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A New Buddhist Ethics

copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008. Also available as a paperback book or pdf download.

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Chapter 11: Beauty, arts and media

The moral and the aesthetic


With some relief now I turn from destruction and brutality back to individual experience, and particularly with what we find enjoyable, meaningful and positive in that experience. This chapter is primarily about how we relate to and judge aesthetic experience, and how we make moral judgements as to which aesthetic experiences to expose ourselves and others to. This obviously raises questions about judgements of quality in the arts, and about how far governments, or others, should attempt to limit the kinds of experiences people have in the arts and media through censorship.


To reach even some provisional judgements about these issues demands that we start with some clarification of the idea of aesthetic value or beauty. This is clearly a big subject which could easily take up a book in itself, yet within the limits of this one I am only going to attempt a sketch of what is in effect a theory of Middle Way aesthetics (a necessary complement to Middle Way ethics). It is only after this that we can begin to be able to weigh up the value of aesthetic experiences in comparison to other considerations of moral value.


An experience of beauty is an experience that we appreciate and give positive value to, but the perennial question of aesthetics is whether this value is “subjective” or “objective”: is beauty merely in the eye of the beholder, or is there a standard of beauty in the world by which we should be able to classify beautiful and ugly things? In applying the Middle Way here, the first step is to identify and avoid the dogmatic positions which do not do justice to the complexity of our experience, and these can be easily seen as those positions which focus only on the “subjective” or “objective” aspects of our experience.


An object cannot simply be beautiful or ugly in itself, because judgements about it vary so much between people, who are clearly having very different experiences. To insist that there is an absolute standard of beauty beyond ourselves, and that those who deny the beauty of what is “truly” beautiful are just wrong, is an eternalist position. We have no way of ever finding out whether a person who claims to know what is absolutely beautiful is correct, and it becomes a matter simply for faith and group convention.


On the other hand, those who focus only on the subjective nature of beauty claim that there cannot be any justifiable standards at all by which to judge one experience of beauty as better than another. This is a nihilistic position because it assumes that there is no way in which personal experiences can be satisfactorily compared and judged, and therefore that beauty is purely a matter of taste or preference with no further justification. However, it is just as much possible to make justifiable judgements of value about experiences of beauty as about anything else, for everything we make judgements about comes through our personal experience. It is simply a matter of finding a way of thinking about beauty which allows us to do so consistently.


To do this we need to consider what experiences of beauty have in common, and in what sorts of ways they differ. For experiences which are to be judged more valuable using the Middle Way, we are especially looking for ones which extend our limited egoistic experience and offer an openness to conditions.


I would suggest that what all experiences of beauty have in common is that to some extent they stimulate or integrate. The most basic and ordinary experiences of beauty do little more than stimulate us and attract our attention for a moment. This initial stimulus could then be developed into a fuller and more challenging experience, or it could (much more commonly) simply be appropriated and slotted into the usual categories of our egoistic world: remarked on as a pleasant experience, or perhaps captured in a photograph or an anecdote to add to the reassuring collection of pleasant experiences we amass. If we open ourselves to the experience a little more, though (and perhaps if the object stimulates us to do so), we might then have an aesthetic experience which at least temporarily changes us, broadening the kinds of experiences we are open to, and extending our sense of meaning, our sympathy or our understanding. This might be described as an experience of temporary integration.


The initial stimulus which creates an experience of beauty is obviously very varied. It could be internal or external, coming primarily from our minds or primarily from the object, but obviously both need to be involved to some extent. From my own experience of beauty, and reading of other people’s, I came up with the following analysis of what might be called “elements of beauty” (i.e. things which may stimulate a sense of beauty). They are not all essential, nor does the list pretend to be exhaustive, and they may overlap:


1.      Contrast: I may be drawn to look at or appreciate a thing just because it stands out from its background, or is very different from most of my recent experience, or contains strong contrasts (for example, of colour) within it. As every photographer knows, strong lighting brings out visual contrasts to make an object more attractive, but contrast could also come through other senses.

2.      Symbolism: I may be drawn to something because it can stand for or represent something else that is valuable or meaningful for me, or simply evokes a strong memory or anticipation.

3.      Openness/Mystery: I may be captured by a sense of potentiality and curiosity, or by a sense of spaciousness (particularly by contrast with previous enclosure). Looking at the stars is a good example of this.

4.      Fitness for a purpose: I may find something beautiful because of its relationship to purposes I identify with, e.g. until the eighteenth century, people commonly found agricultural landscapes more beautiful than wild ones, perhaps because they served human purposes. Fitness for a purpose may include unconscious purposes which are part of my bodily responses. For example, the beauty of a woman (for a man, at least) may be at least partly based on a sense of her fitness for passing on my genes.

5.      Conventional standards: I may simply be led to appreciate something through social pressure, because other people do in my group. Conventional standards of beauty vary enormously between cultures (for example, the “lily feet” produced by foot-binding in traditional China were considered exquisitely beautiful).

6.      Training: I may often only be able to appreciate beauty because I have been trained to do so. Education in the appreciation of the arts is immensely helpful in seeing beauty we would otherwise have passed by. Such training, is of course, culturally specific, e.g. a training in Western music does not enable one to appreciate Chinese music.

7.      Attention/ framing: We may find something beautiful just because our attention has been focused on it. For example, a white piece of paper put in a frame may become an object of attention that one outside a frame does not. In the samatha type of meditation in the Buddhist tradition, an object such as the breath may become fascinating and beautiful simply because we focus our attention on it.


By whatever of these types of mechanisms a sense of beauty has been initially stimulated, what then seems to determine the extent of its aesthetic value is how far we develop an initial experience of stimulation into one of integration. This could also be put in terms of a progression from the merely beautiful to the sublime, which strikes our sense of beauty in a much more profound sense. The more sublime our experience of beauty, the more integrative an effect it will have on our minds, unifying our mental energies and providing a sense of excitement and happiness. In the Buddhist tradition of meditation such experiences are identified as dhyanas, and there is a progression of different dhyanas continuing into almost unimaginable heights of sublime absorption. Though such experiences normally happen most commonly in meditation, there is no reason why they cannot occur in other contexts of aesthetic experience. It is easy to believe, for example, that great artists, composers and poets were in states of dhyana when they composed their most profound works.


Such integrative experiences are temporary, and provide an opportunity for permanent integration of the psyche rather than necessarily creating it. The deeper the temporary integration, the more profound and lasting the effect is likely to be, but it is perfectly possible to appropriate experiences of temporary integration and simply stick them in one’s egoistic photograph album for admiration, rather than using them as an occasion to progress in changing one’s understanding of conditions or one’s fundamental emotional response to them.


So, the Middle Way in response to experiences of beauty generally involves, first, recognising that they are created by a combination of one’s state of mind and an external object, not just one or the other. Secondly, it involves trying as much as possible and practicable to develop experiences of beauty from mere stimuli into fuller experiences of integration. The regular practice of a samatha meditation practice such as the mindfulness of breathing is a very good way of doing this, and this often has the effect of making experiences of beauty more profound to begin with because of a generally heightened awareness. Thirdly, this then means that in moral judgement about our aesthetic experiences, we give relatively greater value to sublime and integrative experiences than to less developed experiences of beauty. However, this obviously still means that we should acknowledge the importance of ordinary beauty, as it provides access to the sublime and thus potentially to spiritual development.


The moral and the aesthetic can thus be seen to work in parallel ways which are not ultimately in conflict. In both kinds of cases we should not let the fact that value judgements are initially affected by individual preference and by culture obscure from us the fact that the ways we can respond to them – with more or less egoistic narrowness or open objectivity – provides us with a universal basis for judgement. The main difference between the aesthetic and the moral is that aesthetic experiences are much more temporary, subtle and variable things than moral beliefs. Thus although they similarly offer opportunities for spiritual development, these involve acting with awareness during a fleeting moment and developing a subtle balance of aesthetic judgement: not so much a matter for reflection in conceptual thought and more a field for subtle and intuitive effort.


This difference, though, is not enough for us to be able to say that aesthetic judgements are beyond the scope of morality. Rather it can be said that they are a branch of it, for we make moral judgements about the aesthetic when we make judgements about, say, whether to give priority to personal artistic development or having a family. It would not be appropriate to make aesthetic judgements about the moral, because this would greatly restrict the range of conditions we could consider. To select a long-term sexual partner only by the beauty of her face, or to drive a gas-guzzling sports car just because I am struck by the beauty of its styling, would be to use a narrowed basis of judgement which neglects many conditions.


This narrowed basis of judgement that comes from putting aesthetic pleasure before morality is the trap which beauty lays for us. All too easily it can lead, not towards sublimity, but towards reinforcing the narrow range of the ego. I may try to possess the beautiful experience in some way, I may wallow in sentimental emotions about it, or I may fall to protecting it and hating someone who seems to threaten it. As William Blake wrote:


                                    He who binds to himself a joy

                                    Does the winged life destroy;

                                    But he who kisses the joy as it flies

                                    Lives in eternity’s sun rise.[31]



The visual arts


Working from this general understanding of the value of aesthetic experiences, then, we can go onto consider the value of the arts. All the arts involve the manipulation of aesthetic experience, by and for human beings, by drawing our attention to particular visual or tangible forms, words, sounds, smells, or tastes. They raise the central question of whether it is a worthwhile activity either creating or experiencing the arts and their products, and if so, how much priority we should give them. I shall begin with the visual arts, including painting, drawing, sculpture, and applied visual arts such as pottery and embroidery, but not as yet moving visuals as found in film or television.


It is the goal of much visual art, though certainly not all, to produce beauty, and artists may seek to engage our attention in any of the ways I suggested in the last section (and more). They may use contrasts in texture or colour; use religious, mythological, or purely personal symbolism; depict mysterious abstract forms which vaguely resemble objects; appeal to sexual or other identifications (especially in depicting human forms); use the conventions of their time and culture to evoke standardised responses (for example in motifs like the Madonna and child); use specific techniques (e.g. of perspective in painting) which only the trained will appreciate fully; and they will frame their work in such a way as to manipulate our attention, whether this is to draw the eye to the main character in a crowd scene, or simply to look at a blank piece of paper. Such techniques are not limited to representational art, but can also give us a sense of beauty from abstract forms.


In some modern art, however, it is clear that the main intention is not to produce beauty, but to communicate a concept. It may do this simply through shock value, like the first and most famous piece of conceptual art, the urinal which Marcel Duchamp exhibited in a Paris gallery. Here we are not supposed to admire the form of the urinal (though we might), but to experience a challenge to our normal sense of propriety, perhaps to break down our egoistic identification with what should belong in an art gallery and what should not.


Some people appreciate such conceptual challenges, others vilify them as phoney or as not real art. Similarly, some people like Michelangelo, others Dali, and others Chinese porcelain. Surely it is simply a matter of taste? As I have argued in the previous section, it is not. The fact that tastes in art differ so much is probably sufficient to conclude that we could not formulate determinate rules about which sorts of art are best. However, remembering that both internal mental state and external object contribute to the overall aesthetic experience, we can certainly formulate general principles about the value of the art objects themselves, on the grounds of the role they are likely to play in this interplay with the mind and the senses.


The most general principle is exactly the same as one might use in a moral judgement: the best art is that which is most likely to produce extension of ego-identification by taking into account wider conditions. It may do this aesthetically, emotionally or conceptually or through a combination of all three. Most commonly, however, one would expect that it would do so aesthetically. The greatest art in this category, then, is the sort which is generally more likely to lead us beyond the stimulation of a mere experience of beauty and towards a higher experience of the sublime.


So, there is no absolute distinction between great art and kitsch, but there is still a distinction. It is perfectly possible that in certain circumstances a person could buy one of the cheap little plastic Madonnas that are sold around St. Peter’s Square in Rome and be moved by it to a sublime experience greatly extending her integration. However, I think I can assert with fair confidence that most of the responses to it will be superficial or sentimental, where sentiment is understood as complacent emotion that merely reinforces current ego-identifications. The same person could then walk into St. Peter’s Basilica and see one of the great works of art there, such as Michelangelo’s Pieta, and remain completely unmoved or respond only with common sentiment. However, it is on the whole more likely that this great work of art will produce sublime experiences than the little plastic Madonna. It is this, rather than just social convention, which might justify us gazing at, visiting, revisiting, photographing, discussing and financially supporting Michelangelo’s Pieta when we would not do any of these things with the little plastic Madonna.


We do not have to be stuffy or culturally elitist about what we recognise as “art”. As I have already indicated, conceptual art can also challenge our egoistic limitations (though it can also reinforce them). Folk art and applied art, including design and architecture, can be of similar aesthetic value, though perhaps they are more generally concerned with producing experiences of ordinary beauty outside an art gallery, and less with sublimity. The value of living or working in a space which is architecturally beautiful, or of using beautiful objects for practical purposes, continues from day to day, and can have a mildly integrative effect regularly without necessarily producing sublimity at any one time.


So, in moral terms one might give the highest place to art which directly produces sublimity, to great art, and to the fine arts in general which are more likely to give it priority; second to applied and folk art; and lastly to kitsch. It is this kind of ranking which might enable us to assess their value both in terms of the attention we should give to creating or viewing them and to the financial support they might be worthy of.


A classic type of moral dilemma involving art (which might just as well occur in relation to music or literature) is that of a creative aspiration in conflict with social duties. For example, a struggling artist who has a family to support may be urged to give up devoting himself full-time to art and “get a proper job”. The frequently obsessive nature of artistic creativity might lead him to feel that art is so much more meaningful than any alternative that he must choose art regardless of the consequences for his children. Alternatively, if he lets social pressure prevail, he may feel frustrated and alienated for the rest of his life.


This man’s artistic aspirations are a part of the total conditions which cannot be neglected, but so are the children’s needs. The application of the Middle Way in this kind of case would begin with not necessarily accepting the dichotomy between the two alternative actions, but seeking investigating alternatives. One question might be that of the real value of the art the man was producing: if it was no more than mediocre he might do better to direct his creativity towards some related area in which he could earn more money, like applied art or teaching art. Other options might be part-time work or alternative patterns of care for the children. If after objective enquiry, though, the man was still convinced that he could become a great artist and that the interests of the children had been too narrowly conceived, the Middle Way could certainly not rule out the possibility that he was right to continue in his risky but creative path. It is the way in which different options are objectively explored rather than the mere calculation of probabilities that counts for most here, and the openness of the man’s creative quest counts for much, even though it would be very hard to support morally if it were simply based on quixotic illusion.




Music is an arrangement of sounds over time, usually using notes of different pitches and arranged according to scales, the exact arrangement of which can vary between cultures. These notes are played in relation to a rhythm, which we experience in relation to our heartbeat and other body-rhythms, and which has a universal power. My feeling for a particular scale, though, is culturally learnt. In Western music at least, the system of tonic chords and scales which each piece starts from, moves away from and returns to, creates a feeling of tension and release. It is this which one could probably describe as the basic source of the beauty of music. With a background of rhythm which roots the experience to our basic bodily feelings, we experience constant contrasts as the tension and release process continues, but also the reassurance of many familiar conventions being followed and only slightly varied each time. The different qualities of note from different instruments and human voices, varying harmonies and rhythmic patterns then offer further types of contrast.


As in the other arts, though, judgements about music depend not only on the sounds being produced, but on the receptivity of the experiencer. Any listener, including even some animals, can respond easily to rhythm, which relates to our basic experience as human beings. However, responding to melody and harmony requires habituated experience, and sometimes patience and training. Simple melodies are very easily picked up by very young children, but more complex musical structures take time to appreciate.


To make distinctions of quality between types of music, then, we will need to look for the encouragement of a development of more integrative, sublime feelings through complex structures of melody and harmony. If the initial sense of beauty arising from the tension and release of the melody is developed, this at least allows the possibility for an attuned and attentive listener to develop with it. If, however, the melody is simply repeated with fairly basic harmonisations, and the main other sources of interest are an insistent rhythm and banal (or alternatively aggressive or salacious) song lyrics, then we have a use of music which is not likely to stretch the ego in any way, but merely reinforce its complacency. You will probably have guessed that I am referring to the standard Western pop song here.


Of course it is possible to use the genre of the pop song to develop more sublimity, and some artists do so. It is also possible to listen to it carefully and extract some interest from understanding exactly how it achieves its effects. It is also possible to use the genres of Western classical music and jazz, which are generally much more complex, in a tedious fashion. Complexity alone does not give potential for sublimity, but the way that complexity is used, for example by modulating keys, changing tempo, using challenging and original harmonies, and a wide variety of instrumental colouring, can, and these techniques are generally untypical of pop music.


However, it is not even just the nature of the music and the receptivity of the listener that create the whole difference of quality between most pop music on the one hand, and classical music and most jazz on the other, but rather the context and the way that music is typically used. Pop music is now encountered in a whole host of public places and many private homes as continuous background noise. It is now culturally acceptable in much of the world to have pop music playing in this way (either from a radio station or from a repetitive programmed loop) in shops, on building sites, in many other workplaces, on coaches, and even at the dentist! The brain soon adjusts to this noise and largely blocks it out from attention, so that its only function is to provide vaguely reassuring background noise. Far from even going so far as to even create a basic experience of beauty (which it might if it was listened to), such a use of music provides only negative interference, like background fuzz. In the meantime the expectation and the habit of actually listening to music are constantly undermined.


So, music is not just a matter of personal preference, and we certainly can make moral judgements about which types of music are better. These judgements do not exactly enable us to say “Classical music good, pop music bad”, but they do enable general distinctions in favour of classical music (and jazz) to be made on the basis of its potentiality for sublime experience, its lack of egoistic reinforcement and its typical associated listening habits.


Obviously, however, Middle Way behaviour in relation to music needs to begin with the conditions that actually exist in our experience. We cannot easily attune ourselves to alien musical conventions or learn listening skills overnight. The main way to move forward towards experiencing sublimity is by ceasing to have music on as background noise, and listening to music of whatever type for short periods of relaxation with absolutely full attention. An understanding of what to expect and of how music works can be very helpful (and there is no better to way to learn this than by learning an instrument), as can very many repeated listenings of the same piece. It is much better to listen to a short piece of say, Bach, ten times with growing delight than to half-listen through the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in a state of dutiful boredom and a vague conviction that it will do one good.


A musical life that is constantly exploratory provides an invaluable stimulus for our most basic energies and support for our sense of well-being. Though, of course, some prefer to do their exploration only through the other arts, it is quite unusual to find a person who never listens to music at all, and therefore could not develop their musical experience in some way. The importance of doing so and its underlying conditioning effect on other kinds of activities should not be underestimated.




When it comes to works of art made of words, an act of reading and imaginative reconstruction or interpretation is required. Like that of music or art, the experience of the text varies with the reader, but perhaps even more obviously. Two people’s experiences of the same book may vary enormously according to their prior education and ability to understand the text fully, the attention with which they read it, and their differing imaginative constructions or interpretations of its contents. Nevertheless, we can judge the text according to the potentialities it offers for extending our awareness, and the act of reading according to how far it follows the Middle Way by engaging with those potentialities, at least to the maximum extent possible for that individual.


How we judge the text depends very much on the purpose of that text. For some, such as poetry, the purpose is mainly to do with beauty; for novels, the purpose is more to extend our awareness of human character; many other books, such as this one, are more concerned with conveying knowledge or understanding. There may well be a mixture of purposes in a given text, but where these are serious purposes it is possible to judge them by whatever standard of objectivity is most appropriate. For poetry, did it provide the possibility of moving from mere glimpses of beauty towards sublimity? For a novel, did it extend understanding and sympathy with human character beyond the level we began with? For a book focused on knowledge or understanding (assuming you chose one at an appropriate level) did it extend your knowledge or understanding?


Before we judge the book itself, we have to make allowances for our response to it. If we were not really part of the target audience to whom the book was meant to communicate, or we read it inattentively and failed to reflect on or apply its contents where appropriate, we can hardly blame the book for not fulfilling its potentialities in helping us towards objectivity.


The act of reading requires a Middle Way just like any other act. An eternalist way of reading will be to judge the text by a set of absolute standards formulated in advance. We read only to confirm our prejudices that the book either does or does not meet these standards. This probably means that we fail to read with attention, or to allow the contents to have the desired effect, because we cut off the suspension of disbelief required at an early stage. For example, we cannot appreciate the unfamiliar style of a poet because we have already judged against it, and therefore cannot enter into it; or if you have been reading this book eternalistically, you may have been fuming all the way through at how it isn’t really Buddhist according to your standards, and thus not really considering my arguments in any depth. Alternatively, an eternalist reader of a text that he/she agrees with may read a good deal of text that is not really understood or engaged with, with the vague idea that the text may do him/her good, or even that the words of the text itself have value apart from their understanding (as in Muslim attitudes to the Qur’an).


A nihilist way of reading, however, will not have standards to apply beyond the text being enjoyable, appealing, or immediately useful. When the going gets difficult the nihilist reader will probably put the book down and wander off to read (or do) something else. Lacking even a provisional belief in the value of the text, the nihilist reader will probably not bother to read it attentively or to persevere with it. Alternatively, he/she might read through it quickly, but rather than forming their own opinion about it, go along with group feeling.


To avoid these two extremes and engage with the potentialities that the text has to offer, then, the Middle Way reader needs to enter into the world of the text with a certain provisional belief, or at least suspension of disbelief. Even if the writer has a very different background and perspective from one’s own, then, one needs to try to enter into it. With some more difficult texts (e.g. historical ones) this may require background research or interpretative reading, for example of editorial notes and introductions. However, this doesn’t mean that one loses a standard of critical judgement, only that when judgement is arrived at it is based on a more objective engagement.


This, however, does not need to be a joyless exercise, and it is alienated reading which is so characteristic of eternalism. By really engaging with and thoroughly understanding a text, one enjoys it much more. If one is not really capable of engaging with it, for example because one’s attention keeps wandering, often engaging with only a small portion, taking notes and reflecting, is better than trying to read a lot and getting little from it. This could be just as much true for a poem or an encyclopaedia article, or a book of philosophy.


Of course, this is not how many people read much of the time. People read to escape, people read to be entertained, people read to be reassured. When they do this they read the literary equivalents of pop music: popular fiction, magazines, or tabloid newspapers. A certain amount of reading for reassurance may be useful, like having friends or partners who are reassuring and help us face challenges elsewhere. As such this may be part of a balancing process which makes such reading part of the Middle Way. However, to be reassured, we probably only need to read literature which we find absorbing but not too challenging. It is not necessary to read texts which reinforce greed, hatred, and ignorance to the extent of many popular magazines.


Given the importance of reading in many people’s lives, and especially in the educational system, it seems odd that it is hardly ever discussed in ethical terms. More likely it will be tackled as “study skills” to help young students get to grips with it. However, reading is continuous with a great deal else in our moral landscape. How we go about reading, and what we read, says a lot about our character and about the degree of objectivity with which we engage with the world. Not everyone is temperamentally or educationally suited to reading a great deal, but nearly all of us (except the illiterate) do some reading and could work with the nature and approach of the reading we do.


Film, television and video


It is probably unnecessary to draw attention to the extraordinary power which the development of film and other forms of continuous audio-visual representation have had on people since their development in the early twentieth century. Here we have almost a complete reproduction of experience, at least through the two most important senses. No other medium is so totally absorbing, accessible and powerful in its influence over moods and beliefs.


Film, television, and video can potentially combine the strengths of all three of the art-forms we have considered so far: the visual presentation, the combination of music with visuals, and the use of voices (or occasionally written text) which can fulfil many of the functions of text. However, in many ways in combining these art-forms film and TV have lost the advantages of any of them. Whilst a few films contain stunning visuals, we very rarely give the same attention to a single camera-shot as we might to a painting or even a still photograph. Apart from a few brave experiments (Fantasia or Koyaanisqatsi and its successors), most uses of music in film tend to manipulate our emotions in responding to a film or titillate (pop music videos) rather than develop our aesthetic experience of the music. The expectations which have developed for audio-visual material to be slick and entertaining also mean that in-depth exploration of an issue is rare (again with a few brave exceptions). We are much more likely to extend our knowledge and understanding by reading a book, and much more likely to have a sublime experience listening to music or contemplating visual art.


As with music, the key to why this art-form has done so little to fulfil its potential can be found in its use. In many houses, and also sometimes in bars and cafes, television is very often not so much a clear object of attention as merely on in the background, offering a few moments of distracted viewing in between, or alongside, other activities. In such circumstances there is no way it can ever offer any real new understanding, or any challenging aesthetic or emotional experience, because its audience are not capable of receiving it. Film, on the other hand, is more an object of attention, but usually together with an expectation of mere entertainment. Even if they are combined with stunning special effects, then, the plot lines of most popular films are reassuring variations on common archetypes. Our engagement may be total, but our emotions are manipulated towards standardised responses.


However, the opportunities to be selective with our use of audio-visual stimuli, to choose only the best and most creative films and to benefit from them by giving them our full attention, have increased enormously with the development of video and DVD technology. Rather than being limited to the lowest common denominator at our local cinema, or the limitations of TV scheduling, we can now choose to watch the best quality “art” films, and some of the best documentaries available from television (for example, BBC wildlife documentaries) in our own time. Watching a DVD has become much more like reading a book: we can pause, slow down or speed up, go over passages and watch numerous times if we wish. The development of consumer choice, in this case, has had real benefits in terms of the experience we can potentially have of audio-visual resources.


The Middle Way here, then, would suggest that we use these facilities so as to make full use of the potentialities of the medium, at least when film-makers have used them. We do not need to be eternalistic, either by watching with a very fixed set of expectations or by never watching at all, nor on the other hand to be nihilistic in the way that most modern viewers are, by wasting huge amounts of time uncritically absorbing anything that is vaguely reassuring or slightly titillating. I would suggest throwing out the television, for anything good it once offered can now be obtained in other ways, and engaging in a critical exploration of film and documentary through carefully selected DVDs. Like our musical life and our reading life, most of us in modern society have a film life, but like the other aspects of our life, this needs to be moving outwards from greed, convention, habit and ignorance.


The Internet


Any moral discussion of the arts and media would probably be incomplete without some mention of this powerful new medium. In terms of the art-forms I have been discussing in the last four sections, the internet is all of them. It can now be used to access high-quality art reproductions, music recordings, texts of varying lengths, and increasingly also video, in addition to an astonishing range of information pitched from introductory to in-depth academic level. We can also interactively engage with others in discussing these subjects through chat-rooms, message boards, e-mail etc. The potentialities of the internet are those of all the four art forms put together. The potentialities for using the internet to help us extend our ego-identifications and become more objective are hence huge.


The problem is, of course, that most of us rarely use it for these sorts of purposes. Though nearly everyone who uses it does so to occasionally find information, it is also often used simply for distracting entertainment in the same way as a popular magazine or television. The sheer wealth of what is available can stop us from engaging with any of it to any significant degree, so that it makes no lasting impression


The interactive processes on the internet also create a disinhibiting effect which can easily be seen on most message boards and chat-rooms. People will express views more strongly than they would otherwise, and even be directly insulting in a way in which they would never be face-to-face, because they do not have all the usual social and biological inhibitions that often affect us when we see a person in front of us, and they also feel anonymous and remote from any possible bad consequences of their aggressive communication. Such disinhibition can occasionally lead us to communicate better than we would have done otherwise, but usually worse.


Again, these kinds of difficulties with the internet are not good reasons for not engaging with it at all. However, as with film and TV, it may be wise to be very selective and deliberate in order to make the most objective use of its potentialities. In our active contributions to speech on the internet, an imaginative process of visualising the likely response of the person at the other end of your communication is extremely important. It can be tempting simply to live in a cyberspace world where one ignores the consequences of one’s actions for the world beyond, but this is yet another way of reinforcing the limitations of one’s ego and failing to be objective.




“Pornography” is often assumed to be bad, whilst “erotica” is more morally and artistically acceptable. The whole moral debate about pornography thus begins with what it consists in, and we can’t start by defining “pornography” without pre-supposing it. Let’s say that we’re dealing with a whole area of art, photography, writing, film, video etc which either is, or is intended to be, sexually stimulating to the viewer. Whether the viewer experiences it as sexually stimulating obviously depends on a great number of factors, and the whole question of whether that is acceptable, or whether only certain types of such material are acceptable, might be seen as “subjective”. As in the preceding sections of this chapter, I want to suggest here that though our initial feelings of attraction, revulsion, acceptance or rejection cannot be judged by any consistent standard as good or bad, what we do about them subsequently can.


I want to consider here what might be morally justifiable Buddhist attitudes to how far we might be justified in using sexually stimulating material, and how far the state might be justified in controlling or banning it. The reasons that sexually stimulating material might be considered morally wrong concern both those involved in producing it, and those involved in using it. I will start here with the former.


One accusation against types of sexually stimulating material that are seen as “pornographic” is that its production degrades the models or actors (most often, but not always, female) involved in making it. Such people are paid to exhibit sexual behaviour which in our society is normally only private and intimate. The most obvious comparison here is with prostitution, where sexual behaviour is likewise the basis of a commercial transaction, and which I discussed in chapter 3. There I suggested that, although nothing rules out sex being a subject of commercial transaction in principle, in practice most prostitutes are heavily exploited. This exploitation is perhaps particularly promoted by the shame and illegality surrounding prostitution.


If nude models and porn actors were in practice found to be in a similar situation, then of course there would be huge moral concerns about the making of pornography. However, this seems to most often not be the case: nude models and porn actors are usually consenting adults who engage in a straightforward commercial transaction for which they are reasonably well paid. We might be concerned about the psychological effects of them being so much encouraged to think of themselves solely as sexual objects, but this may be no worse than other kinds of work which encourage a fixed self-view of a different kind to emerge. If they genuinely do not experience any degradation in their work (and it may be that cultural attitudes towards this, particularly in the US, are changing fast), we do not have to assume that they feel degraded.


The main issues, then, around sexually stimulating material concern not its production but its consumption. A variety of claims about the main purpose of such material may be claimed. Some of it may be seen as visual art or film making a claim to depict beauty, whilst some may be merely intended to sexually stimulate the viewer. This may be one way of distinguishing between “erotica” (a type of art) and “pornography”, though the boundaries are often rather unclear. I will take this as the working definition without necessarily assuming thereby that all “pornography” is wrong.


If the main aim of “erotica” is artistic, then we can judge it by artistic standards. Beautiful nudes painted by great painters may be sexually arousing to some people in some circumstances, yet we detect in them a type of beauty. This beauty may itself be based on sublimated sexual feelings (as I suggested at the beginning of this chapter in considering that some experiences of beauty may be created by fitness for a purpose that we identify with). There seems to be no reason why this type of art may not be just as conducive to the sublime as other types, and certainly no reason to condemn it or restrict it.


If the main aim is that of sexual stimulation, then, we may find some of it not only lacking in beauty, but ugly. We would not try to ban it or restrict it on those grounds, but we might avoid it. Whether it is beautiful or ugly, though, some people will find it sexually stimulating. There seem to be three main ways in which being sexually stimulated by such material might be morally suspect: one is its relationship to masturbation, another to its obsessive nature, and a third to the way in which it might affect our attitudes to others.


Masturbation was also discussed in chapter 3. There I suggested that the only thing that might be wrong with masturbation was that it might be used as a distraction from awareness of our emotional state. Masturbation using pornography does not seem to be any different from this: the presence of pornography doesn’t make it significantly better or worse.


It is perhaps the obsessive nature of pornography that might provide the strongest case against it. Its obsessiveness can be emphasised by shame and secretiveness surrounding it, and create a type of craving which is especially hard to deal with, a mental state which is not just one of short-term physical desire but a recurrent prurience. Those who are addicted to pornography also tend to find their addiction more and more difficult to satisfy, and so tend to progress to “harder” types of pornography which are more explicit and more ugly. In a few cases this downward spiral can culminate in sexual violence, or the consumption of extreme (and often illegal) types of pornography such as sexual violence and child pornography.


Such obsessiveness is obviously a strong disintegrating force for those who fall into it. Others (and perhaps the government, as I shall discuss later), should help to guard them against it, but not all users of pornography get into anything like this state. Since the “harder” types of pornography seem to most often only be attractive because of it, though, this may create a case for controlling or banning such material.


A third and linked problem with the use of pornography is the attitude to people (most often women) which it encourages. Feminists often claim that pornography encourages men to think of women solely as sexual objects. If this is correct, then it may have some of the same effects as violence in tending to distance the viewer from others and cut them off from sympathy which is based on recognition of their nature as fellow human beings. It is certainly a way in which consistent exposure to pornography may limit our objectivity, if we end up more often seeing people only as sexual objects and not in their whole complexity. However, it can also be contested how far this objectification is normally problematic: it may be that we simply switch between different views of people in different situations, or that we can even combine different views at the same time. When having sex with a partner, after all, one also experiences them as a sexual object, but that does not stop us also recognising their humanity and behaving so as to recognise it. It may be that this objectification is only really a problem for the obsessive individuals mentioned above, who may also not be in well-adjusted social relationships.


So, as far as the individual goes, there do not seem to be too many reasons for being morally concerned either about erotica or about “soft” pornography, provided that one does not begin to become obsessed with it. Sexual desire and the arts and media are simply part of the conditions around us, and their conjunction should perhaps just be accepted, though not indulged in unnecessarily. However, if one starts craving increasing explicitness and one’s experience of pornography no longer includes an element of aesthetic judgement and a sense of beauty, this is a bad sign. A sexual relationship may be one way of preventing or avoiding this obsessive relationship with pornography, and the over-objectification that seems to go with it. “Harder” pornography, and certainly the extreme and illegal types of pornography, should be avoided at all costs.


But should the state control and censor pornography? There are some who object to any type of censorship and its interference in individual expression. However, as argued in chapter 9, it is the role of the state from a Buddhist standpoint to create conditions of order which are conducive to moral and spiritual development. This does not mean that the state should attempt to supervise our moral development itself, which can only occur on the basis of individual initiative, but it does mean that it should try to control the conditions which lead to the worst and most disruptive types of immoral conduct which create harm. Where pornography is likely to promote sexual violence, or violence and exploitation are involved in making it, then, the government is completely right, as at present, to ban this type of pornography.


Quite a good case could also be made for the banning, rather than mere control and restriction, of the harder types of pornography currently only found in sex shops in the UK (and, of course, on the internet). This would be on the grounds that, by not making such material available, the government would be helping to prevent the development of the kinds of obsessiveness often associated with it. This would be going against the liberal principle widely accepted in the West since John Stuart Mill argued it, that the state should tolerate activities which do not directly cause harm themselves, because the good effects of freedom outweigh the bad effects of the activity. However, one of the weaknesses of this principle is that it does not sufficiently take into account psychological states and the long-term and indirect forms of harm these can cause. In contemporary society, however, such a ban on hard pornography would certainly be very difficult to get accepted or to enforce.


The Middle Way on pornography, then, probably suggests that we should not be over-prudish or censorious about the enjoyments it offers (an eternalistic response), but also that we should be alert to the dangers it poses, and the ways in which these dangers may be of a long-term psychological or spiritual nature as well as, in some extreme cases, immediate exploitation or violence. The nihilistic view that pornography is simply a matter of taste or personal preference cannot be accepted.  


Depictions of violence


Images of violence are extremely common on film and television, and also on video games. They might also potentially be an object of concern in text and visual art. How far should we be morally concerned about exposing ourselves, and others, to such depictions of violence? And should we support state controls or censorship of depicted violence?


In the vast majority of cases, what we are viewing is not actual violence, but cleverly simulated violence. Obviously, in the few extreme cases where actual violence is filmed, we would be supporting it by paying to watch it and in a sense be accessories to it. However, normally when we watch violence we know it is not “real”. Children come to recognise this disjunction between depictions of violence and the real thing from an early age. Although in some ways we respond to it as real violence through the mechanism of suspension of disbelief, we understand it to be in the realm of play.


Much empirical research has focused on trying to establish whether people, and particularly children, directly imitate this play-violence and turn it into real violence. The evidence has been inconclusive. Although in a few cases a link is widely suspected (as in the famous Jamie Bulger case in England, where two boys murdered a younger child, probably under the influence of violent videos), it is difficult to tell how direct and frequent it is.


From a Buddhist standpoint, however, there is a strong appreciation of the conditioning effect of even quite mild stimuli on the mind. When in meditation you may experience your great sensitivity to the effects of a cup of coffee, a conversation you had last night, or even a mild anxiety about a conflict, there can be little doubt that people who watch violent videos have their mental states affected by them. The way they are affected may not very often result in direct imitation of the violence they witnessed, but this does not mean that they are not affected.


Though such violence may exist in the sphere of play, play is not wholly removed from moral concerns because it often involves preparation for, or reflection of, serious activity. The fact that it is play means that we are more tolerant than we would be otherwise, but we cannot be completely tolerant of any kind of behaviour in play, because it can still have serious effects. It is reasonable to object to a racist joke, for example, as a racist joke probably reflects racist attitudes to which awareness needs to be drawn. The response that “Oh, it’s only a joke” is not sufficient to remove this concern completely, though it is certainly sufficient to make us object less strongly than we might to a direct racist insult. Attitudes to play, then, require a Middle Way between over-seriousness which does not allow for any distinction (eternalism), and complete license (nihilism).


So, when the hero does a kung-fu chop on the villain, or fires his laser gun at the alien, we do not feel, nor need to feel, as though we have witnessed a real violent event, with its attendant objectification of the victim, brutalisation and suffering. The actors may in fact be the best of friends. However, if the hero subjects the villain to various grisly tortures portrayed in graphic detail, then kills him, then chops him into little pieces and eats them, all under the gaze of the camera, we may reasonably feel that the film has gone out of its way to brutalise the audience and, if they identify with the whole process, completely obliterate the personhood of the victim.


When this occurs, it is not primarily the possibility of a chain of copycat tortures and cannibalistic murders that we should fear, but more simply a contribution to either strong egoistic reinforcement, or desensitisation, or both. The effects of this are not particularly likely to be directly imitative, but may be any of a host of other evils which are not directly caused by the depicted violence, but where that violence has still provided a contributory role to overall negative mental states.


It is sometimes argued that in our society simulated violence provides a substitute for the real thing which makes the real thing less likely. This view assumes that there is a fixed amount of violence in human nature which must be expressed in some way, but this is surely mistaken. Violence is a result of a lack of integration in our psyches, and the energies which go into it, when unified, can be creatively channelled rather than having to go into violence of any kind, real or simulated. It is thus not inevitable that we will always need any kind of simulated violence. However, mild simulated violence can have an important symbolic role (it is even found in some Tibetan Buddhist iconography), and we may need to depict it in order to address it and come to terms with the forces which it can represent within us.


So, we can conclude that the acceptability of depictions of violence is very much a matter of degree (as we found with sexual depictions in the last section). Mild and non-graphic violence, when clearly understood to be in the realm of play, need not concern us unduly, though we might want to control its access for very young children who have not yet understood the boundaries of play. Stronger or more graphic violence, however, should be avoided, both in terms of considering our own exposure and that of others, particularly children.


In the UK and many other countries, the state already has a system for controlling access to depictions of violence (along with sex, bad language etc.) using age categories. These categories can be of considerable help in guiding our judgement, although when used on DVDs, particularly, they are often ignored. It is important not to underestimate the effects of depictions of strong violence on children (and also on adults) and this creates a strong case for respecting these classifications.


The case for a complete ban on the more extreme depictions of violence currently available to the public is similar to the case for a ban on hard pornography. In both cases the state has a responsibility for the general cultural conditions in which people may attempt to practice morality, which perhaps should be interpreted more strongly than at present in terms of responsibility for trying to remove conditions which strongly contribute to psychological disintegration. However, such a proposal is very likely to be interpreted as an attempt to impose eternalist morality on the population rather than simply as a way of engaging with the conditions, and would thus be very hard to bring in or to enforce in current social conditions.


Political censorship


My final question in relation to arts and the media concerns the acceptability of the circulation of ideas. Should any political (or religious, or philosophical) ideas, no matter how extreme, be made available to everyone through the various media? Most commonly such ideas are found in books andnewspapers, but they could also be presented through television, radio, public speeches, film, video, and audio recordings. Very often the debate about this in the Western democracies has centred on the propagation of Fascist ideology, with a sensitivity to avoid conditions in which Fascism could re-arise as it did in Europe before the Second World War. More recently it has also concerned Islamism, and whether terrorist groups or their supporters should be allowed to spread an ideology which may recruit people to terrorism.


As in other areas of censorship, the most influential policy on this in the West is the liberal one put forward by John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century. Mill argued that in general the free exchange of ideas, and the freedom to experiment, is highly beneficial to the advance of society, for no positive changes can be made unless existing conventional attitudes can be challenged and their worth assessed in rational debate. The only exception he made to this is where the expression of such ideas may directly lead to harm to others, as in a rabble-rousing speech which incites a violent riot[32]. Mill’s approach, broadly speaking, still provides a widely-accepted utilitarian justification for the lack of any restrictions on the free exchange of ideas in modern democracy, except where this directly incites racial hatred or riot.


Mill’s argument has had a huge positive effect in leading modern Western democracy to address a whole host of conditions which were previously neglected or obscured by conventional attitudes. Slavery could hardly have been abolished, women given the vote, social and sanitary conditions amongst the poor addressed, a welfare state created, nor education extended universally, if free rational discussion of the issues had not exposed the dogmatism behind traditional attitudes to subjects like these, and allowed new policies to be introduced. Mill, most importantly, drew attention to the fact that we do not know what future ideas may prevail and become important, so that we should listen even to ideas which seem extreme and ridiculous now and consider their merits without prejudice. In most cases, ideas which seem extreme because they are based on obscure prejudices will be revealed as such by discussion, whilst those which in fact address neglected conditions will gradually come to seem less extreme.


Mill’s approach also enabled us to appreciate the merits of theoretical discussion in a spirit of play (though this goes back to ancient Greece and ancient India) and of the importance of being able to imaginatively consider a wide range of policies and actions before they are put into effect. Again, without a broadly liberal approach to this we would be much more limited in the effectiveness of our responses to conditions. Much of Mill’s arguments in this area, then appear to be in accordance with the Middle Way. They do not carry the common weakness of utilitarian arguments which I have commented on throughout this book, that they rely on our limited current estimation of future events and fail to take into account our ignorance, for at this point of consideration, discussion, and reflection he is discussing, we have not yet narrowed the options in the way that we later need to do so as to be able to act decisively; and far from ignoring the extent of our ignorance, Mill points it out.


It is often argued that the difficulty with a position of free speech of this kind is that it allows free speech to those who do not support free speech. Swayed by emotional manipulation and rhetorical devices, the masses may come to give power to a leader (such as Hitler) who would in fact take free speech away from them once he achieves power. This is obviously a risk that is involved in free speech, but it will only occur of sufficient numbers of people allow themselves to be swayed by rhetoric. In the case of Hitler, it can be argued that people were made much more receptive by feelings of resentment created by harsh treaties imposed on Germany after the end of the First World War.


So, there is certainly some danger with free speech, that, particularly in circumstances of widespread alienation and/or widespread ignorance, it will allow itself to be destroyed. However, perhaps this is a risk worth taking given that, much more often, the effect of free speech seems to be to weaken the grip of ideologies such as Fascism by allowing their weaknesses to be revealed. The alternative often suggested, of allowing free speech for some but not others, often merely has the effect of creating resentment against this discrimination and allowing irrational sympathy to build up for those discriminated against.


Openness of discussion creates fear in some, and that fear is primarily only the fear that sustains the ego – fear of the unknown. If the basic psychological situation of human beings is of needing to address the unknown rather than reject it, that approach should be reproduced in political discourse. We should not allow fear to prevent us from taking the necessary risks which we have to take to create a more integrated society filled with generally more integrated people. This means that a sphere of the free discussion of ideas needs to be maintained with absolutely no restrictions. Far from leading us to a nihilist position where there are no values because all are available, this is what will really allow us to create values and maintain commitment to them, because we will really have chosen them in the light of a consideration of alternatives and a full weighing-up of their merits.


Clearly, though, there should still be practical restrictions of the kind that John Stuart Mill recognised. Free speech should not be allowed where it actually involves direct incitement to break the law, so the UK government may be right, for example, to bar extreme Muslim clerics who enter mosques and incite people directly to violence. Where the incitement is less direct, however, say consisting in the availability of Islamist literature, then there are very good reasons for tolerating it. Free speech also requires a certain critical mass of the population to have a certain level of education to be successful in promoting rational discussion more than mere manipulation of the uneducated, so there may still be some countries or situations where free speech is not yet appropriate, and it may not be appropriate to grant anybody who wants it free access to children whom they may then easily manipulate.


With these exceptions, though, I would argue that in the modern Western democracies, the Middle Way would suggest that political censorship of any medium is not justified. The situation is largely the reverse of the one I argued for in relation to pornography and depictions of violence, for far from interfering with the conditions needed for spiritual development, an unimpeded exchange of ideas is one of the positive conditions which are needed for spiritual development and the objective addressing of conditions.


[31] William Blake, from the Note-book of 1793. In Blake Complete Writings (Oxford, ed. Keynes) p.179, and frequently anthologised elsewhere

[32] See John Stuart Mill On Liberty (esp. chapter 2), available in various editions


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1. What is Buddhist Ethics?

2. Relationships

3. Sexual Ethics

4. Economic Issues

5. Environmental Issues

6. Animals

7. Scientific Issues

8. Medical Ethics

9. Political Ethics

10. Violence

11. Arts

12. Conclusion


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