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Introductory section from

A Theory of Moral Objectivity

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

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And Marco answered: “While, at a sign from you, sire, the unique and final city raises its

stainless walls, I am collecting the ashes of the other possible cities that vanish to make room

for it, cities that can never be rebuilt or remembered. When you know at last the residue of

unhappiness for which no precious stone can compensate, you will be able to calculate the

exact number of carats toward which that final diamond must strive. Otherwise, your

calculations will be mistaken from the very start.”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1974)


1. Introduction

The argument of this book consists of a number of interconnected strands which together

attempt to challenge a number of fairly well established assumptions in Western thought about

the grounds of ethics. No one strand is likely to survive for very long without the others in

such a hostile environment, so my strategy is to erect a kind of preliminary scaffolding which

can support each strand of argument as it emerges, until it is reinforced by the other strands.

This introduction amounts to that preliminary scaffolding.


a) Clarification of terms

Such a title as “A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity” requires clarification from the outset

to explain the way I shall be using the three key terms “Buddhist”, “moral” and “objectivity”.

To do this will also begin to put my argument in the right context. These three clarifications

are largely defensive in nature, being an attempt to head off some obvious possible

misunderstandings from the outset. They will involve some attempts at provisional definition,

but these definitions are clarificatory rather than exhaustive: indeed I think that any attempt to

exhaustively define these terms would be deluded.

i) “Buddhist”

This book aspires to be taken seriously as a contribution to philosophy, rather than to the

scholarly examination of the phenomena of Buddhism. By calling the theory presented here

“Buddhist”, then, I do not mean to present any systematic scholarly claims about its

relationship to the Buddhist tradition as expressed in its texts, or to traditional Buddhist

practice in Asian countries. Insofar as I shall draw on sources of this kind, it will be only

because they are useful in their philosophical content in order to contribute to or support my

argument. Most importantly, I shall not be arguing from Buddhism or what the tradition says:

there will be no appeals to revelation of any kind.

Why then do I use the term “Buddhist”, instead of merely presenting it as my argument? There

are two reasons for doing this. The first is to give due credit to the argument as being, to a

large extent, an outcome of the impact of Buddhism on my own life. I want to call the theory

Buddhist because I am a Buddhist and the theory is the outcome of my own attempt to

understand how and why Buddhism should be practised in the modern world. In my view

neither conceptual clarity nor devotion to practice are sufficient by themselves in the

application of ethics: they are completely dependent on each other. Hence this is an attempt to

reach conceptual clarity on the question of why we should be practising ethics: but it has not

been produced independently of more practical concerns and endeavours, nor will its

conclusion stand wholly independent of them. I would not have reached a position where I was

able to engage in such a clarification without the benefit of Buddhist teachings, in particular

those of Sangharakshita and other members of the Western Buddhist Order which he founded.

In many respects I see this book as merely an out-working of the huge amount of valuable

work Sangharakshita has already done, both theoretically and practically, to produce a form of

Buddhism appropriate to modern conditions.1

1 The practical work here consists in Sangharakshita’s development of the Friends of the Western

Buddhist Order (FWBO), now a worldwide Buddhist movement. For the theoretical work, see almost

any of Sangharakshita’s published writings, of which the most academically dense are Sangharakshita

(1977) and (1987).

The second reason for calling this work “Buddhist” is a pragmatic one. I would like there to be

an association between this theory and Buddhist practice, in the hope that it might assist others

in undertaking Buddhist practices or supporting ones they have already undertaken. This does

not mean that I am proselytising, at least in any sense stronger than that which could be used of

any philosopher expressing an opinion. I would not like people to become involved in

Buddhism on reading this for any reason other than that they think the arguments are sound,

but in my case the persuasive function of my writing comes with a criterion of success which

is not one of merely superficial intellectual assent.

So I do believe that this work is “Buddhist” in more than a purely stipulative sense, but I do

not consider it the main function of the book to try to defend any precise definition of the term.

Those who are worried about this can perhaps regard the sense as stipulative. However, I do

want to some extent to defend the ways in which this argument may diverge from what some

may see as essential features of Buddhism: I shall do this in the appendix, which will deal with

various issues concerning the compatibility of the position I shall offer here with the Buddhist

tradition1. This will to some extent, though perhaps not adequately, attempt to justify my claim

that the main argument is continuous with the Buddhist tradition. This appendix should be seen

as dependent on the main philosophical argument and does not stand independently.

Throughout the argument I shall attempt to use a minimum of technical Buddhist terms, and

generally prefer approximate translations to the Pali or Sanskrit terms which are more precise

in the original Buddhist context: on the grounds, again, that my main aim is persuasive rather

than scholarly, and that I do not wish to alienate readers without a background in Buddhism.

The precision of the argument should be imported through stipulation and definition, as in

most philosophical discussion, rather than through a scholarly background. There will be some

exceptions to this where a traditional term really is both untranslatable and important to my

argument, and some common terms, such as karma, which I shall take to have been absorbed

into a wider academic language.

ii) “Moral”

A central point of my arguments here will be that to use the term “moral” (at least in the sense

in which I shall use it) is to invoke a justification. We cannot, then, define the term moral and

then attempt to justify it, as though the two processes were distinct. My use of the word

“moral” will thus be prescriptive rather than descriptive. I shall not be merely concerned with

the analysis of “moral” and related terms in ordinary language, but rather with a prescription

for its justifiable use which takes into account ordinary language, where appropriate, as one of

the conditions in which prescription operates. It should be clear by the end of the book more

precisely what I mean by moral, which roughly speaking is something like “objectively

justified in the way I have indicated” (see the next section for what “objectively” means here).

My approach to the issue of prescription and description in ethics is to argue that the use of the

word “moral” is itself a moral issue which can only be resolved in relation to moral criteria.

This does not mean that there is any clear-cut criterion which can be applied to determine the

correct use of the term “moral”, but only that the use of the term “moral” may be more or less

morally justified in any given case according to its likely effects. Of course any justification of

a particular use of the term “moral” depends on an understanding of its use in that context as

well as a more general theoretical justification, but it is mainly with the latter that I am

concerned here.

In accordance with this view of the justification for using the term “moral”, I have used it

myself with an eye to its likely impact. This impact, of course, does depend on its current use

in English. Broadly speaking, I wish to invoke that current use, clarify it, and extend it in a

way which I consider morally justifiable. Philosophers who use existing terms and attempt to

adapt them to new purposes tend to lay themselves open to misunderstanding, but the

alternative approach of coining entirely new terms for the sake of maintaining purity and

precision creates a different danger of exclusion from the dominant discourse. Since my goal is

a pragmatic one in which purity and precision of argument are purely instrumental qualities, I

prefer the former danger to the latter one.

At this stage I also need to point out that I shall make no philosophical distinction between the

terms “moral” and ”ethical”, which I shall use interchangeably. In any given case my

justification for using either term depends both on an overall justification (which is identical

for both these terms) and the likely effects of using it given its ordinary use. The lack of

distinction between morality and ethics indicates that I do not understand morality in any

narrow sense which allows a distinction between “ethical” or “spiritual” values or motives and

“moral” rules or conventions: this usage seems to me likely to give rules an appearance of

justifiability independent from values which they do not possess. I do, however, accept a

distinction between morality or ethics as values and normativity as a conventional justification

for values: for this see my arguments about normativity in chapter 7.

iii) “Objectivity”

My use of this term may also be controversial but is not entirely innovative. In describing this

book as “a theory of moral objectivity” I do not mean “a theory describing a God’s eye view of

ethics”. Such a theory, to describe ethics in the absolutely true terms to which it aspires, would

have to be both written and read, if not by God, at least by creatures who had such a detailed

understanding of all conditions that they would be able to correct all possible subjective

distortions to their ethical beliefs. Such creatures would not need an ethical theory, since the

ideal practice that the theory aims to produce would already exist among them. I shall argue

that the very bounds of language prevent any theory formed out of language from describing

what is absolutely objective in this sense. This theory is no exception to this general rule: it

claims to be a theory of moral objectivity, pointing in its direction, rather than a morally

objective theory.

The sense in which I shall use the term “objective” will be both dispositional and incremental.

This use of the term has already been made by Thomas Nagel.

Objectivity is a method of understanding. It is beliefs and attitudes that are objective

in the primary sense. Only derivatively do we call objective the truths that can be

arrived at in this way. To acquire a more objective understanding of some aspect of

life or the world, we step back from our initial view of it and form a new conception

which has that view and its relation to the world as its object.2

This use of the term is dispositional because it is only persons who can strictly be described in

terms of objectivity, the objectivity consisting in beliefs and attitudes which tend to move

away from the limitations of the subject. It is incremental because it allows for a gradation of

objectivity whereby persons are more or less objective, rather than there being one remote

standard of absolute objectivity beneath which all human beings are irredeemably subjective.

Objectivity, I shall argue, is a virtue of the tendency in mental states of persons rather than of


An important adjunct to this argument will be the claim that cognitive forms of objectivity

(such as scientific knowledge), as Nagel implies, are derivative from dispositional ones. Since

it is dispositional objectivity that I wish to identify with moral objectivity, I shall argue that it

is cognitive objectivity which needs to be understood in the terms of moral objectivity, not the

other way round.

“Objectivity” is not widely understood in this sense in a philosophical context, though in

common parlance it is often used in a dispositional and incremental sense. Some might argue

that I will thus court misunderstanding by using it. But I have already said that it suits my

purposes better to adapt a term than to coin an entirely new one. I have a further pragmatic

reason for using the term “objectivity”: to make it clear that this theory is not relativist,

perspectivist or subjectivist in ethics and stands opposed to these widespread tendencies in

modern philosophy and culture.

To try to avoid misunderstanding I will make a clear distinction between objective, which I

shall use dispositionally, and absolute, which I shall use in the sense of perfectly objective,

without any subjective distortion whatsoever. I shall contend, then, that one can be an moral

objectivist, claiming that progress is possible in the direction of objective good, without being

a moral absolutist, claiming that we know what pure moral good is and can talk about it as



b) Outline of overall method

In this section I shall give an outline of my premises and methods of working in arguing for

moral objectivism. This outline will make many unsupported claims and leave many important

questions unasked (all of which will be addressed in the body of the book) in order to provide

an initial broad orientation to my whole approach.

i) Non-dualism and metaphysical agnosticism

What I shall take as my most fundamental and definitive premise, derived from Buddhist

thought, is the non-duality of subject and object (referred to throughout simply as “nonduality”),

according to which the distinctions which we conventionally make between subject

and object, and between different objects, have no ultimate reality. The assumption of the truth

of this premise together with the disposition to apply it I shall refer to as non-dualism.

It is often assumed that this view is merely one among a number of contending metaphysical

doctrines and can thus have no more support from rational argument than, for example, a belief

in the existence of God. One of my central claims, however, is that non-dualism is not a

metaphysical view (except perhaps, in the sense of a critical metaphysics) since it consists only

in a thoroughgoing agnosticism about metaphysical claims. It does not assume the existence of

any kind of object, nor of any kind of subject, in anything other than a provisional and

pragmatic fashion. Importantly, also, it does not assume the non-existence of such subjects or

objects. I shall argue that those philosophers who have tried to avoid metaphysics, either from

an empiricist or a phenomenologist standpoint, have often merely made such negative

metaphysical assumptions, which are no more justifiable than positive ones and are just as

difficult to justify through experience.

The main metaphysical assumption with which I shall be concerned will be that of the

universality of ethics. I shall contend that the chief implication of a non-dualist standpoint is

that we can neither assume the existence of universal ethics in an absolute or metaphysical

form, not can we assume its non-existence. In the history of Western thought, both of these

assumptions have proved misleading in different ways, leaving us with an impassable gulf

between absolute and relative values. The existence of such a gulf has also had disastrous

practical effects. Yet we are not confronted merely with a choice between these two

alternatives. Non-dualism can provide the basis of an incremental path between them.

To distinguish non-dualism from the mere denial of universal ethics requires the recognition

that agnosticism about metaphysics has a power of its own: that in fact it offers the basis of a

different kind of ethical objectivity. For if we genuinely begin to recognise the limitations of

our beliefs in representing reality, we simultaneously begin to recognise a value beyond the

narrow sphere with which we have hitherto identified. The stronger that recognition, not

merely in intellectual but also in emotional terms, the greater our moral objectivity. It is only

when we prematurely paint the unknown in the colours of acceptance and rejection that it

becomes threatening, and a thoroughgoing agnosticism thus provides no grounds for any

rational fear of the void, merely an acknowledgement of our ignorance of any absolute reality.

This sketch of an a priori argument for non-dualism does not, of course, provide proof of its

truth. By its nature it does not admit of “proof” in any absolute sense. My aim in this book is

not to present such a proof, but to provide a persuasive argument for the provisional adoption

of non-dualist beliefs together with the practices they imply, thus enabling a pragmatic and

incremental verification of non-dualism on the part of each individual who follows this path.

Broadly, I shall argue that non-dualism should be adopted for four reasons: (a) because of the

practical failure of dualism, the opposed view, to provide an effective basis for ethics, (b)

because of its philosophical success in providing theoretical grounds for the objectivity of

ethics, in contrast to the theoretical failure of dualism, (c) because of its heuristic value in

enabling verification and falsification which cannot be achieved by dualism, and (d) because

of its fruitfulness in supporting ethical practice, making it potentially an effective as well as

theoretically satisfactory basis for ethics.

An important part of my argument will be negative. In chapters two to four I shall attempt to

present the reasons why dualistic thought, as represented by all the most influential ethical

theories in Western history, cannot provide the grounds for an effective ethics. By “effective” I

mean capable of practical application which is productive of actual goodness in human minds

and behaviour. Dualistic theories of ethics can be separated into two types, which I shall call

eternalism and nihilism (dealt with in chapters three and four respectively), adapting these

terms from the Buddhist tradition. These two types have been constantly at odds with each

other and have attacked each other’s failings, but the argument between them has been

inconclusive, I shall argue, because their most fundamental failing has been their dualism. This

fundamental failing is presented in chapter two in its psychological terms.

The positive part of my argument will consist in an exposition of the Middle Way. The Middle

Way (another term adopted directly from Buddhist tradition) consists in the practical

application of non-dualism in a world where our habitual understanding is dualistic. We cannot

suddenly abandon this dualism and take on a non-dual perspective, but I shall argue that we

can take a non-dualist approach, taking non-duality as the ultimate assumption and applying it

in a relative context, by adopting a Middle Way between eternalism and nihilism. This

involves taking the incremental approach which I have already suggested is required in dealing

with the question of objectivity. Since I shall identify non-duality with the absolute and

incremental objectivity with the Middle Way, I shall be arguing that some dispositions can be

provisionally regarded as more conducive to the non-dual than others even when they are all

dual in an ultimate sense, and that this provides the grounds for an objectivity of ethics that can

be practically applied. This theoretical application of non-dualism to human psychology will

form the focus of chapter five and to philosophical questions of chapter six.

This account of non-dualism and its application will thus provide the grounds for an account of

ethical objectivity which will gradually emerge simultaneously with it. However, to complete

the argument that the habitual Western understanding of the nature of objectivity in ethics

needs to be replaced by a non-dualist conception, I need to address the Western tradition of

normativity and show that existing theories of normativity imply an ultimate non-dualism, as I

shall do in chapter seven. Finally, chapter eight will attempt to show how this view of the

grounds of ethical objectivity can be applied to issues of the application of ethics and thence to

particular issues of practical ethics.

ii) The relation of theory and practice

I have already explained in relation to the chief terms of the overall title that my purpose in

writing this book is pragmatic. In accordance with the view I have put forward that ethical

theory and ethical practice are interdependent, I would like the book itself, despite its

theoretical nature, to be correspondent with practice as far as possible. This will mean that it

has been arrived at as a result of practice as well as theoretical thought, even if the

justifications it offers for its conclusions are theoretical and thus limited in their force by their


In one sense I shall be advocating a relationship between ethical theory and ethical practice

rather like that between scientific theory and scientific practice. Just as a scientific theory is

produced with the purpose of stimulating experiment and/or observation which will support it,

so an ethical theory should have the overall purpose of stimulating practice which will provide

experience which supports the ethical theory. I do not believe that any ethical theory can have

much more than a speculative and abstract function without some such heuristic element

through which it justifies its own assumptions. Included in any successful ethical theory, then,

must be criteria derived from that theory as to what sort of experiences should be expected as a

result of the implementation of the theory in order to support it. I shall be arguing that the

difficulty in obtaining absolutely confirmatory or falsificatory experiences for ethical theory

reflects a similar difficulty in science, but that this does not give us any grounds for

abandoning incremental objectivity: there are no better grounds for relativism in ethics than

there are in science.

Fundamentally I shall try to present a choice between a vicious and a virtuous circle. The

vicious circle common in ethical discourse depends on a constant oscillation between

supposedly grounded but value-free descriptivism and groundless prescriptivism, starting with

the assumption that values are judged to have no objective grounds in contrast to facts, which

do3. The resulting confusion about the justification of human action leads constantly either to

over-asserted groundless ethics or back to the attempt to find grounded ethics through purely

descriptive means, which fails and leads to more confusion and reinforcement of the status of

facts as the only refuge. I shall argue that most widely-recognised ethical theories in the

history of Western philosophy lead to some version of this vicious circle. In this kind of

scenario, the absence of coherent beliefs about ethics makes systematic ethical practice

impossible, and confirmatory experience unlikely.

The virtuous circle, by contrast, takes both facts and values to be ultimately ungrounded, but

worthy of provisional belief in proportion to the possibilities for their provisional confirmation.

With the right balance of faith and doubt, increasingly correct theories of value become the

basis of increasingly correct practices, and these practices provide experiences which support

the theories in preparation for the next stage of refinement.

I thus see it as an important function of this book to offer an ethical method which will provide

the basis for a heuristic process. In offering this method I am particularly directly indebted to

the Buddhist tradition, and shall do little more than restate the core elements of Buddhist

spiritual method in a form appropriate to the context: this will particularly be the concern of

chapter five.

In a teleological sense, however, the relationship between ethical theory and ethical practice

differs fundamentally from that between scientific theory and scientific practice. This is

because the purpose of a scientific theory and the ensuing practice is purely heuristic, having

knowledge as its goal, whilst ethical theory and ethical practice, encompassing and

subordinating all other ends including that of knowledge, also ultimately provides an end in

itself. The function of ethical practice is thus not only to attempt to justify the theory which

underlies that practice, but to achieve the goodness which the theory appeals to. The heuristic

process, then, is continuous with the practice of moral goodness and can only be justified in its


The justification of ethical theory also differs from that of scientific theory in that the former

only occurs at an individual level whilst the latter occurs mainly at a cultural level. Whilst

scientific endeavour attempts to produce uncontested propositional knowledge about the

universe which then becomes public property, it is only at the theoretical level that ethics can

be similarly public, cultural and propositional. Ethical theory must not only be believed by the

individual at an intellectual level, but must provide methods of transforming the emotions so

that the full force of the will can be enlisted for ethical practice. Since ethical practice is

needed to provide experience which supports ethical theory, it becomes apparent that it is only

at an individual level that the justification of ethics becomes possible. To fully justify the

objectivity of ethics is to be good.

It is this individual transformation of the emotions which provides the basis of the therapeutic

metaphor for ethics found to some extent in Buddhism4, and more fully in Hellenistic ethics5.

As I shall be arguing, however, this therapeutic metaphor, whilst very useful in some respects,

has its limitations and cannot be stretched too far in case goodness becomes reduced to health.

My view of good, then, will be non-reductionist: good will not be accounted for solely in terms

of any other natural quality. The close relationship of ethical theory to practice here, then, does

not entail any reduction to practice. Rational coherence is put forward as necessary, but not

sufficient, for a proper understanding of the grounds of objective ethics.

iii) Absolute value and the judgements of conventional logic

One of the largest problems which arises in the ethical application of non-dualism lies in the

difference in logical assumptions between the absolute realm of non-duality and the

conventional realm of the dual. The conventional realm of the dual is coterminous with the

world of language, with the extent of what we can describe distinctly, since every proposition

makes a distinction between the state of affairs it describes and its absence. The observance of

the principle of non-contradiction in the conventional realm and its absence in the absolute

realm apparently makes it impossible to reach any determinate conclusions based on non-dual

premises. Since the practical application of ethics depends on judgements utilising the

principle of non-contradiction, non-duality and ethics may appear to simply be mutually

exclusive realms.

However, I shall argue that this problem has resulted only from a failure to come to terms with

indeterminacy. Determinate judgements of any kind require the principle of non-contradiction,

but this fact does not entail any imperative to apply this principle inappropriately to

indeterminate objects. I shall argue that the grounds on which we apply the principle of noncontradiction

are pragmatic, and this same pragmatic motivation, consistently applied, should

lead us to separate conventional from absolute levels of judgement in the sphere of ethics.

When we speak of the absolute, it should be only with self-conscious inaccuracy. When we

speak of the conventional in the light of the absolute (the sphere of objectivity), however,

although we must apply the law of non-contradiction in order to be able to make determinate

judgements, the way in which we apply the law of non-contradiction should be modified.

This modification consists in the practice of a certain restraint in our application of judgement.

As we develop greater objectivity we become more aware of the variety of ways in which our

judgements may be questionable: there may be ambiguities in the objects we are judging; we

may be able to account for a greater complexity of conditions relating to the objects of our

judgement before reaching a determinate view of them; we may be able to observe details of

which we were hitherto ignorant; or we may be able to apply an incremental model to a matter

which we had previously viewed in terms of crude dichotomies. We cannot endlessly defer

judgement, and some practical situations demand that we judge quickly, but at the same time

we can use the opportunities we have, in any given concrete situation, to subtilise our

understanding of conditions by maximising the suspension of judgement. In doing this we are

making use of the principle of non-contradiction, but in a way which also takes the fullest

possible account of indeterminacy.

At the same time I shall argue that a provisional conception of the absolute is needed as a

regulative idea to aid us in this process of objective development. This conception consists

only in an openness to the possibility of limitation in our current relative conceptions, not in

any fixed positive belief about the metaphysical status of the absolute. A state in which we

have achieved this absolute may be envisaged as one in which limiting judgements are

suspended to the extent that the maximum of possible relevant conditions relating to the

objects about which one is judging are taken into account, not one in which we leap to a

naively imagined absolute state beyond all interfering conditions. Such a state of mind could

then be seen as the perfect moral state (in the sense of the highest moral state which human

beings could reach) from which maximally good actions would ensue. Drawing on the

Buddhist tradition, I shall refer to such a state as enlightenment (without depending on any

assumptions about its historical occurrence or possibility)6.

If, however, the absolute is conceived too determinately, on the basis of dualistic judgement

rather than a non-dualistic suspension of judgement, I shall call it a premature conception of

the absolute. Such a premature conception, acting as a foundational basis of moral judgement,

only produces further premature judgements in ethical practice where the true complexity of

conditions is obscured. I shall argue that both trends in dualistic ethical theory – eternalist and

nihilist – exhibit premature conceptions of the absolute of this type which are either positive

(in the case of eternalism) or consist in a premature dismissal of the absolute as a regulative

ideal (in the case of nihilism).

iv) The use of psychological premises

The model of dispositional objectivity I want to put forward itself requires a break with the

tradition in Western philosophy of arguing in a purely propositional fashion from propositions

taken as premises to propositions taken as conclusions. The propositional conclusions I shall

reach are ones for which I claim only a provisional usefulness, which is itself likely to be

limited by the extent of my own objectivity. Arguments have a usefulness, not just in reaching

conclusions, but in helping to create beliefs which are conducive to the development in

objectivity of those adopting them. In turn this objectivity is expressed through increasingly

better arguments. My argument, then, combines psychological with philosophical claims

interdependently in a relationship of mutual causality7, in this way providing a systematic

explanation of the nature of virtue.

Primarily, I shall argue that it is only a mental state at a given time which is capable of

objectivity of a given level, thus avoiding the possible essentialism of any idea of virtue which

is seen as present even when inoperative (because the person holding the virtue is not at their

best). When that mental state becomes entrenched and recurrent, however, one may speak of a

level of dispositional objectivity in a person without thereby assuming that that level of

objectivity is always present. However high the level of objectivity of mental state, however,

the mere utterances of the person experiencing it will not themselves attain objectivity either in

themselves or in their communicative function, at best being instrumental to it. In themselves

they have no significance except in contact with human minds, and even when they are used to

communicate to another, the objectivity of the mental state of the listener depends on many

other conditions besides the hearing of the utterance.

So when it comes to the assessment of propositions (like the ones of which this book is mainly

composed), it is only on the basis of a derivative type of objectivity that they can be assessed :

namely their usefulness in tending to help create objectivity in mental states. This usefulness

depends not only on the words used but many other conditions, including the appropriateness

of the context for their utterance, the meta-linguistic communication which accompanies the

utterance, and the receptivity of the listeners. In written language contextual considerations are

not quite so important, but nevertheless still feature heavily. Yet there are often grounds for

claiming that in most imaginable circumstances a given decontextualised utterance would be

generally helpful or unhelpful, and one of the conditions for this helpfulness is often its

“truth”, in the sense of its clear relationship to universally accessible experience. It is only in

this secondary and derivative sense that I shall give any credence to the notion of propositional


The premises of the notion of objectivity expressed here, then, are “psychological” in the sense

that objectivity is understood primarily as a feature of the minds of persons. This

psychologically-understood objectivity is the source of moral progress, and the criterion to be

used to determine whether progress has occurred is the occurrence of the same

psychologically-understood objectivity. But I am not simply appealing to a closed

psychological experience, rather to a tendency of mental state which can be conventionally

inferred from another person’s behaviour as well as directly understood in one’s own mind

(neither first- nor third-person perspectives can be solely relied upon). The difficulty in gaining

knowledge of the degree of objectivity in the psychological states of others is one aspect of the

more general problem of gaining representationally true knowledge, and my contention in

both cases will be that a balanced heuristic approach without premature judgement will be

most productive.

v) Timeless truth in historical contexts

From the assertion that the objectivity of propositional utterances depends on their usefulness

and that this usefulness is partially dependent on the context of the utterance, a respect for

contextuality follows as important when considering the value of historical theories of ethics.

However, I want to make a sharp distinction between respect for contextuality and a contextual

relativism which assumes that there is no translatability of values between contexts. For me a

respect for contextuality is a method for discovering an objectivity, not a relativity, of values.

We often learn much more about the effectiveness of a particular belief in promoting

objectivity through examining the way in which that belief was communicated, or the actions

which were taken in accordance with that belief, than by examining the decontextualised

words in which that belief was expressed. Through examining which ethical beliefs historically

have been more coherent in the way they were contextually communicated and effective in

producing a consistent application of the good they sought (because of the breadth of

conditions they took into account), one can infer much about the objectivity of the mental

states of those that held those beliefs relative to other mental states.

It is this approach which will form the basis for my treatment of eternalistic and nihilistic

ethical teachings in chapters three and four, where contextual information will be frequently

used to supplement philosophical theory. Due to limitations of space and time, I can only be

very selective in my use of contextual information in dealing with these teachings. The broad

nature of my survey also means that I shall be very reliant on secondary sources. Should I be

wrong in my historical interpretation of some of the teachings I am dealing with due to lack of

understanding of the context, this will obviously be regrettable, but of little consequence to the

rest of my arguments, since my survey of eternalistic and nihilistic philosophies has an

illustrative rather than a constructive function in the argument. I shall claim, for example, that

both Christianity and Marxism are ethically ineffective because of the eternalistic nature of

their approach. However, the labels “Christianity” and “Marxism” obviously cover many

variations of approach in a variety of contexts, and the application of those overall labels to the

mental states of those who propound and follow those teachings can only be very approximate.

Since the way I am approaching ethical objectivity is prescriptive rather than merely

descriptive, if Christianity and Marxism should turn out (perhaps in practice in some unusual

contexts) to fit more closely to my understanding of ethical objectivity than I expected, then

this will be something to celebrate.

It has also not escaped my attention that this same approach could be applied to the tradition of

Buddhism, with many of its beliefs, taken and interpreted in context, discovered to be either

eternalistic or nihilistic according to the “Buddhist” approach I shall be using. It is for this very

reason that I am not claiming to represent the Buddhist tradition here8. This is not the place to

undertake such a survey of the Buddhist tradition (though some core elements of such a

possible survey appear in the appendix), but I would want to reiterate here the irrelevance of its

results, should it ever occur, to the arguments in this book. Since it is part of my argument to

claim that no propositional belief, contextualised or not, can fully reflect objectivity, it follows

that any given historical teaching will at best only partially and distortedly reflect even the

degree of objectivity its teachers have achieved. What we should be looking for in any moral

tradition, as I shall argue, is not only an intellectual adherence to the Middle Way but a clarity

in its application and a subtlety and flexibility in habitual practice which will enable gross

movements towards eternalism or nihilism to be corrected: I would be among the first to agree

that the Buddhist tradition has not always achieved this.

I am thus not arguing from historical evidence to an ahistorical conclusion. Rather I am

offering a variety of connected arguments, some historically dependent and some ahistorical,

which themselves only suffice to provide grounds for undertaking practical experience rather

than theoretical proof. The substantive role of the historical evidence in this process consists in

showing the contrasts between different levels of objectivity as secondarily exhibited in

people’s beliefs and actions: if my examples succeed in offering convincing evidence that such

a contrast exists, regardless of their accuracy in particular cases, they will have fulfilled their

primary function. The precise role played by historical evidence must be seen in the light of

my account of the heuristic process, where the whole relationship between inductive evidence

and deductive reasoning will be explored.

The use of historical evidence must also not be mistaken to be an attempt to offer linear causal

explanation when the framework of causality assumed is mutual. Psychological processes, I

shall argue, do not exist independently of philosophical tendencies so as to cause them, at least

in a linear sense which assumes two independent events which stand in a causal relationship

over time, nor vice-versa. Rather philosophical and psychological tendencies are

interdependent to the extent that no convincing explanation of either can be offered which

wholly neglects the other. In this respect the theory I shall be offering here may be regarded as

a type of system theory which examines the interrelationship between philosophical and

psychological systems as they occur in a wide variety of historical contexts. As with systems

theory, the theorised relationships can be traced on a variety of scales, here from individual

psychology to large scale socio-historical processes. But the key difference between my

approach and that of systems theory is that the purpose of the theory is not ultimately one of

representational description, but rather one of pragmatic prescription. This will lead my

approach to be rather radically different from that of contemporary systems theorists.

vi) The Middle Way and its antecedents

The final part of the preliminary scaffolding I need to erect is that of a general model of the

Middle Way, eternalism and nihilism. I have hitherto refrained from defining any of these

three terms, not because I do not think that they are at least provisionally definable, but

because a substantial explanation is required even at an introductory stage. It will be helpful to

introduce eternalism and nihilism in the context in which they were first identified, that of the

Buddha. The phenomena themselves existed long before the Buddha’s analysis, but after him,

especially in the West, they have taken diverse forms in response to new environments.

Eternalism, nihilism and the Middle Way can each be approached first as a continuum of

beliefs, each exemplifying a different kind of response to a human existential dilemma. Since

the Middle Way, however, is a far more subtle response depending on a reflective

understanding of eternalism and nihilism, it is this opposed pair which need to be explored


The existential dilemma to which eternalism and nihilism are responses is well illustrated in

the traditional account of the life of the Buddha.9 The first part of the Buddha’s life is said to

have been that of a prince living in a secluded palace, protected from all signs of suffering and

with all his desires fulfilled. At this stage, even after his physical maturity, the Buddha’s life is

infantile: he implicitly believes that all desires can be satisfied. The Buddha is then suddenly

confronted with the facts of age, disease and death, which throws him into turmoil, but also

with the possibility of renouncing worldly attachments according to the Indian sramaa

tradition, which gives him an alternative. The Buddha then “goes forth” as a mendicant

religious wanderer, seeking enlightenment. For some time, however, he pursues paths which

ultimately prove unproductive of enlightenment, culminating in extreme asceticism including

fasting. This path proves to be unhelpful because it is based on the idea that by punishing

oneself in this life one can accrue merit for future lives. Eventually the Buddha realises that

this path of self-abnegation is unproductive, breaks his fast and begins to pursue

enlightenment, successfully this time, on the basis of bodily health, by transforming his

habitual mental states. When he achieves enlightenment he gets beyond attachment to his

desires either for this life or a future life, realising that he is not a fixed entity at all and has no

grounds for any such attachment.

The Buddha’s early life in the palace is illustrative of nihilism. Wrapped up in the fulfilment of

his desires, it can be assumed that the Buddha did not have any beliefs which provided any

objective challenge to his current habits. Perhaps he was involved in the conventional

ceremonies of his society, and he may have had beliefs which served to defend his way of life,

but the function of these was purely to rationalise his position. Although traditionally he is

depicted as not having experienced any kind of suffering at all, this can be taken as symbolic

of the fact that if he did, he did not take this suffering seriously or acknowledge any

responsibility to respond to the fact of its existence.

On “going forth”, however, he adopted an eternalist framework. Now he had strong beliefs

about an absolute standard of morality to which he was subject. Effort was required to

overcome natural desires in accordance with these beliefs, and this effort would be repaid by

future happiness, of which he could be assured by the justice innate in the universe. This

framework of belief, however, did not prove adequate because it merely perpetuated narrow

identification with his desires: now it was merely alienated into the future instead of indulged

in the present. He had not really faced the existential problem posed by our identification with

our own suffering, merely tried to avoid suffering by taking out a cosmic insurance policy.

Eternalism and nihilism thus stand united in their dualism, in which the self is presumed to

exist in contradistinction to objects. “Eternalism” is thus named because it assumes that that

self continues to exist eternally, and “nihilism” because, in denying this idea, it denies any

objectivity in ethics. But these must not be taken definitively as metaphysical positions about

survival of the personality after death: if we do that the Middle Way between them becomes

simply an intermediate (not to say confusing) metaphysical position. The metaphysical

positions here should be taken as instrumental to the underlying moral tendencies, either to

identify only with the future (eternalism) or to identify only with present experience (nihilism).

Crucial to the eternalist tendency is the belief in a guarantee of some kind which makes that

desirable future experience inevitable provided that the individual fulfils its criteria. This

guarantee may come from God, the innate system of justice in the universe, the inevitable

course of history, or even just the improvement of human society. The nihilist, on the other

hand, does not believe in any such guarantee, and in the absence of such a belief constructs

rationalisations for not making the moral effort demanded by the eternalist: these often include

anti-metaphysical claims, appeals to empirical evidence (such as that of science), materialism

and individualism. On these two moral tendencies massive philosophical and religious systems

have been constructed.

It must be stressed that eternalism and nihilism, both being dualistic ways of avoiding

objectivity, consist, like objectivity itself, ultimately in states of mind. These states of mind,

however, manifest themselves relatively in the form of beliefs and practices. The arguments I

shall offer about each chiefly concern the incoherence of the belief systems of eternalism and

nihilism respectively as strategies for the creation of goodness, even as these systems

themselves define it. This incoherence will point towards, but of course not prove, an

incoherence in the minds of those who adhere to these beliefs. This more basic psychological

incoherence is what I shall begin with some account of in chapter two. I shall claim that it is

created by a lack of balance in the process through which beliefs are formulated.

The criticisms I shall offer of eternalism and nihilism are for the most part nothing new: the

criticisms of eternalism have been made by nihilists for centuries, and the corresponding

criticisms of nihilists draw on points made by eternalists for centuries. The reason why these

criticisms have not previously had much effect may not be due merely to human pigheadedness,

since there is a degree of coherence in not responding to criticisms of one’s

position if the opponent has nothing more positive to offer. I hope that my ensuing account of

the Middle Way will show that these criticisms can be seen in a much more positive light as

propaedeutic to real progress.



1 See ch.10

Nagel (1986) p.4

See Putnam (1993) for an account of how this dichotomy has persisted in modern ethics despite the widespread discrediting of positivism.

Here the Four Noble Truths can be seen in terms of diagnosis, cause of illness, cure and prescription, with the Buddha as doctor. See Vessantara (1993) p.315-6

See especially Nussbaum (1994)

See 5.f.iii

For more on mutual causality, see 10.iii 

See 1.a..i

The locus classicus of this account is the Buddhacarita of Asvaghosha (Asvaghosha 1972). A useful abridged translation of this lengthy work is found in Conze (1959).


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A Buddhist Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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