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 A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 8a - Moral authority)

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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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? 


[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


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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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