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 A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 8b - Application of precepts)

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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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.


[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


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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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