A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 5a)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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a) Introduction

i) Outline of method in Part 2

Whilst Part 1 aimed to clearly differentiate non-dualism and the Middle Way from existing Western approaches to ethics, and to show the necessity for non-dualism by indicating the failure of dualism, Part 2 now aims to provide a more systematic account of non-dualism. Its main method will thus be descriptive rather than argumentative, for the main argument has already been provided, with only further illustrative material now being required. An argument involves the assertion of one claim over another with the provision of supporting evidence, but the main assertion, with the negative evidence, has already been provided. By itself, however, Part 1 would be largely only a critical work, containing only broad hints as to the positive nature of non-dualism, and might be subject to the kind of criticism I have levelled at philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, of offering a far stronger critical attack on existing views than positive exposition of any alternative. Without a coherent account of the alternative, then, the argument would be incomplete. It would still be open to accusations of being an empty doctrine, and the strengths of its links with Buddhist practice would remain unclear.

Part 2 thus offers an exposition of a positive alternative to dualism: which is the Middle Way as an incremental expression of non-dualism. The claims of this account to (pragmatic) truth are based on its heuristic value, which combines theoretical coherence, the foundational appeal to a recognition of the unknown, and practical applicability. This heuristic value includes both a theoretical and a practical component: it provides an epistemology which enables an individual to work out a pragmatic non-dualist truth, but also a practice (or a description of a type of practice) which enables the incremental verification of the epistemology as well as the practical development of virtue and ethical judgement.

The structure of the account that I shall give of non-dualism mirrors that of dualism, in that the psychological basis will first be put forward in order to provide a tool for the subsequent resolution of philosophical questions. This is not intended to imply that the psychology and philosophy are independent of each other or that the dependence is only that of philosophy on psychology and not also vice-versa: rather the two are interdependent and provide complementary methods of approaching the same problems. The prior exposition of the psychology is dictated more by the ultimate philosophical focus of this book, together with my claim that the philosophical problems of ethics can only be resolved through the heuristic use of the psychological model I put forward, requiring it to be understood first.

An initial chapter on the psychology of non-dualism (chapter 5) will thus be followed by three philosophical chapters. The first of these (chapter 6) deals with the philosophical correlates of the psychological approach offered in chapter 5, suggesting the philosophical beliefs which enable the integration of ego and psyche. Chapter 7 then explains the relationship between non-dualist normativity and established dualist claims. Chapter 8 then provides support for the claim that non-dualism can be practically applied as an ethics by offering a more practically-oriented account of the application of the psychology and philosophy that have been developed.

This account has been inspired mainly by the Buddhist tradition, and particularly by the work of Sangharakshita, but it is offered in a rather different form. Because its claims to truth are based on its heuristic value rather than the foundational appeal to authorities, it will make reference to sources (Buddhist or non-Buddhist) only where this helps to illumine the content of the theory itself, or where the obvious source of an idea needs to be credited. At some points my account may quite closely parallel traditional Buddhist expositions, but I shall avoid simply following the traditional Buddhist doctrinal form (whilst acknowledging the parallel in footnotes) in an effort to prevent unnecessary orientalism and stress the universally accessible nature of the theory.

ii) The Middle Way in Western thought

Before I launch into this account, perhaps some explanation will be required as to why my account of non-dualism does not parallel the historical approach offered in my accounts of eternalism and nihilism. Why not offer a similar, but more positive, history of the unfolding of the Middle Way in Western thought? Several reasons can be offered for not doing this. One is that to some extent it has already been done in the account of dualism: in differentiating what is dualist in the thought of the figures and movements I have discussed, I was also simultaneously and complementarily differentiating what was non-dualist. The history of dualism is also, conversely, the history of non-dualism. If a list of thinkers were to be gathered which I believe to be more fully expressive of non-dualism than those I have discussed as dualists, I would probably end up discussing almost exactly the same issues, since to bring out their non-dualism I would need to differentiate it from their dualism. Identifying a list of “non-dualist” thinkers would also provide support for the tendency I have criticised in the past two chapters (particularly evident in the Existentialists and in Schopenhauer) to superficially appropriate the idea of non-dualism and apply it substantively to theories which can be seen to be still largely dualist when understood in their full psychological and historical context, since such figures would almost inevitably also have dualist elements in their thought. All the figures I have already discussed are in fact non-dualist thinkers as well as dualist ones: the non-dualism of the account consists in understanding the value of their contributions on an incremental scale between dualism and non-dualism.

A historical account of non-dualism would also not serve the same useful purpose that was served by my historical account of dualism, in identifying and criticising a range of dualist theories and their psychological correlates. In identifying the range of historical dualist theories, we indirectly identify many current psycho-philosophical influences in a modern Western context. But there is no similar range of diverse non-dualist theories, since a non-dualist theory as I have defined it (in 2.c.ii) is distinguished from a dualist one by its recognition of the limitations of theory. There is thus fundamentally only one non-dualist theory for any given context which fulfils this criterion systematically, promoting recognition of the unknown in every respect. A historical account of non-dualism would thus offer little more than a straightforward non-historical account might do, since even if an appropriate non-dualist approach can be identified in a particular historical context, it might well be inappropriate or uninformative to the modern context. The historical elements would thus be extraneous rather than useful in identifying the full influence and implications of the views under discussion.

Nevertheless it must be admitted that my historical account of dualism in chapters 3 and 4 does little justice to some of the major contributions made by some Western thinkers to our understanding of non-dualism. Some major omissions are of figures not regarded as “philosophers”: literary figures such as Goethe, Blake, or George Eliot, and the psychoanalytic tradition, particularly Jung. However, it should become clearer in the course of the following account what sort of relationship I envisage existing between a non-dualist approach and aesthetic cultivation on the one hand and psychoanalysis on the other, providing at least some basic materials for an understanding of the contribution of these figures.

iii) Introduction to chapter 5

To turn, then, to the main purpose of providing a (non-historical) account of non-dualism, I shall begin by outlining my approach in this chapter.

In the psychology of dualism offered in chapter 2, the psychological conflict which creates dualism was explained in terms of the separation of the ego from the remainder of the psyche. This separation is created and reinforced by reliance on rational dualisms, since in each case one pole of a dualism is identified with by the ego, whilst the other is rejected, thus creating a mechanism by which desires which are not currently incorporated into the ego can be rejected. My main purpose in this chapter will be to show ways in which this egoistic process of dualism can be incrementally overcome: a process I shall describe as integration.

Part 1 should already have provided some indications as to how integration can be achieved, primarily by showing what sorts of methods do not work. Unsuccessful methods involve alienation, whereby the ego attempts to identify directly with the psyche beyond itself but instead only narrows its field of identification to an idea of this “other”, or hedonism, whereby the ego becomes satisfied with its immediate identifications and does not attempt to extend them, or a combination of the two whereby a sphere of hedonism is defended by alienation at other points. Clearly, then, a successful integrative strategy must avoid both these pitfalls, by promoting both identification with the ego and its extension to include the rest of the psyche.

At once, though, this formula plunges us back into epistemological considerations. How do we know how to achieve the tenuous and difficult balancing that this implies? How can the extension be known to be more than another narrow egoistic idea? How can identification with the ego transcend mere hedonism? There are no general answers to these questions, but only incremental and provisional ones which appear in the detail of any account of integrative practices. It is the restriction of these questions (or their philosophical correlates dealing with the self, knowledge and reason) to generalised and abstract philosophical contexts of thought which maintain the apparently inevitable dualism with which most philosophers have treated the subject. However, an understanding of the ways in which practice may be able to overcome these epistemological problems can only be achieved by the provisional exploration of a psychological model, leading on in turn to experimentation with practice itself.

For the remainder of this chapter, then, it will be necessary to largely put these epistemological problems aside, so that they can be returned to with more insight in chapter 6. Instead I will be describing the general nature of the process of integration itself, how it can be achieved through integrative practices, and what sort of effects can be hoped for from such practices.

To begin with I shall be considering three major areas in which integration, or its absence, are evident: desire, meaning and belief. My claim that all these areas are interdependent should provide a unifying psychological focus for various scattered arguments in part 1 about the limitations of dualistic treatments of these three areas. In each of these three cases I shall attempt to indicate what sort of psychological conditions lead both to the absence of integration and to its development. This then creates the basis for an account of integrative practices which work in all of these areas to varying extents. Finally, I shall be attempting to clarify what sort of results may be expected from the practice of integration, which includes making the crucial distinction between temporary and permanent integrations which provides the basis for distinguishing between aesthetic and moral values.


A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix


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A New Buddhist Ethics

The Trouble with Buddhism

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