In today’s teaching I would like to look critically at some of the principles, often taken as self-evident, that underpin much of our thinking about ethics.
There is, for instance, the so called golden rule, treat others as you would yourself be treated. This is closely related to the idea that one should only act upon maxims that one would wish were universal laws.
Then there is the imperative to be consistent in one’s beliefs and actions and make similar evaluations about similar cases, to practise what you preach and the general principle that to will the end is to will the means. All these general principles tend to go together and support one another.
While all of these principles can be useful in a “rule of thumb” way, there are many exceptions in real life. Mostly, for instance, we each want to be treated as a special case. We do not want to be treated in the same way as everybody else, and the fact that the wife likes lipstick does not indicate that it would make a good present for the husband. Furthermore, in the practical conduct of life, inconsistency is sometimes the best policy.
There are, in fact, no ethical rules that fit all cases and not even any meta-level principles that can reliably determine how an ethical principle should be formed. Logic is extremely useful for analysing ethical arguments, and it is valuable to know how to do such analysis. Nonetheless, logic alone cannot tell us what it is best to do.
How is it then that we can have vows and precepts in our systems of spiritual training? When there is an ordination ceremony and we hear the candidate give assent to more than a hundred such maxims, it is frequently the case that many people in the room are deeply moved. The precepts seem to conjure up a picture of an ideal person in an ideal world and somewhere, deep within ourselves, we each unconsciously cleave to such an ideal world. It feels like our true home. The ritual gives form and voice to a profound longing within us which, most of the time, we keep shut away in a locked box hidden in our heart.
In fact, in practical terms, the precepts are impossible to keep strictly here in this world of conditions, but we feel that the attempt is elevating and improving. When one finds that one has fallen short on some principle, there is then something important to reflect upon. From such reflection one learns about oneself, about life, and about the world. One examines the gap between the ideal and the actual.
The precepts are really an object of worship. They indicate the ideal and having this in mind inspires.
When it comes to living the life within such inspiration, one still has to make unique decisions in unique situations as they come along. Sometimes it is impossible to keep two different precepts both at the same time. Sometimes a lie may be more compassionate than the truth. Sometimes a theft may save a life. Sometimes a mean act may preserve a resource vital to a greater good. Often it is not even that clear, because the future is never completely predictable. Deeds done with the best intention sometimes yield unfortunate results and the converse also does happen.
For this reason, it is said that the precepts are koans. They are inherently insoluble spiritual problems that nonetheless repay the effort we put into trying to solve them. In the process we encounter vitally important learnings about ourselves.
Even so, as I said earlier, some skill in logic can be a considerable aid in freeing ourselves from error. Let’s look at an example. You may have heard the following argument before.
“There are no moral rules that are universally true. Morals differ from one culture to another. What is considered right in one place may be wrong somewhere else. Realising this we should learn tolerance. Everyone should respect the values of others.”
In this little speech, the first and last sentences are mutually contradictory. If one is true then the other is false. The assertion that everyone should do X is a moral rule that claims to be universally true. If there are no such rules then there is no basis upon which to assert what everyone should do.
I think we can see from this little example how easily we fall into self-contradiction, often with no consciousness of having done so. We think we are being logical, that our premises are self-evident and our conclusions, therefore, irrefutable, yet in just a few sentences we produce an absurdity. All this illustrates human fallibility.
It also illustrates the complexity of the world. The imperative that one be logical and consistent rests upon an a priori assumption that the world itself is consistent. This is a priori in that there is no empirical way to demonstrate that this is the case. We assume it to be true but even if we are convinced that it must be so over-all in the universe as a whole, when it comes to circumstances in any isolated locality, inconsistency seems almost inevitable. In cosmic terms, a “locality” could be, for instance, planet Earth.
It may be, therefore, that our minds are full of inconsistency because this is the character of the world around us. To live in harmony with our surroundings may, in fact, not mean being logical and consistent at all. Or, to look at the same thing the other way about, it may be that the only true consistency lies in having a completely cosmic “God’s eye” view, which we can conceptualise in principle but never realise in fact,