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 A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Chapter 8 - The ethics of the Middle Way)

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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This page contains the whole of Chapter 8. Alternatively click on the links below for specific sections:

8a. Moral Authority (how deontological sources of moral information can be used in a provisional way)

8b. Issues in the application of precepts (discussion of the practical problems involved in using provisional moral rules)

8c. Political authority (how the Middle Way as ethics can be applied to political judgements)


8.     The Ethics of the Middle Way


If you find a wise man who points out faults and shows what is to be avoided, you should follow him as you would a guide to hidden treasure. It is always better, and never worse, to follow such a man.           Dhammapada (76)[1]



One major issue now remains in presenting non-dualism as an alternative to dualism: that of its practical application in relation to the content of moral judgement. In 5.e. I suggested practical ways of developing the quality of moral judgement, but I can still conceivably arrive at a particular point of psychological integration, confident that my judgement will be justified to a given extent by that integration, yet still unsure as to what that judgement should actually be in order to be thus justified. The grounds of specific judgement, in fact, cannot be completely distinguished from the grounds of confidence in my judgement, so that unless I have some specific prescriptive guidance my confidence may turn out to be formalistic and dogmatic. The question thus remains of how non-dualism can offer better specific guidance in the sphere of conscious moral decisions than the dualist alternatives I criticised in part 1. An answer to this requires an argument, such as I will offer in this chapter, that the normativity of non-dualism can be used as a basis of justification, not merely for the quality of the judgement itself, but for the specific content of moral judgements.


The specificity of moral judgement I shall be discussing here is something which must be imported deliberately by making it part of the requirements sought in a moral theory and in its justification. In a situation where I have some quite specific and relatively well-justified knowledge and some much vaguer and less well-justified knowledge, I give priority to gaining specific grounds of moral judgement in relation to the vaguer and less well-justified areas of the conditions I experience, by deliberately seeking such specific grounds in preference to knowledge of all the less-known areas. I thus proceed by taking account of my ignorance in relation to moral judgement as much as my specific knowledge, in pursuit of an adequate basis of judgement.


In this chapter I shall be applying this approach both at the levels of individual and of political moral judgements  The first two sections here will be concerned with individual moral judgements, the third with judgements made in relation to political authority either by governments or by individuals.


a)      Moral authority


i)                    Ignorance and the need for moral authority


Confidence, as I suggested in 5.d.iii, consists not merely in a dogmatic certainty which attends belief in a theory, but a recognition of the degree of ignorance that one has in relation to it. Whilst ones positive confidence in a theory is sufficient to make it the basis of effective action, then, it is ones recognition of ignorance which enables subsequent modification of the theory. The basis of a judgement which is maximally adequate to the conditions of ones context, then, is one of balance between positive confidence in a theory and recognition of ignorance about the conditions. The more that balance has been achieved, the more justified one’s moral judgements.


The specific content of one’s positive moral judgements, then, may come from a confidently-held theory which specifies the priorities of value in a specific case. But part of the condition for the theory being held confidently is the recognition that this priority of values may not be correct. If we have no other source of positive guidance we can do no better than following the theory which we believe to be correct to the extent that the practical situation demands. Yet often other sources of guidance are available, which a proper recognition of ignorance may lead us to acknowledge may offer superior judgement in estimating the best values to apply to a particular set of conditions: such sources of guidance consist in persons whom I shall describe as possessing moral authority.


As I have argued that there is no justification for applying a metaphysical dualism between moral objectivity and other forms of objectivity, likewise there is no justification for metaphysical division between moral and other forms of authority. Authority in any case offers a guide to action (and is thus “moral”), but does not exercise power to coerce particular actions[2]. The distinction between the type of authority offered by, say, a weather-forecaster, and that offered by a friend who is more integrated than I am, is entirely to do with the specificity of conditions in relation to which advice is offered. On the basis of the weather-forecaster’s authority I may change my plan to climb a mountain at a certain time, because I know that he has specific knowledge and understanding of the type of conditions I am chiefly interested in when making my decision. A broader type of authority may be offered, though, by a person who is more psychologically integrated than I am. Such a person may lack specific knowledge of specific conditions which I may possess myself, but she will be more advanced both in recognising her own degree of knowledge or ignorance of conditions and in estimating that knowledge or ignorance in others. Such an authority will be able to offer advice[3] on the objectivity of judgements I make on the basis of understanding of my degree of psychological integration.


My justification for accepting or rejecting such authority (by accepting or rejecting its advice) will depend, like the acceptance or rejection of a theory (which may be a theory offered by the authority), on a judgement, the adequacy of which depends on my degree of integration. At lower levels of integration I am more likely to understand such authority dogmatically, accepting or rejecting it on the egoistic basis of my identifications rather than through balanced judgement. I may follow authority, for example, through a sense of duty which leads me to override resistant areas of my psyche, or through a sense of fear at disobedience. At higher levels, though, I am more likely to accept such authority provisionally because I am aware that it can provide illumination in areas where I am ignorant, whether these are specific areas of conditions or the general estimation of my psychological integration itself. At these higher levels a genuine confidence in authority can begin to develop to replace a dogmatic faith.


At a lower level of integration, then, we are more likely to choose the wrong authorities just as we are more likely to believe in the wrong theories. The choice can be inadequate either because the authority selected does not actually possess superior understanding of conditions in the relevant area, or because we nevertheless project power onto that authority and relate to it in terms of a dualism which prevents the advice of that authority from supporting maximally objective judgement. An adequate choice of authorities, then, depends on reason casting ahead of our general level of integration, making a judgement both that an authority represents some aspect of superior objectivity for us and that we are capable of following the authority in a balanced way. If we are able to cast ahead in this manner, the authority selected becomes a source of moral objectivity, and thus the selection of the authority and the following of it, within the bounds of the commitment implied by the judgement, becomes a matter of moral normativity. We should follow moral authorities insofar as doing so enables us to be more morally objective.


The acceptance of moral authority is thus not an unconditional matter, nor is the moral authority itself the ultimate source of moral normativity: but neither of these considerations need diminish the importance of moral authority. We should accept a moral authority only on the grounds that it appears to be have moral objectivity on the basis of our experience. If a moral authority recommends a particular action to us, but our best attempt at a balanced judgement indicates that the authority is wrong because it is not taking into account some important condition, we are under no a priori moral obligation to obey that authority, because the direction of moral objectivity appears to lie elsewhere. To reject a moral authority’s advice requires careful consideration, however, in order to be as sure as possible that we really do understand the conditions involved. If we can account for our own understanding and the authority’s ignorance, and have a clear alternative theory which provides a basis of judgement[4], then these are provisional indications of correctness of judgement in ignoring that authority and referring instead to ones own judgement. In effect, then, one sets oneself up as a higher authority on the matter under consideration. Either obedience or rejection without grounds for doing so which can be related to experience is probably unjustified.


Nevertheless moral authority often has a crucial role in enabling us to make moral judgements on the basis of clear and positive grounds. If my own degree of integration is little developed, my own judgement may offer clarity in some restricted areas, but it will have little appreciation of conditions. Without our own appreciation of conditions (our own expertise) to fall back on, we will almost inevitably make judgements which are rationalisations of particular desires or conventions. Authority which has been identified as offering a more integrated standpoint is likely to offer better moral justification than these.


Moral authority, then, does not provide the ultimate justification for morality (which lies, as I have argued, in non-dualism alone), but it does provide an important method for making non-dualistic ethics fully effective by enabling it to be applied to specific judgements where my own ability to assess conditions and judge directly is limited. Since the philosophical context in which the use of moral authority is justified by non-dualism is an entirely pragmatic one, moral authority should be understood purely as a tool by which one’s own judgement is indirectly extended and one’s grip upon those conditions and force of response to them is intensified, just as a spanner or a wrench intensifies ones grip on an object such as a bolt and increases the force with which we can manipulate it.


Such a use of authority should be clearly distinguished from the eternalist appeal to authority to support dogmatism and its correlative alienation. The basis of such a distinction is a spectrum of relationships between (dualistic) power and (non-dualistic) authority, and each use of authority will involve elements of power, but nevertheless in any given case we can distinguish between uses of authority which involve relatively  more recourse to power and those that involve relatively less. We thus cannot wholly avoid the deceptions or self-deceptions involved in power-relationships, in which we may believe, for example, that we have freely accepted the authority of a person who is in fact manipulating us: but we can work to reduce such deception by cultivating objectivity of judgement through integration. A non-dualist basis of judgement can only reduce the probability of such deception relative to a dualist one, because it seeks to avoid the merely dogmatic acceptance or rejection of authorities.


The recourse to moral authority beyond oneself is also not a necessary condition for specificity of judgement. It is theoretically possible for an individual to make very specific judgements based only on her developing integration as an individual, moving gradually to increasingly adequate judgements on the basis of theories she has herself developed and tested. However, this theoretical possibility ignores the complexity of our social relationships as situated human beings. In practice we are surrounded by relationships of power and influence from early infancy, and the process of integration must thus involve the gradual transformation of such power relationships into relationships of moral authority rather than their denial. The mere denial of the power of others over our judgements is likely to lead only to counter-dependency, and the replacement of the specific guidance we had as children through relationships of power with an attempt at premature independence of judgement will only deprive us of that specificity, leading to the abstract confusion of nihilism, in which immediate desires or conventions become the only specific guide to action.


Within this framework of understanding of the nature of moral authority, then, a further account is required of how moral authority can offer specific guidance in moral judgement. I shall offer such an account by distinguishing three levels of moral authority, which I shall refer to as individual, specific and universal. An account of each of these levels and their operation will also involve some consideration of the field that in Western moral discourse has been called “conscience” and of the role of precepts in specific moral practice.


ii)                  Authority from past integration


The first level of moral authority is at the level that we represent as occurring internal to the individual psyche. In practice all forms of moral authority occur within the psyche, and the transition from power to authority is one that occurs through integration: the distinction between levels, then, is a projected one which gradually disappears with the development of non-dualism. Nevertheless, the variation of initial projected levels of authority needs to be recognised and engaged with, as I shall argue, in order to gain specificity in moral judgements.


The authority projected as within the individual psyche, then, consists in temporary integrations with which I subsequently identify. I experience temporary integrations as moments of insight[5], whether “intuitive” or “rational”. As I have suggested, such temporary integrations may occur solely at the level of desire or meaning, and thus have no objective significance: but they may consist in integrations of belief which do mark objective progress, even if they are not subsequently maintained. In most cases, we slip back from past integrations of belief, even if we do not slip back quite so far as we were prior to that integration: the temporary objective integration then provides a high-water mark in the form of a memory. Sometimes this memory provides an authority according to which we try to live our lives subsequently[6].


The “authority” of such a memory depends very much on how much clarity of belief it offers. If not only the fact of an integrative event, but its particular implications for future judgements can be recalled, the temporary state of integrated belief is to some measure being maintained rather than being allowed to slip away. Or even if the beliefs which originally sustained them have vanished, adherence to certain modes of behaviour which have been understood as desirable in that state of belief may help to create the conditions for it to re-arise. The past state is then being treated in a similar way to another person in the present who possesses greater integration, in that a secondary appreciation of the existence of that integration elsewhere is creating a moral normativity justified by integration, even in the absence of a primary experience of that integration.


The authority of past integration can be particularly maintained through the use of individual rules. Here a personal rule is formulated in a state of greater integration, which one then attempts to keep even in a state of reduced integration. Naturally such a rule will only be kept because of continued identification with it by the ego, but adherence to it may nevertheless help to overcome basic conditions which prevent integration. An obvious example of this might be of a person in a state of addiction: say a gambler. The gambler may be inspired to try to stop his addiction by a momentary integration in which he fully sees the damage his addiction is creating and the greater satisfaction he could gain by giving up. At that moment he forms a determination to give up. But immediately afterwards the compulsion returns. The gambler can only extricate himself from that immediate compulsion by the repressive use of the ego in identification with his earlier determination, to force himself not to gamble. Nevertheless this egoistic rule-following is justified only by a larger context of non-dualism:  he would not have been inspired to do it without a glimpse of integration, and is not likely to break the pattern of addiction in the longer-term unless he can re-invest the brief respite from compulsion provided by his forced renunciation in creating conditions for greater integration.


The authority of past integration may not always operate in terms of rules, but rather may offer a standard of comparison or an ideal to live up to. Just as another person who is more integrated may not always offer specific advice, but nevertheless exerts influence and communicates alternative standards of judgement purely through behaviour, the recollection of one’s own previous states of integration may itself change the standard of judgement in the present and allow more conditions to be taken into account. Such a recollection corresponds to the Buddhist concept of hiri[7], usually translated as “shame” or “conscience” but more specifically meaning a feeling of discomfort at having failed to live up to one’s own ideals in some specific way. Here the specificity of the guilt is important in differentiating it from irrational guilt, for despite the fact that the present judgement on one’s behaviour is not based on a specific rule derived from a previous state of integration, ones feeling about a specific action is then still subject to rational comparison. Lakatos’s criteria can be applied when enquiring whether the action about which I feel ashamed was really wrong according to the standard of an earlier higher integration (and thus whether a new theory as to the right action in the circumstances can be applied): can I account for how the error occurred, can I explain how it could have been done better in the circumstances, and can I see comparable circumstances where I might again test out the new theory to see whether it is in fact compatible with more integrated judgement? Hiri, then, is not a vague sense of wrong-doing such as is compatible with the irrational guilt which might be the result of transgressing the dogmatically-based conventions of a group, but a specific warning signal whereby a past integrated state continues to exert influence on present conditions, and which despite its intuitive nature is amenable to rational checks.


The adoption of rules and the feeling of hiri, then, offer two alternative ways in which past more integrated states may function so as to provide specific ethical guidance after those states have subsided. Perhaps such a method is preferable to reliance on others as a way of providing such specific ethical guidance, because it is relatively more direct. However, in many cases either such past integrated states have not occurred, or for whatever reasons they cannot be used in such a way: reliance on the authority of the more integrated states of others thus becomes the next recourse in order to provide more specificity of guidance than can be gained through ones own unaided judgement.


iii)                Spiritual friendship


The next level of authority, then, I refer to as the specific level because it involves recourse to the more integrated experience of others on a one-to-one level to obtain specific ethical advice. The value of such specific advice over more general advice which likewise comes from a more integrated perspective lies in the extent to which it takes into account the conditions affecting a specific individual. To take into account such specific conditions the advice clearly has to be offered in the context of a close relationship between the generally more and the generally less integrated person. Such relationships as an important aspect of moral development have been an important theme in the work of Sangharakshita, who has called them “spiritual friendship”: a translation of the traditional Buddhist term kalyana mitrata[8]. I have already written about friendship as a method of integration in 5.e.iv, and thus will confine myself here to considering spiritual friendship as a mode of moral authority.


For spiritual friendship to operate as a mode of authority, confidence in a more integrated person as a source of authority is required of a similar kind to the confidence that I have described as being required in a theory. Since a person is a much more complex object of confidence than a theory, considerable acquaintance with that person is needed to justify it. The development of confidence in a person may be seen in terms of a theory that the person concerned is a reliable guide, which then needs to be correlated with experience. The less experience one has of that person, the more likely it is that the theory may still be judged falsified by the irruption of some hitherto unknown aspect of that person’s character indicating an unexpected lack of integration. If a person is to be a reliable guide to me he also needs the opportunity to observe me and to judge my own degree of integration, as well as understanding the other conditions that affect me. Only a close friendship provides the conditions for both these sets of observations to occur.


In these conditions, with confidence operating, specificity of moral guidance may be gained in two sorts of ways, which parallel those mentioned in the last sub-section. Firstly, the more integrated spiritual friend may, directly or indirectly, offer specific advice which the less integrated friend may adopt in the form of a rule. In such cases it is obviously the acceptance of the rule on the part of the less integrated friend on the basis of confidence that is more important than the delivery, and the delivery of “advice” may take the quite subtle form of, say, a question or a exemplary piece of behaviour, which the less integrated friend then decides to adopt. The influence of the more integrated person is thus maintained even in their absence by means of a deliberate moral resolution about a specific form of behaviour which the less integrated person feels has been drawn to their attention. As in the previous sub-section, the use of a rule in this case is only justified by its context in non-dualism: particularly here in not being a manifestation of power on the part of the more integrated person, but of authority accepted by the less.


Alternatively, the more general and intuitive influence of the more integrated person (or perhaps of several such people) may operate, like hiri, as a form of conscience, prompting awareness of the undesirability of some specific action (whether contemplated or concluded) because of a feeling that the action would be disapproved of by the more integrated person. In the Buddhist tradition this form of conscience, complementary to hiri, is known as ottapa, best translated as “sensitivity to the opinion of spiritual friends”[9]. As with hiri, it is the specificity of ottappa which distinguishes it from irrational guilt of the kind that may be associated with the internalised voice of conventional authority. Having been alerted to a question of moral judgement by ottappa one can then also attempt a balanced judgement based on whatever source of information about the issue are available.


The methods of importing specific content to moral judgement from these first two types of moral authority, then, are similar, comprising the use of rules and a response to conscientious feelings. Each of these has limitations. If the wording of a rule itself becomes the basis of judgement, rather than the relatively integrated standard of judgement which gave rise to it, there arises a grave danger that the rule will be interpreted and applied with a narrowness and inflexibility which makes its representationalism no longer a tool of non-dualism, ultimately placed in a pragmatic context, but a metaphysical dualism. Likewise, even a specific conscientious feeling may be used dogmatically if it is not adequately checked in relation to more rational bases of judgement. Thus, although both methods, at both individual and specific levels of moral authority, may on some occasions enable a more objective judgement to be made than would have been made without them, there will also be occasions when they fail and merely become manifestations of dualism, reinforcing egoistic tendencies rather than extending them in relation to a particular judgement.


There remains, however, a third level of moral authority which can help to guard against these possible failings in the two more immediate forms: this being the general moral authority offered by moral traditions. Whilst there is a loss of specificity at this third level, there is also a gain in total authority (as I shall explain in the next sub-section). The promptings of past integration or the advice of more integrated individuals may not only be checked for reliability in the terms of ones own experience, but also checked for consistency with a tradition, which then provides a further standard of comparison.


iv)                Moral traditions


A moral tradition, to be a relatively objective source of moral authority for an individual, must consist of a relatively integrated group composed of (and particularly led by) relatively integrated individuals. The term “tradition” also suggests the diachronic aspect of  its objectivity, whereby current dominant beliefs in the group are also subject to constant comparison with beliefs held by moral authorities of the past who are held to be in the same tradition. Insofar as the group has attained moral objectivity as opposed to mere dogmatic traditionalism, it will use these traditional beliefs as a standard of comparison against which to check beliefs rather than as a sole basis of justification, but nevertheless the existence of such a standard of comparison offers a further prompt towards objectivity. Where a tradition is truly moral in a sense compatible with non-dualism, its past beliefs will offer a source of moral authority to its present members in a fashion parallel to the way that a past experience of integration or the advice of a spiritual friend offers a source of moral authority to the individual: i.e. by offering a source of specificity in judgements beyond what is available through the group’s current knowledge of conditions. Similarly both past and present beliefs of the tradition will offer an alternative source of specificity in judgement to the individual, as I shall explain.


The individual’s judgement as to the reliability of a tradition must proceed in a similar fashion to her judgement of individuals whom she believes may be more integrated than herself. The choice between traditions is not arbitrary, despite the absence of a neutral standpoint uninfluenced by tradition, but rather our ability to judge beyond the constraints imposed by convention depends upon our degree of integration. For if the whole of the basis of our judgement consisted only in contrary appeals to differing dogmatic premises, there would be no conceivable objectivity in a judgement between traditions, but if the basis of judgement is the provisional positing of theories, according to the implication of my arguments hitherto, we can make judgements between traditions according to the extent to which their teachings accord with our experience and promote further open investigation of that experience[10]. Many moral traditions thus appear to have the disadvantage at the outset of being based on explicitly dualistic premises which constantly interfere with the process of investigation, whilst those that appear to offer non-dualistic premises need to be considered for the consistency with which those premises are understood and practically applied. This is a process of evaluation of which I have already given many examples in Part 1.


The more integrated the individual the more objectively justifiable will be the judgement between traditions: but in the meantime, for those who are relatively unintegrated and for whom individual and specific levels of moral authority can also offer no further guidance in the selection of a tradition, reliance on a tradition accepted on the limited objectivity of judgement that one has available is the only option. For many, particularly those living in more traditional societies where one moral tradition dominates to the exclusion of all others, this will mean reliance on the dominant moral tradition, despite its probable failings, in the hope that this tradition will promote sufficient development of objectivity (and also relax its exercise of power over the individual sufficiently) for a more justifiable choice to be made in the future. Too many moral traditions will, unfortunately, completely betray this hope due to the strength of their dualism.


Nevertheless, however subjective the grounds of the choice, the choice between moral traditions cannot be avoided. The attempt to reject all moral traditions results only in the individualism and false neutrality I have already criticised in the nihilist tradition, which can itself be accounted a moral tradition of a dualistic type. Although, as I have argued, the absence of a tradition-neutral standpoint does not imply the absence of any objectivity of judgement between traditions, the positive possibility of such objectivity based on non-dualist arguments does not imply a tradition-neutral standpoint either, since it is based solely on dispositional objectivity. To acquire that dispositional objectivity an individual, far from requiring neutrality between traditions, will probably require the aid of a tradition. It is traditions which provide the starting-point of inquiry, which provide an aspect of our mental and physical situatedness in relation to which we can develop objectivity, and which, as I shall argue further, provide a basis for specificity of judgement where our own specificity of judgement gives out.


It is this requirement for a starting-point which helps to support the assertion that a choice needs to be made even by those who, simply because they have only ever had contact with one tradition, do not have any choice between traditions. That tradition can be actively used as a starting-point for investigation, and its advice can offer a basis for specificity of judgement, even where the dualism of the tradition means that the scope of conditions addressed is very limited. Such an active response distinguishes those in such societies who have developed a limited amount of objectivity from those who have merely followed convention without reflection, even when they are severely constrained by the dualistic limitations of that tradition.


Even at the most basic level, then, an appeal to moral tradition may provide a perspective of relative objectivity. An uneducated Muslim contemplating murder may still be influenced by the fact that his religion forbids such an action, and this prohibition, being based at least on a consideration of social needs, leads him to consider a wider set of conditions than those that currently obsess him regarding the person whose life he contemplates taking. This influence still gives him slightly more objectivity than those who, swept along by communal feeling, unreflectively kill those of another religion in a riot, despite the apparent similarity in motivation from a dualistic religion in each case. The dogmatism of that religious ambience merely imposes a condition which makes objectivity more difficult to attain, but it does not wholly deprive those who inhabit it of resources which could aid objectivity of judgement.


A more integrated non-dualist moral tradition, however, may still be judged even by those with a much higher degree of integration to offer genuine moral authority which can offer specificity in a much wider range of moral judgements. This specificity is not acquired, as at the specific level of moral authority, through knowledge of the specific conditions of the individual contemplating a particular moral decision, but rather through universality. Since the recommendations of a tradition must apply to all, the pooled resources of a tradition need to be exercised in producing the most adequate possible general description of adequate responses to conditions which apply universally, which, insofar as it is genuinely universal, becomes prescription. The more genuine consensus there is in that tradition, based on a high degree of integration in the most influential individuals, the more relatively adequate such prescriptions are likely to be.


At such a general level of prescription, strict rules, with their very limited and specific representational application, will no longer be appropriate. They must thus be replaced by precepts, which I distinguish from rules in the sense that they do not assume a representational adequacy within a restricted sphere, but rather offer general guidelines in a pragmatic context: a representationalism self-consciously enclosed by pragmatism. Conscientious feelings may also arise, and may be a method of gaining awareness of  moral shortcomings in relation to a tradition, but as these cannot be checked by a more rational method, through comparison with specific recommendations or examples or individual experiences, they are far less clearly distinguishable from irrational guilt. Conscientious feelings in relation to a whole tradition seem prone to exactly the drawbacks of appeals to intuition of holistic prescriptions found in the eternalist traditions, and thus generally not to offer a justifiable method for applying specific moral authority. At the general level of moral authority, then, rules and conscience must both be replaced by precepts. I shall be giving a more detailed case on the use of precepts in the next sub-section.


v)                  Moral precepts


A precept, as mentioned in the last sub-section, is understood here as a general moral prescription with universal application, but with a pragmatic basis of meaning. This pragmatism means that the relationship between the prescriptions for moral action represented by the precept and the supposed reality referred to is understood as a provisional one. The precept is universally normative only when the ambiguities of its expression and application and the secondary nature of its normativity is taken into account. Nevertheless these qualifications should strengthen rather than undermine the authority of a precept. Its authority is one built on a real adequacy to conditions and a realistic assessment of its own proper influence: not, as in dualistic prescriptions, merely on moral foundationalism or coherentism.


The moral authority of a precept, then, depends on the realisation that it is a tool for the imperfect transmission of a more integrated perspective to those less integrated. The imperfection of that transmission means that it must be interpreted with care, but that nevertheless it can offer a perspective of objectivity which either prompts reflection on a moral problem when it would not otherwise occur, or provides an immediate basis for relatively objective decision-making in situations where the practical context makes reflection impossible.


In the first kind of case, the precept has the same role as that of hiri or ottappa, in prompting me to reflect carefully on the justification of a particular action because it appears to be in conflict with a universal precept that I accept (even if I then decide to go ahead with the action after all). In the second kind of case, reflection may be impossible for a number of different reasons: perhaps I am too much in the grip of some intoxicated or addicted state, perhaps I do not have the mental or physical capacity to reflect, or perhaps the situation simply demands that I act very quickly. In any of these kinds of cases, the precept effectively becomes a rule because I will probably lose any sense of its provisionality, and for this reason there is a danger that my action may not be objectively justified, but the universality of the precept nevertheless offers a fairly high probability that it will be. In those circumstances, I am thus objectively justified in using the precept, since it offers the best available access to a more objective perspective.


Wherever conditions allow me to gain a more objective sense of the precept in its pragmatic context, however, to continue to interpret the precept as a rule would be a manifestation of dogmatism. It is in these circumstances, where a grasp of its provisionality is possible, that the use of a precept as a rule becomes eternalistic. The converse process of undermining the authority of a precept on the grounds of its provisionality is also nihilistic. All my previous arguments about the status of  provisional moral theories, then, apply equally to precepts, despite the fact that a precept has been produced by a tradition: the difference consists merely in the process by which the precept has come to be accepted, which is reliant on the individual’s provisional acceptance of the tradition which produced it.


The universality and the specificity of a precept may at first appear to be entirely incompatible, but I want to argue that through the process of a series of provisional judgements, the universality of a precept is actually dependent on its specificity. When formulated by a tradition, the precept will be the more genuinely universal, the more it is a summary of the implications of the specific experiences and beliefs of highly integrated individuals in the tradition. When a tradition and its precepts are provisionally accepted by an individual, the greater the awareness of the pragmatic and specific basis of the precept, the greater its authority will be for a wide range of individuals and situations. And when applied by an individual (or perhaps in some cases by a group), the precept will gain more authority the more its relationship with specific conditions is reflected upon, and thus the limitations of its authority at the time of its formulation accurately transmitted. At its application the precept is thus at its most authoritative when it represents a foundational perspective (a perspective of universality) which is held in tension with a coherentist one. A coherentist perspective can be readily gathered through a survey of immediate conditions, but a foundational perspective is dependent on a much broader perspective.


The universality of a precept thus does not consist solely in its foundational appeal to the authority of a tradition, but rather in the non-dualism of its formulation, acceptance, and application. It is only to the extent that this non-dualism is actually applied at each stage (within the limits imposed by non-psychological conditions) that it can be justified as offering a maximally objective standpoint in each situation.


The specificity of universal precepts may thus appear to be of a different type from that of rules accepted from individual or specific types of moral authority, but it functions in exactly the same way. Non-dualist precepts must be conceived, accepted and applied in a context of specific moral reflection although the precepts themselves are universal in form. The universality of form is essential in order to enable the precept to be transmitted broadly from a tradition and used in different contexts, but it ceases to have the legitimacy of a precept if it is applied dogmatically without the specificity which should surround it.


This account of the role of moral precepts naturally still lacks any demonstration of the specificity that they can import to moral judgements (as opposed to a formal description of it), because I am still working at the level of general description which can apply to any specific tradition. It is important to stress that any tradition which is non-dualist in the way I have outlined should be able to produce precepts, the moral adequacy of which is dependent only on the degree of integration of that tradition. Nevertheless, in order to avoid a merely formal account of precepts, I shall go on in the next sub-section to discuss the precepts of the Buddhist tradition as illustrative of a set of precepts which appear to largely fulfil the conditions I have specified for non-dualist precepts. I should add that as far as I am aware they offer the only such available example[11].


vi)                Buddhist precepts


The Buddhist tradition offers a variety of distinct sets of ethical formulae. Not all of these, however, are obviously intended to be universal in application. The monastic rules or Patimokkha, whilst offering a comprehensive set of prescriptions, are clearly limited in their intended application to the specific circumstances of a monastic setting. The same can be said for some other lists of prescriptions, often described as precepts, which are more strictly sets of rules adopted for strict observance by other groups, such as novice monks or nuns, or celibate householders who have made the specific commitments of the upasaka or upasika. The Five Precepts regularly chanted by all committed lay Buddhists around the world are clearly strong candidates for the status of universal precepts, but instead of these I shall discuss the list of ten root precepts, or mula-prat­imokha, mentioned in several places in the canonical texts accepted by nearly all schools of Buddhism[12], which also include and subsume the Five Precepts whilst offering a more comprehensive and universal formulation[13]. The ten root precepts, which I shall refer to hereafter as the Ten Precepts, have both a negative and a positive form, which I shall now list using the translation employed in the Western Buddhist Order.


Negative formulation

1.       I undertake to abstain from taking life.

2.       I undertake to abstain from taking the not-given.

3.       I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct.

4.       I undertake to abstain from false speech.

5.       I undertake to abstain from harsh speech.

6.       I undertake to abstain from useless speech.

7.       I undertake to abstain from slanderous speech.

8.       I undertake to abstain from covetousness.

9.       I undertake to abstain from animosity.

10.   I undertake to abstain from false views.


Positive formulation

1.       With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body.

2.       With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.

3.       With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body.

4.       With truthful communication, I purify my speech.

5.       With words kindly and gracious, I purify my speech.

6.       With utterance helpful and harmonious, I purify my speech[14].

7.       Abandoning covetousness for tranquillity, I purify my mind.

8.       Changing hatred into compassion, I purify my mind.

9.       Transforming ignorance into wisdom, I purify my mind.[15]


These Ten Precepts clearly fulfil the criteria offered in the last sub-section in the sense that they offer pragmatically specific, but universally applicable, guidance for behaviour. They do this by breaking down the sphere of human action into the three areas of body, speech and mind, and attempting to formulate the specific ways in which integration affects each of these areas. Following the precepts thus generally anticipates or recalls the effects of integration beyond the level achieved currently. Their universality is thus the same as that of the model of psychological integration, and thus likewise their normativity is that already argued for in chapter 7, applied specifically through the mechanism I have outlined in the earlier parts of this section.


This does not imply that this is the only set of precepts which could possibly be justified in the same way, but that it is amongst the limited number of sets of possible sets of  precepts which could be thus justified. Clearly some other possible sets of precepts (e.g. the Ten Commandments re-interpreted as precepts rather than commandments) might be partially justified in a similar way, but relatively more limitations would be placed on the extent of the justification by the degree of dualism assumed in those precepts. An examination of the tradition from which those precepts spring would also reveal much sparser grounds for confidence. In the remainder of this sub-section I shall try to explain the mechanism of this justification more specifically by giving an account of ways in which each of the precepts specifically reflects implications of non-dualism and psychological integration. This account will not amount to a total justification, but it will give some indication of the grounds for confidence in them, which then needs to by augmented by confidence in the tradition from which they spring. For the time being I shall leave aside a complex of issues relating to the application of these (or any other) precepts, including problems of conflict between them, all of which will be discussed in the next section, and concentrate on their justification alone.


It is the three mind precepts (8,9 &10 of the negative and 7,8 & 9 of the positive formulations) which are most directly implicative of the process of integration, and thus I shall start with these. They evoke the “three poisons” of Buddhist tradition: greed, hatred, and ignorance, each of which can be directly related to the operation of the ego. Greed, or covetousness, consists in the attachment that the ego maintains to objects within its sphere of identification, and has as its natural concomitant hatred, or animosity, which consists in the rejection of objects outside the object of identification. Ignorance consists in dualism, or continued understanding of ones experience solely in terms dictated by the metaphysical dualisms created by greed and hatred. A theoretical acceptance of non-dualism, then, implies an acceptance that dualism is a force of ignorance and that its processes of acceptance and rejection are to be avoided as much as possible. If these tendencies are to be avoided then their opposites of tranquillity, compassion and wisdom are to be cultivated, since each of these represents the avoidance of premature acceptance or rejection in differing but overlapping spheres. Thus the three mind precepts are so strongly universal (in both their positive and negative forms) that any acceptance of non-dualism immediately implies them.


However, these three precepts alone do not offer any more specificity for the resolution of moral problems than that already offered by the account of non-dualism offered in chapters 5 to 7.  They merely state the value of cultivating integration in the ways outlined in 5.e., which itself forms part of the conditions to be considered in resolving specific moral problems but does not go further towards resolving them. The speech and body precepts, then, offer more indirect implications of non-dualism of fuller use in specific moral problems.


The area of speech occupies a crucial intermediate position in the Ten Precepts, concerned as it is with all the intermediate ground between psychology and action. It thus concerns not only speech considered as an action, but the conceptual beliefs in which we formulate a view of the universe as a basis for action. To conceptualise is to “speak” in the sense of articulation, even if we are not communicating to others. The communication of beliefs to others is also an important aspect of the way in which we entertain and test those beliefs. The four speech precepts, then, deal with a spectrum of uses of language with differing degrees of effect on others, from mere articulated thought to verbal deed, including the entertainment of beliefs and their communication to others. Since the communication of beliefs to others gives us a stronger subsequent identification with them, the speech precepts prescribe ways in which the mode of communication can help to keep our identification with beliefs provisional.


Perhaps the most important of these is the fourth precept, enjoining abstention from false speech and cultivation of truthful communication. An ultimately representational view of truth and falsity here would be inconsistent with basic Buddhist principles, so it must be seen as promoting what is more commonly understood as the basis of truth, namely consistency with experience. I tell a lie, not if I say something that is untrue according to some further representational idea, but if I deliberately misrepresent my experience according to the conventions that I and others accept. I could even talk of lying to myself if I use language as an alienating device to obscure aspects of my experience that I am egoistically disinclined to accept. False speech, then, is normally wrong because it interferes with the integration of belief, either at an individual or at a group level or both, supporting the very limited coherentism of an ego that wants to construct a world of facts that are obviously in conflict with observations. Truthful communication, on the other hand, tends to spread views which are in harmony with experience. Speech which deliberately misrepresents my experience can only be justifiable when it is the product of an integrating rather than a disintegrating process.


The avoidance of useless speech and the cultivation of helpful speech (precept no. 6) similarly appeals to a conventional rather than an ultimate concept of usefulness, since ultimately usefulness merges with truth. At a conventional level, though, I could say many things that were acceptably true within that representational framework yet useless because of their triviality. The selection of useful objects of attention in order to support integration is an important aspect of confidence, enabling the ego to become engaged in its own extension as theory directs experience to an increasing engagement with conditions. In contrast with this, the directing of ones own or others thought upon trivia merely distracts the ego from all but the most narrow type of experience.


The avoidance of harsh and slanderous speech (negative formulations 5 & 7) and cultivation of kindly, gracious, and harmonious speech (positive formulations 5 & 6) deal more with the avoidance of hatred as it may be manifested in the way beliefs are communicated. What counts as a harsh use of speech, or what faults it may be acceptable to talk about in a person’s absence, are entirely a matter of convention, but it is again relative to that convention that a limited or distorted representation of a person may be promoted. If my rejection of a person leads to a narrowed view of their meaning, or to narrow beliefs about them which do not take into account their full context, harsh or slanderous speech will usually reinforce and spread that egoistic tendency of hatred.


The three body precepts (nos. 1, 2 & 3) are concerned with action in the midst of the host of conditions that affect us, and are thus the least directly related to psychology. This means that they are more prone to ambiguity and exception than the other precepts. However, the crucial conditioning role of behaviour in relation to the areas they cover makes it important to have basic guidance in this area for those occasions, discussed in the previous sub-section, when more detailed reflection is impossible, or when reflection needs to be stimulated. All three body precepts relate to the avoidance of greed and hatred as manifested in outward action, and to the cultivation of tranquillity and compassion.


Perhaps the most important of these is the first precept, in which one undertakes not to take life[16], and to practise loving-kindness. This precept, which is also the first of the Five Precepts and thus undertaken (at least in its negative formulation) by all Buddhists throughout the world, meets with a wide variety of interpretations in relation to conventional views as to what constitutes acceptable or necessary killing which would override the initial sense of the precept. “Life” is always taken to include animal life of all kinds, though not plants. If taken as an absolute command to immediately end killing of all kinds (other than completely accidental), whether direct or indirect, this could obviously be alienating. Confronted with a demand for a massive and instant change in our lifestyle, most of us simply take refuge in convention, and the eternalist pattern which I traced in chapter 3 follows its course. But such an interpretation of the first precept ignores the implications of the non-dualist principles of Buddhism, whereby a precept must be an instrument for incremental change.


If the chief function of a precept is to stimulate reflection, or to provide a rule of thumb when reflection is impossible, the first precept can provide such a stimulus wherever killing or violence of any kind is contemplated. Killing, particularly, is irreversible, and thus a strong prima facie presumption against it helps to ensure that unnecessary or unjustified killing does not take place. As Sangharakshita writes


Killing is wrong because it represents the extremest form that the negation of one ego by another, or the assertion of one ego at the expense of the other, can possibly take, - though, paradoxically, the negation of another’s ego is, at the same time, in principle the negation of ones own.[17]


In other words, in taking such a drastic action against another, one commits murder against the psyche, alienating all sympathy with the other to such an extent that one could almost say that an area of the psyche which was an aspect of oneself has been destroyed. Obviously the extent to which killing has this psychological effect varies with cultural attitudes to killing, and exactly who or what is being killed. Between the traumatic effects of committing cold-blooded murder on another human being, and the slight desensitisation which may occur when a gardener kills a slug, there are many gradations. But the precept enjoins, at least, a careful consideration of justifications and consequences, with as full an awareness as possible of ones sympathy for the being one contemplates killing, before making a positive decision to kill.


The second and third precepts, concerned respectively with property and sexual activity, depend on similar considerations. As with all the other speech and body precepts, they depend on conventional definitions of personal property and of acceptable sexual behaviour, and hence it is the exertion of the ego in overriding another’s identifications which forms the element which is universally prima facie wrong. Similarly, the cultivation of generosity and of sexual contentment (which is of course interdependent with other forms of contentment) tends to be integrative in forestalling egoistic contractions and supporting expansive impulses towards others. How far such cultivation should be taken (i.e. whether it should lead to complete renunciation of possessions and/or complete celibacy) depends entirely on whether such a course of action would result in greater expansiveness and contentment: a question which can perhaps only be resolved through personal experimentation.


To sum up, then, the mind precepts are themselves a statement of the model of psychological integration. The speech and body precepts depend on links of interdependent conditionality between that psychological model and types of outward action which may produce and/or express it. The justification of the speech and body precepts on grounds of non-dualism thus depends on the extent of that interdependence, which is itself a matter for investigation. However, given the prima facie strength of the argument that such links exist in most cases, together with the need for specific guidance which will enable one to bring the judgement of higher levels of integration to bear indirectly at lower levels, a provisional acceptance of non-dualism seems to require a similar provisional acceptance of the Ten Precepts (or of another set of precepts with similar justification and function) as rules of thumb and prompts to reflection.


On the issues raised in section 8a, also see A New Buddhist Ethics, Chapter 1, What is Buddhist Ethics? 


b)      Issues in the application of precepts


The argument in the last section has established a justification for the use of universal precepts based on non-dualism, but still leaves unresolved several issues relating to their application. In order to support my claim that non-dualism offers a specific and practicable ethics it is now necessary to address these issues. In doing this I shall be arguing in a way that applies to any possible set of non-dualist precepts, but I shall continue to use the Buddhist Ten Precepts as illustrative of the issues.


i)                    Problems of priority


The problem of priority between precepts is a version of one that arises with every application of a prescriptive formula to experience: namely that the application of some prescriptions will in some cases be inconsistent with the application of others. For example, in applying the speech precepts discussed in the last section, there may be a conflict between true and harsh speech: should I restrain myself from saying something that is true because it is harsh, perhaps even telling a lie when questioned about it? Or should I give priority to uttering a truth which will almost inevitably appear harsh to its hearers? Or more broadly, how should I allocate my time between the practices of cultivating integration enjoined by the mind precepts, and the giving of my time to others suggested by the second precept? A similar problem can also arise in prioritising two courses of action prescribed by the same precept, as where a doctor has to choose how to allocate limited medical resources between different lives which are in danger.


Such problems of priority obviously cannot be resolved merely by reference to the precepts themselves. Since they are not rules or laws, the mechanism which might be used in such cases, of reference to hedge-rules and case-law, and perhaps an ultimate request to the legislating body for more rules to resolve the conflict, cannot be applied, because the effect of this would merely be to make the precepts into rules with their accompanying representationalist assumptions. The other extreme here would be to give up on precepts altogether and refer only to our limited judgement without any specific guidance from a more integrated source: but, if we are in the position of reliance on precepts to begin with, to help create the conditions for greater integration, the arising of an occasion when the advice of the precepts appears self-contradictory may well not coincide with one when we are well-equipped to make a decision based only on our own judgement or on the individual or specific types of moral authority. On the contrary, it is in such cases that we are most likely to need guidance.


In such cases one kind of pragmatic recourse may be a return to the moral authority of the tradition from which the precepts emanated. The same confidence in the tradition which supports a provisional adoption of the precepts can also support the adoption of other beliefs held by the same tradition which produced those precepts. Moral traditions offer not only specific moral advice of a preceptual nature, but a detailed doctrinal background and a wealth of archetypal narratives. Such material, like the precepts themselves, should be seen in an ultimately pragmatic framework, but it may offer guidance by stimulating reflection or a providing a rule of thumb beyond that of the precepts themselves[18]. However, it is also possible, however compendious the material of a tradition, that it will offer no specific guidance relevant to the particular conflict. Such an approach may also require considerable study of a kind that may ultimately detract from the cultivation of moral judgement because of the scholastic orientation it may promote.


Alternatively, one can return to the primary approaches of non-dualism, but starting not from first premises but rather from the prescribed courses of action which appear to be in conflict. Such an appearance of conflict forms a metaphysical dualism so long as one understands the situation only in terms of their mutual contradictoriness and not in terms of the greater complexity which lies beyond that immediate representative dualism. This metaphysical dualism can be dissolved, like other metaphysical dualisms, by incrementalising the distinction and making a judgement at some point along the incremental scale. The basis of the judgement, as in other similar cases, is an attempt to recognise the maximum conditions which are compatible with the action. In the case of the conflict between the need to avoid harsh speech and the need to avoid false speech, for example, I need to think not in terms of a dichotomous choice, but of a scale of degrees of harshness and falseness. I then need to ask how much harshness is actually necessary to convey the degree of truth which the occasion demands. Taking the avoidance of both falseness and harshness as given values, then, I attempt to minimise each in relation to the particular case.


A similar approach would clearly apply to the problem of prioritising time between cultivating integration and expressing it. If both of these are taken as given values, but the conflict not taken as a metaphysical dualism, I am obviously left with different types of compromise in which I devote time both to cultivating and to expressing integration. Such a compromise is also more adequate to conditions than an acceptance either of one extreme or the other as the sole good to be applied to the case: for much psychological and physiological evidence (too complex to survey here) seems to indicate that my body and mind are more likely to operate effectively with a balance of activities than with a monotonous emphasis on one type of activity.


In my other example, of a conflict between lives requiring the same limited medical resources to be sustained, incrementalisation takes a form I have already indicated in 6.b.iv. Although lives are a source of value according to the first precept, this does not justify us in a purely quantitative metaphysical approach in the assessment of priorities between lives. Rather, despite the prima facie presumption of the first precept that lives should be saved, we have to analyse what a life means and what conditions constitute a life, which leads us into the qualitative factors used in utilitarian calculations of resolutions to medical ethics issues. Such qualitative factors are here not the only basis of judgement, as they are for a utilitarian, but they do offer a means of resolution on occasions when we are reliant on the first precept. Since the moral authority of first precept originates from a pragmatic basis, it is merely an effective use of that precept, and certainly not a betrayal of it, to incrementalise it in a way which allows a decision taking the maximum of conditions into account. There may then be occasions when medical personnel attempting to follow the first precept are justified in killing, or allowing others to die, in order to save other lives which are only judged preferable in qualitative terms: but this justification would be not ultimately utilitarian, but non-dualist.


ii)                  Consequentialism and deontology


The final example in the last sub-section may evoke a larger problem with the application of precepts, however. To what extent are they generally compatible with consequentialist calculation? Are there not occasions when following a precept may lead one into obvious conflict with the conclusions of consequentialism? Does this mean that precepts offer a form of deontology?


This question could be taken as a disguised re-presentation of the dualism between coherentism and foundationalism. For the assumptions of consequentialism are those of ethical coherentism: that the most objectively justifiable result will be obtained by a calculation taking into account all the facts and values to which we have access[19]. On the other hand, the assumptions of deontology are those of ethical foundationalism, that there is some certainty of knowledge on which we can base the rules by which we should decide our conduct. The conflict between consequentialism and deontology is thus primarily one of epistemological assumptions: do we begin with the assumption that objectivity is maximised through reliance on the coherent knowledge we positively do have, or on a recognition of our ignorance (usually accompanied by an appeal to some source of universal knowledge). As I have argued throughout[20], neither of these approaches is adequate by itself, for each limits itself to the consideration of certain kinds of conditions and neglects others.


The non-dualist justification for following a precept, then, is neither consequentialist nor deontological, but rather based on the view that conditions will be more adequately addressed through reliance on integration (and hence the advice of the integrated) than through either consequential calculation or deontological rule-following. This strategy is perhaps compatible with types of consequentialism which take a broad view of the scope of conditions to be addressed and do not have a priori objections to the “esotericism” implied by confidence in a moral authority: for like consequentialism it aims to bring about the best consequences. However, unlike any recognised existing forms of consequentialism it does not rely solely on existing desires and beliefs at their current level of integration as the basis on which to judge desirable consequences.


Hence, although it is conceivable that following non-dualist precepts will lead to the same practical result in some cases as a consequentialist calculation (for example, in the case of judgement between two incompatible lives which then have to be judged by qualitative criteria), there will also be many cases where the two approaches conflict. For example, in the case of a proposed abortion where the mother’s life was not threatened, but the foetus was handicapped in such a way as to leave some doubt as to whether it would lead anything near a normal quality of life, a utilitarian calculation (dependent on its exact premises) might suggest that abortion would be justified. The first precept, however, would here fairly unambiguously suggest a prima facie presumption in favour of preserving the foetus’s life. This would not be based, as in a similar deontological presumption, on the adoption of the value of life as a rule which overrides all merely qualitative considerations, but on a recognition of our degree of ignorance as to the outcome if the foetus is allowed to develop into an adult human being. Nevertheless, this prima facie assumption could not be applied, as a rule might, without consideration of the consequences: if there turned out to be a very high probability of the foetus being born with a severe mental handicap, for example, even the due allowance for ignorance implied by the precept might be judged to be outweighed by well-supported positive beliefs about future consequences, both for the foetus itself and those who would have to care for it.


The use of non-dualist precepts is thus not a form of deontology any more than it is a form of consequentialism, for it depends upon a confidence in a non-dualist tradition which in turn needs to be based on confidence in the very possibility of integration, and thence recognition not only of the conceptual beliefs ordered by the ego but of the unknown zone beyond it. In practical terms this means that mere egoistic identification with the precept, perhaps under the illusion that it represented a reality wholly beyond the ego, is as inadequate a response as the failure to recognise the moral justification for following precepts. The precept, being an aid to judgement rather than a substitute for it, cannot justifiably be applied without consideration of the consequences of doing so wherever such consideration is possible; yet its consideration and due weight must nevertheless be part of the judgement that is made in each case once its moral authority has been accepted, for only thus is the egoistic tendency to restrict the scope of conditions considered to be counteracted.


It is on larger issues involving complex conditions that both the importance of consequential reflection and the limitations of consequentialism become most apparent. Environmental problems, such as global warming, provide a good example. Here it is only through the consequential reflection undertaken by scientists that we have any grasp of the conditions and the respect in which our actions contribute to them. Yet consequentialism alone continually proves inadequate in producing a justifiable and motivated response to those conditions, primarily because of the requirement for a high degree of positive knowledge as the basis of action (and thus the lack of acknowledgement of our degree of ignorance). I have already attacked the assumption of a position of neutrality on which this requirement depends[21]. The adoption of precepts as the basis of judgement, however, does not assume a position of neutrality, but rather one of relative ignorance in which positive knowledge is rarely available, evidence is limited and ambiguous, and even a relatively strong knowledge of a particular type of condition (such as that possessed by the scientist) does not necessarily provide the best basis of a judgement which needs to take into account a wide range of conditions. In the case of global warming, then, limited and ambiguous evidence of a possibly vast threat to human (and animal) life through drought and flooding, for a consequentialist, does not necessarily provide enough justification for radical measures (whether personal or governmental). For a non-dualist, however, the combination of the first precept and limited but still persuasive evidence should be sufficient to prompt stronger action at an earlier stage, providing sufficient integration exists to motivate such action. The epistemological weighing-up of sceptical versus dogmatic claims about the effects of global warming may not be enough to prompt this: rather it is the first precept which provides a strong prima facie presumption for giving credence to limited evidence, since it gives immediate value to the possibly threatened lives which is more likely to outweigh the mere inconvenience or reduction in comfort which is on the whole likely to result from changes in our lifestyle which reduce carbon dioxide emissions.


iii)                Pride, guilt and confession


An important aspect of the use of precepts which I have not yet discussed is not directly concerned with the justification of moral choices, but rather with retrospective reflection on choices that have already been made. It is in this state of reflection that advances or regressions can occur in the integration which forms the basis of moral judgement and motive, dependent on the way that retrospective judgements are made in relation to moral success and failure.


When retrospective judgements are made according to a dualistic framework of ethics, the discontinuity can produce only a conclusion of success or failure in relation to the standard applied (whether this is deontologically or consequentially derived), for either the requirements of the source of ethical legitimacy have been fulfilled or they have not. This discontinuity may produce either pride at a success which applies absolute grounds to a relative achievement, irrational guilt at failure to achieve impracticable ideals, or a retreat from attempting to apply any ethical standard which results in the adoption only of convention.


Non-dualism, on the other hand, requires an incrementality which means that judgements of success or failure are seen in a wider moral context and their degree of significance relative to other successes or failures is seen more accurately. If I fail to perform a certain action which I later judge to have been morally desirable, or I do something that I later regret on moral grounds, I should see myself to have stepped down one rung on a long ladder, rather to have fallen from it. In creating such accuracy of judgement about past actions, specificity is required. As I have already argued in relation to hiri and ottappa[22], it is this specificity which distinguishes rational from irrational forms of guilt (as it does likewise with pride), since a specific success or failure can be related to observations. Success or failure cannot be specific unless they are set on an incremental scale of achievable goals in relation to specific conditions: and thus the dualist discontinuity tends to create a non-specific or general sense of success or failure: irrational pride or guilt, which are forms of dogmatism in relation to ones own achievements.


All three types of non-dualist moral authority can help to provide the necessary specificity to moral goals, but the precepts offer the most universally applicable of the three, to which the other two will often be related. My hiri or ottappa may thus take the form of a realisation that I have failed to follow a precept which I have either decided to follow at an earlier point of greater integration, or undertaken to follow according to the advice of a spiritual friend. In either case, then, the precept provides a specificity auxiliary to that associated directly with a state or person of greater integration, which may be used together with it or separately. However exactly that specificity is imported (whether it is particular or general, intuitive or verbal), its distinctive advantage consists in ways in which it can aid integration and hence future moral behaviour in contrast to the unproductive tendencies associated with more generalised guilt.


Thus, to take an example, I might decide to become a vegetarian, perhaps in response to the first precept together with compelling arguments that the killing of animals for meat is unnecessary. Having made a firm moral decision about this, I immediately change my eating habits. However, one evening when I go out with friends to a restaurant and there is little vegetarian food on the menu, I yield to pressure from them to eat meat. My response to this lapse could have two extremes: on the one hand I could exaggeratedly bewail my failure, conclude that I am not capable of becoming a vegetarian, give up the struggle and relapse into my old eating habits; or on the other hand I could fail to recognise it, pretending both to myself and others that I am still just as much a vegetarian as before, perhaps excluding meals out in restaurants from the moral requirements I had set myself, despite the fact that I had intended to remain vegetarian even in those circumstances. The first of these extremes is an instance of over-generalised guilt in which one lapse becomes exaggerated and thus defeats my attempt at moral behaviour, whilst the second is an instance of an over-generalised dogmatic confidence of success. In either case my appreciation of the specific conditions surrounding my moral undertaking and lapse would be inadequate.


The closer I move to a balanced, accurate and specific appreciation of these conditions, though, the closer I move to integrated non-dualism. I can then see that the most effective response to my lapse is to recognise it, but to see it in the context of my success up to that point and the possibility of continuing success. I am then far more likely not to repeat the lapse. This heuristic adequacy in moral practice is an important aspect of the precepts which stems from their pragmatic justification: their origin in the moral authority of tradition thus only operates as a justification for practising the precepts to the extent that they are used in conjunction with this type of specific investigation of conditions, which enables a balancing between the recognition of failure and of success.


This non-dualist investigation of moral conditions is promoted in the Buddhist tradition by the practice of confession[23]. Confession of a moral failure can become an effective way of both recognising failure and maintaining a rational specificity of guilt provided that the context of confession is sufficiently investigative and not merely a way of imposing the standards of the group through power. The context of confession thus needs to be carefully chosen, as Sangharakshita emphasises, so that the fault will neither be depreciated nor exaggerated nor the confidentiality of the confession abused. In this type of context, however, confession can offer both a mechanism for ensuring the full recognition of faults and a method for correcting their exaggeration as the perspective of another can be applied to one’s understanding of the fault. This works particularly if the confessor is a person who is more integrated, and is thus able to offer a reliable judgement on the conditions surrounding the fault.


Universal precepts offer further advantages over other expressions of non-dualist moral normativity in supporting the practice of confession. Since the precepts are applicable and available to all, and those to whom it is advisable to confess will also be attempting to follow them, the nature of the fault will be readily understood without the standard of judgement necessarily being reduced to convention alone. Any other person attempting a similar ethical practice may also bring an apparent breach of the precepts to my attention, and so long as an objectively investigative spirit prevails her comments will be welcomed rather than egoistically rejected. Having reflected on my action I may decide that it is justifiable and that the critical person had an insufficient understanding of the particular conditions operating in my situation, but nevertheless her comment will have been useful and beneficial in enabling that reflection.


c)      Political authority


i)                    The justification of political authority


The last two sections have focussed only on the justification of moral authority at an individual level. Such moral authority, as I have argued, enables non-dualism to be applied at a specific level of moral judgement in the sense that the relative moral justification of the judgement of a higher level of integration can thus be conveyed to aid the objectivity of judgements made at a lower level. However, this argument clearly does not cover all the types of cases in which the justification of authority is open to moral discussion. Particularly, it does not cover (i) individuals who do not accept any kind of moral authority (whether individual, specific or general), and (ii) the authority of governments where this is accepted by individuals on supposedly non-moral grounds, and (iii) the exertion of power by governments over those who do not accept their authority.


The first category here is likely to prove an empty one. As I argued in chapter 4, there are no morally neutral standpoints: those who claim to have them usually appeal to scientific, political or individualistic beliefs all of which carry moral implications. In addition, such standpoints generally involve implicit appeal to the moral authority of those believed to stand in a neutral position. Even existentialists, who may not be able to justify appeal even to a scientific or political source of authority, are nevertheless socially and politically situated and thus unable to avoid implicit support for the moral authority of a particular tradition, whether an individualist one or (as seems to have been the case with Heidegger[24]) an authoritarian tradition which is supported in counter-dependency to individualism. It is thus the adequacy of the moral authority appealed to rather than its existence which is in question in these cases, but to judge such adequacy when it takes the form of a political authority requires a discussion of the justifiable role of political authorities. When nihilists appeal to political authority supposedly in the place of moral authority (as in the second category), the degree of moral justification for political authority is called into question.


Thus the second and third categories, as well as the first one, call for a non-dualist justification of political authority which clarifies the extent to which such justification exists. Such a justification, as I argued in 6.b.viii, must be pragmatic in the sense of assuming neither an absolute moral justification for government nor that there is no such justification: rather, as with the individual, confidence in the possibility of justification must support investigation into how far government is capable of fulfilling an effective moral role. Given that, when properly incrementalised, morality consists in the effective manipulation of conditions to satisfy desires of the highest degree of integration possible, political authority can be morally justified exactly to the extent that it succeeds in doing this, rather than interfering with integration by maintaining a dogmatic view of its role seen in terms of absolutism or of false neutrality.


The same pragmatic criterion can support the justification of political power as well as of political authority, where political authority refers to a position created by confidence in a political leadership, and political power to an exertion of force to make individuals comply with political leadership. An incrementalisation of this distinction, to avoid its association with metaphysical ideas of freewill, can lead to a conception in terms of degrees of  confidence shading off into degrees of power, with governments finding the latter increasingly necessary as the former fails. But whatever mixture of acceptance and coercion is employed, its justification remains the sole pragmatic one of effectiveness in producing integration in the state.


The attitude taken by a non-dualist to the use of coercive power by the state thus does not need to be discontinuous from the first precept and the role played by the avoidance of violence and killing, or coercion in general in promoting psychological integration. No public-private morality distinction is needed, since non-dualist ethics begin with the situatedness of the individual and the requirement for integration commencing at this point, requiring that the situatedness of the policeman, judge, or other public official, and of the whole group that they represent, be the starting point and their integration only being pursued in a way which is compatible with that of the whole group. In their position as agents representing a whole group, then, no coercive method can be absolutely ruled out: but its effectiveness needs to be considered in relation to the whole range of conditions, including its effects on the agent as an individual, its long-term effects on the individual against whom coercion is being used, and the needs of the whole of the society in which it takes place.


It is our tendency to use coercion as a short-term solution, a way of imposing an egoistic order on a situation when a more sophisticated grasp of conditions would lead us to refrain from it, which supports the application of the first precept here: for a prima facie avoidance of coercion, and of its escalation into violence and killing, involves a recognition of ignorance which supports the maximum possible degree of careful reflection whenever such methods are used. Most of the time such reflection would not prove compatible with capital or corporal punishment, torture, corruption or the abuse of power, simply because such actions are incompatible with progress towards integration in agent, victim, legislator or society as a whole. Milder forms of coercion, such as the threat of fines or imprisonment, are more likely to be justifiable because of the support they provide for the integration of society as a whole by discouraging the conflicts which are created by criminal actions. A basic stability of conditions is allowed by such measures, without which any progress towards integration would be made much more difficult.


Not only agents of the state but politicians thus have no need to appeal to a false neutrality to justify the use of power, so long as such power is actually being used to integrate. Individuals seeking integration also have nothing to fear from such a use of power, for to the extent that it is effective and justifiable it will not remove responsibility from the individual. Where the state has genuine authority it will not serve any interest to replace that authority with an exercise of power, replacing an integrated relationship with an alienated one. Where a government genuinely seeks integration it will also listen and respond to criticism from individuals, just as individuals who seek integration will have respect for the requirements of government.


The extent to which such a balanced and justifiable use of coercion is achieved, however, is a measure of the degree of integration of a government. The integration of a government, as I have already suggested[25], is primarily the integration of the politicians (both as a group and as individuals) who form the legislature and executive, but is also, to a lesser extent, the integration of civil servants, other agents of the state, electors, and the public of the state as a whole. The relative importance of the integration of each of these elements obviously depends upon their degree of influence in the making and application of government policy.


Political authority and political power are thus morally justified to the extent that this integration occurs. In the remainder of this section I will be considering, firstly, how such integration of government could be brought about, and secondly, how problems of priority between moral and political authority can be resolved.


ii)                  The integration of government


Two extremes are to be found in discussions of the moral improvement of government: the utopian, which follows in the tradition of Plato in prescribing a radical and holistic reorganisation of government on rational lines; and the laissez-faire, in which all deliberate attempts at improvement are judged, with equal dogmatism, to be self-defeating, so that the only basis of improvement comes from reliance on Adam Smith’s “invisible hand[26] whereby egoism will miraculously transcend itself. In accordance with the Middle Way as I have outlined it, however, there is clearly no route to objectivity in discussing this area through dogmatic reliance on one of these approaches rather than the other. Likewise, a concomitant reliance on either direct or indirect methods, or either holistic or piecemeal reforms, offer only extremes between which we must navigate.


These polarities also offer an indication of the kind of political system which is most likely to support integration, as opposed to authoritarianism on the one hand and egalitarianism on the other. The Platonic approach, in which the policy of the wise is imposed upon the remainder, indicates the advantages of more authoritarian forms of government at their best: for the enlightened absolute ruler appears to be in unique position to take a long-term view of the welfare of the whole state, taking all the relevant conditions into account. If such a ruler were to be instantaneously installed in the world of 2000 C.E., for example, it may at first appear that he could deal far more effectively with global crises, such as those of the environment and of over-population, than any alternative form of government. Such a view is little more than a deceptive fantasy, however, because it takes a premature leap to an absolutely rational position. It applies a crude egoism to political problems, because it assumes that all that is required for their solution is a strong enough egoism, imposing a strong enough order upon the world-psyche, for such problems to be solved. As a utopian political scheme it fails to recognise the key psychological conditions (those of integration) which would enable such rational solutions to be applied, and the recognition of such psychological conditions in turn rules out the utopian scheme and the authoritarian method it requires. As such it has all the drawbacks of foundationalism.


On the other hand, the strength of democracy[27] consists in the requirement that it imposes on governments to respond to the views of voters and thus maintain apparently greater integration through consensus. Such integration, however, often proves limited because of the lack of integration of the individuals whose views contribute to the democratic process. This lack of integration often expresses itself both in limitations of identification (as particularly manifested in parochialism, nationalism, class prejudice or other forms of insularity) and in a vulnerability to psychological manipulation. Democracy thus betrays all the limitations of coherentist approaches to ethics: particularly in a lack of holism which reflects and rationalises a lack of integration, both at individual and group level. Democracy only succeeds in overcoming a lack of integration at group level by the crude method of majority voting, which is likely to reflect only a very limited consensus. As a political system it is thus certainly not intrinsically non-dualist.


A political system which is to offer the most effective response to conditions, then, must maintain a tension between foundationalist and coherentist approaches. It must balance the needs both to address the whole range of conditions and to seek the consent and co-operation of the governed, for both of these are crucial elements of a consensus which includes the integration of psychological conditions. A strategy which fails to address wider conditions and only concentrates on maintaining the support of the governed will be unlikely to be effective even at maintaining that support in the long-term, because the wider conditions which have been ignored will impact upon the voters and turn them against the government which failed to predict their needs. Conversely, a pure concentration on wider conditions to the exclusion of the immediate concerns of the population will not long support political authority, even when the mode of government is totalitarian. Citizens, then, need to be understood both as egos and as psyches, for whom neither the indulgence of present desire nor confrontation with a long-term absolute are wholly adequate.


The type of political system which will best maintain this tension can obviously not be universally prescribed, because it will depend on the prevailing conditions. The more relatively integrated the citizens, the more relatively effective a democratic type of political system will be in addressing the whole range of conditions as well as maintaining immediate political support. However, in situations where the citizens are relatively unintegrated and a simple imposition of order is more of a basic priority, a more authoritarian method may well be justified, provided that the authorities are more integrated than the populace (by this criterion the rule of the vast majority of dictators is nevertheless clearly morally unjustifiable, even in conditions of near-anarchy).


We are not, however, necessarily confronted only with a crude choice between populist democracy and authoritarianism. There may well be ways in which either type of system may be modified to more fully represent the strengths of the other at its best. To modify democracy to offer more of the strengths of the Platonic approach, for example, might involve the imposition of certain constraints on the democratic process calculated to improve the objectivity of government in which it generally results. Such modification is likely to involve greater institutional recognition of the dispositional, rather than abstract nature of the objectivity which will support successful government, and could perhaps be brought about through legislation within an existing democratic system.


Foremost among such measures might be a greater professionalisation of politics, ensuring that all the candidates permitted to offer themselves for office are not only technically but morally qualified to do so by an adequate degree of integration. This would require some sort of training and formal testing for aspiring politicians, administered by those already experienced and advanced in the reaching of suitably balanced political judgements. Such a system would doubtless have many imperfections, reflecting those already found in established self-administering professions such as the academic, legal, and medical professions, but may be preferable to the election of highly unsuitable politicians with popular appeal but little integration or even (in some cases) little technical expertise in the skills of government. It might perhaps inject a little of the strengths of Plato’s scheme for a highly trained ruling class into the context of democracy.


But such a political change may have little effect so long as the wider requirement for integration amongst the public remains unaddressed. Here, then, we pass from ways in which a political system can promote integration to ways in which a governmental policy can do so. The chief way to address the requirement for integration of citizens seems to be through education (as has been urged by such figures as Plato, Aristotle and Dewey). Again, utopian schemes of education cannot be successfully introduced wholesale, but existing schemes can be modified so as to transcend the dualisms which currently dominate educational thinking by exploring the ways in which their normativity implies non-dualistic normativity. The crucial features of such modification would, again, involve a recognition of the dispositional nature of objectivity. This would imply a recognition of the crucial role of the moral disposition of teachers, perhaps requiring a much larger element of the cultivation of integration in their training. It would also imply a recognition of moral integration as a central goal of education which potentially unites the normativities promoted by eternalists and nihilists in education[28].


The education of the public is also affected by governmental attitudes to a whole range of issues, including for example religion, censorship, drugs, environmental pollution, and transport. The dualism of negative and positive freedom occurs in the debates in all these areas in modern Western democracies: requiring that governments inconsistently promote both the freedom of the individual and a prescriptive line which in “private” matters (religion, censorship, drugs) is largely expressive of theistic religious concerns, and in “public” matters (pollution, transport) expresses the requirements of a holistic survey of conditions. Both the split between negative and positive freedom and that between public and private morality could be healed by the official adoption of a secular non-dualism. This would address many of the concerns of both theistic and non-theistic religion without needing to create divisions by giving state support to a particular religious tradition, yet at the same time create a more inclusive and effective form of secularism than the transcendental humanism or nationalism which often currently fills this role in the modern secular state. Secular non-dualism could stop short of Buddhism by avoiding any appeals to the Buddhist tradition, but basing itself only on the type of moral and political case I have offered here by working from first premises.


The distinction between Buddhism and secular non-dualism is, of course, a pragmatic one based only on the probably wider acceptability of secular non-dualism as a basis for public policy and the need for the state to be perceived as remaining neutral between religious communities, even if the prescriptions of some of these communities are relatively more acceptable (on the grounds of secular non-dualism) than others. A case could also be made for the continued separation of religion and state on pragmatic grounds even in a country where 100% of the population were committed Buddhists, so that religious and governmental organisations each continue to offer a critical perspective on each other’s policies[29]. Whilst the basic non-dualism of the state would be inescapable in such a scenario, and society thus likely to be a much more hospitable environment for Buddhism, acceptance of the moral authority of the Buddhist tradition and its precepts would necessarily continue to be an individual decision.


The implications of this could be seen in the rationale which guides moral policy. On the issue of censorship, for example, a non-dualist approach can offer an approach supportive of freedom of expression on pragmatic rather than metaphysical grounds. Where freedom of expression is thus not pragmatically supportive of integration, as perhaps in the case of racist material or hard pornography, a policy of censorship thus has a clear moral justification. In this case as in that of drugs policy, one of the issues to be addressed is that of the extent to which morally prescriptive law can be enforced and the extent to which it is counter-productive because repressive or unenforceable. Again, then, non-dualism could offer moral support to the kind of balanced policy which may in any case emerge through open-minded experimentation. The consensus between government and citizens would increase on such issues as they were gradually understood to be based on pragmatic morality rather than a hypocritical mixture of pragmatism that is taken to exclude morality and morality taken to exclude pragmatism. Exactly the same type of approach, rather than a discontinuous one, could be made to issues such as pollution and transport: namely that of assuming a moral normativity to begin with situated cases as well as holistic demands. Whatever strategies a government then uses to, say, discourage car use would take into account all the relevant conditions, such as the psychology of car users, without any lessening of recognition of the holistic demand.


The integration of government is only likely ever to occur through a gradual modification of existing systems and policies, in countries which are already integrated enough for democracy to succeed in addressing a broad range of conditions (which include its own limitations). It can only occur incrementally, together with interdependent integration of individuals and social groups, but this does not mean that it can only occur “piecemeal”, since an incremental approach is more likely to result from a broad survey of conditions, including holistic ones. There are some signs that such a modification is already occurring[30], but also many dualistic forces working against it that I have identified in Part 1. A wider theoretical recognition of non-dualism as the basis of morality, whilst not enough by itself to bring about such modification, forms an important condition for the continued progression of such a pragmatic modification of public policy.


iii)                Conflicts between moral and political authority


As I have suggested, the distinction between moral and political authority is in many respects unjustified: since political authority, seen non-dualistically, is merely moral authority found in the context of government. Even the exercise of political power is justified in exactly the same way as any other moral judgement, through the relative integration of the person or group wielding power, in this case relative to that of the person against whom power is being wielded. However, this does not mean that there is no pragmatic justification for separating moral and political authority.


The main pragmatic justification for the separation of moral and political authority lies in the possibility of self-deception. It is easy to believe that we, or others, possess integration which we or they do not have, and thus either exert or subject ourselves to unjustified power. Such power can be exerted at an individual level, for example through the influence of a charismatic leader, just as much as at a political level. Non-dualism does not increase the possibility of self-deception when compared to dualistic justifications of authority (for whenever it is explored thoroughly it will undermine the dogmatic foundations of such self-deceptions), but nevertheless it may be interpreted superficially or partially and used to justify abuses of power. It is for this reason that moral authority may need an independence from political authority which may enable the former to check the latter.


If our inability to fully assess the complexity of many conditions around us leads us to rely on moral authorities in order to support our moral judgements, this judgement may sometimes be in conflict with our respect for political authorities, even though both types of authority are based on adequacy to conditions. For either type of authority may not be fully integrated and thus vulnerable to errors. In some cases, governments operate on such a clearly unintegrated basis, obviously having a very poor understanding of conditions and a narrow dogmatic basis of judgement, that we really have no grounds to respect their authority. Such a government may still be, on balance, justified in exerting power against a person (such as a criminal) who is less integrated than that government, but certainly not against a person who is more integrated. Compared to a moral authority which is much more clearly integrated, there is no doubt about the priority between authorities. 


The duty of obedience to political authorities, then, only extends as far as the integration of that authority relative to my own or to the moral authorities on which I rely. Since, as I suggested in the previous sub-section, a government can be relatively integrated either through the integration of individuals who rule in a relatively authoritarian manner (pursuing policies which are relatively adequate to conditions), or through the relative integration of the group, who consent to policies even though they are less wise because they have been arrived at democratically, no moral duty to obey a government can be justified simply through the nature of the political system through which it achieves power or simply through the nature of its policies. Rather, either of these can offer relative integration according to which the rule of government is relatively justified. A government which is truly both wise and democratic becomes a moral authority in itself, but one which is neither may be little better than a criminal gang imposing its rule on the populace.


However, where I merely disagree with the policy of a government I will still have two kinds of reasons for obeying it: the realisation of my own ignorance relative to the degree of knowledge on the basis of which the government has formulated its policy, and the reflection that it has broad popular support, indicating a recognition at least of all the conditions which those who support it identify with. This latter kind of reason amounts to a recognition of my ignorance compared to a view which has at least been through the test of being conventionally accepted by a large group[31]. However, neither of these indications of the objectivity of a government policy beyond my immediate judgement may be sufficient for me to nevertheless decide that I have a moral duty to obey it.


Where it is merely my own judgement which is at stake, I still have many reasons to suspect that that judgement may be inadequate. However, where a political authority disagrees with a moral authority and their policies are irreconcilable, I have much stronger reasons for believing that I should disobey the political authority. When this occurs, political authority, which is based only on its recognition, disappears, and moral authority becomes the sole justifiable basis for my action. The separation of moral and political authority, then, in this case enabled me to see the precedence of moral authority, and that political authority is only justified insofar as it coincides with moral authority in the sphere in which it operates.


In some other imaginable cases we might think of apparent political authority justifiably correcting apparent moral authority: but there the labels “political” and “moral” only mean “public” and “private”. We might unjustifiably put our faith in a cult leader who gives instructions for us to subvert the state, or asks us merely to behave immorally in a way that she dubs “moral”: but if the state then interferes, either through force against the cult or at least through educative propaganda, then it is the relative integration of the state relative to the cult which makes the state in fact the moral authority and the position of the cult leader, who has perhaps been using psychological coercion, analogous to that of a political power without moral justification.


The precedence of genuinely moral authority over political authority which is not morally justified, though, many operate quite widely and yet rarely require disobedience of the state and its laws. This is because direct conflicts between the requirements of the state and those of morality are much rarer than the theoretical precedence of moral authority. If, for example, I am a soldier conscripted into a national army, I may be quite clear that the standard of moral judgement offered by the first precept takes precedence over the instructions of my commanders and yet happily serve in several armed conflicts, given my judgement (which depends on my interpretation of the precept) that the government’s role in these is morally justified. However, when one day the government begins to use the armed forces in unjustifiable war or repression, the precedence of moral authority is suddenly activated: I disobey my commander and desert. This action is no more or less the effect of respect for moral authority than my previous obedience and involvement in armed conflict.


Any decision to disobey the state naturally also has serious consequences which need to be taken into account when the decision is made. The state is likely to use coercion and violence against those that disobey it, and disobedience may in many cases achieve no modification in the state’s policy, unless I can also influence others to join me. A decision to disobey the state on the grounds that irreconcilable moral authority overrides the state may thus not necessarily lead immediately to overt defiance. It is an aspect of the requirement for me to reflect on the consequences of applying a precept wherever possible that I should also do so when the precept implies disobedience of the state and its laws, and avoid disobedience which is likely to bring about worse consequences than obeying the state. If I wish to disobey a policy of the state that brings about loss of life, for example, I would probably not be justified in doing so if the result brings about more loss of life, whether or not this includes my own life. Martyrdom, for example, thus has little moral justification from a non-dualist viewpoint, either as an immediate strategy or as an example to others[32].


Others can be influenced by behaviour which either obeys or disobeys the state, so that the example set should certainly be another of the conditions taken into account when deciding whether and how to defy the state. However, the strength of the argument that every breach of the law undermines political authority should not be overestimated, since if justifiable political authority is indeed a type of moral authority, a breach of the law on grounds which can be understood by others as moral simultaneously strengthens the moral authority on which justifiable political authority relies, even if it does undermine the conventions which support obedience to a particular political authority. Any action which promotes reflection and/or respect for genuinely accepted moral authority in the place of unreflective conventional behaviour carries an influence for good from a non-dualist perspective, in which conventions are not to be confused with ethics.


This concludes my discussion of non-dualist ethics and political ethics, which in this context can be not much more than an outline. The main aim of it has been to show, at least, that non-dualism can be applied to ethical issues in a specific way. I have not been able to pursue my arguments about particular ethical or political issues in much detail, but merely to indicate the lines along which they can be tackled. I hope to address practical and political ethics from a non-dualist standpoint in much more detail in future work.


On the issues raised in 8c, also see A New Buddhist Ethics, Chapter 9, Political Ethics 

[1] I have combined two translations of this verse (Buddharakkhita 1996 & Radhakrishnan 1950) and adapted both to produce more natural modern English

[2] Here I stipulate a not uncommon type of distinction between authority and power, though this is naturally an incremental distinction rather than one based on a Kantian type of distinction between autonomous and heteronomous judgements.

[3] The guidance of a friend may not be offered in the form of direct advice (and may be more effective if it is not), so I use “advice” here only as a shorthand for forms of influence which directly or indirectly suggest ways of behaving. Such forms of influence might only consist in asking questions which help the friend to understand his assumptions, or simply in setting an example. The “advice” here is of an implicit rather than explicit type.

[4] These are Lakatos’s terms for rational judgement between theories: see 2.b.iii

[5] See 5.e.i

[6] In the Buddhist tradition this experience of temporary integration is often known as perfect vision (sammŒ-di­­hi): maintaining this vision is such an important part of the path to enlightenment that it is given as one of the limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path: see Sangharakshita (1990b) p.17-22.

[7] On hiri and ottappa (mentioned in the next subsection) – nearly always paired - canonical references are brief (e.g. Anguttara Nikaya 1.51). Buddhaghosa (1991) XIV.142 has a fuller account which supports the use I make of these terms. Padmavajra (1996) gives an excellent practical modern account.

[8] See Subhuti (1994) p.151-162

[9] See Padmavajra (1996) p.15, and other references in previous note.

[10] The criteria here are a more specific application of those already discussed in 6.d.iv., whereby an individual can judge between groups in general.

[11] I may here quite justly be accused of fixing the abstract formulation of an acceptable set of precepts to fit the Buddhist tradition, rather than producing entirely independent criteria which are then used for the purpose of “impartial” assessment of Buddhist ethics. However, it needs to be pointed out that the requirement for entirely independent criteria is a scientistic one involving an appeal to a neutrality that can only be false. In practice one arrives at abstract formulations in relation to practical examples which are taken to be representative of that abstraction. However, this does not undermine the importance of maintaining a theoretical openness to forms of non-dualism which are not Buddhist, since that makes clear the respect in which Buddhist formulations are justified by their non-dualism, not the other way around, as well as providing a standard of judgement for any rival sets of precepts which may be put forward as non-dualist. All aspects of the Buddhist tradition thus also need to be judged by the standard of non-dualism, rather than being necessarily assumed to be non-dualist because of their origin. 

[12] E.g. Digha Nikaya i.138-9; Majjhima Nikaya iii.46-53. The canonical sources of these ten precepts are thoroughly discussed by Sangharakshita in (1989) p.19-30.

[13] The first four of these Ten Precepts are identical to the first four of the Five Precepts, whilst the fifth of the Five Precepts (on abstention from intoxicants) may be taken as implied by the last three of the Ten Precepts.

[14] This precept provides the positive counterpart for both 6 and 7 in the list of negative precepts.

[15] Taken from FWBO (1999) p.18-19

[16] The Pali term here for the actions to be avoided, panatipata, can also be interpreted as striking or injuring living beings.

[17] Sangharakshita (1989) p.58

[18] An example of this is offered in Majjhima Nikaya i.395, which provides some guidance on the dilemma between false and harsh speech. This passage seems to indicate that the Buddha set a greater priority on true and useful speech than on kindly speech, such that he would never utter false or useless speech, but would judge carefully when to utter true and useful speech which might also unavoidably be interpreted as harsh. 

[19] This is notwithstanding the use of consequentialism by absolute utilitarians, as discussed in 3.k.iv, which would seem to take knowledge of conditions leading to the greatest happiness as a consequential foundation. It is the incompatibility of the universal value claims and the coherentism implied by consequentialism, however, which offers a major weakness in this form of utilitarianism and limits its effectiveness.

[20] Especially in 6.a.ii

[21] See 4.d.vii

[22] See 8.a.ii & iii

[23] See Sangharakshita (1995) ch.2

[24] See 4.h.iii

[25] See 6.b.viii

[26] See 3.k.i

[27] “Democracy” is here defined as a political system in which all or most adults are eligible to elect representatives which fulfil the chief functions of legislative and executive power. See also 4.f.v.

[28] I have discussed this approach to moral and religious education in more detail in Ellis (1997)

[29] See next sub-section (8.c.iii)

[30] One example of this would be the increasing abandonment of left-wing and right-wing economic dogmas by Western governments, as exemplified by Tony Blair’s “Third Way”. Whilst the “Third Way” should on no account be confused with the Middle Way as a whole, it may offer an encouraging move towards genuine pragmatism in one particular area which now needs to be followed through in others.

[31] See 6.d.iii

[32] See 5.b.iii. and 3.f.ii.


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A 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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A New Buddhist Ethics

The Trouble with Buddhism


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