The Moral Side of Murder

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The Moral Side of Murder

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Tue Jan 25, 2011 9:38 pm

BBC Philosophy Lecture.

Worth watching if you can from where you are.
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Re: The Moral Side of Murder

Postby zavk » Wed Jan 26, 2011 4:29 am

Thanks Bhnate but d'oh! Can't access it. BUT, thanks to the power of social media, it is available on Youtube:


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Re: The Moral Side of Murder

Postby Jason » Thu Jan 27, 2011 1:40 am

Interesting talk. It reminds me of something I wrote today on another forum regarding Buddhist ethics, especially since I brought up both Bentham and Kant:

Ethics is fairly broad subject, but it mainly deals with questions of morality and codes of conduct that help guide our actions. When it comes to whether an action is deemed ethical, that depends a great deal on the underlying principles of the ethical system in question. Some, for example, take the outcome of an action to be the most important deciding factor, while others take the action itself as the key determining factor.

In Buddhism, for example, the Buddha's distinction between skillful and unskillful actions seems like a middle way between, or possibly a synthesis of, Jeremy Bentham's teleological utilitarianism and Immanuel Kant's deontological categorical imperative. (That's not to say that Bentham and Kant represent two ends of a single ethical spectrum, only that the Buddha takes what Bentham and Kant stress and emphasis them together.) With the Buddha, just/skillful actions aren't simply judged to be just/skillful based upon their consequences, but also because there's something inherently just/skillful about the actions themselves. In Buddhism, this would be due to the quality of the intentions behind the actions

The underlying principles behind Buddhist ethics are kamma — the idea that certain actions produce pleasant, painful or neutral feelings/results — and the principle of ahimsa or harmlessness.

The basic premise behind kamma is that there's a cause and effect relationship between our actions and how they're experienced. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it, "It's simply the fact of action—you do something unskillful, it's going to come back in an unpleasant way." In the same way, if you do something skillful, it's going to come back and be experienced in a pleasant way. In the Suttas, the Buddha defines kamma as intentional actions of body, speech and mind (AN 6.63) that have the potential to produce certain results, which, in turn, have the potential to produce pleasant, painful or neutral feelings (AN 4.235). The word itself simply means 'action.'

Pragmatically speaking, actions are deemed 'unskillful' (akusala) if they lead to to self-affliction, to the affliction of others or to both. Actions that don't lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others or to both are deemed 'skillful' (kusala) (MN 61). Therefore, the distinction between skillful and unskillful actions is based upon how their results are experienced—not only by ourselves, but by others as well. (This emphasis on the consequential aspect of actions is similar to Jeremy Bentham's teleological utilitarianism, with John Stuart Mill's idea of higher and lower happiness being similar to the Buddha's distinction between long-term and short-term welfare and happiness.)

Psychologically speaking, however, the quality of the intentions behind the actions is what ultimately determines whether they're unskillful or skillful. (This aspect is closer to Kant's deontological categorical imperative when combined with the Buddhist principle of harmlessness.) Intentional actions rooted in greed, hatred or delusion produce painful mental feelings "like those of the beings in hell," while intentional actions rooted in non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion produce the opposite ("like those of the Beautiful Black Devas"). Then there are acts rooted in both that bring mixed results "like those of human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms" (AN 4.235). By bringing kamma to an end via the noble eightfold path, however, and eliminating the skillful/unskillful dichotomy altogether, the mind is said to become free and undisturbed, leaving only moral perfection behind (AN 9.7).

Essentially, Buddhist ethics revolve around seeing our desires for happiness and freedom from pain in all living creatures. If we don't respect that in them, how can we ever expect the same? This is especially true regarding human beings. Here I agree with the Buddha that, besides some rare and special cases, there's no one that's as dear to us as ourselves, that all beings essentially want to be happy in their own way (according to their specific capacities), and that it's a fairly decent and logical reason to desire their happiness as well as our own (SN 3.8).

The reason is simple. If our happiness comes at the expense of their happiness, they'll do everything in their power to upset that happiness. Conversely, if they were to infringe upon ours, wouldn't it follow that we'd do everything in our power to upset theirs? It seems like a vicious circle to me, and one of the ways to break this circle is an ethical framework that takes the happiness of others into consideration. This, in turn, can eventually lead to the development of things like compassion and generosity, which, when combined with other qualities and training methods, can ultimately transform a self-centred desire for happiness into the selfless achievement of happiness via insight into the inconstant (anicca), stressful (dukkha) and selfless (anatta) nature of phenomena.

Nevertheless, I also see Buddhism as a type of 'religious individualism' in that the teachings on kamma focus on individual actions and their consequences, so ethics are more or less a personal matter that each individual must explore and develop on their own; although guidance is certainly advised.

The way I see it, Buddhist ethics aren't entirely black or white, i.e., they aren't seen in terms of ethical and unethical as much as skillful and unskillful. In Buddhism, all intentional actions are understood to have potential consequences, and actions that cause harm to others and/or ourselves are considered to be unskillful and something to be avoided. But the Buddha never condemns people merely for making unskillful choices or breaking the precepts; he simply urges them to learn from their mistakes and to make an effort to renounce their unskillful behaviour with the understanding that skillful behaviour leads to long-term welfare and happiness.

All in all, I find Buddhist ethics to be less judgmental and more forgiving than other systems when it comes to making mistakes (read 'less rigid'), as well as ingenious and profoundly simple from a theoretical point of view. But more importantly, I find it to be practical and extremely effective when sincerely adopted and put into practice.
"Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya" (AN 7.58).

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Re: The Moral Side of Murder

Postby Wizard in the Forest » Thu Jan 27, 2011 2:06 am

Thanks for this lecture, it was profoundly amusing. I remember going over the basics of deontological and consequentialist ethics in philosophy, and I remember becoming torn between prescriptive ethics, situational ethics, normative, and descriptive ethics. I remember throwing up my hands at one point and thinking "they can't be harmonized!", but after I took more time to contemplate it, I just felt confidence in the middle way grow. I let go of the fear and anger involved by not knowing, and just thought, if one takes universal prescriptions, and utilitarian principles, while keeping an open middleground it makes these ethics come together more clearly.
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Re: The Moral Side of Murder

Postby zavk » Thu Jan 27, 2011 3:07 am

Hi Jason and WITF

Interesting points. I suppose in addition to the two approaches of ethics you've mentioned, consequentialism and deontology, the third category is virtue ethics. To my general knowledge, this is quite close to what you've suggested in your post, Jason, that Buddhist ethics shifts the attention from moral laws and consequences to the moral character of the agent. Damian Keown has written quite a bit on Buddhist ethics. He particularly stresses that Buddhist ethics is better understood in terms of virtue rather than utilitarianism. Also, as far as I'm aware, in the past two decades or so critical debates within the humanities and social sciences (in the Anglophone world anyway) are increasingly reframing ethical discussions in terms of virtue ethics. It seems to me that this could be a very productive area of dialogue between Buddhism and Western thought.

This reminds me of an essay by Sallie B. King entitled, From Is to Ought: Natural Law in Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Phra Prayyudh Payutto, which explores the implications of Buddhist ethics (from a Theravadin perspective) on contemporary understanding of justice. It's quite interesting. I have a copy of the essay, pm if anyone is interested.

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Re: The Moral Side of Murder

Postby Jason » Thu Jan 27, 2011 3:44 am

zavk wrote:Hi Jason and WITF

Interesting points. I suppose in addition to the two approaches of ethics you've mentioned, consequentialism and deontology, the third category is virtue ethics. To my general knowledge, this is quite close to what you've suggested in your post, Jason, that Buddhist ethics shifts the attention from moral laws and consequences to the moral character of the agent.


Makes sense. I just did a little reading about virtue ethics and see that Plato is credited as being one of the 'founding fathers.' Interestingly enough, in a blog post I wrote back in October, I note the similarities I found between Plato's just and unjust in the Republic and the Buddha's distinction between skillful and unskillful actions in the Pali Canon. Now I know why. Thanks. :D
Last edited by Jason on Thu Jan 27, 2011 5:31 am, edited 1 time in total.
"Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya" (AN 7.58).

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Re: The Moral Side of Murder

Postby Wizard in the Forest » Thu Jan 27, 2011 4:48 am

My big problem with utilitarianism was the thought experiment of the utility monster. I also think consequentialist ethics are incredibly problematic because the ends don't really justify the means in my opinion. As for deontological ethics, I'm not sure we can define an act as inherently moral or not, so virtue based ethics founded on the pāramīs make the most sense to me.
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Re: The Moral Side of Murder

Postby Moggalana » Thu Jan 27, 2011 8:54 am

Michael Sandel is a good lecturer. There are a lot more of his talks online. Check http://www.justiceharvard.org/
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Re: The Moral Side of Murder

Postby andre9999 » Thu Jan 27, 2011 12:13 pm

Most of what I got from watching it (specifically the audience) is that people who enjoy philosophy really want other people to acknowledge how smart they think they are, and will talk until they're blue in the face to make sure that happens.
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Re: The Moral Side of Murder

Postby Vepacitta » Thu Jan 27, 2011 4:28 pm

Right on brother Anders!!

I've always hated philosophy - except for the old stoics.

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