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A New Buddhist Ethics

copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008


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Chapter 2: Human relationships

The balance between ourselves and others

Our immediate relationships are probably the best place to start a survey of moral issues, because these are of immediate concern to everyone. Relating to partners, children, friends and colleagues creates the moral issues we are most likely to struggle with and be conscious of from day to day. Because these relationships matter so much to most of us, they are in practice likely to be much more constantly to the forefront of our consciousness than, say, the state of the world’s environment or political events.


The issues raised in our relationships with others are often ones of balancing priorities. How much time and/or money should I give to myself and my own needs and interests by comparison with others? How do I balance my own needs with those of immediate family? How do I balance the needs of family and work? Occasionally, though, there are also formative decisions that involve setting the course of one’s whole life. Should I live with a partner, alone, or in a community? Should I have children?


To resolve these issues using the Middle Way requires that we avoid dogmatic assumptions and get as close to understanding the real conditions at work as we possibly can. This means developing awareness of ourselves and of others. Unfortunately, attitudes to personal ethics are often unhelpfully confused by simplistic moral ideas that lead us away from appreciating the complex conditions at work. As a result thinking people in the modern world understandably tend to depend more on popular psychology to help them in this area than on ethics. Popular psychology does help us to appreciate some of the conditions, but may or may not have a clear moral basis. The main thing I will be trying to do in this chapter is offer some overall principles for approaching human relationships, avoiding simplistic moral ideas but also trying to offer a moral justification and direction rather than just the practical advice offered by popular psychology. 


The most pervasive and unhelpful simplistic moral idea is that of “selfishness” and “unselfishness”. According to this popular moral model, “selfish” ways of behaving are bad (though often also perversely defended as necessary) and “unselfish” ways of behaving are good. “Selfishness” involves putting your own interests before those of others, whilst “unselfishness” involves putting other’s interests before your own and being self-sacrificial. This simplistic model may possibly be blamed on a popular tradition of Christianity, the central symbol of which is the self-sacrificial act of Jesus’ crucifixion, but it is also to be found in the Buddhist tradition, for example in the Jataka story of the prince who fed himself to a hungry tigress[13]. Where these aspects of the Buddhist tradition are in conflict with the more basic teaching of the Middle Way this needs to be clearly recognised.


For when we look more closely at this moral model, its unhelpfulness becomes immediately apparent. If a mother sacrifices the welfare of a dozen other people for the sake of her child, is this “selfish” or “unselfish”? And if I spend a month on solitary retreat, withdrawing from others and concentrating on meditation and reflection, is this “selfish” or “unselfish”? Some Buddhists might claim here that the mother’s action is really “selfish”, despite the fact that she is not thinking of her own welfare at all here, only her child’s. Likewise going on solitary retreat may be claimed to be really “unselfish”, despite the fact that it directly helps no one else in the immediate future and may well involve the temporary abandonment of mildly resentful dependents or relatives! Such an attempt to cling on to this popular moral language clearly just confuses the issue. We have to abandon this way of thinking about personal morality entirely and think about our relationships in different terms.


Rather than thinking in terms of self and other, I want to suggest that we should think of our relationships in terms of ego-identification. There are some aspects of both ourselves and others that we identify with. For example, it is easy to identify with the view of ourselves that we have set up, with those close to us (such as our children) when they are threatened from outside, or with someone we find attractive. There are also aspects of both ourselves and others that we do not identify with: our own weaknesses, the irritating habits of family or colleagues, or those whom we see as on the other side, competing against us. I want to suggest that our primary moral responsibility is to keep extending the scope of our ego-identification. If we do actions which simply express and reinforce a rather narrow ego-identification, those actions are to a greater or lesser extent wrong, whereas if we do actions which help to extend our sympathies to those aspects of self and others that we don’t normally identify with, these actions are generally good.


Using this model it is much easier to explain what is wrong with the mother’s narrow focus on her child to the exclusion of others, and what is (probably) right about going on solitary retreat even against the wishes of others, for a solitary retreat is perhaps the best situation in which to learn to extend one’s identifications to include one’s own weaknesses.


Thinking in terms of ego-identification rather than selfishness is a direct application of the Middle Way, for it involves abandoning dogmatic ideas and avoiding the extremes either of abandoning or suppressing one’s natural desires (eternalism) or of giving in to them without any moral channel (nihilism). The idea of abandoning selfishness is not only confused but deeply unrealistic, for we cannot suddenly step beyond ourselves. What we can do is gradually shape the desires and identifications that we have in a more positive and open direction. The extension of ego-identification also applies the profound Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of non-dualism, the idea that I should overcome the illusions of “self” and “other” altogether: a doctrine that is too often interpreted simply in terms of self-sacrifice.


So, as I go on to examine more specific types of relationship, this is the general principle I shall be applying to their morality: rather than sacrificing ourselves for others (or, more likely, deluding ourselves that we are) on the one hand, or only seeking “our own” interests (narrowly defined as we see them at present) on the other, we should seek to extend our ego-identifications. Linked to this overall principle are the three interlinked approaches to ethics: the need to develop our skills and virtues in dealing with others, the use of rules and precepts both in society at large and in the Buddhist tradition to regulate our social relationships, and the need to consider the consequences of our actions for ourselves and for others.



I will begin with friendship, because this is the most spontaneous and the most widespread of human relationships. Friendship is simply a voluntary association between people. In a sense it also encompasses all other human relationships. It is often said that we choose our friends but not our relatives, but we can also choose whether or not to be friends with our relatives. If we can practise friendship by having relationships of goodwill with those we simply enjoy spending time with, it is possible to extend that practise to any other human relationship. So what we say about friends generally may also apply to colleagues, relatives, and even partners.


Friendship raises a great many moral issues. How many friends should I have? Is it better to have a few good friends or many acquaintances? How strongly should I approach someone I want to make friends with, even if they seem hesitant? Once I have friends, how far should I go in giving up my own time, money and self-interest for them? If I’m concerned about them, how far should I go in interfering?


I am not going to attempt to answer all these questions fully here, which all in any case depend on each individual situation. However, there are certain overall principles with which such issues can be approached from a Buddhist point of view. As Buddhists we aim to overcome illusion and approach reality as far as possible. Friends can be strongly instrumental in helping us do this. So the first question to ask about any friendship is “What is its function in my life and in the life of the friend?” Is the friendship one that reinforces illusion or one that brings us up against reality?


One common type of friendship is one that exists merely to reassure the two friends. I identify with my friend, he or she identifies with me, so we become part of one another’s ego-identification in many respects. If I feel my friend is being treated unjustly, for example, I might get angry on her behalf, and offer advice or even direct help in overcoming the injustice. We may be united in sharing positive interests or in our hatred of some other group. Either way, the main function of such a friendship is to reinforce my existing sense of who I am and that it’s OK to be who I am. We could call this reassuring friendship.


Another, generally less common, type of friendship we could call challenging friendship. Challenging friends must be distinguished from enemies, for when enemies challenge us we just reject what they are saying. However, a challenging friend helps us to face up to aspects of life we have not yet understood or come to terms with. They might question our assumptions, point out aspects of other people we have not appreciated, or even draw our attention to aspects of ourselves we hadn’t recognised. All this has to be done skilfully within the context of friendship, so that everyone recognises it all takes place with goodwill and no one gives or takes offence.


The test of whether a friendship is reassuring or challenging is whether it allows criticism within a safe space. If you can communicate your concerns and feelings to your friend without any fear of being rejected, then your friendship is a challenging one, but if there are many things you wouldn’t dare to say for fear of the likely reaction, then it’s more likely to be merely reassuring.


We all need some degree of reassurance as well as challenge. Reassurance tells us that we’re OK and that we have others’ support, vital to us as social beings. Without this reassurance, challenge is often fruitless because we’re not confident enough to confront it. However, if all we get is reassurance and no challenge, we are likely to get very complacent.


The balance between these two functions of friendship is clearly another application of the Middle Way. If my relationships are purely relationships of reassurance, my beliefs will never be challenged by others. I am likely to follow either the unexamined assumptions and customary actions of the group, or perhaps an unexamined individualism surrounded by flatterers. This is the nihilistic path, for in these circumstances my friendships do not really acknowledge the existence of any morality beyond group thinking or individual inclination. If my relationships are purely ones of challenge, on the other hand, I will live a strained life in which I am constantly trying to fit my real self into an ideal mould pressed on me by others. I am likely to ignore many aspects of my own real life and circumstances and be caught up in perfectionistic idealism or absolutist faith. I am likely to be arrogant or hypocritical as a way of covering up my lack of real confidence that I am living up to the challenges others are urging on me. This is the eternalistic path, where an ideal prescription is being dogmatically imposed regardless of the consequences.


Most people can easily identify groups where this kind of friendship goes on. Many ordinary groups of pub-goers or attenders of some well-worn and comfortable club or society, for example, are probably mainly there for reassurance. Groups of men may sometimes appear to be challenging each other (think of a rowdy and competitive group of football supporters after a match) but the sparring is actually over very trivial matters and amounts to a jostling for position within the group, not any real challenge to anyone’s attitudes. Such relationships are just as much ones of reassurance as the more outwardly reassuring ones one might imagine between neighbourly old women at a church tea. Attitudes of more profound challenge are more likely to be found amongst colleagues in a workplace, in a setting of intellectual or political debate, or in religious groups, though sometimes the kinds of challenge offered here are too theoretical and unsustainable because they are delivered with insufficient reassurance.


So, to keep extending my ego-identifications in relation to my friendships, I need to maintain challenging elements to my friendships as well as reassuring ones. The challenging types of friendship will continue to confront me with a reality beyond the limited world I have constructed for myself, but the reassuring types will make it possible for me to engage with this reality with confidence. In entering into relationships that are challenging or reassuring for me I am also likely to be challenging and reassuring others.


This general principle suggests a Middle Way to be adopted in many types of moral judgement that one might need to make in relation to friends. Since all challenging needs to be put in a context of reassurance, once needs to know people reasonably well to challenge them or to be challenged by them. This suggests that one should not spread one’s friendships too thinly but have at least some friends that one knows very well. On the other hand if one has too few friends, this may limit the kinds of challenges available. One’s initial approach to people will need to be reassuring if later challenge is going to be effective, so adherence to the basic manners and norms of politeness in the society in which one lives are important.


Most importantly, no challenge is going to be effective if it involves coercion. Friendship begins with mutual recognition as human beings and reassurance that we recognise each other’s feelings. Forcing oneself on someone else in any way is not likely to be useful either to them or to us, but simply create a power relationship based on premature challenge. Even when a mutually accepted friendship has already been established, even well intentioned interference is not likely to do any good if based on insufficient acceptance of the other’s perceptions and feelings. For example, if my friend has a bad habit such as smoking, and I want to help him stop, this will probably not be achieved just by lecturing him on the subject (or on the other hand by ignoring the problem and just being nice). I can encourage his desire to stop and help him to understand the conditions that have created his addiction, but stealing his cigarettes or tearing them from his mouth is unlikely to address the real conditions, and will undermine the relationship that is needed to really help him.


The need to extend one’s ego-identifications and balance one’s treatment of friends should eclipse other, cruder ways of thinking about one’s relationships with friends, such as “sacrificing oneself for a friend” or “asserting one’s own needs”. Sacrificing one’s own time or money is not necessarily good (or bad), and asserting one’s own needs is not necessarily bad (or good). Rather what makes these types of action good or bad is the extent of the awareness and the understanding of conditions with which we do them. Rather than sacrificing myself, I need to make myself bigger, and rather than simply asserting myself as I am, I need to create the conditions for positive change in which I become someone slightly different.


To try to do this, in practice, means maintaining a whole series of balances in my friendships with others, and giving those friendships a sufficiently important place in my life. The key reason for doing this is that friends can provide access to reality that nothing else can provide: they hold up a mirror to us which is unsparing in the view of ourselves it provides, though held with kindly hands.


For further material on friendship, see A Buddhist Theory of Moral Objectivity, 5.e.iv 

Duties to parents

Establishing a balance in our relationships with friends is a difficult enough task, but when we turn to the intense family relationships that shape our whole lives, relationships based on strong conditioning and activated by biological necessities, we are on even harder ground. Though we may try to reflect and gain a sense of balance and proportion, at every turn we are confronted by raw emotions, perhaps even by a sense of helplessness that we cannot exert any control over such relationships and how well or badly they work. Chief amongst these is the relationship we have with our parents. Here Buddhist practice is confronted with one of its strongest challenges, yet it is never entirely helpless.


In the ideal case, as in any relationship, we can simply develop a balanced friendship with our parents, but there are special conditions often working against this. Clearly the distinguishing characteristic of our relationships with parents is the huge conditioning effect that they have had on our lives. To a large extent we are who we are because of the genes and upbringing provided by our parents. This usually creates strong emotional responses either of attachment or of ill will. We may be attached to our parents because of the reassurance they provide, which we are not willing to subject to challenge; or on the other hand we may have deep-seated resentment of them because we reject an aspect of ourselves that they have been responsible for, probably an aspect we have found unacceptable elsewhere.


These strong emotions are compounded by the tendency for relationships with parents to get stuck in the past. Whilst we have changed, many parents have a tendency to see their offspring as unchanging, continuing to try to control the relationship in the way they did with a child and not recognising the changes that are continuing to occur to their offspring. The result of all of this can be gathering ill will that is strongly mixed with guilt as we still feel a strong attachment to, and responsibility for, our parents. If we see them often, our own lives are held back, whereas if we see them too seldom, more resentment and guilt are created.


So how can the difficulties of this relationship be navigated? The principles are not different from those I have suggested with friendship above: to try to extend one’s ego-identifications and to balance challenge with reassurance. However, the special difficulties created by the parental relationship need to be noted.


A common feeling that people speak of acting on when dealing with their parents is gratitude. One’s parents probably made great sacrifices in bringing one up, but it is important here to avoid the cycle of guilt as a response to self-sacrifice which then also leads one to a self-sacrificial rather than genuinely open way of operating. Gratitude is a positive emotion that may well have a role in helping extend one’s sympathies to one’s parents, but it needs to be spontaneous, and guilt that one ought to feel gratitude is no substitute. There are other and better kinds of motivation for kindness to one’s parents than guilt, if one does not feel genuine gratitude.


In extending our ego-identifications we need to be aware of the ways in which parental conditioning has determined our ideas of acceptable and unacceptable feelings and behaviour. For example, if my mother always told me that seeking periods of solitude in my bedroom was “selfish” and “antisocial” I may end up feeling that I should not do this, despite the fact that such solitude may be exactly what I need to reflect on my social experiences and gain a stronger and more confident view of myself. Extending my ego-identification in this case would mean not accepting my mother’s assumptions and widening my sympathy for myself sufficiently to recognise my need for such solitude, as well as widening sympathy for my mother and recognising why she has taken such a view rather than feeling resentful against her. Kindness here has to be blended with courage and resolution in a way that is very challenging for many people.


Balancing challenge with reassurance is also difficult in relationships with parents due to the parents’ difficulties in accepting any kind of challenge from their child. Even relatively open-minded and relatively aware parents can have difficulties with this, as accepting challenge from a child whom one has previously ruled and disciplined involves a complete reversal in that previous relationship. Yet from the viewpoint of their children, parents make countless avoidable errors. They fail to take into account changes in themselves and their children, they fail to adapt to changing conditions in the world, are unaware of advances in psychological understanding, and remain stuck in unhelpful and unquestioned habits. Very often, children could teach their parents almost as much as they themselves originally learnt from their parents, but by and large parents do not listen. So challenging one’s parents, except for those few fortunate enough to have very adaptable and self-aware parents, is often a useless exercise. Should one give up and just try to be reassuring?


Very often that seems to be the case. We might feel concern and compassion for our parents as they get older, but very often there is little we can do as children to really influence them. As a relationship it is unlikely to progress beyond the merely reassuring, unless the awareness and openness is present on both sides to take it further than that. Acceptance of that situation will be required for any progress at all.


Do we have a duty to keep up this reassuring relationship, especially if we find it deeply frustrating and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere? There are important reasons for doing so. One is the degree of dependency the parents themselves may have on contact with their children. Even if they do not acknowledge this dependency, the consequences of the child breaking off the relationship are likely to be very painful for the parent. Another is the way in which parents represent a part of our identity. To deny or break off the relationship with one’s parents is in the long-term likely to involve denying a part of one’s own nature. We can look at a parent and see both virtues and vices that we have ourselves, and denying acceptance to those virtues and vices in the parent is likely to be closely associated with denying the same in ourselves. The long-term effects of this are very difficult to predict, but certainly do not assist us in recognising and addressing the conditions in our lives.


This may in practice involve a duty, based on our understanding of the long-term effects of our actions, to stay in contact with our parents and to try to maintain good relations with them. Does this duty extend further than that, to supporting them with personal care through the physical or mental illnesses of old age? In some countries, where there is no social security system, the answer to this question is obviously yes, because the family operates as the only system of social security (though at a huge price to personal freedom). In this context, it is my duty to look after my parents simply because I would wish to be looked after in the same way myself in my own old age, and my participation in the family structure has the same morally binding nature as an agreement with an insurance company would have.


In developed countries with social security systems, we also need to be aware of the limitations of those systems. Often the care they provide is only intended to supplement that of the family, not replace it. Public care may also be impersonal, corrupt, or ineffective in some cases. On the other hand spending much time caring for a parent can enormously constrain one’s own life, and the availability of public care may allow the avoidance of this burden. All of this needs to be taken into account before deciding to what extent it is one’s moral duty to offer care to one’s parents. A consistent objectivity in one’s judgement, like that proposed by Kant, seems to be the best way of dealing with judgements of this kind. Would I want my children to look after me personally in this situation, whatever the constraints to their lives, or would I be content to be left in the care of others? Such objectivity should help avoid simply relying on social expectations, ideas of “unselfishness”, or a feeling of guilt based on values inculcated by the parents themselves on the one hand, and also help avoid an over-narrow understanding of our own interests and/or a failure of sympathy with parents on the other.


So, we are left with the need to tread a Middle Way between the duty (largely a social duty) to support our parents and the many ways in which, as adults, it is often much more helpful for us to leave our relationship with our parents behind. On the one hand we are wise to treat our parents with kindness and compassion, but on the other, where giving priority to our parents would unnecessarily constrain our own lives and moral progress, a firmly independent line and objective consideration of the conditions is often needed.


Duties to partners

The issues raised in our relationships to (sexual) partners are obviously an important part of sexual morality, an area I shall discuss separately in the next chapter. However, in this section I want to look specifically at the social duties involved in the relationship one may have with a husband, wife, or long-term cohabiting partner of whatever sex. For example, how much should I sacrifice of my own wishes for the benefit of the relationship?


Once again the underlying principles of the application of the Middle Way will be the same for a relationship between partners as for any other friends: namely a balance between reassurance and challenge, and the extension of ego-identification. The particular difficulties of the marriage or sexual partnership lie in the way in which both partners are likely to rely on the relationship for reassurance, and in the ways in which ego-identification readily extends to another, resulting in possessiveness and jealousy.


Using the relationship for reassurance provides an essential support for many people, and provides them with a basic confidence based on physical acceptance which it is more difficult (though not impossible) to gain in any other way, at least in modern society. Many relationships seem to function only so as to provide reassurance, and this of course leaves both parties vulnerable when the relationship changes in any way and this fundamental reliance is threatened or even removed. There seems to be a respect in which we cannot realistically avoid seeking reassurance in sexual relationships, and although we can simply avoid such relationships, by doing so we miss out a dimension of human experience which is important to the development of most (though not all) people.


However, if we over-rely on our partner we are not being kind either to them or to ourselves in the future. If someone seeks more reassurance from us than we feel able to give, we start to feel trapped and withdraw in some respect. To over-rely on someone else is often to subject them to this process, and thus to undermine our own source of reassurance. Another common way of putting this is that Romantic love is based on illusions about another person that we come to rely on to our own detriment.


The fact that sexual relationships and marriages are often primarily sources of reassurance does not mean that partners do not try to challenge each other. A woman who sets out to improve the character of a male lover seems to be a particularly common example of this, but of course the challenge may come from either side. If based on full recognition and acceptance of the person being challenged, such challenges may succeed to some extent. However, it is much more common for them not to do so because of the illusions on which the relationship is based. If, for example, a wife wants to stop her husband drinking too much, she might appeal to the character she encounters and believes she loves in her relationship to him. However, this might ignore the fact that the husband expresses a different side to his character when drinking with male friends, and that drinking too much is socially necessary in that context. She will not be able to simply extract him from that “bad company” unless she comes to identify with the side of her husband that finds it attractive, as well as the side that she finds attractive. In this case, her ego-identifications need to extend beyond the selective initial identification with another that Romantic love might lead her into.


The reassurance that a sexual relationship provides may create the confidence to change and progress, but just as often it does not do so because that reassurance is too selective. Likewise, it is possible for a sexual relationship to become a challenging friendship, all the more profound in its challenges and insights because of the depth of understanding and acceptance that the partners have of each other, but in order for this to happen each partner must first examine the idea of the other that they are each dependent on, and develop awareness of both themselves and the other.


So, the Middle Way in this context involves a balanced treatment of the Romantic ideal often lurking in the background in Western attitudes to love and marriage. We do not have to reject this ideal prematurely, because it captures the value of passion and the value of specific commitment to another in navigating a sexual relationship, but at the same time to adopt it uncritically is a recipe for the endless disappointment either of failed relationships or of being trapped in static relationships based on narrow identification and Romantic illusion. The requirements for a successful relationship are complex and difficult, and should not be underestimated, but this does not mean we should nihilistically give up on what is positive in Romanticism (assuming that we feel its power to begin with) or cut ourselves off from the fulfilment it may offer us given the right conditions.


Our commitment to a partner cannot be absolute or unconditional, and in this respect perhaps marriage vows should be revised (see the next chapter on this). We should not sacrifice everything for a relationship, least of all ourselves, yet there may be important reasons for giving a relationship high priority and making efforts to sustain it against adverse conditions (such as, for example poverty, unfaithfulness, or conflict). If the partner genuinely has insights that we lack, we may well learn in important ways from negotiating our way through a conflict. Similarly if our own habit is averse to commitment, we can develop virtues simply through sticking committedly with a relationship. Third parties, particularly children, may also depend on the relationship, and the consequences for them of breaking a relationship may be an important consideration (see below for more on children).


In other cases, self-assertion seems to be much more important. For those who realise that they have been in an unequal relationship that is stifling their own potential by placing them continually in another’s power, or for whom a relationship has simply been a source of reassurance in a fixed pattern that ignores important conditions beyond the relationship, breaking the relationship may often be right. To do so also requires a courage that greatly strengthens the character subsequently.


The main test here is that it should not be simply selfishness or self-sacrifice that motivates our action, but rather a genuine concern for the character of both partners, and sometimes for the consequences to others. As with overcoming unhelpful conditioning from parents, overcoming the conditioning that has built up in the mutual dependency of a relationship is likely to be painful and requires resolution to carry out, but the results are likely to be beneficial to both in the long run.


Having children

This is a moral decision reached by most adults during their lifetimes, whether men and women in a sexual relationship or by women (given the technology of artificial insemination) outside one. For those for whom it is not a matter of reflection or decision-making, one can unreservedly say that it should be, since both abstention from penetrative sexual intercourse and various forms of artificial contraception are real and practicable options for those in sexual relationships deciding not to have children. Nobody should take on the enormous responsibility of parenthood without very careful consideration.


One dogmatic view, which needs to be avoided from the outset if we are to approach this issue using the Middle Way, is the idea that it is “natural” to have children and therefore justified regardless of the context. Very often the term “natural” is simply used to mean socially acceptable, but social acceptability is no indicator of moral rightness or wrongness. The idea that God designed us to multiply freely likewise depends on dogmatic assumptions, as does the idea that we should follow the example of animals in this respect (but for some reason not in others!). We need to dismiss any conditioning we may have in relation to ideas of “nature”, and simply look at the conditions in which we are making a decision about children. Similarly unhelpful is any idea that it may be “selfish” or “unselfish” either to have children or not to have them.


The broadest set of conditions is simply that of world population. Despite a marked slowing of the birth rate in developed countries in recent decades, the overall population of the world is still growing at an alarming rate. We would still not run out of resources to provide for these people for a long time if they were equitably distributed and rationally used (see chapter 4 on environmental issues), but given the conditions that are actually likely to continue in the world, they are not likely to be, and thus over-population carries a real threat of widespread starvation, or at least severe suffering. Even if this does not happen, the quality of life of everyone in existence will be adversely affected by the competition for space and resources introduced by over-population.


Our attitude to population issues may be affected by other factors. We may consider that our own country is not over-populated and/or does not have too high a birth rate. However, if other areas are poor and over-populated this will inevitably lead to great pressure for migration into less populated areas. We can only consistently act as though only the population of our own country or region is at stake if we are happy for force to be used to keep out suffering hordes from elsewhere, which many of us are not (see the section of chapter 9 below on migration). Another consideration is the phenomenon of aging and unbalanced populations that is emerging in the developed world. However, once again this can be addressed by migration and does not necessarily have to be resolved by an increase in the birth rate.


The other major condition at work is the biological urge to reproduce, particularly for women. The denial of that urge, particularly for those who feel it most strongly, may well lead to a lifelong sense of unfulfilment or frustration, or at least impoverish a life that might have been more emotionally fulfilled. Both motherhood and fatherhood can provide a sphere in which one’s character encounters new challenges and is obliged to grow and mature. None of this is possible if we simply refuse the opportunity of parenthood. Some also have children simply because they like being with children, and certainly parenthood provides the fullest, though far from the only, way of doing this.


How do we reconcile the contrary conditions at work here? How do we square our own needs with those of the world? One obvious conclusion is that, if we do not really want children, we should not have any. We do not have any duty to have children, nor should we give way to pressure from others (such as our own parents) to have them. However, if we do have a desire for children, we then also have to consider whether we are personally equal to the immense responsibility they create, whether we have an emotionally stable context and sufficient financial resources to support them, and whether we are physically, mentally, and temperamentally suited to parenthood. Only then, if all these questions can be answered in the affirmative, is there still a question of whether we should choose to add to the population.


Again, I suggest that the best way of resolving this in accordance with the Middle Way is using a Kantian method: not because this is always appropriate, but because it provides a useful test of objectivity for this kind of dilemma. We should feel free to have children only if we would be happy for everyone (or everyone in similar circumstances) to behave in this way. If we want to have children but would rather that our neighbours, or alternatively poor people in Africa, did not, then there is at least cause to pause and examine our motives more closely. Perhaps we can offer moral advantages in the upbringing we would offer a child which these others would not, in which case we might still have a case for parenthood; but if we don’t even want other people who are quite similar to us to have children, this should certainly give pause for thought. 


A similar method can be applied to the question of how many children to have. If we’d be happy for everyone like us to have only one child but no more, then that’s where we should stop. If we are concerned about the effects on the child of being an only child, we need to look at the evidence carefully rather than simply adopting popular thinking on the subject. How much do only children really suffer from having no brothers or sisters, compared with the advantages of their situation? Even if they do to some extent, this still needs to be weighed up against the issues of overpopulation.


Of course, Kantian thinking does not provide a basis of certainty here, and I have been using it so far in a predominantly negative way that will be objectionable to some people’s way of thinking. Couldn’t we say similarly that we would rather somebody had children to prevent the human race dying out? Should we avoid making an exception of ourselves and being inconsistent in expecting other people to take responsibility for having children when we’re not willing to do so ourselves? This is certainly an alternative way of thinking about the issue, but there are good reasons for not using it. The human race is not in fact in any danger of dying out through lack of reproduction. Although we might well apply this more positive kind of Kantian thinking if it were, we are not in fact in that situation. Similarly, the factual situation is not one in which people’s failure to take responsibility for maintaining population levels by having children is a problem, so until it is so on a global scale we should not give priority to helping people develop that kind of responsibility. On the contrary, in many circumstances we should be responsible enough not to have children.


Being more cautious about whether we have children does not necessarily imply that we are less positive about the human race or about life itself. On the contrary, it is appreciation of other human beings and compassion for them that can motivate us in controlling our own fertility. If it is possible for us to find fulfilment in other ways than having children, we should develop them. No vocation needs to be thwarted unnecessarily by the need to reproduce. On the other hand, once we have made the decision to have children and succeeded in having them, other duties follow which I shall explore in the next section.


A final issue that can be mentioned in relation to having children is the issue of infertility and the lengths that we should use reproductive technology in order to have children. I shall not discuss this any further here, but return to it in chapter 7 in relation to medical ethics.


Duties to children

It is social convention that demands that parents care for their children and places upon them the responsibility and burden for doing so. Whilst it would be possible to engineer a society in which others (such as the state) took this responsibility instead, or where the burden was more widely shared in an extended family, in modern Western society it is parents who are responsible at least for making sure the child is cared for. In this context it would be wrong not to meet this responsibility, which is part of an unwritten social contract we have ourselves benefited from. If we would like to be cared for ourselves as children, it is a moral duty to participate in whatever arrangements our society has for the care of children.    


Once I have a child, whether wisely or unwisely, another relationship exists which needs to be negotiated and balanced, in this case a relationship that is supremely demanding upon the adult who has taken it on. It begins with the absolute, non-negotiable series of demands which come with the birth of a baby, demands which only gradually lessen over a period of some twenty years or longer. The only possible way of coping with that non-negotiable demand (certainly as a mother, and probably as an effective father too) is to change one’s own nature fundamentally and rapidly extend one’s ego-identification to include the child. Its demands rapidly become more important than one’s own.


Morally speaking, this creates two kinds of pitfall. The first is not to manage this initial and hugely demanding change and to react against it. This will result in a lack of necessary parental commitment and concern and in neglect of the child to a greater or lesser extent. The second, once this extension in ego-identification has been made, is not to let go of it appropriately as the child grows up. In the first adaptation, most women seem to receive a great deal of support from maternal instinct, so it is more likely to be a problem for men; the second adaptation, however, is more likely to be a problem for women, who then need to control or re-channel this instinct. In both cases, an extension of ego-identification is called for: first to include the child, and then to broaden one’s identifications beyond the child.


In relation to both sets of adaptations, dogmatic beliefs can create rallying-points around which inflexible feelings can cluster. Both over-conservative and over-liberal attitudes to child-care are based on different types of dogmatism that can stop one engaging with the conditions here. On the one hand, over-conservative attitudes support fixed family relationships and the “disciplined” treatment of children even when evidence suggests strongly that these traditional attitudes do not work very well in many cases. A good example of this in very early childcare is the idea that babies should be disciplined into fixed hours of feeding, and left to cry at other times, despite the evidence that this merely undermines the child’s self-esteem in later life. Another example is the use of corporal punishment, even on the many occasions where this merely provides the parent with an avoidance strategy for the difficulties of understanding or relating to the causes of a child’s misbehaviour. An over-conservative approach tends to impoverish the emotional lives of both child and parent, creating many possibilities for the future unhappiness of both.


On the other hand, an over-liberal approach to parenting provides another dogmatic position in which the usefulness of simple rules and structure for a child, who cannot yet understand many of the conditions of the world around them, is neglected. For some adults there seems to be a dishonesty involved in laying down rules for children which do not have an absolute value or which one has doubts about for oneself, but this involves a failure to imaginatively recognise the experience of the child, who has not yet gained the basic social skills and respect for others required before finer distinctions about moral rules can be made. Thus parenting inevitably involves an element of pretence and dissimulation that must be faced up to, though not prolonged beyond the point of necessity.


So, the Middle Way in our duties to children involves the avoidance of the two extremes either of the eternalistic over-conservative approach, over-attached to rules, or to the nihilistic over-liberal approach, not making use of rules where necessary. The first extension of the ego which occurs when one first becomes a parent involves recognising the need for some rules and the responsibility of care that accompanies them, but only the rules and responsibilities which are justified by experience and evidence, not simply those sanctified by tradition or by one’s own parents. The second involves letting go of attachment to those rules and responsibilities as they gradually lose their relevance. This Middle Way naturally applies not only to parents, but to all other adults interacting with children.


As a child grows up, the same basic principles apply in the morality of our relationship to it as to any other friendship: namely that reassurance needs to be balanced with challenge. A young baby needs nothing but constant reassurance and support, but as a child grows up its capacity for challenge increases. Maintaining this challenge at a constant but manageable level for the individual child, constantly supported by reassurance, is one of the basic principles of effective education: but this is education in the widest sense in which parents have an important role.


As the child grows into adulthood the challenge for the adult then consists in allowing that relationship to change into a friendship where both reassurance and challenge can go both ways. As I have already discussed in the section on relationships with parents, being able to learn from one’s children in one’s old age is one of the greatest challenges for parents, and one which many of them fail to rise to.


Parenthood conditions and changes us enormously, and develops our character in ways that are usually beneficial. Though we lack freedom and have to continually compromise our own wishes to meet our responsibilities to our children, the effect of this is often a more disciplined, informed and confident approach to life that helps us fulfil our potential as human beings. It can also open our hearts and help us develop emotional maturity. If we are not capable of meeting this challenge or of developing in this way, we should not have had children in the first place. Unfortunately, the choice, once made, is irrevocable: once we are parents we are obliged to develop parental virtues. I doubt if any parent has made this choice and not regretted it at some stage, but the necessity of facing up to the nature of the choice, at least, seems to be one of the unalterable conditions of human life.


Duties to other relatives

What of relationships beyond those with children, parents, or partners? What are our duties to grandparents, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins? It is much more difficult to be prescriptive about these more peripheral blood relationships than the core ones I have discussed already, and conceptions of their role do seem to vary greatly in different cultures. However, as always there are a few generalisations one can make.


One key point is that blood relationship by itself should not impose any kind of necessary duty here. The fact that we happen to be genetically related to someone does not necessarily say anything about our actual relationship, so if, for example, I haven’t spoken to a certain distant cousin for 20 years I do not need to necessarily feel guilty about this. What one needs to ask is more whether the relationships are to some extent part of a social contract which provide an important measure of security or support on either side, and also whether the roots of our identity in our relationships with relatives should not also make them important to us.


The role of grandparents, for example, can vary hugely from one where they play a large role in parental responsibility to one where they are only distant figures. If grandparents have in fact played a large role in one’s life, much of what I have already said about parents clearly applies to them: in some cases they may be reliant on us to support them in old age, and they may also form an important part of our personal identity.


Siblings, on the other hand, are less likely to be sources of essential support (unless both our parents have died prematurely), but are very likely to form a large part of our identity. Once again, however, sibling relationships do seem to vary enormously in intensity, depending on the circumstances of childhood, and our duty to keep up the relationship in adulthood probably depends very much on how strong and how positive the relationship was during childhood.A very difficult sibling relationship might be better left behind.


With all relatives, our duty to them as relatives is probably much less important than our duty to them as friends. If we have a friendship based on past history, then this is a much more important basis for relating than a blood tie by itself. So all the comments made earlier about friendship apply just as much to brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles etc: these relationships are most successful, and most helpful to all concerned, when they contain not only reassurance but also challenge. This suggests that superficial relationships with distant relatives with whom one has little real basis for communication are probably not worth bothering with: instead one should spend the time with friends with whom one has worthwhile communication. However, there is no reason at all in principle why one’s relatives should not be numbered amongst the best of one’s friends, even if this is not commonly the case in practice.


Duties to colleagues

By “colleagues”, I mean anyone one works with, whether having equal status, or in a more senior or more junior position to oneself, and also including customers, suppliers, agents, employers and employees. These relationships have usually been created, not by blood or by spontaneous friendship, but by economic conditions. I will often be working with others because I possess a skill (or other resources) that complements theirs in some way, enabling us to work in the same enterprise, or work for different enterprises but nevertheless engage in a trading relationship. In many ways my relationship to these people cannot be separated from issues of economic ethics, which I will be discussing in chapter 4. A common dilemma involves the question of how far I should give priority to harmonious working relationships over raising moral or other concerns that might challenge those relationships.


Although there are some happy cases where colleagues may enjoy relations of mutual esteem and treat each other tolerantly as equals, in many cases working relationships are power relationships. I may buy from a particular supplier, not because I like him, but because he offers the best price and my company obliges me to look for the cheapest supplier; or I may have relations with my employer which are outwardly cordial, but there may be occasions when she feels required to terminate my contract. A veneer of cordial human relationships in economic life very frequently does little to conceal underlying competition, accompanied by manipulation and distrust. So, we should not underestimate the weight of conditions that works against us having good relationships with colleagues.


One aspect of the practice of the Middle Way in such relationships must involve recognising these conditions, but at the same time building whatever trust, respect and kindness is compatible with them. The four speech precepts found in the Ten Root Precepts of the Buddhist tradition seem to provide some working principles to aid the navigation of these conditions: these enjoin the importance of truth, kindly rather than harsh speech, useful rather than useless speech, and harmonious rather than slanderous speech. Honest speech builds trust of the most long-term and sustainable kind, even where this sometimes involves being challenging, whilst kindly and harmonious speech help to build good relationships by being reassuring. Keeping the relationship usefully focussed on the job in hand also keeps it sustainable.


However, in a capitalist system all workplaces are subject to economic conditions that we must expect to intrude on our relationships at some point, however good these may be. For example, we may be tolerant of an incompetent colleague for some time, perhaps taking a positive approach and helping them improve their performance, but there may come a point where we have to ask them to leave. We might also find ourselves on the receiving end of such requests. We can frame this in as kindly as way as we can, but this does not change the underlying nature of the relationship. Such challenges may sometimes be beneficial to us, but they are not calculated to be so and may well simply undermine our confidence because there is insufficient support available to overcome the challenge offered.


This raises the issue of how far Buddhists might need to challenge the underlying basis of the capitalist system, a question I will leave until chapter 4. The immediate practical question for most of us is how to work within it, but this once again involves simply practising the Middle Way. On the one hand I must always recognise the conditions at work, including economic conditions, but on the other strive to create good relationships with colleagues that combine reassurance with truly beneficial challenge. To use economic conditions as an excuse not to work positively with collegial relationships is nihilistic, but to cling to an ideal which ignores those conditions and their effects is eternalistic. The ideal situation is one in which Buddhist practice can influence the working conditions themselves, a situation which should help create much better working relationships: this is a situation I shall discuss in chapter 4.


Wider social responsibilities

Going beyond the kinds of relationships I have discussed so far, there are many others in society at large. What is the extent of my responsibility for a stranger on the street, for a homeless person in my town, or for a starving person on the other side of the world? How far should I prioritise getting my immediate relationships right, and how far trying to improve the state of the whole world and everyone in it?


In this area, absolute moral theories seem to confront us with an absolute demand enormously beyond what we could ever fulfil. For example, in utilitarianism, we become responsible for the pain and pleasure of any being that experiences pain and pleasure, and must try to act so as to bring about maximum pleasure and minimum pain for all. Given that I am a limited human being, this seems an unhelpfully absolute requirement, for it is not in my power to help everyone, so there is therefore no meaningful sense in which I ought to help everyone. It can only be good for me to do what I am capable of doing. Similar remarks apply to the interpretation of the bodhisattva ideal in Mahayana Buddhism: how can it be meaningful for me to promise to bring all beings to enlightenment, given that it is beyond my capacity? Such approaches wander into eternalism by neglecting the conditions in which good action actually takes place and dwelling only on the ideal.


What I can do for everyone else is limited not only by my physical, mental and financial resources, but by my psychological conditioning. Like it or not, I am a being with limited egoistic identifications. I may feel strongly about my own interests and those of certain other people around me, such as my partner, child or friends, and after some contact with them or specific knowledge of them I may even come to identify with people on the other side of the world, but a person who is unknown to me, who is just a statistic, is not in fact of any concern to me except in a very abstract sense. In certain very restricted situations, I can indeed perform actions which will help such people (for example, there may be people on the other side of the world, unknown to me, who will read this book and benefit from it), but the vast majority of my actions are not in practice likely to be focussed on unknown people or to benefit them. When I cook a meal, it is only for the benefit of those who will eat it. Even when I make a donation to a charity that works in the developing world, it will only benefit certain specific people in a poorer country.


However, though I can’t help everyone, it would be a nihilistic interpretation of the situation to conclude that I can’t help anyone, or that no benefit to others is really possible because all my actions are to some extent egoistic. I can certainly broaden my ego-identifications to include a wider and wider section of human beings and even other creatures. The fact that I can’t help everyone should also not lead me to be parochial and only focus my efforts on people close to me, for I would not want everyone to do this and I would not want to set an example encouraging others to only do this. If everyone only thought “charity begins at home” and concentrated on those close to them, wider conditions would not be addressed at all, and barriers between different communities would not be overcome. So, although helping only a few of the many millions who need help in the world might seem like tokenism, to spread that help more widely than those immediately known to me helps both me and others to overcome our limitations, develop our characters, and overcome our prejudices through greater objectivity.


Contributing to wider social life involves many difficult choices. One controversial one is what I should do when confronted by a beggar on the street. To reject that individual’s call for help seems to involve cutting off any immediate feelings of compassion one may have, yet it is also true that money given directly to beggars is less likely to be of long-term benefit than money given to charities that help the homeless. So it is really the latter course of action that takes the conditions into account more fully, even though it might be seen as a narrowly rational rather than emotionally responsive course. Naturally, though, a more rationally controlled response does not preclude me from relating to the person who confronts me in other ways than giving money, such as talking to them. It is largely only social convention and habit that precludes that kind of response.


The virtue of generosity, or dana, in the Buddhist tradition can be given in many ways, and it is not always the giving of money that is most valuable. The giving of time, effort or understanding can change people’s lives much more positively in the long-term, but these kinds of gifts obviously require personal contact and leisure. Once again, we cannot fully understand the practical resolution of this issue in the modern world without considering the economic conditions that increasingly restrict people’s ability to be generous with time in the modern world. It is these economic conditions, more than anything, which tend to impoverish our wider social relationships. I will be returning to this in chapter 4.


On the whole, however, the development of wider social relationships and helping the world in general needs to be balanced with our specific friendships and intimate relationships. The parochial tendency to focus on only a few relationships involves a nihilistic tendency to deny wider moral demands, whereas the absolutist tendency to try to save the world without a basis of good relationships in personal life can lead to alienation, burnout, or the ineffective diffusion of energy that helps few people in the end. We cannot separate issues of our own character and immediate relationships from our duties to others in the world, and the recognition of this interdependence is one of the central insights of Buddhism.

[13] Found in the Suvarnaprabhasa or Sutra of Golden Light (ch.18), available in translation by R.E. Emmerick, pub. Pali Text Society


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