moralobjectivity.net concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2009
Eternalism is a term for one of two opposed types of dualistic thinking (the other being nihilism), both of which need to be avoided to follow the Middle Way. As such it is an umbrella term for a range of actual religious and philosophical beliefs. Though the term 'eternalism' is taken from the Buddhist tradition (where the Pali term is sassatavada), it has proved necessary to define the term differently from the traditional Buddhist definition of 'belief in an eternal self', in order to make the underlying insights it offers universally applicable in helping to delimit the Middle Way (see Buddhist errors page for more on this redefinition).
In Middle Way philosophy the defining characteristic of eternalism is taken to be the belief in an absolute source of moral knowledge, otherwise known as ethical foundationalism. This belief is very often accompanied by belief in freewill, giving us absolute responsibility for our actions as judged by the foundational standard believed in, and also belief in cosmic justice, ensuring an absolutely deserved reward or punishment in requital for the moral status of our actions. Psychologically, it is also often accompanied by an alienation of desire, in which we egoistically identify with desires that fit the absolute moral doctrine we have adopted and attempt to suppress others that do not fit it. Politically, it tends to lead to polarisation, as government is either completely accepted or completely rejected according to whether it is identified with the accepted moral doctrines. For more details on these features, see the Features of Eternalism in thesis.
The basic moral mistake in eternalism is an epistemological one, consisting in the idea that we can gain a completely correct set of moral beliefs that correspond to reality, and also that such a set of beliefs, if it exists, can be passed on and followed whilst maintaining its justification. This ignores the basic recognition that humans are not God, and cannot have a perfect grasp of moral truth. It also ignores the point that even if it is true that some humans have achieved a perfect grasp of moral truth (a claim made, say, of Jesus, Muhammad, or the Buddha) this moral truth would immediately be lost in transmission, given its reliance on the imperfect mental states of other human beings to be understood. Given our reliance on individual interpretation and experience for moral understanding, there cannot be any absolute sources of moral knowledge, only an incremental and imperfect development of moral understanding. There cannot be such a thing as imperfect understanding of an absolute source of knowledge without completely undermining the claims to absolute reliability in that knowledge, and leaving the 'absolute' source at best one of possible advice, to be critically examined in relation to other sources rather than unquestioningly accepted as the sole source of moral knowledge.
Without an absolute source of moral knowledge which certifies the judgements to be made, any belief in cosmic justice or absolute freewill falls apart, because there is no absolutely acceptable set of standards available to us on which we can choose the right actions or be judged. The moral motivation for belief in an eternal self (as criticised by traditional Buddhism), that can gain ultimate reward through cosmic justice no matter how long it takes, in turn falls apart without belief in cosmic justice. Whilst the various forms of eternalism are based on a series of dogmas that could each be tackled separately, it is absolute moral beliefs that motivate these dogmas and provide the most basic intellectual structure for their continuation.
Under the heading of eternalism then, fall not only most of the world's traditional religions, but also some apparently non-religious philosophies. The list would include most Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, traditional Buddhism (dependent on belief in karma and knowledge from enlightened beings), Platonism, Stoicism, Kantian ethics, Hegelianism, Marxism, Schopenhauer and Classical Utilitarianism. Arguments about the eternalist nature of many of these philosophies can be found in chapter 3 of the thesis, and about traditional Buddhist eternalism in The Trouble with Buddhism. When more modern philosophies such as Marxism and Utilitarianism are examined, the boundaries between eternalism and nihilism become far less clear, and though it is my opinion that they are broadly eternalist, I do not attach great importance to that opinion. The boundaries between eternalism and nihilism are fuzzy, but it is nevertheless clear that the two approaches are counter-dependent, and that even philosophies such as Marxism in the fuzzy zone are dualistic. Morally speaking for the pursuit of Middle Way philosophy, it is the identification and avoidance of dualism that is important rather than arguments about the identification of different types of dualism.
If after reading this account you are left with the impression that Middle Way philosophy is relativist or nihilistic, please balance out the picture by turning to the concept article on nihilism. To follow the Middle Way, nihilism needs to be avoided with just as much energy as eternalism. It is the failure to always give a balanced picture, and to judge every single claim according to the Middle Way, that often leads to inconsistency and confusion in traditional Buddhism.
Links to further discussion
Features of Eternalism in thesis
Features of nihilism in thesis
Christianity in thesis
Plato in thesis
The Middle Way and religion
The Middle Way and philosophy
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