Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

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Droll Dedekind, modified 6 Years ago.

Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

Posts: 634 Join Date: 11/15/13 Recent Posts
I admit, ethics is the branch of philosophy that I've studied and contemplated the least, and morality is the third of the Three Trainings that I've worked on the least so far. So, my thoughts here aren't strongly motivated or influenced by any philosophy or substantial experience.

Something I've heard Shinzen Young say in a few videos has me thinking about morality. He says, "What we want is someone who is beyond the norms of society and very admirable by the norms of society." (quote taken verbatim from BATGAP interview, but he restates it differently elsewhere using the phrase 'good person' instead). When I first heard him say it, it really resonated with me; I felt I had found a moral standard I could get down with. But, now I have several criticisms with Shinzen's standard:

I can imagine a situation in which an enlightened person conforms to the norms of society, rationalizing with a standard like Shinzen's, because that's an easier route than challenging conventional notions of 'good person', i.e. conventional morality. (I'm not exclusively picking on Shinzen here. It seems to me this sort of standard is common.)

The standard seems to assume that there is an accepted definition of 'good person' or 'admirable person', and that these definitions are preferable. By which society's norms should we be admirable? The norms of the society we live in? Why not Japan's or Australia's? Eurocentrism and American exceptionalism seems to me implicit in this standard. In the US, just a hundred years ago, one could probably have been eligible for 'admirable person' status while simultaneously professing racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. How many of our current norms and moral standards will look similarly primitive in 50, 100 years? Here are some likely candidates I see: "Drugs are bad... except tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, and prescription meds", "Always speak the truth... except when it offends someone, especially if they have a good lawyer", "Killing is wrong... except when it's funded by a government", "Preserve the environment... except when it at all disrupts your comfortable lifestyle", etc.

The most obvious resolution I can see is: Look for the common character traits and behavior that different societies deem 'good' or 'admirable', and that's the standard. 1) that seems altogether different from what Shinzen is saying here. 2) I can think of several taboos that I consider psychologically harmful, that are common to many cultures, and would presumably not be broken by 'good' or 'admirable' people. Namely, sex and incest (read Freud, Reich, etc.), and death (read The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker). 3) It seems dubious to me that there are many traits or behaviors that are universally considered to define 'good' people. If there are, they're probably the basics -- compassion, empathy, love, respect, altruism, integrity, etc. 4) It assumes that morality can't progress. 5) There are several norms common to many societies that don't break 'good' eligibility that are nonetheless reprehensible.

I would currently prefer to define morality as the process of embodying these virtues common to many cultures. But, is it always advisable to attempt to embody these virtues? I have experienced (and assume it's common) people that use morality to compensate for deficient parts of their personality, or to quell completely unrelated guilt. So, are we still being 'good' people if we attempt to be moral for (possibly partially) selfish reasons? How are we to determine our motives with certainty?

How much time and energy should be spent attempting to embody virtues versus pursuing our passions, our own enlightenment, interests, ambitions, etc? It seems plausible to me that there is inherent 'good' in pursuing one's passions because passionate people tend to do their jobs better, inspire others, make breakthroughs, etc. And, of course, it seems plausible to me that own's own enlightenment will eventually have 'good' ramifications. At what point do these become selfish?

I suppose my main question is, to what extent should people, and especially 'enlightened' people, be held responsible for openly criticizing norms they don't agree with? And, of course, all the other questions I mentioned emoticon.

I'd appreciate it if people stay on topic with this one as discussions on morality tend to be controversial. If you go off topic, I beg you to make sure it really really contributes to the discussion.
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Not Tao, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

Posts: 997 Join Date: 4/5/14 Recent Posts
I think the perfection of ethics and morality comes directly from a complete absence of aversion - thus complete enlightenment (in the sutta sense).  I think this has always been the whole point of Buddhism.  We can feel this in an instictual way, which is why we tend to dismiss teachers who display aversion or lack of morality.  Morality isn't the practice so much as the outward indication that a person is closer to complete freedom.  People usually fail miserably at practicing morality while they hold on to aversion - it's twice as stressful as simply hating things openly because it requires complete suppression.

You are looking at societal standards, which are like a social contract.  If someone is completely without aversion, they would be pretty far outside of the norms of society - even if they might conform to them for conveinience.  Such a person would "welcome the lepers" so to speak.  The morality of a society could probably be judged by how it treats these people who give comfort to the outcastes.

EDIT: As for a code of behavior - I don't think morality can be defined that way.  This is why laws are so complicated and are often very unfair.  Ethical and moral conventions are better when they codify intent rather than behavior.  For example, I would define my moral standard as, "Every individual should be free to do what they want as long as it doesn't impede another individual from doing what they want."  This means that each time an action or behavior is criticised by a person, it has to be evaluated against the standard, rather than looked up in a rule book.  People are forced to examine what an individual actually is, what each of these individuals actually wants, and in what ways are they impeding each other.  What is right and wrong comes out of consideration for each thing and its intentions rather than a popular opinion or traditional value.  Over time as new evidence or understanding emerges, the moral code changes to fit.
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Jenny, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

Posts: 566 Join Date: 7/28/13 Recent Posts
Traditionally, in Buddhism, morality, as the first training, is pragmatic. It is a way of reducing conflict and drama and therefore promoting concentration. Without hard preliminary work in morality, so the the story goes, concentration cannot be developed very effectively. Without strong concentration, insight will be hard to come by. So there is that. Selfish? I don't think so, if one accepts the premise that waking up benefits oneself and the whole field of other beings.

All spiritual traditions seem to adhere to some basic moral guidelines:

Don't kill/harm others through violence
Don't use speech to harm or waste time in mindlessness (lying, harshness, divisiveness, idle chatter)
Don't use sexual energy in ways that harm others
Don't dishonestly take what isn't freely given
Don't indulge in substances that may make one heedless and thus break one of the other guidelines

Pretty sensible and practical, really. Easy? Nope, not at all. Debatable in the particulars? Yes, of course. I guess I like Florian's take in that "Is Killing Ever Right" thread I started a while back. He said something to the effect that he liked the way I was struggling with the particulars of killing bugs--that the struggle is the practice, the work, the ethos. 

So, my current take, for whatever it may be worth, is that this crucial training is part universal moral convention (pragmatic) and part ethical struggle (real work in compassion, including complassion for oneself and attempted balance among competing "goods" and competing "bads").

Let's take an easy example: sexual harm. My husband of 30 years and I really don't "believe" in marriage as the ultimate way someone might arrange life to fulfill happiness. So, you might say that we both "believe in" open marriage. But do we practice that? Um, no. And the reason? Well, because it doesn't fit with the current conventions of our local culture, and we suspect that we have internalized that culture to a degree well beyond our conscious fathoming. In order not to risk hurting each other and our son, we keep within the lines, as debatable as those lines may be, as arbitrary as they may be in some ultimate way.

I have friends with open marriages, including Buddhist friends. Seems to always turn into a disaster, despite understandings, contracts, and good ethical intentions. Sometimes the most ethical option is the one that is merely morally conventional. Other times, that may not be the case, but I suspect that usually it is safer to err in the direction of conventially adhering to those five guidelnes.

Although I reject the emotional/moral-perfection models of enlightenment, I sometimes sense that there is something a little off, a little weirdly lopsided, in the way that some pragmatists develop "enlightenment" without sufficient attention to foundational training in morality. Which isn't to say I'm succeeding much in my own moral training, except that I'm trying. I sometimes think that adherence to hope of moral perfection via enlightenment (insight training alone) is an attempt to bypass, by means of idealization, the work of moral training. The Three Trainings are separate, and only the insight training can be mastered to completion. How uninteresting life would be, otherwise--if morality weren't ongoing work and discovery. If it weren't work, would it be ethics?
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Droll Dedekind, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

Posts: 634 Join Date: 11/15/13 Recent Posts
Thanks for the on-topic response.

The pragmatic value of adhering to morality for the sake of concentration makes sense to me. But, are guidelines really necessary? I personally don't use any guidelines, and while I'm far from a saint, I generally don't break any of the Five Precepts. I find that when I do it's because of some psychological shit, and I strongly suspect that's the case for others (I'm assuming human nature is 'good'; not a bad assumption).

Here's a pertinent personal example that's probably coloring my responses as I type. I consider my basic character structure to roughly fit the schizoid type, here's a line from Pierrako's description of the type
"Overt hostility is less a feature of this person than a narcissistic disregard of others, accompanied by an attitude of isolation and a belief that self-interest necessarily runs counter to that of the others."
I can clearly see the first part in many of my moral mistakes. If the second half is true, the belief is out of my conscious awareness (and probably influencing my positions in this whole thread). Now, I could probably spend a lifetime censoring narcissistic disregard for others and trying to play nice with others without ever getting to the root of the issue (tied up with the schizoid structure). These are clearly not mutually exclusive, but from my POV, working on the underlying issues should consume a majority of my moral time/energy ration, with the rest being spent on outward behavior.

Further, I can easily imagine a situation in which the moral codes can be misused to reinforce our psychological shit. Using my self as an example again, schizoids have repressed anger that often leaks out passive aggressively. I could easily rationalize that I had better keep repressing my anger, lest I harm or kill someone through violence. My passive aggression would almost certainly only increase. If I happen to notice that and deal with it 'morally' it will likely still leak out in ingeniously passive ways. Our culture seems to be increasingly taboo about aggression, so I suspect this dynamic is going to become more common. And, to be honest, this seems common among Western Buddhists to me (*cough*AN*cough*). Only slightly passive.

I'm making the assumption here that a majority of immorality is motivated by psychological baggage (consciously or unconsciously). This seems apparent to me, but I'm not sure everyone would agree so I made it explicit. Our society generally has a poor common definition of psychological health, i.e. if you can function and not frequently show your shit around others then you're healthy. The studies connecting sociopathy and CEOs come to mind.

From my POV, actively adhering to moral codes is a temporary safety net to what's almost always fundamentally a psychological problem. Of course, working psychologically isn't easy and even in the most psychologically healthy people, taking feedback and checking up your behavior with general guidelines is a good idea.
(Liferay glitching, not letting me remove these quotes)
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(D Z) Dhru Val, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

Posts: 346 Join Date: 9/18/11 Recent Posts
The standard seems to assume that there is an accepted definition of 'good person' or 'admirable person', and that these definitions are preferable. By which society's norms should we be admirable? The norms of the society we live in? Why not Japan's or Australia's? Eurocentrism and American exceptionalism seems to me implicit in this standard.


Yes. Furthermore in an individualistic society such as most of the western world are there really such things as societal moral norms ? What is admirabile within one sub-culture is not admirabile within other? For eg. consider what is admirable in on Wall St vs what is admirible in artistic circles vs what is admirable in blue collar circles vs Academia. etc...

I view morals as decision making shortcuts. Periodically taking the time to re-evaluate and adjust them as required.

For eg. I think it is almost always a bad idea to lie. But in a few rare circumstances it can be justified.

The problem with is most people take this stuff to rigidly. And as too absolute a thing.

Morallity then become mixed with sense of identity. And them people make a big fuss about them. 

I believe this rigidity is a funcution of normative mental functioning. And can be overcome with openness, and learning new ways of seeing, as we do in spiritual practice.

So that is one relationship between spritual practice and morality.
Chuck Kasmire, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

Posts: 559 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
This is a great topic and I will try my very best to stay on it.

I agree with Jenny that the suttas describe the role of sila as a foundation for developing samadhi. They say that sila leads to a mind free of remorse which leads to joy, rapture, etc. culminating in dispassion and ultimately release (AN 11.2 for those looking for an example).

If the role of sila is to bring about a mind free from remorse, I think we can seek to understand the intent of sila by asking How can I perform my daily activities such that I will not feel regret or remorse over my actions? It is cultivating harmlessness - different from terms like morality or ethics that tell us ‘this is what you should do’ - more ‘how do I want to be’.

My own practice has been a body-based practice using chi-gong and Thai Forest breath-energy techniques. On the nuts and bolts level, my take on sila - based on that experience - goes like this:

There are deep patterns of locked-in tension/energy in the body that get triggered under certain conditions. These patterns as they express themselves psychologically are our emotions. Most people are not very aware of the intensity of these physical sensations - and when they are triggered what is most evident is the psychological manifestation which takes the form of what Daniel calls content - essentially thoughts and stories that legitimize what we feel and what we want to do in order to get rid of the very uncomfortable sensations that we aren’t consciously aware of.

Every time I act on those sensations - for example lashing out at someone that has made me angry - that pattern of locked-in energy in reinforced. It is much like a drug addict where every time they take the drug to get rid of the withdrawal symptoms they actually make those symptoms worse the next time round and increase the need for the drug.

So sila for me is a practice of going cold-turkey. The energy pattern erupts (ie I feel angry) and instead of acting that out I just stay with those sensations until they subside. Every time I do this, the strength of these sensations subsides. Combined with the deeper energy practices these patterns pretty much get dissolved over time. The result of this is that I become increasingly imperturbable to things that would have others climbing the walls and this imperturbability is quite peaceful.

If I get angry at someone, the content - all the stories, the me, the other - all this is an internally generated world created and maintained within my mind and body and no where else. When I act out as a result of these emotions - all that energy is just bouncing around within - very destructive. When I throw crap at someone I crap in my own house because I can never be anywhere else - I only imagine that I am.

Now of course if another person picks up on someone elses anger then that is going to trigger whatever patterns that they carry within them - if they identify with them. If there is no pattern or one does not identify with it (pick it up) then it doesn’t effect them - if there is and it is picked-up, then that kicks off another round but this time in the internal world of the second person. In this sense samsara is both individual and collective - like one of those rooms that they fill with mouse traps that have a ping-pong ball sitting on them and then toss in a ping pong ball. You can see this ping-pong effect over and over again on forums like the dharma overground :-)
 
Very sorry for the long intro but I had to define how I see sila before I could get to the questions you pose.

I don’t see sila as an act of repression though I guess that depends on how one thinks of repression. For me - to not act in response to a feeling is not repression - which would require a repression or denial of the feeling as well. I can be aware of the desire to act (and all the body/mind interactions - thoughts, sensations, etc) while still choosing not to act based on the knowledge that I will feel better about myself if I do not act.

Nice quote from Fuller. I don’t see sila as interfering with ones passions. I can’t imagine a person having a passion say to create a better pesticide or a better weapon system though they might have a passion for chemistry or aeronautics and the practice of sila would not prevent them from such pursuits - in fact, it would probably benefit them and others greatly.

Social norms, ethics and morality are all our ways of trying to manage the ping-pong ball explosions to minimize their destructive power within our society. They are trying to manage symptoms. I think these are necessary and each of us has to make an effort to see where these things have gotten twisted and become destructive and try to point this out but also to keep in mind that the ping-pong thing has been going on a really long time and isn’t going to stop anytime soon.

Sila on the other hand is the first stage in dismantling the mouse-trap within me - which addresses the cause. To the extent that you can dismantle the mouse-trap you will appear to others as ethical and moral - but that isn’t at all what is actually going on. I think this is maybe what Shinzen Young is getting at though I am not familiar with that interview.
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Droll Dedekind, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

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Thanks, Chuck. I've gotten a lot out of reading your old posts.

We conceptualize emotions in almost inverse ways, so I'll explain my way and try to work out the consequences of the contrast. (I'm assuming I know what you mean by 'emotion'). My view is basically the Reichian/bioenergetic view, edited a bit through my own lens.

Emotions are biologically-anchored, but their expression is relative and individual. The primary biological drives are aggression (secure food, safety, status, housing, mate, etc; cf. reality principle) and sexuality (secure mate, pleasure, offspring, love; based on pleasure principle). Socialization starting from earliest childhood imposes numerous constraints on aggression and sexuality, so we need a mechanism to restrict them. The mental component of the mechanisms are varied, but the physical basis is always chronic tension in the body ('holding' the energy) -- 'character armor'. One could say that the negative attitude toward aggression, sexuality, and the body in general implied in the mental component of the character armor partially (largely, even) determines the extent of pathology.

To be clear, the definition of aggression I'm using here is different from the usual definition. Here's the Reichian/bioenergetic definition I got from here
Aggression is simply 'moving toward' something. Aggression, as a quality of a person, speaks to one's relationship to one's natural impulses. Emotions and desire engender impulses. Aggression is moving toward something on the energy of an impulse.

In human affairs there is always external resistance, and so "aggression" is the ability to move toward a constructive goal against some resistance.
Aggression is not the egotistical intent to get more than others, get ahead of others, or get some ill-gotten gain. The word for that is greed. Aggression is the biological and interpersonal process by which impulses and desire are transformed into action.

Now, the endgame of this model isn't to be a cynical evolutionary psychologist. The goal from a Reichian/bioenergetic POV is to gain awareness of the underlying drives, free the character armor as much as possible, and to sublimate the drives to mold a grounded, creative, uninhibited adult. In short, they say "Claim it, aim it, tame it". In other words, instead of denying biology or the body, the goal is to embody fully and use the drives as fuel for creative, mature expression.

So, in terms of this model it seems that what you're referring to as emotions with "There are deep patterns of locked-in ... that we aren't consciously aware of" is energy being modulated poorly through character armor. "So sila for me is a practice of going cold-turkey." This is definitely one option. But, I would argue, expressing the emotion in a controlled environment is an even better solution because it doesn't subtly deny the underlying biological drive (aggression), but instead it eventually teaches one how to express the aggression more skillfully and productively.

I agree that watching the feelings when they arise isn't itself repression, but unconscious, underlying attitudes towards the feelings could cause repression.

Here's an example from my own recent experience: I find that I'm more often able to spontaneously express my aggression before it gets out of hand or repressed. The result is usually skillful, and immediately as I express it I feel a bliss wave hit my crown. Pretty cool.

This post was motivated by my recent brewing frustration with Western Buddhists that I partially expressed in that other Titmuss thread. It was only triggered by your post. My post is intended to be aimed at whichever Western Buddhists fit into the life-negative, sex-negative, body-negative caricature that I'm imagining.

I like your ping-pong metaphor, but it doesn't really seem to answer what should be done from an individual POV besides minimizing the bounce or realizing it's inevitable and aiming it skillfully; the latter is part of what I'm getting at in my post.
Chuck Kasmire, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

Posts: 559 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
We conceptualize emotions in almost inverse ways

Yes but I think on the experiential level we are zeroing in on the same point and I think this point is the point of sila.

I agree that watching the feelings when they arise isn't itself repression, but unconscious, underlying attitudes towards the feelings could cause repression.

True - from my perspective the underlying attitudes will express themselves as physical contraction or tightness - I have to keep relaxing into the experience. I don’t mean to imply that I avoid all conflict or try to be syrupy sweet with everyone  - I think we have to be honest with ourselves and others. There is a clear difference between expressing my view and trying to hurt another. I think for us to really understand what sila requires is to experiment. The result is said to be freedom from remorse and that joy naturally arises - that I think is the test.

Here's an example from my own recent experience: I find that I'm more often able to spontaneously express my aggression before it gets out of hand or repressed. The result is usually skillful, and immediately as I express it I feel a bliss wave hit my crown. Pretty cool.

That is cool and seems to fit the description in the old dusty text.

I like your ping-pong metaphor, but it doesn't really seem to answer what should be done from an individual POV besides minimizing the bounce or realizing it's inevitable and aiming it skillfully; the latter is part of what I'm getting at in my post.

I am not sure about what you are asking - what should be done from what perspective?
- with regard to awakening? living in the world? changing the world?

I think metta practice - as Eric mentions - is really good - I try to do that often. I would like to see Metta Based Stress Reduction as all the rage now instead of the other MBSR.

I like Daniel’s quote from Rabbi Hillel - I just came upon that a few days ago.

Ethics are great if we were to live by them. These days it seems like the legal structure is replacing our sense of ethics and morality - and that structure is highly subject to influences of greed and power. So ethics or morals as a guide are replaced by ‘is it legal’ or in the case of torture ‘is there some way this could appear to be legal and can you protect us if it isn’t? - which takes us far from the golden rule.
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Droll Dedekind, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

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That is cool and seems to fit the description in the old dusty text.
Oo, where? I'm not familiar with them.
I'm not sure about what you are asking - what should be done from what perspective?
- with regard to awakening? living in the world? changing the world?

I think metta practice - as Eric mentions - is really good - I try to do that often. I would like to see Metta Based Stress Reduction as all the rage now instead of the other MBSR.

I like Daniel’s quote from Rabbi Hillel - I just came upon that a few days ago.
I think my question is what's called the "is-ought problem", if I'm interpreting it correctly, which I'm not sure I am.

Also, weirdly enough, I had to write an essay for a religion class a couple weeks ago in which I had to use that same Hillel quote.
J C, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

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Droll Dedekind:
That is cool and seems to fit the description in the old dusty text.
Oo, where? I'm not familiar with them.
I'm not sure about what you are asking - what should be done from what perspective?
- with regard to awakening? living in the world? changing the world?

I think metta practice - as Eric mentions - is really good - I try to do that often. I would like to see Metta Based Stress Reduction as all the rage now instead of the other MBSR.

I like Daniel’s quote from Rabbi Hillel - I just came upon that a few days ago.
I think my question is what's called the "is-ought problem", if I'm interpreting it correctly, which I'm not sure I am.

Also, weirdly enough, I had to write an essay for a religion class a couple weeks ago in which I had to use that same Hillel quote.

The point of the is-ought problem is that values are arbitrary - some people value taking care of the self and self-realization or self-development, others value activism or making the world more equal, free, fair, or just in different (often incompatible) ways, others value a tribal mentality involving cultivation of kindness in small local communities (the "in-group") while being less concerned with people outside the community, and so on. There's no way to look at these different value systems and prove or demonstrate one to be better - the most you can say is that a community seems to work well when people want to help each other as well as themselves in win-win ways, and that most human beings seem to have evolved a vague sense of ethics that generally facilitates that.

Cultivating morality requires working within whatever value system you believe in - but when people have different value systems, there is no yardstick that can compare the two - and even if someone comes along with a yardstick, why should we accept it?
Chuck Kasmire, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

Posts: 559 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Droll Dedekind:
I think my question is what's called the "is-ought problem", if I'm interpreting it correctly, which I'm not sure I am.

Thanks, I had never come upon this before.

Hume writes ...as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

It’s a great point. It’s why I think words like virtue, morality, and ethics are not good translations for sila though they certainly capture aspects of it.

There is a sutta where Buddha remarks that the only reason he taught sila was because it led to joy and joy is essential for developing samadhi - which was essential for awakening - if it were not for that he says that he would not have taught it. This pretty much takes sila out of the domain of morality. It also places it outside the is-ought problem. It simply states that when you live in this way then you will experience such and such a result and this result is useful for such and such a purpose. It’s a straight forward test for anyone wishing to perform it.

This process - that sila leads to lack of remorse and that leads to joy, etc. I think that the term remorse is not really adequate.

Remorse is an emotional expression of personal regret felt by a person after they have committed an act which they deem to be shameful, hurtful, or violent (wikipedia).

OK as far as it goes but I think something more is meant by this term. As an example, if I enjoy arguing with people then my mind’s activity will gravitate towards that kind of thinking and pondering - either thinking about past arguments - I could have said this or that or thinking about the next argument. Similarly with other kinds of involvements. If on the other hand, I carry out my daily activities informed by my intention to be harmless - I am disentangling myself from those kinds of plotting and scheming activities of the mind and cultivating a mind that gravitates towards thinking and pondering about harmlessness - a very different sort of experience in that what we tend to think and ponder we also tend to feel and see.

The dusty old text I was referring to was AN 11.2 - the one about sila leading to joy (bliss is an acceptable stand-in)
J C, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

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Chuck Kasmire:

It’s a great point. It’s why I think words like virtue, morality, and ethics are not good translations for sila though they certainly capture aspects of it.

There is a sutta where Buddha remarks that the only reason he taught sila was because it led to joy and joy is essential for developing samadhi - which was essential for awakening - if it were not for that he says that he would not have taught it. This pretty much takes sila out of the domain of morality. It also places it outside the is-ought problem. It simply states that when you live in this way then you will experience such and such a result and this result is useful for such and such a purpose. It’s a straight forward test for anyone wishing to perform it.


Interesting. So it doesn't matter whether a specific behavior is actually ethical, or whether you're behaving ethically, just try to figure out what way of life will give you peace of mind? That could lead to some counterintuitive results. Obviously, neither the Buddha nor anyone else gave a complete list of what sila consists of - that would be impossible - so a lot is left up to individual judgment of what acts constitute sila. But if the only test is what gives you peace and joy, then sila could include some very unethical behaviors. If cruelty or killing bring you peace of mind and joy, that would then be sila even if it's unethical.
Chuck Kasmire, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

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J C:

Interesting. So it doesn't matter whether a specific behavior is actually ethical, or whether you're behaving ethically, just try to figure out what way of life will give you peace of mind? ...

In my first post in this thread I defined sila as cultivating harmlessness.
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Eric M W, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

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The theory behind morality, at least in Buddhism, is that our actions reflect our overall state of mind. People who commit violent crimes tend to have noisy, torturous minds, whether they know it or not. People who are restrained and peaceful in their actions tend to have restrained, peaceful minds, which makes the next two trainings much easier. Here's the chapter on morality in In This Very Life. The whole book is available online and I really recommend that everyone read it, it's really good. Here are the first two paragraphs of the morality chapter:

Sīla is not a set of commandments handed down by the Buddha, and it need not be confined to Buddhist teachings. It actually derives from a basic sense of humanity. For example, suppose we have a spurt of anger and want to harm another being. If we put ourselves in that other being’s shoes, and honestly contemplate the action we have been planning, we will quickly answer, “No, I wouldn’t want that done to me. That would be cruel and unjust.” If we feel this way about some action that we plan, we can be quite sure that the action is unwholesome.

In this way, morality can be looked upon as a manifestation of our sense of oneness with other beings. We know what it feels like to be harmed, and out of loving care and consideration we undertake to avoid harming others. We should remain committed to truthful speech and avoid words that abuse, deceive or slander. As we practice refraining from angry actions and angry speech, then this gross and unwholesome mental state may gradually cease to arise, or at least it will become weaker and less frequent.

As for actually doing it... well, like you, I haven't given ethics as much consideration as the other two. But lately, I have given it much more thought. I've found that you can "cheat" at morality practice by cultivating a lot of metta. Never make any major decisions in your life without metta. Start with yourself and let it grow, build it till you are absolutely overflowing with a ridiculous amount of unconditional love for even your worst enemies. Even while just walking around going about your day, call up a bit of metta and hold it in your heart. I've found that this radically affects the way I interact with the world, and even the way the world interacts with me (you create your own reality??). 

Forget about social norms, forget about how "good people" manifest in different cultures. It's all about intent.

I've found that there are two types of feedback when it comes to practicing ethics. There is immediate feedback, where unwholesome mental states are weakened and the mind is more at peace, and then there is delayed feedback, where your action comes back to either help or hurt you based on whether the action itself was helpful or hurtful.
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Richard Zen, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

Posts: 1624 Join Date: 5/18/10 Recent Posts
Droll Dedekind:
I suppose my main question is, to what extent should people, and especially 'enlightened' people, be held responsible for openly criticizing norms they don't agree with? 

This is a really good topic. From studying philosophy there are potential minefields because I'm pretty sure most Buddhists (especially in the west) have modern political opinions that pre-date their Buddhist practice and are attached to those views. I think man is a political animal and any of the things that were handed down that we enjoy and partake of is a consent in some ways to the people who brought it into fruition (eg. Democracy, markets, government services, mode of transportation, on and on). 

Ultimately we are conditioned by our culture and it's history so in order to make changes there will be conflict whether someone is enlightened or not. If one is not inclined to do violent revolution or even devote themselves to activism then one should focus less on telling others what to do and lead one's life as an example. This will reduce hypocrisy and if one is experimenting with one's life and finding it a mistake it's not affecting the wide world with consequences. 

An enlightened person would have to be an activist (non-violent of course) and be aware of any errors in their belief system and be willing to let go of those errors to improve their activism and worldview. That would show non-attachment to those views. Unless a person is an all knowing God they are going to make mistakes along with their activism.

I do like moral checklists because we are usually good at somethings and bad at others, and the hindrances would highlight that.

Eg. 7 deadly sins and opposites:

Lust - Chastity
Gluttony - Temperance
Greed - Charity
Sloth - Diligence
Wrath - Patience
Envy - Kindness
Pride - Humility

I do like the idea as mentioned of using Metta before making decisions. That's very wise. I've used metta at work because it does defuse possible papanca that will come with rivalry. Anything involving rivalry for power (serotonin) will involve corruption, bullying, and immorality of all kinds. I've seen enough bad behaviour to conclude that people are capable of doing the most shameful things to gain power because of the force of wanting enough resources for having a family, children, status to protect them. This is shown in Lord of the rings with the ring of power being a symbol that people fight over. This is also shown in The Hobbit with the Thorin Oakenshield character.
Tolkien: "The most improper job of any man ... is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity."
I'm still investigating ethics and do find that positive psychology has some answers. Instead of making people less insane, making them happier should be the goal. This of course can go in endless lists as well. Seligman has a good one:

PERMA:
Positive emotions
Engagement
positive Relationships
Meaning
Accomplishment/Achievement

If one pursues all of these letters their lives are likely to be more busy being happy and likely if positive emotions and relationships are present there is some cooperation with society. If one is truly the avant-garde trying to push ethics in a way that only future generations will respond to I don't think they will be too happy. It's a bit like an artist that only gets recognition after they die. This means that the avant-garde personality will have to rely on Meaning. If there are deep meanings I believe the intentions of the person are more likely to be moral while involving healthy passion. Yet it's complicated. A uni-bomber type could have Meaning and be totally wrong so there is a huge room for error here.

The best writer I've seen so far on meaning is Viktor Frankl. He usually points out the variety of meanings and people can do this questioning which he calls Logotherapy. Eg. If you go to an art gallery you may not ask the meaning because the desire does the motivation for you. But if you ask why you are going to the art gallery you might get a meaningful answer. "I believe appreciating beauty is important in one's life." If a person is annoyed that they have to be a caregiver to a family member they could ask why again. "I believe taking care of my family is important." Without asking the question why and not being curious as to the meaning of something a person can go to default views of "I need lots of money, fame and physical beauty." Of course these views often lead to a lot of stress and stress often leads to worse ethics and behaviour.

Viktor's death-bed philosophy can also be a reminder. I also see this with some Buddhists.
“So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
So find meaning in what you do so that if you fail at it, then at least you found meaning in the attempt. Even an Arhat would have to ask why.

I have a good book (Western Philosophy An Anthology) that is a nice summary of philosophy and has sections on some of the knottiest ethical problems.

Here are the chapter titles:
  • Inequality, freedom, and slavery
  • War and Justice
  • Taking one's own life
  • Gender, liberty and equality
  • Partiality and Favouritism
  • The status of non-human animals
  • The purpose of punishment
  • Our relationship to the environment
  • Abortion and Rights
  • The relief of global suffering
  • Medical ethics and the Termination of Life
  • Cloning, sexual reproduction, and genetic engineering
You can see that none of them have been solved to the point that everyone is satisfied. Since life is short an Arhat would have to pick and choose what subject they feel has a side they can take and likely their entire lives could be devoured in one topic easily.
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Droll Dedekind, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

Posts: 634 Join Date: 11/15/13 Recent Posts
"be aware of any errors in their belief system"
This seems to assume that there is a preexisting standard for errors in a belief system. That seems to almost beg the question in a moral discussion

My central question that addresses the rest of your post could perhaps be restated as: I'm unsure of the merit of emulating the virtues or traits of people that are considered moral or ethical. To what extent will moral time and energy rations be better spent doing psychotherapy, self-exploration, meditation, etc?

Also, I had to read that Frankl book in highschool (a few years ago emoticon). I don't think I could appreciate it then. Now, I appreciate the will to meaning idea, but I think using it to dismiss the pleasure principle is a mistake. Also, I wouldn't call it a 'will to meaning', myself. I'd call it 'will to creatively construct a reality-tunnel'
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Richard Zen, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

Posts: 1624 Join Date: 5/18/10 Recent Posts
Droll Dedekind:
"be aware of any errors in their belief system"
This seems to assume that there is a preexisting standard for errors in a belief system. That seems to almost beg the question in a moral discussion

My central question that addresses the rest of your post could perhaps be restated as: I'm unsure of the merit of emulating the virtues or traits of people that are considered moral or ethical. To what extent will moral time and energy rations be better spent doing psychotherapy, self-exploration, meditation, etc?

Also, I had to read that Frankl book in highschool (a few years ago emoticon). I don't think I could appreciate it then. Now, I appreciate the will to meaning idea, but I think using it to dismiss the pleasure principle is a mistake. Also, I wouldn't call it a 'will to meaning', myself. I'd call it 'will to creatively construct a reality-tunnel'

On beliefs all I was saying was that in the aim of activism people have to analyze those beliefs. A lot of people simply want to take power based on their idea of how the world should be. Many revolutions have helped humanity but many more were just ways of taking power and concentrating it. Past history can teach us because patterns repeat.

I think because behaviour is habitual, trying to emulate good qualities can only speed the process. It only gets more difficult when moral questions become complicated like in the above list. Study at that point is unavoidable. In Buddhism it is moving your intentions consciously different from habits (if the habits are bad). Since most people have trouble with even easy moral situations, then having a list handy (Buddhist or otherwise) will be a starting point to try different behaviours out until you get used to them. Ultimately if someone's behaviours are good it doesn't matter what method they used to get there. If people don't like a list they can easily follow metta or the golden rule etc.

I wouldn't try to make Frankl too complicated. He simply noticed that people regularly go through an existential-crisis and often have to revalue their past actions and endeavours. By actively seeing value in what you did is already a step in the right direction. Then to see that what you did was based on certain personal meanings can help because most of us will fail in getting great success, or our efforts are watered down amongsts efforts of other people that might conflict. People who don't die right away often have regrets on their deathbed and bringing that mentality into one's healthy life can make a person ask the question "why" more often. Even in a concentration camp he could conjure up memories of his wife and develop a meaning of a freedom to love that camp guards couldn't take away. Even trying to meet death well can be a form of meaning. Meanings are all over the place but people often don't look for them. Pleasure can be included in meaning and in fact my example of the Art Gallery shows that. If anything meaning can enhance pleasure further and help to moderate it so it doesn't turn into boredom or clinging.

Another form of morality is existentialist understandings of responsibility. As you notice different moral codes and methods all point to some form of responsibility and action. Whether it's the golden rule, meaning, responsibility, etc, it's to get a person to act a certain way that is more blameless than before.
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Daniel Leffler, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

Posts: 292 Join Date: 9/9/14 Recent Posts
Droll Dedekind:
I suppose my main question is, to what extent should people, and especially 'enlightened' people, be held responsible for openly criticizing norms they don't agree with? And, of course, all the other questions I mentioned emoticon. .

I really like Richard's contrubution to this topic, at least I agree with his thinking : )
My father, one of those naturally virtuous men that I admire more than I can say, likes to bring up a quote from Rabbi Hillel, who lived around the time of Jesus
When challenged by a potential convert to sum up the entire teachings of the Torah while standing on one foot he said:

That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah, the rest is commentary. Go forth and study

My yoga teacher ends some classes by saying, 'as long as you walk with good intentions, do not be concerned with the outcome of your actions'. I would add 'mindfulness' to that statement but I still like it
Basically these are the golden rule - no need for long books or too much philosophizing
As I get older and hopefully more immersed in the Dharma it seems clear to me that the Three Trainings are in many respects just one training. Virtue is a result of the natural state of wisdom and of jhana - it is the benevolent nature of the Unknown. Real saints don't need commandments, but perhaps they're not so terrible for the rest of us emoticon
Eva M Nie, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

Posts: 831 Join Date: 3/23/14 Recent Posts
I tend to wonder of those words lifted from Shinzen Young taken without much added explanation on his part can be assumed to mean he was speaking of every tiny little societal rule including not wearing socks with flipflops, or if he meant more along the lines of more general and universal rules.  Without more data, I can't really assume either way. 

I do think that over time one can begin to see that most rules and norms are societal ones and that only a few basics seem more universal.  I do often wonder about basic morality.  Why do we even have it?   Can only guess it has something to do with empathy and interconnectedness, otherwise it would mostly seem illogical.  (Or maybe the scientists would say it evolved as the most efficient way to both pass on genetics and keep society somewhat stable)

So if you think of most societal rules and norms as only that, then you may well feel outside of them and they are just trends of current society.  Yet out of politeness for others' feelings and assuming you don't see any particular benefit to breaking them, you may elect to follow many of them anyway, like wearing clothes that cover what society thinks should be covered, not eating stray dogs, maintaining the front yard, etc. 

Of course, Shinzen Young may well hope to develop a good reputation for Buddhism and so is advocating that we do things that make society happy with us.  ;-P
-Eva
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Richard Zen, modified 6 Years ago.

RE: Ethics, Norms, and Personal Interest

Posts: 1624 Join Date: 5/18/10 Recent Posts
Droll Dedekind:

How much time and energy should be spent attempting to embody virtues versus pursuing our passions, our own enlightenment, interests, ambitions, etc? It seems plausible to me that there is inherent 'good' in pursuing one's passions because passionate people tend to do their jobs better, inspire others, make breakthroughs, etc. And, of course, it seems plausible to me that own's own enlightenment will eventually have 'good' ramifications. At what point do these become selfish?

http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/discussion/-/message_boards/message/5630984


Just a note on passion:
  • Imagining representations as real made waiting worse, due to hot vs. cold features. Eg. A cold feature is a concept of a cookie. A hot feature would be imagining the enjoyable experiences of chewing on a cookie.
  • Mental simulations make events seem real or true.
  • Mental simulations yield plans by imagining how events are going to take place.
  • Imagining positive and negative events have emotional consequences especially when they are detailed and vivid.
  • Simulations enhance the probability of an action occurring, contain an implicit plan, and invoke specific emotions to motivate the action.
  • Simulations work even better with the process in mind, but reminders of the goal work in conjunction with the process.
  • Mental simulation can often be a coping mechanism.
  • Those thinking about the end goal seem more motivated but the process-oriented do more work and get more results.
Maybe if people tried to look at higher forms of pleasure/passion and mentally simulated the benefits of the process towards the goal on purpose they can use their "self" which reacts to what it thinks is real (avijja), even if it's empty. This is maybe where Mahayana diverges from some strict forms of Theravada, but if it works and is done with an ethical support it will feel cleaner because there will be less guilt, and regret and you might get more done because the power of motivation is unleashed.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wERSGmsTx90

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