I think I've already addressed this. Perhaps I said it in too off-hand a way for people here to catch it. But I said, in my very first post here, "Even within different specific contexts, there will be objectively better and worse ways to increase happiness and decrease suffering". I would never argue, for instance, that lying is always objectively wrong in every context. I would argue that in the specific context of Nazis knocking on your door asking if you are hiding Jews (when you are in fact hiding Jews), lying would be the right thing to do, but I would argue that it would be OBJECTIVELY the right thing to do. Lying would be OBJECTIVELY better than telling the truth. It would be objective because you cannot subjectively choose (in this situation) truth-telling to be that which increases happiness and decreases suffering (and happiness and suffering is what I take to be - self-evidently - the only thing morality could possibly be about and still be 'morality').

    Hope this clears up where I'm coming from, at the very least.


  • edited September 2011
    @tmottes and @I_AM_THAT

    I also still don't believe right and wrong come from society or the individual. I believe they come from the facts of human nature regarding happiness and suffering. Of course we are the ones to discover these facts and voice them, but we don't get to choose what those facts are. 'I' don't get to choose whether shooting someone in the face causes them suffering, for instance. 'I' don't enter into that equation.
  • Its been a couple decades since I've read Asimov, but I think his "I, Robot" stories dealt with these sorts of ethical quandaries-- or at least, they become quandaries when taken to an absolute degree, i.e. the exact same response in every situation.

    (I suspect Asimov, coming from a Jewish background, derived his speculative stories abut the "Three Laws of Robotics" from the ethical situations discussed in the Talmud.)

  • Its been a couple decades since I've read Asimov, but I think his "I, Robot" stories dealt with these sorts of ethical quandaries-- or at least, they become quandaries when taken to an absolute degree, i.e. the exact same response in every situation.

    (I suspect Asimov, coming from a Jewish background, derived his speculative stories abut the "Three Laws of Robotics" from the ethical situations discussed in the Talmud.)

    Yes, 'I, Robot' is a good example of the folly of that kind of naive objective morality.
  • Unskilful robots! :p

    (could be a band name, you know!)
  • tmottestmottes Veteran
    edited September 2011
    @Prometheus

    objective |əbˈjektiv|
    adjective
    1 (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts : historians try to be objective and impartial. Contrasted with subjective .
    • not dependent on the mind for existence; actual : a matter of objective fact

    I believe that you are referring to "not dependent on the mind for existence" when you speak of objective right and wrong? I admit that I haven't been imparted any wisdom about this so I can't say that there is or isn't an objective right or wrong; however, from my understanding of Buddhism, the goal is the end of suffering. Suffering is subjective because it REQUIRES a perception of it. You can point to all the rape, murder, torture, etc that you want, but the fact of the matter is that it is OUR perception of reality that results in suffering.

    In each moment, there are three types of actions, those that lead to suffering (for ourselves and others), those that diminish suffering, and those that are neutral. If you want to label these as good/bad/neutral for each situation, then it is merely semantics and we can agree. If you want to say that these actions are inherently good/bad/neutral, then I must disagree. They only gain their goodness/badness/neutrality through the situation in which they are being applied and the perspectives that are involved. To say something is objective in the context of a particular situation is to say that something is subjective.

    An example of something objective would be the impermanence of all things.
  • DakiniDakini Veteran
    edited September 2011
    There doesn't need to be a judging "I" for there to be right or wrong present. If a child is traumatized by an assault, it's obvious a crime has been committed, a wrong has been done.

    tmottes, I don't think you're supposed to agree with the statement that the end justifies the means (as quoted above, in the context of the Bodhisattva vows). I think it's an outrageous statement, and that these secondary Bodhi vows open a Pandora's Box. somehow the Tibetans were able to live in a society where there were people who functioned outside the norms of behavior taught by the Buddha and indicated by the precepts. But that's not a society I would like to live in.
  • @Dakini There does need to be a judging "I", even in your assaulted child situation. The assaulted child is that very judging "I". The person calling it a "obvious crime" is a judging "I". If there isn't a judgement, there is simply a child that has been assaulted.
  • @Prometheus

    objective |əbˈjektiv|
    adjective
    1 (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts : historians try to be objective and impartial. Contrasted with subjective .
    • not dependent on the mind for existence; actual : a matter of objective fact

    I believe that you are referring to "not dependent on the mind for existence" when you speak of objective right and wrong? I admit that I haven't been imparted any wisdom about this so I can't say that there is or isn't an objective right or wrong; however, from my understanding of Buddhism, the goal is the end of suffering. Suffering is subjective because it REQUIRES a perception of it. You can point to all the rape, murder, torture, etc that you want, but the fact of the matter is that it is OUR perception of reality that results in suffering.

    In each moment, there are three types of actions, those that lead to suffering (for ourselves and others), those that diminish suffering, and those that are neutral. If you want to label these as good/bad/neutral for each situation, then it is merely semantics and we can agree. If you want to say that these actions are inherently good/bad/neutral, then I must disagree. They only gain their goodness/badness/neutrality through the situation in which they are being applied and the perspectives that are involved. To say something is objective in the context of a particular situation is to say that something is subjective.

    An example of something objective would be the impermanence of all things.
    'not dependent on the mind for existence'.

    It is indeed not dependent on my mind for existence. Whether an action will 'lead to suffering' or 'diminish suffering' or is 'neutral' is independent of what we think about it, otherwise we could all just choose for ALL actions to 'diminish suffering'. But my mind cannot choose whether or not killing causes suffering; my mind cannot choose whether killing innocents causes needless suffering; my mind cannot choose whether failing to kill a psychopathic dictator would result in the suffering of countless thousands. These facts exist independently of my perception of them.

    "To say something is objective in the context of a particular situation is to say that something is subjective".

    You can say that whether specific things like lying or killing are wrong is subjective to the situation, but you cannot say that what you ought to do in a situation is subjective, and it is the 'what you ought to do' part that I am saying is objective. Morality is about what you ought to do, after all.


  • CloudCloud Veteran
    edited September 2011
    This may be relevant to the question:
    Right, Wrong, and Reality

    Judgments on right and wrong are a nearly irresistible enticement to pick sides. And that’s exactly why the old Zen masters warned against becoming a person of right and wrong. It isn’t that the masters were indifferent to questions of ethics, but for them ethical conduct went beyond simply taking the prescribed right side. For these masters, the source of ethical conduct is found in the way things are, circumstance itself: unfiltered immediate reality reveals what is needed.
    Full article here.
  • "The need to be right: the sign of a vulgar mind." ~ Albert Camus

    (I easily slip into that same vulgarity too often!)
  • In each moment, there are three types of actions, those that lead to suffering (for ourselves and others), those that diminish suffering, and those that are neutral. If you want to label these as good/bad/neutral for each situation, then it is merely semantics and we can agree. If you want to say that these actions are inherently good/bad/neutral, then I must disagree. They only gain their goodness/badness/neutrality through the situation in which they are being applied and the perspectives that are involved.
    I would say that some actions are inherently riskier than others. Actions such as lying or stealing are seen as "bad" because they have a way of leading to negative consequences. These actions are especially pernicious when they are motivated, as they so frequently are, by mental "defilements", such as thefts motivated by greed. However, even when the intentions are good, resorting to these risky behaviors can easily run afoul of the law of unintended consequences. This is why we need to be very careful about the means we employ to achieve our desired ends. I believe this is also why the Buddha chose to focus on very specific behaviors in the precepts he taught, rather than simply instructing us to avoid negative consequences.

    Alan
  • @Cloud, that link didn't seem to work... can you post the full address. I would be interested in reading the rest of the article.

    @riverflow I quite enjoy Albert Camus. I have a partiality toward existentialist philosophers and he is one of my favs, along with Kierkegaard.

    @Still_Waters I think saying that some actions are riskier than others is quite accurate. I find it interesting that the quantum world deals in probabilities, the way the Buddha's precepts also deal in probabilities.
  • @riverflow I quite enjoy Albert Camus. I have a partiality toward existentialist philosophers and he is one of my favs, along with Kierkegaard.
    I'd say my interest in existentialism was a sort of necessary stepping stone for me to Buddhism. I still have admiration for Camus (and especially his novel The Plague). That quote BTW is from his Notebooks-- which, last time I checked, was out of print, hard to find, but if you can find them (two volumes) they are well worth reading.

    I usually find the most engaging philosophy is found in more personal writings, usually journals and notebooks-- even when I don't entirely agree with them-- Pascal (Pensees), Marcus Aurelius (Meditations), Tolstoy (Confessions), Cioran, Simone Weil, Camus, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard.
  • CloudCloud Veteran
    edited September 2011
    @tmottes
    I just checked the link, it does work. Scroll down on the page and that's the article. Don't click on the "Tricycle Newsletter" in the blockquote, but on the "full article here" part.
  • @Cloud the page wasn't loading at all, but now it is working. Perhaps I was experiencing network issues. Thanks for checking it out for me.
  • @vinlyn Here is some hypothetical mumbo-jumbo:

    You and another person were held hostage by some very deluded individual. Your captor says, rape the other person or I will kill them. Is that rape justified?
    Ill Coitus is ban and damned to waste. It would do better to practice the skill of being comfortable with uncertainty and thwart his intent by protecting the violated. Living such excessive
    suffering is worse than a fate that will take one to death. Compassion would have it to take chances and seek ways to end his deed in defense of all beings from his self, in lieu of having capitulated to ill coitus upon another. There is no negotiation with the mind of a sociopath. Right action would abstain from the slavery of intimidation.
  • No, why would you listen to a very deluded individual?
    An unskillful act is never justified.
    Just as killing is always unskillful.
    @vinlyn Here is some hypothetical mumbo-jumbo:

    You and another person were held hostage by some very deluded individual. Your captor says, rape the other person or I will kill them. Is that rape justified?
  • @jill thanks for calling me out on that. I agree that hypothetical situations are pretty pointless.
  • An unskillful act is never justified.
    Just as killing is always unskillful.
    So just to clarify your position, would you say the five precepts are absolute and there can never be a justification for breaking them?

    Alan

  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    @jill thanks for calling me out on that. I agree that hypothetical situations are pretty pointless.
    Hypothetical situations are not pointless, providing they are reasonable, because they give us an example to develop our thinking skills.

  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    An unskillful act is never justified.
    Just as killing is always unskillful.
    So just to clarify your position, would you say the five precepts are absolute and there can never be a justification for breaking them?

    Alan

    If I may respond, I have been quite concerned with the cavalier attitude many on the forum take on this very issue. I'm not going to say the 5 Precepts should never be broken, but they ought be broken for only very good reasons. The number of people who causally justify drinking or the use of drugs, for example, shocks me. None of us is perfect, but there's a big difference between "slipping" on a Precept and justifying ignoring a Precept.
  • edited September 2011
    An unskillful act is never justified.
    Just as killing is always unskillful.
    So just to clarify your position, would you say the five precepts are absolute and there can never be a justification for breaking them?

    Alan

    If I may respond, I have been quite concerned with the cavalier attitude many on the forum take on this very issue. I'm not going to say the 5 Precepts should never be broken, but they ought be broken for only very good reasons. The number of people who causally justify drinking or the use of drugs, for example, shocks me. None of us is perfect, but there's a big difference between "slipping" on a Precept and justifying ignoring a Precept.
    I agree. As I've mentioned previously, I would break a precept only very reluctantly and only after very, very careful consideration. The circumstances would have to be pretty extreme for this to be an option.

    I'm also dismayed by how many take alcohol and drug use lightly. personally, I don't drink, do drugs, or smoke tobacco. I try to take good care of my health and avoid anything that would cloud my judgment (which is often poor enough as it is).

    I do have friends and acquaintances who drink responsibly and I have read that a glass of red wine a day is supposed to be good for the heart, but I prefer to forgo altogether the temptations that alcohol presents.

    Alan
  • There is no dilemma, not in the Mahayana tradition, anyway (I'm not so familiar with Theravada). One can break a precept if doing so serves a higher good. This has been discussed on this forum many times. This "higher good" principle, however, is not a license to take a lax view toward the precepts, it's intended for extraordinary circumstances.
  • There is no dilemma, not in the Mahayana tradition, anyway (I'm not so familiar with Theravada). One can break a precept if doing so serves a higher good. This has been discussed on this forum many times. This "higher good" principle, however, is not a license to take a lax view toward the precepts, it's intended for extraordinary circumstances. One willingly takes on whatever negative karmic consequences there may be from breaking a precept, in order to serve a humanitarian cause. This is the bodhisattva way.
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    There is no dilemma, not in the Mahayana tradition, anyway (I'm not so familiar with Theravada). One can break a precept if doing so serves a higher good. This has been discussed on this forum many times. This "higher good" principle, however, is not a license to take a lax view toward the precepts, it's intended for extraordinary circumstances.
    Conceptually, I have no problem with that. It's coming to a common understanding of what defines a "higher good" that gets to be the problem with that.

  • edited September 2011
    I agree, Vinlyn, the bodhisattva guidelines can open a can of worms. They assume everyone will weigh carefully the consequences of their actions, their own motives, and so forth. It seems perhaps overly optimistic. The Buddha expected a lot of his followers. Some of these guidelines (such as killing for the greater good of humanity) aren't practical in this day and age, anyway.
  • The precepts are not absolutes, but every action is still subject to cause and effect. If they are broken for the greater good, then may that greater good help calm the effects.
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    I agree, Vinlyn, the bodhisattva guidelines can open a can of worms. They assume everyone will weigh carefully the consequences of their actions, their own motives, and so forth. It seems perhaps overly optimistic. The Buddha expected a lot of his followers. Some of these guidelines (such as killing for the greater good of humanity) aren't practical in this day and age, anyway.
    Exactly. Being a lazy Buddhist or lapsed Buddhist (or however else you wish to define them) is just as common as lazy/lapsed Catholics or Baptists or Muslims.

  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited September 2011
    One can make justifications for just about anything. Whether they're objectively valid/correct is another question entirely. Just something to think about.
  • The precepts are not absolutes, but every action is still subject to cause and effect. If they are broken for the greater good, then may that greater good help calm the effects.
    "Greater good" is an expression that makes me feel uneasy. It brings to my mind political expediency and the expression "you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs." I believe it can easily become a slippery slope to hell.

    The only time I see breaking a precept as an option is when a situation has gone all to hell and you've got your back up against a wall, where your only options are ugly ones. It is a choice made out of desperation, not idealism.

    Alan
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran
    One can make justifications for just about anything. Whether they're objectively valid/correct is another question entirely. Just something to think about.
    In total agreement.

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