concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2009


The term 'ethics' in Middle Way philosophy is not distinguished in any way from 'morality': the two terms are regarded as synonyms. Ethics and morality are terms for the area of discourse concerned with the justification of our actions or way of life. Central to Middle Way philosophy is the recognition that moral justification cannot be reduced to either metaphysical or conventional justification: it is not merely a question either of interpreting the will of God, applying some other dogmatic moral formula, or of analysing what people believe in society. Instead, moral justification can be experienced, and provisionally articulated, in relation to progress in the direction of objectivity. A moral justification is one that enables us to make progress towards objectivity, or that emerges as a result of progress towards objectivity. Ethics is the study and discussion of such moral justification.

In analytic philosophy, ethics tends to be seen in descriptive terms (see concept article on descriptive ethics). This is an approach which effectively prevents thinkers from gaining a more objective understanding of ethics, because it assumes that there are no possible sources of moral knowledge beyond our current assumptions. It also imposes the fact-value dichotomy on moral discussion, by attempting to reduce ethics to the meta-ethical terms of fact.

If it is to be of any value to us, ethics has to be normative, that is, to tell us what we should do, in terms of ideals that lie beyond the current 'facts' as we understand them. At the same time, we cannot justify our normative ethics if we simply concoct idealised metaphysical ideas to provide the basis of ethics, without sufficient link to the world as we understand it. The basis of ethics is thus the Middle Way, in which we find the course that best addresses conditions by taking into account as far as possible both how things are now and how they should be. If we stray too far towards idealism we lose moral justification by becoming hollow and hypocritical, but if we stray too far towards conventionalism we become complacent and pusillanimous, failing to challenge ourselves to improve anything. Moral justification lies in the experience of that balancing process itself and the attempt to maintain it. This can also be understood psychologically as the experience of stretching our ego-identifications. Ethics is neither the denial of the ego nor the indulgence of it, but the stretching of the values which it offers us.

Ethics is the central discipline of philosophy, because it consists in the addressing of conditions in every sense, not just of abstract belief, but of beliefs that interact with practical experience. It cannot be separated from psychology, from politics, from spiritual and social practice, and from scientific endeavour, all of which are central to it and are linked to ethics by their shared pursuit of objectivity. Without objectivity conceptualised or pursued in these different ways, ethics would have no justification to offer; but without moral justification to link them all together, we would only have varying partial understandings of the nature of objectivity gained from limited experience of one or other of them. One comes to understand ethics by breaking down the conceptual barriers which most Western thought has constantly erected between ethics and other areas of understanding. In a sense ethics is objectivity, and it is science, psychology, spirituality and politics, for these different areas of enquiry merely illuminate ethics from different angles, and their apparently differing concepts of objectivity only gain their validity from ethics. It is a mistake to begin the enquiry into any of them without considering how they contribute to moral objectivity, or on the other hand to attempt to define moral objectivity without reference to the experience of objectivity people have in all these areas where it is applied.

Links to further discussion

A New Buddhist Ethics (index page)

What is Buddhist Ethics?

The Ethics of the Middle Way (thesis)

The Normativity of the Middle Way (thesis)


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