Leading on from the "mercy killing and Kamma" thread
We would all probably benefit from a thread discussing ethical imperatives and whether or not they need to be housed in metaphysics (rebirth, in this case, though a similar Xian example would be the claim that being ethical requires God). The Great Ethical Substrate Thread?
I would like to lead on from this and pose a question. Does Buddhadhamma teach ultimate moral imperatives "All killing is unwholesome" or relative moral imperatives "Killing is sometimes wholesome"
That's is to say is an action wholesome or unwholesome kamma depending on the intention and circumstance?
What does the Buddhas ethics base itself upon, Metaphysical, Situational, Deontological?
Well, the commentarial tradition of Theravada posits that the intention to kill itself is inherently unskillful as it's always rooted in an unskillful state of mind such as ill-will or delusion, and ultimately leads to unpleasant results in the form of mental suffering (e.g., as a result of remorse, legal punishment, a bad destination after death for those who believe in such things, etc.). The Abhidhammattha-Sangaha
, for example, states that:
According to Abhidhamma killing is invariably done with ill-will or aversion. Prompted by whatever motive, one, as a rule, kills with a thought of ill-will. Where there is ill-will (patigha) there is displeasure (domanassa). Where there is displeasure there is ill-will in a subtle or gross way.
I don't necessarily agree with this point of view, however, and accept that, in certain situations, it's possible that a person can kill, steal, lie, etc. out of compassion or other skillful (read 'morally blameless) mental states (e.g., helping a sick and dying loved one who wants to end their life, stealing food to help feed a starving child, lying to protect someone from harm, etc.). Whether or not someone agrees with those specific actions, I think they can be motivated by things like compassion, etc. That doesn't mean it's morally right
(or even wrong for that matter) in any objective sense, but then, I'm not much of a moral absolutist. What I do think, however, is that the intentions behind our actions can influence how we experience the results of those actions.
Pragmatically speaking, actions are deemed 'unskillful' 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' (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 ahimsa
or harmlessness. Intentional actions rooted in greed, hatred or delusion are said to produce painful mental feelings "like those of the beings in hell," while intentional actions rooted in non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion are said to 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
So from the Buddhist point of view, it's not simply the utility of an action that must be taken into consideration, but the motives behind the action as well. Hence I believe that even though sometimes what we think are skillful intentions when breaking the precepts are really selfish and/or unskillful ones, that's not always the case, which I suppose means I agree more with the Mahayanin stance on this issue (e.g., see the Upayakausalya Sutra) than that of the Theravadin Adhidhamma.
And just for reference, here's an interesting talk dealing with the biological basis for morality: 'Morality: From the Heavens or From Nature?'
I agree Dr. Thomas that morality is natural in the sense that it comes from the "evolved architecture" of our minds, which is why I believe that, psychologically speaking, the quality of the intentions behind our actions can determine how the results, whether positive or negative, are experienced.