The Middle Way can provide practical solutions to moral and political problems

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There are no perfect instructions as to how we should act, because we could never be sure that we had correctly interpreted such instructions even if we had them. Neither an appeal to God, nor an appeal to reason, nor an appeal to "natural" facts, gives us a reliable source for moral instructions. We are dependent on our own objectivity, but this objectivity can nevertheless provide justification for moral actions over immoral ones.

In Western normative ethics there are three major types of moral theory. Each of these points to a different kind of objectivity:

Each of these approaches can lead us to face up to things we have not faced up to before.

The application of the Middle Way here involves avoiding a metaphysical commitment to the rightness of one of these three theories, which would lead to following that theory narrowly over the others. Instead, we need to appreciate that all three theories can offer insights into different ways in which we can develop moral objectivity within our experience. Moral practice requires us to focus on whichever challenge is most relevant to our current experience.

At first sight the Middle Way may seem more closely allied to virtue ethics than to the other two theories. What most virtue ethics lacks, however, is an explanation of virtue which does not simply appeal to what is conventionally accepted in a particular society, or to some metaphysical absolute. A link needs to be made between the concept of virtue and adequacy to conditions, so that a more objective person is one who is more habitually able to overcome limiting illusions when they make judgements. Clearly, however, decision-making criteria are also needed, and the assumption that a good person will intuitively come up with the right decision may work against objectivity.

Such decision-making criteria are useful, but they need to be provisional, and based on an awareness of the Middle Way. We might adopt provisional criteria which involve acting consistently in a certain way, bearing in mind a certain kind of consequence, cultivating a certain quality in ourselves, following the example of a trusted figure, or focusing on a particular social or political change which could bring more objectivity to society. Moral rules have their place and they can be tools for objectivity, but they are much more effective when adopted voluntarily and provisionally, in awareness of their limitations, by those who follow them.

Political problems can be resolved in a very similar way. There are strong practical justifications for government which are nevertheless provisional ones. One of the main functions of government is to be able to coerce those who threaten society, whether from within or from without, in order to maintain peace and order. No government should be given unqualified authority to use coercion as they wish, but governments should be given support by the citizens so long as they address conditions. The degree of integration of the government determines how much it is able to address conditions, or how much it is subject to dogmatic illusions which prevent it from doing so. So it is more integrated governments that deserve more of our support, and it is governments that are clearly living in some form of fantasy of their own devising (Robert Mugabe's government in Zimbabwe is a good recent example) that we may well be justified in removing, by force if necessary.

Links to further discussion

A New Buddhist Ethics (book discussing a wide range of practical ethics issues from a "Buddhist" - i.e. Middle Way - point of view)

The Ethics of the Middle Way from thesis

Objection #5. The Middle Way applied to practical ethics provides excuses for not doing what we really ought to do.

Objection #10. When you apply the Middle Way to practical ethics, the results just seem to be your opinion.

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8 Central claims of Middle Way philosophy







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objections and responses copyright Robert Ellis