“View people’s moral character in terms of habits that can be changed instead of as fixed,
Aristotle, paraphrased by Elliot D. Cohen in The New Rational Therapy: Thinking Your Way to Serenity, Success and Profound Happiness
Last week I mentioned that it seems that hope inspires two types of faith. Fanatic faith, which we looked at, is toxic. It increases fear and decreases real compassion as a natural result of its focus on an elite entitlement. When you are sure you and yours have the one and only capital-T truth, the battle with doubt is all consuming. As studies in cognitive dissonance make clear, one of the most effective ways to assuage such doubts is to busy oneself proselytizing and bearing testimony as often as possible about how sure you are such and such a creed or ideology is true. People can maintain these dogmatic positions only by constant social and cognitive reinforcement; typically this includes reading only approved material, watching only approved movies, and hanging out only with fellow true believers. Over time these practices narrow a person’s world view.
What might hope look like that is not toxic? Basically it is one that leaves space for the unknown among ethical considerations. It is unwilling to make final judgments about the state of anyone involved in any event. This is a way to recognize and honor what you consider good and evil and seek the good, even while remaining cognizant that this is no more than what your habits born from experience have persuaded you is most worthwhile.
This is not to say there is nothing but personal opinion involved in ethics as a postmodernist might assert. An examination of the nature of the human being as a social mammal shows how the structure of our mind, body and emotions is such that a common code of decent conduct, while not written in stone, is written on the waters of our biological roots. This leads us to look for a middle way between fundamentalism and complete ethical relativity.
Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld’s In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic provides us with a useful exploration of this middle position. They point out that “all one’s moral certainty” could be summed up by one sentence in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany: “The dignity of man is inviolate.” They go on to point out, “It is instructive to recall the historical context of this sentence. If human dignity hadn’t indeed been violated in horrific ways under the Third Reich, the declaration of dignity wouldn’t likely have been put into a state constitution. Not always, but very commonly, certainty in moral judgments arises in situations in which one is forced to confront instances of obvious and massive immorality.”
It is just this historical process that has lead the modern world to condemn torture, the death penalty, and slavery. In each of these cases someone pricked the conscience by saying ‘Look here, look at the details of the rack, the guillotine, and the bull whip.’ It is also just such a historical process that, I suggest, the globalized society is now confronting in the many ramifications of the ongoing, accelerating ecological crisis. All over the world people are screaming ‘Look!’ and pointing to the poisoning of our air, water and lands. “The meaning of the dignity of humankind comes to be perceived at certain moments of history, however, once perceived, it transcends these moments and is assumed to be intrinsic to human being always and everywhere.” (Italics in the original)
One is lead to wonder how long emissions will be allowed to continue. “What we observe, then, is a development in the perception of human dignity and of offenses against it from mere opinions (‘You and I will agree to disagree about slavery’) to universally valid moral judgments (‘I condemn your practice of slavery, and I will do whatever I can to stop you’)… ‘Look at this’, they said, in effect: ‘It must not be allowed to continue.'”
This is not to say that any of these historical developments are inevitable, nor that once obtained they are secured forever. There are plenty of historical cases where a culture succumbs once again to barbarisms it had once set aside. (This should give us pause at a time when the basic institutions of democracy, institutions embodying doubt instead of dogmatic certainty, are being threatened.) This historical development of a culture’s ethical understanding is just the sort of contingent development we have come to recognize as a signature feature of the evolutionary algorithm. It is also a bulwark against the temptation to justify moral certainty only through religious certainty.
In Buddhism there is an emphasis on developing compassion and empathy as a means of working directly with these perceptions of human dignity. The most sophisticated elaboration of Buddhist ethics, along with means for increasing one’s compassionate perception, are found in the Mahayana teachings. As I have been taught them they offer an example of a non-fanatic faith. In the Mahayana there are, for example, the ten precepts. What makes these different than, say, the ten commandments? The Buddhist presentation of these norms includes something we do not normally find in the traditions of the dogmatic, namely, when each of the precepts should be broken for the sake of compassion. In other words, these precepts are not considered the final word that applies to all times and in all conditions because they were revealed from above, but are guides for how we might more wisely think about moral behavior.
This presentation of the Mahayana often includes a retelling of a tale in which committing a murder was the most compassionate act. Note that there is no magic righteousness removing the ‘negative karma’ from the person who commits the murder, something every veteran suffering post traumatic stress certainly understands:
“A Buddhist story tells of a ferry captain whose boat was carrying 500 bodhisattvas in the guise of merchants. A robber on board planned to kill everyone and pirate the ship’s cargo. The captain, a bodhisattva himself, saw the man’s murderous intention and realized this crime would result in eons of torment for the murderer. In his compassion, the captain was willing to take hellish torment upon himself by killing the man to prevent karmic suffering that would be infinity greater than the suffering of the murdered victims. The captain’s compassion was impartial; his motivation was utterly selfless.”
There are things we should not do: lie, steal, sexually abuse, and murder are among those universally recognized as wrong, at least when such crimes are committed against members of our own group. If we assume we are trying to be good people and are avoiding these things, how are we to think about other people we see engaging in them?
How we choose to answer that question will determine the degree to which we view the world with compassion. It is easy to hate those which are most justifiably hated. The killer and the torturer are rightly despised. There is a reason that even in prison the child abuser is singled out for particularly harsh treatment by his fellow convicts. All this is true; empathy for the suffering that has been inflicted on the victims requires a heartfelt desire to protect, to stop the evil deeds from being consummated or continued and if that means destroying the person causing the suffering, so be it. If this were all the compassionate heart had to consider, the spiritual path would consist mostly of keeping oneself pure and destroying the evil others.
What happens, however, if we dare to ask about the mind of the perpetrator? What has shaped and formed this mind in such a way that it is driven to commit acts of horror? In a previous cycle of posts we looked a little at the biology of violence and discovered evidence that victimizers had often been victims themselves. As soon as we begin to ask about how a heart of darkness became dark, the whole black and white ethical thinking of the fanatic begins to look like so much ignorance. When we are brave enough to face the darkness in our own hearts the same thing happens. It is just not that easy to hand out damnations.
In Christianity there has long been a theological debate between those who hold that in the end hell will be empty and those that insist on eternal damnation. Those who defend the empty hell position point out that a loving god will need to eventually send his grace to each and every one of his precious children. However lost they might be or whatever sins they might have committed, there must be a means to return their heart to eternal joy if this is to be a god of love. The esoteric teachings about Christ’s three days dead being spent in hell deal with this ethical reversal as well; it is the time when those crying out ‘Lord, Lord’ are found to be last among those who really understand.
One theological camp, those of the empty hell, would like the pain and damage caused by evil actions to be healed so that the victims and those who love them can lead a life that still includes happiness. The other camp focuses instead on the perpetrator and believes harming them will somehow make things right; the joy of those in heaven is said to be watching the suffering of the damned. How much of spirituality is little more than a revenge fantasy?
How hard is it to not grant the victims of horrendous abuse the satisfaction of returning a bit of the pain they have known back to the one that caused it? Alice Miller in The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting argues emphatically that victims of child abuse are unable to take responsible care of themselves as adults until they are able to overcome the taboo that says children must always honor their fathers and mothers. Recognizing reality, the very thing abusers are trying to keep their victims from doing, requires recognizing that some fathers and mothers are monsters. Only when the victim no longer tries to justify the perpetrator’s behavior through convoluted logic will the ability to think and feel rationally be restored. Properly placing and speaking of the rage needs to happen. How does that fit into the overall framework of how we think about what is right and wrong? How does that play out against the larger context of mass media manipulations designed to remove our sense of reality and replace it with childish dependency on the immediate satisfaction of a consumer purchase?
Consideration of what made the perpetrator have the mind they do makes it much harder to harbor thoughts of undiluted hate and revenge. What we learn out here in the real world, out beyond the Sunday school lessons, is that most every criminal was once a victim themselves. The child abuser was abused as a child, the father beating up his five year old was beaten himself. Which leads us to ask where the father’s father received the shame and pain that warped their mind, causing them to act out. “The sins of the father will be visited upon the third and fourth generation” the Bible says in Numbers. This is the dark wheel of samsara, endlessly spinning around and around. Keep returning hate for hate and it never ends; only love can over come hate. This wheel needs to be cut.
What opens up once the simple black and white thinking is abandoned is a vision of vastness; ripples of causes and effects running their way backwards and forwards in time.
What we are being taught is that it is possible for there to be a bodhisattva in hiding – a spiritual giant might be going where the evil is in order to do good. We can never be one hundred percent sure, even in the realm of moral certainty. This follows directly from the truth of equality seen through the eyes of our interdependence. When the eye of compassion looks at an event like arms dealing in the third world it hopes (aka has faith) that among the many people involved there might also be a bodhisattva working undercover. One of the arms dealers might have diverted a shipment or influenced a sale so that it minimized the harm that might otherwise have been done. Or maybe a bodhisattva in hiding was able to accidentally arrange for illegal shipments of small arms to war torn regions to be discovered by the authorities. Who knows?
The Mahayana teaches its ethics within the context of compassion. It does so by not allowing the ethical precepts to be considered absolute. There are times when doing the right thing requires one to lie, steal, kill and even behave sexually outside the norm.
Due to the way I was raised and many of the experiences of my own life I am able to see in the popular Broadway musical and movie Rent an acid test of real kindness. Can you see beyond the shallow, where breaking social norms are sins and the people are just being punished for it, to the deep where lives are being spent in love? What I see in this script are the flawed and raw, the hurt and abused, doing what they can to share among one another what happiness they can know. (Btw, those who see Rent as little more than modern decadence can argue that it is providing a set of likable, talented pretty people with sins larger than our own to salve our guilty conscience. For these people movies like this only encourage lax moral behavior by romanticizing it, confusing our young people even more. It is a legitimate criticism. This is just the way things are when we step out of the abstractions of black and white thinking and take up the mantle of adult understanding; a bit more complicated than what can be captured in a sound bite.)
We have to be careful when trying to pursue the good. Often when we apply a great effort of willpower and try to force our way into virtue, we are really coming from a place of great fear, not compassion for oneself and others. When fear is fueling the willpower behind such disciplines they do not lead to lasting healing. It is a hard thing to be truly wise and compassionate, very difficult. Recognizing this is simultaneously recognizing the many ways in which people can use the concepts of virtue in highly un-virtuous ways.
The point is this: never cut off someone forever from your compassion. That is the one thing we are not allowed to do in the Mahayana way of thinking. But it is equally important that you recognize that you cannot help everyone, at every level, right now. This means it is ok to personally remain neutral for the time being and just wait to see how things continue to play out if need be. You do not always have to make a judgment about whether something is right or wrong on the spot; you can defer judgement as an act of kindness to oneself and others. We enjoy clear, unassailable compassionate thinking when in addition to yes and no our ethical life includes maybe. Accepting this allows us to take our seat, the powerful seat of kindness. Karma is the idea that we can be confident that the reality of events are the causes from which results will be born; they will not be born from whatever con job or delusion might be dominating the mindstreams of some of those involved.
The whole Mahayana structure with its undercover bodhisattvas and exceptions to its ethical vows is an elaboration of the simple sentiment; “I hope some good comes of it.” That is what we say when confronted with an evil but still are capable of feeling hope within us. Understood rightly it is the exact opposite of a Pollyanna point of view. This is just what Mindful Ecology is all about. It looks to the mess we have made of our social arrangements and our relationships with the living earth and refuses to just lay down and die. It looks the storm right in the eye and then gets to work embodying an alternative lifestyle as a way of swaying the probabilities involved in charting our future on this planet. I hope some good will come of it.