Sunday, June 2, 2013

Making it wrong

For the past year I've been living with two philosophers.  Occasionally they leave books about ethics the kitchen table.  One of those books made me think again about the Buddhist precepts I took about nine months ago now, and about the discussions with a teacher that led up to them.

I didn't take the precepts for purely ethical reasons.  I did so mainly for other reasons - committing to a practice, a community, and so on.  But committing to precepts clearly has an ethical dimension.  So what does it mean to commit to Buddhist precepts?  What are they? 

I was inclined to viewing them as rules.  In that interpretation, 'I vow not to kill' means that you can't kill anything under any circumstances.  My teacher David favoured a more psychological interpretation.  For him, not killing was about not killing your spontaneity or your vitality.

Both of these interpretations I found difficult to take.  I found it difficult to take my own interpretation of the precepts as rules mainly because, if they were rules, I couldn't honestly commit to some of them.  I found David's interpretation hard to take because it seemed to drain the precepts of all content, allowing him to take them to mean pretty much whatever he liked.

Consider the precept against intoxication.  I took it to mean that you shouldn't drink or take drugs.  If it meant that, though, I wasn't sure I wanted to commit to it.  David thought it was about maintaining your attentiveness - whether you'd been drinking alcohol or not. 

Extreme versions of these positions don't work.  If the precept against killing means you can never kill anything, you might have problems dealing with hamburgers and Nazis, let alone E. coli. 

If you think it is guiding you not to kill your spontaneity, you should say how you can tell it isn't guiding you not to kill your depression, or your murderous urges.  You may choose to apply it to spontaneity because you like spontaneity.  But then you're just adapting the precepts to whatever ethical assumptions you happen to have already.

You're also draining the word 'killing' of any content.  If you take the precepts metaphorically, they can all end up saying the same thing: you shouldn't kill your vitality, you shouldn't steal your vitality, and so on.  But there might be ten precepts rather than one because each of them is trying to tell you something different.

There is natural middle way between these two extremes.  You might take the precept against killing to be advising you not to kill things - on a reasonable interpretation of what 'killing' consists in, and within the bounds of what might reasonably be expected of someone.  So it might mean you have to become a vegetarian or a pacifist, but not that you can't take antibiotics. 

This isn't a bad way of taking the precepts.  It makes them possible to commit to while also preserving their natural meanings.  On this reading, it's clear what the Buddhist path is; you may reject it, but at least it's clear what it would mean to embrace it. 

The problem with this compromise position is that it's fuzzy.  What is a 'reasonably interpretation' of what killing is?  And what can reasonably be expected of people?  Some people may find vegetarianism or pacificism as difficult to embrace as toleration of E. coli.

This objection claims that the precepts aren't informative enough.  And that may well be.  They may be best taken as guidelines rather than as a complete ethical system.  They may simply point to things that are important ethically and ask us to be aware of them: be careful about killing.

The book I found on the kitchen table was by a philosopher called Jonathan Dancy, and it helped me think about these issues.  Dancy is a moral particularist: he believes morality isn't about rules but about context.  That's closer to David's views than to my initial take on the precepts.

I didn't read Dancy's book through, but at this stage moral particularism doesn't strike me as particularly plausible.  One view that Dancy canvasses in his book, though, was more helpful.  This was the approach of W.D. Ross, whom I knew as a scholar of Aristotle. 

If Ross had moved to San Francisco and become a Buddhist, he would have called the precepts prima facie moral claims.  On this view, the precept against killing says that if an act involves killing, your starting assumption should be that it's bad.  You may later revise this view, for example if you find out that the beings being killed are E. coli; but it's a good starting assumption.

There are all sorts of reasons philosophers nowadays don't like Ross' theory.  Some of them aren't very important - such as the complaint that Ross should have used the phrase pro tanto rather than prima facie.  Pro tanto reasons are reasons that other reasons may trump, whereas prima facie reasons may, on closer inspection, turn out not to be reasons at all.

Despite this infelicity of language, Ross' main idea is clear.  Killing is a 'wrong-making' feature of actions.  If it has killing in it, it's more likely to be wrong when looked at as a whole.

There are further complexities.  You might (like my housemate) want to distinguish two versions of this idea.  In the first, killing adds some wrongness into the mix.  I may decide that killing E. coli with antibiotics is right in the aggregate, but there's still a bit of wrongness there (in the killing).

In the second, all we look at is the action as a whole.  If we decide that killing E. coli is good in the aggregate, then we have to conclude that killing simply wans't wrong in that case.  This is close to the epistemic claim that if killing is part of an action, it makes it more likely to be wrong.

I might be wrong, but I think that Ross' view offers us a pretty satisfactory way of approaching the Buddhist precepts (or any other ethical guidelines) that avoids the extremes of treating them either as inflexible rules or as nearly content-free suggestions. 

Whether I think the ten Mahayana precepts really identify 'wrong-making' features of actions is another question.  I actually don't have a problem with gossip, for example.  I like gossip.  Maybe I prefer the five Therevada precepts: killing is wrong-making, stealing is wrong-making, sexual immorality is wrong-making, lying is wrong-making, intoxication is wrong-making.  As they say.

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