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Discussion Question
How can I know that my actions are ethical?


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23. Tasks, Truths and an Ethics of Uncertainty



Question: “I wonder if you would be willing to comment on a tension I discern in your interpretive approach to Pali canonical texts such as the Mahāvedallasutta. On the one hand, you offer creative, expansive readings of these sometimes rather skeletal texts, texts which I often find either underdetermined or subject to multiple interpretations. On the other hand, you have argued that your interpretations get at an original meaning, "what Gotama really had in mind." Broadly speaking, I often find your interpretations invaluable, but do we need such recourse to the Buddha's authority, or indeed, to any original authority, to thus discern the dharma? 

“… the question of how close we can come to Gotama's original teachings through our hermeneutics and philology seems beside the point to me. Following Popper again, a truth is no more or less true (or an ethic no more or less good) based on how or from whom it originates. Couldn't we simply look at, and honor, Gotama as the teacher who set the wheel in motion, so to speak -- who initiated a line of thought and practise that it is our opportunity now to take up and extend -- rather than as the authority who undergirds all "Buddhist" knowledge?” 


Answer: This reminds me of the four reliances found in some Mahayana traditions:


Rely not on the person, rely on the teaching.

Rely not on the words, rely on the meaning.

Rely not on what’s cryptic, rely on what’s clear.

Rely not on opinion, rely on wisdom.


While this seems eminently reasonable, it risks removing the human element from our interactions with a tradition and replacing it with a cold, impersonal rationality. If I am looking for insight into a philosophical issue, for example, I will grant more authority to Wittgenstein than I would to an obscure college lecturer in philosophy. I do this not because I believe Wittgenstein is omniscient or infallible, but because of everything else he has said and done that I have found helpful. His is a voice (and imagination) I have come to trust, even though I may not agree with everything he says.


What inspires me with Gotama is the way he configures or organises his vision and embodies it in his life. His imagination inspires me as much as his wisdom.


Gotama’s teaching went against the stream, because he imagined a new paradigm for living, whereas Buddhism kept reverting back to the old paradigm.


It is by identifying the patterns and logic of this new paradigm rather than any specific doctrine that provides us with a framework for our own practice.


This is what I sought to communicate through my account of the “logic” of awakening.


I am also inspired by the aesthetics of these patterns and their logic; there is a beautiful simplicity in them — perhaps akin to the beauty mathematicians speak of about certain equations (e=mc2). I respond to this aesthetically rather than cognitively.


I find a beauty in how the dynamic of his vision works itself out: how the two core principles of his awakening (conditionality and nirvana) translate into four paths or tasks, which are then fleshed out into thirty-two dimensions of awakening.


Keats: “Beauty is truth and truth is beauty.” This aesthetic element is a key reason that inclines me to think of the four path/task configuration as prior to, more fundamental than, the four truth configuration. It appeals to the same part of me that appreciates the configuration of forms and colours that animate my art practice.


There is a poetry in this approach that goes beyond becoming proficient in meditative techniques.


Question: “Does it really matter if we get to a point with our secular, naturalistic dharmawhere we let go of our fixation with justifying our views and wisdom from early buddhist texts? Maybe embracing the transformation of buddhism is more important?”

Answer: Yes. But this is a process that takes time and needs to be approached thoughtfully, with full awareness of one’s own limitations, confusions and biases. In the end, though, we need to let go of our attachment to justifying ourselves in terms of early Buddhist texts and find a voice of our own that speaks to the conditions of our world.

We can do no more than come up with as good an understanding of the dharma as possible, that is: one that works in the context of our own time and its demands, without succumbing to the belief that this must be what Gotama originally meant. This is what I mean by a task-based, pragmatic and sceptical ethics, constantly adjusting and evolving itself to meet the unfolding contingencies of history.


I also recognise that by critiquing a truth-based metaphysics I need to be constantly on guard about unconsciously developing yet another one, this time called Secular Buddhism.


Question: “I'd like to raise a concern that goes back to the early lessons - about truths and tasks. I do understand that 'truth' can be taken as metaphysical statements of eternal verities, and were by many later monks, but I never took them that way. My suspicion is that they were part of Gautama's original presentation, and that they are not at all in conflict with the four tasks or twelve aspects.

“Right from my first intro to dharma, I took the truths as simply describing the truth of human experience. We do experience unnecessary suffering. It does come out of our own reactivity (and rumination). We can experience it's end. Cultivating a multi-fold path is the way to end it. I'm persuaded by the idea that this was following a medical model – experiential, not metaphysical.

“These ring true in terms of human psychology and behaviour – at least to many people; they have been liberating for me. Challenging Gautama's four truths does not have to be at the level of metaphysics. The discussion could be simply whether these are the relevant foci to lead us from dukkha to nirodha.”

Answer: This is a common reaction to my rejection of the four truth model. The questioner has phrased it very well. However, one word jumps out from what you have said: “unnecessary”. Dukkha in this reading only refers to unnecessary mental anguish generated by our reactivity in contrast to the necessary or unavoidable pain of life. But nowhere in the Pali texts or any other classical Buddhist presentation are the four noble truths presented this way. There is no distinction made in Pali between “pain” and “suffering.” Dukkha is defined very explicitly as birth, sickness, aging, death etc.: all the things we cannot control that are unavoidable, part and parcel of what it means to be alive.

By framing the four truths in the way the questioner describes, as is commonplace in the mindfulness movement and widespread in the Insight Meditation tradition, in one blow you reduce the dharma to psychotherapy (or Stoicism): bear the pain you cannot control, be equanimous to it, and work instead on your reaction to it, which is all you can control, thereby eliminating the unnecessary anguish of the second arrow. Since this experiential approach has been shown to work as a psychotherapeutic intervention, it tempts us to think that it was what the Buddha originally taught. We conclude that Gotama was only interested in managing mental suffering.

Yet Gotama starts — in both the truth and task based models - by confronting us with our existential situation in life: birth, sickness, ageing, death. The truth-based model aims to bring existential suffering to an end by pursuing the eightfold path to eliminate the causes of suffering and attain nirvana, while the task-based model aims to embrace existential suffering, let go of the reactive patterns it triggers, come to dwell in a non-reactive space, then respond to our own and others’ suffering by means of all the human resources of the eightfold path.

By concluding his question with “the discussion could be simply whether these are the relevant foci to lead us from dukkha to nirodha,” the questioner makes cessation the goal of the practice rather than the path. The path is of value in this model because it brings private mental anguish to an end. This is the goal of psychotherapy, but not the dharma (either of the truth based or tasked based variety).

The medical analogy of the four truths reduces the dharma to a spiritual technology, based on certainty about the cause of suffering, which immediately appeals to many of us today — it seems “obvious”. Whereas a task-based model, which acknowledges uncertainty at every step calls for more than mere technological proficiency and calls for imagination and creativity instead.

Question: “What are the foundations of an Ethics of Uncertainty? Deep down I crave guidelines that can be applied quickly in any given moment of uncertainty. Simple and clear like the sidelines on a highway. But all I come up with are (due to my “Buddhist” training and growing up in Western Europe) the five silas, which do not fully cover all the facets for leading a good life. Stoic Basics, “The Four” are helpful, as well as practicing and mastering the Brahmaviharas, Great Doubt and openness is needed, unbroken Mindfulness, care and non-harming, knowledge of interconnectedness – but how can I know, that my action is ethical? Or do I just accept, that all I ever can do is trying, striving, aspiring to not harm (but not knowing what the ultimate consequences of my actions will be) and support any form (including my own) of life?”

Question: “This is whats puzzling to me: How to process, individually and in our communities, the sometimes difficult project to learn meaningfully from harmful consequences of ethical decisions, necessarily made in outer and inner conditions of uncertainty? I recently participated as a newcomer in a secular buddhist gathering where the meaning of the ethics of uncertainty came up for discussion. I spoke about ethical decisions involving risks based on our own uncertain and incomplete assessment of complex moral situations,” with no guarantees that well-intentioned ethical decisions might not result in harmful consequences. It turned out to be very difficult for us to come to terms with the bald state of not-knowingthat this implies; and, it was as if we became stuck, without resources, in the givennessof uncertainty. After the meeting, I imagined that, surely, an ethics of uncertainty involves taking responsibility to learn from our ethical choices, cultivating wisdom in the midst of inner and outer uncertainty?” 


Answer: As mentioned already, Socrates says at the end of the first book of Plato’s Republic: “The result of the whole discussion has been that I know nothing at all. For I know not what justice is, and therefore I am not likely to know whether it is or is not a virtue, nor can I say whether the just man is happy or unhappy.”


This is clarified in a passage from Xenophon’s memoir of Socrates:

“You shall hear all in good time (Hippias answered), but not until you make a plain statement of your own belief. What is justice? We have had enough of your ridiculing all the rest of the world, questioning and cross-examining first one and then the other, but never a bit will you render an account to any one yourself or state a plain opinion upon a single topic.

“What, Hippias (Socrates retorted), have you not observed that I am in a chronic condition of proclaiming what I regard as just and upright?

“Hipp. And pray what is this theory (logos) of yours on the subject? Let us have it in words.

“Socrates. If I fail to proclaim it (what justice is) in words, at any rate I do so in deed and in fact. Or do you not think that a fact is worth more as evidence than a word?

“Worth far more, I should say (Hippias answered), for many a man with justice and right on his lips commits injustice and wrong, but no doer of right ever was a misdoer or could possibly be.”

(Xenophon: Memorabilia. 4.4.10-11)

For Plato the philosopher knows what is good, just etc, because he has seen their forms, their essential being. While for Socrates, he knows what is good, just etc., because he speaks Greek and knows how these words are used, but he embarks on a perennial quest to realise them through ongoing enquiry and action, without ever expecting to one day “know” what they really are. 

These core virtues are “boundless” like the brahmaviharas, there is something infinite about them that can never be finalised in a definition, they are alive…

Ethics is a risk and a quest. We are constantly learning about ethics from our struggle to be ethical.

Winton Higgins (from a personal letter to me re: ethics of uncertainty):

… every ethics is practised under conditions of uncertainty. We often find ourselves in situations where either applicable moral rules or ethical principles (or both) conflict, and the consequences of our choices may be hard to foresee. 

The dharma certainly seems to fit squarely into this concept of ethics, with an eye to the minimisation of suffering and maximisation of flourishing in the consequences of each ethical action. But what makes the dharma different in kind from any other ethical system? Clashes of principle and hard-to-foresee consequences seem to be the stuff of ethics as such, and they foreground agency and personal responsibility.”